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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Indy Lights Field Expands at Homestead

For much of the 2010 season, the Firestone Indy Lights Series has struggled to produce a solid car count. In the majority of races, only 14 cars have taken the green flag - four from Sam Schmidt Motorsports, two apiece with Team Moore Racing, Andretti Autosport/AFS Racing, and Bryan Herta Autosport, and single-car entries from Andersen Racing, PDM Racing, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, and Walker Racing.

However, the season-ending Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka 100 at Homestead-Miami Speedway will see a number of new faces and a handful of new entries, bring the car count up to 17.

Some of the "new" names on the grid are, in fact, not new to the series at all. Dillon Battistini will pilot the lone Bryan Herta Autosport entry in the race, the No. 28 Dallara, while Arie Luyendyk Jr. will race once again in the No. 24 Dallara of Alliance Motorsports. Meanwhile, Wade Cunningham will reprise his Freedom 100 cameo in Sam Schmidt's No. 77 Dallara, hoping to back up a victory in the series' biggest race with another in its season finale. Finally, Sean Guthrie will return to the series in Andersen Racing's No. 4 Dallara, running this race for that team for the second year in a row.

Davey Hamilton Racing is the big expansion entry for the weekend, as USAC drivers Brandon Wagner and Henry Clarke will drive their No. 32 and No. 34 Dallaras, respectively. Wagner has competed on and off in the series with Hamilton for the past couple of years, while Clarke will be making his series debut, fresh off his first career USAC Sprint Car win at the Toledo Speedway this past July.

Daniel Herrington's Indy Lights career has also been resurrected; after a pinch-hit performance for BHA at Kentucky, replacing the departed Sebastian Saavedra, Herrington will run the season finale in the No. 36 O2 Racing Technology Dallara. It will be O2's third event of the year, following starts with David Martinez at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma.

The creation of the No. 34 team for this event makes a grand total of 24 cars that have competed in at least one Firestone Indy Lights race this season. Those missing from the Homestead entry list include the No. 5 of Andersen Racing, the No. 6 of HVM Racing, the No. 8 of Michael Crawford Motorsports, the No. 17 of Team E, the No. 29 of Bryan Herta Autosport, and the Nos. 35 and 37 of Team PBIR.

Monday, September 27, 2010

IndyCar Teams Prepare For Homestead

No less than 11 IZOD IndyCar Series teams decided to utilize a Monday testing session at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in preparation for Saturday night's Cafes do Brazil Indy 300.

The top five drivers in IndyCar points - Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti of Chip Ganassi Racing, as well as Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves, and series leader Will Power of Team Penske - all took advantage of the open test session. Ganassi will look to win its third consecutive championship as a team, while its drivers will look to continue a stranglehold on the championship that began with Franchitti's 2007 title as a member of Andretti Green Racing. Meanwhile, Power will look to deliver owner Roger Penske his first IndyCar title since Sam Hornish accomplished the feat in 2006.

IndyCar mainstays A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing each brought their full-time programs to the track as well, with Vitor Meira and Justin Wilson lapping for the two teams, respectively. DRR also provided Ana Beatriz with a car for the test session, as she will replace the still-recovering Mike Conway in that team's second car for the finale.

Beatriz wasn't the only limited-program driver to take advantage of the session, however. Sarah Fisher took her team to the track, carrying a bright pink paint scheme on the No. 67 Dollar General Dallara-Honda in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Meanwhile, Ed Carpenter made laps on behalf of Vision Racing and their allies at Panther Racing. Finally, Sebastian Saavedra made his debut for Conquest Racing, driving a No. 36 Dallara-Honda sponsored by many of Saavedra's personal backers.

27 cars are on the entry list for Homestead, an exceptionally healthy number considering some of the smaller car counts of last season. Provided that everybody shows up, this year's season finale will feature four more cars than last year's event did, though rumors persist that the marginally funded HVM Racing have been locked out of their Indianapolis shop and may not make the event with driver Simona de Silvestro.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saavedra Returns to IndyCar at Homestead

After leaving Bryan Herta Autosport midway through the Firestone Indy Lights round at Kentucky Speedway, Sebastian Saavedra has landed on his feet for the Cafes do Brazil Indy 300, this year's IZOD IndyCar Series finale, at Homestead.

Saavedra will pilot the No. 36 Dallara-Honda for Conquest Racing, with the help of fan sponsorship contributions and a sponsor list that includes Laboratories Sumimed, Autoniza, Smart Life, Skullcandy, Mobil 1, Coldeportes, and Seringel, according to a tweet sent yesterday.

At Conquest, he will drive alongside Bertrand Baguette, team owner Eric Bachelart's pet project, who has progressed into a respectable IndyCar driver despite missing the first two races of the season and joining the series with zero prior oval experience. It will be Saavedra's second IndyCar race of the season, following an Indianapolis 500 appearance with BHA that saw him start last and finish 23rd after an accident.

Saavedra becomes the fourth driver to pilot Conquest's second car since Mario Romancini was let go due to funding issues. Prior to his signing, Francesco Dracone, Tomas Scheckter, and Roger Yasukawa have all driven the second car for the team, which typically brings on pay-drivers to make the grid due to a lack of sponsorship.

Meanwhile, Herta has not yet settled on a replacement driver for his Indy Lights team, though Daniel Herrington, the team's 2009 lead driver and Saavedra's last-minute replacement for Kentucky, will likely get the call.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beatriz Returns For Homestead Season Finale

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have announced that Ana Beatriz will drive the No. 24 Roll Coater Dallara-Honda in this year's IZOD IndyCar Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. Beatriz will make her fourth start of the season in the Cafes do Brazil Indy 300, the track's final IndyCar race before dropping from the schedule.

With Mike Conway focusing on completing his rehabilitation for the 2011 season instead of attempting the finale, the team needed to find a solid replacement driver, preferably one with race experience at DRR. Those fitting the criteria included Beatriz, Paul Tracy, Tomas Scheckter, and J.R. Hildebrand.

Beatriz has made three starts thus far this season, at Sao Paulo, Indianapolis, and Chicagoland. She finished 13th and on the lead lap in the Sao Paulo Indy 300, 21st at Indianapolis (completing 196 of 200 laps due to contact), and 24th at Chicago after a mechanical failure. None of those three events have seen her in the same car; she drove the No. 23 in Brazil, the No. 25 at Indianapolis, and the No. 24 at Chicago.

Her jump to IndyCar's highest level this year came after two consecutive seasons in Firestone Indy Lights, which saw her finish third and eighth in points, respectively, and score two race wins: the Sunbelt Rentals 100 at Nashville in 2008, and the Miller Lite 100 at Iowa last year.

Meanwhile, Conway has taken a conservative approach with his rehabilitation. He suffered a compression fracture in his back and a broken leg in a spectacular crash at the Indianapolis 500 in May. Rumors suggested that he could return to the car as soon as the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, but eventually the decision was made to wait. Conway's injuries have healed and he has adopted a rigorous training program to ensure that he will be 100% ready for next season's opener at St. Petersburg.

The No. 24 car was primed for a breakout season with Conway, but since the injury the revolving door of drivers have kept it decidedly mid-pack. The team has seen four top-10 finishes this year; three came from Conway in the season's first five races, while the fourth came with Graham Rahal at Iowa. Its best finish was an eighth place in the Sao Paulo season opener. Meanwhile, the car has seen DNFs at St. Petersburg (Conway), Indianapolis (Conway), Sonoma (Hildebrand), Chicago (Beatriz), and Motegi (Tracy).

It hasn't been all bad for DRR this season, however; new lead driver Justin Wilson has snagged two podium finishes and eight top-10s with only one DNF to rank a solid 10th in points. He also scored a pole at Toronto and led the most laps in that race. Also, DRR qualified four cars for the Indianapolis 500 for the second year in a row, albeit under less stressful circumstances than 2009's close calls.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

2011 IndyCar Driver Lineup Very Much Up in the Air

Other than existing contracts at the series' top three teams, the driver lineup for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season is still highly uncertain with a single race left to go in 2010.

Unlike in other major professional forms of motorsport, where most future driver contracts are signed before the current season is even finished, IndyCar often does not set its driver lineup until the first tests of the new season in February, and for some teams even later.

Right now, all that we know (or can reasonably expect to happen) are that Helio Castroneves and Will Power will return to Team Penske, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti will stick with Chip Ganassi Racing, Alex Tagliani has a long-term deal with FAZZT Race Team, and Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, and Marco Andretti are under contract with Andretti Autosport. Other than that, everything is up in the air.

