Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio

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Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of snoozers from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. Fortunately, yesterday’s race did not end up being one of those. There was a point early on when I thought that it could be, but the circumstances played out where it was time well spent to watch it on what was a beautiful Sunday afternoon here in Nashville.

For those that don’t know (is there really anyone who reads this site to find out who won?); Graham Rahal started thirteenth and won by a relatively large margin at the end. Since Rahal was born an hour away in nearby Columbus, it’s not a stretch to call Mid-Ohio his home track. It doesn’t hurt that his grandfather raced there and his father, Bobby Rahal, won there twice in the eighties. Combine that with the fact that Rahal is now a mere nine points from points leader Juan Montoya, and this was a very special and emotional day for the emerging young Rahal.

The race started looking like another Scott Dixon runaway. Dixon had won three of the past four at Mid-Ohio and five of the past eight. He won the pole and got a somewhat curious quick jump at the start before he pulled away from the pack with ease. The first round of green-flag pit stops had just begun when debris from Takuma Sato’s car brought out a full-course yellow. Dixon had not pitted yet, so he ended up coming back out mid-pack.

Juan Montoya was the beneficiary of the caution. He had been running just slightly ahead of mid-pack and had not been having a good weekend. Suddenly, Montoya found himself in front when Tristan Vautier and Justin Wilson had to pit for their pit strategies. Once in front, Montoya stayed there for most of the middle portion of the race.

After the second set of pit stops, it appeared to be a battle between Montoya and Josef Newgarden – but Montoya appeared to be in full control. Dixon was mired in mid-pack and seemed destined to finish there. The booth announcers had just said that the only thing that could save Dixon was another yellow flag; when Dixon’s teammate, Sage Karam, mysteriously spun on Lap 66 to bring out that caution.

As much as the fist caution appeared to be a lifeline for Montoya, this caution was a torpedo. Dixon pitted early and Rahal pulled into the pits just before the pits were closed for the caution. All the leaders pitted under the caution and Rahal found himself up front, where he stayed for the win. Justin Wilson finished second, making it a one-two finish for Honda. Simon Pagenaud filled out the podium by coming in third. The two leaders before the spins, Montoya and Newgarden, finished eleventh and thirteenth respectively.

This was not the typical Mid-Ohio. The aero-kits have caused problems in the past but they seemed to actually help the racing at Mid-Ohio, where passing has always been at a premium. There was good racing behind the leaders also. Was this the best race I’ve ever seen at Mid-Ohio? No, but it’s probably in the top-five or six over the past few decades that I’ve been watching races there. And Graham Rahal continued his magical season. Unlike past seasons, it’s getting easier to like Graham Rahal this season. In the past, I thought he was a brash kid that had no results to back up his boasting. Now he’s showing his talent as well as the talent of his team. I’ve gained a ton of respect for Rahal this year.

TV Coverage: When I saw that David Hobbs was joining the booth, I was afraid it would be another case of unprepared mumbling with a few tired one-liners thrown in for good measure. Instead, we got the David Hobbs that we enjoy seeing on the Formula One telecasts. He was much more prepared and actually added several comments that contributed to the telecast, not just repeating something someone else had said. Plus, his humor was actually…humorous.

I don’t know if it was because the race aired on CNBC, but I was perturbed at the lack of the side-by-side box. I’ve really gotten spoiled with that feature and I found it very annoying that every commercial completely went away from the telecast.

Whoever makes the call on which shot to use had a bad day. I counted at least three times when they were following a tight battle heading into a corner, when they cut away to show a meaningless pit stop. Put stops are important to show, but not in favor of a tight on-track battle.

Newgarden’s Future: If Josef Newgarden is seriously debating between staying at CFH Racing and jumping to a team like Chip Ganassi Racing; the performance of his current crew may make it an easy decision for him. Once again, his crew dropped the ball when making a crucial pit stop. On Newgarden’s first stop while running with the leaders, the left-front tire changer dropped a wheel nut. That happens on the best teams, but they don’t waste valuable time fumbling around looking for it. They simply grab the spare on their belt and use it instead.

