PRUETT: 2017 Open-Wheel Awards

PRUETT: 2017 Open-Wheel Awards

Formula 1

PRUETT: 2017 Open-Wheel Awards

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Following our fake sports car awards, we’re closing the year with a big batch of fake open-wheel awards that range from downright silly to being thoroughly deserved. And to help with the process, I’ve added a few gems delivered by Robin Miller [RM], RACER.com Editor Mark Glendenning [MG], and RACER Formula 1 reporter Chris Medland [CM].

Winners can pick up their awards – finely crafted 2015 aero kit shards – at their local H.H. Gregg stores.

The MOST IMPROVED DRIVER Award: Goes to Takuma Sato. It isn’t even close. IndyCar’s Mr. Bean did the impossible by turning his career around to record his finest body of work in his eighth season. At the age of 40, no less. On the way to finishing eighth in the championship – an improvement of 11 positions over his 2016 season – Taku destroyed the notion that old dogs and new tricks don’t jive. The Indy 500 victory was his obvious highlight; prior to winning with Andretti Autosport, Sato’s best finish at the Speedway was a lowly 13th, and ‘finish’ is the key word. The presence of his former KV Racing engineer Garrett Mothersead on the timing stand made all the difference, and he went on to achieve seven top 10s from 17 races. It was another all-time high for the Japanese gentleman. In a year packed with feel-good stories, Taku’s rise topped them all.

The YOU OUT-DIXONED DIXON Award: Goes to Alexander Rossi for his masterful performance at Watkins Glen. Traditionally the personal playground of Scott Dixon, Rossi and his Andretti Autosport engineer Jeremy Milless nailed the setup in Upstate New York, took pole, then took command of the 60-lap race. As his co-owner Bryan Herta recently put it, “he out-Dixoned Dixon,” and that’s a mark of respect to be recognized.

The I CAN GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING THANKS TO THIS SMILE Award [CM]: Daniel Ricciardo, for flipping the bird at Romain Grosjean in practice in Abu Dhabi and calling the Frenchman a c**t, but joking about it on Twitter within 12 hours. He also raised his middle finger at teammate Max Verstappen in Hungary, but everyone likes Daniel, so it’s fine…

The MURDERING AND INDY 500 ENTRIES DON’T MIX WELL Award: Goes to Didier Calmels, whose program for Tristan Gommendy with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was derailed by Wikipedia. A quick perusal of the Frenchman’s history, which includes killing his wife, was picked up by the general automotive media, and from there, the bad publicity ensured Calmels would be doing something other than spending his May in Indianapolis.

The BEST INDYCAR EVENT Award: Goes to Gateway, right? Here’s the perfect example of what a passionate promoter and wildly enthusiastic event sponsor can accomplish when they approach the return of IndyCar racing to their region with a ‘to make money, you’ve got to spend money’ approach. Led by Gateway owner Curtis Francois and event sponsor Bommarito Automotive Group, the oval just outside of St. Louis set the standard for what’s needed to make IndyCar a powerful force in every metro it visits.

The GOLDEN BOWLING BALL Award: Texas. Definitely Texas. Poor decisions and insane bravery collided in Fort Worth as crashes, sparks, and flared tempers left just nine out of the 22 starters running at the finish. It got to be so bad, someone could splice in Ryan Briscoe’s Fontana 2015 barrel roll through the grass into the Texas highlight reel, and the mixed up footage might go unnoticed.

The THAT’S FOR CERTAIN SURE Award: Goes to Anthony Joseph Foyt for giving us so many unique words and phrases, Robin and I had to assemble a list and film a two-part video so future generations can learn about the “Mediate News” and other colloquialisms created by Super Tex.

The YOU LIVE A BETTER TRAVEL LIFE THAN I DO Award: Goes to the Borg Warner trophy. After watching BW PR man Steve Shunck post photo after photo of the giant silver obelisk traveling the world – and specifically, Japan, where F1 champ Jenson Button left his marks on the award – I was both jealous and saddened to realize the Indy 500 trophy saw more of the world than I did this year. That’s a good New Year’s resolution for me to consider: travel more than a trophy.


