Being an oval fan while following CART in the eighties and nineties, I was just learning to appreciate the nuances of road racing. I still prefer ovals but I have cultured a taste for natural terrain road courses. In those days, there were two of these venues that I vowed to visit one day – Road America and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH. Both destinations have eluded me over the years, but I’m still (relatively) young enough that I plan on working them in at some point. Although Road America has not yet found its way onto the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, Mid-Ohio is up next on the docket for this weekend.
It’s not that this track has provided some great racing since the IndyCars returned in 2007 after it was dropped from the CART schedule after the 2003 event. In fact, the track is probably too narrow for IndyCars and passing is at a premium there. Similar complaints are heard each April when the series heads to Barber Motorsports Park, but since Barber has no tradition – the complaints are much louder.
Mid-Ohio is steeped in tradition. Having opened in 1962, it has less than half the longevity of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the Milwaukee Mile; but there is still a lot of history at this track, just the same. Having never been there personally, I go only from what I read and hear – but from what I understand, the best word to describe Mid-Ohio is “quaint”. Modern is not a word that is normally used to describe the facilities at Mid-Ohio, but I mean that in a good way. I would equate it to one of my favorite ball parks which I have been to more times than I can count – Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The patrons at Wrigley have their own standards that don’t apply to such modern marvels such as Camden Yards in Baltimore or the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Modern amenities such as video screens are frowned upon at Wrigley. I imagine it’s much the same at Mid-Ohio. But like the long-suffering baseball fans on the north side – the racing fans at Mid-Ohio are some of the most knowledgeable fans around. They know their stuff; both on the road course side as well as the oval side. They come out to have a good time and not just to party – but I hear they can hold their own in that department as well.
Wednesday’s news that Nashville Superspeedway was shutting its doors was no surprise at all. We all knew it was just a question of when. Nashville fans supported the IndyCar race that ran there from 2001 to 2008 very well. I always enjoyed going, but it was also frustrating. The fans there knew nothing about IndyCar racing. I realize that I’m a die-hard and most people in Tennessee don’t follow this sport like I do. But they didn’t seem to want to know anything. Everyone showed up in their NASCAR garb and booed anyone that wasn’t American. If you tried to strike up a conversation with anyone, all you got was how much better NASCAR was than “this stuff”.
I don’t think you get that from the fans at Mid-Ohio. They seem to understand and appreciate all forms of racing. I think you could have the lowest level of any form of motorsports, and the fans would come to Mid-Ohio to support it. I expect another strong showing at Mid-Ohio all through the weekend.
Except for Ryan Briscoe’s win for Team Penske in 2008, Mid-Ohio has been pretty much Chip Ganassi’s playground since the IZOD IndyCar Series put the storied track on the schedule in 2007. Scott Dixon won in 2007 & 2009, while Dario Franchitti won last year. Will Power has a pretty impressive record there as well. In 2008, while driving for KV Racing, he finished fourth. He did not run at Mid-Ohio in 2009, but last year finished second for Team Penske.
Helio Castroneves has two wins at Mid-Ohio, in 2000 and 2001, while driving for Marlboro Team Penske in CART. In the IZOD IndyCar series, he has three third place finishes at Mid-Ohio, including last year. Ryan Briscoe won in 2008, finished second in 2009, before settling for a sixth place finish last year.
Quite honestly, there aren’t any other drivers in the field that have a great history at Mid-Ohio. In nine previous races, Tony Kanaan has two top-five finishes with his best being a fourth place run in 2007. Justin Wilson has fared no better than eleventh. Danica Patrick placed fifth in 2007 and Marco Andretti has nothing better than a sixth place finish in 2009 to brag about. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alex Tagliani each placed fourth at different times and Oriol Servia finished fifth once.
Hunter-Reay, Tagliani and Mike Conway may be a little more cautious this weekend. All three were put on probation through December 31 for questionable driving tactics. Many questioned why Helio or EJ Viso were not placed on probation. My take is that after the debacle in Toronto, Brian Barnhart told everyone that from that point forward – everyone was on notice. Hunter-Reay, Tagliani and Conway were all guilty of boneheaded moves at Edmonton. Helio drove a clean race at Edmonton en route to a second place finish. I question why Viso wasn’t placed on probation after he took speared Scott Dixon in Turn Five. Yes, Viso lost two laps in the deal, but I thought he should suffer the same consideration as those placed on probation.
So who can I put the jinx on this week? I haven’t correctly chosen a winner yet this season. Based on how he has finally begun having a better season, I think it’s time for Helio Castroneves to finally break into the win column. We’ll see.