How many times have we seen Newgarden’s crew cost him several positions over the past couple of seasons? Now that he is in contention much more often, it is becoming even more obvious.

Loyalty to Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman is one thing. But by staying at CFH Racing, Newgarden is hindering his career and earnings potential. He has two race wins this season and may have possibly won a couple of more, had his crew met expectations. If an owner like Chip Ganassi is talking to you, I’d say make that jump and don’t look back.

The Spin: I’m usually not a conspiracy theorist, but when Sage Karam spun to bring out a very convenient yellow for his teammate, Scott Dixon, I turned to Susan and said “He did that on purpose". That was long before Townsend Bell wondered out loud if that was just a coincidence. I’m not an engineer and can’t really comment on the trajectory of a car; but that sure was an odd looking spin.

It’s been done before. In 2006, most believe that Bryan Herta spun late on purpose at Sonoma to help give teammate Marco Andretti his first career win. Going a little further back, Marco’s grandfather was heard over the radio during the 1991 Indianapolis 500, asking “Do we need a yellow?” This was in the late stages when Rick Mears was pulling away from Mario’s son and teammate, Michael Andretti. Shortly after he was heard asking if they needed a yellow, Mario’s car was suddenly stalled in a precarious position at the entrance of the pits.

Sage Karam said several times before and after the Iowa race that it was his job to help Dixon win the championship. When Dixon fell out at Iowa, was when Karam started going for the win. In yesterday’s race, Dixon was still in contention but desperately needed a timely yellow. It was delivered with Karam’s odd looking spin.

Do I think Karam spun out on purpose to help his teammate? Absolutely. Do I think he or the team should be punished? Absolutely not. It’s gamesmanship and a part of racing that has been going on for decades. It’s no different than what they were talking about earlier when Team Penske pitted Simon Pagenaud early with the sole intention of coming out ahead of Dixon and holding him up to help preserve Montoya’s lead in the points. Next time, Karam just needs to look a little more convincing.

LED Panels: The much-publicized LED position lights that debuted this past weekend were not as intrusive looking as I thought they would be. In fact, I found myself wishing they were a little bit bigger so that I could see them better. I did like seeing when drivers were on the push-to-pass button and where the drivers were in the field. I think they still have a couple of kinks to work out on the pit-box timing, but overall – I’d say it was a successful debut.

American Resurgence:  Don’t look now, but Americans have won four of the past five races in the Verizon IndyCar Series. As Townsend Bell pointed out in yesterday’s telecast; they are young winners also.

There was a debate on social media after the race whether or not this would be of any long term benefit for IndyCar to attract new fans. I can’t say for certain that it will, but I know this much – it sure can’t hurt.

Robin Miller has been pining for years to get an Andretti-Rahal rivalry going to draw in US fans. Rahal is now doing his part, but it remains to be seen if Marco will ever hold up his end of the bargain in order for that rivalry to come to fruition.

But if IndyCar can figure out a better way to spotlight their American drivers and capitalize on it – it’s got to help in the long run. Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the championship in 2012 fell flat. So did his winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2014. Was that Hunter-Reay’s fault? I don’t think so. Was it a sign that US fans just don’t care? Possibly, but IndyCar has to be more proactive in marketing their young US stars than what they have done in the past.

Payback: On Saturday, Sage Karam held up Graham Rahal in the first round of qualifying and Rahal was none too pleased in interviews and on social media. Before Sunday’s race, Karam wrote it off as “typical Graham” and didn’t think he had done anything wrong.

After Sunday’s race, Rahal was singing a different tune and referring to Karam as “my buddy” for the mysterious spin hat brought out the timely caution.

All in All: For a track that has been known to present a few snoozers in the past, Mid-Ohio delivered. Graham Rahal was a popular winner there and he has certainly tightened up the points battle. With two races to go, Rahal now trails Montoya by only nine points and has stretched out his lead over third place Scott Dixon to twenty-five points. Last Tuesday night on Trackside, Curt Cavin blatantly said that Graham Rahal would not win this championship and that it would come down to either Juan Montoya or Scott Dixon.

