Winemaker Wins Award at Indy 500: Steve Somermeyer

It isn't quite the usual award in the wine business that Steve Somermeyer, assistant winemaker at Chateau Thomas Winery near Indianapolis, won last week.  It was a special award related to the Indy 500. 

I've followed Steve's career on various lines related to both winemaking and his love of racing ever since I met him as a judge at the Indy International Wine Competition a few years ago.  (click here to see the June 2009 post).   Steve, in addition to his winemaking career, has a BS in Chemical Engineering and an MBA too; he retired from Eli Lilly and Company after a long career.  Steve is also the Head of Safety, Garages and Pits, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

His wine industry credentials include Lead Judge, Indy International (35 yr.); judging at Finger Lakes International, Illinois State, and Iowa State competitions.  But his proudest award is perhaps this, and he wrote quite modestly:  " I was surprised and honored Monday evening at the 500 Old Timers banquet to receive their annual Indianapolis 500 Official award. I'm the first safety person to receive this and it is a reflection of my entire group."

This was his footnote to his May 27 Indy 500 preview, which I am sharing with all you race fans.  I'm a Hoosier too, and I was there!  It was a great and exciting race! 

"Sunday will be the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 but not the 100th running due to the track being shut down during World War II. There are some new faces in the Speedway Marketing Department including someone hired from Red Bull and they want to try some different activities to appeal to different customer segments. So it wasn't a surprise that the month of May this year has brought many new events to the track:

- Emerging Technology Day was on the first Saturday and there was a ton of activities including races including college electric go-karts hosted by Purdue, solar cars, and formula hybrids. Electric and hybrid cars could take a lap around the track. Fans could take a demo drive in a Chevy Volt and there were many displays and other activities. This was the same day as the Mini Marathon so the entire day was filled with activity. They even had a large yoga event. It drew a decent crowd and since the track was originally conceived as a technology proving ground, I would expect this new event to continue.

- Celebration of Automobiles was held on the second Saturday in conjunction with the normal Opening Day activities. This was a classic car show featuring 250 vehicles more than 50 years old with half of them being brands which competed at the 500. There were also displays of Mormans and Stutz's which were manufactured in Indianapolis years ago. We had a lot of angst largely because we had never done something like this and anticipated dealing with some 'problem' car owners. My group had to park them in the different classes over much of the infield early Saturday morning but it ended up being easier than anticipated and the owners were very easy to deal with. Entered cars were from across the country and several were shipped in from Europe. A significant number of the cars were valued >$1,000,000 and the display was very impressive. I wish that I had had enough time to see all of them. I did get to talk to several car owners and they were very pleased with the show and would gladly come again. A big feature for them was getting to drive their cars around the track the day before.

- World's largest autograph event - On the Saturday before the race 500 drivers will sign autographs. Normally the qualified drivers sign autographs before the public drivers meeting and 500 Festival Parade downtown but this year all living 500 drivers are invited to participate in an autograph session Saturday afternoon. According to historian Donald Davidson, there are 260 living 500 vets and close to 200 are expected to be here.

Rain has played a significant role this month by limiting practice time and impacting both qualifying days. Let's hope that race weekend is dry.

There were 40 or so drivers entered this year which is the largest field in quite a few years. With 25 or 26 fulltime drivers - participating in all the IndyCar races - that meant that at least 15 drivers and crews were depending on the week of practice to get their cars dialed in. Rain eliminated about 1/3 of the available practice hours so few teams felt comfortable and fully prepared for Pole Day.

The way qualifying worked this year is that 24 starting spots were available for qualifying from 11am-4 pm with the fastest 9 competing for the Pole between 4:30 and 6 pm. The first surprise came during the morning practice session when Ryan Briscoe (Penske) lost control and hit the wall in turn 2. That meant that the team that rarely makes a mistake had to put one of their drivers into his back-up which had only been driven a few laps in practice. Ultimately it meant that he wouldn't be able to go fast enough to qualify the first day.

