Thursday, April 26, 2012

Inside Thebes: Reviving 'Antigone'

Posted by on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Logan Moore and Matt Goodrich as Eteocles and Polynices.
  • Scot McKim
  • Logan Moore and Matt Goodrich as Eteocles and Polynices.
This spring, NoExit Performance Company will mount the entire Oedipal play cycle (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, with a single cast presenting all three plays. Have the members of this relatively young theater company bitten off more than they can chew? Katelyn Coyne, NUVO theater writer by day and a member of the chorus for all three plays by night, is effectively answering that question by blogging every other week about the rehearsal process. This is the fifth and final installment.

The third piece in the Theban puzzle is Antigone: the show that started it all. The success of NoExit's 2009 production of the play was a major impetus in the company's decision to undertake this massive project.

"Some of this is purely business," says Georgeanna Smith, NoExit artistic director and director of Antigone, "because [Antigone] did well. It got good reviews and most importantly, it attracted people that didn't know us. When the board first mandated that we do some classics, before I joined NoExit, that's what they hoped: it brought new audiences in."

It's not uncommon for local theatre troupes to remount successful shows, including Q Artistry's Cabaret Poe, Acting Up Production's Night of the Living Dead and the IRT's A Christmas Carol, just to name a few.

"Every time we have a show that goes well, or that we're proud of, we're like: 'Let's do it again sometime.' Antigone went into that box," Smith says.

When Michael Burke (Oedipus Rex director) approached NoExit with the idea to mount the entire Oedipal play cycle, Smith thought she had it made.

"I thought, 'I can just remount what I already did.' I always tell myself its going to be so easy, and then I change a billion things," Smith says. "It's been problematic, because we didn't videotape this, and I didn't take great notes and no blocking notes exist."

Georgeanna Smith speaks to the cast of Antigone at the Lilly House.
  • Scot McKim
  • Georgeanna Smith speaks to the cast of 'Antigone' at the Lilly House.

Thankfully, Smith can rely on the memories of cast members involved in the 2009 production. Michael Hosp is reprising his role of Creon, and both myself and Michael Burke were cast in different roles during NoExit's 2009 production of Antigone.

"It's been fun to recreate with almost an entirely new cast, to revisit and have it be a little more collaborative in that way," Smith says. "But it's been an interesting challenge to figure out when its okay to tell myself 'Yeah, whatever happened last time worked and you remember you liked it, but you don't know what it is anymore.' And to be okay with that."

However, Smith's original concept for the show - to focus on the dead - is very much intact. Dead brothers Eteocles (Logan Moore) and Polynices (Matt Goodrich) guide much of the action of the play.

"When I read the script I found the brothers so interesting. Who are they?" says Smith. "Antigone loves them, but she's had such a messed up family life and now they're dead. Later you hear about how awful they were, and then you learn that they killed each other. I had all these thoughts about the brothers. And then I thought, what if they were just really present? And that developed into what if they really controlled the action?"

Now, the dead play a major role in each of the three plays. In fact, the climbing death toll and the continued presence of each character after their death is arguably one of the strongest linking factors between the three plays.

"The dead are so important." says Smith. "The battle between [the brothers] didn't stop when they stabbed each other in single combat. It continues to this point as they fight for Antigone, as they fight to claim the position of hero and martyr. They just keep fighting until the end."

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Slideshow: Roller Girls at the Fieldhouse

Posted by on Tue, Apr 24, 2012 at 2:45 PM

Slideshow
Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow)
Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow) Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow) Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow) Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow) Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow) Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow) Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow) Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow)

Naptown Roller Girls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Slideshow)

Who says you've got to be mellow on 4/20? The Naptown Roller Girls took to the track with an epic Vampire vs Zombie throwdown.

By Stacy Kagiwada

Click to View 21 slides

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Thoughts on a crumbling grain elevator

Posted by on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 11:32 AM

A wrecking ball hangs outside the Carmel grain elevator, one hour prior to the start of the demolition process.
  • Ron Kern
  • A wrecking ball hangs outside the Carmel grain elevator, one hour prior to the start of the demolition process.
Walking back to my car from a reading on the Butler campus week, I passed by the deceptively demure box office of Clowes Memorial Hall, one of the signature buildings designed by Hoosier architect Evans Woollen. The elegant, yet unpretentious, functionality of this 50-year-old structure makes it one of Indy's underrated architectural treasures.

