Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Indy dishes up another dose of pain, ecstasy

Sacramento, California – For 50 years, I’ve heard it: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be so cruel, and at the same time, it can provide an Indy 500 driver with immeasurable joy.

Sunday’s centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 illustrated these extremes yet again.

The last corner mistake of rookie J.R. Hildebrand – hitting the Turn Four wall within coasting distance of winning the race -- will stay with the youngster for a lifetime. Anyone with a drop of compassion hopes that Hildebrand will someday claim an Indy 500 victory, but even that won’t erase the shocking scene served up by the cruel mistress known as IMS.

It’s hard to blame Hildebrand. Think of it: He’s within seconds of winning the 500 in storybook fashion. Like any 500 participant, his pulse is far north of 100 beats per minute, with added juice likely provided with the realization that he’s about to snare the win of all wins. There’s a slower car sitting right in the middle of the groove in Turn Four. He knows his fuel is very low, and his team has likely been telling him that eventual winner Dan Wheldon is lurking just behind him.

That’s a perfect-storm formula for a mistake. Even a hardened veteran could have made it.

Despite the pain one feels for Hildebrand, it’s no sin to feel so very good for Wheldon. He’s long professed his love of the Indy 500 and the Speedway. His sterling record at IMS alone is worthy of a full-time INDYCAR series ride, and yet he has none as of this writing.

A one-off win, you say? A win for the ages, I say.

Drivers who gambled on fuel and prayed for a late-race caution likewise felt Indy’s sting on Sunday. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars of 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon and two-time 500 champ Dario Franchitti were obviously the best, but being the best has never guaranteed a driver a first-place turn under the checkers at the 102-year-old racetrack.

Franchitti admitted after the race that he was “devastated” by falling a few gallons short of a third Indy win. I’m sure he did feel devastated, but he’s just one driver in a long, gray line of heartbreak. IMS has dealt some cruel cards almost from the beginning.

In the second Indy 500 in 1912, driver Ralph DePalma led 196 laps but his crippled engine failed him just two laps from the end. Joe Dawson went on to lead the last two laps and the race.

For 99 years, Dawson’s two laps at the front was the record low for a race winner. Wheldon broke that Sunday by leading one – the last – lap.

From 1912 on, an assortment of mechanical failures and pit stop gaffes snatched victory away from dozens of drivers over the decades.

Parnelli Jones had a $6 bearing failure less than 10 miles from the finish in 1967, killing the last act of a turbine car that had crushed the field from the start.

In 1992, Michael Andretti put in one of the most dominating performances in 500 history but suffered engine failure oh-so-close to the finish. Al Unser Jr. went on to win in a car that was earlier running speeds double digits lower than Andretti’s car.

A check of race history shows that about half of the 95 Indianapolis 500s run to date easily could have been won by a driver – with just one break, not a miracle.

The race is so, so hard to win. And that is as it should be.

The comedy-tragedy of Indy is constant, and the old track reminded us yet again on Sunday that it does drama like nowhere else. That’s why the Indianapolis 500 has been around for 100 years and counting.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In a wide-open Indianapolis 500, go with Dario

Sacramento, California – It’s milestone week.

I’ll be heading to Indianapolis tomorrow and marking my 50th anniversary of attending the Indianapolis 500, which is celebrating its centennial on May 29.

It will be an emotional day, and some fortunate driver will write his, or her, name into a special page in Indy’s record book. Who will it be?

I can’t remember a year where it was more unpredictable. With a mix of drivers not generally known to the public starting up front and numerous big-name drivers ready to charge from the back of the field, it’s a wide-open affair.

Yes, Canada’s Alex Tagliani, starting from the pole for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, could make himself world famous and carve his name in Centennial Gold on Sunday with a victory. It would be an incredible story for a longtime journeyman driving for a small INDYCAR racing team.

The same goes for other relatively unknown drivers starting in the first three rows.

Indy’s traditions have long included handicapping the 500 based on qualifying speeds and starting positions. That’s also a mistake … proven many times over the past 100 years.

