Random Thoughts On Phoenix

Welcome to the Month of May! Before discussing Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, with this being May 1 – I wanted to touch on what will be going on here throughout the month.

The first of May is always special for race fans, since it officially kicks off festivities surrounding the Indianapolis 500. It’s also special to me because today marks the eighth anniversary of when I started Oilpressure.com. It was May 1, 2009 when I first hit the blogosphere and it’s been a heck of a ride. It’s hard to believe but this post makes 1,511 posts I’ve put up here, along with a few guest bloggers along the way, since I started that day. I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon, but more than likely there is more blogging behind me than in front of me.

Like previous Mays, I will attempt to post here every weekday from now through Memorial Day. This coming weekend will have no posts, since there is no track activity; but beginning Friday May 12, I’ll be at IMS for three weekends in a row and posting from the track throughout each weekend. I’ll be enlisting the help from Paul Dalbey and my wife Susan to ease the load on a few days of the month.

Next week, I’ll be posting the annual Oilpressure.com Trivia Contest that everyone enjoys and I’ll give you a couple of weeks to get that done. Rules and conditions will be posted with the quiz.

It may not be the milestone race that last year’s was, being the 100th Running and all – but the 101st Running this year is just as intriguing. It promises to be an enjoyable month.

So, remember to come back here tomorrow and every day through the Month of May for Indianapolis 500 related posts and discussions. I’m looking forward to it. Why wouldn’t I? It’s the Month of May!

Now, about the race…

Saturday night’s race at Phoenix got off to a wild and rocky start with a five-car pile-up in Turn Two about eight seconds into the race. Mikhail Aleshin just “lost it” when the back end of his car came around as he was going through the inside of the turn. He took out points leader Sébastien Bourdais, who was innocently on the outside of the turn. In the process, the cars of Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and Max Chilton had nowhere to go and before the cars had even gone half a lap, their evening was over.

At that point, it appeared we may be in for an excitement-filled race. Practically the only other bit of excitement going forward was when Helio Castroneves jumped the re-start and the field had to go around again. From there it was pretty much a single-groove parade. Any real competition was mostly between the four Team Penske cars and JR Hildebrand, who may have been the highlight of the evening. Hildebrand’s car was obviously very hooked up. The fact that he was driving with a broken hand made his run even more impressive. Hildebrand would wind up finishing third.

Things got even less suspenseful late in the race, when Will Power, Castroneves and Hildebrand pitted just before a yellow for Takuma Sato hitting the wall on Lap 138. They were allowed to continue their stops, but Simon Pagenaud had stayed out another lap. At first, it appeared that Pagenaud was going to fall victim to an ill-timed yellow. Then it became obvious that it would work to his benefit, allowing him to pit under yellow. Not only did Pagenaud maintain his lead, it appeared he would have one lap lead on the entire field. Before racing resumed, the three cars that had pitted when the yellow came out were given the wave-around to join Pagenaud at the front. When the green flag came out on Lap 148, there were only those four cars on the lead lap. It stayed that way until the end, 102 laps later.

In the later stages of the race, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s ill-handling car came down and made contact with Josef Newgarden’s front wing. Newgarden, who had already changed his front wing earlier, was forced to come in under green and get his third front wing of the night. He came back out in tenth and finished ninth, two laps down. Hunter-Reay was forced to retire with rear suspension damage.

The best action near end of the race was provided by JR Hildebrand. He passed lapped traffic as if they were sitting still and was easily making his way past some very good race cars. He earned that podium finish and came close to passing Will Power for second in the final laps.

Other than that, there was not a lot to talk about. There was the five-car melee on Lap One, a lucky yellow for three of the Penske cars and Hildebrand that put everyone else down a lap and mostly out of contention, and a win for Pagenaud, Chevy and Team Penske. In between, there were a lot of single file laps run. Oh well, even a boring race is the best way I know to spend a Saturday night.