By contrast, take a look at Carmel's Palladium, the main venue of The Center for the Performing Arts and the closest thing we have to a Roman temple in the metro area. Such neo-classical grandeur might have been fine back in 1899 as a demonstration of some Gilded Age industrialist's largesse. But in 2012 it comes across more like a Cheesecake Factory on steroids.

Carmel was on my mind that evening. Why not? I mean, I live there. I live within walking distance of a structure that some consider an architectural jewel, the Carmel Grain Elevator. As you read this, the structure's being pounded by a wrecking ball at the behest of the Carmel Redevelopment Commission (CRC), mayor Jim Brainard's vehicle for transforming Carmel into a ritzy arts mecca.

The grain elevator, built at a time when Carmel served more as an agricultural hub than a bedroom community, served to store grain until it could be emptied into train cars on the Monon Line (back when the Monon was a working rail-line and not the pedestrian footpath it is today).

In recent months, photographer and Carmel resident Ron Kern and others tried to make the case for preserving the grain elevator. He noted, on his blog, how the unadorned functionality of such structures was a major influence on modernist architects and artists. He even appeared before the Carmel City Council, as well as the CRC, arguing his case.

If Brainard had bought into this argument, there would've been a chance to save the Carmel Grain Elevator. There was no pressing need to demolish the structure from a safety standpoint; on Kern's blog, there's an executive summary viewable from 2007 from an assessment by Arsee Engineers, Inc., addressed to the CRC, stating that the structure was sound and basically in good condition. So the approach that Kern advocated - transforming the grain elevator into the centerpiece of an open air performance center or arts venue - was doable.

And Kern had his allies in this fight. On March 29, Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, stated, "Carmel should keep the grain elevator as a piece of sculpture and interpret it as such."

But if you look around the Arts & Design District, with its layer-cake apartment blocks that evoke the ritzier districts of various European capital cities - think Paris meets Monaco meets Rome meets Dubai - you'll see why the Carmel Grain Elevator is being demolished. This unadorned structure, which sits (sat) on the outskirts of the Arts & Design District, just doesn't fit into Brainard's grand vision for the city of Carmel. Brainard has run into some trouble recently communicating this vision - and just communicating in general.

The CRC didn't handle the demolition well, to say the least. They gave just three day's notice to a small business - Club Canine Doggie Day Care - that the grain elevator, which it sits adjacent to, would be demolished, according to the business's owner. This wasn't enough time for Club Canine employees to inform their clients, let alone enough time to relocate. The CRC also apparently didn't do its due diligence either in finding out whether the demolition would pose a health risk for nearby residents and passersby.

Demolition continues on April 22.
  • Ron Kern
  • Demolition continues on April 22.

Partly as a result of the botched PR, a nasty e-mail war erupted recently involving Brainard and various small business owners regarding, among other outstanding concerns, the potential for demolition dust to spread histoplasmosis. (The low point? Possibly Brainard's huffy, parochial reply to one persistent questioner. "It is no secret that I do not like your approach, threats and insinuations," he wrote in an email copied to a long list of addresses, including NUVO, The Indianapolis Star and Current in Carmel. "That may work in your city of Noblesville but not in Carmel.") But all this is (almost) history now. When all is said and done, the longer-term question is whether or not there is, or will be, any public input in the decision-making process - especially with regard to the arts - in Carmel.

Brainard has a knack for taking models from other cities and applying them here. Sometimes that model works. The roundabouts that have been installed in Carmel to wide acclaim (and some distress) are basically a European innovation. Encouraging artists and designers to locate and do business together in the same area - as in the Carmel's Arts & Design District - is a time-tested model.

But in terms of architectural design, Brainard's approach - especially in the case of the Palladium - is downright backward-looking. He hearkens back to a time in American history when Americans looked to Europe for artistic inspiration rather than trying to find a more indigenous model.

No doubt, Jim Brainard deserves credit where credit is due. Thanks to Brainard, Evan Lurie came from Los Angeles to locate his gallery in Carmel, where's he's exhibited work by gifted, well-known artists, including Jorge Santos and Alexi Torres. The Palladium might be the gaudiest arts venue that I've seen in my lifetime, but there have been some fine performances there. And the Arts & Design District, for all its European pretense, is becoming an exciting place to spend an afternoon - or an evening. (You might not want to drink if you're driving home, however, because there are more police pullovers in Carmel than seem possible considering the current structure of reality.)

