Motor

IndyCar season has thrilled so far

Season of thrills
Mike Conway (Left) celebrates with teammate Justin Wilson after winning at Belle Isle Park.
SPEED ROBIN MILLER
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The irony was as overwhelming as Mike Conway was on Saturday afternoon. On the weekend IndyCar announced its aero kits and timelines for embracing innovation, the series staged a showcase on why it’s the best form of four-wheel competition anywhere in its current state of spec racing.

Using a doubleheader format for the first time on a road course since 1969, the Chevy Dual in Detroit produced new winners, surprise podiums, excellent racing and further testament that any team with a good driver/engineer combination and solid pit stops has a legit shot at Victory Lane.

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Conway, whose only previous start this season came at Long Beach, introduced himself to Dale Coyne’s crew on Friday morning, qualified third and then dominated Saturday’s opening 70-lap race around Belle Isle.

In Sunday’s second act on the suddenly racy 2.35-mile street circuit, Simon Pagenaud fulfilled his promise and scored the first win for himself and owners Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson and Davey Hamilton. The rest of the podium was James Jakes of Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan and Conway.

No drivers from Penske, Ganassi or Andretti.

“We don’t have the star power of a Mansell, Zanardi or Montoya right now but I’m telling you this field is as deep as the late ‘90s in CART,” said Dario Franchitti, the four-time IndyCar champ and three-time Indy 500 king who captured the pole for Saturday and finished fifth on Sunday.

“It’s not outrageous to say but there are 20 drivers who could win one of these races.”

As it stands this morning, six different drivers on five different teams have won races so far this year and none of them have been Roger Penske’s or Chip Ganassi’s – the perennial bullies of open wheel racing that have set the bar for most of the past 20 years.

Michael Andretti’s squad leads the way with three (James Hinchcliffe two and 2012 IZOD IndyCar series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay) while A.J. Foyt (Takuma Sato), KV Racing (Tony Kanaan), Coyne (Conway) and Schmidt/Hamilton (Pagenaud) have also enjoyed the spoils of victory.

In what may be the most level playing field since everyone had Watson roadsters and Offenhauser engines, the grid is all Dallara DW12s with either Chevrolet or Honda power. After an early 4-1 advantage, GM still leads the engine war but Honda’s sweep over the weekend made it 4-3, and Firestone’s primary and alternate tires continue to enhance overtaking and driver skill.

The best thing about IndyCar right now is that NOBODY can predict any outcome because everything is so close and so equal.

And nothing illustrates this point like Detroit.

What Conway was able to accomplish is almost incomprehensible. No testing and only one 70-minute practice session with a team at the bottom of the barrel in terms of budget, the 28-year-old Brit threw Coyne’s Sonny’s BarBQ Special around like a Formula Ford. He was loose, sideways, grazing the walls and spectacularly quick all weekend.

“I categorize drivers two ways. They either drive with the front of the car or the rear, and Mike likes to drive it from the back,” said veteran engineer John Dick, now in his 37th year of IndyCar racing. “He works hard to make the car neutral, and the harder he works to do that, the faster he goes.

“He’s a very cerebral driver, too, and that’s pretty rare, but all I told him was to run laps and have fun. I think we only made one change from Saturday to Sunday, and he was amazing.”

Conway quit Foyt last year because he no longer wanted to run ovals, and while that’s pretty much career suicide, it’s no secret he’s always been tough at road racing – especially on the streets where he waxed the field at Long Beach in 2011.

He hopped into Bobby Rahal’s third car at Long Beach last April and qualified fifth, but his latest performance defies description. Coyne Racing visited the 7-post shaker rig once in 2012 and, unlike a big team which may have three specialized people for its shock/damper program alone, Dick grins at the question.

“Our damper program is Bill (Pappas) and myself,” he says with a laugh.

In the worst pit box (the first one at pit in) on one of the smallest teams, Conway drove away from everyone on Saturday.

“He has one practice session with a bunch of strangers and a strange setup and qualifies third,” said Dick. “He wins the pole for Sunday’s race on Saturday morning and then runs away and hides in the race.

“Afterwards I see so many high quality drivers go up and shake his hand and they were genuinely happy for Mike. And he just whipped their butt. That was pretty cool.”

A long final pit stop cost Justin Wilson second place on Saturday but he took third to give Coyne two-thirds of the podium (a first) after Conway had earned the first-ever pole for the Chicago native.

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Sunday’s podium was even more intriguing with Schmidt/Hamilton, Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan and Coyne.

Considering how bad his car was handling Saturday, Pagenaud’s win was a surprise but not because of him. The ex-Atlantic champ and sports car ace is a damn fine racer, and it was only a matter of time ‘til he got a W. He and engineer Ben Bretzman were impressive a year ago and this figures to kick start their season.

Jakes, who turned in some good drives at the end of 2011 but suffered through a dismal 2012 with Coyne, looked like the A Team driver all weekend – qualifying third and second and doing a nice job of holding off Conway for his first podium on Sunday.

“I think this is the most competitive racing series in the world and it showed again this weekend,” said Jakes.

No argument here, and that’s why it gets tricky when we start discussing aero packages and changes which could separate the field. Yes, the fans seem to want different looking cars and speed records, and maybe the new plan unveiled by Derrick Walker and Will Phillips will attract some new manufacturers.

Still, it is worth risking what we’ve seen the last two years? Fourteen different winners in the last 22 races. More passing on every kind of track than we’ve ever seen. A truly level playing field. We know all this great racing hasn’t translated into television ratings and something else needs to happen.

But IndyCar has got to be very careful and very wise by the time we get to 2016.

Because it can’t get much better than it is right now.

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