Random Thoughts On Long Beach
The third stop of the season for the IZOD IndyCar Series was shaping up as a sleepy parade, but quickly got interesting. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was not offering much for viewers to latch onto, until Helio Castroneves punted Justin Wilson on Lap 24. Then all kinds of things started to unfold.
Pole sitter Will Power took the lead at the start and everyone pretty much maintained their original starting positions throughout the first twenty-five laps. Then when Wilson spun, a few cars – including Ryan Briscoe and Alex Tagliani – darted into the pits expecting a full-course caution. It didn’t happen. When it looked like Briscoe was destined for another poor finish, Paul Tracy booted Simona de Silvestro out of the way the very next lap, leading to the needed full-course caution. Suddenly, Briscoe and Tags found themselves up front.
From that point, there was a lot of jockeying for position behind the leaders. Things were fairly entertaining at that point. Then, with about twenty-five laps to go – EJ Viso kept his streak alive by tearing up another car on a race weekend. His record for 2011 is still perfect. This brought out only a local yellow, but Justin Wilson spun soon afterwards and that brought out the full-course caution that bunched up the field to bring another double-file re-start.
When the green flag waved on Lap 66, Briscoe was leading with Ryan Hunter-Reay lined up beside him. Will Power shot up to challenge Hunter-Reay for second. As they approached Turn One, Power backed off but his teammate, Helio Castroneves, locked up his brakes and slid right into Power. Neither Penske car could fire their engines. By the time they got re-started to re-join the field, Power was in eleventh and Helio was twelfth.
When the field came down for the next re-start, all eyes were on Briscoe and Hunter-Reay. Lurking in fourth place was an inconspicuous Mike Conway, whose season had gotten off to a horrible start. Conway immediately passed Dario Franchitti for third, and blew by his teammate Hunter-Reay, who had suddenly developed gearbox problems, for second. Soon afterwards, he did away with Ryan Briscoe, took the lead and never looked back.
This should be a popular win. Although he doesn’t show a lot of personality, it’s my understanding that Mike Conway is very well thought of in the paddock. Less than eleven months ago, he was in a horrifying crash on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500 that ended his season. He’s with a new team and he’s now won his first race in the IZOD IndyCar Series. I will toot my own horn in recalling that I picked Mike Conway to win at Barber. OK – so, I was seven days too soon.
TV Coverage: Since I was at Barber last weekend, this was my first chance to watch the new Versus crew on a live basis. Overall, I was very impressed.
Most know that I don’t really follow the Firestone Indy Lights Series. I wait until some of the drivers actually move up into the IZOD IndyCar series before I learn anything about them. Yesterday was the first time I have watched an Indy Lights race from start to finish. With Versus showing them as a live lead-in to the main race, I’ll watch more. I was pleasantly surprised with Mike King. I always considered him the weak link on the IMS Radio Network, but I thought he did a very good job on the Indy Lights telecast. I won’t say the same for Willy T. Ribbs. He sounds like he is reading a legal document and falling asleep in the process.
Another pleasant surprise is Wally Dallenbach, Jr. Watching Wally in the past on NASCAR telecasts, I usually found him to be annoying. When I first heard that he was joining the Versus IndyCar booth, I wasn’t pleased. I felt like it was another attempt to satisfy potential NASCAR viewers with one of their own, much like the miserable Rusty Wallace experiment with ESPN/ABC. Instead, I’ve found Wally to be insightful, witty and enjoyable to listen too. It helped hearing him say on Trackside that IndyCars were his first love. That’s understandable, since his father raced them in the sixties and seventies and was CART’s chief steward for a number of years.
I know Kevin Lee caught some grief for his performance on “Through The Field” at Barber. I watched the replay later last week and he flubbed it pretty well. But like the pro he is, he rebounded nicely at Long Beach with no noticeable gaffes. I’ll throw out the disclaimer that I like Kevin. We’ve talked a few times, swapped some e-mails and he’s been kind to me on “Blogger Night”. But what I like about him is his style. As host of Trackside, he comes across as very prepared but also very human. His interaction with Curt Cavin is like listening to two old friends talking racing in a bar for two hours every Thursday night. I’m a little biased, but I think Kevin Lee does an excellent job in his new role with Versus.