The biggest speculation centers around the No. 6 Team Penske car. Speculation has risen that Ryan Briscoe, for the past three years that car's driver, will be out after a disappointing (by Roger Penske's standards) season. Briscoe had three wins and eight runner-up finishes last year, but a series of high-profile mistakes (his pit road miscue at Motegi last year, his crash in the lead while at Sao Paulo, and pushing his car too hard on cold tires at Indianapolis when in position to take a strategic victory) may cost him his job.

Some have suggested that an American driver will take over that ride once again, following in the footsteps of Sam Hornish Jr., who vacated it in 2007. The top two available drivers from the States are Graham Rahal, who has driven for just about anybody willing to put him in a car this season, and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has been the best driver all season not to run for Penske or Chip Ganassi. Michael Andretti is working hard to keep Hunter-Reay, but no definite prospects have worked out as of yet.

If Rahal doesn't wind up with Penske, his prospects elsewhere also appear strong. Ganassi has expressed interest in running a third car for Rahal, and may be able to offer a reunion with McDonald's, which sponsors Ganassi's Daytona 500-winning stock car with Jamie McMurray. Some have also whispered that Rahal has already signed a contract to drive the No. 4 National Guard car for Panther Racing, replacing Dan Wheldon. If none of these deals work out, Rahal's father, ex-Indianapolis 500 and CART champion Bobby Rahal, will try once again to secure the sponsorship to return his Rahal Letterman Racing team to full-time status.

Whether or not Rahal fills the No. 4, it appears to be the end for Wheldon and Panther, after Wheldon announced he was looking for a job in 2011 in his post-race interview at Kentucky. Wheldon may yet return to Panther, as the National Guard loves his tireless promotion of the organization, but both sides have often been frustrated with one another over the past two seasons. Other drivers in contention for the ride include J.R. Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter.

Despite his close ties with Honda, Wheldon could be headed for the Lotus-backed KV Racing Technology outfit, which appears to be on the verge of wholesale driver changes for 2011. KVRT cars have failed to finish 20 races, mainly due to drivers Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, and Mario Moraes getting in accidents, and Paul Tracy failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in a fourth car. In fact, the carnage has been so bad this year that Moraes' crash at Motegi was rumored to be caused by an old, failing part that KV had no choice but to run. Despite Sato's Honda connections getting him into the series, Viso's lucrative personal sponsorship deals, and Moraes' strong runs for the team in the past, all three may be gone in 2011.

Whether the team expanded from one car to three too quickly, the drivers simply weren't talented enough, or any other reason, KV appears a lock to downsize by at least one car for next year, especially if their bank account can no longer handle the wreckage. Owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser will look to bring in the best available drivers for next year, particularly those who don't tear up a lot of equipment.

Heading further down the line, things are even less certain than the up-in-the-air status of KVRT. Simona de Silvestro is a lock to return to the series in 2010, despite Formula 1 rumblings and an underfunded HVM Racing team. She and the team work well together, and both would like to reunite for next season, but her strong performances in what may be the oldest and heaviest Dallara chassis in the series may have larger teams knocking on her door for next season.

Raphael Matos signed a multi-year contract with de Ferran Dragon Racing before the 2009 season, but how many years that contract lasts is unknown. If Matos doesn't return to dFDR, the team may rely on its connections with series power players to find a replacement. They may be able to rely on co-owner Gil de Ferran's connections with Honda to pick up a manufacturer-supported driver, or on co-owner Jay Penske to convince father Roger to farm out Briscoe to the team once again. (Briscoe ran well for the team in the 2007 Indianapolis 500, placing fifth.)

de Ferran has also been interested in bringing Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, who drove alongside Power in the 2007 Champ Car World Series for Walker Racing, back into open-wheel. Pagenaud drove alongside de Ferran in the American Le Mans Series after that series shut down, but moved to Highcroft Racing after de Ferran went back to IndyCars. Highcroft may enter the Indianapolis 500 next year with Pagenaud, who has stated that he wants to get to Indy by 2012. They most recently attempted the race with Scott Sharp last year, in a partnership with Panther.

Speaking of Walker, that team plans to make a comeback of sorts next year, partnering with the owners of the former Team 3G. Richard Antinucci was the rumored 3G driver this year, while Dan Clarke and Jonathan Summerton drove for Walker in Firestone Indy Lights this season; all three are the most sensible candidates.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing look to return both Justin Wilson and Mike Conway from this season's lineup. Conway will be fully recovered from his back and leg injuries suffered at Indianapolis in May. Wilson may bolt to another team if a better offer arises, though few have been suggested at this point. Whether Wilson stays or goes, Ana Beatriz may join the team full-time; DRR have liked what they've seen from her in limited outings this year, and she is working diligently to secure the sponsorship to put her on the grid for all 17 races.

A handful of programs have been confirmed, but with few details known. Team Redline Xtreme, sponsored by an energy drink, is looking to run an Indy-only program with an existing team. Junior Strous will supposedly take his Shell sponsorship to the series in 2011, and a show car has already made the rounds in Europe. AFS Racing, which partners with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights, plans on stepping up to IndyCar with Adam Carroll, though sponsorship remains uncertain.

This leaves a handful of teams out of the silly season loop, most of them ex-Champ Car competitors: Newman/Haas Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Dale Coyne Racing, and Conquest Racing. Newman/Haas and Foyt seem likely to retain the services of Hideki Mutoh and Vitor Meira, respectively; Mutoh brings valuable sponsorship, while A.J. Foyt likes what he gets with Meira. Coyne and Conquest seem destined to take on at least one pay-driver apiece, though Conquest owner Eric Bachelart will likely fight to keep his Belgian countryman, the rapidly improving Bertrand Baguette, in a car.

The most interesting and wildly speculative rumors center around who will attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 on the same day next year, provided that the start time to the 500 is returned to its traditional earlier place. Bruton Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. (owners of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the 600 takes place, and host to as many as five IndyCar races next year), has talked about an idea of a $20 million prize to any driver who can win both events, which was conceptualized by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard early in his tenure.

While Dario Franchitti is the only IndyCar driver who may attempt both events, a handful of NASCAR drivers may try to do the double. Richard Petty Motorsports has campaigned IndyCars the past two years for John Andretti, and may attempt to run ex-Champ Car stalwart A.J. Allmendinger in both races. Robby Gordon frequently used to attempt the double before the races' start times were moved, and may be interested in doing it again; he had tried to hook up with Derrick Walker for this year's race. However, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya, perhaps the biggest names in NASCAR that have run the 500 before, are not interested.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Indy Japan 300

Helio Castroneves led 153 out of 200 laps from the pole to take the victory in the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi on Sunday.

It was Castroneves' third IZOD IndyCar Series win of the 2010 season, coming in the series' penultimate race. It was also Castroneves' second consecutive win, after taking the honors at Kentucky. The Brazilian Team Penske driver also won at Barber Motorsports Park earlier this year.

Castroneves won his 25th major American open-wheel race in dominant fashion, handily beating his Chip Ganassi Racing rival Dario Franchitti and Penske teammate Will Power. Ryan Briscoe and 2008 winner Danica Patrick rounded out the top five, with defending race winner Scott Dixon directly behind in sixth.

Franchitti, who clinched the A.J. Foyt Oval Championship in this race by 16 points over Franchitti, positioned himself to make a run for his second consecutive IndyCar title at Homestead in two weeks. Franchitti now trails Power by a mere 12 points in the overall standings with only the Homestead-Miami Speedway race to go.

The race was hindered in the final stages by a 19-lap caution to clean up debris spread by a major crash in turn two. Alex Lloyd dragged parts down the backstretch before finally coming to rest a long way from where he initially hit the wall. It was Lloyd's second caution of the day, after an early race caution had already cost him 16 laps in repairs.

Lloyd was not the only driver to make friends with the wall in Japan on the weekend of Friendship Day. Bertrand Baguette received terminal damage on the second lap of the race, while Mario Moraes only completed a third of the distance before hitting the wall. Moraes was removed from his car and put on a stretcher as he complained of back pain.

Three Japanese drivers took part in the race: Takuma Sato, Hideki Mutoh, and American-born Roger Yasukawa. All three completed the race; Sato finished 12th, Mutoh came home 14th, and Yasukawa placed 20th, five laps down. It was Sato's first IndyCar race in front of his home fans, Mutoh's first race in front of his father, and Yasukawa's first race of the season after previously spotting for Sato during oval races.

