Random Thoughts On Iowa
A few weeks ago, I was chastised for being so negative about the double-header at Belle Isle. Chances are, some will claim that I am a cheerleader for the Verizon IndyCar Series for what I am about to say about Saturday night’s Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway. If you didn’t like that race, you may want to stop reading now because I will say nothing to reassure you that you were right.
As much as I liked Fontana and Milwaukee, the race at Iowa topped both of them. Some may call this blasphemy, but this was my favorite race of the season, thus far – and that includes the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500.
From what I saw from my couch, I can only come up with one negative for the entire weekend. At the end, I was pulling for our local Nashville hero, Josef Newgarden, to overtake eventual race-winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. That’s not to say I was pulling against Hunter-Reay, but I’ve been a longtime Newgarden fan.
But Hunter-Reay winning is a great story in itself. After winning the championship in 2012, and an Indianapolis 500 win in 2014; Hunter-Reay has had a nightmarish 2015 season. It speaks a lot for his character and determination that he went into the weekend with so much focus. As I said on Friday, this was Hunter-Reay’s last real shot at a win this season. But I thought he had justifiably checked out for 2015, and who would have blamed him. He has been saddled with the slower Honda aero kit and has even been the slowest car on his own team throughout most of the season. But he put it all together and fought hard to come up with his third win in four tries at Iowa. Good for him!
And good for Andretti Autosport! They extended their streak at Iowa to six in a row and seven in nine years. That type of domination defies explanation. Even Michael Andretti seemed to be at a loss for words when trying to explain their success at Iowa.
But as impressive as Ryan Hunter-Reay was in salvaging his season, that was far from the only storyline from Saturday night.
Juan Montoya started things off by crashing hard into the Turn Two wall on Lap 10. Montoya has led the points since the opening race at St. Petersburg. Although he started the race with a fifty-four point lead ahead of Scott Dixon, it looked as if the points leader was about to have his lead chiseled away significantly. Dixon and Helio Castroneves seemed primed to eat up most of Montoya’s lead in the early stages as they were both battling with each other near the front. But on this night, being strong in the first half of the race meant nothing. Helio finished eleventh and Dixon was eighteenth. Ultimately, Montoya dodged a bullet and lost only twelve points off of his lead.
Graham Rahal was another storyline that seems to be a continuation throughout his magical season. By earning another Top-Five finish and taking advantage of the misfortunes of Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves; Rahal woke up Sunday morning second in points, only forty-two behind Montoya, with only three races to go. All it takes is for another race where Montoya has problems early and Rahal has a podium finish and they are practically even. As much moaning as we’ve heard from the Honda teams about how disadvantaged they were, wouldn’t it be ironic if Rahal won the championship in a Honda?
Among the many other plots that emerged Saturday night, probably the biggest one involved the driving and behavior of Sage Karam. Unfortunately, more people may have been talking about Karam after the race than Hunter-Reay.
Ed Carpenter gave Karam the one-finger salute in the late stages of the race. Then he marched down pit lane to confront the twenty year-old Karam immediately after the race. I’m guessing the microphones were purposely turned down because you could still pick up a couple of F-bombs and BS’s from Carpenter. Even so, you could still hear Ed deriding Karam for not respecting others on the track and he finished it off with telling the young Karam that he needed to grow up. Karam, meanwhile, acted like the twenty year-old that he is and just sat there as if Ed was talking in the Charlie Brown teacher voice saying “blah-blah-blah”. Too many times, I saw that same face from my own son at around age fifteen. It’s exasperating.
The Sage Karam debate is an interesting topic that I plan to explore much further on Wednesday.
Aside from the Karam-Carpenter saga, there was action all over the track all night long. This is one of those races that there is no way that TV can do it justice. There are too many things happening at all points of the track. Television cameras can focus on only so much. This is why Iowa is on my short list of tracks to visit one day.
TV Coverage: After a so-so week at Milwaukee, I thought NBCSN was back on their game Saturday night. By giving us a shot from the stands where they followed few cars for several laps, they showed that they were aware of the shortcoming I mentioned above that there was just too much to cover on one screen. It’s not a knock on them – no one could possibly do it.
But I thought they acquitted themselves nicely after stumbling a bit at Milwaukee. It was good that all of their A-Team was there. Leigh Diffey in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy is a good combination. Kevin Lee is flawless as a pit reporter. Jon Beekhuis gives excellent technical insight and Katie Hargitt, while not perfect, showed significant improvement Saturday night. Give her time and she’ll be fine. She has raced in USAC and knows her stuff. I even enjoyed Robin Miller’s grid-run. It’s very fun and enjoyable when served in small doses.
The best part of the pre-race show was with Sébastien Bourdais riding in a vintage Corvette with Paul Tracy driving. The introduction showed the two physically sparring during their competition days when they clearly disliked each other. To listen to the two of them discussing their racing days amicably was fascinating. When it was over, Tracy was serious and almost philosophical in describing their conversation about what their individual motivations were. You could tell that it was an almost cathartic exercise for Tracy.
But Townsend Bell sort of spoiled the moment (for me, anyway) by making a joke out of it and suggesting that Tracy was running for Mayor. Tracy looked genuinely miffed at Bell’s callous take on the piece. I thought it made Bell come off as somewhat of a jerk.
