Notes from a scene: Phoenix 2017

As you may know, your humble host lives in the Phoenix area, so it was with great enthusiasm that the majority of our household headed out to Avondale for the Desert Diamond Grand Parade, err, Prix of Phoenix. In case you’d like a different kind of coverage of the race weekend, here goes.

The absolute first thing that needs to be addressed is the weather. When it was announced that the race date was moved to later in April to avoid a conflict with the NCAA Final Four basketball playoffs which were also in Phoenix this year, I did the facepalm. As a longtime resident of the Valley of the Sun, I know that this is the time of year when the temperature starts to creep into triple digits, and nothing would kill event attendance like a regularly scheduled firestorm of sunshine. But by extreme fortune, the weather was in the 80s this weekend.

Well, that’s the good news. The bad news is the reason the temperatures were so moderate was because some sort of system had moved in and we had wind gust of up to 30 miles per hour. And here in the desert, that means copious amounts of flying dust. My favorite line I heard on Friday was from longtime Indycar Insider Arni Sribhen, who glibly declared “I have Yuma in my teeth”.

And although the wind was a bit of a nuisance, it didn’t really stop the people that were near the garage from moving around, and it didn’t keep the various personalities of Indycar from mingling with them. Make no mistake, if you’re the kind of fan who read this site (and I think you are) you really should try to pay extra to get a garage pass/credential to a race. It’s a much more full experience. If I wasn’t in the garage area then I wouldn’t have been able to ask a Firestone rep about the Penske tire failures at Phoenix last year (“we found wires from the cables in the catch fence in those tires”), or a Honda rep about his expectations for the race (“the aero kits are locked, so unfortunately we don’t expect the short track races to be different from last year”).

As for my family, my oldest daughter made a contest to see home many drivers and racing personalities she could get selfies with, and she was able to rack up a considerable total in no time. (Her favorites: Mario Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, and Sarah Fisher) Meanwhile my oldest son tried to ask as many drivers as he could “what do you drive at home?” just to talk cars. His unscientific survey results were generally either (A) a $50,000 SUV, or (B) a $100,000+ sports car, depending on the experience level.

We also met a local Indycar superfan named Scott Mueller, who seemed to have known literally everyone. Apparently as a child he tripped and fell in front of Dario Franchitti, and yada yada yada, now he’s twenty-something and he’s familiar with every driver and crewmen. And give him credit being able to recognize anyone and everyone, because conversely many of the fans in the garage area were oblivious to drivers like JR Hildebrand and Carlos Munoz walking around in street clothes. Even a guy like Will Power(!) could walk around sans firesuit without being noticed.

Similarly, Conor Daly was just hanging out behind his team’s trailer, so I walked over to chat. I’m a fan of many other sports, but it still amazes me how there are so many Indycar participants who, if they aren’t working, will gladly talk about whatever with whomever. (Get a garage pass!) I don’t have a transcript but he said the wind and dust weren’t as bad to driver through as he thought they would be, he’s pulling over 6 Gs in the corners, and he was already looking forward to the Grand Prix of Indianapolis because “it’s more about the driver than the car.” Also, as I suspected, his stint on American Ninja Warrior did not go as well as he had hoped.

One other such anonymous driver who we kept spotting was Zach Veach, who had just made his Indycar debut at Barber. Veach was not only driving a two-seater, but he was also working for IMS Radio for the weekend. When asked about the busy weekend he cheerfully replied “Gotta pay the bills!” Veach also said he passes the time by rock climbing, which immediately made me think HE should be on American Ninja Warrior someday.

A few other random observations: Takuma Sato is the only driver with a “scooter” that’s a motorized razor. Mikhail Aleshin likes to take a lot of video of himself. And the Team Penske work area appeared to be the only one where crew members had their own food buffet.

We settled into our seats for qualifications, and as many have noted the cars look spectacular under the lights.  Specifically, Simon Pagenaud’s classic neon yellow Menards livery was simply stunning, and Aleshin’s shiny red and black livery was fetching as well. Too bad we didn’t get to see much of the latter on Saturday.

As for the race, well, if you check on social media or read published race reports you have probably noticed that everyone is running this race through their disappointment matrix. Which is fair, because like last year there was so little passing, but unlike last year they had a solution. According to Robin Miller the teams conducted testing last October and determined that filling in the hole in the undertray (designed to keep cars on the ground if they end up pointing the wrong direction) of the DW12 would be “a solution” to the problem of difficult passing at Phoenix. Miller notes that teams didn’t want to spend the money to make the change, but I wonder safety wasn’t an issue as well. I mean, more passing is good, but flying racecars is very, very bad.

Here’s something that keeps getting missed: after having years of having two highly-publicized NASCAR races year, Phoenix is way more of a stock car town than any other type of racing. Because of that, the most natural appeal is not so much passing, since stock car races here will always have more cars on the track and consequently more passes. Yes, the passing should be way better since Indycars can pass so much at Indy now, but I think the largest selling point should be the dramatic difference in speeds. Consider this – the pole sitter for the most recent NASCAR Cup race qualified at 137 mile per hour, while Helio Castroneves averaged nearly 195 mph in qualifications this weekend. If they want to sell tickets then emphasize that disparity in a billboard or TV ad! (Then again, this will never happen because PIR is owned by International Speedway, and they don’t want to disparage their NASCAR product.)

Sitting in the stands the last two seasons I haven’t heard too much grumbling about a lack of passing, although to be sure it will factor in to the decision to renew tickets for many fans. However, this year I heard a lot of vocally expressed grief in my section about the 20+ laps of yellow to start the race. That’s nearly 10%, folks. Yes, it takes a while to clean up the wreckage of five cars, so if you’re trying to give fans a good show maybe Race Control should consider throwing a Red Flag until the track is properly cleared. Otherwise, expect some fans to deploy Will Power’s Angry Birds.

And if those aren’t enough notes, I’ve got one last post tomorrow about the race winner.

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