Second Place Is Nothing

Posted by Iannucci | 5/30/2006 | 0 comments »
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It isn’t too difficult to see my name and location on the right of this page and determine that I am of Italian-American descent. And as such, perhaps I was predisposed to cheer for certain racing family of similar lineage. The family is of course “Andretti,” a name which usually comes with the added surname “Curse” at Indianapolis.

Mario Andretti teamed with Andy Granatelli to win the Indy 500 in 1969, the year of my birth. I don’t recall watching the race when I was but a few months old, but for every Memorial Day weekend I can recall I have witnessed Mario, Michael, Jeff and John race to varying degrees of defeat. Always defeat, always the “curse”.

When the split occurred, Michael stopped driving at Indianapolis. Like many fans, I kept alive the hope that he would return and take another crack at the brickyard. He had the most wins of any CART driver ever, so surely he could eek out one win in Indianapolis. He finally returned, making quality but not victorious appearances in 2001 and 2002 then retired from racing after a dismal 27th in 2003.

For the last few years I could watch the race as an emotionally divested fan. I appreciated Helio Castroneves persistence, Dan Wheldon’s guile, Buddy Rice’s luck, and Gil de Ferran’s class. I watched last year as my 5-year-old daughter struggled through the race as she really really really wanted Danica! to win.

And so this year with the introduction of Marco Andretti and the return of Michael Andretti I found myself…ambivalent. Sure, it would be great to see them win, I’d say, but Marco has only finished one race and Michael hasn’t driven in 3 years. Beside, the AGR team was getting pounded by Penske and Ganassi, so it’s not like they have a chance.

And then, with 5 laps to go and many of the leading teams needing to pit for fuel, I found myself back again. Thinking of 1992 where Michael was cruising but lost the engine with 10 laps to go, just as Mario had lost his car after similar dominance in 1987. And with 5 laps to go one Andretti was leading and another was in second place! Marco was standing by at the ready in case fate stepped in, and as I sat there wide-eyed in my living room my children would no longer recognize me.

I have long been passed the point of needing another Andretti so that I may die in peace. Sports has taken a backseat to parenthood many times, and when the Diamondbacks finally delivered a championship to my hometown in 2001 my championship jones was at last satiated. But with 5 laps to go…that meant nothing.

I was just as involved and just as worried about what would go wrong. Mario was being interviewed during the yellow and asked who was more nervous. His reply was “We’ll just wait and see.” Mario knew what I knew, and he might have well have said “race, what race?” There was always something at the 500, and he was wearing his earned apprehension on his sleeve.

As the green flag flew I thought Marco should spin out on the restart and buy Michael a cheap yellow flag victory. I wouldn’t care, and winning would mean that much. It was so rare, the though had to have passed by the Andretti braintrust. Instead, I found myself staring at Marco passing his father. Staring, then yelling at the precocious ingrate. How could he do this?

Soon I saw Michael slow down and I realized this was clearly and authorized move. Michael was in the same boat as Danica! last year – leading, but unable to compete without running out of fuel. And just like that, the odds were reduced. Marco was forging ahead – 3 laps, 2 laps – with only Sam Hornish Jr mounting a charge.

Before the race, Boulder Sam was my pick to win. I thought it would be great to see him win since he’s a fantastic driver that passive fans have no idea about. He’s an American driver race fans could get behind, and when Marco Andretti was clinging to the lead I could not have hated Sam any more. Marco made a great move to stop a pass attempt by Hornish on lap 199, but just as he had all season, Hornish had the better car. And after the last of 800 turns the better car finally moved past Marco and into Victory Lane.

And the “curse” continued.

After the race, Mario somberly said he was proud, Michael somberly said he was proud, and Marco, the 19-year-old who has spent all month – if not all of his life – hearing about the “Andretti Curse” at Indianapolis said the truth. “Second place is nothing,” the rookie uttered, and for any driver at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing with the Andretti surname it is defined by what it is not. Second place (or third, or fourth, tec.) is not first place.

Another year, another spectacular defeat. So goes the experience at Indy not just for the Andretti’s but also for their suffering fans like me. Maybe I should just cheer for Danica! like my daughter.

Can’t We All Just Get Along

Posted by Iannucci | 5/19/2006 | 0 comments »
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To read recent posts on message boards regarding a possible unification of the IRL and Champ Car series, you would think either (a) they will announce a unification plan this week or (b) talks between series chiefs Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven have broken off entirely.

