Random thoughts and outbursts

The first half of the IZOD IndyCar Series season was littered with upsets from the smaller teams in the paddock – Takuma Sato and A.J. Foyt Racing at Long Beach, Tony Kanaan and KV Racing at the Indianapolis 500, and Mike Conway (Dale Coyne Racing) and Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports) at Detroit. But as the season has gone into its second half of the year, it appears that the Big Three teams – Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing – are collectively asserting themselves once again.

This past month or so, we saw Helio Castroneves (who has managed to maintain the championship lead with a superb show of consistency) put Team Penske on the board for the first time this season at Texas. Then, at Milwaukee and Iowa, we saw Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe respectively triumph for the Andretti camp. And at Pocono last weekend, the Ganassi gang appeared to get their season turned around with a stellar 1-2-3 podium sweep, Scott Dixon leading Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti to the checkered flag.

I'm sure I'm not the only one enjoying this dynamic between the smaller and larger teams this season, and it could evolve further with this weekend's Toronto doubleheader. Personally, I don't see how anyone can not look at Conway, who is back with DCR this weekend, as a threat to win after torching the field to a crisp in Race 1 at Detroit – likely the most dominant single performance we'll see all year. As soon as I saw that he'd be back for Toronto, my mind perceived to hear a groan from the rest of the paddock.

It's amazing to think we'll only have six races remaining in the season after this weekend's two-step up North – which could very much alter the championship considerably. As of now, it's a battle between Castroneves and Hunter-Reay, the defending series champion, with the Brazilian ahead of the American by 23 points.

Considering that RHR won at Toronto last season and that Castroneves has never really prospered there (two Top-10s in eight career starts), one would assume that the former could have an edge at Exhibition Place. But with Toronto now going to a doubleheader format, there's twice the potential for trouble. At this point of the campaign, neither of them can afford a mishap. Marco Andretti may have looked like he wanted to cuss himself blue after failing to finish off Pocono last weekend – fuel mileage woes knocked him back to 10th at the finish – but he's still within striking distance at 55 points back of Castroneves; ditto for Pocono winner Dixon, who is 65 points back in fourth position on the table.

If RHR or Castroneves falter this weekend, Andretti and Dixon will be there to pounce. And this two-horse race will suddenly have a few more contestants.

The media blitz for "Turbo" is roaring along as we speak. Earlier this week, IndyCar drivers were part of the festivities on NBC's "Today" show – festivities that included a snail race up the side of a Times Square building with the mollusks propelled via skeeball. It'll make more sense if you watch it rather than listen to me try to explain it.

INDYCAR is hopeful that a new generation of fans can be created through the Dreamworks Animation movie, which will open nationwide on July 17 and features the series and the Indianapolis 500 as main story elements. I'm thinking that it'll go over well at the box office, considering the A-list voice cast and the constant demand for family entertainment at the cineplex. And Curt Cavin, who's seen the film already, says it's better than "Driven," so there's that.

But I suppose I have some doubts on whether a tidal wave of new fans really will come crashing onto IndyCar's shores. Maybe it's residue from the two decades of obscurity this sport has been under since the split, but we haven't seen this kind of marketing push involving the sport in some time and I can't help but wonder if it's an "all or most of the eggs in one basket" sort of situation.

Granted, a Dreamworks movie is a damn good basket to put your eggs in. But I guess I would have liked to have seen IndyCar in better health before the "Turbo" project got rolling. The fate of a sport is quite a bit of weight to put on the shoulders of an animated snail.

Still, I'll certainly queue up and get a ticket when it comes out. IndyCar hopes you'll do the same.

And I hope you'll also tune into NBC Sports Network this Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. ET for the Honda Indy Toronto. Keep up with all the news from T.O. at MotorSportsTalk on NBCSports.com.

Random thoughts and outbursts

It took INDYCAR nine years to put the Dallara IR03/07 to bed. Who knows how long it'll be before its Firestone Indy Lights chassis from Dallara — which made its debut in 2002 — takes its final lap.

A new car for INDYCAR's top developmental series had been slated for 2014, but yesterday, the sanctioning body announced that the initiative would be delayed until after that season.

"We want our teams, drivers and manufacturers to be competitive and successful, and if that means taking a step back to create a stronger series to support the economics of this long-term capital investment, as well as a formula that we believe will allow our drivers to transition between Pro Mazda and the IZOD IndyCar Series, then we're willing to make sure the introduction is timed properly," said Lights director Tony George, Jr. in a statement.

