Random Thoughts On The Phoenix Open Test

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Now that the Open Test at ISM Raceway in Phoenix has been completed, it now feels like racing season is in full swing. I wasn’t there, but Susan insists it was like we were, since I had it on the big TV in our den through the You Tube app that came with it. After cheating some at work and watching some of the test on Friday afternoon, I had You Tube queued up at home by 7:00 local time Friday night. After watching three hours of coverage on Friday night, I followed that with watching both three-hour sessions on Saturday. Susan was not amused. I had to promise to relinquish control of the main set for all day Sunday, meaning I had to watch the NASCAR events from Daytona back in the bedroom.

Even though she likes watching all the races on television and loves going to the ones we see in person, Susan claimed watching the test was boring. Of course, she claims that baseball is boring and I vehemently disagree with her on that too. Then again, these claims are coming from someone who bases their entire week around watching the unwatchable This is Us and Grey’s Anatomy – so go figure.

I’ll confess that watching the test was not riveting television, but I found it relaxing, informative and enjoyable. Keep in mind, there is nothing I find more pleasurable than going to a racetrack and just sitting watching race cars go by. I keep saying that one of these years, I’m going to stay in Indianapolis for the entire week of practice. I had talked about doing it this year, but when my job was outsourced to a new employer last fall – it meant that I lost all of my vacation time I had built up. So if I want to go to more races this season, I have to use what few vacation days I have sparingly.

This was not like watching a practice on a normal race weekend. There the pace seems somewhat frenetic, as teams usually only get a maximum three one-hour practices before qualifying. If a team rolls off the truck with the wrong setup they can spend those three practices simply playing catch-up, rather than making a few tweaks to move up the speed charts.

This was different. There was a much more relaxed feel that came through the streaming telecast. Like the pre-season in every sport, there was a lot of optimism. For now, all teams and drivers are even. Theoretically, the drivers from Carlin and Harding Racing have just as much as an opportunity for winning the championship as the drivers from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. Common sense tells us that’s not true, but for now – optimism abounds.

Streaming Coverage: If you tuned in and were expecting a polished telecast like what we might see on any given race weekend – you may have been surprised, as this was more bare-bones. But I kind of liked it. It had sort of an old school feel to it. There were no in-car cameras. In fact, there were only two cameras onsite – a camera situated high above Turn One that followed the cars all around the track, and a hand-held camera for interviews in the pits.

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Most of the on-air reporters were from the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network. Dave Furst anchored on Friday with Jake Query and Katie Hargitt in the pits. Saturday featured the “Voice of the 500” Mark Jaynes in the booth alongside Query and then Furst, while Hargitt was relieved halfway through the Saturday afternoon session by Query. Some of their guests in the booth included Bruce Martin, Paul Tracy and Scott Goodyear.

If you’re a baseball fan, you know that there is a lot of story-telling on the air to fill up time between pitches. Such was the case Friday and Saturday. Between Furst, Query and Jaynes – there were a lot of entertaining stories told.

As for the single camera – for the most part, it worked. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. The only time it really hurt them (and the viewers) was when Scott Dixon crashed with about twenty minutes to go in Saturday night’s practice. They missed the incident completely meaning there was no replay. By the time anyone noticed there was a yellow, Dixon’s car was already obscured by the inside wall exiting Turn Two, to the point they could not identify it. The only way the announcers knew it was Dixon was that they recognized his firesuit when he climbed into the Safety Vehicle.

Other than that and a few very understandable misidentifications due mostly to the new liveries (and hard to read numbers), they were able to get by with the one camera.

Streaming of practice is nothing new. I can remember in the early days of dialup internet, watching Indianapolis 500 practice. It was rare for a car to make a complete lap without an interruption for buffering. It was frustrating, but we were grateful for what we got. More recently, we’ve had mostly smooth uninterrupted high-definition streaming with the voices of the radio network piped in. For tests, we’ve usually gotten nothing until last year’s test at IMS for Fernando Alonso. That featured commentary specific for the streaming with various guests and analysts. It was a big hit among fans, so the good folks at IndyCar listened and vowed to give fans more coverage similar to that.

