Random Thoughts On Sonoma
Just when the IndyCar Series gives you no reason to suspect that yesterday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma would be anything but a snoozer, they go and throw you a curve. After a caution-free race at Mid-Ohio, yesterday’s race was almost comical with the amount of minor on-track skirmishes that saw a lot of carbon fiber pieces flying and tempers flaring resulting in an event-record seven cautions. In the end, there was one controversial call that may have decided this year’s championship.
Scott Dixon led for the majority of the race until a routine pit-stop incident late in the race brought the fury of some and the delight of others. He was assessed a drive-through penalty and finished fifteenth. Will Power, who was running second at the time, inherited the lead and went on to take his first win of the season. More on the call and the penalty later.
We had an indication of how the day was going to go on the first lap as the Mid-Ohio winner, Charlie Kimball, spun and brought out the first full-course yellow. It was pretty much downhill from there.
The large amount of yellows prevented the race from developing any type of rhythm throughout the day. Several drivers drove like they were driving for their jobs. Others drove like they had their head in an inconvenient place. EJ Viso comes to mind. Marco Andretti also drove more like the old Marco than the newer and wiser Marco.
Altogether it was a sloppy day at the track that was punctuated by a very controversial call and topped off with a humorous comment from Scott Dixon regarding the call afterward. Thank goodness the series reconvenes on the opposite coast in Baltimore just five days from now, instead of the five week gap that awaits drivers, teams and fans after the Baltimore race. It’ll be interesting to see if the emotions from all parties will have cooled off by then.
TV Coverage: I’m not sure who was to blame, but throughout Saturday’s qualifying show, there was a Firestone commercial that ran at least twice that finished with an ad for the Grand Prix of Sonoma in two weeks on Aug 25. No big deal, but someone fell asleep on that one.
The entire “regular” NBCSN crew was on hand this weekend, for the first time in quite a while. Leigh Diffey does a good job as traffic cop between Townsend Bell and Wally Dallenbach. They both bring an interesting perspective, although I put more weight in what Bell says. Not only has he driven IndyCars – he has driven a DW12 in competition as recently as May. So his point of view is fresh and much more relevant. Still, Wally makes some good points as well.
Kevin Lee and Jon Beekhuis were their usual stellar selves, but I took issue with Marty Snider’s interview with Ganassi Racing’s Mike Hull regarding the pit road incident. Mike Hull was extremely fair and gracious during the interview. Not once did he assign blame, but instead stressed the importance of safety for the crew members. Snider then proceeded to put words in Hull’s mouth by asking “So are you saying you think it was intentional?” Mike Hull would have been justified by blowing up. Instead he just re-emphasized what he had said earlier. There was enough controversy swirling around without trying to manufacture some sensationalism. Come on Marty. You’re better than that.
The Call: First, my disclaimer. I am pulling for Helio Castroneves to win the championship, so my feelings may be slightly skewed, but I’m trying to be as objective as possible as I write.
I had already watched enough pre-season football the past couple of weeks to figure out there was going to be a penalty against Scott Dixon in yesterday’s race. If you’ve been watching the NFL this month, you’ve seen some ridiculous calls made in the name of safety. Whether you agree with the calls or not, everyone agrees that there is more emphasis on player’s safety than at anytime in history.
The same can be said for the participants in motorsports. It’s hard to believe that just over twenty years ago, pit crewmembers were over the wall performing pit stops with no helmets. Twenty-five years ago, there were no pit road speed limits. It was an uproar in the early nineties when they instituted a 100 mph speed limit at Indianapolis.
Not only does common sense prevail these days when it comes to safety, our litigious society mandates that safety be stressed above all else. That’s why I knew that Dixon would be assessed a penalty.
Do I agree with the penalty? That’s another question. To be honest, I’m not sure. Since I am pulling for Helio to win the championship, my guy benefited from the decision. If it was just a tire being hit instead of a human being, I’m not sure that a call would have been made. I don’t think that the right-rear tire changer took one for the team by intentionally walking into harms way. However, I’m not going to rule out the possibility that he purposely made Dixon’s exit a little more difficult.
