An Upbeat Look At The 2011 Season

As the pain from Dan Wheldon’s fatality still lingers, a lot of the sorrowful tributes have evolved into upbeat and downright funny stories about Dan. The human psyche is an amazing thing. It is against the nature of most people to stay down for very long. With that in mind, I would like to point out that aside from its tragic end – this was a very good season in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

If you count Texas twice, there were seventeen different races in the 2011 season. From those seventeen races, eight different drivers from five different teams won races. This is in stark contrast to the previous two seasons that saw only three teams win races. The 2009 and 2010 seasons were both heavily dominated by Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. In fact, had it not been for the Watkins Glen race won by Justin Wilson for Dale Coyne Racing, the 2009 season would have been the exclusive domain of the “red cars” of the Penske and Ganassi teams.

Despite everyone’s current mood, there were many highlights from this past season. Everyone has their own personal favorites. Many will point to one of my favorites, which was Ed Carpenter inching Dario Franchitti at the line at Kentucky earlier this month. This was a very popular victory that gave Ed his first as a driver, and Sarah – her first win as an owner. The race at Baltimore was a pleasant surprise for many. Although it looked as if there were going to be more growing pains than normal for a first-time event – the race had a big-time feel over television and from the reports I heard; even more so from the stands. Others might point to the stoic Mike Conway actually cracking a smile as he earned his first career win at Long Beach.

Supporters of Andretti Autosport will probably call this season a success, even though two of their cars failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Three of their four drivers went on to win races this season. Although inconsistent, they are showing signs of being on an upswing.

The entire race at Iowa was a major highlight in the eyes of many. It was the first time that the IndyCars had run at night on the short oval. The place was packed and the race was excellent. It was good to see Marco Andretti score only his second victory and first since his rookie year when he won a controversial race at Sonoma in 2006. This time, there was no controversy as he beat his mentor and former teammate Tony Kanaan, who had to settle for second.

Most know that I am an unapologetic fan of Team Penske. Although Penske driver Will Power was in the hunt for the championship until the end, their other two drivers – Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe – both had miserable seasons. Ryan Briscoe finished sixth in the final standings, but was never considered a threat for the championship. It didn’t help that he was taken out in several races – once by Helio in the opening race. Speaking of Helio, he finished a very quiet eleventh in the standings – not very Penske-like by any measure.

When Team Penske migrated from CART for the 2002 season, most figured that Penske would win every year. Although their record at Indianapolis has been very impressive in the past eleven years (five wins), they’ve only won one championship – when Sam Hornish won in 2006. You have to start wondering when that will change

There was a close rookie of the year battle throughout the season between Canadian James Hinchcliffe and American J.R. Hildebrand. Hinchcliffe’s ride didn’t come together until after the first race of the season at St. Petersburg. It didn’t matter. Hinchcliffe put together a very solid effort and finished twelfth in the points, while Hildebrand finished just six points behind in fourteenth. But Hildebrand had the more impressive Month of May. Hildebrand had a slight edge in qualifying and started twelfth, just ahead of Hinchcliffe’s thirteenth. In the race however, Hinchcliffe crashed in a one-car accident on Lap Ninety-Nine, while Hildebrand led the last several laps before crashing in the last turn of the last lap, while still finishing second. It was good enough to earn him Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. So both rookie stars had something to celebrate.

Another big story throughout the season was the resurgence of Hinchcliffe’s team – Newman/Hass Racing. Along with Hinchcliffe’s solid season – his veteran teammate, Oriol Servia, had a stellar season and finished fourth in the championship. Of course, one key part of the season that has been overlooked by what happened last weekend – is that Dario Franchitti won his fourth championship and third in a row (although it could be argued that he has now won four in a row, since he didn’t compete in 2008). That is impressive in any era in any series.

Even without the tragic events of last weekend, I would have chosen this to be my highlight of the year – and one of the biggest of all time: Dan Wheldon winning the Indianapolis 500 coming out of the fourth turn on the last lap in a one-off effort. I said it back in May and I’ll say it again in October. Hollywood could not have come up with a more perfect script for the way the 2011 Indianapolis 500 played out. It was one of the most popular Indianapolis 500 victories that I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in person. Everyone cheered. I didn’t hear a single soul anywhere inside the Speedway gripe about that win. It was a magical finish to a magical month.