I’m hoping this serves as a good starting point. Maybe in the future they can cover more tests and have more cameras, but I think they found their sweet spot with their on-air talent. There weren’t too many different voices or too few. It was about right. Between the conversations in the booth and the interviews from the pits, they struck a very nice balance.

Amiable AJ: One of my personal favorites of the weekend, was the interview that Katie Hargitt conducted with AJ Foyt on Friday afternoon. Apparently other people liked it also, because they replayed it on Saturday. I don’t know if it was the Arizona weather, the fact that it was pre-season or if Foyt truly knows something – but Foyt was in an exceptionally good mood on Friday. Hargitt joked as she noticed that in this day of transponders and computers, Foyt was still using a hand-held stopwatch.

But on a more serious note, Foyt discussed the changes he made from last year. He acknowledged that he had good drivers last year (Carlos Muñoz and Conor Daly), but he felt that changes were needed if they wanted to move forward.

I had to chuckle as Foyt said he was tired of running tenth. Someone should have reminded Foyt that running tenth would be a nice goal for his new set of drivers, Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist. Last year, Muñoz and Daly combined for only ten Top-Ten finishes among thirty-four total starts between them.

But Foyt was all smiles and jokes in his interview. He praised Kanaan’s old-school driving style and said that Leist has been doing a good job as well. Every season at this time of year, we always talk about how the changes at Foyt are going to make a big difference this year. Then at the end of the season, it’s the same old story.

But it’s been a long time since Foyt has had a driver of Tony Kanaan’s caliber and experience driving for him. Some may point to Ryan Hunter-Reay’s time at Foyt, but that was when RHR was in the depths of his career and was still trying to find his way. I doubt if Kanaan will win a race for Foyt, but I do think he will make them much more competitive. Maybe AJ knows that and that’s why he was all smiles.

Kudos to Jake Query for spotting General Chuck Yeager sitting in AJ Foyt’s pit Saturday night and putting this photo of the two legends on Twitter afterwards. Yeager turns ninety-five tomorrow (Tue Feb 13). Compared to General Yeager, AJ is a relative spring chicken. He turned eighty-three last month.

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Four out of Five: Counting the rookie test on Thursday, there were actually five sessions altogether at ISM Raceway. Thursday was incident-free, including the windscreen test by Scott Dixon. Friday afternoon also had no incidents, but there was one spin on Friday night – by Foyt’s rookie driver, Matheus Leist. He spun but did not make contact with another car nor the wall.

Saturday had four incidents – the aforementioned crash by Scott Dixon coming out of Turn Two, and three more by Leist. He spun at least once more and (I think) hit nothing, but on two other occasions he rode up the banking and made contact with the wall. Nothing was bad, but the last one may have done some suspension damage. Whether or not that was the case, the crew decided the rookie had had enough for one night and pulled him out of the car.

So of the five incidents over the three-day stretch, four of them belonged to Matheus Leist. AJ may not have been so amiable by late Saturday night.

New Gadgets:  One thing that I was not aware of are some of the new things on the cars this year. One is the new steering wheel. Where the last one had an electronic digital display like numbers and letters on an alarm clock; the new wheel is almost like a television screen. The number size and fonts can change, along with various colors.

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The other change is on the actual LED panels behind the driver’s head that have been on the cars since mid-season 2015. Like the steering wheels; the new panels are bigger, can display multiple colors and bigger and brighter numbers, with more information or shapes. Some have suggested emojis be displayed. I’m not sure I’m hip enough to think that is a good idea, but I did like Graham Rahal displaying an American flag on his car while the car is at rest.

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What did we learn? As I said earlier, this was not like a race weekend where everyone was searching for speed. Different teams were looking for different things. Some probably were looking to post a quick lap, while other teams couldn’t care less how fast they ran coming out of this test. They were either looking to see how well the new car ran in traffic, how to find better balance in the setup or any number of things.

