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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Enjoying the weekend in Long Beach

by Gordon Kirby
Dario Franchitti demonstrated at Long Beach on Sunday that he's going to be a hard man to beat to this year's IRL IndyCar championship. Franchitti took the lead thanks to some quick thinking which brought him into the pits as soon as the race's first full-course yellow prevailed. Once in front, Dario proved impossible to beat as he was able to get a jump on the rest of the field on restarts and maintain a small cushion over anyone else.

In the end, Franchitti won by a little over three seconds from poleman Will Power who chased the winner relentlessly despite problems with his radio which forced the Australian to run a fuel-conservative race. Tony Kanaan took a close third while Franchitti emerged with the IRL championship lead ahead of Power, St. Petersburg winner Ryan Briscoe, Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Defending IRL champion Scott Dixon had his second bad weekend of the year when he was punted from behind by Briscoe while the field was running under the yellow. Briscoe ruined his race and Dixon's too, so that they scraped home thirteenth and fifteenth respectively. Also out of luck were Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal. Wilson again showed great speed in Dale Coyne's car, qualifying fifth and jumping to third on the start only to be eliminated in a five-car shunt entering the hairpin before Shoreline Drive. Rahal also ran quickly but a pit miscue resulted in a couple of penalties and twelfth place.

And of course Helio Castroneves flew in from Miami after the successful defense of his tax case to take over the car Will Power had practiced on Friday. Power jumped into a third Penske car for the rest of the weekend while a relieved Castroneves settled back into his job admirably, qualifying eighth and finishing seventh. "Getting back into the car and racing was the best possible therapy for Helio," Rick Mears remarked.

Castroneves's return means Power will not race at Kansas City next weekend but the taciturn Australian will run the Indy 500 in a third Penske entry. Beyond the month of May, at this point at least, Power will be merely a reserve driver for Team Penske.

"I'm with Penske," Power emphasized. "I'm not going anywhere else. This is a team I want to remain with for the rest of my career and I'm looking forward to the Indy 500.

"I'm just happy to be given an opportunity, especially in this team," Will added. "Team Penske is very special and I'm looking forward to the month of May and the Indy 500 with these guys. As you know, they've had a lot of success there."

Power was forced to run a conservative race because his radio didn't work properly, nor did the team's pitside scoring monitor. "It was a small wiring problem," Power explained. "I could only hear them on the radio in a small section of the frontstraight. So we used the board."

Rick Mears joined some of the experienced people from Penske's Grand-Am team to help run Power's car at Long Beach. "It was like the old days," Rick chuckled. "We used our heads and the pit board. It was fun."

Veteran Penske engineer Nigel Beresford was in charge of running Power last weekend. "Will did a great job in difficult circumstances," Beresford remarked. "He's an interesting fellow, very intense. I like him and there's no doubt that he's very, very good."

Power drove as hard as he could throughout the race while trying to save as much fuel as possible. "When you're saving fuel you drive harder through the corners to make up for it," Power commented. "I was on full lean and you have to drive hard in that situation to get the most out of the car."

Winner Franchitti was delighted to score his first Long Beach victory, having run the race six times between 1997-2002 during his CART days with Team Green. "It's a great track because you can pass here at Long Beach and that's not necessarily the case at quite a few of the street tracks," Dario remarked.

Franchitti enjoyed the atmosphere in downtown Long Beach over the weekend. "It felt exactly like it used to," he said. "We went out for dinner a couple of times during the weekend and the buzz around town was amazing. The fans were loving it."

Dario has become the leading voice of today's unified IndyCar series. "There's no confusion anymore," he remarked. "Everyone knows there's one series--IndyCar--and they know the guys that race in the Indy 500 are the guys that race in all these other races. And I think that helps generate a buzz in interest and ticket sales and it just keeps going from there."

Race promoter Jim Michaelian said the crowd was up over recent years. "We got around 175,000 over three days," Michaelian reported. "I don't think we got to 180,000. But in this day and age it was great. And I think there was a recognition that this is the future, which wasn't there in the past few years."