Maybe, just maybe, some good will come from all of this. I'm hoping that Ron Kern's having gone before the CRC and the Carmel City Council, with his unsuccessful plea to preserve the grain elevator, will open up the city of Carmel to a more diverse (and more local) range of opinion than Brainard is used to listening to. Maybe some new opportunities - to create artists' studio space affordable in Carmel, for example - will open up as a result. More practically, I'm hoping that Carmel's City Council will assert more control over the CRC.

I'm also hoping that Brainard's replacement for the grain elevator won't be as bad as I think it's going to be. The plan is to replace the grain elevator with a water tower straddling the Monon Trail. The water tower will apparently feed flowing fountains at the bottom.

Water towers are necessary things, and they often have a certain functional beauty, just like grain elevators that inspired modernist painters such as Charles Demuth. But, given Carmel's recent architectural record, I fear that this particular water tower might all be kitsched up in a manner resembling the excesses of Las Vegas more than anything that might have impressed Demuth.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Notes from the Long Beach Grand Prix

Posted by on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 1:37 PM

EJ Visos KV Racing Technology #5 machine, before the start at Long Beach, with team co-owner Jimmy Vasser (in all black).
  • Kate Shoup
  • EJ Viso's KV Racing Technology #5 machine, before the start at Long Beach, with team co-owner Jimmy Vasser (in all black).
One of the best races of the IZOD IndyCar series, and the one that's by far the "scene-iest," is the Long Beach Grand Prix, this year in its 38th running. At the 11-turn street circuit situated in the shadow of masts in the Shoreline Marina, you'll see an excellent cross-section of the Southern California population: hippies, surfers, bikers, and the occasional "celebrity."

(Note the use of quotes here. Although there is the occasional A-lister - Mark Wahlberg put in an appearance a few years ago, and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody is a regular - most of the stars are of the Brody Jenner/Eddie Cipriani/Adam Carolla variety.)

As the spouse-type person (STP) of an engineer for KV Racing, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to attend any race I want - and Long Beach is one I never like to miss.

Upon my arrival in Long Beach on Thursday morning, I ate brunch with driver Marco Andretti, grandson of racing legend Mario Andretti and son of other racing legend and team owner Michael Andretti. Okay - "with Marco Andretti" might be kind of strong. I guess if you want to be a stickler about things, "in the same restaurant as Marco Andretti" is technically more accurate.

But my table was right by his, and I was close enough to eavesdrop on his various phone conversations, most of which, I later figured out, pertained to Chevy's decision to swap out the engines on each of their 11 cars in the field.

"What's the big deal?" you're probably thinking. After all, getting a fresh, shiny new engine in your IndyCar seems like it would be a good thing. The problem is, if your engine manufacturer replaces your engine before the engine has run the prescribed number of miles (in this case, 1,850), you get docked 10 positions on the starting grid. It's an attempt by the series to keep engine costs down.

So every Chevy car in the field, regardless of where they actually qualified, started outside of the top 10 - including Marco Andretti's and, worse, EJ Viso's, which is engineered by my aforementioned STP, Olivier.

This was a particular bummer for EJ and Olivier because EJ actually advanced to the Firestone Fast Six during qualifying, ultimately claiming the fifth spot on the grid - the second-best starting position in his IndyCar career. The penalty, however, exiled him to 15th. It's not impossible to win a race from back there - indeed, Will Power would charge to the front from P12 to claim the victory.

But as EJ discovered on race day, it sure is a lot harder. Any chance EJ might have had to advance was foiled first by Graham Rahal, who blocked EJ as he attempted to enter his pit after the first stint, and second by contact with Alex Tagliani, for which EJ was assessed a questionable drive-through penalty, meaning he had to make one pass down Pit Lane during a green. In the end, EJ managed a mere 12th-place finish.

For all that, even EJ's day was better than my brunch partner, Marco Andretti's. (God! Fine. Let's say we were "brunch-adjacent.") He qualified miserably, ultimately starting at P21 after the Chevy penalty was assessed. Although he eventually picked his way to 14th place, contact with Graham Rahal on lap 23 sent him airborne over Rahal's rear wing and into a tire barrier.