The DAMN FINE HUMAN BEINGS Award: Goes to Dale and Gail Coyne for supporting Sebastien Bourdais every step of the way during his rehabilitation process. And for keeping his seat open – to serve as added motivation – which led to an incredible ending to the Indy 500 crash saga when he saddled up at Gateway.

The IT’S EXPENSIVE TO BE FINE HUMAN BEINGS Award: Also goes to the Coynes, who saw their drivers tear through Dallara DW12 tubs at a disturbing rate before and after Bourdais’ Indy smash. Considering how two or three tubs ended up in the dumpster behind Coyne’s Illinois shop, I bet there are a few gaming fans who have completely awesome simulator setups in the garage, all courtesy of the Plainfield-based outfit.

The WORKING AS INTENDED Award: Goes to the Mazda Road to Indy. When the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship kicks off in March at St. Petersburg, approximately 33 percent of the grid will be comprised of Indy Lights champions. Spanning three decades, Tony Kanaan (1997), Scott Dixon (2000), Josef Newgarden (2011), and an impressive string of the last four Lights title winners (Gabby Chaves (2014), Spencer Pigot (2015), Ed Jones (2016), and Kyle Kaiser (2017) will represent the best the MRTI has produced.

The BALANCE HAS BEEN RESTORED TO THE FORCE Award: Goes to Andretti Autosport for honoring its word – even if it took forever – to put Stefan Wilson in a car for the 2018 Indy 500. Special tip of the hat goes to IndyCar CEO Mark Miles, who created marketing incentives for Wilson’s primary sponsor to stay involved during the one-year delay and return for a genuine shot at glory with the defending Indy 500 winners.

The PLEASE, PLEASE PLEASE MAKE IT TO INDYCAR Award: Goes to Sting Ray Robb. The Idahoan returns to Pro Mazda with Team Pelfrey for his sophomore season, and for nothing other than the sake of awesome names, I hope he makes it to IndyCar so we can hear his introduction and response from hundreds of thousands at the Indy 500. He’ll make a fortune from selling merchandise to kids – good old Sting Ray Robb is destined to become the instant favorite for every fan under 13.

The DON’T LET THE BOYISH SMILE FOOL YOU Award: Goes to Josef Newgarden for redefining the pecking order at Team Penske with a single passing maneuver at Gateway to take the lead – and the win – away from teammate Simon Pagenaud. It would have been easy to give Josef the PASS OF THE YEAR Award, but the moment meant so much more than a daring change of positions.

The YOU’RE DOING THE LORD’S WORK Award: Goes to former PKV Racing Champ Car team owner Dan Petit, his former partner Jimmy Vasser, and the all-volunteer group of IndyCar team members who assembled in Dennis Reinbold’s shop to restore Justin Wilson’s first race-winning Lola Champ Car chassis. If the transaction is completed for the Lola, a buyer could be making a sizable donation to the Wilson Children’s Fund while making the gorgeous car available for public viewing.

The EXCELLENCE IN MOTOR RACING DOCUMENTARIES Award: Goes to ESPN for its beautiful, river-of-tears-producing short film on Bryan Clauson’s life and the legacy of his organ donation. Why do we love and hate this sport at times? The answer is provided in a short soliloquy to the late open-wheel phenom.

The INDY 500 ROOKIE OF THE YEAR Award: Goes to Ed Jones. Fernando Alonso, the person who received the actual award, was the clear star of the event, but after falling out at 447.5 miles when his Honda engine surrendered, being honored for participating in a 500-mile event rang hollow. Take nothing away from the two-time F1 champ on his Indy debut, but Jones led all rookies to the checkered flag, capturing a fighting third with an aerodynamically dysfunctional Dale Coyne Racing entry. There’s no reason for the Spaniard to catch any flak; Alonso wasn’t in charge of the voting, but when the rookie who finishes 24th is given a prize and the kid in third is snubbed, the award itself is cheapened.