Speaking of accidents, Simona da Salvestro, last year's Rookie of the Year, had a scary one on Thursday when something broke in the right rear suspension and she hit the wall hard and ended upside down with the car on fire. Getting out of the car she had to put her hands on the burning track surface and suffered burns to both hands. Her right hand suffered 2nd degree burns and the track doctors didn't OK her driving Friday but released her Saturday morning. It had to be painful to pull her gloves on and off. After trying to find sufficient speed during the day she finally made the first day field in the 24th and last spot on her 3rd and final try.

A great feel-good story finished the day with Alex Tagliani, racing for Sam Schmidt Racing, winning the Pole and it's $150,000 prize. This is easily the biggest success, IndyCar wise, that this team has achieved. Sam was paralyzed while racing and started his team on a very small shoestring. He's had quite a bit of success with the feeder series, Indy Lights, but has 3 cars in the field. A low-budget team yet a fan favorite is Sarah Fisher Racing which made the fast 9 with Ed Carpenter driving.

Ho-Pin Tung, trying to be the first Chinese driver to made the 500 field crashed during practice Saturday morning and suffered a concussion which ended his chances for this year. KV Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing both got 4 cars into the field which is good performance for them as they don't have nearly the resources as the prominent teams below.

The large budget teams - Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti - did not perform particularly well on Pole Day. Andretti in particular had a really bad day and pretty much for the whole qualifying weekend. The only Andretti car to make the Pole Day 24 starters was the single-race driver, John Andretti. None of the 4 full-time drivers could get enough speed to not only not make the Fast Nine run for the Pole but not even make the fastest 24 for the day. As mentioned previously, the Briscoe accident cost the Penske team a first day starter and only one driver, Will Power, made the Fast Nine and will start in the middle of 2nd row.

Ganassi provided quite a bit of drama, particularly during the runs for the Pole. While the 2nd Ganassi team of Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimble didn't make the top 24 qualifiers, both Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti qualified for the Fast Nine and their runs for the Pole were eventful to say the least. Dario first three laps were in the 227 range and he was contending possibility for the Pole and certainly for the front row when he suddenly slowed down on the back stretch on his 4th lap. Yes, he ran out of fuel! He coasted into the pits, jumped out of the car, and walked back to the garage with his helmet on and with no comments. A bit later Scott was on his run and seemed to be Pole worthy until his 4th lap speed was announced - It was 3-4 mph slower than his first 3 and he ended up starting second. We later learned that he ran out of fuel coming out of the last turn. For one of the teams that is very organized, the mistake on how much ethanol to put into the cars for their 10 mile qualifying runs seems inexcusable.

One note on the Fast Nine qualifying period - It was supposed to last from 4:30-6 pm but rain prevented it from starting until after 5 pm. With the limited time, each of the cars were given one shot at the Pole. This meant that official runs started after the traditional qualification end time of 6 pm. Had this ever happened before? I asked historian Donald Davidson the question and he replied once before in 1968. It was bump day and the field wasn't full. It was nearly dark when the track got dry enough. Chief Stewart Harlan Fengler told the drivers that if they wanted to they could give it a try. Two drivers, Bill Puterbaugh and another whose name I don't remember, went out and came right back in because they couldn't see the turns. They had to qualify to fill the field on Monday that year.

Only 2.5 seconds separate the fastest qualifier, Alex Tagliani, from the slowest, Ana Beatrize so this is the tightest field ever for the 500 in terms of qualifying time and speed. To put this in perspective, after 4 laps or ten miles, Alex would be 843 feet ahead of Ana if they started the run side-by-side. At straightaway speeds of over 230 mph, that seems like a blink of an eye.

Controversy and Ryan Hunter-Reay: With the poor performance of the Andretti team as a whole during qualifying weekend plus what I perceive as a major strategic mistake as the time ran out on Bump Day, owner Michael Andretti had some significant sponsors - DHL and Sundrop - to appease so it wasn't a surprise that a financial arrangement was made with AJ Foyt to have Hunter-Reay replace Bruno Junqueira in the second Foyt car, #41. Ryan has some history with the Foyt team as he filled in for much of a season when Vitor Meira suffered a broken back in a previous 500. Foyt did not have enough sponsorship for the second team car so he financed it out of his own pocket. It was pretty common knowledge that the seat could be purchased. I have to assume Bruno knew of the possibility beforehand and was handsomely paid for his qualifying work.

