TorontoAnalysis

IndyCar: Toronto weekend analysis, musings and observations

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TORONTO – I previously hadn’t been to Toronto a year ago – much less Canada – so last year was always going to be a “wow!” wide-eyed first experience north of the border. This year, for the Honda Indy Toronto weekend, I could take in the weekend with a closer eye knowing what the weekend was like and what to expect.

A few thoughts on the races, the event and the city to follow:

  • Parity reigns. Sebastien Bourdais and Mike Conway won for KVSH Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing, meaning the six doubleheader races this year have been won by five different teams. Team Penske swept Detroit; Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports scored in Houston. All told this season, we’ve had nine race winners (all of whom have come in the last nine races), 18 different podium finishers and 21 different drivers who’ve banked a top-five finish (sorry, Sebastian Saavedra).
  • Rain reigns. This weekend was not the first occasion of rain wreaking havoc on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule this season. St. Petersburg, Barber, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Houston and Iowa have all had rain interruptions at some point during the weekend. But while Houston’s rain came in Race 1, and didn’t cause a schedule change, the spitting rain here on Saturday caused a bit of a nightmare for INDYCAR and the fans on site. And, as at least one PR person told me this weekend, I’d regained the unofficial “blame me” championship belt due to the preponderance of rain at races I’ve attended… (all but Iowa in that six-pack).
  • Maybe it was Rob Ford’s fault? The weekend was going smoothly in Toronto… then embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford showed up and Saturday then went into a rainy, drunken stupor that needed to come out of rehab. But he took a pace car ride with Paul Tracy, so that was interesting. Doubt any teams will have the gumption to blame Ford for their crappy on-track weekend, as Magnus Racing so brilliantly did last week.
  • Mikhail Aleshin is one lucky Russian. No need to say anything else about the JPM/Aleshin contretemps in race two other than Aleshin’s seriously lucky, because he said he couldn’t even breathe properly due to JPM’s car being on top of him. Open-wheel cars have always been open cockpit, but at the end of this year I think INDYCAR needs to at least begin to ponder the possibility of further enhanced cockpit protection.
  • Not racing Saturday was probably the right call. I feel for INDYCAR regarding its call to ultimately not race on Saturday, because really, they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. You don’t want 12-plus totaled cars and more work for the crews overnight. Then again, the crews were left in the situation Sunday where if their car was damaged in the rescheduled race one, there’d barely be any time to fix in the three-plus hour window before race two. Hearing the drivers say publicly too, save for rookies Jack Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin, that the conditions were too unsafe to race was all I needed to hear. The last time there was vocal dissent about the safety of a race before it happened was Las Vegas 2011… and we all remember how that went.
  • But as a result, better contingency plans and communication were needed. What did need fixing more than anything was the communication of how to proceed once the rain happened and delayed the process. For one, starting so late on Saturday (3:50 p.m.) limits options to get a first, full race in that day. Once it got to 6, 6:30, it was all for naught. There were communication issues regarding which channel the rescheduled race one would be on; there was back-room petitioning by the six other support series (frankly, too many for the weekend) to try to get better timeslots themselves, and a further schedule change to see the reduced races dropped from 85 laps to 75, then 75 to 65 laps or 80 minutes. In theory, it should go that when a revised schedule is announced, that’s the revised schedule. When you stick around in the media center until 8:30 p.m. and it changes 10 minutes later after you’ve left, when you find out via Twitter, you can only imagine the frustration. Here was the track’s official statement and how it planned to honor Saturday tickets.
  • Red, red, red. I could elaborate on the frequency of red flags this weekend, but I’ll refer you instead to this rather spot-on blog entry from Mark Wilkinson of NewTrackRecord that sums it up nicely.
  • On Derrick Walker’s impromptu media conference. Hiring Derrick Walker is one of INDYCAR’s smartest hires in recent memory. That said, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into with Walker, and one of his trademarks is his tendency to speak off the cuff. So when he waltzed into the media center around 8 p.m., without a formal introduction, what followed was the racing equivalent of Hungry, Hungry Hippos – in this case, Hungry, Hungry Journos who’d barely eaten all day but wanted some meat from Walker on why the day had shaken out as it had (some pepperoni pizza could have worked, as well). Say what you will about IMSA’s indiscretions and controversy this year regarding penalties, but at least when Scot Elkins appeared at Daytona and Sebring, there was a formal introduction, a formal statement, then an open Q&A. As an aside, one of the funnier moments of the weekend for yours truly came when I was running back into the media center before race two, held the door open for Walker as he headed to Race Control, and he joked, “Despite what people say about you, you’re not such a bad kid.” One of my colleagues started laughing after watching the exchange.
  • “The element of surprise.” I had no problem with Will Power answering my question regarding the call to throw the final red flag in race two this way: “That’s what’s good for the fans, the ultimate surprise, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Some took that to mean that INDYCAR didn’t know what it was doing, or changed things on the fly. But Power was introspective; the Australian noted that while he was surprised he’d been moved to the back of the grid following his race one spin and crew repair, he was grateful to even be in the race on Sunday rather than laps down on Saturday. More than his two wins and other podiums this year, it may be that ninth place in race one bags him enough points to capture that elusive first series championship.
  • Podium selfies! This, from Power, was also cool. More please. Shows these guys have personality and is done for the fans.
  • Detroit vs. Toronto as a race? I’d rather take Detroit. Despite what the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video, Take 2” video will tell you – at least we’re not Detroit! – I actually wish Toronto was Detroit. Because the event itself has a long ways to go to match the professionalism, ease of access and overall presentation that Roger Penske, Bud Denker and the entire Detroit Grand Prix organization have assembled just a bit south of T.O. Toronto is one of the hardest races in terms of getting anywhere around the premises – construction doesn’t help (like in Cleveland!) – the fans get shafted with no INDYCAR Fan Village, there’s minimal souvenir offerings, and the vendors on site have no apparent flow or reasoning. Canadian fans are smart, diehard, passionate individuals – they deserve better than what they’re getting now. As a city, Toronto wins hands down, but as an event, it could afford to take some lessons from how Detroit has put things on over the last few years.