The HEY, YOU WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO DO THAT Award: Goes to Chevy for winning its sixth-straight Manufacturers’ title. If you’re a fan of betting, the odds say it’s the Bowtie or nothing.

The HEY, YOU WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO DO THAT, TOO Award: Goes to Honda for shocking everyone by winning the opening round and giving Chevy a proper run for the Manufacturers’ championship. By the numbers, Honda had more bullets in its gun to earn points, but it also had more duds.


The TIRES ARE OVERRATED, I WANNA GO FAST Award [CM]: Goes to 2017 FIA F2 champion Charles Leclerc for the sheer daring shown while missing out on a win in his first race in Bahrain when struggling with tire degradation, but responding to the dire situation by making an unusual pit stop from a comfortable lead in the sprint race to then climb through an ailing field from 14th to victory in just nine laps. Pit stops are not mandatory in the F2 sprint race, but rather than work out a way of making his tires last, Leclerc went for the flat-out approach.

The TURNS OUT THAT WELL OF OPTIMISM WENT DRY Award: Goes to A.J. Foyt Racing for its complete and unfortunate failure of a team overhaul. It started by hiring a race engineer and technical director who hadn’t worked in either discipline for about a decade, and ended with calling for a third complete overhaul with drivers and on the engineering side in three years. Since the program can’t fall off the floor, the only direction is up for Eric Cowdin, Tony Kanaan, and Matheus Leist, who’ve accepted a whale of a challenge.

The ONE OF THESE THINGS IS DOING ITS OWN THING Award [MG]: Goes to Team Penske’s Ben Bretzman and his driver Simon Pagenaud for deliberately four-stopping at Sonoma and coming away with the win. Sometimes craziness is rewarded.

The THIS SPORT IS HARD TO LOVE AT TIMES Award: Goes to British F4 driver Billy Monger, who lost significant amounts of both legs in a terrifying crash. The bright side is he’s alive, obviously, but watching a 17-year-old become a double amputee at the beginning of his career is never easy to process.

The RACING SCIENCES Award: Goes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its core sample depicting the oval’s surface history dating back more than 100 years. Was there a cooler, more random IndyCar-related image generated in 2017?

The MAYBE TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR PR APPROACH Award [CM]: Goes to Sauber. When Pascal Wehrlein missed the start of testing and then pulled out of the Australian Grand Prix for not feeling fully fit, both the driver and former Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn insisted his back injury suffered in a crash during the Race of Champions was not serious and he’d simply been unable to train properly. Having dodged questions about the real reasons for Wehrlein’s absence for a number of weeks – leading to conspiracy theories that were rejected by Toto Wolff – Kaltenborn was critical of the media reaction and even questioned Wolff’s comments as dramatizing the situation. Eventually pictures emerged of Wehrlein in a full neck brace once he made his racing return, and the Mercedes youngster admitted he hadn’t been able to move for five weeks and was in pain in Australia. I’m still trying to work that one out.

The URUGUAYAN COWBOY Award: Goes to Belardi Racing’s Santiago Urrutia for his ultra-ridiculous passes at Road America that vaulted his Indy Lights car to the lead pack in two corners.

The WORLD IS LESS FUN WITHOUT YOU Award [RM]: Goes to all the racers we lost in 2017. Among the many:

  • Herm Johnson: Super Vee champ who introduced John Menard to IndyCar racing, Herm overcame a couple nasty accidents to make Indy twice.
  • Jim McElreath: Inaugural California 500 winner at Ontario, Jimmy Mac was part of the old guard that worked on his own cars and lived to race. Made 15 Indy 500s.
  • Bob Kinser: A prolific, short-track, sprint-car legend that won hundreds of features and fathered the great Steve Kinser.
  • Willie Davis: Former Bonneville racer that came to USAC and hooked up with Gary Bettenhausen for two sprint titles before becoming a mainstay in Gasoline Alley.
  • Chuck Weyant: A four-time starter at Indianapolis in the 1950s with a best finish of 12th in 1955.
  • Greg Staab: Racer, promoter, track owner and official, Staabie was even more popular than he was active in USAC and short track racing.
  • Dave Steele: One of the premier pavement racers of the past 30 years, Steele excelled at big, fast ovals as well as bullrings.
  • Marvin Carman: Another pavement specialist, he was always tough at Winchester and Salem.
  • Johnny Vance: Campaigned winning USAC Silver Crown and sprint cars for five decades.
  • Don Smith: Promoted and prepared Terre Haute’s Action Track in its heydays of the ’60 and ’70s, when it was on the Wide World of Sports.
  • Rolla Vollstedt: Team owner and car builder in the ’60s and ’70s who represented the Pacific Northwest.
  • Jim Nabors: Another tradition lost.
  • Bill Puterbaugh: A USAC racer who made three Indy 500 starts and won Rookie of the Year in 1975.
  • Billy Scott: “Billy the Kid” made one Indy start in 1976.
  • Joe Leonard: The converted motorcycle racer had a knack for winning the big 500-mile ovals races and also took pole at Indy in 1968.

The GOLDEN GAVEL Award: Goes to Stephen Afendoulis, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s lawyer, who kept after Ryan’s former Champ Car team owner Paul Gentilozzi for a decade and finally scored a multi-million-dollar settlement for his client. After Sato’s career turnaround, this might be the No. 2 feel-good story of the season.

The INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT AVOIDED Award: Goes to Robin Miller for the fake 2018 Indy 500 tickets he showed everyone at Sonoma – complete with 2017 winner Takuma Sato being attacked by Godzilla. It was either going to turn into an international incident with Miller making public apologies for the insensitive, stereotype-feeding material, or it was going to be a huge hit when it was put in front of the Japanese driver. Luckily, Taku burst into laughter…

The GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM Award: Goes to Jay Howard for sending Scott Dixon into orbit at Indy. Howard took some heat for the incident, but it pales in comparison to the miraculous outcome for Dixie. Getting into the catch fencing and ripping his Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara DW12 to shreds would normally have a sorrow-filled ending, but the Kiwi was unharmed, barring slight damage to an ankle.

The HIGH STAKES INK Award: Goes to Sage Karam who revealed during a rainout at Indy that he’d gone and had the famous IMS ‘wing and wheel’ tattoo on his wrist and left spaces open to add in the date and year when he wins the Indy 500. I mean, I love the guy’s confidence – what’s the over/under on going back to have those digits included?

The LET’S CROWDSOURCE TO PAY FUTURE INTERVIEW FINES Award: Goes to Kevin Magnussen, F1’s current l’enfant terrible, whose invitation for Nico Hulkenberg to “S**k my b***s” typified a testy year of interactions between the Dane and German.

The BEST INDYCAR RACE Award: Goes to three hours and 500 miles of breathless action at Indianapolis. It was terrifying at times, ragged at others, and filled with ever-changing drama as driver after driver looked like they were headed to Victory Lane.

The PARTING WAYS IS NEVER EASY, BUT YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS Award: Goes to Ed Carpenter Racing for announcing it was dropping JR Hildebrand leading into the final race of the year – his home event at Sonoma.

The GOOD COUSIN Award: Goes to Michael Andretti for using his team as a platform to raise awareness for colon cancer screening after his cousin John Andretti was diagnosed with the disease.

The IF THE TERM ‘LUCKY IN CANADA’ IS A THING, YOU’RE IT Award: Goes to Josef Newgarden for winning Toronto, thanks to perfect timing – make that lucky timing – with a yellow flag for Tony Kanaan’s off into the tire barriers, that allowed the Penske driver to zip into the pits and come out in the lead.

The WELL, LOOK WHO DISCOVERED THE CHROME HORN Award: Goes to Sebastian ‘The Intimidator’ Vettel at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The German, who has shown an inclination for shady behavior behind the wheel, made a mess of the Baku restart and did little to improve the situation by blaming Hamilton for a pair of stupid decisions made inside his Ferrari.

