IndyCar Bommarito 500 Preview: Escape From East St. Louis

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Little known fact about John Carpenter’s classic 1981 “Escape From New York” – it was filmed in East St. Louis. Turns out the burned out husk of a city had the perfect post-apocalyptic look for the director’s dark, dystopian vision of a future big apple/prison. That, and of course it was cheaper than filming in NYC. Now IndyCar’s set to return to a place that made even Snake Pliskin demur.

It’s been a decade and a half since the series graced the greater East St. Louis area, and with good reason. IRR staff attended the last race held there in 2003 and it was so off puttingly boring that by three quarters through we felt an overwhelming urge to escape. Indeed, it was so bad that we vowed never to return – unless substantial track improvements were made.

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Photo from gatewaymsp.com

During the race long lull, the bizarre all male musical number from “Escape” sprang to mind for some reason. This could be explained by the fact that the thrilling Tomas Scheckter was on track that day. He finished fourth.

Surrounded by land fill mountains of garbage, Gateway Speedway’s environment isn’t exactly Barber-esque in its beauty. Then again, scenery doesn’t make the racing, tracks do – which leads us to Gateway’s biggest problem. [Insert repetitive thumping synthesizer bass line here.]

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Photo from trackforum.com

The mile and a quarter track’s situated Continue reading

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100th Indy 500 Qualifications Day One: Mayor of Indy?

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Photo from Chad Smith on twitter.com

After more a.m. rain, weepers on the track caused a delay in the first day of qualifying for the greatest spectacle in racing. IMS extended the track window by an hour setting up a helluva climax for ESPNews. Boy, was it a Duesie. The Mayor James Hinchcliffe stole the show – and the pole – in a riveting late happy hour run of 230.946 mph.

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Photo from Chad Smith on twitter.com

Prior to that, Max Chilton was involved in the first accident of the day in practice, losing the car in turn 2 and smashing Chip’s half million dollar bill board up pretty well. Calamity next struck Pippa Mann when her rear wing end fence failed during a qualifying attempt, spinning her out in turn 2. She almost saved it with an evasive maneuver before lightly brushing the wall.

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Photo from ap.org

ABC’s two hour window missed almost everything except Pippa’s spin and the final few qualifiers like 500 winner Buddy Lazier. Continue reading

Indy Rivals We’d Like To See

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Photo from usatoday.com

Just as IndyCar’s speed is wantonly wasted on road courses – and Marco – the series seriously under utilizes rivalries. IRR aims to change that with some actionable ideas for a brand new set of Indy rivals.

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Photo from pinterest.com

Sure, a few rivalries may still exist, but they’re neither good nor old fashioned. Today they generally start – and end – on social media, often failing to last long enough even to make the television coverage. Compounding this crisis of (a lack of) contention is the fact that Sage Karam remains in IndyCar exile. Sage and half the field last year aside, nowadays rivalries pale in comparison to A.J. and Mario – or even A.J. and Arie. Hell, A.J. and anybody. This mirrors the state of the sport as a whole and that’s just not good enough. It’s something the drivers and owners under their own initiative can do to better the show. Above all, improving IndyCar is what we’re all about.

For the good of IndyCar, here are some Indy rivals we’d like to see:

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Photo from edcarpenterracing.com

Josef and Ed – The ECR teammates should turn nemesis and there are plenty of reasons why. Owner Ed “prince” Carpenter crashed Josef out at Fontana last year and Sunday at St. Pete didn’t even bother to run a teammate for him, while he of course only drives on the ovals. Continue reading

An Interview With Will Power’s Helmet

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We’re delighted to publish our first major IndyCar interview (and also make our competitors green with envy). We don’t count last summer’s attempted interview with Tomas Scheckter (the ex-driver, not his head gear) who for some reason chose not to participate in the Orson Welles piece. He sent a few non-responsive Tweets, one half assed email reply and some irrelevant pictures of lap dogs. Unlike Scheckter, Power’s helmet was fully cooperative, stimulating and intellectually engaged. The main point we took away from our meeting is that Power’s helmet is no mere empty head covering, but rather a driving part of the championship effort.

Will Power’s Bell Helmet was made in Champaign, Illinois and like all helmets used in the IndyCar series consists primarily of carbon fiber, Nomex and Rayon. It’s been with him the entire season, enduring all the highs and lows of Power’s prodigious five month campaign across the Americas. From his fourteenth place finishes in Houston and Iowa to his winning the title in the Fontana finale, Power’s helmet was there, perched atop Will’s balaclava covered skull through it all.

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Photo from usatoday.com

Now facing retirement and a significant life change, Power’s helmet sat down with us last weekend for a revealing and insightful discussion of racing and life atop Power’s noggin.

