Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wrappin' Up Kansas

I hope that everybody enjoyed their weekend, and that the Versus coverage of the Kansas IndyCar race was as good as it has been for the first two rounds of the season at St. Pete and Long Beach. From what I read, it sounds like it probably was, though I haven't had the chance to go through the DVR and see for myself. For now, I'll trust what I've read and heard.

As for me, I had a fantastic weekend, getting to my first in-person race of the season. Mrs. Speedgeek and I headed southward on Saturday at about noon. The plan for us all along was for just Sunday at the track, as the Mrs. is OK with one day at the track, but not so much with two days. Fair enough. In the meantime, we figured we'd go hang around The Plaza, do some serious posing with the glamorous types down there, and get some fantastic barbecue in the bargain.

About that last part, if you haven't tried Kansas City barbecue, or if you have and think that the "original" dive-y places are the only spots where you can get some serious quality meat 'n' sauce...I must heartily disagree. For my money, Fiorella's Jackstack is where it's at. Their meat is incredible (I love the pork burnt ends), the sides are out of this world (especially the Hickory Pit Beans), and the atmosphere is upscale-ish, but not snooty (jeans and such are welcome; there were a dozen guys there on Saturday night in Chiefs jerseys, celebrating NFL Draft Night). All of that and more, and for around about Famous Dave's prices. It can't be beat.

With that plug out of the way (thanks for the free rack of ribs! I wish...), the Mrs. and I had to head down to try out the new Fiorella's branch down on the Plaza. As we were walking in the door, I saw a group of three people coming up behind us, and one of them looked vaguely familiar, as far as I could tell out of the corner of my eye. We put our names in at the hostess's stand, and started to get out of the way for the folks behind us, so that they could do the same. This time, I heard the guy behind me say, "Table of three please. Name? Dan." in a nice, thick British accent. Uh, I think that guy might be famous.

Yes, 2005 Indy 500 champion Dan Freaking Wheldon representing, and here to enjoy some of the world's finest barbecue! I wish I could say that I played it cool, said a quick hello and good luck, but after 10 minutes of sitting across the bar and listening to Mrs. Speedgeek telling me to just go over there, I couldn't resist. As a guy who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, where the biggest local celebrity is the Pure Water Days Festival Princess, I have a tendency to turn into Chris Farley on "The Chris Farley Show" around actual celebrities. This day would be no different. I don't think I sounded like too much of an idiot, and I think I limited my stammered pleasantries to 15-20 seconds worth, so I suppose the encounter was a success. Oh, also he signed my race ticket.

I have to say, Dan is very pleasant, has a very firm (dare I say, Danica-esque) handshake, and his teeth are slightly less dazzling than they appear on TV, but still made me want to go buy a case of whitening strips. No, I did not notice his shoes. Sorry.

OK, barbecue and pleasantries out of the way, on to Sunday morning. We were enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning, chillin' at the breakfast buffet at the Hampton Inn, lounging around our room, etc., when I took a second to see if the Pressdog had posted any updates from the track yet that day. He had. Off to the track we go, honey!

We arrived to the Speedway around about 10 minutes after the Indy Lights were to take the green, but things seemed eerily quiet. As I'd find out later, the race had been stopped in order to clean up a particurlarly nasty wreck early on in the race. As a result, I cruised into the track just in time for a restart on around about lap 20. Not bad. Meanwhile, Mrs. Speedgeek was happy to let me run ahead (which I did, and I'm probably still a little winded for it), and she'd catch up with me later. As it turned out, she'd get turned away at the gate a little later for trying to bring in a couple of mini-umbrellas, and so she went back to the car to nap and read for a bit. Don't worry about her, though. She was OK with that.