Answers: (a) no, (b) no

It turns out they are continuing to talk, even during the busy month of May. That Kalkhoven will be a guest of George at the Indy 500 is certainly an encouraging sign, but certainly not an indicator of an immediate or even impending merger. Unification is no lock for many reasons race fans care to ignore.

First, the IRL does not need Champ Car. It can be argued that Indy Racing is a financial bust everywhere except in Indianapolis, but therein lies the rub. The IRL has the crown jewel of open wheel racing, which gives it leverage into broadcast, advertising and marketing that do not exist for Champ Car.

Without Indy, the ABC/ESPN contract goes to Speed TV.

Without Indy, Spiderman is just Sebastian Bourdais.

Without Indy, Danica! is just Katherine Legge.

Without Indy, you have Champ Car’s current position.

Champ Car may make the claim of better cars, better drivers, better racing and owners with deeper pockets. All can be arguably defended, but while they may have sizable crowds in Long Beach or Toronto, there is nowhere near the interest on this continent for the product because they have no single race to drive public interest among passive race fans.

In understanding that Indy is the leverage the IRL has over Champ Car, it must also be understood why this is so. The answer actually lies in NASCAR. Auto racing – of any form – is traditionally most popular among American audiences when presented on an oval track. Why? Because Americans love to see fast speeds and lots of passing, neither of which occurs much on the grand prix style circuits of Champ Car.

I tried watching the first race of the Champ Car season in Long Beach, and half the contenders were taken out on the very first turn. It was dreadful trying to watch several cars make a play for the lead with no passing lane. In order to rectify this for the second race in Houston, the drivers started in single file. Folks, that’s not a race it’s a parade.

Much can come from unification. I want the pool of quality drivers. I want all of the popular tracks to be raced by the most popular drivers. I want manufacturers directed by the league, and not the other way around.

I hope George and Kalkhoven want the same things as well. If not, I don’t need a merger.

Open Water

Posted by Iannucci | 5/14/2006 | 0 comments »
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After a week of rain, everyone will attempt to qualify next Saturday.

Sunday would be bump day.

Pending uninterrupted dryness, of course.

O for 2

Posted by Iannucci | 5/13/2006 | 0 comments »
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For the second year in a row, the controversial format of filling only the top 11 race positions for the Indianapolis 500 has been beset by rain. Barring furthur interference from Mother Nature, the top 22 positions will be awarded to qualifiers tomorrow.

Whenever qualifications do start, expect the four members of the Penske and Ganassi teams to snag the top spots, as they ahve been 2-3 MPH faster than all other drivers this week.

Has Beens and Never Wases

Posted by Iannucci | 5/11/2006 | 0 comments »
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While Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr are foisting their crusty old backsides into Indycars this month, race fans should be ready for even more blasts from the past who are attempting to qualify.

The most notable is Brazilian Ayrton Dare, who was that last driver to win a race for AJ Foyt's racing team back in 2002. It’s the only IRL race he has won, although Dare does have 14 top 10s in 38 starts. That’s not greatness, but it is respectable considering Dare has never run for a top-tier team. Dare has not race in the IRL since a one-race ride at Indianapolis in 2003.

Also returning to the IRL is Frenchman Stephan Gregoire. Gregoire has 45 career IRL starts and 0 wins, but that hasn't stopped people from believing his first name is Frenchman. Frenchman has not raced since 2001, where he failed to finish a race in his four starts.

Lastly, Thiago Medeiros will attempt to qualify as the umteenth Brazilian in this year's race. Medeiros won the 2004 IndyPro series championship, but has failed to translate that into an IRL career. He has competed in just one IRL race (sort of), qualifying but not starting - and consequently finishing last – at California Speedway in 2005.

A Couple of Losers

Posted by Iannucci | 5/08/2006 | 0 comments »
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Loser is a term that is often used in a derogatory sense, usually as a superlative insult. When referring to drivers it means the literal: one who does not win.

Playa Del Racing has announced it will field a couple of losers for the Indianapolis 500. First, Jacque Lazier – also known as Danica!’s punching bag – who has 1 win (5 years ago) in 52 IRL starts. Second, Jon Herb who has no wins in 14 starts. (Herb does have 1 win in 20 Indy Pro starts).

Needless to say, very little will be expected from this team of field fillers who are a combined 1 for 66 in IRL racing. Try not to pick these guys in the company pool.