The YOU MUST BE THIS TALL TO RIDE THIS RIDE Award: Goes to Zach Veach, Takuma Sato, Tony Kanaan, Gabby Chaves and, possibly, Danica Patrick, for skewing the height of IndyCar drivers toward Ant Man status. Watching Veach debrief among the trees at Indy – Stefan Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Alexander Rossi – should be amusing. Who’ll chip in to buy a Babybjorn baby carrier for Stef to parade Veach around on his chest?

The HEY MAN, NICE SHOT Award: Goes to Max Chilton for leading a surprising number of laps at Indianapolis. If nobody, and I mean nobody picked Alexander Rossi to win the 2016 Indy 500, a negative number of people predicted Chilton to run up front like an animal for 50 laps out of 200 on IndyCar’s biggest stage.


The NO 1 TITUS BRAND ADVOCATE AWARD: Goes to Pippa Mann, who was hardly the face I expected to see on WWE’s Monday Night Raw with Titus O’Neill and Apollo Crews. We’re still waiting for confirmation of her in-ring debut.

The MERITORIOUS SERVICE AWARD: Goes to Brian Barnhart, open-wheel’s Teflon Don. Love him or hate him, the former IRL president-turned-IndyCar race director completed something that will likely stand as an all-time record by remaining employed by the series for 20 years. Twenty. Think of all the hirings and firings over that period, and then think of the hundreds of demands for Barnhart to be canned by teams, drivers, and the media, and despite the overwhelming negativity aimed his way since Bill Clinton was in office, Brian outlasted every senior appointee at IndyCar and IMS.

The WHAT COMES AFTER ROSE-TINTED SPECS? Award [CM]: Goes to Ferrari’s social media person in Singapore. Remember when Vettel squeezed Verstappen – who lifted to try and avoid contact – into Raikkonen at the start of the race? Yeah, me too. Ferrari tweeted: “VER took #Kimi7 out and then he went to #Seb5 #SingaporeGP”. Or ‘Verstappen took out Raikkonen and then went into Vettel’. OK then. Even the staunchest of Ferrari fans struggled with that one, but after the adrenaline levels had returned to normal the team later stood by the tweet and added: “What we tweeted was a factual description of events. No need to speculate on this.”

The MRTI MENUDO Award: Goes to Juan Piedrahita who, as it was announced during the month of May, started his 100th race on Mazda’s ladder system. After eight years of training in the MRTI, the genial Colombian is due for a forced graduation to something other than Indy Lights.

The I’M NOT SURE I LIKE THE LOOKS OF THIS Award: Goes to F1 for choosing a stripped-down product aired via ESPN. From the moment it was announced, ESPN was clear in its intent to ditch the NBCSN-style booth team and dedicated pit reporter for using the pre-produced feed from F1.

The GOOD AT BUSINESS Award: Goes to Chip Ganassi for signing Brendon Hartley to be Scott Dixon’s new teammate, refusing to acknowledge the signing had taken place, then receiving a buyout from Red Bull/Scuderia Toro Rosso to take the Kiwi off his hands, all without Hartley turning a single lap as an IndyCar driver. And he still won’t say he had the Le Mans winner under contract. On the driver stock market, Ganassi was the only one who profited in 2017.

The LOGAN LUCKY Award: Goes to the idiots who turned the Figure 8 event at Anderson Raceway into tasers and assault. It isn’t exactly open-wheel racing, but the front tires are exposed and that’s all the excuse I need to include this video… Listening to the crowd go wild tells me the standards for acceptable driving might have slipped a wee bit.

The PIT LANE IS A STRANGE PLACE Award: Goes to an IndyCar driver who will remain nameless for stopping Robin Miller and I after a session to inform us he wanted to have gender reassignment surgery so he could come back and become the first driver to win races as a man and as a woman. We can’t wait for opening day at St. Petersburg to arrive to see if he/she followed through with it, and no, you can’t make this stuff up.

Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations.

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