Anyway, the Lights race wasn't a whole lot to write home about. The wind seemed to really play havoc with a lot of the cars. There were a couple of pretty big hits in turn 3 and 4, as the wind was pushing the cars up the track there. Ana Beatriz made a great save while attempting to make a pass for the lead with 10 or so laps to go, and only lost two positions, though she ran out of time (and handling and/or confidence in the car, it looked like) to make either of the places up. Sean Guthrie got parked for coming out of the pits on cold tires, catching up to the pack in turn 3, where there was a clean up effort in progress for Pablo Donoso's accident, locking up his brakes and barely (like, I mean, by a matter of inches) missing a safety truck. He complained loudly about "another dumb IRL decision" on the PA, and is currently doing the same on his team's website. Sorry, Sean, but cold tires or not, that was dumb. Nice win for Sebastian Saavedra, though.

IndyCar practice started shortly thereafter, and it was fantastic to get a good look (and listen, and smell) at the cars for the first time in 2009. The cars, I think, maybe don't look quite as zoomy as the Panoz DP01 did, but I'm really not complaining. Time has been fairly kind to the Dallaras, though I certainly wish we were getting new cars before 2012. The new mufflers are great. The cars are noticeably quieter, and the sound is a little higher pitched than it used to be. Not exactly like what a lot of us grew up with in the '70s and '80s, but not too far off. I'll take it. And the smell of the new sugar-based ethanol...it gets me going, and I think it's a little more pleasant than last year's corn-based stuff was. We'll leave it at that.

Oh, also I took pictures.

Welcome back, Sarah. Here's hoping we see a lot more of you from here on out.

Marco's new paintjob. I'm sorry, but that's some weak sauce, bro. Another black car? It's going to be rough at Indy telling his car apart from Will Power's and Danica's.

On to the race. About an hour and a half before race time, as the Mrs. and I sat in the car (there was a three hour break between the end of practice and the start of pre-race festivities; there aren't nearly enough merch trailers to fill three hours), I noticed that the wind had changed from a southwest-to-northeast direction to a south-to-north direction. This gave me hope that we'd at least get some laps in, if not the whole race, as most of the storms in Kansas were to the southwest. As it turned out, we got the whole thing in. Hooray for changeable midwestern weather. I don't think any of us expected that on Sunday morning. I'm sure that this is what held down the crowd, and I hope that that doesn't get held against the place in the future. I'd have put the place at about 20-25% full, with sections near start-finish pretty full, and sections by us near pit-in about 5% occupied. With the weather being what it was, including nearby tornados on Saturday, I don't think we could have expected any better.

This recap is stretching to novel-length, so maybe I'll just hit some high points from here on out. The first half of the race stayed pretty interesting, with Dixon making his way forward, a couple of teams doing a minor variation on pit strategy (if you can call going five laps off sequence a variation), Dario and Helio making their way forward, and Graham Rahal looking reeeeeealllly racy, given his very limited background on ovals. That kid is good, and he's going to be around for a long time. I like it. Someone who I have decided I do not like (again) is...Milka. That woman was in the way all day, and did not seem to be able to keep to a single line. Big surprise there, I know, but I guess I was hoping she'd have learned something by now. I think that Dario was hoping for the same, since I saw him give her "the wave" as he lapped her once, after she'd held him up for a couple of laps. This same actually can't be said for the other "differently speeded" driver of the series right now, Stanton Barrett. I didn't see anybody struggle to get by him all day, and that's good. He can stay.

The second half of the race, though... Let me refer to last week's post: I'm not somebody who requires every race to be a "Chicagoland in 2007 or 2008" instant classic, but...that was pretty boring. I know that there were extenuating circumstances (20-40 mph wind gusts) and that everybody was just hoping to survive the day with an intact car, but there really wasn't a whole lot to watch in the last 40 or so laps. I even resorted to getting the stopwatch out to check gaps between cars (most gaps were getting bigger, constantly), and other than one or two passes, not much actually took place. Things got pretty passive-aggressive at times, like when Helio spent 5-6 laps trying to get around the outside of Tony Kanaan, only for Tony to ever so slightly edge up the track every time at the entrance to turn 1, thereby foiling Helio's moves. A couple of other folks did some similar things (Danica, Dixon, probably just about everybody else), nobody really doing much blatant blocking that I could see, but what did transpire didn't make for very compelling watching. I'm not complaining, mind you, I'm just hoping that this isn't a harbinger of what's to come later in the season on the other mile and a half tracks.

