Kentucky Preview

Thanks to all that sent get-well wishes through this site, Twitter and e-mail. I knew it was nothing serious and it wasn’t, but the strep throat and high fever was enough to put me completely out of commission on Tuesday. Trying to write a post would have been pointless. I generally don’t let sickness get me down. I have to be unable to lift my head off of the pillow before I call in sick, but that was the case this week. I am disappointed my “no sick-day streak” since 2006 has ended, but at least it was something that I bounced back from. Again, thanks for letting me off the hook with no post on Wednesday.

Before getting into the discussion on this weekend’s race at Kentucky, I would like to comment on the Al Unser, Jr. situation. If you haven’t heard, Little Al was arrested early Thursday morning. He was allegedly drag-racing with another car, while driving his Suburban at speeds in excess of 100 mph at around 3:00 am near Albuquerque, NM. His blood alcohol level exceeded the legal limit. This is Al Jr.’s third alcohol related arrest. INDYCAR has suspended him indefinitely from his role in Race Control pending further investigation.

First of all, I was and still am a big fan of Al Unser, Jr. For the better part of ten years, he was one of the top drivers in CART and was always a class act. I’ve had a few brief and casual fan meetings with Al over the years. In that time, he was one of the most friendly and accommodating drivers I’ve ever come across.

But I was surprised at what I read on Twitter last night, mostly from Tomas Scheckter, regarding his suspension. Scheckter and others asserted that fans should be supporting Al and not judging him. I also read tweets saying no one should judge Al unless they have walked a mile in his shoes. Another tweet said that REAL fans support their drivers, no matter what. Uh…excuse me?

INDYCAR did the right thing. Al needs help. Serious help – and I hope he gets it. But the fact that he has a serious problem does not exempt him from being held accountable for his actions – and his actions yesterday morning were deplorable. Thank God an innocent motorist didn’t happen to be in the wrong place and end up in the path of his speeding SUV. Make all the jokes and punch lines you want about Race Control, but the perception of those in charge is that they should have sound judgement. What Al did Thursday morning did not display sound judgement.

I wish Al all the best in his battle. I am still a fan, but my devotion as a fan is separate from my sense of right and wrong. We had all hoped he had beaten this disease after his last incident that also involved a vehicle. He has been lucky so far. Let’s hope he gets the help he needs to live a good life to enjoy his middle-age years. Most of all, let’s hope that he never puts innocent people at risk ever again. He may not be so lucky next time.

OK – off of my soapbox and on to this weekend…When I think of the IZOD IndyCar Series racing at Kentucky Speedway, the first thing I think of is the 2009 race when Ryan Briscoe nipped Ed Carpenter at the line by 0.0162 seconds. Starting fourteenth, Carpenter led thirty-five laps in what was one of the most exciting finishes that I’ve seen. The great drive of Carpenter in the bright yellow Menard’s sponsored Vision car was slightly tainted afterwards by a post-race interview. Vision team owner Tony George suggested on Versus that Carpenter may have “left something out there”. I remember thinking then how inappropriate that comment was. Two years later, my thinking hasn’t changed.

Kentucky Speedway was one of many ovals that sprouted during “track boom” of the late nineties. This period saw new ovals pop up in Fontana, Homestead, Chicago, Kansas, Texas, Nashville, Pikes Peak, Gateway (East St. Louis), Motegi and Kentucky. All except for Texas and Kentucky have one thing in common – they are all former destinations of the IZOD IndyCar Series. The rumors swirling for the past couple of weeks suggest that Kentucky may possibly go the way of the others after this season. It seems once a track gets that elusive NASCAR Cup date, they don’t care about anything else. Once Bruton Smith bought the facility in 2008, you wondered if that day was coming. Let’s hope that isn’t the case.

Kentucky Speedway hosted its first IRL event in August of 2000, with Buddy Lazier taking the checkered flag. In fact, Lazier won the next year as well. Lazier and Sam Hornish are the only drivers to claim two wins at the 1.5 mile oval just across the river from Cincinnati. Other notable winners include Felipe Giaffone, Scott Sharp, Adrián Fernandez, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves. Who holds the track record? None other than Sarah Fisher, when she won the pole in 2002 with a speed of 221.390 mph.

Last year, Ed Carpenter started on the pole and finished second behind Helio Castroneves, but he was half a lap back and the race wasn’t near as exciting up front. It ended up as a fuel strategy race, and Helio was able to stretch his fuel the longest as he inherited the lead on Lap 197.

Kentucky Speedway has been a good track for the IZOD IndyCar Series through the years. It has provided great storylines like Sarah Fisher becoming the first woman to win a pole in a major racing series, or Scott Sharp squeezing one last win out of his lengthy career. This also marked the last win in the series by a chassis that wasn’t a Dallara.

Then there was Dario Franchitti’s memorable gaffe in 2007, when he forgot the lap count and was still at racing speed when all the other drivers were slowing after the end of the race. Franchitti was launched skyward as he plowed into the rear of Kosuke Matsuura’s slowing car. Franchitti’s car went tumbling end-over-end before hitting the fence. This came just six days after Dario was airborne at Michigan. Still, he finished eighth in the race at Kentucky since it was over before he went flying.

Once the officials at Kentucky Speedway learned that they had secured a NASCAR Cup date, they literally doubled the amount of stands in place. The facility now holds well over a hundred thousand people. Unfortunately for their NASCAR fans, they didn’t have a plan in place to handle the increase in traffic when they held their first Cup race in July. Track officials ended up with egg on their face as many fans were left stranded in traffic, miles from the track and never got in. Chances are, that won’t be the case this weekend. Still, it seems that if this race doesn’t produce well at the gate, then this event may not appear on the 2012 schedule.