Only three drivers managed to lead laps during the event: Castroneves, Briscoe, and Raphael Matos, who inherited the lead by not pitting during the Moraes caution. However, an alternate pit strategy early did Matos no good later on, as he fell to 18th, the last car on the lead lap. Most drivers ended up finishing close to their starting positions, with Patrick (12th to 5th), Graham Rahal (16th to 8th), and Alex Tagliani (23rd to 13th) the three biggest gainers on the day.

The IZOD IndyCar Series will close out its 17-race schedule with the October 2 season finale at Homestead, the Cafes do Brazil 300. Franchitti took this race and the season championship with it last year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Indy Japan 300

With only two races remaining in the IZOD IndyCar Series season, a good starting position is key to establishing yourself out front for the duration of each event.

Team Penske took this philosophy to heart in qualifying for the Indy Japan 300, placing drivers Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, and Will Power in the first three starting positions.

Power, the championship leader will share the second row with Dario Franchitti, his closest championship rival. The two drivers are separated by a mere 17 points going into the final two races, by no means an insurmountable deficit.

Behind them, Andretti Autosport's top three drivers, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, took the fifth through seventh starting spots. The KV Racing Technology cars of E.J. Viso and Japanese favorite Takuma Sato took eighth and 10th, respectively, with only Panther Racing's Dan Wheldon between them. Sato's recovery was a fine run considering he had suffered a practice incident earlier in the day.

Posting somewhat disappointing qualifying runs were Scott Dixon, who will line up 11th, and 2008 race winner Danica Patrick, who will start this year's running in 12th. But the field was competitive - 23 of the 25 drivers in the event qualified within one second of polesitter Castroneves, with the lone exceptions Simona de Silvestro and Milka Duno.

Time zones always make the logistics of the race interesting for the American fans at home. Qualifying took place at 3:40 PM local time, which translates to 2:40 AM Eastern time. Meanwhile, the race broadcast on Versus begins at 11:00 PM on Saturday night. Many fans, especially those on the east coast, will either have to DVR the event or alter their sleeping schedules to enjoy the race.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Interview: Jonathan Summerton - America's Next Great Formula 1 Hope

The past decade has been frustratingly difficult for the American Formula 1 fan. A much-hyped event at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway dropped off the schedule after 2005's Michelin tire debacle, which saw only the six Bridgestone-shod competitors contest the race. American driver search winner Scott Speed flamed out with Scuderia Toro Rosso and now races stock cars.

Last year saw no North American races on the grid at all, and with two American-based teams unsuccessful in bids to join the sport, a period that started off with so much promise has led to a bleak present for the sport stateside.

Jonathan Summerton is aiming to change all that.

The 22-year-old Kissimmee, Florida native has been making quite a name for himself by winning races and contending for championships across the globe. Summerton took America's lone win in the national team-oriented A1 Grand Prix championship, winning the spring 2008 feature race at Shanghai.

He scored four wins in last year's Atlantic Championship, tying season champion John Edwards in points (Edwards took the tiebreaker with one more second-place), and posted strong finishes while moonlighting with Andersen Racing in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. These performances attracted the attention of both potential American-based F1 entrants, and he was working closely with the Cypher Group on an F1 program for next year.

Off track, Summerton connects with his fans better than most drivers. He frequents Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, giving his fans an inside look into the life of a professional race car driver.

While visiting Louisiana State University, Summerton took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us.


Let’s start with the basics. How did you first get into racing? When did you decide that you wanted to do it professionally?

JS: I started racing in Go Karts when I was 12 and well basically from day one I was set on being a World Champion and making a career out of it. I love racing it's my passion and life.

You've had experience racing in Formula BMW, Formula 3, and A1GP, traveling across the globe to do so. How did racing (and winning) in those three series shape you as a driver? Do the drivers, teams, and fans over in Europe treat racing differently than they do here in the States?

JS: Well of course over there, there are a lot more people who know and live for racing but the excitement in America is very similar. Driving all over the world in those series was amazing and was an experience of a lifetime. It has helped me learn to travel and depend on myself more and keep myself motivated while on the road. It also has helped me build a family with my teams. It is great and I really enjoy bringing the team together and having a family on the road.

Last year was one of the best of your career, with some strong Indy Lights finishes and almost winning the Atlantic title. Do you attribute last year's success to anything in particular? Looking back on it, does any one race in particular stand out?

JS: Well for me everything was great. I am determined to be the best and win in whatever I do. It was also great last year having so many people behind me supporting me and well of course just having my fans behind me and friends and family has always helped and motivated me more and more everyday. Without them I wouldn't be the person I am today. It was a great season and I really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately we haven't seen too much of you this year. What have you been doing to pass the time?

JS: Haha well been keeping busy training hard and working hard on finding sponsors. I have had a lot of deals come and go that many haven't heard of but as many know was working on a deal with Cypher Group for F1 and well we were almost there but decided we wanted to have everything ready to go when we do it. I know they will be back and well they are a great group of people and was great working with them. Now I am concentrating on finding funding for next year.

Have you had any luck on the sponsorship front? A lot of teams have been taking on pay drivers in recent years to pay the bills. Do you see that trend continuing in the near future, or do you think things are primed for a turn around?

JS: Well I think this is where racing needs to change up a little cause a few years ago teams were wanting the best drivers and had sponsors behind them now it seems they are struggling just like the drivers and well of course money is key now. I am working feverishly to find sponsors and it's just part of the job :)

You’ve worked with a number of the top teams in Atlantic and Indy Lights over the past couple of years, as well as some top teams in your time in Europe. Did you have a favorite team to work with, or a team that you felt you worked best with?

JS: Well all of them have been great. I would never say there was a best as they all had different qualities but I will say working with A1GP Team USA was a fun and exciting experience every time traveling the world together with them.

You’re also one of only a handful of drivers to have run in both the current Dallara Indy Lights chassis and the Swift Atlantic car. Was one of those cars easier to drive than the other? More fun to drive? More reliable?

JS: I would have to say they were both really fun. The Swift could have done with more power but they both had their own aspects that were fun. I must say I haven't found a car I didn't enjoy driving. They are all racecars and what can I say driving is fun!

Have you been keeping up with this year’s Formula 1 and IndyCar seasons? What do you think about the way things have been going this year?

JS:Yeah of course. Racing is what I live, breathe, and eat! Things are very exciting in both series. I gotta say the new Indy Car is looking great and what Randy is doing there is great. I hope sponsors come on board there and help the series become bigger again. F1 now that is just awesome to have 5 drivers as close as they are fighting for the title. Very exciting!

An American-based Formula 1 team, USF1, was supposed to join the grid this year, with no luck. Another entry (Cypher) wasn’t granted entry for 2011. Now there are rumblings that the new track in Austin is going to be behind schedule, and that traffic will be outrageous. Why do you think Formula 1 is having such a hard time stabilizing itself in the United States? As a driver with F1 aspirations, do you see this as a hindrance to your goals, or does it only motivate you more to make it to that level?

JS: Well with Cypher actually they withdrew their entry as we were wanted to have everything ready and well we didn't so to be fair to the others and FIA we withdrew. As for F1 it is a very hard gig to get into. High in cost and lots of work to do so. Of course not having any major things of F1 happening for America in teams, tracks, and drivers it is very hard to break in but it can be done and hopefully I will do it!

As far as drivers go, you have a pretty strong online presence - you use Twitter and YouTube a lot, and interact with your fans as much as possible. What's your favorite part of using social media as a driver? Do you think other drivers will come to embrace it as you do in the near future?

JS: Interacting with fans is fun and I love doing it. You get to hear outside stories, hear about their opinions and what they want to see and well of course build up a support group. I can't express enough how I enjoy bringing fans into my shoes and letting them tell me what they want to see cause I know there's lots of cool and interesting things in racing. I can't say it enough though I am always trying to get new fans and followers on Facebook, youtube, and twitter as I love filling people in on what they want to know about the sport and my life.

What's the best piece of advice a fellow competitor ever gave you about racing? And what advice would you offer young drivers looking to follow in your footsteps?

JS: Stay focused and never let any door close. Always stay grounded and remember where you came from! Never miss an opportunity! Go out there and do your best interact with everyone and enjoy every minute. You have to believe in yourself first before others will!

Anything else you'd like to tell your fans and readers?

JS: Thank you for all their support and feel free to chat to me on Facebook or twitter and send me any suggestions or things they would like to hear about or know more about for my future videos on youtube! My fans mean the world to me and are the ones who have believed in me and kept me pushing on towards my dreams and I want to say a big THANK YOU to them and everyone for their support.

Finally, what do you think the future holds for you? And what do you think the future holds for American open-wheel racing in general?

JS: Can't really say all I know is a world championship I am sure ;) As for American open wheel racing I am sure things will become strong again we all just have to come together.


