92nd Indianapolis 500

? The unification of open-wheel racing in America has put a very optimistic spin on the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Hotels and restaurants in the area reported stronger sales than in the past, and though the Speedway doesn’t release ticket figures, many felt that pre-race sales were the strongest in five years. With the likes of NBC television’s Brian Williams doing his Nightly News show live from the track on Friday, and ESPN radio and TV giving significant air time to pre-race programming, the national media showed that a unified series had gotten their attention. With advertising budgets having been set for 2008 long before the unification of the two series took place, teams won’t benefit sponsorship-wise until they begin approaching companies for alliances in 2009 and beyond. As has been said before, the strengthening of open-wheel racing will be a long process. Sorting out which teams from each series will stay, which will fold or move somewhere else, and which new teams might choose to enter the series, will go a long way toward pointing the way to the future for the IRL, Indianapolis, and all the tracks who want to be part of the action.

? While navigating the bulky pre-race throng that filled the pit lane, we ran into Jerry Gappens, the VP and General Manager at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Gappens verified that his track will seek to be on the IRL schedule, whether in 209 or 2010. He also said that with Humpy Wheeler leaving his position at Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, it is likely that Speedway Motorsports and Lowes’ track president Bruton Smith’s son Marcus could be in line to move into his father’s spot someday.

? When Emerson Fittipaldi led the field to the green flag in the 2008 Corvette, it marked the 26th time that a former race winner had driven the Pace Car. The last former winner to do the honors was 1963 victor Parnelli Jones, also in a Corvette, ten years ago.

? Sentimental favorite Graham Rahal lasted only 36 laps before a slower car caused him to move out of the preferred groove and into the 4th turn wall.”(Alex Lloyd) was really slow, and I was trying to be patient there because (Mario) Morales kept coming down on me. So finally I got the opportunity to get by those guys, and I thought our car was pretty good. Lloyd for some reason, wouldn’t stay on the bottom and when he came up just a couple of feet, I reacted slightly and just got up in the marbles.” Many were hoping that the 19 year-old would follow in his father’s footsteps into victory lane. Rahal also represented the best chance among the former Champ Car teams to succeed in their first 500 since unification took place. It was also hoped that his car owner, Paul Newman, could win a 500 after many years as a race entrant.

? First it was Sarah Fisher getting caught up in Tony Kanaan’s lap 106 spin, and then Milka Duno got chopped off by Buddy Lazier in turn three. Finally, the face of the IRL, Danica Patrick, was forced to drop out when she was bumped by Ryan Briscoe while leaving the pits after what would have been her final stop on lap 171 Guys, don’t you want these gals in the race or what? After struggling all year to field a team, and losing a promised sponsor during May, Fisher shed tears in the ambulance and got a supportive hug from Kanaan, who felt very bad about the incident, while blaming the incident on his teammate Marco Andretti’s “stupid move.” Duno has often been criticized for her driving during her IRL career, but this one was clearly Lazier’s fault. “The No. 91 car (Lazier) essentially forced me to go to the apron. His tire made contact with my front wing and tire. I was able to control the spin, and no major damage was done to the car.” She did return to the track, finishing 19th, completing 185 laps Patrick was livid about the move by Briscoe that ended her day. After exiting her wounded car, she angrily strode down pit road, hoping to “discuss” the matter with Briscoe who, wisely, remained in his car. Her PR person and Charles Burns, the IRL head of security, intercepted Patrick in a moment that will likely become a “You-Tube” classic. “It was probably best that I didn’t get down there anyway,” she said, but you had the feeling that she really wished that she had completed her trip and the race.

? And ever the optimist, A. J. Foyt IV, who had a frustrating May trying to make the race, had his second fire of the month in his Vision Racing Dallara. “Obviously it (the race) was terrible. I mean, we caught on fire again and it ruined our day. We had to get out of the car and get the car all sorted out, it was just miserable. From there on, you’re just out there riding, and trying to stay out of trouble, waiting to screw up. It was a terrible race, a miserable race. One of the worst of my life. ” He finished 21st.

Pre-race Notes:

? On a gorgeous Saturday in May, a highly energized crowd of perhaps 10,000 open-wheel fans enjoyed the public portion of the annual Indy 500 drivers’ meeting, held on the main straightaway in front of the Tower Terrace grandstand. After the awards and introductions were completed, Indy Racing League President of Competition and Operations Brian Barnhart addressed the drivers, detailing the League’s 2008 accomplishments. He drew a loud roar from the crowd while noting Danica Patrick’s win in Japan and the end of the split between the IRL and Champ Car. As Barnhart closed his remarks, the crowd rose and accorded the field a prolonged ovation. Quite a show of support for a series and an event that are both trying to regain the public’s attention. A closed-to the-public meeting was held on Friday.

? The view in the revised first turn, rebuilt for the Moto GP event to be held in September, is nothing short of spectacular. With the stands removed inside the turn and replaced by a two-curve chicane that could also be used if Formula-One returns, the wide-angle view from inside the turn is one of the best in the infield. The iconic creek that ran through the area is also gone, but the sacrifice was worth the view.

? For those of you who were tuned in to the early days of ESPN, the broadcast team of Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber were the duo whose pioneering work in early motor sports telecasts set the foundation for what we see and hear today. Though Nuber passed away several years ago, Jenkins is still active in the sport and was honored with the 2008 Bob Russo Founders Award presented by ARWBA at the group’s annual pre-500 breakfast. Jenkins has worked on IRL telecasts and anchored ESPN and ABC coverage of NASCAR from 1982-2000.

? Al Unser III, Sean Guthrie, and Arie Luyendyk Jr., all sons of past Indy 500 competitors, finished 11th, 12th, and 14th, respectively in the Indy Lights Freedom 100, held Saturday afternoon at the Speedway. England’s Dillon Battistini won the race over Richard Antinucci and Wade Cunningham. Wisconsin’s Bobby Wilson finished 6th. The race was run today after being rained-out on Frida.

? Friday night’s USAC Silver Crown series event that was to be run at the Indiana Fairgrounds, was also postponed with no new date announced.

? As the Speedway nears its 100th anniversary (1909-2009), the track is busy planning changes and events in commemoration. Among the planned events are a balloon festival in May 2009, commemorating the first competitive event ever held at the Speedway on June 5, 1909, and a Concours d’Elegance to be held in the summer of 2010 on the IMS grounds. A completely redesigned highway interchange at I-465 and Crawfordsville Rd. will create a new front door to the Town of Speedway and will enhance traffic flow to and from IMS. There is also a plan to relocate 16th St. to the south of its present location and the empty space to the south of the Speedway may yet house a rebuilt motel complex and perhaps a racing-themed entertainment area. Possible changes in the Speedway’s museum may also be contained in this on-going plan.

? A packed house at O’Reilly Raceway Park Saturday night saw Bobby East survive 3 late-race cautions to score his first Night Before the 500 USAC midget series win in the 63rd running of the event. Chase Scott came from 21st starting spot to finish second, with Tracy Hines third.

? If you attend one event in Indianapolis the next time you’re in town for the 500, please attend the Indy Memorabilia show held on the Indiana Fairgrounds on Friday and Saturday before the race. Vintage racing goods of all sorts are available, and a collection of former drivers, such as 1960 Indy winner Jim Rathmann, are brought to the show each year to sign autographs. Make sure your credit card record is strong, however, as you will be able to find what you’re looking for!

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