TV Coverage: Rick Allen was subbing again for Leigh Diffey, who was covering the Grand Prix of Russia (another boring race this weekend). I saw no real gaffes in the coverage by NBCSN, but nothing stood out to me either that I thought was noteworthy – other than being incessantly reminded every thirty seconds that JR Hildebrand was driving with a broken hand. I know not everyone follows the series as close as you and I do, but it became annoying after a while. Like the race, the coverage was very average.

The only thing that did stand out was in their qualifying show. It seemed like anytime a driver got a little close to the wall, Townsend Bell would emit a high-pitched “Ooooohh” that was not exactly flattering towards him.

I did appreciate Paul Tracy’s honesty when Timing & Scoring declared Pagenaud to be up a lap on the entire field. Instead of sounding like some blow-hard know-it-all on some other network (DW?); Tracy kept saying “I’m confused”. I was too.

John Andretti: You may have noticed as the cars rolled away from the pits at the start, Robin Miller cryptically said “John Andretti, we’re thinking about you buddy”.

If you’re not on social media you may not have heard that John Andretti was recently diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. The fifty-four year-old son of Aldo Andretti, nephew of Mario and Godson of AJ Foyt had been putting off a colonoscopy, like many of us would be prone to do. He now has a huge fight on his hands. He is scheduled for surgery in June, is currently undergoing chemo and is also planning to walk his daughter down the aisle this summer.

John was always the most personable and approachable member of the Andretti family. I always considered him one of the most underrated and versatile drivers in the last twenty-five years to race Indy cars. Not only has he raced Indy cars, but also stock cars in NASCAR, sports cars in IMSA and Top-Fuel dragsters in NHRA. He raced in the Indianapolis 500 twelve times, with a best finish of fifth in 1991. He also drove in fifteen Daytona 500’s. Andretti last raced in the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, finishing twenty-second.

John Andretti is very active in the Indianapolis community, working with several different charities – moist notably, his annual Race for Riley karting event at Mark Dismore’s track in New Castle that benefits the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Andretti is also one of the few Indy car drivers with a college degree.

John Andretti is definitely one of the good guys in racing. Please keep John and his family in your thoughts and prayers as he battles this horrible disease in the coming months.

The gang is back together: Just as Sébastien Bourdais has created magic for a second time by reuniting with his engineers from his glory days of winning four straight Champ Car championships – Tony Kanaan has done likewise. As of this week, Kanaan is back for a third time with Eric Cowdin – his engineer from his IndyCar championship days in 2004, as well as his Indianapolis 500 win in 2013.

Kanaan and Cowdin go back to Kanaan’s Indy Lights days when Kanaan won the 1997 Indy Lights championship while driving for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports group. As Kanaan moved into CART with Tasman, then to Gerry Forsythe, Mo Nunn in CART and ultimately with Andretti-Green in IndyCar – Cowdin moved with him. Eric Cowdin left AGR after the 2008 season to work with Ryan Briscoe at Team Penske.

It’s no coincidence that Kanaan’s performance dropped off considerably at AGR after Cowdin left. It’s also no coincidence that the time that Briscoe and Cowdin worked together was the most productive of Briscoe’s career. After the 2011 season, Cowdin left Penske to reunite with Kanaan at KV Racing Technologies for the 2012 season. The next year, Tony Kanaan won the Indianapolis 500.

When Kanaan moved to Chip Ganassi Racing for 2014, Cowdin went with him. Kanaan was originally slated to drive the No.8 NTT Data car and Cowdin would be the engineer. But when Dario Franchitti’s injury at Houston forced him into an unexpected retirement, Kanaan was bumped up to the No.10 car, while Cowdin remained engineer on the No.8 car to be driven by…Ryan Briscoe.

But as of last week, a personnel reshuffle at Chip Ganassi Racing has reunited Kanaan and Cowdin for a third time. It is probably not a coincidence that Kanaan equaled his best qualifying result and surpassed his best race result of the season. One cannot over-emphasize the relationship between a driver and an engineer. There must be good chemistry for it to work. Kanaan and Cowdin know what each other are thinking without saying a word. They need no time to gel. I’m suddenly thinking that Tony Kanaan may be one to watch when practice starts two weeks from today for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Lucky, at first: Lost in all the hubbub of the first lap melee was the move that Ryan Hunter-Reay made just before the crash. Hunter-Reay started twelfth, but duplicated the start he made last year as he passed multiple cars on the outside and moved up to sixth in the first two turns. It’s a good thing he did because just as he passed Bourdais on the outside, Aleshin pinned Bourdais into the outside wall and the chain reaction started.