We'd like to say a big THANK YOU to JS for taking the time to talk to us. You can check out his personal website at http://www.formulajon.com, his Twitter account at @JSummerton, and his YouTube channel jsummertonusa.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Verizon to Expand IndyCar Commitment?

Sirius Speedway, the weekday afternoon radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio's NASCAR channel, is reporting that Verizon Wireless will leave Team Penske's NASCAR Nationwide Series team and driver Justin Allgaier in order to shift marketing funds to the IZOD IndyCar Series.

The New Jersey-based company recently signed a deal to become an official IndyCar sponsor, with the figures rumored at $1 million per year. The deal also includes branding on IndyCar's mobile website, hosted at mobile.indycar.com, and a new IndyCar application that can be downloaded to Verizon Wireless phones.

It appears that the extra money that used to go to Penske's NASCAR program will head to their IndyCar program, which currently comprises Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, and Will Power. Power's car carries Verizon primary sponsorship, while Castroneves and Briscoe carry the Verizon logo as a major associate sponsor.

Verizon's NASCAR commitment also included an unbranded sponsorship of Brad Keselowski's Sprint Cup car, inherited when the company bought out Alltel. Sprint Cup rules do not allow for other wireless companies to change logos on their car to reflect mergers and buyouts, so Verizon honored the existing contract with a basic paint scheme and the Penske logo on the car.

Verizon eventually became frustrated with their inability to activate their NASCAR sponsorship. They cannot market at Cup races using Cup drivers, which is why Keselowski's Nationwide car is not the Verizon car. Power and Allgaier were featured in a handful of commercials, but the focus after the skits has recently shifted to the IndyCar Mobile app.

With their NASCAR sponsorship contracts running out this year, they are looking to better promote the brand in the world of motorsports, and Penske's IndyCar team may be the proper outlet. Castroneves and Briscoe have driven without primary sponsorship this year, after a handful of years of unbranded Marlboro sponsorship. Similar to Verizon's NASCAR deal, Marlboro was not allowed to place their logos on the cars, and a few years of skirting the regulations by renaming the team Marlboro Team Penske came to an end. Parent company Philip Morris ended their 19-year association with Penske after last season.

Verizon sponsorship of Castroneves and Briscoe for next season would secure the sponsorship of each of the series' current top five cars, and eight of the top nine. The lone exception would be Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has done wonders as the pitchman for series sponsor IZOD but has never been covered by them for a full year, and Andretti Autosport, who already have three other fully-funded cars for next season.

IndyCar History: Twin Ring Motegi

This weekend, the IZOD IndyCar Series makes its second and final trip outside of North America for the 2010 season. Teams have loaded their equipment up in crates for shipment to Japan, where they will run at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in the Indy Japan 300, the series' penultimate race.

Motegi was built during a much different time for American open-wheel racing. Engine supplier Honda built it in 1997 as a way to attract the powerhouse CART series to learn more about their cars. It features two tracks: the only purpose-built superspeedway oval in all of Japan, and a road course built through and around the oval. The oval most closely resembles American track Darlington Raceway, as one of its corners is pushed in tighter than the others.

Though their entry into CART with Bobby Rahal in 1994 had proven unsuccessful, Honda were a championship-winning manufacturer by their third season, winning the 1996 championship with Jimmy Vasser and Chip Ganassi Racing. The success of Honda, as well as the entry of Japanese competitor Toyota, generated interest in a Japanese race for the CART series.

The first race at Motegi was held on March 28, 1998, between events at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Honda driver Vasser took pole for the inaugural event, but Adrian Fernandez won in a Patrick Racing Reynard-Ford. Fernandez also took the victory in 1999.

For 2000, the race was moved to the middle of May, conflicting with the IRL and Indianapolis 500 time trials. Michael Andretti won the event that year, in his final season with longtime owners Newman/Haas Racing. The next season, ex-IRL champion Kenny Brack won the race driving for Team Rahal. This meant that the first four Japanese CART events were all taken by drivers in Fords.

2002 would prove no better. Bruno Junqueira won the race driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, but by this time the ex-Honda powerhouse had switched to rival Toyota power. The top Honda in the race, driven by Dario Franchitti, finished one lap down in third. A bright spot of the weekend was the strength of Tony Kanaan, whose Mo Nunn Racing Honda sat on the outside pole and led 72 laps, more than any other driver did in the race. Kanaan finished 15th, however, as his engine gave out after 121 laps.

2003 marked the debut of the Motegi event as an IndyCar event, switching allegiances as Honda left CART to join the less expensive IRL and once again compete in the Indianapolis 500. Toyota had Honda's number for much of the season; while Honda driver Gil de Ferran won the Indianapolis 500 with Team Penske, Toyota won the series title with Scott Dixon, and the Indy Japan 300 with Scott Sharp.

It would take seven years for a Honda to finally win a Motegi event, as Dan Wheldon took the victory from the pole. Hondas prepared by Andretti Green Racing finished 1-2, as Kanaan took second in the event. Since this groundbreaking victory, Hondas have never failed to win the Indy Japan 300 (although many of the past few seasons have featured only Honda as the engine manufacturer).

In 2005, the last year of multiple engine manufacturers in the IRL, Hondas took the top six spots at Motegi, a banner day for the manufacturer. Up to that point, her fourth-place finish at Motegi in 2005 was the best of Danica Patrick's young career.

2006 and 2007 saw wins by Helio Castroneves and Kanaan, respectively; Kanaan's was marked by a conservative fuel strategy that allowed him to win the race by drafting other cars since the start and coasting to the win as others had to pit.

2008 marked the first year of open-wheel reunification, but scheduling issues meant that not everybody in the IndyCar Series would be running at Motegi. Instead, the former Champ Car World Series teams would be in Long Beach, contesting that series' final event and sending off their Panoz-Cosworth machines in style. The IndyCar mainstays would head to Japan and contest the race.

Once again, fuel strategy was the name of the game, and once again, an Andretti Green car would take victory. This time, however, it was Patrick, scoring the first win by a female driver in major professional open-wheel racing. It remains her only career race win to date.

Last year the event was moved to September, yielding to the longer-established Long Beach event. It was the first time the event had been held any later than May 19. Scott Dixon won from the pole, followed by teammate Dario Franchitti, the two Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing machines of Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia, and Mario Moraes of KV Racing Technology. That race marks the last appearance of Servia in an open-wheel racecar to date.

Motegi races have also featured a number of Japanese drivers (or drivers of Japanese heritage) in one-off deals. Last year, Kosuke Matsuura made his first IndyCar start since Chicagoland in 2007, finishing 17th for Conquest Racing. Meanwhile, Japanese-American Roger Yasukawa frequently puts together one-race deals to drive at Motegi. He finished 14th in 2008 for what is now Team 3G, and 20th last year in a third car for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. This year, he will take his talents to Conquest, alongside their lead driver, Bertrand Baguette.

This year's event will also feature the Motegi debut of another Japanese driver, KVRT's Takuma Sato. Sato spent the majority of eight seasons in Formula 1, all in cars powered by Honda. Sato will have a different spotter for the event, however, as Yasukawa has been serving as Sato's eye in the sky for the majority of the season while working on race deals.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Opinion: 2011 Schedule Slightly Incomplete

IZOD IndyCar Series drivers and personnel gathered at the Milwaukee Mile this morning to announce the series' 2011 schedule. CEO Randy Bernard, flanked by current drivers Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe and a handful of key track executives, announced the 17-race plan for next year.

As Robin Miller unveiled to SpeedTV.com a couple of days ago, the new schedule dropped all traces of events at tracks owned by the International Speedway Corporation, replacing them with events at Baltimore, New Hampshire, the Mile, and a to-be-announced oval season finale that will likely go to Las Vegas.

It's a solid schedule that captures many of the sport's historic best tracks. It sacrifices the intense pack racing of Chicagoland, something akin to a superspeedway race in NASCAR, for the trickier, more demanding short and flat ovals at New Hampshire and Milwaukee. It preserves many of the sport's best events while also adding Baltimore, which (if all goes to plan) will become sort of a Long Beach East, and a Labor Day weekend staple. Even more interesting is the choice to make the Indianapolis 500 the first oval race of the year.

And yet something feels missing with a 17-race schedule.

It's true that the past few years have featured some of the largest schedules ever sanctioned by the Indy Racing League. But recall that the IRL was for many years the underdog to CART, a more established series with many bigger names. If you consider the heyday of modern American open-wheel racing to be CART under FedEx sponsorship from 1998 to 2002, you'll notice that the schedule always featured at least 19 events. The series even went up to 21 races on some occasions.

