Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Look Who's Hot
To paraphrase Jimi Hendrix: Are you motivated?
It's a question most race car drivers answer in the affirmative. But one only need look at recent results -- starting with six victories in seven Grands Prix by Jenson Button and a third Indy 500 victory by Helio Castroneves-- to realize how much motivation can mean.
Another example popped up on Sunday in Pocono, where former bad boy Tony Stewart continued to be a model NASCAR citizen en route to his first points victory as a car owner. It was also the first Cup victory by an owner/driver since 1998.
It's never been easy driving a race car at its peak at the sharp end of a major professional series. But it helps to have external motivation as well as talent and a good car.
In the case of Button, he was on the verge of a sub-par lifetime record after the poor career choice of moving to Honda's Grand Prix team. One victory in the rain for Honda in 2005 was all he had to show for his nine seasons in F1 when the team folded up in the off season. Then Brawn GP showed up on the grid in Australia at the last minute. Otherwise, rideless Button was looking straight into a career abyss.
After that experience, Button understandably declared he's still not going to lift off after his sixth win in Turkey, where he led at one point by 20 seconds. Arriving at the track in recent seasons, it seems, had been a bit embarrassing due to such a poor record.
Now he has the motivational balm of winning. "I want to do the best job I can at every race I go to and I'm still going to make every move that I possibly can to win every race," said Button, who has made only one serious mistake in practice or a race this year.
Castroneves is another driver who recently gazed into a career abyss. His legal trial had the upbeat Brazilian suddenly thinking about his passion for driving cars and maybe losing the opportunity. The victory at Indy demonstrated a focus and resolve, plus gave him another chance to say how thankful he was to be back in a race car.
In Texas last weekend, despite driving a slower car Castroneves took the checkers in front of runner-up Ryan Briscoe, a Penske Racing teammate. "Drive it like you stole it," joked Castroneves, obviously well past the trauma of his trial on tax evasion after the balm of another victory.
For Stewart, hotheaded responses have been replaced by cheerleading for his team and light satire when criticizing his fellow drivers. Why? Because he now helps foot the bills at Stewart-Haas Racing. As any team owner can tell you it pays internal dividends when you're supportive of your team and it also helps make the sponsor look good when a driver demonstrates socially redeeming behavior in the garage.
Smoke, as he is known, has gone to ground. Stewart's highly motivated focus is on building a team and finishing races. At Pocono, he let his driving do the talking while calmly going from last to first after a crash in practice.
"Thanks!" he gushed to his team from the cockpit.
The seemingly ubiquitous Danica Patrick has also been on a roll. In her contract season, Patrick was trying to sustain a string of top five finishes at Texas while uncharacteristically mixing it up with Andretti Green Racing teammate Marco Andretti. The key phrase for the $7 million girl: contract season.
All race car drivers -- even the great ones -- need some outside motivation from time to time to get the most out of themselves and their cars.
NASCAR, which Danica says she's considering, has long since figured out this problem. Like it or not, the format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship eliminates all but 12 drivers from title consideration for the final 10 races. If a driver doesn't make it to the Chase, the questions from team owners, sponsors and fans soon follow.
Those questions (from Hell) are now chasing Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the season has even reached halfway.
You might call the Chase format, yet another offspring of the late Bill France Jr., motivational therapy. When Ferrari made it known to Michael Schumacher midway in the championship battle with Fernando Alonso in 2006 that his contract would not be renewed, that was the Italian form of motivational therapy.
In this case, Ferrari introduced the abyss and then put the allure of winning a championship trophy in front of it. The strategy didn't work as Alonso and Renault went on to win a second straight title. But there was no doubt we all saw the formidable Michael Schumacher at his best in the twilight of his career.
Jonathan Ingram, who considers all messages from readers motivational, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.