So while the teams and drivers probably learned a ton of things from their time at Phoenix, we fans probably didn’t learn a thing.

We know that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was fast. Takuma Sato was the fastest in three of the four sessions with veterans, while Graham Rahal was fastest in the other. Sato set the quickest time of the weekend at 189.855 mph. For comparison, last year’s pole speed for Helio Castroneves was 194.905. Tony Kanaan posted the third fastest time of the weekend for AJ Foyt, while Will Power was second quick for Team Penske.

We also know that the six slowest cars of the weekend were driven by Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton, both of Carlin; Gabby Chaves of Harding Racing, Ed Carpenter, James Hinchcliffe and Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing. It may not be a shock to see the cars of Carlin, Harding and Juncos at the bottom of the speed chart, but seeing Carpenter and Hinchcliffe among the slowest probably means they were working on something else besides speed.

One thing I’m afraid we may have learned is that passing is still hard to do in this car. Several drivers reported that it is still unsettling to approach a car that they were trying to overtake. That made the last two races in Phoenix rather boring. We were assured after last year’s snoozer that the new car would solve the problem. Right now, that doesn’t look so certain. Stay tuned.

All in all: As is usually the case, we probably wont have a clear picture of who has what until the first practice at St. Petersburg, in less than four weeks. That’s when things really get serious.

I’m not even sure what they called this test. Was it simply The Open Test? Was it Spring Training. Other times it has gone by catchy names like The Test in the West, or IndyCar Prix View. Whatever it was called, it was a welcome sight on an otherwise gloomy and rainy weekend.

As far as I’m concerned, the offseason is over. Some teams will test again at Sebring, but all the teams will get together for real in just a little over three and a half weeks. We’ve lasted this long since IndyCar last competed at Sonoma on September 17. I guess we can last just a little bit longer.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Random Thoughts On The Phoenix Open Test”

  1. HarveyPelovsky Says:

    I was at the Phoenix IndyCar test Saturday and let’s hope the race does not resemble the test. There was virtually no slicing and dicing on the track between the cars. Last year’s Phoenix race was a total bore fast and if they have another one it will be the last one. I don’t know why Indy cars can be so exciting on one track and another but that is for the engineers to work out.

    • Ever since they reconfigured PIR (SIM) whatever it is called, this has been the case. ISC ruined the track for IndyCars and it doesn’t matter how many millions they dump into it-this will be the case. This year will probably be the last race at Phoenix because it will be another snooze fest.

  2. BrandonW77 Says:

    While it is disappointing to see they might still struggle with overtaking, it was encouraging to see them lifting AND downshifting in the turns and the cars sliding around a bit more which means there’s more variability and chances for mistakes. Hopefully this will help to increase overtaking and make the race a bit more exciting. Regardless, it was nice to see cars on track on my tv again.

  3. I watched a little of the test and enjoyed seeing the drivers having to “drive” again. As for watching Nascar instead of the Olympics, my TV is programmed to go black automatically if a Nascar event appears on screen.

  4. Having watch most of the testing I came away with the fact other than tire testing nothing happened. Phoenix is what it is.Enjoyed the interviews.

  5. I wish I could have watched testing on my TV rather than my E-reader. I couldn’t get it to load. Taped videos worked but not live streaming. Sigh… Still it was easier to walk around and do this and that while watching and listening. Just don’t spill any guacamole on the screen. Olympics was taped and we didn’t watch it until the session was done on Saturday night. Now let’s get to real racing.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Did you try using Google Chrome to connect to the live streaming?

      Evidently the live streaming at Phoenix was linked/carried only by Google Chrome which we learned when we could not gain access to the live streaming using our Internet Explorer.

      .

  6. Mark J Wick Says:

    It was good to see Chuck Yeager there. I got to have lunch and a very interesting conversation with him at IMS the year he was the Pace Car driver.

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