Anyway, that in the books, it’s off to Mid-Ohio from August 1-3 following a much-needed off weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock.

Verizon’s “Lunch with Legends” returns at Watkins Glen

TORONTO - JULY 10:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara and Helio Castroneves of Brazil driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Honda chat before warm up for the IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy Toronto on July 10, 2011 in the streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Franchitti and Castroneves join Bobby Rahal for Verizon event on Friday. Photo: Getty Images
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This weekend at Watkins Glen International, Verizon will host another of its “Lunch with Legends” series – which have also occurred at a couple other events this year, notably at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Road America.

The Verizon IndyCar Series’ title sponsor works to bring fans access while also bringing together legends of the sport for a panel Q&A discussion, hosted by NBCSN contributor Robin Miller.

This week, it’ll be Bobby Rahal, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves having the discussion from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET. Castroneves will be checking in after first practice; Franchitti serves as Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver advisor and coach while Rahal fields a singleton entry for Graham Rahal, the Texas race winner.

And while it’s usually members of the paddock that check this out, Verizon is also opening this up to fans. A note on how is below:

As part of the Verizon Inside Indy program that gives fans incredible access to the sport, we’re letting 10 Verizon customers (plus a guest) join us for the Lunch with Legends. We’ll be looking for the fans on Friday and upgrade them on the spot, similar to how we provide fans access to Verizon Pit View.

The event takes place in the Watkins Glen Media Center, on the Great Room, Second Floor.

CJ Wilson Racing secures its elusive first GS win at VIR

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Go figure in a race that featured a 52-minute red flag for near-hurricane like weather conditions that the sun would finally shine on CJ Wilson Racing in the GS class of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

Wilson’s team, which won last year’s ST class championship with Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer in a Mazda MX-5, made a big switch this year to step up to GS, with Marc Miller and Danny Burkett in its primary No. 33 ONE Capital/Motor Oil Matters car, and purchased two new Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports.

Miller and Burkett have been podium regulars this year starting from the opening race at Daytona, but their first win has eluded them until Saturday. The cruelest loss came at Watkins Glen; Miller seemed primed to win there but ran aground of slower MINI ST class traffic, and lost out to Bodymotion Racing.

