Kohler Grand Prix: Worth the Traffic
If you drive from Indianapolis, Indiana to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, you either drive through Chicago or you spend hours and hours on back roads. We left with plenty of time on Thursday, leaving Indianapolis at approximately 12:45pm, which meant we would arrive in the Chicago traffic zone sometime around 2pm (their time). As soon as we hit I-80 we were in the seventh circle of hell. Instead of being sunk into a river of boiling blood and fire, it was a never-ending line of trucks and other drivers who would have been ticketed in Indiana for driving slow in the left hand lane and holding up the traffic behind them. I hate toll roads. I also hate most other drivers.
We finally made it to Elkhart Lake past 6pm, and embarked on the traditional WalMart trip. If you ever, travel to a race, and you should, go to the closest WalMart (or grocery store) on Friday. You’ll see all the different teams that have sent people to get food. I like to point out the team jersey to whoever is next to me. You’ll see who’s going to be partying and for Elkhart Lake – shout out to the Ed Carpenter Racing team for the cases of beer they brought. We didn’t get our invite, and I’m assuming it got lost in the middle of the track.
Now, if you listen to our podcast (and if you’re reading to this and you don’t listen, please stop and go ahead and subscribe) you’ll recall my father signed up to attend a few races with us this year. This was his first one, and he did not camp, but chose the hotel life because “he wanted to”. Which he regretted slightly when his hotel called him an hour after check-in time started (3p) and way before it ended (midnight). This happened while we were driving in shitty traffic at O’Hare Airport, because of course, that’s where traffic was in a complete snarl. Once we got into Road America, and the gate attendant was so nice to just let dad drive to our campsite and drop me off without a camping tag. Dad helped me unload all of my stuff and promptly drove off to his hotel room in Fon Du Loc, after I made him promise to bring me a cup of coffee in the morning (I did not know I could walk fifty meters to a concession stand that actually sold coffee).
Abby and I were left to put up our tent together, meet up with people, drank, and make some dinner like we always do that first night. Except we had to figure out how to put together a grill, and for very independent women – we gave up and made a friend do it. It was after nine p.m. and we really just wanted our vegetarian hobos at that point. I thought when I turned in I would drop right off to sleep, but somehow I always forget that I am a light sleeper and people are loud forever. Ear plugs got added to the camping list that evening.
The sun is up way too early in Wisconsin. I’m a person who on work days I am up at 5 am, and one of the things I like about that hour is that I am not in full sun as I let my dog out. Not in Wisconsin. It was 5am and the tent was already daylight bright. It was 5am and I had no problem walking down the road to the good bathrooms. Pro tip: get a camping spot near good bathrooms at Road America, its life-changing after camping near port-o-potties at other races.
Another good pro tip for Road America is a golf cart, and either learn how to drop a pin in Google Maps, or download Find My Friends. Or if you have to pick up someone who is driving from a hotel each morning, pre-warn them not to use “big white building” as a landmark. It took longer than it should have to find my father the first morning.
We got up to the hill above Turn 6 and across from Turn 13 at the Lion’s Club to watch IndyCar practice session 1. It’s a great view, if you get your spot lined up you can see the Turn 5 and then watch the cars come down Thunder Valley and up through Turn 14 and the front stretch. What is fantastic is you can watch the cars line up that hill and hit the various turns, and as we all got fascinated with comparing the different lines of the cars. What was most concerning was the line that Alfonso Celis Jr., driver for Juncos, was taking. Additionally, this was the first time we all had cheese (and my father had his first Bratwurst when he had “a double bratwurst”). The top ten for that practice wasn’t too surprising. Josef Newgarden was quickest and everyone who had started wringing their hands that Newgarden was suddenly having a bad season stopped. I don’t put too much stock in practice sessions. Typically in the first session, they’re shaking down the car, the second practice session is around the time as qualifications so they’re running qualifying simulations, and the third practice they’re getting tires in line and everything else. Unless a driver is just messing up the car at each practice, I’m not going to put a lot of stock in practice times.
