This year, the Month of May opens, not in Indianapolis, but at Kansas Speedway. This isn’t the first time that the IZOD IndyCar Series has raced at another location in early May. In 1999, the series ran the ill-fated race at Charlotte on May 1 that fatally injured three spectators. I happened to be in the stands that evening. The remaining race was cancelled; there were no points awarded and the crowd left in a somber mood. This is the first time to race in early May, since then.
There are differing accounts as to why the Kansas race is being run on Saturday afternoon. Some blame it on ABC, so that they could show the NBA playoffs on Sunday. Others say it was the track itself that chose to run the NASCAR Truck Series on Sunday, while running the IndyCars on Saturday. I shudder to think that those in charge of the league last year would actually agree to play second-fiddle to the Truck Series – so I’ll choose to go with the ABC theory, although I don’t really know.
There are those that say that this will be a boring race, based on previous races there. It’s true that last year’s race was a complete yawner as Scott Dixon lead a single-file parade that saw little passing after the last round of pit stops. It was a cool, cloudy day and the cars were still using the "pre-Kentucky" aero package.
In fact, the last few races at Kansas have been snoozers. Ever since the race was moved to the spring, the racing has not been very exciting. The IZOD IndyCar Series race at Kansas used to be run around the Fourth of July weekend, where the heat was intense – but so was the racing. Who could forget the lap after lap, wheel to wheel battle between Rahal-Letterman teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira in 2004? When the race was run in July, the competition was fierce. Once the fans voiced their preference for cooler weather and moving the race to the spring, the racing seemed to cool off as well. I’m not sure if there is a correlation, but something changed to make this race so boring in recent years.
Kansas Speedway was part of the sudden proliferation of ovals that came about ten to fifteen years ago. From the mid-nineties to the beginning of the last decade, oval tracks sprouted up at Chicago, California (Fontana), Miami (Homestead), Texas, Nashville, Kentucky and Kansas. Of all those tracks, some may be faster or provide better racing – but none have more glowing reports as an all-around great venue than Kansas.
I’ve never been to the track at Kansas, but I’m told I need to go. I hear it is a model that other tracks should follow as far as amenities, cleanliness, concessions, parking, access and seating.
One fear that overshadows this year’s race is the immediate future of the event. Kansas Speedway greatly covets a second NASCAR Sprint Cup date. The track is owned by ISC, who essentially is NASCAR; so it’s not too far out of the realm of possibility that they might get what they want. Second Cup dates at other ISC tracks have made IZOD IndyCar Series events expendable in their eyes (see Phoenix, California, Michigan). Currently, there are no ISC tracks on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule that host two NASCAR Sprint Cup events. If Kansas lands a second cup date, I think IndyCar fans can kiss Kansas goodbye.
The attention for teams and fans now shifts to the ovals, as Saturday begins a two month stretch of four ovals in a row. After Kansas awaits the Indianapolis 500, then races at Texas and Iowa before returning to the road course at Watkins Glen on the Fourth of July. For some drivers, this is a chance for redemption while others see it as a time of vulnerability.
Points leader Will Power was dominant on the road/street course portion of the schedule. How he races at Kansas is a big question mark. He didn’t race at all there last year, as he was running a part-time schedule for Roger Penske and he sat out the race. In 2008, he crashed in turn two on lap 23 while driving the Aussie Vineyards car for KV Racing Technology. Other than a fifth place finish at Chicago in the last race of the season, his 2008 record on the ovals was mediocre at best. He ran on two ovals for Penske in 2009 – a fifth at Indianapolis and a ninth at Kentucky. I’m not sure if I would label him as vulnerable, but I think it’s safe to say that the ovals are not his strong suit.
Danica Patrick, on the other hand, is probably the happiest of any driver to get on an oval. Other than a seventh place finish at St. Petersburg, her season to this point, has been abysmal as she sits mired in sixteenth place in the points standings. Dan Wheldon and his Panther Racing team are another group that is probably glad to see the ovals. Although they seem to have improved their road/street course program to some extent – they are traditionally much stronger on the ovals. Wheldon is a two-time winner of this event, so I expect him to do well on Saturday.
The guys at Target Chip Ganassi Racing need to have a good day on Saturday. Although it certainly isn’t time to panic, their season thus far has been sub-par by their standards. Scott Dixon won this race last year. Dixon and teammate Dario Franchitti sit sixth and fifth in the points, respectively. To get the momentum they’ll want going into Indy, one of them needs to come away with the win on Saturday.
Another team that needs a good showing this weekend is Dreyer & Reinbold. Neither of their drivers has the reputation of performing well on ovals. But this team made a lot of offseason changes for the better and I expect them to do well. Look for engineer Larry Curry to work his magic and get Justin Wilson and Mike Conway up to speed. Then it will be up to the drivers to keep the car out of the fence.
Team Penske is certainly not starving for results – but Ryan Briscoe is, as he sits in a disappointing seventh place in the standings. Between brain-fades on Briscoe’s part and miscues in qualifying, that team’s season has not gotten off to the start they had hoped for. Briscoe’s teammates, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, sit first and second in the points. Briscoe needs a strong weekend in Kansas to keep pace and get his season back on track, heading into Indy.
Tony Kanaan could also stand a decent finish. At a quick glance, one gets the impression that Kanaan is having a better season than last, but he is sitting in eighth position in points. He left Kansas last season in the points lead. It was after that point that his season quickly unraveled. A win or a strong finish at Kansas could do wonders to jump-start a mediocre start to his season.
Kanaan’s Andretti Autosport teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, just needs to continue his strong start. His strength is on the road/street courses, but if he can have a strong finish at Kansas – look out for RHR at Indy. Their other teammate, Marco Andretti, needs to keep his nose clean at Kansas and be ready for a strong showing at Indy. Marco’s record at the Speedway alternates between good years and bad years. If history is any indication, Marco is poised to have a good showing at Indianapolis this year.
Other than the obvious picks, my dark horse for Kansas is Rafa Matos. After a strong start at Brazil, his results have gotten worse each week. Matos and his Luczo Dragon de Ferran Motorsports team are too good to settle for these types of results. I look for them to be strong at Kansas also.
The weather looks iffy at best, but hopefully they can get the race in and it can be a good show. The IZOD IndyCar Series seems to have a lot of momentum on its side right now. The hope is that a lot of Saturday viewers will find the race on ABC, like what they see and follow the series into the Month of May. Let’s hope they do.
Enjoy the race!