Bodymotion and Multimatic Motorsports had swept the season up until Saturday at VIR but courtesy of Miller passing Billy Johnson in the Multimatic Ford Shelby GT350R-C to start the final stint, and then maintaining the gap from there, the CJWR maiden GS victory was finally achieved.

That stint followed from Burkett, the Mazda Road to Indy veteran-turned-sports car rising star, keeping the car on the road until the conditions shifted on a dime from sunny and cloudy to Noah’s Ark-level downpour at the Alton, Va. 3.27-mile road course.

Where the Andris Laivins-led team was probably smartest was early; the team was among the first to switch onto Continental Tire wet-weather tires, which proved prescient as other struggled to limp back to the pits on slicks before the race was red flag.

“This was probably one of our most difficult races because we had to deal with a monsoon!” Miller admitted. “We faded early as Danny struggled a little bit with the balance of the car, but we had set it up for long runs so we kind of expected that it would be towards the middle of Danny’s stint before it got better but we never got that opportunity.

“The great call that they made was that we took the earliest opportunity to get Continental rain tires on the car and they are excellent in conditions like the ones we had. They are super predictable and very stable.

“When Danny got out and I got in I was hoping it was going to stay damp the rest of the way. I thought that was our best opportunity for victory given that we are just not as quick on the short runs, it takes us four or five laps to get going. I was able to put the move early on Billy and that felt just awesome!

“We were getting great forward bite out of the corners so I could square it up and go, that is really what made the difference. And thanks again to the CJ Wilson Racing crew, the car set up was awesome. We’re so happy to get our first GS win and we are also hoping to do three in a row this year like everyone else seems to be doing. I’m definitely looking forward to the next race.”

Burkett’s win comes a little more than a year after his major sports car debut, when he podiumed at Watkins Glen International in similarly tricky conditions in a BAR1 Motorsports PC car, co-driving with Martin Plowman and Matt McMurry. He dabbled in sports car racing last year but has been the full-time co-pilot of “Darth Cayman” in 2016.

“The conditions were challenging to say the least; it was kind of like driving in a hurricane, it was all about survival!” said the driver who’s nicknamed the “Manitoba Missile.”

“At one point, while on wets, on the front straight I hit a puddle, aquaplaned, and around we went. Luckily enough we didn’t hit anything but it was a total roller coaster of emotions because when that happened my heart sank. I can’t describe it, I can’t wait until we win the Championship.

“I have no idea how I’m going to be able to watch my own kids when they start racing!”

Wilson, who tries to attend as many races as his schedule allows when not a member of the Los Angeles Angels, has now added this win to his other racing accomplishments with his team, which continues its planned strategic growth in 2016.

“This is why we work so hard.  The tough races and close finishes have been difficult to take but I’m so happy for the crew,” he said.

“The way we have evolved as a team is definitely something to be proud of.  Danny and Marc have been great all year in the Cayman and to be able to stand on the top step of the podium with a race win is the biggest step we have taken all year. We have to look forward to our next race at COTA and I can’t wait to see everyone in the paddock.

“All of our partners that have gotten us to this point should feel just as proud, they’re a big part of this win too!”

Miller and Burkett are down 20 points to Johnson and Scott Maxwell with two races to go. Next up is the team’s home race at Circuit of The Americas, not far from its Austin headquarters.

The “three in a row” line mentioned by Miller owes to the fact Bodymotion’s pair of Trent Hindman and Cameron Cassels won Rounds 2 through 4 in a row, while Johnson and Maxwell won Rounds 5 through 7. This was Round 8, so if Burkett and Miller could emulate the three-peat, there’s a chance they could capture the title.

Lamborghini’s long, winding road finally leads to first GTD win at VIR

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Given its pace and pedigree of drivers, it seemed only a matter of time before the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 would win its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

But “only a matter of time” took until Round 9 of 11 this season following a number of unexpected surprises and growing pains that come with the step up into the series and GT Daytona category.