All in all, it was a good weekend. We did get 200 laps of racing in, when I woke up hoping to get maybe 40. I did get to hear Sean Guthrie taking the IRL to task for parking him when just about everybody else on the grounds agreed with the IRL folks (believe me, that was the consensus near me in the stands). I heard the phrase "Enjoy the race" from more track personnel (vendors, concession folks, ticket takers) at Kansas than I think I have at every other race that I've ever been to, combined, and as corny as that sounds, it actually made an impact on me. Everybody there wanted us to come back in the future, and to bring all of our friends. That's cool. I'll be back, and I hope to see a lot of familiar folks there in years to come. If you treat me nice, I'll even introduce you to Dan Wheldon.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Goin' Way Down South

...to Baltimore...Virginia...and with apologies to Wyclef Jean (and all of you who might not have gotten my 1998 reference joke, which would be...probably all of you), now also Kansas. That's right, as much as I've truly enjoyed watching Versus' excellent coverage of the IndyCar series so far this season, it's time to get off the couch and go to my friendly neighborhood super speedway and catch the big boys (and girls! plural!) doing their best high-speed work. More on that in a second.

First, the Versus coverage. As I mentioned in my last post, I thought the coverage from St. Pete was fantastic. Long Beach was more of the same, I thought, though since the actual...racing wasn't quite as good (read that: less passing), the show didn't seem to have quite the same zip as at Round 1. Others have pointed out that the coverage thus far has been a tad "package heavy" with a lot of pre-prep "who are these people and what are they doing here" types of stories, but I think that that's sort of a necessity at this early stage in the Versus Era. If we are, as I think we're all hoping, getting people over from Versus' many, many other sports (hockey, bull riding, MMA, cycling, full-contact badminton), a lot of folks aren't going to know who most of the drivers are, outside of Danica, that Dancing With the Stars guy, the guy who's married to Ashley Judd, and maybe that quiet guy who won the Indy 500 last year. If packages are what it takes to draw people into the coverage and give them a vested interest in what's going on for the next three hours, I'm all for it. If you find them boring (and mind you, I kind of do), that's what pause buttons on DVRs and refrigerators containing chip dip and beer were invented for.

The booth guys and the rest of the on-air crew, as I also touched on in my last post, are all doing top notch work. I've read many people who say that Bob Jenkins's style is sleep inducing. I personally disagree, but the main job of the play-by-play person in the booth is not necessarily to have you jumping out of your seat ever 30 seconds (that's Jack Arute's job, whether it's on purpose or not). It's to make sure that the other guy (or guys) in the booth are getting all the way through their points, everybody stays on topic, and nothing major (cars stopped on track, EJ Viso threatening other drivers with a 20 foot snake) gets missed during the telecast. Bob's great at all of that stuff. Good. That's what they're paying him for. Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis both bring their assorted backgrounds to the table, and both do a good job of interjecting their viewpoints into the flow of the telecasts. Buhl is a relatively recent driver, and now that we're getting into territory that he knows better (oval tracks), I think he'll be quite good at telling us what it's like out there. I believe someone also mentioned that he's a car owner or something, so maybe he'll talk about that down the road, maybe if his driver hits anything. Meanwhile, Jon is a student of the sport, in addition to his being an ex-driver as well, and does a nice job of keeping up with the technical and strategic developments, which are things that other people who have been in his chair in the past (naming no names, but there have been many) have been...lacking in grasp on. That's perfect. Three guys, three viewpoints, and all well spoken. Don't change a thing.

