Thursday, August 3, 2017

1000 Words: Irish Hills of Yesteryear

We have reached August and another IndyCar season is nearing its end. We are in the middle of a two-week summer break for the series and only four races remain. The season flies by and the next round is a 500-miler at Pocono. Just over a month ago I wrote about how it had been ten years since the final Grand Prix of Cleveland and Saturday marks another ten-year anniversary for the most recent time IndyCar went to a famed track. This one was known for its 500-mile shows. It is Michigan International Speedway.

Michigan got caught up in the CART/IRL War and it was one of the tracks that jumped sides as teams and manufactures started flipping sides. It started out with CART and is remembered for the infamous U.S. 500 held the same day as the 1996 Indianapolis 500 to rival the event and prove the driver and team line-up of CART could succeed without having to be at the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway come the month of May. Within a decade, despite great races by CART, the series would leave the track and the IRL would step in. The 500-mile race was shortened to 400 miles.

While being a point of contention during the gruesome decade that was the 1990s into the 2000s, Michigan's history with IndyCar went much further back than that. The first race was held on October 13, 1968. Ronnie Bucknum took the victory, the only victory of his IndyCar career, by a lap over Mario Andretti in a 250-mile event.

After a year off, IndyCar returned on July 4, 1970, Roger Penske purchased the track in 1972 and by 1973 the track would host IndyCar twice a year with a second race weekend added in mid-September. The first 12 Michigan races were won by 12 different winners and after Bucknum won the inaugural race the next six winners were Gary Bettenhausen, Mark Donohue, Joe Leonard, Roger McCluskey, Billy Vukovich II and Johnny Rutherford. For Donohue and Leonard, it would be the penultimate victories of their careers respectively. It was McCluskey's final victory and Vukovich II's only victory. It was Rutherford's third career victory and earlier that season Rutherford had picked up his second career victory at Ontario in one of the heats for the California 500, his first victory in over eight years.

While consistently hosting two races (and some years three because of Twin 125s), Michigan's first 500-mile race wasn't until 1981. Of the twenty-two 500-mile races run at Michigan, only two drivers won the Michigan 500 more than once. Michael Andretti won it in 1987 and 1989 and Scott Goodyear in 1992 and 1994.

It was a site of unpredictable results, as the track's high speeds were known for creating high attrition races with countless engine failures, transmissions seizing and clutches burning up with the occasional driver running a tank dry and coasting back to the pit lane shaking up a race. A grand total of 12 drivers picked up their first career victory at Michigan. Beside Bucknum and Vukovich II; Tom Sneva, Danny Ongais, Pancho Carter, John Paul, Jr. Emerson Fittipaldi, Scott Goodyear, Scott Pruett, Tony Kanaan, Patrick Carpentier and Tomas Scheckter all had their maiden trip to victory lane at Michigan.

Eight different drivers from seven different teams won the last eight Michigan races. I know those races span both CART and the IRL but Michigan became a place where nobody knew what was going to happen even as the final lap began. The 1998 race saw the lead change each of the last five laps with Greg Moore coming out on top and Jimmy Vasser nipping his teammate Alex Zanardi for second as the Italian drove the final three laps with whisks of smoke trailing his car as his engine was letting go. Max Papis seemed to have had his first career victory locked up when he took the white flag with a three-second lead in 1999 but the Italian ran out of fuel entering turn three and Tony Kanaan flew by with Juan Pablo Montoya get a massive draft off the Brazilian. Kanaan held on to get his first career victory by 0.032 seconds. Montoya would come out on top the following year but not before a twenty-lap battle and a drag race to the line with Michael Andretti. The final CART and 500-mile race featured Dario Franchitti, Michel Jourdain, Jr. and Patrick Carpentier dicing for the lead with Carpentier benefitting from the presences of his lapped teammate Alex Tagliani in the lead group to allow him to pass both Franchitti and Jourdain, Jr. on the outside in turn three and then draft off his teammate to pull away and seal the victory for the Canadian.

Even those that hated the IRL probably watched the 400-mile races from 2002-07 and had to think they were pretty good. Tomas Scheckter and Buddy Rice, who was making his debut, worked their way from the back half of the top ten to a 1-2 finish for Team Cheever in the final 30 laps during what was a contentious time between Scheckter and the team. Alex Barron spun and clipped the infield grass with less than 40 laps to go in 2003 after battling for the lead with Sam Hornish, Jr. and Scheckter. Barron escaped any damage and he was able to keep the car running. He was able to get back into contention within ten laps of that spin and he was stuck to Hornish, Jr.'s gearbox for the final five laps before he made his move on the outside into turn three and he would beat Hornish, Jr. by 0.0121 seconds, the 11th-closest finish in IndyCar history.

IndyCar's time at Michigan did not end on a good note. The final two races were delayed by rain. It was a two-hour delay in 2006 and a four-hour delay in 2007. The latter race got bumped from ESPN2 to ESPN Classic. Though the racing wasn't bad, the draw wasn't there. The 2007 race had a pretty good battle between Franchitti and Dan Wheldon. Then there was the infamous accident that turned Franchitti's car into a kite and took out four of the top five cars. Once that accident was cleaned up the race did end with a five-car, 30-lap fight for the victory between Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick, Scott Sharp and Kosuka Matsuura. Patrick's shot at victory was dashed when she had to pit for a tire puncture. Kanaan proved to have the best car of those five and led the final 27 laps and he held off Andretti at the line by 0.0595 seconds.

After going back and watching pieces of those Michigan races, part of me feels like going to Michigan would benefit IndyCar. I have said before the current IndyCar schedule is at a good place with its arrangement of road courses, street courses and ovals but the speed and spectacle of big ovals is what gets the attention of people. The Indianapolis 500 has been great in the DW12-era and Fontana put on really great races every year it hosted a race in the DW12-era. The 2015 Fontana race might be one of the ten greatest IndyCar races of all-time. Why wouldn't IndyCar want to have two or three 220 MPH chess matches over 500 miles instead of just one at the end of May? Some might want to keep the Indianapolis 500 sacred but having a few breathtaking races a season wouldn't be a bad thing. It isn't realistic to have eight or ten or 12 races like that every season in IndyCar but three wouldn't be asking for much.

There isn't really a place for Michigan on the current IndyCar schedule. The series is in the midst of a two-week summer break but NASCAR is heading to the track in ten days and it wouldn't make sense to host IndyCar one week and NASCAR the next. July is already packed for IndyCar and the first NASCAR race at Michigan is Father's Day weekend. After the summer break IndyCar runs three consecutive weeks before ending the season on the third Sunday in September at Sonoma. I am not sure the series could go to Michigan for the season finale on the final weekend of September or in early October and draw a crowd. It is hard to compete during football season. Tracks struggle to get people through the turnstiles and the networks struggle to get people to tune into a race when football is in action.

Next year, Michigan International Speedway celebrates its 50th anniversary and it doesn't appear IndyCar will be on the guest list for the celebration but that doesn't mean IndyCar will never return. I am more optimistic about IndyCar one day returning to Michigan than I am Cleveland. For starters, Michigan is a permanent track and has two NASCAR dates keeping the doors open. Chevrolet is invested in the doubleheader at Belle Isle, which seems to suggest that it wouldn't want a race at Michigan but maybe IndyCar continues to grow a bit and the manufacture decides it is worth it to support a second outing down the road at the two-mile oval along with the street course event. Until that day comes, if it ever does, we at least have plenty of videos of slingshot passes aided by the Hanford device to keep us satisfied.