Lamborghini has worked to grow its North American race presence the last few years, particularly with the implementation and rapid growth of the one-make Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America series. Drivers like Kevin Conway, a past NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year, Justin Marks, Corey Lewis, Madison Snow, Andrew Palmer, Richard Antinucci, Edoardo Piscopo and others have passed through that series’ halls along with a number of gentlemen drivers. This year, Trent Hindman and Stefan Wilson have become some of the more known notables, while Shinya Michimi has dominated as the top pro in the primarily pro-am series.

While the Super Trofeo one-make series has been a hit, the Huracán GT3 program debuted this year at Daytona with a big splash.

Yet the splash of talent assembled though drove down a tortuous road to get to Sunday at VIRginia International Raceway.

Lamborghini began the year with three full-time cars: the No. 11 O’Gara Motorsport entry for defending GTD class champions Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, the No. 16 Change Racing entry for sports car ace Spencer Pumpelly and up-and-comer Corey Lewis, and the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing car for Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow.

Of those three, only Miller had top-level IMSA experience as a team, but by switching cars (from the Audi R8 LMS) and drivers (Sellers and Snow), they faced a steep learning curve with their new elements. O’Gara and Change, meanwhile, stepped up from Super Trofeo into the significantly deeper series.

Add in two other Konrad Motorsport entries for one-off starts in the opening two rounds of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup – plus all the extra third and fourth drivers – and on paper, the odds for Lamborghini to start strongly looked good.

The problem, of course, was that Lamborghini started too strongly.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona was an exercise in eyebrow-raising once the Lamborghinis showed their full hand in race pace, running significantly faster lap times from most of its drivers throughout the race. A final charge from Fabio Babini in one of the Konrad cars nearly saw that car win before a late splash of fuel was needed and it dropped to fifth.

It caught the eyes of IMSA, the sanctioning body, which imposed the following penalties on February 22:

Following observed performance during Round 1 of the 2016 Championship, IMSA has levied penalties under Sporting Regulation Attachment 2, Paragraph 2.9 against the following GT Daytona (GTD) teams 11, 16, 21, 28 and 48, as well as to the manufacturer, Lamborghini.

Each team was assessed a post-race penalty of a stop plus five (5) minutes which was added to each car’s finishing time.

The manufacturer penalty was assessed as a loss of Championship and North American Endurance Cup points and a $25,000 fine.

The sanctions from IMSA were not the only speed bump Lamborghini hit in this time frame.

O’Gara’s team dissolved in the blink of an eye after one race owing to other unexpected financial straits that hit team principal Tom O’Gara’s other businesses.

It left Sweedler and Bell without a home – let alone the crew – and produced a bit of a domino effect.

O’Gara team manager Shane Senaviratne restarted his US RaceTronics team – originally founded in 2005 – for Super Trofeo in early March. Meanwhile Sweedler and Bell found a last-minute home with Robby Benton’s Change team in a second car, albeit only on a race-by-race basis.

Bell told me in April after the O’Gara effort collapsed, “It’s been a weird first quarter of the year. Last December I would have told you I’d never had a more solid stable situation. Things got out of our hands a bit quickly. It took a while to get things back on track, but now we have.”

Things didn’t get particularly better at Sebring. There were six Lamborghinis – the five from Daytona with the Bell/Sweedler car now under the Change umbrella – plus the debut of the Dream Racing Huracán. Lawrence DeGeorge had a heavy testing accident in Dream’s Huracán debut but the car was repaired in time for Sebring.

The Bell/Sweedler debut saw the car run out of fuel once, then stay out in the rain once the conditions turned miserable and Bell lost control at Sebring’s notorious Turn 17, having aquaplaned. In the second Change car, Lewis got a penalty in-race for an improper pass-around of the pace car. Even though that car led, it triggered a penalty that cost them nearly two laps and took them out of contention.

So two races, one race full of post-race penalties, the second with in-race penalties, and a best finish of sixth (Miller).

Two top-10s followed in the next round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with the Miller car seventh and the No. 16 Change car 10th. After a 15th-place finish, the Bell/Sweedler car was withdrawn, with Bell resuming to focus on his Indianapolis 500 effort with Andretti Autosport and his NBCSN TV commitments, while both he and Sweedler would focus on their 24 Hours of Le Mans encore effort with Scuderia Corsa.