Over the past generation alone, numerous drivers who were leading the 500 only 10 laps from the finish have not won the race. So starting from the pole is certainly no guarantee of drinking the milk in Victory Lane.

It’s not unusual for the pole-sitter to miss the race-day set-up and fall back into the field. Likewise, it’s not unusual for a middle-of-the-road car to have a perfect set-up and streak forward.

The race is being billed as the big race teams (Penske, Ganassi, Andretti) against the smaller, less-generously-funded teams. And while David beating Goliath has a nice ring to it, my gut tells me that one of the big boys will take the checkered flag first on Sunday.

From early on this year, I’ve liked three-time winner Helio Castroneves to win his fourth 500 this year. He likes the track and knows how to drive the race, and he’s working for the winningest Indy 500 race team owner of all time in Roger Penske. Castroneves has so far had a miserable season, and he shocked many last weekend with a lackluster qualifying effort that put him 16th on the starting grid.

Does that put him out of it? Not a chance. It just makes it more challenging.

If Penske hits the Brazilian’s race-day set-up on the nose, Castroneves will move up steadily and be among the leaders at the halfway point. From there, it’s a tactical race, and Castroneves has been there before. Remember that 2005 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon started 16th in that race and blazed through the pack to take command.

Wheldon, amazingly without a ride for the full INDYCAR season, is my dark horse pick to win the race. His car is fast, starting from the sixth spot, and his record in the 500 is sterling – second the past two years, plus a third and a fourth to go with his 2005 victory. He’s done that in just eight Indy 500 starts.

For my money, that leaves two solid favorites, both starting near the front – Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon (2008 winner) and Dario Franchitti (2007 and 2010 winner). Based on past history, both cars will be expertly dialed in to run up front on race day. Indeed, it’s my guess that Dixon and Franchitti will be consistently in the top two from Lap 50 on.

From there, it’s just a matter of who’s faster, or who catches a break … and as always, who can avoid an accident. But then, you can say that about all 33 cars starting the 500.

It’s almost impossible for me to pick one of the two. But for argument sake, I like Dario to win the 500 for a third time. He’s been masterful at Indianapolis. I don’t expect that to change on Sunday.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Underdogs flex their muscles in Indy qualifying

Sacramento, California – Just when it all seemed so predictable, the always unpredictable events that are staples of Indy 500 history came screaming down the front straightaway this past weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Who had these names in the first three rows for the May 29 centennial running of the race?: Alex Tagliani (on the pole, no less), Oriol Servia, Townsend Bell, Buddy Rice and Ed Carpenter.

The always formidable Target Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon is up there – even with the mind-bending team mistake of underfilling their fuel tanks during the pole shootout – but Roger Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe are well back in the starting field. Andretti Autosport drivers are holding down back-of-the-pack starting positions.

Castroneves, who has thus far had a miserable year in INDYCAR, was a particular disappointment. The three-time race winner was gunning for an unprecedented three consecutive Indy 500 poles and had the fastest speed in the Friday practice session before Saturday’s run for the pole. Inexplicably, he had middle-of-the-pack speed when it counted.

It’s an indication that things are very even up in the series, with the smaller teams finding plentiful speed to compete with the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti powerhouse teams on INDYCAR’s biggest stage. And if you can’t feel good about the performance put in Tagliani and the rest of the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team, you probably don’t have a pulse. It’s the feel-good story of the month to date.

Schmidt, confined to wheelchair as the result of a racing crash and one of the genuinely nice guys in the sport, was brought to tears when Tagliani clinched the pole on Saturday. Best as I could tell, most of the other racing teams beaten by Tags felt pretty good about their whipping on this day.

Tagliani chimed in with a previously unspoken truth: Many fans are tired of just three power teams dominating the Indy 500 and want to see some new blood leading the pack, and perhaps winning the race. Judging from the loud ovation Tagliani received when he nipped Dixon for the pole on Saturday, I’d say he’s pretty much right on the money.

But two things to remember: The race is 500 miles long, and the power teams know how to set up a car for the big money-paying race. And next year, you have to believe the financially robust teams will have a leg up testing, building and crafting the new engines and chassis coming into the INDYCAR series for 2012.

Simply put, if the small teams want to steal some Indy glory, this is probably the best year to do it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cadillac Escalade ESV is in-your-face excess

Sacramento, California – A guy like me just can’t cozy up to a vehicle like the 2011 Cadillac Escalade ESV AWD Platinum – a luxury SUV with huge helpings of unapologetic, in-your-face excess.

There are consequences to be dealt with.

Things like: Do I really belong in a vehicle like this? It’s so HIGH above me.

It’s the same thing I would feel in the presidential suite of a five-star hotel, or sipping $50 drinks amid tuxedo-clad business people in a mahogany-laden bar.

Alas, you do what you gotta do, even if it’s test driving a nearly $90,000 top-end vehicle in the ESV lineup.

First impression: It’s huge. Big as North Dakota, overflowing a parking space like Shaquille O’Neal in a petite-size suit. Up to eight passengers can fit in the thing, and I have no doubt another eight could fit in the rear cargo area.

I thought I was going to have to get a running start to jump up into the cockpit, but the power-retractable assist steps (on either side of the vehicle) jumped out from under the SUV when I yanked open the front door. This scared the living daylights out of me the first time it happened, but I was grateful for the assist once I was seated.

From the 14-WAY!!! power front seat with heat/cooled cushions and backrests, I was surrounded by leather, hardwood trim and polished metal. The sound system spoke in concert hall tones.

I felt very small, sort of like the fuel mileage numbers – 13 miles per gallon in the city and 18 mpg on the highway. I realize that the high price of premium gas is a minor annoyance to the demographic buying this super-size Escalade, but I was cheered by the fact that the tank could also be filled with E85.

While feeling tiny in the cockpit, there were advantages – large exterior mirrors and a generous 360-degree viewing zone from my perch behind the steering wheel. At least no one can sneak up on me, I thought. Likewise, I couldn’t sneak up on anybody in this massive transporter, but that too has its charms: No one gets in the way of this baby when it’s coming down the line.

The Escalade ESV AWD Platinum is so large and well-balanced that 70 miles per hour feels more like 50 mph. It jets away from fast-moving cars with seemingly no effort at all, courtesy of a 6.2-liter V-8 with 403 horsepower.

Luxury and convenience features are over the top, including tri-zone automatic climate control, a remote vehicle starter, heated steering wheel, power sliding roof and a power liftgate. That’s the short list. The power liftgate was particularly welcome as the rear hatch is sizable and would be a chore to deal with manually.

Unfortunately, there was no electronic device to assist with removal of the rear seats. They disengage easily enough, but man, hauling those heavy seats out the back end challenged my manhood. All things considered, it would be easier if those seats folded flat into the floor.

It takes some time to get used to driving – and stopping – this vehicle on city streets and on the open road. Happily, the Escalade ESV contains numerous, standard stability features and loads of top-tier safety features.

This Escalade is not my cup of tea, strictly from the standpoint of my fiscal net worth. And I’m certain that this SUV is the nightmare of any Prius-driving person who ranks saving the trees as one of his/her top three goals in life.

But for the well-compensated soul who favors plentiful room, ridiculous levels of luxury and perks galore, this Escalade is for you. I salute you and your bank account.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Honda sedan is a good Fit for some buyers

Sacramento, California – I’ve always ranked the Honda Fit near the top of a blizzard of compact sedans introduced in recent years, and the 2011 Fit gives me no reason to change that thinking.

The nicest surprise: They don’t call it the Fit for nothing. Despite its small-car look from the outside, the interior can be configured to hold a serious amount of cargo – nearly 15 percent more than a Nissan Versa, for example.