With the introduction of the turbocharged and more nuanced Dallara DW12 in the IZOD IndyCar Series, the normally aspirated Lights chassis needs a serious overhaul to remain a proper training tool for INDYCAR's stars of tomorrow. Instead, they'll have to continue working on their racecraft in a machine that's 11 years old.

Never mind all the important technical differences between the DW12 and the 2002 Lights machine; the latter is simply too old to keep getting work.

In 2002, a gallon of gas was roughly about $1.40. George W. Bush was in the middle of his first term as President. Radio stations had begun forcing Nickelback down our throats.

Times have changed, and so have the needs of INDYCAR's developmental drivers. They need to hone their skills in a car closer to the DW12 rather than one that's closer to an obsolete machine.

As for the IZOD IndyCar Series, they have their own equipment issues to figure out. The aerokit saga that seemed ready to be resolved may have hit yet another snag. In yesterday's Indianapolis Star, reporter Curt Cavin wrote that not all the manufacturers may be ready to see the kits debut in 2014. In Cavin's words:

"No one was willing to go on the record Thursday, but it seems clear the manufacturers are on completely different sides of the discussion. One might be ready for them next season, the other clearly is not. Read: Log jam."

Truth be told, I'm burned out on this particular matter. If it happens, great. Outside of multiple chassis, the fans have wanted cars with different styles of bodywork. But if it doesn't, at least the base DW12 has proven its worth in terms of producing a great on-track product on its own.

The Cavin link above also has some news on Dale Coyne Racing's second drive that is up for grabs. Apparently, a split program may be in the cards for that particular entry and that Ana Beatriz is in the running to drive all the oval races there.

Beatriz competed at Sao Paulo and Indianapolis last season in a collaboration between Andretti Autosport and Conquest Racing. Before that, she ran 16 of 17 races in the 2011 season with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing.

As for Ryan Briscoe, it appears as if he's looking more at sports car opportunities and perhaps part-time work in IndyCar later this season. While the situation has already been talked about, it doesn't make it any less annoying to watch.

And if you feel the same way, perhaps this video will cheer you up:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=

zldq14PWUSM[/youtube]

Yep, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has officially joined in on the Harlem Shake phenomenon. And yep, that's Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing pilot Josef Newgarden dancing like a nutcase, surrounded by other people dancing around like nutcases. Someone should wake that IMS 'yellow shirt' official up, because he's missing a party.

Random thoughts and outbursts

First thing’s first. Best wishes to rally master Marcus Gronholm, now recovering from hitting a concrete post at the X Games on Saturday, and to rookie Toomas Heikkenen, who suffered a broken ankle after shorting a jump and hitting a steel ramp on Friday. I got to see them both race on the rallycross undercard to the IndyCar event at Texas Motor Speedway last month…

After having this past weekend off, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to action on the streets of Toronto this Sunday with a full-blown title war on its hands. Only 30 points separate points leader Will Power from Toronto native James Hinchcliffe in fifth place.

Both the championship and Hinch’s homecoming will be major story lines, but another thing to look out for this weekend is if Lotus’ engine improvements will pull the capable Simona de Silvestro and HVM Racing into at least mid-pack.

Per INDYCAR rules, engine manufacturers could request for upgrades at the season’s mid-way point if said manufacturer proves that it’s at least 2.5 percent down on power compared to the others. Lotus made its request and got the sanctioning body’s approval before the Iowa Corn Indy 250 according to RACER Magazine.

The first test for Lotus with the new upgrades is slated for today at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (De Silvestro will drive her No. 78 machine for the session). More upgrades are slated for Toronto, next month’s race at Sonoma, and September’s Grand Prix of Baltimore.

De Silvestro is the last Lotus driver standing, after the British marque’s poor performance in the initial races caused its other teams — Dragon Racing (Sebastien Bourdais/Katherine Legge), Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (Oriol Servia), and Bryan Herta Autosport (Alex Tagliani) — to bolt for the other two engine suppliers, Chevrolet and Honda.

It’s been tough to watch Lotus struggle, but it’s been even tougher to see those problems drag down a solid racer like De Silvestro. Let’s hope the upgrades can give her more of a competitive edge and, perhaps more importantly, show that Lotus is truly giving a solid effort in trying to catch up to its bigger rivals…

As good as the racing has been with the Dallara DW12s this season, it may wind up being a reason why we may never see proper aero kits. Not only that, the cars have come in way overbudget, which has given team owners yet another reason to push cost containment.

According to Marshall Pruett of SPEEDTV.com, their latest worries over costs have caused INDYCAR president of operations Brian Barnhart to search for ways to hack down the price of spare parts by a hefty 40 percent.