IRR: First off, a sincere thank you for taking some time for our little blog. We really appreciate it. You’d be surprised how few major stars of the racing world are willing to speak to us. So, how does it feel to be the 2014 IndyCar Champion’s helmet? Continue reading

Tomas Scheckter: IndyCar’s Orson Welles, Part 2

It had been a tumultuous  first half-season in IndyCar for Scheckter, especially  those chaotic days leading up to his epic victory in Michigan. Fired by Cheever – who didn’t last long as an owner – Scheckter eventually drove for nearly a dozen different IndyCar teams, sometimes several in a single season.  His career stalled as the shadow of his incredible initial triumph loomed largely, negatively affecting his fortunes thereafter.

Later in his career it became a scrum for funding, a tough grind like most drivers and even some Hollywood geniuses encounter sooner or later. As a result, the art suffered and starring appearances became fewer and further between. Unlike other legacy drivers Tomas’s father didn’t own an IndyCar team. Most of his former teams either no longer exist or have changed radically, as has the series itself.

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Photo from classicfilmfreak.com

Scheckter had one more brilliant leading role in him, though. He returned to victory lane in 2005 for Panther Racing under the lights before a fairly packed house at Texas. His second win was Tomas’s The Third Man, an overlooked and underrated gem of a performance coming years after his first. This was back when there were three engines competing in the series and Danica raced as a rookie sensation, a golden age in IndyCars. Danica-mania raged nationwide and brought much needed though controversial attention to the series – or at least to one driver – as you may recall. 

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Photo from si.com

The Texas race immediately followed the late Dan Wheldon’s memorable first Indianapolis 500 win – the same 500 Danica briefly led. As a result, Danica-mania had reached pop-concert pre-teen scream pitch. She led several laps making history, but many forget about her earlier spin that collected both Scheckter and his Czech teammate Tomas Enge, ruining their respective races.  Danica suffered little damage and went on to finish fourth in her first 500, to the amazement of many.

Starting from pole in Texas and looking to regain the lost limelight, Tomas took the checkers after once again being forced to overcome numerous problems in the pits. For Tomas to win, it wouldn’t have been believable without  some theatrics. Fittingly it was another edge of your seat type of race, an exhilarating, enthralling show. It couldn’t quite match that thriller in the lower peninsular three years earlier, but then again what could? 

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Photo from motorsport.com

For Tomas it was a needed shot of redemption, some box office success. An underdog, he was always someone you wanted to root for, to see succeed. On that night he did. “Thomas Scheckter has exercised the demons tonight” ESPN announcer Todd Harris declared as he beat Sam Hornish, Jr. to the line in an extremely close finish. Characteristically for Tomas, it was the first race the streaky South African had finished all year.

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Photo from foxsports.com.au

In a post race interview on ESPN2, Panther principle John Barnes excitedly reacted to Tomas’s only win with his team.  “He’s a helluva driver. We’re gonna . . . party all night!” Danica ended up finishing 13th, well behind her media hype. Sound vaguely familiar? On stage in victory circle a humble Scheckter credited his team and Chevy power plant, saying “American Revolution, baby. . . . Thank them a lot.”

The Texas win came amidst the usual adversity, as Ed Carpenter ran over one of Tomas’s hoses on his first pit stop and he had to overcome some other slow  stops as well. Like Michigan, the pit crew’s poor supporting performance only served to make Tomas’s starring role shine brighter.  Tortoise-paced pit crews and rotten luck seemed to be defining traits of his career, but on that night he was able to overcome them both.

Losing a ton of track position again during his final stop at the high banked oval, the plot twist was exquisite. Scheckter had to contend with antagonists Hornish, Jr – a two time winner at Texas – and Castro-Neves in addition to the always tough Tony Kanaan. As if in flashback to his previous win Scheckter battled and speedily overtook them all to regain the lead of the race, holding onto it despite several contentious challenges right to the end credits.  

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Photo from motorsport.com

The Texas win came in one of the sharpest paint schemes of all time – the platinum colored Pennzoil car – which positively popped under the lights. We wonder how many people missed the highly entertaining race on ESPN2 that Saturday night, when Thomas stormed into the lead for the final time during a side by side “30 at 30” break with less than fifteen laps to go. Clearly many critics weren’t pleased with the absence of a leading lady on stage, but the paying fans roared their approval.

Texas Motor Speedway was the final curtain call for Scheckter, as thereafter he bounced around from team to low budget team as often as some drivers change fireproof suits. He secured some funding on his own and spliced together programs here and there, but he never again got a shot with one of the big teams after Panther. The on screen results suffered.

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His record on the grandest stage of them all was decent, earning co-rookie of the year honors in 2002 –  shortly before Cheever wanted him gone – and leading over a hundred and fifty laps at Indianapolis during  his career. However, he would also crash while leading the 500 and a couple of other times as well. Victory in the big one always eluded him as it has most others who’ve raced there. His best finish of fourth came in his second race in 2003 for Ganassi, with Tomas as always feeling he had something to prove. In over half a dozen more attempts he never equaled that sophomore showing.

We hope he’s doing well and wish more genius-level talent like Scheckter would come along to IndyCar. Tomas was always riveting and compelling to watch race, adding something special merely with his larger than life presence in the field. We miss him and his crazy-brave racing skills. Like the late great filmmaker Orson Welles, the world could use more talented, defiant, risk-taking characters like him.