A lot of CART's best tracks - Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, and Road America, to name three - have been left off of this year's schedule, to the disappointment of many fans. All three tracks put on some fantastic shows in their CART tenures, and while it is important to note that the Dallara IndyCar is an entirely different racecar than the Lolas and Reynards that used to run in CART, many of the same drivers (in fact, eight of the top 13 in CART's 2002 points) are now involved in the IRL as drivers or team owners.

Of course, Bernard understands that the IRL was originally designed as an ovals-only series, meant to combat the dearth of foreign drivers that were winning races and championships in CART. (The last American CART champion was Jimmy Vasser in 1996.) He's done his best to balance the ovals and road courses on the current schedule, currently settling on an eight oval, nine road course tilt that is in many ways no different from this year's. It's not at all a bad schedule.

But people have commented recently that enough interest exists from tracks and promoters to feasibly put on 24 races. Perhaps this is infeasible for the teams, which have been taking on pay-drivers for a number of years now to stay afloat, but with such interest, you begin to wonder why 20 events are not possible, at the very least.

This would also open up the series to return to the two big ovals at Michigan and California. While they are both ISC tracks, and ISC has been somewhat of an unwilling partner with the series at times (remember, they are the same family in charge of NASCAR), the Michigan and California events almost always produced good racing. One of the more popular ideas among fans over the past couple of months was the idea of a "Triple Crown" of IndyCar - three 500-mile races at Michigan, California, and Indianapolis. It'd eradicate the dumb, old IRL policy that only the Indy 500 could be a 500-mile event, and it'd drum up significant interest.

Adding Laguna Seca and replacing the often-panned Mid-Ohio with Road America would set us at a 20-race schedule, perhaps one of the best in American open-wheel history. Almost all of the stinkers would be gone, save for Edmonton, which may yet be turned around by a solid race promoter.

Granted, Bernard and his staff are still attempting to bring the series out of the depths of bush league. It's a long process to bring in some of these races, and with many pre-existing contracts in place, it's a costly endeavor to cancel some races and then attempt to negotiate others. If the fans were guaranteed to step up and attend those new races, make them profitable, and make thew series a little more relevant in the sporting world as we know it, it'd be one thing, but we have no guarantees on that front.

In the meantime, it looks like we'll have to take this 17-race schedule, appreciate what we're getting, and hope that 2012 brings an even better group of events.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

2011 IndyCar Schedule Announcement Tomorrow

After returning from a trip to Europe and numerous meetings with prominent foreign car manufacturers, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard will announce the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule tomorrow at the Milwaukee Mile.

The location of the announcement and the presence of recent Mile winners Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon (not to mention IndyCar legend and four-time Mile winner Johnny Rutherford) seem to indicate that the track will return to the IndyCar schedule after a one-year hiatus necessitated by outstanding fees owed to multiple sanctioning bodies.

Meanwhile, all four tracks owned by the International Speedway Corporation that hosted or will host IndyCar events this year - Kansas, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, and Homestead - look to be off the 2011 schedule. Watkins Glen president Michael Printup confirmed the rumors, although he was optimistic about a return in 2012.

In their place will be the aforementioned Milwaukee event, a return to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a new street race in Baltimore, and - if all goes to Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith's plan - a season finale at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, though negotiations are still ongoing about that event.

Smith, whose company also owns IndyCar tracks New Hampshire, Kentucky Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, and Infineon Raceway, has replaced ISC as the series' top promoter. The addition of Las Vegas to the schedule would give SMI five events (six if you count Texas' doubleheader as two races). However, if Bernard and Smith cannot work out a deal, the series has an outside chance of returning to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, which would then be the lone ISC track on the schedule.

Like this year's schedule, the probable 2011 event list is almost broken up into "quarters" that will allow teams to focus on a single discipline of racing. This year, the series began with four road course events, switched to four ovals, went back to five road courses, and is finishing up now with four oval events. Once again, IndyCar will start with four and four in 2011, but the road courses will be split into blocks of three and two with the addition of Loudon to the schedule.

SpeedTV.com insider Robin Miller reports that the schedule will be as follows:

March 27: Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Streets of St. Petersburg
April 10: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, Barber Motorsports Park
April 17: 37th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Streets of Long Beach
May 1: Sao Paulo Indy 300, Streets of Sao Paulo
May 29: 95th Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
June 11: Firestone Texas Two-Step, Texas Motor Speedway
June 19: TBA 250, Milwaukee Mile
June 25: Iowa Corn Indy 250, Iowa Speedway
July 10: Honda Indy Toronto, Streets of Toronto
July 24: Honda Indy Edmonton, Edmonton City Centre Airport
August 7: Honda 200, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
August 14: TBA 200, New Hampshire Motor Speedway
August 28: Peak Antifreeze Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County, Infineon Raceway
September 4: Baltimore Grand Prix, Streets of Baltimore
September 18: Indy Japan 300, Twin Ring Motegi
October 2: Kentucky Indy 300, Kentucky Speedway
October 16: TBA 300, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

The new schedule vacates the Independence Day weekend, moving up the Toronto date a week to better spread the series through the month of July. However, date-wise, the schedule remains very similar to this year's, with the only key difference being that the season will start and end two weeks later. Sao Paulo, which opened the season, moves to Kansas' old race date; Las Vegas is tacked on after the Kentucky event, which has been moved back a month.

Bernard has also had talks with Phoenix International Raceway, though a return to the desert probably will not come to fruition for 2011. Meanwhile, a handful of tracks and promoters have set their sights on 2012 race dates, including ex-CART/Champ Car hosts Michigan International Speedway, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and Road America; street race promoters in Calgary, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, and Quebec City; and a possible race at a proposed 400,000-seat oval in China. (It should be noted here that Champ Car attempted to stage a race at the Zhuhai circuit in China, but that event never took place after three years of failed attempts.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Identity Crisis: Blogger Edition

Before I begin, I’d like to thank Christopher for letting me take over his blog. By “take over,” I mean, letting me post some random bit of whimsical insanity that is only sort of related to IndyCar-esque things. In this case, “sort of” is defined as however much I want it to be. Also of note, my old work was reposted to "To the Limit" so you don't even need to bother checking out my old page... I mean, just in case you had the urge. This was a fun post to write so I hope you enjoy it as well. Oh yeah, I came up with these comparisons, so if you don’t like it, don’t blame Christopher or anything lame like that. -C.

As an IndyCar blogger, it is difficult to find a niche for one’s blog. One, there’s a lot of really great ones and secondly, they have quite a range in approaches. You’ve got straight up news, obnoxious humor, historical pieces, and a host of other things. Where does someone like me fit in? Or any other blogger? To answer this question, I’ve taken a cue from the stars of the IndyCar series and matched them with their blogger equivalent.
Roy Hobbson of The Silent Pagoda. He is rarely seen having an identity crisis. But when he does, you realize it’s because he actually knows what he’s doing even though he’s full of sh-, I mean, bravado most of the time. But, for the sake of my purpose here, Roy strangely resembles PT if you age him, make him mostly unemployed, and with less hair.
George Phillips of Oilpressure. The moment you read a line of text of George’s work, you know it’s good. Not only is it good writing, it’s also thorough. Not only is it thorough, it’s also precise and well-articulated. Sound familiar? A description of one man’s work (writing) can only draw comparison with another; The Captain, himself: Roger Penske.
Tony Johns of PopOffValve. For awhile, I didn’t know who Tony was like. Then, I settled on Will Power for him because they both rock at what they do. Even so, that didn’t seem like enough to make it work. And then, I was tipped off that he is “Mr. Nickname” and had bestowed the nickname “Briscoe Inferno” on Ryan Briscoe. After hearing of wit like that, I was sold. I mean, if Power, when asked what he might name his child could deadpan “horse power,” that’s enough of a display of wit for me!
Bill Zahren aka Pressdog. Everyone knows who he is and respects him. He’s got a sense of humor but is also known for providing insightful content. Not only that, but to form an analogy, Pressdog is to bloggers as Kanaan is to drivers. End of story.
Chris Estrada of Indy Racing Revolution. Yet another blogger that has been around for awhile and is pretty well-known, Chris blends a business-like approach with a healthy dose of opinion. I happen to be particularly fond of his “bean machine” posts. Anyway, Helio is much the same, especially given that Helio was one of the first CART regulars to find his way to the IRL full time and back to Indy.
Steph of More Front Wing. If anyone could be compared to Simona, it’s Steph. She’s got this knack for stating her opinions in kind yet firm manner all while being informative. Her assertiveness has quickly endeared her to many IndyCar fans. Does the idea of endearment sound familiar? I think I’m seeing a resemblance.
Monica Hilton aka the_race_gIRL. Brash, bold, and popular... there isn’t a driver quite like her! I think that’s what makes her rock so much. Aside from her hilarious blog posts, of course! If anyone could compare to her, it would be Sarah Fisher. Hells to the yeah!
Christopher Leone of Open Wheel America (aka HERE!). I think I got distracted by the reading the word “America” in his blog title and just inserted RHR because he’s becoming the poster boy for American open wheel drivers. However, my sources tell me that Christopher only wears IZOD clothing. In light of the fact that IZOD is a personal sponsor of RHR, perhaps IZOD should sponsor him as well. (Editor's note: It's true. Bought three new shirts today. LOVE YOU, IZOD!)
James Black of 16th and Georgetown. Never has a more fitting character been found for someone than Scott Dixon for him. He runs a straight up news blog, presents the news quickly and efficiently with little fanfare.
Paul of More Front Wing. Like Wilson, Paul quietly gets the job done. People don’t complain about him and you don’t hear of people disrespecting him. What’s really funny to me, though, is the realization that I picked a road/street driver for a blogger who favors ovals. Nevermind that I was totally going for the irony...

