Long Beach: Steph’s Friday thoughts

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on April 14, 2012 8:41 am

Well, that was not the way anyone wanted to start the weekend of the 38th Annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Even I was cold, people, and that just doesn’t happen unless it’s snowing outside.

The day was almost a complete write-off — the only stories involved a) a few drivers who got overzealous in useless practice sessions and b) yet more engine changes and grid penalties.

It’s not all bad, though — it gives me a chance to tell you about a few things that might be taking up unnecessary space on a busier day.

Let’s cover the observations relating to track activity first. Those three overzealous drivers were Simona de Silvestro and Takuma Sato, who both had wall contact at nearly the same time in separate incidents in this morning’s session, and Scott Dixon, who hydroplaned into a wall in the second practice session, which probably should never have been waved green in the first place.

It was obvious from Simona’s incident that she was pushing really hard, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. There really was nothing to be gained from running much more than installation laps today since the rain and cold aren’t being forecast to continue for the rest of the weekend (and thank heaven for that!). In spite of this, Simona gave the tires in turn 8 a fair whack. She was fine, but she gave the crew a bit of work to do. It didn’t look like anything that should be an issue to get done before tomorrow morning, though.

Sato’s contact was more minor — if anything, it appeared to be for comedic value. He spun and made light contact with the barrier in turn 10, and the way his front wing just dropped off the nose and carried on as though it thought the car was still attached was giggle-worthy (though mostly because Sato was fine and the damage was nothing the team couldn’t handle easily).

Dixie’s issue was much more bizarre. As pointed out earlier, every Chevrolet entry and more than half the Lotus entries will be serving penalties on the starting grid after qualifying this weekend — and yet the only two cars that were brave (?) enough to try the rain-drenched track in the afternoon session were Dixie and Dario, both powered by Honda. To be honest, after having spent nearly two hours hiding in a restaurant outside turn 1 with my daughter waiting for the weather to ease, I had been watching Twitter for at least a half hour looking for a notice saying second practice had been called so that we could head home. Why either of those cars would bother to risk the conditions — and why the session wasn’t cancelled outright — are both mind-boggling questions. Anyway, Dixie stated later that the damage was minor, so ultimately little harm was done.

I spent the majority of the day wandering the western portion of the circuit. This is my second trip to Long Beach, and for the first trip I spent little time in the grandstands as I was able to be in the paddock and on pit lane for most of the event. I think the only time I spent sitting in 2010 was during the ALMS race when I sat with a friend in turn 10. This year, though, I have my daughter with me, which means that if I want to have a hope of following the action on Sunday that I’ll need to buy a grandstand ticket. The good news is that Long Beach is extremely well set up for that — about half the grandstands are general admission until Sunday when they become reserved seating for only that day. I tried out grandstand 36 first and thought it was okay — it’s in the section that gives you a view of the cars going both directions, which is a major bonus, but its view of turn 1 is very steep and I care much more about what happens there than at turn 6, which it sees a little better. My hope is that I can find a decent ticket in grandstand 6, which I liked much better. Both grandstands (and those around them) have access to two large viewing screens, but 6’s panorama is a little heavier on turn 1, which is more to my liking.

My primary motivation for being at the west end of the track is that it’s closer to everything I need to access easily: food, the convention center, and the reserved parking I purchased on Shoreline so that I wouldn’t have to cruise downtown Long Beach every morning wondering where to park. If I’d bought Marina parking or thought I’d be able to spend more time in the paddock then I might be inclined to go back to turn 10, but it’s too far out of my way this year. The hairpin and the front stretch don’t impress me much. There will be little happening in those areas, in my opinion, that I won’t be just as happy to catch on the CCTVs.

Speaking of the convention center, in the wandering I did today and yesterday, I was genuinely impressed. The Lifestyle Expo looks great this year, and there’s a lot more driver and sponsor tie-in than there has been in the past few years. There’s an enormous Racing with Insulin booth surrounded by cardboard Charlie Kimballs, Honda and Chevy have huge displays, Fuzzy’s is in there, and the usual Long Beach GP sponsors are on-site as well — though you know you’ve become a parent (or just old) when you think to yourself, “is it really necessary for the music to be quite so loud?” That’s a minor grouse, though. With the weather being as miserable as it was today, there were scads of people wandering around with beers in hand taking in the sights and sounds of the Expo today, and they had plenty of memorable things to see. The Fan Village also looks much more well thought out this year, but it blended it a little with all the action around it in the Expo. I think it will be more impressive at someplace like Mid-Ohio or Sonoma where it can be set up with lots of space to stand out.