Owners appear to want the ability to have spare parts created by either their teams or, as Pruett puts it, “local vendors” in order to save money. That went away with the debut of the DW12, as Dallara declared exclusivity on production and parts sales for the new car.

Obviously, Dallara doesn’t want to lose its presence or its money while teams head for other places to get cheaper parts made. But considering the legitimate problem surrounding the cost of the DW12, I wouldn’t have a problem seeing some pieces of the car be built for teams by other companies.

While I am not on the side of the owners in the aero kit saga, I find myself agreeing with their arguments for finding other avenues to get pieces created for their cars. Striking a balance that makes both the owners and Dallara happy will be tough, but if INDYCAR’s truly focused on keeping racing affordable, they’ll find one…

Random thoughts and outbursts

The Indianapolis 500 and the IZOD IndyCar Series came away with great momentum following last Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

They got a fantastic race that broke the record for most lead changes, featured another stunning last-lap finish, and was won by a winner that has both top-level chops in the cockpit and mainstream recognition. To top it off, the ’500′ netted an increase of almost 10 percent in the TV ratings over last year and its best rating since 2008.

So, of course, that good news was due to be overshadowed two days later by bad news:

“it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. disappointing”

That tweet came from INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard on Tuesday night, confirming the rumors that some team owners in the INDYCAR paddock were threatening an uprising against the sport’s leader. To that end, SPEED reporter Robin Miller went on the Indianapolis airwaves and said that full-time owners within the Chevrolet camp were behind the trouble.

And before anybody thinks it’s that supposedly power-hungry tycoon Roger Penske at the root of all this, that theory has already been debunked by, among others, Bernard himself.

Random thoughts and outbursts

On Panther, Helio and Weezer…yes, Weezer.

Team Penske has certainly dominated the headlines as of late with their wave of sponsorship announcements, but Silly Season continues to roll along as well.

To that end, two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champions Panther Racing escaped the currently frozen landscape of Central Indiana to do some testing yesterday at Phoenix International Raceway. Young American driver J.R. Hildebrand got the call to test the No. 4 National Guard machine at the one-mile oval.

Hildebrand got in his first two IndyCar starts last year at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. He was one of the multiple substitute drivers that took over the No. 24 Dreyer and Reinbold Racing machine after its regular driver, Mike Conway, sustained multiple injuries at the Indianapolis 500. Prior to getting that opportunity, Hildebrand had won the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights title after finishing fifth overall in 2008, his inaugural FIL campaign.

Panther and Hildebrand made sure to squelch any premature notions that a deal is done for 2011, going on their respective Twitter accounts to announce that nothing’s set (thanks, Open Paddock). But considering that this has apparently been a possibility since the end of October (Note: Scroll to the bottom), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hildebrand officially join Panther — eventually.

But then again, it’s called Silly Season for a reason…Guess we’ll see.

—–

Back to Team Penske. Well, sort of. Now that Penske no longer has Philip Morris money, it’s opened up the promotional possibilities for its drivers.

We’re already starting to see bits of that. Ryan Briscoe has been spotted wearing the IZOD firesuit for upcoming TV spots. And we reckon that Helio Castroneves could also get a lot more TV time as well. He’s certainly got some experience to back him up, what with his run a few years back on “Dancing with the Stars.”

But true acting? That may be a little too much for the three-time Indy 500 winner. Take a look at some of the comments he made in a teleconference announcing the Auto Club of Southern California as his sponsor for Long Beach and Texas.

Still, it might be worth a shot. Danica Patrick’s recently been on The Simpsons, so it behooves the other big name that IndyCar has to do something similar.

I propose a remake of The Odd Couple with Castroneves and teammate Will Power as the main characters. On the track, both drivers are their usual polished, “Penske perfect” selves. But at the house they share, while Castroneves stays neat and tidy, Power turns into a lovable slob that drives his pal crazy with his habits of leaving candy bar wrappers everywhere and playing the drums at 2 a.m.

And Briscoe and his wife, Nicole, can be those “wacky neighbor” types. Every comedy needs at least one. Why not two here? ABC, I’m waiting for your call.

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“What the heck is Weezer doing in an IZOD IndyCar Series commercial? Not that I’m complaining, but…What?”

That was my first reaction to hearing that Weezer, the multiplatinum rock band that may have created the greatest music video ever, would be involved in IZOD’s 2011 promotional TV campaign for the series. Expect plenty of Briscoe, his new No. 6 IZOD-backed machine, and a pack of too-cool-for-school models in the spots as well — if the photos are any indication.

