Monday, September 30, 2013

One Hundred Races Since Reunification

The second race from the Houston doubleheader will mark IndyCar's one hundredth race since reunification prior to the 2008 season. A lot has changed since then.

Emotions have gone up and down. Tracks have come and gone as have drivers and CEOs. IndyCar has seen some highs and lows since reunification. I don't think the series is how we would have pictured it that late February day when it was announced the IRL and Champ Car would merge but I don't think anyone could have seen what has happened over the last five and a half years.

When the series merged, IndyCar was only on ABC and ESPN. Dario Franchitti was driving a stock car and Sébastien Bourdais was in Formula One. Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden were racing head-to-head in Skip Barber and Minardi was alive and well. Champ Car was scheduled for races Zolder, Jerez and Assen, Cleveland was alive and well as was Portland and Road America. IndyCar had dates at Richmond, Chicagoland and Nashville. No one in IndyCar knew who Randy Bernard was. Milka Duno was coming off a runner up finish in the IRL Rookie of the Year standings. The likes of Darren Manning, Vitor Meira, Buddy Rice and AJ Foyt IV were all full-time fixtures on the grid. Sarah Fisher had yet to become a car owner, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy had yet to become full-time TV personalities, the Atlantic Series was alive and Austin, Texas meant nothing to the motorsports world.

Since then, NBCSN has become IndyCar's home with Leigh Diffey leading the way as the series' voice. Not only is Franchitti not in a stock car any more but Juan Pablo Montoya is on his way back to single-seaters. IndyCar barely leaves the western hemisphere let alone make trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific road trips. Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden are the future of American open-wheel racing. I have no idea where Minardi is. Portland and Road America's absence eats at us everyday, same as Richmond and Chicagoland and everyone misses Phoenix and Michigan. Pocono has returned as has Fontana. The series has two engine manufactures, each turbocharged. Dallara remains the sole chassis supplier but body work is open to be constructed by anyone. Toronto now has two races and the likes of Rubens Barrichello, Jean Alesi, Lucas Luhr, Ho Pin Tung, Stanton Barrett, Takuma Sato and Bryan Clauson have all driven an IndyCar.

Things probably aren't the way we saw them going but that has two meanings. I bet no one saw Pocono or Fontana ever returning to the IndyCar schedule that day in 2008. Yet I am sure no one ever thought it would be pushing over half a decade since IndyCars flew around Road America, dove into turn one at Cleveland and made a trek to the Gold Coast. But I am sure no one picture the racing we have seen over the past two seasons or saw the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud and Charlie Kimball all competing up front for wins week in and week out.

We are still dreaming of the day of a series that runs at Phoenix, Road America, Michigan, Cleveland, Watkins Glen and Richmond as well as the current slate of IndyCar races. We dream of a day of peace, togetherness and harmony and the day when the future of the series is secure year in and year out. However, IndyCar is still here. Despite all the hard times and the heart ache and the disappointments. It is still here. Despite all the hell, IndyCar is still here, people are still interested and though you could probably come up with a reason why the series will die sooner rather than later, the series will probably still be around for many more years to come.

Think about it, there is one American open-wheel series. That was a huge step for everyone. No worrying that a driver won't end up in either of the top two American open-wheel series. No worrying that a dozen talented drivers won't be at Indianapolis because there is a street race somewhere during Indianapolis 500 qualifying. No more races going head-to-head on television. IndyCar has been united for over five years. This should be celebrated especially after the hell that was 1996-2007.

Since we are approaching the one hundredth race, I have decided to list my top ten races since reunification.

10. Watkins Glen 2009
In a year that was dominated by Penske and Ganassi, this race made up for it. The same way McLaren dominated the 1988 Formula One season but Ferrari stole the show at Monza, Dale Coyne Racing stole the show at Watkins Glen. The team had never won in their twenty-five year history but Justin Wilson changed all that, spanking the field by leading 47 of 60 laps.

9. Watkins Glen 2008
The year before Wilson's dominance, Penske and Ganassi found a way to take each other out under caution. Ryan Briscoe had led most of the race but Darren Manning found himself in the lead driving for AJ Foyt Racing. Under caution, Scott Dixon spun while running second and Briscoe got in the back of the Kiwi dropping both out of contention with a dozen laps to go. This set up for a Darren Manning-Ryan Hunter-Reay shootout. Hunter-Reay took the lead with nine to go and held off Manning to win. It is the last IndyCar win to date for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

8. Motegi 2009
Ryan Briscoe had the championship won. His name was being stenciled on the trophy but he lost it on cold tires exiting the pit lane. This, along with a Scott Dixon-Dario Franchitti 1-2 finish opened the door for a three-way fight for the title at Homestead where Dario Franchitti went on to win the title in his return season to IndyCar and his first of three consecutive titles. Not to forget mentioning the Newman-Haas entries of Graham Rahal and Oriol Servià gave the Ganassi drivers a fight late.

