Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Important Indy Lights Test Tomorrow and More From Daytona

It's be a few days since the 24 Hours of Daytona and there are still a few lingering thoughts from the IMSA season opener. First thought, we start a little further south from Daytona at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Indy Lights has conducted two important tests and a major test is coming up tomorrow.

The IL-15 Testing at Homestead
Indy Lights has been down at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the last few days. On Monday and Tuesday, a dozen IL-15 chassis powered by Mazda-branded AER engines ran on the Homestead road course. It was the first appearance for Carlin as Emirati Ed Jones and former Formula One driver, record holder for most races running at the finish in a rookie season, Briton Max Chilton in the IL-15 chassis. 

Jones ran the fastest lap over the two days, a lap of 1:13.7460 seconds in the morning session on Tuesday. Jones was the only driver to run a lap of sub-1:14 minute lap during the test. Andretti Autosport driver Shelby Blackstock was second over the two days with his fastest lap being a 1:14.1386 seconds. The 2012 Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier ran on Tuesday for Belardi Auto Racing and the Frenchman was third fastest, at 1:14.2777-second lap. Colombian Juan Piedrahita announced he would be joining Félix Serrallés at Belardi for the 2015 season and ran on Monday with the team. Piedrahita's best lap was a 1:15.8494. 

Juncos Racing was fourth and fifth with Kyle Kaiser leading the defending Pro Mazda champion Spencer Pigot. The Californians were separated by 0.0118 seconds with Kaiser's fastest lap being a 1:14.3563. Sixth quickest over the four days was last year's runner-up in Pro Mazda Scott Hargrove as the Canadian's best lap was at 1:14.4237 seconds driving for 8 Star Motorsport. Chilton was sevenh at the test running a fastest lap of 1:14.4404 seconds.

All four Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entries on the back half of the time sheet with runner-up in last year's U.S. F2000 championship R.C. Enerson leading the way with a 1:14.4904 seconds lap, 0.05 seconds quicker than last year's Indy Lights runner-up and team veteran Jack Harvey. Sérralles was tenth fastest with a 1:14.6764. Scott Anderson was 11th quickest at a 1:14.7083. Ethan Ringel ended the two-day test 12th fastest and was the only driver to run both days to fail to run a sub-1:15 lap. The best lap Ringel put on the board was a 1:15.5698. 

With two-days of road course testing behind them, the dozen IL-15 chassis will take to the high banks of Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first official oval test. 

Three things to keep an eye on tomorrow:

1. Speed 
I think we all want to know how fast the IL-15 will be on an oval. The track record for the previous Lights car at Homestead was a 28.833-second lap by Chris Festa in 2007. These cars won't be trimmed out doing qualifying runs their the test but it will be interesting to see how quick they will be with a conservative setup.

2. Can Carlin keep up their pace?
Ed Jones and Max Chilton have never been on an oval before and while Chilton tweeted he was looking forward to the oval test, it will be interesting to see how the Brit handles any adversity.

3. Can Schmidt Peterson fight their way back to the top?
It's only testing but it's been a long time since we've see the Schmidt name so consistently near the bottom of any session having to do with Indy Lights. It was interesting to see R.C. Enerson, the driver who is skipping a rung on the ladder on going for U.S. F2000 to Lights, was quicker than his senior teammates Harvey and Anderson on the road course and I wonder if he can keep that up on the oval as this will be the Floridian's first time on a 1.5-mile oval. 

Lacking an Aston Martin
A few lingering thoughts from the 24 Hours of Daytona. First, I am still trying to wrap my head around Aston Martin putting five drivers in one car in GTLM instead of calling in another driver and running two teams of three? They had a great start at Daytona and were upfront until their early spin took them out of contention.

I am sure money was part of the reason for running only one car but it makes more sense not to put all the eggs in one basket. I think if they had split their driver line-up so Pedro Lamy. Paul Dalla Lana and Mathias Lauda in were in one car and Stefan Mücke, Darren Turner and one of their plethora of Danish drivers (Marco Sørensen, Nicki Thiim) in a second car, the Vantage GTE might have been in contention with the Corvette and BMW during those closing laps for the GTLM class victory.

Listening to the IMSA Radio broadcast during the 24 Hours of Daytona (I forget which hour of the race this took place) the commentators were talking about the lack of crossovers between fans of NASCAR and sports car racing. If you have been following this blog for quite sometime you know I am for as much cross-pollination by drivers as possible. I don't want specialization with distinct NASCAR drivers and distinct Formula One drivers and distinct IndyCar drivers. I want drivers who will run anything and everything.

Looking at the 24 Hours of Daytona and the three full-time NASCAR drivers that were in the field (Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and A.J. Allmendinger) and knowing that NASCAR has some interest in seeing IMSA succeed, you'd think NASCAR would want to get as many notable names in the big races such as Daytona as possible. While the crowd for this year's race was spectacular, having the names Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick wouldn't hurt and it might draw a few more eyeballs on the television broadcast.

Having more crossover might help series such as IMSA develop more fans. Someone might come only to see their favorite NASCAR driver and end up becoming a sports car fan who doesn't miss a race and might go see a race or two. Expanding a fans horizon wouldn't be a bad thing.

To bring this to an IndyCar perspective: If you are IndyCar, a series where most of their drivers are unknown, you have to find a way to get your drivers in the public eye and instead of relying on ad-campaigns and hopes of catching America's attention, why not turn some heads on the race track. We talk so much about drivers doing "The Double," running the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, we only ever focus on NASCAR drivers attempting it. People talk about Tony Stewart or Kurt Busch doing it. They never mention Justin Wilson or Ryan Hunter-Reay trying it. Why not try another double, a double that is aimed for IndyCar drivers?

On June 27th, IndyCar will be in Fontana, running 500 miles. The next day, NASCAR will be at Sonoma for their first road course of the NASCAR season. Last year, the NASCAR race at Sonoma had 4.68 million viewers and that was against the United States-Portugal World Cup match. Outside of the Indianapolis 500, I think the other 17 IndyCar races barely added up to 4.68 million viewers. What would IndyCar have to lose by flying a few drivers up to Sonoma the day after Fontana to run the NASCAR? It's a road course races, where a few drivers you'd have to expect would have a chance of running toward the front if not having a shot to win.

If I was IndyCar, I am begging Roger Penske to run Will Power at Sonoma and Watkins Glen since there are no IndyCar race that weekend as well. I don't know if Will Power running those races will bring a half a million people to a IndyCar broadcast but why not give it a shot? You have to slowly draw viewers in. What if he were to win? Will Power is getting on SportsCenter if he wins the NASCAR race at Sonoma or Watkins Glen. The only time he will get on SportsCenter for winning an IndyCar race is the Indianapolis 500.

It's all about narrative. Setup the narrative: The outside, the underdog entering the unknown and taking on the big boys at their own game. There is no one thing that IndyCar can do to all of a sudden get 100,000 people attending every race and every race drawing 2.5 million viewers on television but they have to make an effort to get their name and the name of the drivers known to the public and not just hope one day it will hit people in the face and they will all come eagerly flocking to ticket booths.