Not that IndyCar hasn’t had any “partnerships” with rock stars before. As much as some of you may like to forget, Gene Simmons of KISS was part of IndyCar’s promotional efforts for a time (which spawned this now-infamous tune). And the IRL got a music video out of pushing John Mellencamp’s “Peaceful World” back in 2001.

But it still seems a bit strange that Weezer is involved with IndyCar now. Maybe they really wanted to do the Carb Day concert at the “500″ and talked to IZOD about getting that gig in exchange for a few TV spots?

Random thoughts and outbursts…

Okay, time to get back on the horse…

- As we get set for the penultimate race of the season over at Twin Ring Motegi (Sat., 11 p.m. ET, Versus), I just have the feeling that Dario Franchitti is going to take the championship lead from Will Power this weekend. Last season at Motegi, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars dominated the weekend and if Franchitti gets a similar machine on Saturday night, Power’s 17-point edge is liable to slip away.

But, of course, there’s always a wild card and in this case, it’s TRM itself. For some reason, this mountaintop facility has been the site of some really strange incidents over the years (including Ryan Briscoe’s pit road gaffe that ultimately cost him last year’s title). I suppose you can call it the “Bermuda Triangle” of the IZOD IndyCar Series if you want to be cliche about it. Not only that, the oval’s egg-shaped design (Turns 3 and 4 are tighter than Turns 1 and 2) makes for a unique challenge.

It’s certainly one of the more daunting speedways in IndyCar, and as shocking as it would be to see a Motegi mishap befall either Power or Franchitti, it wouldn’t be surprising.

- There’s a neat “sub-plot” story by Dave Lewandowski over on IndyCar.com about one of the native sons racing in Japan this weekend. As some of you may already know, the family of Tokyo native and Newman/Haas driver Hideki Mutoh has ran a shop in the city’s Tsukiji fish market for generations. Hideki’s dad, Eiji, hasn’t been able to see his son race at Motegi because of his duties at the shop, but with this year’s Indy Japan 300 falling on a national holiday (“Respect for the Aged Day”), he’ll finally be able to do so.

There’s some interesting stuff in the piece about how Eiji first stoked Hideki’s interest in cars as a boy and how Hideki balances his current racing career with his future as proprietor of his family’s shop. The TV broadcasts don’t always push what the drivers are like as regular people outside of their cars, so it’s nice to gain more of an idea about where Hideki’s coming from.

Random thoughts and outbursts

Texas Motor Speedway is holding a major conference on August 17th with a few big names from both IndyCar (Randy Bernard, Helio Castroneves) and NASCAR (Brian France, Tony Stewart). The event is being hyped up rather nicely and considering who’s going to be there, one starts to believe that an IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader may be coming in 2011.

That still remains a possibility, but the St. Petersburg Times’ Brant James has also reported that IndyCar’s heading back to the future so to speak by hosting two same-day races at Texas. The ‘duals’ format has been a rarity in open-wheel racing, but it’s not completely unfamiliar.

Paul Dalbey at Planet-IRL.com has already killed this, so I’ll try to keep my thoughts brief on this subject.

Both of these ideas have a lot of merit. An IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader may open up the argument of IndyCar being ‘inferior’ (especially if its race gets slotted on Saturday, so NASCAR can have the Sunday “headline” spot), but both series are feeling the twin blows of dwindling attendance and television ratings as well. Putting the two series together on the same weekend (with a major purse increase) may be enough of an incentive for folks to hand over their money or watch from home, and with TMS president Eddie Gossage’s penchant for hype, we could see a bonafide supershow emerge.

A ‘duals’ day at TMS is also an intriguing idea. The IndyCars have put on great performances over the years at this track, and a pair of 200 or 250 mile events would push the manic nature of racing at Texas to unbelievable levels. It would amp up the championship with two chances for drivers to collect major points and it also wouldn’t hurt the series to have legitimate momentum as a whole going into the ’500′ in May.

However, I’d have to lean toward the doubleheader idea if I was asked which would be a better deal. NASCAR may be IndyCar’s competitor, but would it really turn down a potential PR and money bonanza like this? Meanwhile, IndyCar can put its product on display for potential new fans that may never have seen it before or have had a preconception about it for years.

That being said, my interest is still piqued on the ‘duals’ format. Perhaps another 1.5-miler on the IndyCar circuit could play host to that down the line.

