PRUETT: 2019 loves and hates, part 2

Image by Levitt/LAT

PRUETT: 2019 loves and hates, part 2

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: 2019 loves and hates, part 2

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LOVE: The Golden Tenderloin

RACER’s Robin Miller was both celebrated and embarrassed in May as the old crank was recognized for his 50 years of service to IndyCar racing and the Indy 500 with the aptly-named Robin Miller Award.

In the same way a dog’s daily contributions to the lawn are hard to miss, Miller’s lifetime of contributions to the sport also became hard to ignore. IndyCar’s Mark Miles, Jay Frye, and Mike Zizzo arranged a secret presentation for Miller who, if he’d known in advance, would have never turned up to receive the plaque bearing his name and a nice inscription from the series. Some poor bastard will take home the Robin Miller Award next May and spend the rest of the year asking where their career took the wrong turn.

Miles & Company corralled a bunch of his friends, from A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, and other legends whose exploits were memorialized by the Indy car crew member-turned-reporter.

For once, our beloved windbag was nearly silent upon being honored by the dozens in attendance. For the guy who preached ‘hate is good’ for so many years, it was nice to see some overdue love sent his way.

HATE: Shakerhenge

Ooof. Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist had a brutal season with A.J. Foyt Racing. It killed Leist’s open-wheel career and left the 2013 Indy 500 winner bombarded with questions as to whether he was long overdue for retirement.

TK’s quote early in the year regarding their lack of pace, which was repeated a few times with different phrasing, was simply brilliant: “I might not be Scott Dixon,” he said, “but I’m not two seconds slower than Scott Dixon.”

Following the theme, Kanaan might not be at a stage in his career where taking down Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi to capture a second championship is realistic, but he hasn’t forgotten how to drive.

Understanding why the team, which fired Kanaan’s race engineer and assistant engineer/damper engineer moments after the checkered flag flew at Monterey, was so out to lunch, makes for a fascinating tale. The team, on multiple occasions throughout the year, expressed its bewilderment with the bog-slow ABC Supply Chevys, noting how it had spent a small fortune on a new cutting-edge damper program and countless days shipping a car and staff to the east coast to rent time on the prohibitively expensive suspension testing apparatus known as a ‘shaker rig.’

A data calibration problem helped to send the Foyt team’s season into the weeds. Image by Abbott/LAT

I’ve heard this one from a few people who aren’t prone to sharing nonsense, and they’ve all said the same thing: More than 20 days were spent on a shaker rig to try different damper builds and suspension setups, but on the critical end where all the rig’s instrumentation data is fed back to the computer, a correlation problem was discovered.

Simply put, and without delving into the minutia, wrong numbers were found to be in place for the majority of the costly tests, and with those wrong numbers, lessons that were potentially valuable – and fast – from the shaker rig were rendered useless as false conclusions were drawn. What a waste.

I’m reminded of the scene from the movie Spinal Tap where the band accidentally wrote 18 inches rather than 18 feet as the height of its proposed Stonehenge model, and got what it asked for. Spinal Tap meets IndyCar. Who’da thunk it.

LOVE: Tears of joy

I loathe the overused and rarely sincere phrase ‘blood, sweat, and tears.’ It’s almost never true; one or two might have been shed, but not all three. The exception was revealed in 2019 as Mazda’s factory DPi team finally broke through with its first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship victory at Watkins Glen.

Two more wins followed as the once-hapless Mazda Team Joest outfit found the reliability it lacked to book trips to Victory Lane. Mazda Motorsports boss John Doonan, the program’s heart, was a tearful mess at the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen. He’d bled for the project – nothing major, but there were a few band-aids seen – as he helped assemble bodywork from time to time, and his sweat was on constant display as he willed the team through years of crushing defeats to deliver on its potential.

I’m sure there were more than a few people who watched Doonan cry that day and shed a tear of their own.

HATE: Dirty deeds at the dry lake

I won’t rehash most what I’ve already written about, ad nauseum, with the ridiculous dealings at Laguna Seca. The fix was in from the outset. Monterey County’s board of supervisors, many of whom received significant campaign contributions from the person they chose to take over the running of the track, should be held accountable for their underhanded actions, but they appear to have gotten away with a smear campaign designed to drive the final nail in SCRAMP’s credibility, and the rigged selection process that followed. Without state or local oversight and review of the process, there’s little chance of a fair and impartial search for SCRAMP’s replacement.

The process of replacing SCRAMP as Laguna’s track operator was flawed from the start. Image by Cantrell/LAT

My greatest concern lies is in the decisions made on December 24. A number of SCRAMP employees were notified, by email, that they would not be part of the county’s future plans, and were given a termination date of December 31. That part’s not a surprise in any regime change.

Where epic stupidity is found comes in the form of Ann Bixler’s release. As SCRAMP’s veteran VP of operations, Bixler has stood tall as the go-to person for everything, and is spoken of with immense reverie – even by those who openly hate SCRAMP. Her institutional knowledge of the facility and decade’s worth of close relationships with the sanctioning bodies, teams, TV partners, and all who come to Laguna Seca and work within its boundaries for the weekend is irreplaceable. And yet, she’s packing up her belongings and reading to say farewell to the double-wide trailer she’s worked out of next to the track’s gas pumps.

Ann will be fine. She’ll be hired elsewhere and bring immediate improvements to whatever she touches. This note is about the epic decision-making failure by the county, when given a chance to signal whether it grasps the value of the one person they can’t afford to lose, and how faith in the new management team is below rock bottom.

Imagine Team Penske being sold and the new owner replacing team president Tim Cindric. Or Corvette Racing being bought and releasing crew chief Dan Binks. That’s what just happened with Monterey County and Ann Bixler.

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