Grand Prix Of Baltimore - Day 3

Baltimore year three was wild, wacky, and yet again memorable


In only three years, the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT has established itself on the best place on the IndyCar calendar to enjoy a healthy helping of contact, controversy, and crab cakes.

Its place is not yet secured for 2014 despite all indications from the series and race promoters Andretti Sports Marketing, that they’re working to find a suitable date (early to mid-August seems the likely landing point).

Baltimore feels a bit like the red-headed step child among IndyCar street circuits. It doesn’t have Long Beach’s legacy, St. Petersburg’s opening-event buzz, Detroit’s Roger Penske backing, or Toronto’s Canadian selling point.

What it does have, in spurts, is talking and selling points. From the infamous Pratt Street chicane, to the train tracks, to a gorgeous backdrop at Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, and the nature of the track itself, the passing – and crashing – opportunities are endless. It’s also in a good market for sponsors, as there aren’t a ton of races on the East Coast.

Contrast Sunday’s race with the one at Mid-Ohio about a month ago. The 90 laps on the permanent road course there went caution-free and featured relatively minimal passing, and came down largely to pit strategies and ultimately a late move by Charlie Kimball over Simon Pagenaud.

Sunday at Baltimore was a wrecking free-for-all that ignited tempers, stirred rivalries and created controversies. And has got people talking.

Mid-Ohio was a purer race, while Baltimore was certainly entertaining when it was green. And to be fair to Baltimore, it wasn’t the race with the most cautions this year (7 occurred at Brazil and Sonoma) and was also down from 9 last year to 6 this Sunday, even if it at times it seemed like the cautions wouldn’t stop. The one thing that goes against it was the stretch from Laps 40 to 65, the near constant string of cautions that dropped the average speed below 68 mph.

Which race will you remember more? For me, I’d amend the line from “Wedding Crashers” to “Crab cakes and contact – that’s what Maryland does!”

Baltimore almost seems IndyCar’s street circuit version of a cage match. You have enough evidence now to know that this race is going to be a crash-fest. You know you’ll get some good views of the city and skyline. You know you’ll get a surprise podium – Sam Schmidt’s, Sarah Fisher’s and Jay Penske’s teams finished in the top three spots on Sunday – and that variety is invariably more interesting than yet another Penske-Ganassi podium sweep.

But it’s not like the Penske-Ganassi subplot wasn’t evident either. It was big. It was controversial. It was the rivalry back on the front burner with the latest Scott Dixon-Will Power dust-up. It was probably the biggest talking point coming out of the weekend.

It’s for all those reasons I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Grand Prix of Baltimore. The hate is only for all the contact – if the race could have been just a little cleaner, not had that second Turn 1 pileup and a third one in Turn 3, for instance – I think it would have been an even better race.

But man there’s a lot to love, if you actually make the effort to go. You can tell the effort the ASM team puts into the event. Last year they needed to resuscitate the race from a shoddy first-year promoter, but this year they made some improvements. On the corporate side, adding the “Chicane Suites” at the track’s most notorious corner was a great way to show the partners of the event the most discussed part of the track.

As for the paddock layout, it was much improved this year with a Family Fun Zone – a la its sister event in Milwaukee – put in immediately east of the IndyCar paddock and in the air-conditioned Baltimore Convention Center, was a great thing to attract the next generation of IndyCar fans. Speaking as the youngest full-time member of the IndyCar media corps, I can’t express how pivotal it is to get the younger crowd, especially those who live outside of Indianapolis, interested in IndyCar racing.

A race like Baltimore may not have the cache, the cleanliness or the glory of some of the other events on the calendar. But damn if this isn’t IndyCar’s version of the crazy uncle you can’t wait to see every year just to see what unexpected thing will happen next.

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NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
(Getty Images)
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski