Barber, 'Dega show very different sides of racing; Penske's struggles
LEEDS, Ala. -- Mr. Barber, said the security guard, "don't like trash."
Surrounded by the grandeur of a vertical cylinder of a room, encrusted with vintage motorcycles and race cars, leaning on the railing of an elevated platform, the burly man with the Alabama accent went on.
Barber Motorsports Park, an odd course facility adorned with sculptures of giant spiders, lions and horses, and this gleaming yet largely unknown museum within its grounds, was just 45 miles in distance but light years in sensibility from Talladega Superspeedway. The burly man with the Alabama accent knew this all too well, living nearby the massive oval as he does. And he knew George Barber liked the differences.
"Mr. Barber once said the day this place turns into Talladega, he closes it up the next day."
The IZOD IndyCar Series makes its second trip to the track outside Birmingham on Sunday, Southern-frying the open wheel series' image and again exposing a stock car-mad region of the country to a new form of racing. Or maybe they're more similar now. There could be more NASCAR-style contact as the aggressiveness of the early laps of the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg continues, especially at a track with few passing opportunities.
The atmosphere on the golf course of a racing facility should be decidedly more civil, at least among the spectators, said two-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti, who broke an ankle in a Nationwide wreck at Talladega in 2008.
"I don't think you see two more extremes," he said, "this kind of country club place here, and then you have Talladega. They're miles apart. But ultimately race fans come to both."
Dario Franchitti comes back to Barber after a morose test there last month, but led 94 of 100 laps to win the opener two weeks ago in St. Petersburg. Team Penske drivers dominated that preseason open test, but Will Power saw an encouraging weekend yield just a runner-up finish in the opener.
That's become somewhat of a painfully recurring theme for the Penske organization the past two seasons, though on a much larger scale, said team officials.
"We felt we were in control of the championship both years until the very end of the year with Ryan (Briscoe in 2009) and with Will (Power in 2010)," said team president Tim Cindric. "We didn't execute. I felt like we beat ourselves, not necessarily that (Franchitti and Chip Ganassi Racing) beat us."
Said team owner Roger Penske: "We've got to figure out how to close the deal."
Penske's hallmark in winning a record 156 open wheel races -- including 15 Indianapolis 500s -- and 12 championships has been a mastery of details. That grip has seemingly loosened the past few years, with the team having not won a title since Sam Hornish Jr.'s in 2006. Chip Ganassi racing has won three titles in that span.
Briscoe led the point standings by 25 with two races left in 2009, but brushed the wall exiting a mid-race pit stop at Motegi, ran over a cone and finished 18th after requiring multiple repair stops. He finished third in points. Power led Franchitti by 59 points with four races left last season, but a fueling equipment issue on the final pit at Chicago stop forced him to stop again for fuel, ceding fourth place and 18 valuable points as he finished a season-low 16th. Ganassi's cars were markedly faster than Penske's at the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which Power entered 12 points ahead. Franchitti led 128 of 200 laps, goading Power into a mid-race push and he brushed the wall, ruining his car. Franchitti cruised to the title by five points.
"Details are important, and we let it go," said Penske driver Helio Castroneves. "I would say with the pit stop in Chicago, it lost the season on a bad pit stop. For those reasons, it's unfortunate people get injured. We moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, and people stayed there for 2-3-4 years and said 'I've got to go back.' What are you going to do with those people? It's very difficult. ... We push the competition to make all the details very important. Now they're pushing us."
Penske said the failings of the past two seasons were independent racing incidents rather than a systemic issue. Cindric did not agree with Castroneves, and would not accept the IndyCar operation's move from Reading, Pa., to Mooresville, N.C. -- perhaps coincidently in 2006 -- and the implementation of a "cross-pollination" approach as an excuse. But he refocused great attention this offseason to pit crew details.
"For us, I think we need to look at where can be better and where we needed to be better last year was making our bad days not so bad, making better days out of our bad days and I feel like we probably spread ourselves too thin in the pit crew areas," Cindric said. "We spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to make three 'A' pit crews out of .... I felt like Penske has always had two 'A' pit crews when we were running two cars and when he ran three cars I think that some days we were Bs and Cs instead of As."