Monday, March 07, 2016


As I have been writing and advocating for a return of IndyCars to Phoenix International Raceway since 2007, it was a pleasure to actually see this "officially" happen at the recent two-day pre-season test. I was there for all four sessions. Of course, different teams have different agendas during tests, so precise comparisons can't be made. But I especially paid attention to the two evening sessions since the April 2 250-mile race will happen on a Saturday evening.

IndyCars look spectacular under the PIR lights. In observing those two sessions, however, it became obvious to me passing could be a problem in the race. Those who have enjoyed open-wheel cars on short ovals, as I have for decades, know working through traffic is a great challenge to the leading drivers and many a race has been won or lost because of this.

Running the high line through turns one and two, and then forcing the driver/car on the inside to stay low off T2 so the pass can be completed, would be fun to watch. It would also constitute a brave maneuver. Every driver I spoke with said they expect there to be 1 1/2 grooves for the race but not two. Yes, we all have heard many times drivers predict trouble in passing and yet they somehow find a way to make it happen.

My conclusion from what I observed was the cars had too much downforce. It concerned me when I heard some suggest MORE downforce would be the way to go. NO!

Let me just say how absolutely essential it is for IndyCar's drivers and teams to put on a GREAT show for the series' return to PIR since 2005. No major race in recent times needs positive word-of-mouth from the customers to potential new customers more than the Phoenix Grand Prix 250.

This reminds me of when the series came to Texas Motor Speedway a few years ago for a Saturday night race on the ABC network. Not cable, the over-the-airwaves network. That was another case of IndyCar really needing to be spectacular. Despite what drivers suggested after practice, though, the then-officials-in-charge didn't adjust. The race was boring. A great opportunity was lost. It was back to cable the following year.

Phoenix will be an early and huge test for Jay Frye, in his new role as competition president, and Bill Pappas, the series' new technical boss. I'm friends with both and worked with both in other situations. The decisions made about downforce levels for Phoenix must be spot-on correct.

The Verizon series can't afford anything less than the best racing on a Saturday evening in the Valley of the Sun, a major and demographically diverse (important to sponsors) market. Sooooo much rides on it.

I grew up in Philadelphia, went to school there, became a race fan there, started my journalism career there. I was there when Roger Penske bought his first auto dealership, Chevrolet, retired as a winning sports car driver and began America's greatest race team. I was there at the first shop, in Newtown Square, Pa., and in the Reading, Pa., HQ countless times, including for the launch of the Penske Formula One car. I lunched with Mark Donohue just a few days before  his death and attended his funeral and wrote about it all in the Philadelphia Daily News. I was in Chicago for the announcement that Roger had hired some guy named Rick Mears. And so it went on . . . I was there for most of it and now, 50 years later, I write the Team Penske story. It was promoted on the Front Page of Sunday's Arizona Republic and ran at the top of sports Page 1. It marked the start of our NASCAR Week in Phoenix coverage
( online at ) so I hope you'll read our stories all week, including a Q&A with Jimmie Johnson, features on Chase Elliott, the Wood Brothers and NASCAR's new car rules, plus Danica and lots more. Thank you.

I'll be Tweeting from PIR's pit lane and garage area, from inside the haulers and media center, with what I find interesting and newsworthy this weekend. That additional element of my NASCAR coverage you can find at @SpinDoctor500 . Thanks.

POWER PLAYERS for the week of  March 6: This week's 10 most influential
people in the Business and Politics of Motorsports, as selected by long-time journalist/publicist and industry insider Michael Knight. 

  1.  Roger Penske -- Brad Keselowski gets The Captain his first win of the 50th anniversary season for Team Penske. Up this coming weekend: Start of Verizon IndyCar Series season. 

  2. Brad Keselowski -- Comes off unusual non-competitive outing in Saturday's Xfinity Series race to take Miller Lite and Ford to victory lane in Las Vegas, overcoming high winds and a pit-lane speeding penalty.

  3Kyle Busch -- Won Vegas' Xfinity Series race, leading all but one lap, and ran strong in Cup race. 

  4. Mike Helton -- Just what NASCAR's vice chairman likes to see: Three races, three different winning drivers, Toyota, Chevy and Ford all victory lane visitors.

  5. Scott Dixon -- American racing's most relentless driver opens IndyCar title defense in St. Pete.

  6. Jay Frye -- Now IndyCar's racing boss, a job which traditionally has a high turn-over rate, his time in the hot seat officially begins on the streets of St. Pete.

  7. Bryan Sperber -- A strong fan turnout this weekend in Phoenix would strengthen the speedway president's bid with International Speedway Corp. to fund much-needed track improvements.

  8. Shane Stewart -- Ends the World of Outlaws week with a win in debut race at Arizona Speedway. It was his first victory of the season -- last year, he won nine times and finished second in points to Donny Schatz.

  9. Jim Utter -- Switched from Charlotte Observer to midway last season, now in full writing swing on all happening in the NASCAR world.

 10. Dave Moody -- SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90 afternoon drive-time host spent a lot of time last week with callers who wanted to talk about Brian France's endorsement of Donald Trump. Hot topic this week? Not even Moody knows for sure.

more next week . . . ]