The hard numbers are 90.8 cubic feet for five passengers and nearly 21 cubic feet in the rear cargo area. Fold down the back seats, and cargo space jumps to nearly 60 cubic feet. That’s pretty impressive for a car this size, although three backseat passengers might feel a bit pinched on a long drive.

My Fit tester was the top-level Sport model with navigation system, starting at $19,240. Drop down four trim levels to the base model with a five-speed manual, and the manufacturer’s suggested retail price drops down to $15,000 and change.

Fuel mileage on the tested Fit was a feel-good 27 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, yet the 1.5-liter, in-line 4 engine with 117 horsepower handles most chores admirably. That would not include steep uphill climbs, however, where you really have to sink your foot into the accelerator to get the job done.

And when you’re doing those deep accelerator exercises, the engine sounds like it wants to come back through the firewall. That’s not entirely surprising for a bargain-priced, small-engine gas-sipper.

What I did like were super-long lists of safety and interior features, including some perks you don’t expect to see in this class. Sexy, 16-inch alloy wheels added some spice on the outside, and Honda seems to have gone to great lengths to offer Fit exterior color options bright enough to turn heads from a block away.

Color names are right out of the Vegas Strip Hotel Lobby Handbook: Alabaster Silver Metallic, Polished Metal Metallic, Celestial Blue Metallic and Vortex Blue Pearl. Nothing boring there.

The interior comfort was mighty fine, and the Fit’s steering had a just-right firmness to it, making me feel totally control of the relatively small car even as I was dicing with the big boys in freeway traffic.

Looking for an affordable, first new car or a starter car for your young family?

This Honda might be the perfect Fit.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Check out the 'Heat' in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the 2011 Dodge Avenger Heat appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews, along with my "Oil Drips" observations on anything with wheels, appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit http://www.cruisinnews.com/, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to cruisinnews@mac.com. Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Latest version of Ford crossover hasn't lost Edge

This review originally appeared in the April edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- When I reviewed the all-new-for-2007 Ford Edge, it was … edgy.

And by that, I mean it was a relatively spicy-looking crossover with sporty touches and enough styling sexiness to draw young buyers into the fold along with their baby boomer parents.

A lot has changed since then. When the Edge was rolled out, Ford was coming off a year when it lost $13 billion. Now, Ford is making money hand over fist, at the expense of its rivals.

A lot has changed on the Edge as well. Most of it is positive.

The 3.5-liter V-6 that delivered 265 horses four years ago now has a rating of 285. Yet the more-powerful engine gets 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the open road, up from 17/24 in 2007.

Alas, I’d say the 2011 Edge is less edgy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s styled nicely inside and out, but there are lots more edgy-looking SUVs and crossovers out there now. Ford’s own Flex SUV is more edgy-looking on the outside than the Edge. The three-bar horizontal chrome grille on the Edge is its edgiest feature now.

My tester was the 2011 Edge Limited with front-wheel drive. It’s smooth and agile enough, but be forewarned that you really have to mash the gas pedal to blend into 65-70 mph freeway traffic. Ditto, your right foot must be assertive on steep hill climbs.

The interior cabin is serenely quiet, even when your right foot is against the floorboard, and the interior controls are nicely placed and easy to work. Exterior vision is fair. You do need to stretch your neck to peer into the blind spot on the right side of the vehicle. There is a blind spot-monitoring system lined up with the exterior mirrors, but in bright sunlight, I had trouble picking it up on the tester’s right side.

There has been some reworking of the model’s exterior skin for 2011, but the basic look of the Edge still remains. I thought the starting price of $34,220 on the tested vehicle was a touch high, but perhaps dealers are willing to wiggle some with the Edge. Worth a try anyway.

Please note that the 2011 Edge can be had with a 3.7-liter V-6 rated at 305 horsepower, but those Sport FWD/AWD models are going to push you pretty close to the $40,000 threshold.

One other thing: I’ve driven AWD versions of the 2011 Edge and, not surprisingly, I found those models to be much more agile on city streets and mountain roads. If you can go that way, I’d recommend it.