The only real gaffe I saw was when NBCSN opted to go to another commercial break just as the race entered the window for the first round of green-flag stops. Although this was a break with the “Non-stop” window to the side, it was still disheartening to watch pit stops taking place while enduring another Tirerack.com commercial.
It’s a Mystery: This could have easily been mentioned in the TV discussion, but I’m not sure that this was NBCSN’s fault. What exactly happened with Tony Kanaan? He was running up front all night, then inexplicably pulled into the pits on Lap 189. He was heard on the radio to ask “What’s going on?” as the crew told him to shut it off as they moved about his car at a very leisurely pace.
Kanaan was later seen getting out of his car and forcibly shoving his helmet onto a tool case. He stormed off and was never seen or heard from again. Unless I missed something, there was never an explanation as to what had happened to bring such a good run to an abrupt ending.
The Needed Villain? For years, everyone has been saying that IndyCar needs a villain. NASCAR has had several over the years with Dale Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Jimmy Spencer and even Tony Stewart. Some of these had as many fans as enemies. Others just had enemies. IndyCar hasn’t had a villain or even a rivalry since, well – I don’t know when.
The Tracy/Bourdais rivalry may be the closest real rivalry in the twenty-first century. Foyt and Andretti from the sixties was the fiercest. Now, all the drivers seem to get along a little too well – at least until Saturday night.
Sage Karam has made a lot of enemies on the track this season. It’s not a new story that a young hot shot ruffles the feathers of the old guard. Sometimes, they blossom into a winner and the next great thing. Other times, they flame out and fade into obscurity. Karam has lots of fans and plenty of enemies. It’ll be curious to see how his career plays out – but regardless, IndyCar will benefit from this newly discovered villain. I do too, because it has already given me food for thought for Wednesday’s post.
Where was Will? While many were lamenting the fade of Helio Castroneves in the latter stages of the race, not much has been said about Will Power being practically invisible for the entire evening. Power started sixth and was never a factor throughout the race. He led only two laps, as green flag pit-stops cycled through. Heading into last Sunday’s race at Milwaukee, Power was in second place in points. He is now fifth and based on Saturday night’s performance, doesn’t seem to be a threat.
But even if he maintains the status quo over the next two races, the finale at Sonoma pays double points, and Power has won three of the past five at Sonoma. Don’t write off the defending champion just yet.
Tightened Points Battle: Although Juan Montoya only saw twelve points whittle off of his lead after crashing early Saturday night, the battle for second is extremely tight. It sounds impressive to say that Graham Rahal is now in second, but he still trails Montoya by forty-two points. Conversely, positions two through five are separated by a mere thirteen points.
While Montoya is still firmly ensconced in the lead, there is sure to be a lot of jockeying for position for the rest of the Top-Five.
The Crowd: As I said last week, I’m not good at estimating crowds on television. I saw a few empty seats, but for the most part – the stands looked full at Iowa. From what I can tell, the fans in Iowa may be some of the most knowledgeable IndyCar fans anywhere. I also hear the food at the track is some of the best you’ll find anywhere on the schedule.
In short, the fans at Iowa have been going to the track for nine years now but they seem to have a reason to keep going back. I just wish the series could find a way to duplicate what goes on at Iowa at about fourteen other events on the current IndyCar schedule. Whatever they’re doing at Iowa, they are doing it very well.
Interesting Stat I: Before the race, Kevin Lee mentioned a very interesting stat regarding Helio Castroneves starting from the pole. While Lee acknowledged it was nice to start up front, it certainly did not guarantee a win. He noted that the average starting position for winners this year has been tenth. Saturday night didn’t change that much as Ryan Hunter-Reay won from the ninth starting spot.
Interesting Stat II: Just before the start of the race, NBCSN flashed a fascinating graphic, while talking about how Juan Montoya has led the points since the opening race this season. Since 1956, only five drivers have won the championship while leading the points battle the entire season: Sébastien Bourdais, 2006; Sam Hornish, 2001; Johnny Rutherford, 1980; Al Unser, 1970; and AJ Foyt in 1964. If Montoya pulls off that feat at the end of the season, he will certainly be in rare and dignified company.
All in all: There will be those that will say that they did not care for Saturday night’s race. That’s fine. We all have different tastes and opinions. But it’s my opinion that this was the prototypical weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series. This should be the norm for IndyCar racing. I’m fine with a few natural terrain road courses and a few temporary street courses in large metropolitan areas. After all, it’s the variety and diversity of the tracks that sets this series apart from all others. But count me as one that would prefer ovals to make up slightly more than half of the tracks on the schedule.
The last three races – Fontana, Milwaukee and Iowa – have been very enjoyable to watch, with Iowa topping them all. The crowd looked tremendous and enthusiastic. Best of all, they had a great show to watch. There were a few crashes and near-misses, but no one sustained injury to any more than their pride. There were six cautions altogether – interspersed enough to create interesting restarts and bathroom breaks, but not so many that fans grew restless.
If every race was like Saturday night’s race, IndyCar would not be facing so many of the problems they now have. But racing is filled with “ifs” and “buts”. But it’s good that this Monday morning, we’re talking about what a success a race was on the track and in the stands instead of leading off with what IndyCar failed to do this week. Call me a cheerleader if you want, but these are the conversations I prefer.