I was thinking that Hunter-Reay must be living right to be that lucky that he missed all of that. Had he stayed put and not gotten so racy at the start, he more than likely would’ve joined the list of five drivers that didn’t even complete a lap.

However, it was all downhill from there. Hunter-Reay cut a tire and was forced to pit when the pits opened. It was still under yellow, but he was in the back of the field when the race restarted. He had an ill-handling car for most of the night. He got caught in the marbles and possibly brushed the wall not too long before he and Newgarden got together and mercifully ended his race on Lap 220. Hunter-Reay is mired in ninth and needs some luck as he heads into the Month of May. Saturday night didn’t help.

Andretti woes, Part II: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a four car team have all four cars DNF twice in a three-race span. Yet that is exactly what has happened to Andretti Autosport. After their four cars went out of the race at Long Beach with electrical issues, they apparently did what it took to make sure that didn’t happen again. At the next race at Barber, Andretti Autosport placed two cars in the Top-Ten, while Hunter-Reay finished eleventh. Marco had a gearbox issue at the start of the race, but at least all four cars finished with three of them having a decent race.

But six days later, it was another nightmarish race for Michael Andretti. His son, Marco, had qualified reasonably well (ninth) and they were optimistic that Marco’s luck had changed. But Marco was an innocent victim in the first lap crash initiated by Mikhail Aleshin. Then Takuma Sato hit the wall on the main straightaway on Lap 135, ending his night. Not long after that, Alexander Rossi slapped the wall in practically the same spot that he did in last year’s race at Phoenix. Hunter-Reay’s issues late in the race put the exclamation point on another disastrous weekend for Andretti Autosport.

Unlucky picks: My picks have never been good, when I predict who the winner of each race will be on the Friday leading into the weekend. This year, they have been abysmal except for Barber, when I picked Scott Dixon and he finished second. Saturday night, I was back to putting a curse on whichever driver I picked.

If you’ll recall, I picked Graham Rahal to win Saturday night for the second time this season. He finished dead last. I also picked him at Long Beach where he was lucky to have finished tenth. After his crash, he was talking about heading to New Orleans to get a voodoo doll to help change his luck. Maybe I should just stop picking him.

Chevy domination: On Friday, I was wondering if Honda had closed the power gap on this type of track. Apparently not. Chevy-powered cars dominated practice, qualifying and the race. Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan came in fifth and sixth respectively to give Honda their highest finishes. Charlie Kimball in eighth place was the only other Honda in the Top-Ten.

After four races, both manufacturers have two wins apiece. I have no idea what the count will be after the Month of May. Most people that know far more than I do, say that Honda and its aero kit should have a decided advantage in the Indianapolis 500. But I really have no idea which engine will rule for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Chevy had the advantage at Barber, with the hills and elevation changes. The IMS road course is completely flat, similar to St. Petersburg and Long Beach where Honda had the advantage. If I had to guess – and it would be just that; a guess – I’d give a slight advantage to Honda in the Grand Prix as well.

Good night for ECR: While all the accolades were going to JR Hildebrand for driving with a broken hand to finish third, after starting third – it was his Ed Carpenter Racing boss, Ed Carpenter, that had the drive of the night. A faulty fuel cell sidelined Carpenter through most of the one long practice prior to Friday night qualifying. The lack of practice resulted in Carpenter having the slowest qualifying time on the grid and him starting at the very back of the field.

Carpenter came alive in the race and moved up from his twenty-first starting position to finish seventh.

