The credential office at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is on the moon, but otherwise, there’s not much fault to find with this place. The track is gorgeous, the facilities are well-kept, and the staff is fantastic. The layout, quality, and banking makes it feel like Texas Motor Speedway crossed with Chicagoland Speedway. The racing will probably be as hair-raising as Chicago can be, based on driver comments. In other words, you’ll be breathing into a bag if you’re breathing at all as you witness packs of cars race inches apart at over 220 MPH.
There’s a real sense of excitement here — for starters, it’s Vegas! But there’s also a lot of interest in the story lines for this race and the championship, as well as anticipation for 2012 and the new car/engines.
The first press conference of the day was all about 2012 as Chevrolet unveiled their new engine and announced a joint effort to develop it. Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, and Panther Racing have all contributed team members to the effort, and Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and JR Hildebrand were named test drivers. Chevy pointed to its similar approach in NASCAR and the success it has had there as the inspiration for the collaboration. The press conference was concluded in front of the media center with the unveiling of the 2012 car with a Chevrolet livery. (About the 2012 car: I’ve been ruminating on it and have come to the conclusion that I really like the look of it in certain liveries and am not so crazy about it in others. The livery designers will have an interesting challenge with this new machine.)
After an unusual lunch (chips, salsa, fajitas and mashed potatoes), it was time for practice. The big happening during this session was the awful crash of James Jakes. Watching a replay brought back the memory of Simona de Silvestro’s crash at Indy — something in the rear suspension broke and the car started bottoming out and sparking as it slid up into the wall at full speed. There was a burst of flame and the fire grew as Jakes’s car continued at high speed down the track. He said later that the brakes had failed, so he couldn’t slow it down. He was unbuckling and removing the steering wheel as the car went along. As soon as it stopped, he sprang out and ran, patting the back of his fire suit. He suffered burns on his back and backside but should be cleared to drive. The same could not be said for the 18 car, which looked rather charred/melted in addition to the impact damage. Dale Coyne’s team was seen preparing Tony Kanaan’s back-up car later in the afternoon — since this is the last race for this Dallara model, it’s not surprising to see other teams willing to make a deal.
The afternoon press conference was a bit of a love fest between Randy Bernard and LVMS president Chris Powell as they announced that the INDYCAR World Championships would return to Las Vegas on October 14, 2012. Initially, this announcement was supposed to be about the 2012 season schedule, but Bernard said he wasn’t happy with it and wanted to keep working on getting more ovals into the mix. He said he expected the schedule to be announced in the next two weeks. After Bernard and Powell traded compliments and Powell gifted Bernard with a personalized Las Vegas racing helmet, the conference turned to questions about next year’s Vegas race. When asked if he would do the $5 million challenge again, Bernard joked that he’d make it $10 million, and then said he’d only do it again if he had a driver signed to the deal before they announced it.
By the way — LVMS has announced that tickets for the 2012 race are already on sale. You can get two general admission weekend tickets with two Neon Garage passes for $59 until the end of the year. If you prefer reserved seating, the same deal is available for $99. Bernard noted that there may not be a large ticket giveaway as there was for this first Vegas race, but said that decision would come later.
Qualifying for this year’s race was pretty exciting — it seemed at first as if Andretti Autosport would take the four top spots on the grid until Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servia came along and swiped the provisional pole. Near the end of the session, Tony Kanaan took the pole for good, shifting Servia to the outside of row 1. There were two big stories in qualifying. The “Death Star” teams just didn’t contend for the top spots, and our championship contenders, Dario Franchitti and Will Power, suffered more than most of the top guys. They’ll start side-by-side on the ninth row, which certainly makes things a lot more interesting for them as they both try to stay out of trouble and battle through the pack. Franchitti’s 18-point lead is not insurmountable – as we saw at Kentucky, things can turn on a dime when the title race is this close. The two possible champions are just hoping that this Dallara model doesn’t go out with a multi-car bang of a pileup and collect them in the melee.
Another thing to watch: Dan Wheldon coming from last place to try for a win and the $5 million dollar payout. He’ll be joined in the back by EJ Viso, who was not allowed to qualify due to an inappropriate engine change. Viso had been told to stop on the track when leaking was noticed from his car, but he continued all the way around the track, spraying oil and necessitating a big cleanup during practice. He also ran all the oil out of the engine, which prompted the engine change. Since the change may not have been needed if he’d obeyed Race Control’s orders, the change was deemed inappropriate and he wasn’t allowed to post a qualifying time. James Jakes also did not qualify due to his crash. Buddy Rice was penalized after the day was done for crossing the white line in qualifying and will also be sent to the back of the field. He had qualified 19th.
The Rookie of the Year contenders, James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand, start in 14th and 15th respectively, making for yet another thing to keep an eye on. Helio Castroneves will go winless in a season for the first time in more than a decade if he doesn’t win tomorrow. And, of course, it’s Danica Patrick’s last INDYCAR race, and there’s no doubt she’d like to leave with a trophy. She’ll start ninth.
There’s no track activity for INDYCAR today (except some demo laps by the 2012 car), so the focus will be on festivities. If I survive them, there may be a post here about the goings-on. Otherwise, stay tuned for the post-race report on Sunday, and follow me at @SpeedFreakBash for a bit of gab and the occasional bit of news. Thanks for reading!