I wouldn’t be too sure. Graham Rahal is riding a wave of momentum and confidence. How ironic would it be if after becoming such a punch line throughout the season, if the championship was actually won by a Honda driver? Honda is a joke no more. Seven of the Top-Ten cars were Honda powered, including the top two steps on the podium. Several, myself included, wrote Honda off back several months ago. They run all sixteen races for a reason.

There are two races to go. One is the 2.5 mile oval known as the Tricky Triangle at Pocono. The other is a double points paying road race at Sonoma. This championship has become very exciting, due in large part to the exciting finish at Mid-Ohio.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    I would like to buy a case of whatever Graham Rahal is drinking these days. His win at his home track and thereby closing in on Montoya in points is great for the series. I still think double points at Sonoma is stupid.

    If Karam did indeed spin intentionally, and he is the only one who can say for certain, he should be dropped from IndyCar.

    I personally would not so quickly recommend that Newgarden dump Sarah Fisher’s team. Cold.

  2. Ironically, I read an article before coming over here to oilpressure, about Michael Waltrip Racing, who is about to go under, which started it’s downhill slide after an intentional spin. It’s interesting to see how this works between the 2 series.

    When the Waltrip issue happened, they had proof, or as close to proof via the radio transmissions, that they drivers had manipulated their results. In that case, NASCAR got it right (but then also wrong when they added Jeff Gordon to The Chase because his feelings were hurt). Indycar should do some investigating and if that was the case, come down hard on Ganassi. But don’t do anything drastic without listening to their communication.

    As for the points, well, Montoya is showing that he is about as likeable as a bag of trash. He is generally a jerk to fans and media, so him losing this title wouldn’t make me sad one bit. Never cared for Rahal before this season but he is growing on me. Would love to see him take a title and them to market him better than RHR was in 2012!

  3. If Karam spun on purpose he and Target Chip Ganassi need to suffer as Renault and Micheal Waltrip Racing did. But did he spin on purpose? I’m not so sure. The spin did not help Dixon that much. Unless Karam’s trying to get the second Rahal/Letterman car the spin did not really help him or his team.

    This was the best Mid Ohio Indycar race I’ve seen (2008-Present). If nothing else the last five races of Indycar have been the best stretch of races I’ve seen. No Penske/Ganassi winners. 3 American drivers winning 4 races, and a Bourdias oval win. What more could you ask for? Fontana was the best race and Milwaukee the worst, but still that’s five Indycar races in a row I’ve enjoyed… a new series record!

    I’m still in shock about Rahal. How is he this good? I’ve been a Rahal defender even when most discounted his chances, but I never believed they could contend for the championship! I did not truly believe the championship was possible until this race. 9 points is not a lot especially with a double points finale. Outside of Indy and St. Pete, JPM has not been that fast. Montoya and Penske have been too conservative in their race craft and strategy which has left an opening for Dixon and Rahal. The fact of the matter is Rahal is racing the best of the three (seriously… last 5 race results show Rahal is better!). That is kind of insane. Sonoma is a bad track, but the interesting thing there is that neither Montoya nor Rahal are consistently making the Fast Six so what will that mean? Does Dixon benefit from that? Will the other 3 Penske do crazy things to help JPM? Does Indycar have the balls to penalize Penske/Ganassi if they try and manipulate the championship away from Rahal?