Continuing on the topic of sponsor tie-ins, I’ll tell you one thing: Ed Carpenter Racing has earned its Leaders Circle money in spades. You cannot be at the track — or really even within a mile of it — without knowing that Fuzzy’s Vodka is a serious supporter of INDYCAR. There is no other single logo that I’ve seen more in the last two days than theirs. They’re everywhere — in the expo, on people’s clothing around the track, on SUVs driving around downtown Long Beach. It’s truly impressive in the most literal sense of the word.

The next most common logo I’ve seen, though, is Lids. It cannot be emphasized enough how much better the merchandise situation is this season. I stopped into the merch corner at the Fan Village to pick up The Shirt I Must Own. If I’m being completely honest, I was a tad disappointed with the quality of the material, but the lower price tag than in previous years and the 10% discount for being an INDYCAR Nation Champion made that easier to swallow. There are a few designs I wouldn’t wear personally, but as a whole the line looks a lot more slick, and the hats are absolutely top-notch (as would be expected from Lids) — and this is coming from someone who is decidedly not a hat person. I was happy enough with what I saw that I’ll probably be back for more later in the season. I didn’t see anything for very young children like my daughter, though. Perhaps I just missed it.

It’s difficult to discuss the GP of Long Beach — or Los Angeles in general — without broaching the topic of traffic. Maddie and I are staying at a friend’s place in Orange County roughly an hour south of the track. When Maddie and I first headed up on Thursday, I took the same routes I had taken in 2010: I-405 and I-710. By the time I got to the track, I could feel my back teeth grinding against each other. It’s not that I’m not a city driver — far from it. Highway 401 is actually wider in a few places in Toronto than the 405 is, and I’ve been driving that my entire life. But there’s something more stressful about the 405 — it might be the narrower lanes, or it might be the more aggressive drivers, or it might be the interchanges that give you a split second to make your move before you find yourself sideswiped. At any rate, I made it to the track on Thursday, and when I set out to head back that afternoon I left almost exactly at 5 PM. What a huge mistake that was. I got onto the 710, drove for about 10 feet, and bam: wall of traffic. Then, I saw an exit for the Pacific Coast Highway (known locally as the PCH). I thought, “why on Earth would I put myself through LA interstate traffic when I could have an easy cruise down the PCH and see the Pacific Ocean and interesting neighbourhoods while, when traffic is factored in, arriving back home in almost exactly the same amount of time?” The trip has been so much more enjoyable since I figured that out. I’m still patting myself on the back for it.

A quick word about a track day with a toddler: I’m an extremely organized type and prepare very well for a lot of things, but the one thing I hadn’t prepared for was torrential downpours in Southern California. We therefore spent more time hiding in restaurants and the convention center — and outside cold and wet — than I would have liked. The day wasn’t a wasted exercise, though — I learned a few things that I need to modify from my original plan. For one thing, I have a baby carrier that I’d already planned to use for the majority of the time, but I thought I’d bring a stroller to save my back for at least the trip from the car to the media center. That turned out to be a mistake — Long Beach has a lot of stairs that need to be navigated in every direction, and I ended up with the baby in the carrier and the stroller in my arms for most of the time, anyway. Tomorrow, I’ll just leave the stroller in the car. (I got a lot of jealous looks from other parents who were stuck with their babies in strollers, by the way. Baby carriers are totally the way to go at racetracks.) I also learned that I can’t do a back carry with her yet because I can’t reach her well enough to make sure she keeps her hearing protection on (taking it off when I couldn’t reach her easily became a very fun game this morning), so I’ll just shift my bags around a bit and front-carry her for the rest of the weekend. And speaking of hearing protection, I was stopped by no less than three track workers who asked if I needed hearing protection for her. I was a bit offended at first — I thought, “of course I don’t, I’m not a negligent parent” — but then I remembered that a whole lot of parents wouldn’t know better and was very grateful that someone was looking out for those kids. Always protect your kids’ ears at the racetrack, folks. They’re a lot more tender than ours.

Please follow along tomorrow and for the rest of the weekend both on Twitter @MoreFrontWing and here at MoreFrontWing.com. And poor Bash, who never made it to the track today after suffering through massively delayed flights and a resulting illness, should be joining our coverage tomorrow both here and on Twitter at @SpeedFreakBash. Here’s hoping we get the clearer weather we’ve been promised and can focus more on racing for the rest of the weekend!