Will McCarty of "Is it May yet?" . For this one, I'm paying homage to his photo-shopping skillz (yes, with a "z"- get over it!). His most infamous images are that of the Son of the 'Stache- Graham Rahal. As such, those images have become synonymous with Will. Therefore, I pick Rahal for Will.
Jeff Iannucci of My Name is IRL. Although he has been unable to blog for awhile now, I feel Jeff needs a place on this list. Given that he is, as he hopes, temporarily out of commission, I see a definite comparison to Dario Franchitti. Dario stepped away from IndyCar for a season only to return as the driver to beat every week. Not only that, but as a seasoned veteran, he has assumed a prominent role among drivers in which he is highly respected. Same goes for Jeff; he was one of the first IndyCar bloggers and as such, he has the respect of many of us. Also, if he is ever able to make a comeback, it’ll be in a manner similar to Franchitti’s.
That one chick from To the Limit. Wait, that’s me! As much as I really would like to compare myself to Simona, there are other bloggers much more worthy. Besides, I actually had a startling realization while thinking about this. I could be Milka. Think of it this way, folks. I am a college student who plans to emerge from post-secondary education in eight-ish years, at which point I will have earned three degrees in an area that would not assist me in racing one bit. I have a sincere love of the sport and share that with people. Perhaps Milka should take a hint and start blogging?

Open Wheel America Adds Catie Rinderknecht

Open Wheel America would like to extend a warm welcome to Catie Rinderknecht, who will be joining the OWA team of writers effective immediately.

Catie has been blogging on the sport for quite a while now and frequently attends IZOD IndyCar Series races at the Iowa Speedway. Off track, she's a violin performance major and an Iowa Hawkeye. Catie's posts bring a fresh and interesting perspective on the sport, and I have it on good word that she has a couple of real fun and interesting ones coming up in the future. Stay tuned!

Adding Catie is the first step we at OWA hope to take towards becoming the premiere website for American open-wheel racing. Catie's posts range from news to opinion pieces and often take intriguing and unexpected turns - one of the main reasons why she was the first new author to be added to the site. Adding an author with a fresh perspective only helps the site diversify and grow. In the end, we all win - especially the readers, who have something new to look forward to from this day on.

Catie's most recent work can be found at To the Limit, one of the first blogs to actually link to OWA. Her old work can be found here. And finally, you can follow her on Twitter here.

Once again, welcome to the team, Catie!

Christopher Leone

Opinion: Something's Gotta Give at Andretti

It's been a story all year, but things may finally be coming to a boiling point between the four full-time IZOD IndyCar Series drivers at Andretti Autosport.

Kentucky seemed to bring out the worst in the team, when their three lead drivers - Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, and Marco Andretti - all began to race each other like rivals and not teammates. In fact, while Kanaan gave a hearty congratulations to third-place finisher Dan Wheldon after the race, he had nothing for his AA teammates.

It's a far cry from 2005, when the dream team of Kanaan, Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, and Bryan Herta swept the top four spots at St. Petersburg, won the Indianapolis 500 with Wheldon, and otherwise destroyed all competition.

Last year was AA's first winless season in IndyCar. Patrick may have finished a career-best fifth in points, but she couldn't find victory lane as she had in Motegi two years ago. This led to a massive restructuring of the business formerly known as Andretti Green Racing, with the "Green" (Kim Green and Kevin Savoree) taking over the race promotion aspect of the business and team owner/namesake Michael Andretti continuing to operate the race team.

The results have been better this year - Kanaan won at Iowa, while new driver/IZOD darling Ryan Hunter-Reay took the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, and Andretti rank sixth, seventh, and eighth in points, respectively - the best drivers in the series not to be employed by Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske.

But Patrick's been woefully off the pace, regularly finishing towards the back in road and street course events and not giving strong oval performances consistently enough to put her in the top 10 in points. It's been a trying year for the all-world media personality anyway, with her well-documented stock car struggles adding to the problem, but a six-position drop in the standings after last year's consistent run is a huge problem.

The worst part for Andretti is that all three of these feuding drivers are locked into their contracts for the foreseeable future, while the team's other drivers are looking for the right sponsorship combinations.

Patrick's contract runs through next year and contains an option for 2012, though you wonder if she'll attempt to jump to NASCAR full-time if the money is right. Andretti has a long-term deal that is basically guaranteed by nature of his father owning the team. Kanaan and the 7-Eleven team have been together since 2003, making them one of the longest-tenured driver and team combinations in the sport.

Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay's future remains uncertain for the umpteenth consecutive year due to sponsor concerns. Andretti also has under contract an Irish driver by the name of Adam Carroll, whose prowess in A1GP should have landed him a ride in Formula 1 this year. Andretti, which operated the American team in the nationality-based racing series, became familiar with the driver as he won the series' final championship. Current Andretti Firestone Indy Lights driver Charlie Kimball raced for the team in A1GP, and they have always been high on his talent; he sits third in points in that series with four runner-up finishes in 12 starts this year.

Put simply, all three of those feuding drivers could be replaced, and the team would probably be much better off.

Hunter-Reay is nothing less than a ray of sunshine on AA. He's shown a willingness, nevermind the ability, to work with every driver on the squad, and perhaps it is that good karma that has rendered him the team's best driver this year. He's also IZOD's golden boy, having held a personal services contract with the brand for a while now, and is without contest the best American open-wheel driver in the world right now.

Meanwhile, the feuding between his three teammates all year has been a cancer that must be eating away at owner Michael Andretti's patience. Earlier this year, Andretti compared his job to that of a "kindergarten teacher" in an interview with Versus' Jack Arute. Again, it's a far cry from 2005's dream team.

RIght now, all AA can do is tough out the next two races while attempting to figure out what to do about next season. Without all of the stupid infighting that has plagued the team all season, they may have had somebody challenging for the championship. Somebody may need to leave the team before this can happen.

Obviously, the two weak links are Marco, who hasn't won a race since 2006 and occasionally seems disinterested on-track, and Danica, who is showing once and for all this year that she isn't the driver the media has hyped her up to be. But of course, these are the two drivers with the most ironclad contracts of all, being family and a megastar, respectively.

But you have to wonder if the team would take the financial hit to buy Danica out of her contract and let her try NASCAR full-time. Remember that the announcer at the ESPY Awards called her "NASCAR's Danica Patrick," not "IndyCar's Danica Patrick." NASCAR, which is already experienced at hyping up popular drivers during their on-track struggles (see Earnhardt Jr., Dale), is probably doing more with the Danica brand than IndyCar right now. On one hand, that's a problem for IndyCar, which could use all the publicity it can get; on the other, she's already established herself in IndyCar and is far less of a novelty in the open-wheel cars these days than she is as a transitioning rookie stock car driver.

Provided that the sponsors are willing to stick with the team, this opens up a spot for either Carroll, Kimball, or even Wheldon (now a free agent) to return to AA. Wheldon's "gone home" before, per se, as the current Panther Racing driver actually made his IndyCar debut in 2002 with Panther before replacing the retiring Michael Andretti in 2003.

It becomes far stickier to try and buy out your own son's contract, especially when Venom Energy stepped in to save that marginally funded team last year. Meanwhile, Kanaan has shown he's still got it as the second-best driver on that team, and it would be a mistake to let him go - especially because Penske would likely snap him up as a replacement for Ryan Briscoe, who has been rumored to be on the hot seat for a few weeks now.

