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It Was A Good Weekend To Watch Electronically

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 18 2012

NHRA Funny Car driver Robert Hight takes a stroll in North Carolina with his constant companion. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson_

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Some thoughts about a rather large weekend of racing and many hours in front of the flat screen (LCD, not that plasma crap):

– Robert Hight’s Funny Car season is shaping up to be one of those special jobs that seems to come along every decade or so in the NHRA. Like the one Greg Anderson had in Pro Stock in 2004 when he won 15 events. Or the one John Force had in 1996 when he waon 13 times.

Hight has four victories in five races now. He and tuner Jimmy Prock appear perfectly meshed. Like at the Four-Wide Nationals over the weekend where they solved problems – they only had one solid qualifying run, though that was a beauty and earned the pole – all through the weekend and got the victory on Sunday.

“I wasn’t concerned at all,” Hight said of the shaky runs of Friday and Saturday. “I have a lot of confidence in my team and what we have been doing. We were on the good side of a tune up. That is an easy thing to fix. (Jimmy Prock) saw the clouds this morning and he got excited. He was able to step all over it. We were really close to a three second run there. We ran 320 mph and I don’t know what I ran in the final because we just missed backing that up for a national record. We were like three tenths off.”

It is getting to point where you just kind of figure everything is going to go right for them and that TV coverage is going to end every Sunday with Hight waving yet another Wally around in the air in slow motion as the credits role.

After doing that on Sunday at zMAX Dragway, Hight said, “To win one of these races is tough but to win four in a row is stuff that you don’t even dream about. I don’t see why we need to stop here.”

Getting to be a lot of us don’t see why.

– Will Power’s season stands as a monument to negative thinking.

Will Power takes a flying leap after winning Long Beach. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Two races in a row now the Team Penske driver has said that his lousy starting spot on the grid would kill his chances of winning. Two races in a row, he’s hoped to merely salvage a top-five. Two races in a row the day has ended with that awkward, goofy jump from his sidepod in Victory Lane.

“I could not believe it,” said Power, who notched his 17th Indy car victory Sunday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. “You always believe that it is possible to win or get on the podium, but it was very unlikely, the fact that it was going to be a two‑stop race. But it was just amazing that Simon (Pagenaud) did three stops and I did two stops, like two different strategies and the result was similar. There was hardly any time between us as we crossed the finish line.

“It’s just always a surprise in IndyCar, I think. You can never predict; you can never assume going into a race. You just have to be smart as it plays out.”

– They have been racing four-wide at Bruton Smith’s zMAX Dragway in North Carolina for three years now and the format remains confusing and continues to be a tough sell for some of the drag racing purists who think their sport is defined as mano a mano and not mano a mano a mano a mano.

It does provide a big sensory rush when all four cars break from the line at the same time. But the

Is the four-wide format twice the fun? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

suspense is also shortened when, just like that, two qualifiers are eliminated. There just seems to be more drama when there are more runs and, hence, more go or go-home matchups.

– I like some 500-mile races and I like some night races. Not sure I like 500 miles on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway. Especially with a 7:30 p.m. start.

Even a good race under those circumstances can be tough to sit through. But when big stretches of the race are less than titillating – as was the case in the Samsung Mobile 500 at TMS – you have to wash the  5-Hour  down with a 16-ounce Monster just to get to the crossed flags.

– The offspring of two of my favorite Formula 1 drivers from the 1980s had decent days on Sunday. Nico Rosberg, son of one of the coolest drivers ever, Keke Rosburg (a watercolor drawing of him winning the Dallas GP in 1984 still hangs in my office), won the F1 race in China. And, Nelson Piquet Jr. appeared to have a winning run going at Rockingham before a penalty relegated him to a non-podium finish.

– The Rock returned over the weekend but the fans did not. Not in the kinds of number that some of us had hoped for.

The hope was that absence would make the heart grow stronger for one of NASCAR’s most exciting golden era tracks. The hope was that nostalgia alone would spin the turnstiles and, when it so happened that the race fell on a Sunday afternoon instead of the usual Friday or Saturday nights for Camping World Truck races, a sellout would be the result.

The hope was that the work and respect and love that Andy Hillenburg poured into the track would make the ticket a hottie.

Nope to hope.

The crowd looked decent but served to remind fans why Rockingham lost its Cup races in the first place.

– Simon Pagenaud may look and sound like Jean Girard, the Frenchman who breaks Ricky Booby’s arm in “Talladega Nights”, but the guy is a serious racing talent.

While leading the race and with a 16-second margin over Power, Pagenaud, on a three-stop strategy,

The wide-open spaces of Texas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

pitted for his final stop on lap 70 for fresh Firestone tires and a splash of fuel.

He left the pits in fourth place behind the cars of Power, Takuma Sato and Rubens Barrichello in that order and who were all on two-stop strategies. Pagenaud was also more than 10 seconds behind Power on the track.

In short order, Pagenaud passed the former F1 star Barrichello on lap 73 and set his sights on Sato, who was five seconds ahead. By lap 79, Pagenaud hunted down Sato and made the pass into second place.

With six laps to the finish and six seconds behind Power, the Long Beach crowd witnessed a classic pursuit around the 1.968-mile street course. At the end, Power beat Pagenaud to the line by just .8675 seconds for a dramatic finish.

– Funny Car driver Ron Capps is off to a good start with new crew chief Rahn Tobler. They finished second at the Four-Wides.

– Cool to see a large contingent of NASCAR types at zMAX on Sunday. Even those guys, who are so used to high speeds and loud noises, get jacked up at NHRA events. They know what all NHRA fans know: if you ain’t been there live, you just don’t know.

– For years, the folks at Honda PerformanceDevelopment have been begging for competition in INDYCAR. See, Honda, quite simply, likes competition. It is a corporate philosophy as the folks there believe it is essential to developing their street machinery.

And HPD was essential to the continued existence of INDYCAR after Toyota and GM pulled out in the 2000s. And HPD proved incredibly adept at producing great – not good, great – engines for the series as their V-8s ran mile after mile, race after race, season after season virtually without failure.

But now, GM is back and is just destroying the Honda-powered cars on the track.

Think about it: All teams and drivers using Chevrolet engines were penalized 10 starting spots on the grid after qualifying because GM broke the longevity rule. At the time, it seemed like a death sentence for Chevy and a gift for Honda.

But at the end of the day, six of the first seven cars across the finish line – including race-winner Will Power  of Team Penske – at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach were Chevy-powered.

Yes, fuel mileage and pit-stop strategy played a big part, but still…

– And what was up with that Graham Rahal/Marco Andretti wreck at Long Beach? That one could have got real ugly.

No heroes in that one. Certainly no winners, though Marco won the battle of words as his televised version of what happened was clear and concise while Rahal’s was rambling and halting.

Speaking of a Rahal, great to see Bobby back in the INDYCAR paddocks. Looked like his driver, Takuma Sato, had a shot at the victory for a while there on Sunday. Fuel strategy caught up with him at the end but still, a nice drive for the one-car effort.

– Then there was Michael Schumacher running second in Shanghai until derailed by a improperly tightened wheel nut. Seemed like old times there for a while.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 18 2012
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