IndyCar: Mid-Ohio weekend analysis, musings, and observations

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The first race in the “final four” for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season is in the books. Round 15 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course featured some surprises and ultimately a rare performance for 2014: a Scott Dixon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing victory. Here’s the weekend summation:

  • When do they rename the joint Mid-Ohio Scott Dixon Wins, Of Course? ‘Ol “Scotty Dog” has had a tough season in defense of his 2013 championship, not really through any fault of his own but more due to an ever so slight performance gap that the Chip Ganassi Racing team has spent the entirety of the year trying to catch up. But Sunday? Yeah, he needed strategy to get to the lead but once he got there, Dixon had the speed to burn to ultimately pull away from Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe in the final stages. All while saving fuel. As Hinchcliffe said when asked what he thought of Mid-Ohio, it was, “Scott Dixon winning… Scott Dixon winning… Scott Dixon winning again… yep, Scott Dixon won again.” Sunday’s win was Dixon’s fifth in eight years (2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014), coming with the old car, the new car, and both engine manufacturers (Honda, Chevrolet) for the new car.
  • Could Dixon steal the title? The short answer is no. The longer answer is very slightly still possible. With his win and Helio Castroneves finishing 19th, Dixon gained 42 points on the Brazilian this race, and he also gained 25 on Will Power. So with three races remaining, Dixon is 108 points behind new leader Power, and with a double-points finale at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana he still has a mathematical chance (wins pay 100 points and a gain of 88 points from first to 22nd is possible). But in sixth, he’ll need to win the next two races and hope the five ahead of him have an avalanche of bad luck in order to have a realistic one.
  • Newgy’s bitter luck strikes again: What can you do when your team lets you down? Grin, bear it and take it like a pro, or break down and lose it. Fortunately Josef Newgarden chose the former after his bitter disappointment on Sunday.
  • Rain reigns… just like it has most of this year: Rain again made for an abnormal flow to the race weekend. It’s affected a wealth of races this year – Mid-Ohio was just the latest – and a funky qualifying session saw teams gamble depending on the weather conditions. The debate rages over Firestone’s new wet weather tire, which has been a subject of controversy in the paddock of late. There’s also a debate as to whether yours truly holds the “championship belt” for rain delays… actually there’s little debate on that (it’s an inside joke run amuck, that’s been particularly pertinent this season).
  • Championship fight on the back burner: Power took the lead from Castroneves, but none of the title contenders ended in the top five. Ryan Hunter-Reay had a miserable day and Simon Pagenaud was anonymous all weekend, surprisingly; the Frenchman started and finished ninth. Does anyone want this championship?
  • Underrated, great run from Graham Rahal: Perhaps overlooked but turning in one of his most impressive performances of the season was Graham Rahal in the No. 15 National Guard RLL Honda, at his home race. Rahal – who could have podiums at both Houston races and also ran well at Iowa and Toronto before falling back – qualified seventh, consistently ran within the top five all day and ended fifth. Believe it or not this was only Rahal’s second top-five of the season, but was a big confidence booster heading into the final three races.
  • Similar story for Carlos Munoz: The Colombian rookie made his first Firestone Fast Six in the No. 34 Cinsay/AndrettiTV.com Honda and posted his best result since Pocono with fourth place on Sunday. Munoz hadn’t finished in the top five on a road or street circuit since Houston Race 1, when he finished third behind countrymen Carlos Huertas and Juan Pablo Montoya.
  • Two cautions, thus two more than in the last two years: The first lap caution and the second caution for Hunter-Reay’s spin made it two cautions in Sunday’s race – which is two more than the Verizon IndyCar Series produced the last two years this race. Both the 2012 and 2013 races went caution-free.
  • Silly season, schedule on the back burner: In recent years you’d have figured silly season and schedule talk would be emerging, but not right now. The condensed schedule means most focus will be on the championship chase over this month, and then everything else – all the lingering questions – will be addressed later.
  • Coffee shortage: This one had nothing to do with the on-track action, but more the internals in the media center. Coffee was hard to find this weekend, unless you went by Honda, in which case the coffee was awesome as ever at its home race. Sadly, a win was as elusive for Honda as coffee was for the rest of us media folks outside their hospitality – Chevrolet won its third straight race at a Honda-sponsored event (Chevrolet swept the Honda Indy 2 in Toronto; this was the Honda Indy 200).

That’s all from Mid-Ohio for me. My home race of Milwaukee occurs in two weeks, and you can bet we’ll have a wealth of coverage leading into the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers on August 17 on MotorSportsTalk.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”