Watching Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, you can see a certain chemistry between the drivers. Penske's trio of Briscoe, Helio Castroneves, and Will Power have done interviews and appeared on TV together, and the team is (barring Edmonton) often all smiles. Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti get down to business for Ganassi and stay out of each other's way, showing a great respect for one another at all times.

It's become clear that the current driver ensemble at Andretti is never going to find said chemistry. Somebody has to go. None of the team's current drivers are irreplaceable, like Sam Hornish was for Panther and Sebastien Bourdais was for Newman/Haas. Nobody currently on the team has taken Andretti to heights that it will never see again without them - in fact, they've mostly taken the team to new lows that can be done without.

The Andretti drivers need to understand that they can be replaced. The series' closest thing to an all-American team could do worse than taking a gamble and doing just that.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Kentucky Indy 300

Once again, the Kentucky Indy 300 gave thousands of fans hope at an upset victory. And once again, a Roger Penske-employed driver thwarted any designs that a little guy had at victory.

Panther Racing - former IZOD IndyCar Series champions, but now restricted to an underdog role in the series as ex-CART powers have taken over - qualified first and third for the race with Ed Carpenter and Dan Wheldon, respectively. They combined to lead 104 laps of the race, including 49 of the final 53 circuits.

Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, Carpenter had the victory stolen from him by Team Penske. This year, Helio Castroneves did the honors, conserving enough fuel in an extended green flag run to coast to the win, and even turn a couple victory laps afterwards.

Last year, Carpenter was beaten to the line by Penske driver Ryan Briscoe in a memorable finish. This year, Briscoe wasn't around to challenge for the win, having crashed out in a three-car wreck before the halfway point, but Carpenter was a contender for much of the night. He even worked his way back through the pack after getting shuffled back early.

But late race, splash-and-go pit stops for all of the leaders shuffled the order, and the victory went to the driver who used the underdog strategy: hang out towards the back and run slow laps to ensure the ability to make it to the end.

It was the second consecutive strong run for Carpenter, whose team is actually a collaboration between Panther and Vision Racing, as well as Wheldon, Panther's lead driver. Last week at Chicagoland, fuel issues knocked Carpenter out of contention, while Wheldon finished second in that event. This weekend, Wheldon led more laps than anybody (93) and made a strong case to remain in the series next year, even as he and Panther will part ways at the end of the season.

In the end, Carpenter finished second at Kentucky for the second year in a row, and Wheldon placed third.

Meanwhile, Castroneves took his second race victory of the season (though, referring to an incident at Edmonton, jokingly called it his third) by running laps almost 10 miles per hour slower than the leaders in the very late stages of the event. As such, when Tony Kanaan pit with less than 10 to go to begin the cycle of splash-and-go fuel stops, Castroneves had conserved enough to stay out on track.

Kanaan, who had qualified miserably off the pace to start in 26th, passed 10 cars on the first lap of the event and eventually wound up fourth, in front of Dario Franchitti. Franchitti further closed the gap on point leader Will Power, who wound up eighth. Power led 83 laps of the 200-lap event, nearly garnering him an important two-point bonus for leading the most laps, until Wheldon topped him late in the event. Power's shrinking points lead is now down to 17 with only two races to go.

Bertrand Baguette had a career-best 10th place finish, which also propelled him past the perpetually unlucky Takuma Sato in the points. After taking out teammate E.J. Viso last week at Chicagoland, Sato failed to even complete one lap at Kentucky, as his car broke loose from him in turns three and four and he slammed into the wall. It was the latest in a long line of incidents for KV Racing Technology this season, where the crash count now tops two dozen.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Saavedra Out at Bryan Herta Autosport

Daniel Herrington will step into the No. 29 William Rast Dallara for Bryan Herta Autosport in tonight's Firestone Indy Lights Series race at Kentucky Speedway.

Herrington, who drove full-time for the team last year and has thus far been without a ride this season, replaces Sebastian Saavedra, who is leaving the team. Saavedra currently ranks fifth in Indy Lights points, with one win at Iowa. Herrington placed seventh in the standings last year, with a win at Chicago. Saavedra and Herrington finished second and sixth at the Kentucky race last year, respectively.

This marks the second impromptu driver change of the season for BHA, who replaced their other driver, Stefan Wilson, at Sonoma due to sponsorship woes. His replacement, Joel Miller, finished a respectable ninth. Wilson has since returned to the team.

The team has not yet settled on a driver for the season finale at Homestead, though Herrington is the likely choice.

According to 16th and Georgetown's Twitter account, Saavedra's father broke the news to team owner Bryan Herta last night.

“This turn of events has come to me, our sponsor and our entire race team as quite a surprise. Needless to say I am deeply disappointed," Herta said. "We greatly appreciate and admire Daniel’s willingness to step into our No. 29 William Rast Indy Lights entry on extremely short notice.”

Saavedra updated his own Twitter account today with the following: "As many will ask. Yes I will not be racing for the rest of the season with Bryan Herta Autosport. Was a tough decision but it's made. After last races things haven't gone the way they should. And at last my managers and main sponsor made the decision to stop to not continue harming my racing career and name.. I'm frustrated and sad to break up the news but that's it."

Saavedra continued, "I'm very thankful to all my mechanics, and engineers. Unfortunately things did not work contract wise but I will still be working hard to bring my countries name high!"

Saavedra was slow in the second practice session for today's Drive Smart. Buckle Up Kentucky 100, having turned a best lap nearly four miles per hour off the pace of leader James Hinchcliffe. He did not post a time in the first practice session and was one of three drivers not to make a qualifying run.

Friday, September 3, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Kentucky Indy 300

Perhaps once a year, a race appears on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule that produces - or at least gives the hope of - interesting and unexpected results.

For years, Surfers Paradise was that race, producing a different winner every year for over a decade. Two years ago, it was St. Petersburg, where Graham Rahal won in his IndyCar debut. Last year, we almost had two: Watkins Glen, where Justin Wilson gave Dale Coyne Racing its first win in 25 years of racing, and Kentucky, where underdog Ed Carpenter nearly stole his first career victory, only to be thwarted at the line by Ryan Briscoe.

This year, Carpenter's driving like he's got unfinished business at the track.

Now a part-time driver employed by a collaboration between Vision and Panther Racing, Carpenter shocked the world with a qualifying average speed of nearly 218 miles per hour, and will start on the pole for Saturday's Kentucky Indy 300. He beat even series points leader (and sudden oval wunderkind) Will Power to the top spot. Carpenter's teammate, Dan Wheldon, will roll off directly behind in third.

If that wasn't crazy enough, Conquest Racing's new de facto lead driver, Bertrand Baguette, qualified in sixth place, with teammate Tomas Scheckter in 10th. They both outpaced last week's winner, Dario Franchitti, who will start 11th. Baguette even beat Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves (eighth) and Ryan Briscoe (ninth) in the session.

If that wasn't out of left field enough for you, Milka Duno legitimately outqualified two other cars - those of Rahal and Tony Kanaan, respectively. Kanaan was an unfathomable seven miles per hour off the pace, reminiscent of his struggles at Indianapolis earlier this year. Rahal was only five miles per hour off in a Sarah Fisher Racing car that has struggled for much of the season with Jay Howard behind the wheel.

Ryan Hunter-Reay will start shotgun on the field after crashing in qualifying and being unable to produce a time.

Paul Tracy, making his first oval start in half a decade, will start 23rd for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, the slowest of the cars that maintained a pace reasonably close to that of the leader. He was the last driver to break 214 miles per hour in qualifying.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Opinion: A New, Edgier IndyCar

When Cameron Haven and Kimberly Phillips appeared in a Playboy.com video a couple weeks ago modeling IZOD IndyCar Series apparel, it sent the blogosphere into a titter. Some longtime series fans, especially women, objected at the nature of the video, saying it went beyond the exploitation of women that even GoDaddy.com uses in their television ads. The video was provocative indeed, with the two women baring almost everything (but nothing deemed explicit by American standards) for the camera.

And in the end, the photo shoot and video did exactly what they were designed to do: they got people talking.

Now, this wasn't the type of thing that most other major professional sports would do. Far from it. Yes, Playboy has a lengthy racing history, but they've never been allowed on a stock car; instead, much of the bunny's recent racing exploits have come in European touring cars, where sexuality is a lot less taboo, and in American sports car racing, where there is a much smaller chance of a large public outcry against the brand. Its support has almost never been detrimental to any series.

In a way, Playboy is exactly the kind of supporter that IndyCar needs at this point in time.

