Las Vegas Preview
Well, the hype is almost over. It’s time for all thirty-four drivers entered into the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale to get down to business – first with practice yesterday and today, then qualifying this afternoon before the championship is decided during the race on Sunday.
There are many well-documented sub-plots going into this weekend. It’s the last IndyCar race for Danica Patrick who happened to be the fastest driver in Thursday’s practice with a speed of 224.719 mph. It is also the final race for these nine year-old Dallara chassis. Then there is the large crowd that is expected/hoped for and the $5 million Go-Daddy Challenge that will pay Dan Wheldon and fan Ann Babenco $2.5 million each if Wheldon can pull off the victory on Sunday. But all of that is secondary to the real reason for the hype – the crowning of the champion of the IZOD IndyCar Series champion for 2011.
All of this will take place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – a venue that has hosted open-wheel races before, back in the days of the twelve-year split. In fact, the very first race of any kind held at the 1.5-mile oval was an Indy Racing League event held in 1996, which was won by Richie Hearn. The upstart league ran at Las Vegas until 2000. Other IRL winners include names such as Eliseo Salazar, Arie Luyendyk, Sam Schmidt and Al Unser, Jr. The series has not raced at Vegas since 2000.
By this time, track ownership had changed hands as well. In December of 1998, Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) had purchased the track from Richie Cline and Ralph Englestad for $215 million.
Champ Car raced there for two years in 2004-05, with Sébastien Bourdais winning both. In 2006, the track was reconfigured with progressive banking in the turns and a re-located pit lane. Bourdais is one of the few in this weekend’s field to have ever raced at LVMS. Neither of the two championship contenders have ever raced an open-wheel car at Vegas. Dario Franchitti raced stock cars there in 2008 during his sabbatical from IndyCars. Will Power has never raced any form of car on the Las Vegas oval, so this could get interesting. Most drivers are comparing the track to Chicagoland Speedway, which has been very racy and provided extremely close finishes.
From what we saw at Kentucky two weeks ago, anything can happen. Not only did we see Ed Carpenter hold off Dario Franchitti in an improbable win for Sarah Fisher Racing, but we also saw Will Power, the points leader, the race leader and pole sitter, taken out of contention by a boneheaded move by Ana Beatriz and/or her crew when she pulled into Power’s path on Pit Road. I’m not sure whose fault it was, but I know this much – it wasn’t Will Power’s, but he certainly paid the price for someone else’s careless mistake. He fell to an eighteen point deficit to Franchitti by the end of the race.
Expect the unexpected at Las Vegas, as well.
That is what I like about oval racing – anything can happen. Just like at this year’s Indianapolis 500 where in the closing laps, it looked like a sure thing that rookie J.R. Hildebrand would be visiting Victory Lane at the hallowed grounds at 16th and Georgetown. But fate had different ideas as J.R. watched Dan Wheldon take the checkered flag as he was scraping along the wall of the front-stretch.
Curt Cavin said it best in his Q&A section yesterday, when he noted that Las Vegas needs to work given the business model that Randy Bernard is using. Cavin notes that if it works, it will be a shot in the arm for all ovals.
Given that reasoning, the IZOD IndyCar Series clearly needs for this weekend to be a success. Given the tentative schedule that we have seen, there are only five ovals on the 2012 slate. Sorry for those that are fans of the twisties (as our friend Pressdog affectionately refers to street/road courses), but five ovals just isn’t going to cut it. It’s not like the ovals in the US have been suddenly bulldozed. They haven’t gone anywhere. It’s just that hosting IndyCar events are not money-making ventures for the track owners.
If the INDYCAR sanctioning fee is too high – lower it. If there is something else in the fine print that is preventing ovals from welcoming open-wheel racing to their track – change it. Supposedly, a few tracks have had their feathers ruffled that Las Vegas paid no sanctioning fee to host the season finale. If this event is successful, do something to make amends to get those tracks back on the schedule.
In the past year and a half, we’ve lost ovals at Chicago, Kansas, Homestead, Milwaukee, Motegi, New Hampshire and more than likely Kentucky; while picking up only Fontana for next season. The 2004 schedule featured ovals exclusively. In 2005, street/road courses accounted for only three spots on the schedule. By 2010, oval representation on the IndyCar schedule dipped below 50% for the first time. For 2012, it looks as if a seventeen event season will consist of only five ovals. Iowa is rumored to be the next one to go after next season.
Randy Bernard has done a lot of good in the two seasons he has been at the helm of the sanctioning body. Among those is listening to the fans. Witness the new trophy that was unveiled at Las Vegas on Wednesday.
Bernard, himself, has expressed his desire to have a 50/50 split between ovals and non-ovals. With new cars and engines on the horizon for 2012 and aero kits coming on board for the following year, I think Randy’s next big priority is to re-design the business model to make whatever accommodations necessary to get more ovals back on the schedule.
Curt Cavin is fond of saying that INDYCAR has to go where they are invited. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean they need to sit around and wait to be invited. Obviously, the model that the series has been using for oval tracks is very unappealing to track owners. Here’s hoping that Randy Bernard can change the model and make the series more attractive for track owners so that they will be invited. Otherwise, some of the doom & gloomers may end up being right on this one.
OK, so I’ll get off of my soapbox and focus on the race for this Sunday. I will not choose a winner for the championship. I’ve been 0 for 16 in choosing race winners this season. Not only have I been wrong, but most races – whoever I chose to win ended up with some catastrophic malady that they ended up finishing last or close to it. I won’t give either championship contender that jinx. I will, however, pick a winner for the race.
There have been race winners this season from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, Bryan Herta Autosport and Sarah Fisher Racing. One team that should not be missing from that group is KV Racing Technology. It’s time they stepped up. Therefore, I will pick Tony Kanaan to win on Sunday. He was twelfth quickest on Thursday at a speed of 222.635 mph. Can I really go winless this season? We’ll see.