Bell nearly won Indy, and Bell, Sweedler and Jeff Segal did win Le Mans in the GTE-Am class following an incredible effort.

Lamborghini’s plight continued, meanwhile, in GTD. Sellers delivered the manufacturer’s first pole at Detroit, but in an abnormal strategic move, it meant he – and Change, who’d opted to qualify Pumpelly – would be starting their lead pro drivers and finish their lesser experienced pro drivers, Snow and Lewis. Eighth and sixth in the race was hardly what either was looking for.

It took until Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for Lamborghini to get its first podium and top-five results. The Miller car was third, the Change car fifth. Dream Racing came eighth for its best result to date.

Despite a pole at Lime Rock for Change, Pumpelly saw the strategy go awry again and that car ended eighth. Miller was fourth. Road America failed to produce any top-fives on a track with long straightaways.

Snow, Miller and Sellers. Photo: Paul Miller Racing
Snow, Miller and Sellers. Photo: Paul Miller Racing

At VIR this weekend though it all came good – finally – for Miller and Lamborghini.The class of the field all weekend having led every session, Snow never put a wheel wrong while Sellers survived a brief off-course excursion and a last lap restart to secure the manufacturer’s first win in GTD.

Given the number of speed bumps it took to get there, it seemed the victory meant a lot to the Miller team, to Sellers and Snow and to Lamborghini directly.

“As far as Lamborghini’s first win, it’s a huge honor,” Sellers said. “When you think about being a young kid growing up, I think all of us dreamed about driving a Lamborghini. Being able to deliver their first win in IMSA is something pretty special. I’m glad that we at Paul Miller Racing could be the ones to do that for them, and I hope it builds our relationship and makes that stronger.”

“Our relationship with Lamborghini is very strong,” added team owner Paul Miller. “They really appreciate what we’ve done, our level of professionalism, the caliber of drivers in Madison and Bryan. Everything about our team is top drawer, and I think they are starting to recognize that even though we’ve lagged in the championship points. I think they realize we’re delivering a first class effort and finally showing the results that, frankly, should have been here all along.”

For Lamborghini itself, it means it’s finally arrived as a winner along with the other manufacturers in a stacked GTD class.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the Squadra Corse Lamborghini’s first win in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship,” said Lamborghini Squadra Corse’s Chris Ward. “The Paul Miller Racing team has done an outstanding job all season long.

“This has been our foundation year for a good springboard into what we hope will be a really successful 2017 campaign. We’ve formed a fantastic relationship not only with Paul Miller Racing but with all of our Squadra Corse supported teams.”

The best may be yet to come from here, if Lamborghini has ironed out all the first-year challenges that come with such a big step up.

Hinchcliffe gets call to dance on Dancing with the Stars

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda speaks during a media conference before the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Helio Castroneves has won three Indianapolis 500s, but it was his turn on “Dancing with the Stars” that had as much to do with vaulting him into the national consciousness of mainstream Americana – if not more so – as those three victories.

James Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, has the engaging, dynamic personality that has captured the hearts of the North American open-wheel paddock and fan base for nearly a decade. And he’ll get his own mainstream Americana chance on the next season of “DWTS.”

Hinchcliffe was announced Tuesday morning on “Good Morning America” as part of the new season cast for the new season of the ABC show, which premieres September 12. The report was initially identified by the Indianapolis Star.

“Well, I can honestly say this will rank just above the Indy 500 as one of the most nerve-wracking things that I’ve ever agreed to do,” Hinchcliffe said in a team release.

“Normally I’m used to working under pressure in front of a live audience, but I can’t see them, so this should be a totally new experience for me and especially as someone with no ability to dance whatsoever.”

The 29-year-old Canadian follows Castroneves as Verizon IndyCar Series drivers on the show; former NASCAR team owner and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip was also on the show a few years ago.

Hinchcliffe sits eighth in points for the 2016 season driving the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. He has three podiums, including a hard-luck runner-up finish Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway by just 0.008 of a second to Graham Rahal, after leading from the restart and after the joke of him leading for 76 straight days in the race’s rain delay.

He also scored a famous pole position for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500, a year after near fatal injuries sustained in an accident in practice in 2015.