That would be a shame if another excellent on-track product is cut from the schedule. Ovals attract much better on television, why can they not at the track? At most ovals, excluding Indianapolis, fans can see the entire track – unlike street/road courses. As a fan, I have had a lot of trouble at Barber keeping up with what’s going on. It’s a great atmosphere, but if you want to follow the action – the track is not the place to be. Not so with ovals. But for whatever reason, INDYCAR seems to be fighting an uphill battle selling tickets to most ovals on the schedule.

I’m looking forward to this year’s race at Kentucky. We had planned to attend this race, but an unavoidable conflict popped up. I hope it is still around for us to go next year.

So who will win it? Last season, none of the championship contenders placed higher than fifth. Will Power’s struggles on ovals have been well documented. It may be unfair to call his performance on ovals struggles, but they are not his strong suit. Dario Franchitti has been in a funk lately. After winning at Toronto in July, Franchitti’s average finishing position is 6.8. That’s not that bad, but you likely will not win a championship with that number. Contrast that with Will Power whose average finish in that same span is 4.0. That and collecting the valuable bonus points is why Power went from trailing Franchitti by as many as sixty-two points to now leading him by eleven, with two races to go.

Dan Wheldon threw us all a curve when it was announced this week that he would be taking over the No. 77 car of Alex Tagliani for Kentucky. This is to give him an adequate chance to prepare for the $5 Million challenge at the finale in Las Vegas. I’m not sure that’s what Randy Bernard had in mind when he made that deal with Wheldon – but if it wasn’t spelled out that he could NOT do that, then more power to him. All the better for some lucky fan.

My prediction is that Will Power will leave Kentucky leading by the same amount or greater, but he won’t win the race. That will go to the hungrier of his two Penske teammates – Ryan Briscoe. Maybe with two races to go this season, Ill finally get one right.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Kentucky Preview”

  1. As for Little Al, just remember – “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Then go ahead. After all, you’re a mile away. And you’ve got his shoes.

  2. Kentucky has always been a favorite of mine. Hornish was fierce at Kentucky and Sarah Fisher had an awesome 2002 when she won the pole, led for 26 laps and finished in 8th. No telling what happens this weekend, but I look forward to it and I would like to see RHR, Marco, Dixon and TK duke it out.

    Get well Al jr.

  3. Not to slight Kentucky, but I think the success of Vegas–and the way Indycar/Bernard is promoting it–is going to have a large influence of the immediate future of ovals and Indycar. Especially New Hampshire and Kentucky. If we see NH and KY again, it will under a new financial plan and I hope Bernard makes it work.

    As for predictions, Dixon is hot and Helio is hot under the collar–so I’ll pick Dixon for the pole and Helio to win. I don’t see Ed C. performing very well here–he hasn’t anywhere else. I like to see Daniker get a good finish, but I don’t expect that either. And I hope the qualifications don’t get called on accounta snow…or below 50 temps. Glad you feel better George.

    • …and once again, my extensive knowledge of everything Indycar is displayed for all to witness.

      Way to go, Ed. Good for Sarah.

  4. I think redcar hjas it just about the way I see it. Bernard is going to have to take some charge of coming up with EVENTS. It may take reworking one oval per year to get it right, but if you make it more than just a race, adding some fan-grabbing gimmicks, (NOT to the racing,) you can turn an ordinary race into an EVENT.

    As to Al, Jr., I posted my perspective on this on my own blog last night. While I hope he gets better, maybe being around racing isn’t the best thing for him.

  5. Growing up in New Mexico, the Unsers were legendary. Little Al was particularly a favorite of mine, I was close friends with a close friend of Al Jr.–they grew up together, so I came to appreciate the Unsers even more. It was tragic when Little Al’s marriage broke up, and his subsequent battles with alcoholism have been equally troubling. I had hoped that he had put these types of episodes behind him. Alas, the fight never truly ends. I do not condone his actions, but wish him the best in continuing his fight against this disease. Some of the best years in IndyCar included Little Al and Galles Racing–it was a great time to be in Albuquerque!

    I hope the series can bounce back at these ovals; to lose oval racing in this series would be a fatal blow in my opinion.

    Glad you are feeling better George!

  6. I got a question, George, since you’re all about Penske and Tennessee…any chance Joe Newgarten nabs a ride with Penske next year? He’s got talent, experience, he’s young and he’d be an American-born pilot in a Chevrolet. What’s The Captain’s record with promising but untested rookies?

    • Oilpressure Says:

      I would love to see that, but it may be a few years. JN’s immediate future is with Sam Schmidt, which isn’t a bad thing. As with most car owners, The Captain has produced mixed results with rookies. He did bring Mark Donohue as a rookie. Although he had experience in open wheel cars, Rick Mears was a rookie at the Speedway. I’d say that worked out pretty well. Kevin Cogan had one Indy start to his credit (4th in ’81) before Penske signed him to replace Bobby Unser. He lasted one season. Paul Tracy was a Penske rookie. He won a lot of races, but tore up a lot of cars. I’m sure there are other rookies that Penske has brought along, but I can’t pull them off of the top of my head at the moment.

      But you are right. Josef Newgarden is the real deal and would fit in as a Penske driver. My fear is that he won’t stay around. When I sat down with him in June, he made it clear that he wanted to try ALL forms of racing. He’s probably talented enough to, but I’m hoping that was youthful exuberance talking. We need to keep him. – GP

      • that’s kinda what I was thinking. one good way to keep him in Indycar is to get him to drive for R.P. and I think it’s important for Indycar to keep him.

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