7. Baltimore 2012
In a race that saw changing weather conditions and a driver going for it all to keep his championship hopes alive, Ryan Hunter-Reay pulled off an impressive victory holding off the charging Ryan Briscoe and Simon Pagenaud. Will Power had all the chances in the world to clinch his first championship but after changing to wet weather tires, Hunter-Reay staying out on slick was a pivotal moment in the championship. Anyone from Power to Takuma Sato to Pagenaud to Briscoe could have won that day but Hunter-Reay held on to win that race and would go on to take the championship at Fontana.

6. São Paulo 2010
The first ever race at São Paulo went from dry to flooded in a matter of laps. Ryan Hunter-Reay had a part time deal with Andretti Autosport and his debut performance for the team was only a sign of the things to come. When the race became wet and was red flagged for track flooding, Hunter-Reay took charged from Dario Franchitti. Late in the race it became a three horse battle between Hunter-Reay, Power and Briscoe. Briscoe put it in the tires with a handful of laps to go creating a two horse fight. Power would get by Hunter-Reay in final corner with four laps to go but, like I said before, this race was just a sign of things to come for Hunter-Reay.

5. Indianapolis 2013
This year's Indianapolis 500 saw a record pace, record amount of lead changes and a popular winner. The amount of lead changes may seem watered down but no one knew who was going to win. Anyone from Ed Carpenter to Marco Andretti to Ryan Hunter-Reay to rookie Carlos Muñoz could have won that day. But Tony Kanaan went for it when he had to and came out on top, finally getting his face put on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

4. Texas 2012
Scott Dixon had this race won before he had a suspension failure end his day and opened the door. Will Power looked to be in perfect position until he blocked Tony Kanaan and was black-flagged. After that, it appeared Graham Rahal was finally going to get his second career win but after brushing the wall coming to the white flag, Justin Wilson was able to get around Rahal and pick up a surprise victory for himself and Dale Coyne while Rahal limped home in second with Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe, JR Hildebrand and Simon Pagenaud rounding out the drivers to finish on the lead lap.

3. Indianapolis 2012
The first oval race for the DW12 chassis saw Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato charge from mid-pack to create a wild finish. After getting by Tony Kanaan on a late restart, the three Hondas went head-to-head-to-head. Sato made a dive bomb on Dixon to get second with two to go. Heading into turn one on the final lap, Sato made the same move for the lead on Franchitti and this time he ended in the wall as Dario Franchitti picked up his third Indianapolis 500 victory.

2. São Paulo 2013
After a pretty sloppy first act of this race, act two didn't disappoint. Coming off his first career win at Long Beach, Takuma Sato was set to go back-to-back but a hard charging Josef Newgarden was doing his all to get his first career win. After a few questionable moves by Sato to keep Newgarden behind him, James Hinchcliffe got by Newgarden and was all over Sato for four laps. In the final corner of the race Hinchcliffe made an over-under move on Sato to take the lead down the stretch and pick up his second race win of 2013 and second of the Canadian's IndyCar career.

1. Indianapolis 2011
It appeared Ganassi Racing had this race won from early on but the team had problems calculating fuel mileage all month. This bit them in the race as other teams figured out how to hit it perfectly and it opened the door for a who's who of possible winners. At one point, Danica Patrick looked in position to take the win but couldn't make it and then all of sudden Bertrand Baguette and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as a one-off was in a position to steal the show in the centennial Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately for the Belgian, he was not able to stretch his fuel far enough. This put JR Hildebrand in the perfect position to win the Indianapolis 500 in his first career Indianapolis 500. As Hildebrand took the white flag, it seemed guaranteed the Californian was going to do it. As he caught a fuel saving Charlie Kimball in turn four, Hildebrand got into the marbles and slide into the wall. But no one knew who second was, let alone where second was. It appeared Hildebrand was going to win with only two tires intact but out of nowhere Dan Wheldon blew by to win his second Indianapolis 500 in a one-off entry with Bryan Herta Autosport.