—–

Autosport is now reporting that defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Justin Wilson will lead IndyCar’s new driver advisory association. The drivers first met en masse on Aug. 6 during the Mid-Ohio event weekend to discuss safety, promotion and other topics.Indy Racing Revolution – Administration

Although I am a bit surprised that Tony Kanaan won’t be fronting the association (the linked article above says he had been trying to get a drivers’ meeting going since March), Franchitti and Wilson are two fine choices as well. Hopefully, this association will make a positive impact and be able to create and continue good policies for the series — and get rid of bad ones.

UPDATE: RACER Magazine is now reporting that Kanaan will be one of the faces of the new association after all.

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Considering that next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, it’s not surprising that the 2011 Indy 500 logo features lots of gold.

A golden wing-and-wheel symbol dominates the mark, which was unveiled today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Inside the symbol is a red and blue “ribbon” and circle that features ’100th Anniversary’ wording, plus ’1911′ and ’2011′ on the far sides. Navy blue, silver and black are also used prominently in the logo.

Altogether, it’s pleasantly old-school in its look. I like it. But will it sell t-shirts at the gift shops next May? We’ll have to wait on that one.

Random thoughts and outbursts…

…Swift and BAT, two of the challengers in the 2012 IndyCar chassis fight, are continuing their respective pushes to build the next generation of open-wheel race cars. Swift has unleashed the “66,” which took sidepod and wing cues from one of their first designs and added their “mushroom buster” on the rear wing to reduce turbulence behind the car and improve overtaking capabilities.

Meanwhile, the BAT team led by Bruce Ashmore, Alan Mertens and Tim Wardrop, put out new design renderings of their concept. With the prominent semi-enclosed wheels at front and rear, it looks like they’re trying to introduce the possibility of more beatin’ and bangin’ for open-wheel cars to get away with.

I continue to be impressed with Swift, who seem to take the evolutionary route but still manage to come up with attention-grabbing designs; the company seems to be the big pick with the traditionalists in the fan base. They’ve put on a nice PR game throughout this process, too. Swift apparently is opening up their San Clemente, California shop for an April 16 tour during the IZOD IndyCar Series weekend at Long Beach. Kudos to them.

As for BAT, I’m not quite as enamored with their concepts, but they deserve credit for putting driver safety as a high priority. Plus, I don’t think I’d mind if a little NASCAR-style roughhousing made its way into IndyCar.

But both of them will have to stay aggressive in marketing their concepts. The buzzworthy Delta Wing is sure to grab another wave of press as the prototype’s first wind tunnel test is set for next week in North Carolina.

—–

…Congratulations are in order for Amy Konrath, who was promoted to vice president of communications/public relations for the IRL this week after the league restructured its PR department. With her new title, Konrath will also be the league’s official spokesperson.

The IRL’s PR team also got two new additions, with Steve Shunck coming in as the new vice president of public relations and Tracey Todd as an new member that will assist with communications department projects and also serve as assistant to league CEO Randy Bernard. Shunck will report to Konrath and be a liaison to the IRL’s television team and marketing efforts. Dave Lewandowski and Arni Sribhen will continue on in their current capacities.

Konrath has been very helpful to the Revolution and to many other IndyCar bloggers, so obviously, it’s great to see her get promoted. Her team should also get a boost with the addition of Shunck, who has been involved with promotion and production in auto racing for multiple entities — including ABC Sports (now ESPN on ABC), Michigan International Speedway, NASCAR, and the former CART series.

—–

…If the IZOD IndyCar Series can gain more of a presence in the mainstream, wouldn’t it be nice to see them make a proper return to the video game world? If you remember, Codemasters released two IRL games in 2003 and 2004 and most recently, we’ve seen Destineer take on the Brickyard’s glory days with “Indianapolis 500 Legends” and “Indianapolis 500 Evolution.” Then the IRL was reported to be featured in the upcoming “Gran Turismo 5″ for Playstation 3, but apparently, that was an error — while the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be in GT5, the IndyCars won’t be.

A few ideas for a potential IndyCar game: How about in addition to the current drivers, teams and tracks, you can have a list of Indy 500 legends and cars as unlockable content and have the ability to battle the present-day racers (of course, their cars would go as fast as the Dallaras — yes, it’s a historical botch, but fair’s fair)? Perhaps instead, we could see a litany of former open-wheel facilities, from Langhorne, Pocono, and Trenton to Michigan, Cleveland and Surfer’s Paradise?

Or maybe, we could have a “story mode” with multiple paths for the player to reach the big leagues; you could go through the “Road to Indy” ladder system, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you could rise up through the dirty bullrings of the Midwest or the challenging road courses of Europe and South America. Each path can boost your abilities on a specific type of track, but may leave you at a disadvantage you’d have to work through on others. Just a thought.