After Practice Session 1 we had to hurry on down to the Fan Village and do some real work in partnership with IndyCar Nation (you should join!). While everyone was in line for the IndyCar Autograph Session, we got to interview Conor Daly and then were joined also by Gabby Chaves.
I am continually impressed by the attitude of Conor Daly. He got cut last year, wasn’t able to put something together this year, and is continually at races working in any capacity that he can. It would be easy, and I wouldn’t blame him, for Conor to be bitter and frustrated about everything. Instead, he had a smile on his face and talked with us about this upcoming NASCAR race (August 26th at Road America) and that he’s hustling every day for that 2019 goal. I’ll add as soon as he stepped onto that stage, the line went nuts. They were all happy to see Conor and everyone clapped when cheered when he was optimistic about his 2019 plans. The series suffered when he didn’t pick up a full-time ride (I’ll discuss the broader reason why in a later date).
Then Gabby Chaves, driver of the #88 for Harding Racing, stepped on up to the stage and somehow it became a three-way interview of Gabby between Conor, Abby, and myself. Which, was actually quite fun. Gabby has a personality that resonates with me, little reserved, but the dry humor that you do a double take when he cracks a good joke. Plus, and we’re calling him this from now on, his handle when he races drones is “Cannonball” so now I demand a “Cannonball Chaves” t-shirt!
Once the IndyCar driver autograph session started, we were then joined by the Pit Crew of Harding racing. They were a great group of guys who were quite honest about the struggles of a smaller team. As they indicated, the larger team can have people back in the garage building another car, or fixing a car, and have a team at the race working. I have respect for Mike Harding putting the full-time team together and am very encouraged that he’s anticipating a second driver for the back half of the season. Bonus – they’re headquartered in Speedway, Indiana!
Our final interview of the day was with Mike Hull of Chip Ganassi Racing. You may recall it was going to be Scott and Mike, but it’s a race weekend and you know driver’s schedules get sort of wonky so we instead got a great one-on-one with Mike Hull. We’ll be putting the interview out…well once I make sure the audio is up to snuff. But I’ll tease you with this: we asked him about the new aero kit and the difference that it takes when you’re strategizing (since we all know the new aero kit has made the drivers really take control of the car) and his answer to that question was absolutely amazing. He also talked about some pitfalls of being a strategist, especially for the many years. Finally, he gave us a quote that I think blew both of our minds when he discussed how the windshield was larger than the rear-view mirror.
We ended the day in the best way possible (after discovering where the mac and cheese location was), we explored the National Park of Speed. If you’ve never gone to Road America before, set aside a few hours and explore the track. It’s a nature lovers dream. There are benches built into the side of hills, a path that winds through the woods on the back straightaway where you really feel like you’re in the middle of a park. There are hills and trees everywhere. It was felt like I was home in Southern Indiana with rolling hills and trees everywhere. Indianapolis, for the most part, it’s flat and very sparse with trees. Before we got back to our campsite to sit and chat with everyone, we came up the hill to victory circle and stopped under the flag. The had the flag lit from beneath and thanks to the continual breeze of Lake Michigan the flag was blowing out fairly strong and was catching the light. There was no filter at all in the photo and it was just a nice moment to hear it snap in the wind.
Found coffee at the concession stand. Hot coffee to me in the morning is like air, and now that I didn’t have to wait for my father to bring me a cup – it was perfect. I took my cup of coffee and climbed up the stands at Turn 8 to watch the IndyLights cars come down the Hurry Downs and set up for the Carousel by going under the Johnsonville Bridge (Turn 9). We also sat there for the IndyCar practice session that morning. This session we entertained ourselves by listening to the cars shifting at the bottom of the hill to set up for the Carousel. Some drivers were not shifting soon enough, other (like Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi, and Ryan Hunter-Reay) seemed to never really downshift but just lifted off the throttle. We did see RHR completely spin into the grass, but catch it and get back onto the track so that was some fun excitement. The stands at Turn 8 are nice, but there’s no screen nearby so you’re a bit isolated in what else may be going on. You do hear the cars go through the Carousel and head towards the Kink (Turn 11) and the Kettle Bottoms.