As for the pit reporters, other than the usual occasional non-sequitur by Jack Arute (like last week where he was talking about the "Late" Stirling Moss, when Stirling is very much alive and the anecdote was probably not about him in the first place), those three are doing a great job so far. Really, the pit reporters are kind of like referees in other sports: if you can't remember any major screw-ups, they probably did their job correctly. Through two races, other than a couple of word fumbles, I can think of no such problems with Lindy Thackston or Robbie Floyd.

Now, with all of the television stuff out of the way, it's time to talk racing. So far, the racing hasn't exactly been riveting, but it has been interesting. I'm one of those nut-jobs who actually think that street racing has its place in the sport, and not just from a sponsor entertainment standpoint. As a few people have written, minute car fine-tuning is not so important on street courses, and so a good driver can throw a mediocre car around and make it punch well above its weight. This is well worth something, as we've seen Justin Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Will Power on the podium, three guys who barely got a sniff of a podium on the ovals last year (though Ryan got close, and Will was driving for Penske last week). Also, I'm a firm believer that not every race has to feature tons and tons of passing, though race after race of no-passing-at-all will almost certainly kill a series (see F1, back around 2003 or 2004). The occasional race that turns into a high-speed chess game, where drivers are basically waiting for other drivers to make a mistake in order to make a pass? That's OK by me. Again, let me reiterate, I'm cool with 3-4 of these races a year (especially if the surrounding scenery is interesting to look at as well), but not much more than that. I'd say that IndyCar has struck about the right balance in the schedule right now.

Now, looking ahead to this weekend, we've got our first oval race of the year, and the only one that comes before the Indy 500. If last year is much of anything to go off of, we're looking at a Ganassi/Penske one through four formation, followed by a mixture of AGR cars, the Panther car, and a couple of other isolated guys in the top-12 or so. I think that this year will be around about the same, but now that the ex-ChampCar teams have had a full year to work on their setups, I think they'll be closer, and probably fully competetive for spots in the 7-10 range. Newman-Haas-Lanigan, with a rapidly maturing Graham Rahal and a lightning-quick-when-he-keeps-it-off-the-wall Robert Doornbos should be close-ish to the leading pace. Dan Wheldon, the best driver that Panther has employed since the days of that...Sam guy, should be right up there in the top-5 all weekend. Rafa Matos has been quick so far (when he hasn't been wrecking Danica), and I might be one of the few who thinks he can do the same on the ovals as well.

There are so many more questions. Will there be any repercussions from Dario for Justin Wilson implying that the Franchitti brothers are Britney Spears fans? How huge will Tony Kanaan's hair be, since it's grown out for a whole week? Will Will Power frame Helio Castroneves for some sort of crime, so that he can get his ride back? How will Our Girl Sarah fare this week, in her first outing of the year? How well will Nobody's Girl Milka stay out of the way, given that she's done basically no testing since last year, and hasn't sat in a Dreyer & Reinbold car since Chicagoland last year? We shall see.

And on that note, one other question: to anybody who's been to Kansas Speedway before, what should I be checking out there? We'll just be there on Sunday, in a nod to keeping Mrs. Speedgeek sane and racing-tolerant, but is there any must-see stuff that we ought to be fitting in between the Indy Lights race and the Big Car race? Drop me a comment if there is, or if you might be in the Big KS yourself this weekend.

Take it easy, everybody, and see you at the races!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Post-Tax Day Thoughts

For anybody who's read the headline and is looking for some solid, in-depth analysis of the Helio Castroneves tax evasion trial...sorry. I'm no lawyer, and I'm not even going to pretend to play one on the internets. For that stuff, go read Chris Estrada, James at 16th and Georgetown, or even Robin Miller.

Nope, tax stuff bores me to tears, even if it involves multiple time Indy 500 winners. All I mean is that it's been something like 15 months since I've posted, so it's time for another one of my patented mish-mash "six racing series in one post" posts.

Formula 1!