Tomas Scheckter: IndyCar’s Orson Welles, Part 1

Son of 1979 F-1 champion Jody Scheckter and born the next year, Tomas was a meteoric and flawed IndyCar driver during his decade in the series from 2002 – 2011 and man, was he fun to watch. Fearless, exciting and reckless, Scheckter provided paying race fans with a high line, high intensity style of racing that came to define his Orson Welles-like career. When starting out upon the summit, where else is there to go but down?

You didn’t dare take your eyes off the South African during a race and never knew where he’d end up – at the front or in the wall. Outside the car he was fun loving and interesting, a magnetic personality with star power. Unfortunately, he had a high incidence of expensive crashes and also of irritating team owners, but he was always Tomas Scheckter the boy wonder.

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Photo from trackforum.com

With two race wins (he ran out of fuel leading another in the final laps), four podium finishes and over half a dozen poles in just over a hundred races, he stood out more for his mad dashes to the front than for always finishing there. Tomas was a driver who “probably should have had … seven or eight wins by now in his career” according to ESPN announcer and former driver Scott Goodyear in 2005, when Tomas was only in his fourth year in the series.

His chops were always worth the price of admission, but for Scheckter the luck rarely broke his way. His winning percentage is higher than several current drivers in the series however, including Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal who both happen to drive for their fathers’ teams. Scheckter’s audaciousness and devil-may-care daring made him a joy to watch in every race despite the overall lack of results. We here at IRR miss Tomas’s unpredictable and edgy contributions to the series and can only lament that they don’t make blockbusters like him or Welles anymore.

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Photo from movpins.com

Tomas’s Citizen Kane and one of the great IndyCar stories ever was his first win at Michigan International Speedway as a rookie in 2002. In eye-catching style, Scheckter won an exceptionally entertaining race charging through the field to the front. It was his masterpiece –  among the finest two hours of viewing ever. The behind the scenes reality was even more incredible and truly stranger than fiction.

Reaching speeds over 220 mph, he won by only a few car lengths over brand new Red Bull teammate Buddy Rice, who had started second beside him on pole. On the surface that day Scheckter’s possibilities in IndyCar seemed limitless, as the upstart wunderkind out drove an impressive field – twice. Sadly for Tomas though, he’d never quite be able to top that first heroic role.

Just months into his initial campaign, the 21 year old South African already had clashed repeatedly with his mercurial team owner/driver Eddie Cheever, both of whom had their share of crashes that season. One incident that stands out had Tomas managing to put both himself and his boss into the wall while racing in his usual go for broke manner. Like Orson and his famous fights with studio heads and other giants, Tomas seemed to have a knack for drawing the ire of the most powerful of people.

Events had come to a head between the antagonists prior to that summer afternoon in Michigan by which time Cheever was already in the process of firing the young Scheckter, hence the last minute addition of Rice to the team. Turned out Eddie couldn’t even fire Tomas properly, so instead he was forced to run three cars in the Irish Hills. The entire team had to constantly cope with the boss’s highly improvisational approach.

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Photo from speed-sportmagazine.com

To drive his rarely subtle point home further Cheever suddenly made dramatic changes before the race, giving Scheckter’s car and entire team away to newly signed Buddy Rice for his first IndyCar start. This forced Scheckter to use a backup car and worse still a cobbled together crew who’d been out of racing all year – a bunch of no-name actors, if you will.

Not surprisingly the slow, mistake-riddled pit stops during the Michigan 400 demonstrated the crew’s inexperience and cost Scheckter vital time. At one point he chided them over the radio, saying it was their “turn to get to work.” What the peevish Cheever accomplished instead of undermining his driver was making Scheckter’s first IndyCar victory that much more remarkable.

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Photo from motorsport.com

Scheckter raced Rice and everyone else around him extremely hard and close during that unforgettable 400 miler. Cheever eventually crashed out with no help from Tomas, hitting the wall and causing a yellow. The caution came at the worst possible time for our leading man who had just completed his final stop of the race under green while the rest of the lead pack had yet to do so. His pit crew had been typically molasses-like and the rest of the leaders were able to pit under caution.

As a result he was shuffled to the rear of the field, but fortunately remained on the lead lap. Scheckter had led almost the entire race but now found himself in twelfth place with about thirty laps to go when the green flag flew. Scheckter dramatically passed eleven cars – including Rice driving his old car – within about ten laps to claim the win. The Hollywood ending was breathtaking and Tomas’s race against all odds – including his team owner and teammate – was one for the ages.

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Photo from AP

Watching his Red Bull cars cross the finish line 1-2 from the pits, Cheever was the least pleased team owner whose team had just won a race imaginable. According to motorsport.com Scheckter said after the thrilling victory “I went out very aggressive and pushed every lap. Was on the floor from the beginning, gave no one any room. And I proved myself.” His summation of the race was frank, accurate and pure Tomas.