    I dislike Ganassi and I like Karam so I’m not as excited by Newgarden to Ganassi unless he displaces TK/Dixon or they retire. Is it a good idea? CFH has way too many pit road issues. It is pathetic. I want Sarah and Ed to fire their pit crews on a live internet broadcast. It would be therapeutic after what we’ve seen the last two seasons. That said I think leaving (ESPECIALLY for 2nd tier Ganassi) could be a terrible mistake. Look at Rahal! Look at what the #20 did last year and what the #67 is doing this year! Dixon has been better than the best CFH car, but the other three Ganassi cars have been significantly behind. Briscoe has at times shown more speed at Sam’s team than in the #8. Tony Kanaan has not had that much success at Ganassi. CFH has had more success than everyone at Ganassi except for Dixon for the last two seasons (20 last year, 67 this year). Also consider last year’s big move. Simona Pagenaud’s move to Penske seemed like a no-brainer. However Simon has been reduced to a testing mule for JPM/Power/Helio. Does Newgarden really benift from being a third driver at Ganassi vs. 1st driver at CFH? In the past I would have said yes, but right now a one car team is 9 points out of the lead with 2 races to go. The goal would be of course to take the #8 and hope TK retires/gets fired/gets relegated to the 3rd car. However… ask Karam and Rahal how waiting on the #9/#10 goes. The only other factor is Le Mans. Is acquiring Newgarden somehow related to the Ford GT program? Would that sway him? Should it? That could be significant.

    All of that of course depends on the Indycar schedule (RE: Le Mans). For the first time since 2011 I’m actually looking forward to the schedule! Road America, Boston (could be cool IF it dodges typical Indycar failure) and an oval (Phoenix/Homestead) is about all I could ask for. Well… technically no chicagoland or MIS, but still… it’s been ages since we’ve had this much good news.

    • Newgarden to Ganassi is fine if fake ol’ Tony retires, tired of him. Wouldn’t mind seeing Newgarden repolace Helio either.

      I know that won’t make people happy, but I am a bit sick of the old guard. Anyone who drove in the 1990’s is probably about at their time, move over and let someone else in…..

  4. Mike Silver Says:

    I saw the spin in front of me. For an intentional spin he came very close to hitting the inside tire barrier. The spin did begin strangely. That corner was trouble for several drivers all day, however.. Best Mid-Ohio race I’ve seen.

  5. George I was surprised that you didn’t mention IndyCar being stuck on CNBC. Does anybody find it curious that IndyCar suddenly finds itself on a sister channel that has nothing to do with sports and advertising does in no way support the event or IndyCar because the new darling, NASCAR, has priority at Pocono of all places? Trend? IndyCar is definitely the red headed step child now of NBC sports.

  6. I missed most of it because I was traveling. It will be hard to prove that Sage spun on purpose. Maybe steering trace data, but even then Sage just says “I hit a bump/had a twitch” and that’s that, similar to the Herta thing. But, it does enhance Sage’s black-hat rep, and that’s good for the sport overall. Win’s a win, even if there was a big element of luck (perfectly timed yellow). That’s how Joe New won on a twisty earlier. The randomness of twisties re: yellows adds interest. Good for Graham, but I don’t think having the name “Rahal” in the winner column will be a rain maker as some think. His and Honda’s contention for a championship is a good story line, however. IndyCar got moved to CNBC for business reasons, plain and simple. It’s hard for me to be too pissed at NASCAR since IMO running promos for IndyCar during NASCAR races helps drive up the IndyCar audience.

    • oryan_dunn Says:

      I don’t like being bumped to CNBC, but on the bright side, those who care still got to see the race live. I actually think it will work out ok, since the replay after the NASCAR race will probably do well.

  7. The good thing is this week,we are talking about on track racing.the best quote of the day was by Justin Wilson, “Contact was not an option” on that last restart.He drove his ass off today.Let’s hope he sticks with AA.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    There was a time when caution-causing race manipulation could go uninvestigated or unpunished (Mario 1991, Schumacher-Hill 1994), that time is past. Both Formula 1 and NASCAR have recently set standards of severe punishment for such incidents and I cannot imagine Indycar letting something so similar slide given that precedent.

    Which is why I do not believe Karam’s spin was intentional. That Chip Ganassi would risk his reputation, his relationships with his sponsors; that Sage Karam would risk his just-begun career with such a decision does not compute for me. Yes, the risk of getting caught may be quite low, but that risk is still there, and I would be surprised to learn if any of the parties potentially involved considered it a risk worth taking.

    I did appreciate that Hobbs and Bell were given, or felt they were given, the leeway to speculate on the nature of Karam’s spin. They should have that freedom.

