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Notes from the Honda Indy Grand Prix in Alabama

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Helio Castroneves stopped at corner 10 on his victory lap after winning the 2012 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to pay respects to the sign honoring the late Dan Wheldon.
  • John O'Neill
  • Helio Castroneves stopped at corner 10 on his victory lap after winning the 2012 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to pay respects to the sign honoring the late Dan Wheldon.

Having never been to the deep south, but having seen Deliverance and listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and also given my leftist politics, I was naturally wary of visiting Alabama to attend the IZOD IndyCar Series race last weekend. I'm pleased to report, however, that my experience there was delightful.

Exhibit A: That whole "Southern Hospitality" thing is no joke. Absolutely every local person I encountered was polite, friendly, chatty and kind.

Exhibit B: It's beautiful there. Like, for reals. Mature trees, rolling hills - this is my kind of topology.
And nowhere is it more visible than at Barber Motorsports Park, which played host to the race. I got my first look at the place, situated on the eastern fringes of Birmingham, late Thursday afternoon.

The lowering sun bathed the entire 740-acre facility - which consists of a 17-turn, 2.38-mile track and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (a must-see for any gearhead) - in what photographers call "golden light."

When I arrived, my spouse-type person (STP), Olivier, who is an engineer for KV Racing, was about to set off on a "track walk" with his driver, EJ Viso, the young Venezuelan who pilots the #5 machine, so I tagged along.

During the track walk, drivers and engineers hoof a lap around the course and confer about the line (that is, the fastest, best way around), track conditions (i.e., how bumpy the track is), and whatnot.

As EJ and Olivier ambled around the circuit along with various members of EJ's entourage - including two young drivers in the Firestone Indy Lights series, which is one step down the ladder from IndyCar and runs a similar schedule - I hung back with EJ's assistant, a gajillia-lingual woman who looks remarkably like Giuliana Rancic on Fashion Police (read: gorgeous, tall, and skinny) and gossiped.

It was a spectacular evening - the kind where you can't quite believe your luck that your dad's swimmers (ew) found your mom's ovum (gross) and produced you, rather than someone else.

A new look for IndyCar

The track walk revealed a circuit marked by hairpin turns and dramatic changes in elevation - which, I suspect, are rather exciting to experience when strapped into an open-wheel car and traveling at a rate upwards of 160 mph.

It sure looks that way when the cars are moving, anyway - which they were, the next morning, during the first practice session on Friday morning. (Friday's second session was cut short by an end-of-days‒style deluge and a third session, the next morning, was fogged out.)

Speaking of cars, this year, the IZOD IndyCar Series has introduced a new model, the Dallara DW12, named for driver Dan Wheldon, who helped test the new car before he was tragically killed during last year's IZOD IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas.

It's taking some time for my eye to adjust to the new chassis, which looks significantly different from its forebears. Among other things, the side, called the sidepod, looks kind of bulbous, and there are new bumper-type pieces behind each rear tire.

Lots of people hate the new car, but I admit it's growing on me. It looks especially nice in the various team liveries; those bulbous sidepods make the sponsor decals really pop.

In addition, for the first time in several years, there are multiple engine manufacturers involved with the series: Chevrolet, Honda, and Lotus. Their turbo engines are newly designed to IndyCar's specs, meaning the manufacturers haven't gotten everything hammered out yet - which is to say that they (the engines, not the manufacturers) may occasionally blow up. Which should be interesting.

Leveling the playing field

All these changes mean there's more parity in the series than there has been in years. Because the cars and the engines are new, no one team has managed to gain a significant edge in terms of research and development (although the larger teams, such as Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, and KV, have been able to apply more resources to testing).

Indeed, this year's field is incredibly tight. Witness the results of Saturday's qualifying event, in which each of the top six cars was from a different team.

Yes, the usual Goliaths were present: Penske driver Helio Castroneves (Chevy) claimed the pole, and Ganassi driver Scott Dixon (Honda) claimed the third spot on the grid.

But surrounding them were Andretti driver James Hinchcliffe (a.k.a. "Manica," having landed the seat vacated by Danica Patrick, who left the IZOD IndyCar series for NASCAR), whose Chevy-powered car sped to P2 during qualifying; AJ Foyt's driver, Mike Conway, who piloted his Honda-powered machine to the fourth spot on the grid; Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand (famous for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the last turn of the last lap of last year's Indianapolis 500) slotted his Chevy-powered car into the fifth spot; and veteran driver Tony Kanaan, whose Chevy-powered KV Racing machine landed the number-six spot.

While it's true that there is significant parity among drivers, this is less true of the engines. So far, Chevy appears to have a slight edge over Honda, with both Chevy and Honda dominating Lotus.

Indeed, with the exception of the #7 car, owned by Dragon Racing and piloted by Champ Car legend Sebastien Bourdais, which has shown decent if not dominating results, the Lotus contingent (composed of HVM's Simona Di Silvestro (a.k.a. The Swiss Miss); BHA driver Alex Tagliani, who snagged the pole last year at Indy; Spaniard Oriol Servia, now driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, who finished third in the points last year; the aforementioned Bourdais; and Katherine Legge, also with Dragon, a former Champ Car driver making her IndyCar debut after several seasons out of the car) finds itself in the unfortunate position of being the bug rather than the windshield.

That being said, the Lotus cars are among the most gorgeous on the grid - particularly Bourdais's black-and-gold machine. I said as much to my friend Didier, who is Bourdais's crew chief, as I surveyed the grid before the race.

The lighter side of racing

Speaking of "before the race," pre-race is one of my favorite periods of any race weekend - when all the teams ferry their cars onto the track, lined up in their start order. A happy chaos ensues, as spectators mill around the machines while fire-suited mechanics stand guard.

I always walk from the first car to the last and back again, letting the crowd wash over me, watching everything unfold. With each passing year, more faces on the grid have become familiar. Yes, I'm part of this world only tangentially - I'm just Olivier's +1 - but I like to think I've made a few friends of my own by now.

Pre-race is when I give each one a hug, wish them luck, and most importantly - especially after the horrific accident that claimed Wheldon's life last year, from which the entire community is still reeling - tell them to stay safe.

Enough chit-chat. Here's how race day went down for us: EJ had a good, well-balanced car, but his tires seemed to degrade more quickly than normal, meaning he had no grip.

But he drove a smart race and kept the car in one piece, which was a positive. He finished 18th. (Penske driver Will Power was the victor, with Dixon and Castroneves joining him on the podium.)

Next stop: Long Beach, April 15. I'll be there!

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