All in all: While I’ll always enjoy spending a Saturday evening watching race cars, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix was not the best race I’ve seen – by a long shot. My hope is that the common body kit for next year will make the racing better and provide better passing opportunities, thereby preventing the sigle-file parade we saw Saturday night. Let’s hope so, because Saturday night’s crowd was about as small as last year’s. Two consecutive years of boring racing might prevent the Arizona locals from showing up for a third. We know that the new body kit is coming, but will they?

So now the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to Indianapolis for the Month of May and everything it brings. Is it May yet? It certainly is.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Phoenix”

  1. Congratulations on your 8th year. I’m just about to my first. Keep posting, George. Looking forward to your trivia challenge

  2. Between Indycar and Formula 1, I definitely had my fill of watching cars follow each other around this weekend. However, despite a lack of passing in both races, it’s still always fun to watch race cars drive fast.

    I feel bad for Bourdais getting taken out. I got interested in Indycar when he was winning in the Champ Car days, so I naturally cheer for him now. Also, I still don’t understand why only four cars were on the lead lap after the second yellow. Paul Tracy vindicated my lack of understanding though when he announced on tv he didn’t know what was going on either!

  3. Ed Emmitt Says:

    Prayers for John Andretti

  4. billytheskink Says:

    While I’ve seen worse races (at Phoenix, no less), the disappointment that many have with the race is understandable. It is definitely frustrating that Indycar had the opportunity to tweak the aerodynamics in an attempt to improve the show and did little, if anything. Hildebrand’s drive and what was probably the largest and hardest multicar wreck we have seen in some time probably made this more memorable than last year’s race at least.

    Calling it an ABC moment would be too harsh, but I was quite surprised at how long it took the booth to figure out how Pagenaud wound up a lap up on the field and to sort out the restart. This is where the broadcast really needed Jon Beekhuis. I was rather amused that they all seemed to think Pagenaud would restart at the rear of the field, behind the other four lead lap cars (which would put him essentially a lap up on the field). I don’t really fault the booth for this, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a full-field wave around before either.

    Prayers for John Andretti and for Joe Leonard’s family.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    While we are all happy for the month of May to be here, do not underestimate the ability of the IndyCar race director to screw up the race as he did at PIR. More horsepower, less downforce. How hard is that?

    Regarding the Andretti woes, I have become convinced that even if Marco qualified and raced the Popemobile, he would have mechanical/electrical issues or get taken out by a Russian hacker on cold tires.

  6. Congrats on your anniversary, George! I admire and enjoy your postings. Appreciate the info you shared on John Andretti. Robin”s comment of support came out of left field to me. I had no idea that John was so sick. Your synopsis of John’s career here gave me further insight into his accomplishments. My best to him and his family.

    Phoenix will not be a high point of the season. The track is making significant changes to the venue for next year. Will IndyCar meet them half way with set up to make the 2018 race more competitive?

    Props to JR on his performance. I was impressed. And Ed finally had a good outing too.

    Looking forward to your May coverage. Thanks again George!

  7. nbc should being in allen bestwick to save the commentary booth for indycar and nascar

  8. Carburetor Says:

    Congratulations George on 8 years of this and a very heartfelt thank you! 1511 posts is truly amazing. Having been an avid IndyCar fan for 50+ years, your posts are about all the racing news I follow anymore. It will be a very sad day the day you decide to shut down your blog, but for now I will continue to enjoy it while I can. Thanks!

  9. Happy Anniversary. What great dedication you have. Can’t wait for the trivia contest.

  10. Congratulations on your eight years, George. It would have been interesting if our careers covering Indy cars had overlapped and we had met. Your blog is my one “must read” each time you post.

  11. Congrats on 8 years George! Many great Indycar blogs have gone away in that time. I’m so grateful you are still at it. Not only has oilpressure been must-read material for these 8 years, your blog and writing approach has been so influential to me in my own blog (not racing specific, general info fare) and I truly thank you for that. Keep up the great work!

  12. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    I read this days ago bit did not respond, as usual, early in the morning. So today I belatedly​ congratulate and thank you for years of enjoyable blogging. As you said, other bloggers have come and gone, while you’re commendably soldiering on. Thanks, George and Susan…

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