    I was, of course, thrilled with Rahal’s victory. After the past two seasons, I never thought I’d see him contending for a championship with RLL. What a remarkable season, hopefully the first of many.

    • I’ll second every word of that second paragraph. The rewards (potentially winning a race and maybe a championship, of which you’ve won plenty before this) of getting away with such a thing (while entrusting a 20 year old kid to do your dirty work for you in a non-obvious way) wouldn’t seem to outweigh the risks (possibly a gigantic fine, losing your sponsors or getting kicked out of the sport temporarily or permanently) of getting caught. I’m just not seeing it.

  9. I attended the race. Playing the role of Milka Duno appeared to be the G2 team. Finally Rahal can justify leaving them. If I am Newgarden, I only accept a drive in the 10 car.

    I was sitting in the esses about three quarters the way up. I couldn’t shoot George an Email fast enough when the cars first went by. The LED lights are not readable. The numbers were way too small for these lasik enhanced eyes. Maybe it was the daylight. I caught the end of the replay when I got home and it all looked sharp on TV. So there is that.

    The Rahal win was as popular in person as it appeared on TV. His love for the Buckeyes has helped his popularity locally. There were O-H I-O chants all around the podium celebration. Young Rahal needs to wear that beautiful helmet all the way to the presentation of the Astor Cup.

  10. Indycar can have all of the proof in the world… they will do nothing. They routinely do nothing.

    This issue goes directly to the integrity of the sport. The problem however, is that Indycar has the integrity issue as well. I watched the race with someone who notified a team last week that the sponsor he represents will not be back. The decision was based on an Indycar initiated caution at a street course earlier this year that was significantly delayed and penalized the car his company was sponsoring. (I’d name the race but it would narrow things down a little too far when the news of this sponsor leaving hits). The company truly felt that it was the series playing favorites to ensure a show that disadvantaged their car and cost them air time.

    If you are Indycar, how do you come down on a team for forcing a yellow when you, as a series, already play games with the yellows in ways that fundamentally affect competition?

    The perception is out there that Indycar plays fast and loose with the rules as it is. That perception exists within the current sponsor base and it isn’t going over well. There is no way for the series to enforce a nuclear option against Ganassi without also admitting the impact of their own actions.

  11. the rating on NBCSN tape delay than live coverage on CNBC.

  12. Good race. I enjoyed it.

    As far as Sage goes, I thought it looked fairly obvious what happened when they played the whole thing back (and even T-Bell kind of backed off his initial hard stance slightly when they showed the replay): Sage misjudged Turn 4 by a bit (he apparently said afterward that he was fiddling with the brake bias knob at the time), then clobbered the inside curb, which sent him off line to the outside of the corner, Sage dumped the left side wheels into the dirt, but then booted the throttle a little too hard and looped the car. Graceful? Heck, no. Clumsy? Oh, yes. A silly rookie mistake? Yeah, I can see that (hasn’t he been making quite a few of them this year?). Whatever the case, IndyCar is going to have to prove this out with definitive proof from the data acquisition traces, possibly a recording of the radio transmissions (if those exist) and possibly even an admission from the team itself (which I just find hard to believe…Mike Hull and company seem like pretty stand up guys who wouldn’t want to win this way). I could be wrong, but this looked like a regular old spin that just happened to come at a weird time. It happens.

  13. It was a good race indeed. And it turned out to make the championship even more interesting than it already had been before. Team Rahal is now officially back as one of the “Big 4 Teams”, even if they are only running a single car this season. Here’s hoping they can find sponsorship to upgrade to two full-time entries for next year.

    In the light of Karam’s other performances on road courses this season, his spin at Mid-Ohio does not look near as artificial as TV commentator Townsend Bell would have you believe: in the GP of NOLA he spun so much that Ganassi put him out of the car for Long Beach and brought in Sebastian Saavedra to replace him. Karam is a rookie and it shows most on the road courses.
    However, the reason for his engine stalling after the spin will be investigated by the IRL, and that makes sense, too. We’ll see what comes out of this tomorrow. My guess is there is no evidence for anything.

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