So years from now, when the 2011 season is mentioned – I wonder what the first thought will be that runs through my head. Will it be that dark day at Las Vegas or will it be that magical day at Indianapolis? I think it’ll be seeing Wheldon cross the yard of bricks in disbelief. The human psyche is an amazing thing.

George Phillips

Please note – John and I will return here on Thursday for another edition of One Take Only – the videoblog of that is unscripted, unrehearsed, unedited and done in only one take. What you see is what we got. We’ll discuss the Wheldon tragedy and give our perspective on the 2011 season.

12 Responses to “An Upbeat Look At The 2011 Season”

  1. Again a well written fine perspective that will promote healing. Thanks George! As much as I am empty over the loss of Dan, I retain that warm, fuzzy in my heart for Ed and Sarah Fisher Racing. They get MY vote…..

  2. I’ll always go with Dan’s win at Indianapolis.

  3. Great column, George. There’s really so much to remember in this season, from Long Beach to Indy to Iowa to Kentucky.

  4. Good post George. As usual, you are right and have a good perspective on the series. 2011 was a good year, full of positives, which provided a lot to build on.
    While my heart aches for Susie Wheldon, their boys and the rest of the Wheldon family, what we have seen in the past 10 days is the catalytic affect the Las Vegas race has become. That event was built to be a springboard to greater success for INDYCAR. While it went very off script, I believe it will prove to be just that.
    What shows the true character of a person (or organization/business) is not what happens to them, but how they react to what happens.
    I believe, starting with the five lap tribute, that Randy Bernard and all of the INDYCAR family have reacted very well.

  5. Mike Conway passing 20+ cars in 20 laps of Long Beach (almost all of them under green flag) is near the top of my list. Its so sad how remarkable a feat that was, and how no one has played it up for any attention.

  6. The Lapper Says:

    Besides Dan’s stunning win at this year’s 500, I will also remember Marco, RHR, Conway and Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter, Dixon and Franchitti going at it with Will Power. Thanks George for reminding me to think about and remember the good things that the 2011 season brought with it. Randy is doing a a great job at polishing the diamond that is INDYCAR.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Thanks George for reminding us that this season was more than just the defining extremes experienced at Indy and at Las Vegas.

    What I’ll remember beyond what I’ve seen already mentioned;
    – A back-and-forth two man championship battle that would have been the talk of the world motorsports scene had it happened in Formula 1.
    – Marco Andretti’s crossover pass on Sato at Iowa. Prettiest pass I’ve seen in a long time.
    – Power picking up 2 seconds A LAP before final pitting to stay ahead of Servia at Baltimore.
    – A great three-man fight at Milwaukee before Kanaan spun and Helio cut a tire.
    – Dario’s inexplicable mistake at New Hampshire.
    – From the washout in Sao Paulo, to the grid run at Baltimore, to the sad afternoon in Vegas, drivers and reporters alike shined in interviews this year.

  8. Great post George.

    The top two highlights this season for me were Ed’s win at Kentucky (was screaming “Go Ed!” the last 15 laps) and Dan’s win at Indy (such a surprise and was absolutely thrilled to watch him celebrate the second time around).

    Also, a slight correction: Helio ended up 11th in points.

  9. I remember that you not like Japan.

    • Yes. That will truly be the enduring memory for thousands upon thousands of IndyCar fans as we look back on 2011. In my mind’s eye, I see George and Godzilla standing shoulder to shoulder astride the island nation, laughing as the IndyCar FedEx planes take off to head home one final time.

  10. So true, lots of good things happend this year. The Indy 500 was the highlight for me too! I loved Ed’s win too but nothing can beat the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500! I think Dan would want us all to remember the good things!

  11. My 7 most memorable moments of 2011 (For better or worse)

    In sort of order of when they happened:

    1) Conway’s surprise win at Long Beach
    2) Tag’s moment with Sam Schmidt when he got the pole at Indy.
    3) J.R.’s accident and Dan swooping in for the win at Indy.
    4) The “game show” at Texas between races one and two.
    5) Marco winning at Iowa.
    6) The picture of the Fisher family and Ed in victory lane at Kentucky.
    7) And of course, the tragedy in Las Vegas, and our loss of Dan.

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