The strategy glitch happened because two Andretti cars were adjacent to each other in the bumping order. That meant that it was probable that one team car could get bumped and then when requalifying fast enough to make the field would bump the teammate out. The team could hope that there would be enough time to requalify that car but that's not what played out. Marco pushed away from the qualifying line just seconds before the 6 pm deadline and got into the field bumping out Hunter-Reay. What they should have done is to pull one of the two cars - Marco or Ryan - out of the field and attempt to requalify at a faster speed (faster than adjacent to the teammate) with plenty of qualifying time remaining. Each car had 2 more attempts left for the day. The downside could be a slower speed and not making it back into the field or even crashing. But Andretti yielded control of at least one of the cars by letting the time tick by. Just making the field means a last place paycheck of over $300,000 and that's probably in the neighborhood of what they had to pay for the 41 ride so we're talking serious financial consequences. The team also fired their Director of Competition this week.

Double file restarts: Prior to this year when the races are resumed after a caution period, the race leader leads the field to the green flag in a single file. To generate more excitement, the league has implemented double-file restarts. This has generated much discussion among the drivers as there have been several accidents during restarts so far this year. The 500 will be the first oval race to give these restarts a try and the 1st turn can get pretty narrow. Watch the caution restarts during the race.

In a related note, the start of the race is supposed to be in the traditional 3-wide rows. In the recent past the field, particularly at the front, has staggered themselves out for more room between the cars. If in fact, the field is in formation for the start, it should be a very exciting start.

Who is going to win the race? Despite the bumps that Ganassi and Penske teams had, one still has to consider them as favorites. Helio and Dario have won the race multiple times and Scott Dixon once. Penske's Will Power is perhaps the quickest driver racing today and has already won 2 races this season and Briscoe runs up front. One would normally include some of the Andretti drivers as Mike Conway has already won a race this year and both Marco Andretti and Danica have run strong in previous 500's. It'd be tremendous publicity if a gal won the Hundredth Anniversary of the 500, especially Danica.

With the limited onboard fuel capacity, cars running the 500 miles will need 8 or so pit stops. Races can be won and lost in the pits, especially during green flag stops, and this favors the fulltime, professional crews. It's not a coincidence that Penske Racing has won the last 3 pit stop competitions. They make pit stops a 'science' and seem to practice more than anyone else. One innovation that hasn't gotten any publicity that I'm aware of is that Penske has an electric motor powered Dallara pit practice car. It's pretty quick and even has a reverse gear. I'll be other teams will copy this soon.

Because of owner Sam Schmidt, it would be great if Alex Tagliani or even one of his other three drivers won. Ed Carpenter has been fast consistently fast here and would also be a feel good story. Other veteran drivers to consider would include Vitor Miera and '05 winner Dan Weldon. Former winner ('04) Buddy Rice is back after several years absence. Rice, Weldon, and Carpenter are all starting in the first 3 rows as is Orel Servia driving for Newman Haas Racing. Newman Haas hasn’t had much success the last several years but appear strong this year with Servia on the front row and rookie James Hinchcliffe starting 13th.

Other drivers who could run up front include Tony Kanaan, Tomas Scheckter, Paul Tracy, and Townsend Bell. The downside of these drivers is that either they are driving a limited schedule, some just this race, or are joining a new team. Simona is a very driver but will her burns be a problem over 500 miles. The odds on favorite for Rookie of the Year has to be JR Hildebrand driving for Panther Racing with National Guard sponsorship. This team/car has finished 2nd the last 3 years so their record is impressive.

These cars are very evenly matched and the overall driver field is impressive talent-wise so it's almost anybody's game. Don't be surprised if someone I haven't mentioned ends up in Victory Circle but..... it's hard to bet against the deepest pockets of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.

Let's have a fast AND DRY race Sunday! "  - Steve Somermeyer

If you are a race fan, I suggest you get on his personal email list.  He also sends out notes from his wine judging experiences too.  steve (at)

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