Although the director moved away from a couple of shots again, the only real negative comment I’ll offer to Versus is to ask them to move their telemetry graphics during the in-car camera shots. It needs to be moved to the bottom of the screen. I like watching the road ahead to get an idea of how quickly a driver has to react to things ahead. Anytime there is a turn or an obstacle to the right – our view is obstructed by the graphics box.
Of course, the biggest plus of the Versus coverage is the addition of Robin Miller. My only complaint is they need to use him more. He brings great information – like when he said that Bryan Herta Autosport and Dan Wheldon will be doing the testing of the 2012 car later in the season. If that was out there, I’d never heard it before. Great stuff.
Ragged Start: The start and subsequent re-starts were very ragged and disjointed. I’m not sure if it was due to coming off of the hairpin turn or if it was by design to spread out the field before they hit Turn One. Whatever the case, it looked bad for TV. Do what they need to do for the next race in Brazil, but my hope is that they create a photo-worthy tightly aligned three-wide field for the Indianapolis 500.
Great Firestone Ad: Firestone has cranked out some great commercials the last few years. My personal favorite was the “Magic Rings” campaign from two or three years ago. They hit a home run this year with the “100 Years of Racing” commercial they ran yesterday. I just wish they ran it more than once.
Wilson Woes Continue: Now that Briscoe and Conway have jump-started their seasons, the biggest disappointment of this young season has to be Justin Wilson. I really expected big things from him this season – especially on the road courses. You’ve got to cut him some slack with his wrist injury from the first race, but things have gone from bad to worse. He finished twenty-second yesterday, his worst finish of an already bad season.
Bad Day For Simona: In fact, it was a rough weekend. She wasn’t particularly fast in practice. Then she brushed the wall in qualifying, which ended her day early. Then she fell victim to Paul Tracy’s manners and was spun around exiting the hairpin on lap twenty-five. After two top-ten finishes to begin the season, Simona finished twentieth which dropped her from fourth to a three-way tie for seventh in the points. She has quickly become one of my favorites and I hope this can be chalked up as simply a bad weekend.
Great Day For Newman/Haas: It’s really good to see this team find its way again. After a couple of dismal years, this once-proud team is back on solid footing. Oriol Servia turned in another solid performance, qualifying fourth and finishing sixth. He now sits fourth in points. Rookie James Hinchcliffe continues to turn heads. In only his second IndyCar race ever, he qualified eleventh and finished fourth.
Bad Season For Helio: The long nightmare of Helio Castroneves continues. After three races, Helio has caused a first-turn melee at St. Petersburg, had a mediocre weekend at Barber, where he was never in contention, then took out his teammate Will Power – thereby costing Power the points lead. I’ve made it no secret that Helio Castroneves is my favorite current driver in the series, but he needs to pull his head out of wherever it is and get his act together. Roger Penske was very classy in his post-race comments, but these moves that Helio is pulling are very un-Penske like. Speculation has been focusing on Ryan Briscoe being the odd man out if Team Penske ever cut back to a two-car team, but after Helio’s start to this season – I’m not so sure.
Another Quiet Day For Foyt: Don’t look now, but Vitor Meira and AJ Foyt Racing are quietly putting together a very solid season. Road/street courses are not Meira’s strength, but after three straight events of turning right, Vitor Meira sits tenth in points and really only two points out of a three-way tie for seventh. Once back from Brazil, I’d love to see Vitor and Foyt work some magic at Indianapolis.
All in all: After a dull start, I thought it was a very entertaining race at Long Beach. It was interesting to watch the different team strategies play out. Some worked. Some didn’t. After a shaky 2009 rookie season, I was impressed with Mike Conway in the few races we saw him in last season. I tend to pull for anyone coming back from such devastating injuries, like Conway suffered at Indianapolis last year. It’s also always good to see a new face in victory lane. With five different teams represented in the top five, this season may not be the Penske/Ganassi runaway that everyone predicted. Three different winners from three different teams is the way to get this season off to a good start. I can feel the momentum building for May. I can’t wait.