Our favorite USF2000 driver, Sabre Cook, did not have the greatest weekend. We sat and listened to the USF2000 race, and unfortunately, she dipped a wheel and spun out at the Carousel. What I appreciate about Sabre is she has a mindset that she’s not going to let things like this stop her. I’ll use her words because it’s very mature for a young driver, "[h]ad been running fairly well but unfortunately hit the wall. Ready to see what tomorrow brings."
Following the USF 2000 race, we had to hurry back to Firestone Village (good thing we had a golf cart!) to interview Aaron Telitz, the Indy Lights driver for Belardi Racing. I’ve had the great opportunity to now to interview a handful of drivers and other people involved in racing, and I’ve always had a knack to pick up if it’ll be a great interview, or if I’m going to have to carry the interview (it comes from being an attorney and having to question a litany of people). With Aaron, when he first rolled up he was already in a very relaxed mode and joked around. When we finally got started, I was getting my Dad set up for the phone, after he wandered away to get all the free things he could from Firestone and Cooper Tires. I was late to start and was having to hop on stage, it was the opportunity to start the Vanessa Carlton “1000 Miles” song, and I’ll say without missing a beat or without any discussion between them – Abby and Aaron chimed in to finish the phrase. After that the interview was great, we talked alcohol laws and his painting that he does to help pay back the cost of his big crash in St. Petersburg. He’s a great kid with a great attitude, and a great driver – look for good things from Aaron.
The race day ended with us at the Carousel watching qualification. How surprised were we that neither Simon nor Dixon made the Fast 6? Super surprised. Super-duper surprised. However, Josef got the pole and hopefully following his win at this race (spoiler alert?) the chicken littles in the Josef Newgarden camp will calm down.
After dropping Dad back off, we just made a campfire, had people swing by and talked till late again in the night. The race is great, but the night before the race, there’s the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. You all just gather around a campfire (or if you don’t have a campfire you wander till you find a group around a campfire and join them) and discuss all things around racing until eventually, you all retire. I can never write out what we talked about, but if you ever get to hang out by our campfire – watch out!
There was no morning practice. As Jay Frye was explained on the radio/tv broadcast before the race, the decision was made not to hold a morning practice session because the teams had the ability to practice at the track prior to the event and some had expressed being fine without a morning practice. With all permanent courses, teams have the option to practice at some time prior to the race. I understand that logic, but a majority of us forget that the smaller teams don’t have the money to pay track fees at every race. A morning practice could have fit in the schedule. Just wondering which teams were asked their opinion . . .
We were back up at the Lion’s Club for the race. Prior to the race, we found our buddy who spots for Simon Pagenaud so we chatted with him about the weekend for a bit. Then the race started and we were dialed in. Dad kept his eye on Simon Pagenaud all race and really enjoyed telling me how many seconds Simon was picking up each lap. Meanwhile we had the headphones on and the following quotes happened:
“They’re not going to do something about Graham” (Marco Andretti)
“Fucking Veach” (Robert Wickens)
“Who’s behind me” (Zachary Claman De Melo – it was James Hinchcliffe)
“Kimball is on a hopeless strategy” (ZCD’s pit box, on multiple occasions)
“Hell of a race boys, good job” (Simon Pagenaud at the end of the race)
I will say this about the non-incidents between Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato and Wickens. Rossi is an aggressive driver with the skills to back it up. If you leave an opening, he’s going to take it. If the earlier races this season have proved nothing else, they have proven that Rossi will make passes and continue to make passes the whole race. He’s not just going to make aggressive moves and the other driver will suffer, he’s not going to crash someone out intentionally (and I will fight over this, including the incident in St. Petersburgh!). Sato has no business criticizing someone else’s driving style. Wickens, look I like the guy and he has a lot of talent, but this isn’t DTM, this is IndyCar the elite open-wheel racing league.
Josef won, Scott continued to do Scott things, and Ryan Hunter-Reay is being sneaky and climbing up the points chart.
Annnnnnd then we had to drive home, where my air conditioning kicked back on (yeah it stopped on the ride up) only to quit on us again in this horrible traffic scene outside of Milwaukee. We attempted to record the Race Report on the drive back but had weird audio issues so we taped on Monday and has dropped.