Drivers do it all the time on the track, by making their cars as wide as possible. Am I naïve enough to think that a Team Penske crewmember wouldn’t try to slow Scott Dixon out of the pits? No. Two things were accomplished. The tire-changer’s driver won the race and the Team Penske driver in contention for the championship got to pad his lead. If he could impede Dixon’s release from the pits by a second or two – yeah, I think most would do it.
But not for a moment do I think the tire-changer thought he would ever be struck by the exiting car. Yes, I think he took a circuitous route around the back of the car, but I also think it was upon Dixon to take actions to avoid him. He didn’t. He didn’t exactly drive right into him, but he certainly didn’t try to avoid him. I’m sure if Dixon had the benefit of hindsight, he would have taken evasive action and then complained to the officials. Had that been the case, perhaps it would be Will Power being assessed a penalty instead of Dixon.
But when bodies are flying and a call can go either way – you can bet money that the call will err on the side of safety almost every time. And for those that say that Will Power lucked into the win – he said it best when he mentioned that it was about time something like that went his way. Remember when he was an innocent victim in the pits at Kentucky two or three years ago. That mishap more than likely cost him a championship. These things happen in racing. The most important thing is that other than some bruises and soreness this morning, everyone is OK. It could have been much worse.
Post-race comments: I’m not sure who this Dick Move fellow is that Scott Dixon was referring to after the race. Perhaps he’s the one that Will Power once referred to as being “…a bit of a wanker”.
In all seriousness, I saw a lot of holier-than-thou tweets after the race saying that Dixon should be fined, or even suspended for his temper-fueled post-race comments. Are these people joking? Right or wrong, I’m sure Scott Dixon thought what he did was the right thing to do. Then when a microphone is shoved in his face and he sees the replay for the first time, of course he’s going to go off. I’m surprised he kept the interview as clean as he did. It wasn’t a double-bird salute which is somewhat pre-meditated. It was a slip of the tongue and good internet fodder. Let it lie.
Strange reaction: The interview with the lucky individual that gets to ride in the two-seater on the pace lap is usually a little awkward. Either the connection fails and the passenger can’t hear or they just shriek with delight. Yesterday’s passenger sounded more like he was about to throw up. I can’t predict how I would act in such a moment, but I don’t think what we heard yesterday would be it.
Small reward: At one time, Ryan Hunter-Reay fell back to twentieth after starting fourth. He worked his tail off to get back into contention and finish sixth. For all of his heroic efforts, he was rewarded with gaining a whopping three points on Helio in the championship battle.
Don’t be too cautious: It was odd that Helio Castroneves did his best bit of driving, once he learned that Scott Dixon had been penalized. Prior to the penalty, Helio was tiptoeing his way around the track. To use a football analogy – when a team goes to a prevent defense, it usually prevents them from winning. The same applies in racing. Anytime a driver deviates from their normal driving style and becomes more conservative than normal – bad things happen.
As an Helio fan, I’m hoping that he learned from yesterday’s race that you must go all out and not drive to not make a mistake. When you drive to not lose instead of driving to win – that’s when mistakes happen. Of course, I know this from all of my vast race driving experience. Seriously though, I’ve seen it happen to too many drivers over the years to know that it does happen. Helio is lucky that he came away from this race with a bigger points lead than he had going in. Hopefully, he can dial it up a notch at Baltimore.
All in all: This race will be remembered for one thing and one thing only – the call. No matter what you think of it, that will be the one identifying factor that will make people remember this race. But before “the call”, it was already a much more entertaining race than what we are used to getting from Sonoma. Drivers were getting their cars sideways regularly. Then there was the infamous Turn Seven, where drivers were tagging each other more often than not.
It was good to see JR Hildebrand back in a car, after his unceremonious departure from Panther Racing after the Indianapolis 500. Lucas Luhr was underwhelming in his IndyCar debut, but rookie James Davison was much more impressive than his eighteenth place finish would indicate.
I’ll be curious to listen to Trackside this week to get the take of Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee on the race and especially “The Call”. It will also be interesting to see what carryover effect there is between the Penske and Ganassi teams in Baltimore. If only this had been a double-header…
But overall, I’d say this was the most entertaining race I’ve witnessed from Sonoma. Usually, the Monday morning conversations are about what a boring race it was. That is certainly not the case this morning.