It's been a nutty, nutty season so far. I'm not going to be one of those folks who say "a team that didn't even exist two months ago won both of the opening races", because the Brawn team did, in fact, exist two months ago. They just weren't called Brawn until then, that's all. Not to belittle what they've done, though. That team was cover-your-eyes awful last year, and the turn around to two poles and two wins in two races is like nothing we've never seen before. I'm not sold on their ability to hold their advantage until the end of the season, but they could have a big enough lead by mid-season to remain in championship contention until the end of the season.

There are lots of other things to answer this season, though. Can Lewis Hamilton continue to haul the piece of junk McLaren into the top-5? When will Ferrari quit shooting themselves in the foot long enough to score a point? Can any of the other "diffuser" teams (or maybe Red Bull) make up the remaining difference to the Brawns? Will I be kicking myself at the end of the season for not trying hard enough last weekend to find a sports book in Vegas that has F1 on the board, so that I could plunk down $20 on Timo Glock for the title at probably 15-1 odds?

I will say one more thing about F1: the FIA has done the right thing by upholding the scrutineers' judgement that the three "diffuser" teams' cars are legal. That's good. Now, if only Max Mosley would come to his senses and let McLaren out of the April 29th FIA hearing on "Lie-gate". That is heinous. McLaren's already lost six points. That's plenty. Let's get on with the racing.


I think that St. Pete answered most peoples' wishes for a season opener. Some good storylines (Justin Wilson almost winning Dale Coyne's first race, Ryan Hunter-Reay almost winning less than two weeks after signing with Vision, a clearly medicated Danica Patrick taking a philosophical approach to getting crashed out of a race), some good on-track racing (including an actual pass for the lead with less than 20 laps to go), and some good...no, great coverage from The League's new broadcast partner.

Let me expand on that last point. I'm going to throw in right here at the top that I was one of those crackpots who was in favor of going with Versus. More coverage is good for the sport, and if it happens to be competent-to-good coverage, all the better (I'm looking at you, Spike TV). Versus has basically nailed the first ingredient of any great racing coverage: the booth team. In Bob Jenkins, Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis, we've got an old-pro who is one of the best traffic cops in the business (Jenkins, dating back to his days doing the same for "Buffet" Benny Parsons and Ned Jarret on ESPN), a current team owner who has a great grasp on how the sport works on a day-to-day basis (Buhl) and the previously best technical- and strategic-minded pit reporter in the business (Beekhuis). The fact that they spent the two hours of qualifying coverage and three hours of the race talking like old friends, busting on each other, catching 95% of what was going on on the track and in the pit boxes (and that'll get even better as the season goes on), that is exactly what I'm looking for. The pit reporters were solid, if not perfect, but they'll get better, too.

This is going to be a good season. There are lots of potential winners, even more drivers coming on board in the coming weeks before the 500, and the new broadcaster is off to a solid start. The ratings numbers were not good for the first race, but I'm not going to get excited about that for quite a bit longer. If we're still getting 0.3s come Watkins Glen or Motegi...well, then we'll talk.


There were only 17 cars on the grid in St. Pete. There are going to be 21 on the grid this weekend at Long Beach. GT1 is basically extinct in four days. There are only probably three cars on the grid that are quick enough to win overall on any given weekend, and all of them are made by the same manufacturer. Yuck. Let's move on.


When did they race last? August 2006? Wake me when the season gets going again.


I'll be honest. I haven't been watching much since the other series got going. On the other hand, I have been watching enough to know that Jeff Gordon is laying a Grade A beatdown on the field this season. No finishes outside of the top-6 since Daytona (where he finished 13th)? Yeah, that's a beatdown. Good work, Jeff.

World Rally Championship!

Sebastien Loeb still drives here. Championship's over, folks.

Bullrun on Speed!!!!!!!!

The season's about to wrap up! Who's going to take home the big prize? The dishy brunettes in the Lexus? The 'Bama Boys in the Avalanche? The weird-haired guys in the Corvette? We all want to know!

Just kidding on that last one. Sort of. Whatever it is you're watching and following nowadays, enjoy it. Racing season's in full swing. Life is good.