Pine Street restaurateur John 'Smooth' Morris reported his business was down no more than ten percent over recent years. "But in general from week to week this year we've been down thirty-five percent," Morris said. "So in today's climate it was a great weekend for us."

As suggested last week, one of the highlights of the Long Beach weekend was the Road Racing Drivers Club's Thursday night dinner with Dan Gurney. A full-house of 250 guests turned out to honor Dan and RRDC president Bobby Rahal confirmed the club's longterm commitment to supporting Team USA, Jeremy Shaw's scholarship program for up-and-coming young American open-wheel racers. The proceeds from last week's RRDC dinner with Dan will go to support Team USA.

A surprise guest turned up at the dinner in the shape of Tony Brooks. English gent Brooks was Dan's teammate at Ferrari in 1959 in both F1 and sports cars. Brooks won three Grand Prix races aboard Vanwalls in 1958 and was rated by both Stirling Moss and Gurney as one of the finest drivers of that halcyon era. After dinner, Murray Smith conducted a short chat about those days, first with Dan and then with Brooks too.

Among the star-studded assembly of racing folk were former RRDC president Brian Redman, Tony Adamowicz, John Morton, Danny Sullivan, Dario and Marino Franchitti, David Brabham and Alex Gurney, plus fellows like former F1 mechanic and current Indy lights boss Roger Bailey. Parnelli Jones, Bob Bondurant and Linda Vaughan sat at my table and Chip Ganassi and his dad Floyd were nearby. Derek Hill and his mom Alma also were there. Derek is working on a documentary about his father and Alma and he are working with Doug Nye on the official Phil Hill biography. Written by the prolifically informed Nye the book will be published in 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Phil's world championship.

Congratulations to Jeremy Shaw for doing such a great job of organizing the first of many RRDC dinners at the Long Beach GP. Jeremy's Team USA scholarship program is the benefactor of the dinner and RRDC president Rahal hopes the annual dinner will provide not only an enjoyable social evening in Long Beach each year but also help grow support for a very important scholarship for our sport.

As everyone knows it was also confirmed in Long Beach last Friday that Paul Tracy will drive a KV Racing entry sponsored by Geico Insurance in next month's Indy 500. Tracy last raced at Indianapolis in 2002 when he appeared to pass Helio Castroneves for the lead as the yellow light came on during the race's second-last lap. The win was awarded to Castroneves and that was Tracy's only start at Indianapolis since 1995 as he remained the last CART/Camp Car stalwart.

"Having left the Indy 500 the last time I was there with Helio walking off with my trophy it left a bitter taste in my mouth," Tracy commented. "I'm going back there with a team in KV Racing that I feel has the resources and will enable me to do the job. I'm not going there just to fill the field. I'm going there to win."

Tracy, 40, has raced Indy cars since 1992 and is the most successful active American open-wheel racer with 30 wins to his credit. But with Champ Car's failure and Jerry Forsythe's withdrawal from racing Tracy found himself without a ride last year. He ran the final Champ Car race at Long Beach last year in one of Forsythe's cars and also raced at Edmonton in July where he finished fourth in his only IRL start of the year.

Geico Insurance continues to spend many millions of advertising dollars in today's economic climate with a vigorous overall national ad campaign. Geico is sponsoring Max Papis's Germain Racing Toyota this year for eighteen NASCAR Sprint Cup races. Tracy hopes to perform well at Indianapolis and entice Geico to sponsor him for the IRL's two Canadian races in Toronto and Edmonton in July.

"It's a good deal for Geico," Tracy said. "We're going to try to deliver the maximum we can and hopefully they'll see the benefit of it and want to do more races with us."

KV Racing is co-owned of course by Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser. Former CART champion Vasser also hopes the sponsorship will develop into something bigger for the rest of the season. "I'm sure Paul will give us everything he's got," Vasser said. "With a little luck maybe this can build into something more than just a one-race deal."

That too, as we all know, would be a great thing for Indy car racing. Let's hope Tracy can build on his appearance at Indianapolis next month and that Franchitti is right about a positive buzz slowly building around this year's unified IndyCar series.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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