For one, getting IZOD and Playboy involved took IndyCar's desire to capitalize on the sex appeal of racing to a whole new level. Does anybody remember the brilliantly half-assed "Sexier Drivers" campaign? No people, no cars, just white text on a black background with the series' shield next to it. It was about as visually interesting as your everyday encyclopedia. I think you'd be hard-pressed to remember the ad campaign.

But this, on the other hand? We're not going to forget a Playboy shoot anytime soon. It was provocative without doing anything to damage outright the series' reputation. It had front-page status on Playboy.com, which is clearly no slouch of a website. And I'm sure that such exposure at least reintroduced the brand in some subconscious sense to a good amount of people.

Witness what Rally America, the United States' sanctioning body for rally car racing, has done to entrench itself in the public eye. They've painted rallying as an "extreme sport," which - although almost certainly demeaning to the European professionals - gives the sport a unique and memorable identity here in the States. It also opens up the sport for an edgier sponsor base, with all of the big four energy drinks keeping the sport afloat, much like cigarette companies did before tobacco advertising was banned.

The American way of doing rally-car racing has attracted big names to the sport. Motocross champion Travis Pastrana. DC Shoes founder Ken Block. 1999 Indianapolis 500 winner and former IndyCar champion Kenny Brack. The list goes on.

Better still, bringing rallying to events like the X Games has opened it up to a brand new, younger fan base that would have never cared about the sport otherwise. Rallycross is one of the most popular events at the X Games. People pack the Home Depot Center to watch it, year after year.

IndyCar ought to take a page out of Rally America's book, by taking a traditional form of racing and marketing it in a way that makes people perceive it as edgy.

Purists will scoff at the notion of revamping IndyCar in such a way. Some fans would like to see the roadsters of the 1950s return to the track. It'd be nice; from a pure racing standpoint, it would be the ultimate competition. But unfortunately, the Indy Racing League has painted itself into a corner where they must do everything possible to re-establish a brand that was on life support before IZOD entered the picture.

Remember that John Barnes, the owner of Panther Racing, pointed to the younger generations as the future of the IndyCar fan base. I'm 19; I know what my peers in Generations X and Y like. I may not always agree with the hottest trends myself, but I have an idea of what works.

Brands that create interesting ads - Old Spice, for example - need to be enticed into the series, by presenting them with drivers who can act as spokespersons on and off the track. I've been saying for a little while now that Graham Rahal and Old Spice would be a great fit, especially if we could get Rahal to grow his father's trademark mustache. It'd also get the series' best young American talent back on track, at a time where part of IndyCar's downward spiral is owed to European drivers bringing their own sponsors from home. American fans just can't relate to those guys quite as well.

(Not to get all jingoistic once again, but part of my criteria for these spokespeople is that they be American. It just has to be, for the reasons I've stated above. Also, I'm not really promoting the cause of American open-wheel racing, or living up to my website's name, if I'm not going to at least go to bat every once in a while for guys like J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Charlie Kimball, Townsend Bell, Jonathan Summerton...)

K-Swiss has also jumped into the "edgy ad" department recently, hiring actor Danny McBride to reprise his Kenny Powers character from HBO's hit comedy Eastbound and Down in a series of ads with real K-Swiss athletes. (If you don't watch the show, Powers is a washed-up ex-pitcher who's looking to regain big league glory.) In effect, as a recent Silent Pagoda post highlights, he's Paul Tracy in another sport. They're both closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, they're both intensely confident, and they both have no problem messing with you if you get in their way. An ad campaign with the two of them facing off would be gold.

Finally, all four of the energy drink brands have had an IndyCar presence in the recent past - Monster with Tracy, NOS with Dan Wheldon, Red Bull with Buddy Rice, and Rockstar with Tomas Enge. But the two sponsors that actually used to serve as primary sponsors - the latter two - have moved out of the sport entirely, with Red Bull going stock car racing and Rockstar shifting its marketing dollars into drifting. It's these brands - and their thick checkbooks - that need to be brought back into the sport.

Imagine how popular a team of Tracy and Robby Gordon would be at Indianapolis for Monster. Picture a NOS ad campaign with their two top drivers, Wheldon and NASCAR's Kyle Busch, facing off in various extreme challenges.

Better yet, imagine two more zany Red Bull drivers on the track for the full season. Maybe Rice is gone for good, but keep in mind how many drivers Red Bull sponsors across various forms of racing. Indy Lights leader Jean-Karl Vernay was an ex-Red Bull driver. Recent Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen rallies in Europe with their backing right now. If Red Bull validated Indy Lights by giving its champion a full-time ride (sorry about this year, J.R. Hildebrand) and brought an ex-Formula 1 champion into the sport again, Nigel Mansell style, the value for IndyCar would be enormous.

This isn't even taking into consideration the brands that already have a presence in the sport. The National Guard would love to have a greater young fan base to work with, I'm sure. Racing has been an important recruiting tool for the Guard in recent years, and having more teens and young adults to recruit as a direct result of edgier brands entering the series would only help them.

Better yet, IndyCar can do this while still preserving the more "adult" brands in the sport (and no, I don't mean the Playboy kind of "adult"). Target, for example, has a potential goldmine in Dario Franchitti, especially if they can get Ashley Judd involved somehow. Will Power will need a little time to develop a stronger commercial persona for Verizon, but it can be done.

And let's be honest - the brands lending their names to engines in 2012 are not going to be the Scions and Kias of the world. They're going to be Honda, Lotus, and (if Roger Penske's alliance with Fiat Chrysler is as strong as I think it is) Alfa Romeo, returning to America after quite a while away. And BMW, while not guaranteed by any means, have alliances in sports cars and car dealerships with a handful of top open-wheel teams. Brand loyalty is important to establish at a young age, and lending their names to these IndyCars will give the younger demographic some luxury brands to aspire to in the future. (Keep in mind that IndyCar is the only American sport that can really do this, with a fan base that generally makes a comfortable salary every year and can potentially afford these vehicles.)

IndyCar needs to open itself up to those edgier brands by creating a cost-effective environment for potential sponsors, while also offering them solid spokespersons that can actually drive a racecar. The ones who are already in the sport aren't going to shy away from the larger and more coveted marketing demographic that the Red Bulls and Playboys of the world will bring in - they'll take advantage of it. After all, marketing is a business, and isn't that what business is about - taking advantage of the opportunities presented to you?

The Playboy shoot was the first step in that direction for IndyCar. Now it's time to go further.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

This Week in IndyCar: September 1, 2010

A collection of news clippings from around the IZOD IndyCar Series over the past few days:

- Graham Rahal and Paul Tracy, viewed by many as the best available IndyCar drivers without full-time rides, have both landed rides for this weekend's Kentucky Indy 300.

Rahal will return to Sarah Fisher Racing and pilot the No. 66 Service Central Dallara-Honda, while Tracy will drive the No. 24 Motegi Wheels Dallara-Honda for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. They replace a pair of British drivers in Jay Howard (who has struggled all season for SFR) and Mike Conway (who is still recovering from injuries sustained in an Indianapolis 500 crash).

Rahal drove three races earlier this year for SFR in the No. 67 Dollar General Dallara-Honda, with a top-ten finish at St. Petersburg, before running the Indianapolis 500 for his father's Rahal Letterman Racing team and returning to 2009 employer Newman/Haas Racing for the latter part of this season. Kentucky was the only race he was due to miss for the rest of the year. Rahal has responded by scoring more points thus far than full-timers Takuma Sato, Bertrand Baguette, and Milka Duno.

Meanwhile, Tracy ran one race earlier this year for DRR at Watkins Glen, finishing 14th, before posting solid runs at Toronto and Edmonton for KV Racing Technology. Tracy hasn't run on an oval in an open-wheel car since Champ Car ran at Las Vegas in 2005, but he led 107 of the first 128 laps in that event before an accident eliminated him from contention. Tracy will also drive for the team at Motegi, Japan in a couple of weeks and is a candidate to return to the car at Homestead.

- New Hampshire Motor Speedway saw the teams of Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon appear at the track this week, testing Firestone tires in preparation for the track's August 14 race date next year.

Kanaan tweeted earlier today that he had already done the full race distance before lunchtime and called the tires "great."

The teams used an aerodynamic package similar to the one run at the Milwaukee Mile, which did not make the schedule of any sanctioning body in 2010 due to concerns about outstanding promoters' fees owed to many parties. Milwaukee and New Hampshire are both flat ovals a hair over a mile in distance, making them ideal for IndyCar events. New Hampshire also allows the series to better establish itself in the northeastern market, serving New England, eastern Canada, and New York reasonably well.