Random Thoughts On Baltimore
When the IZOD IndyCar Series announced last year that they would be running the streets of Baltimore over Labor Day weekend, many people were very excited. I have to admit that I was not overly thrilled and greeted it with a basic “ho-hum”. I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong.
The Inaugural Grand Prix of Baltimore was a great success. It wasn’t without its problems, mind you. In fact, I’d say it had more growing pains than most first-time events. From local political controversies to a last minute chicane to lower speeds while crossing train tracks in the middle of the circuit, you had to wonder if this was going to be just one giant headache. Despite the problems and the pre-race predictions of major carnage – the race was a success, both locally and for viewers at home. The stands looked full and reports are that all of the standing areas were packed as well.
Will Power dominated; taking the single point for winning the pole, the two points for most laps led and the fifty points for winning the race. By taking the maximum points available and with Dario Franchitti finishing fourth, Power has closed the gap to trail Franchitti by only five points. That’s pretty remarkable considering that Franchitti had a sixty-two point lead heading into New Hampshire.
The day started with a scary crash in the morning warm-up. Tony Kanaan lost his brakes heading into a tight corner, ran into the back of Helio Castroneves and was launched into the air by Helio’s rear tire. He landed and drove through two layers of tire barriers before being stopped by a third. Kanaan and Castroneves both had to go to back-up cars and start from the back of the field.
The start was ragged, as cars had to go through the makeshift chicane in a single-file line before lining up in their rows of two. By the time the green flag fell, only the first three rows resembled a double-file start. Most predicted problems at the very first turn, but everyone managed to get through unscathed. In fact, everyone behaved until Lap 32, when Tomas Scheckter stalled on-track. That brought out a full-course yellow. The ensuing re-start was the defining moment of the race.
Once the race re-started on Lap 37, Ryan Briscoe tried a foolish move in Turn Three, which resulted in spinning out Ryan Hunter-Reay. The car of Hunter-Reay was helplessly stalled across the course, effectively creating a parking lot that only a select few were able to navigate. Right or wrong, Race Control became part of the story again by going back to the running order at the re-start – except of course for Hunter-Reay, who was an innocent victim. To confuse things further, a few cars that snaked through the wreckage were able to keep their newfound positions but others, including Tony Kanaan, were not.
During the lengthy yellow; many drivers near the back of the field, including Oriol Servia, pitted just before going green. This set up a strange sequence of events late in the race that seemed to penalize all of the front-runners, except Will Power. One by one, the front-runners had to pit for fuel in the late stages. None of them made it all the way back except for Power. Simona de Silvestro, who had a great race, was running around seventh place for most of the second half of the race. She even led before pitting on Lap 60. She re-entered the track in fourteenth place and finished twelfth. Dario Franchitti was leading when he pitted, but finally worked his way up to fourth at the finish. It looked as if things were going to work out for Oriol Servia to finally get his first IZOD IndyCar victory, but Will Power and Tim Cindric timed things perfectly to leave the pits ahead of Servia, who finished second.
The drive of the day, and perhaps the year, went to Tony Kanaan. As true racers do, he put the terrifying crash of the morning out of his mind. He climbed into EJ Viso’s back-up car at the back of the field and carved his way through the field to finish third. Had he not been sent back in the field after the so-called aborted restart, I think he could have won the race. Don’t tell me that this guy is over the hill.
Scott Dixon finished fifth even after suffering a flat tire during the Turn Three fiasco. Danica Patrick drove well herself, coming from a starting spot of twenty-third to finish sixth. Graham Rahal probably had one of the most disappointing days of anyone. He started second and drove near the front all day before botched pit strategy bit him. He finished an unimpressive tenth that doesn’t reflect the day he had.
TV coverage: I thought this was one of the better efforts from Versus. They normally do an excellent job anyway, but I thought they were really on their game this weekend. New events can sometimes provide some kinks to TV crews as well, but they had an outstanding weekend.
Robin Miller had probably his best Grid Run of the season. This was a segment that seemed to be on life-support earlier. I don’t even think they did it at Sonoma, but it came back at Baltimore in fine fashion.
Kevin Lee has really grown in his role as host of the pre-race show. He now comes across as a time-tested veteran instead of a first-year rookie. Although pit reporting is nothing new to him, he excels in that role as well. Although Tony Kanaan called her “Lindsey” yesterday, Lindy Thackston had a good day also.
In fact, I can’t think of any flub or anything negative from the Versus crew. They gave us several interesting aerial shots of downtown Baltimore and the beautiful Inner Harbor. Good job all the way around.
Bad weekend for Helio: After a strong qualifying run on Saturday that found him in the seventh starting spot, Helio Castroneves found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when Tony Kanaan’s brakes failed in the Sunday morning warm-up. Fortunately for Kanaan Helio was there to help slow him down, but the accident forced Helio to go to his back-up car and start from the very back of the field.
This was bad enough, but supposedly Helio and Tim Cindric were initially told that they could keep their original starting spot if they went to the back-up car. Then after the back-up car was prepared, they were told that they would in fact, have to move to the back of the grid. If this actually happened, it’s unfortunate because Tim Cindric maintains that they could have repaired Helio’s primary car to keep the position. It was only when Team Penske was assured they could use the back-up car in the seventh starting spot that they decided to go with the back-up. If this is the way it actually happened, you can rest assured that this is not the last we’ll hear of this. Roger Penske won’t take this without a fight and I don’t blame him. Once again, the inconsistencies of the rulebook have become a part of the story.
RHR Rebound: Don’t look now, but since the embarrassment of not making the Indianapolis 500 and his sponsor buying his way in, Ryan Hunter-Reay has quietly put together a solid second half of the season. Although he was punted by Ryan Briscoe in the melee on Lap 37, he managed to finish eighth yesterday. That makes the eighth top-ten finish that RHR has scored since the Indianapolis 500, including a win at New Hampshire and podium finishes at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. In the races prior to Indianapolis, the best finish for Hunter-Reay was a fourteenth at Barber. In fact, after his twenty-third place finish at Indianapolis – Hunter-Reay’s average finishing position was 19.8. Since Indianapolis, his average finish has improved to 9.4. He has quietly worked his way to seventh in points after being buried in the standings in the first part of the season.
Biggest negative of the weekend: No, it wasn’t the violent thunderstorm that rolled through after the Saturday practice. Nor was it the impromptu chicane that was added to the front straightaway. It was that God-awful rendition of our National Anthem before the race. Do those in charge of such things not make performers audition or provide a sample of how they plan to sing? Obviously not, or the person who will and should remain nameless would never have been allowed to perform. These attempts to stylize the words of Francis Scott Key before sporting events have grown tiresome.
All in all: As far as street races go, this was a good one. In fact, I’d rate it as perhaps one of the best non-ovals of the season. Those that tune in to watch wrecks were disappointed – all they got to see was a parking lot on the Lap 37 re-start. But if you are a race fan, this one had a little bit of everything. There were passes, even a couple for the lead on the first lap. There were multiple pit strategies to be played out. Most of all; I think those that attended the race in person probably walked away feeling they got their money’s worth.
I wasn’t there, but the crowds on Friday sounded as if they rivaled a few Sunday crowds at other tracks. Everyone in attendance kept referring to a definite buzz at the track. Although Friday and Saturday were gloomy (and sometimes stormy), Sunday had a beautiful sky. The layout showcased the Inner Harbor and downtown skyline and ballparks of Baltimore. Randy Bernard did his homework and it looks like his marketing know-how has paid off on the East Coast. I’ll be curious to see what he does with the season finale in Las Vegas next month as an encore.