Marco claimed Rahal had "chopped" him; Rahal replied by insulting the entire Andretti family. ("What's Marco's last name? I've said enough.") This pissed off Grandpa Mario, who called out Rahal on Twitter. Rahal responded by essentially calling Mario "immature."

Although I don't expect this battle to devolve into the physical realm, like the time an irate AJ Foyt tackled Arie Luyendyk in victory lane in 1997, expect things to be interesting at the next race, in Brazil, where the series reconvenes on Sunday, April 29.

One more thing: Although I suppose I didn't technically brunch with Marco Andretti, I was driven to the airport by EJ Viso on Sunday night. Like, we were in the same car and everything. As you can imagine, we made it there in record time. Let's just say that after that experience, I'm pleased to still be among the living.

Olivier, EJ, and EJs coach, Italian former F1 driver Giorgio Pantano, converse after the race.
  • Kate Shoup
  • Olivier, EJ, and EJ's coach, Italian former F1 driver Giorgio Pantano, converse after the race.

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Center for Performing Arts announces season

Posted by on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 10:57 AM

palladium.jpeg
Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts has had a bit of a rough season personnel-wise: President and CEO Steven Libman resigned in July 2011 after private investigators hired by the City of Carmel allegedly found he was spending Center money on romantic getaways with his secretary; five staff positions were eliminated toward the close of 2011; and the founding director of the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, Doris Anne Sadler, resigned this March.

And yet, the ship sails on, with the eminent Frank Basile as interim CEO and president, and Feinstein, stalwart as artistic director, set to host the first-ever induction ceremony for the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame this June. And the coming season is as about as packed as the last, with an admirable mix of classical, pop, country, bluegrass, dance and, of course, programming straight from the American songbook.

Perhaps the classical and songbook programming is most distinctive; most of the (well-aged) artists on the pop side could just as easily play The Lawn or the Vogue, and it seems that Clowes, the Murat and the Palladium are now sharing crowd-pleasing acts like Celtic Thunder and DRUMLINE Live.

But the classical lineup, nothing to sneeze at, is highlighted by visits from Beaux Arts Trio pianist Menahem Pressler (Sept. 7); the smallest, pops-friendliest of the BBC's five orchestras, the BBC Concert Orchestra (Feb. 2, 2013, performing a very British lineup of work by Britten, Elgar and Butterworth); the China National Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 22, 2013; Xia Guan, Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, with violinist Xi Chen); From the Top host Christopher O'Riley (March 1, 2013, about a year after his visit to the Toby); and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (March 8, 2013; Lutoslawski, Schubert, Previn, Saint-Saens). And we ought not leave out visits by sopranos Renee Fleming (Feb. 24, 2013) and Kathleen Battle (April 27, 2013).

Feinstein will perform at one show - with Barbara Cook on March 23, 2013 - on a Songbook series that includes visits from Monica Mancini, daughter of Henry, with smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz (Aug. 8), Johnny Mathis (Sept. 9), Natalie Cole (Oct. 18), Lucie Arnaz (Jan. 26, 2013; daughter of Desi and Lucille).

The country lineup sticks close to the pop side of things, with visits from bonafide superstars LeAnn Rimes (July 27) and Josh Turner (Sept. 27), the Cracker Barrel-approved Dailey & Vincent (Oct. 12) and the ageless Don Williams (March 22, 2013) and Oak Ridge Boys (May 11, 2013).

The jazz and blues series features several familiar faces, including B.B. King (Nov. 20), Doc Severinsen (April 18, 2013) and Chick Corea and Gary Burton (April 20, 2013). House star Hugh Laurie sings blues with his Copper Bottom Band (Aug. 22) to kick off the series; Cuban pianist Chucho Valdez follows on a couple months later (Oct. 24, 2013).

Savion Glover (Oct. 20), the Stars of the Russian Ballet (Jan. 5, 2013) and MOMIX (March 9 and 10, 2013) are on the dance lineup; the rather unimaginative pop selection includes Kenny Loggins (Aug. 1), The B-52s (Aug. 26), Sheryl Crow (Sept. 6), Amy Grant (Oct. 5) and America (Oct. 6).

And the family lineup is likably diverse, including visits from the still-weird Mummenschanz (Jan. 12 and 13, 2013), the Blue Man-esque Voca People (Feb. 23, 2013) and the vaudeville-inspired Thomas Kubinek (June 1 and 2, 2013). Don't be fooled by the shunting of these shows into the "family" ghetto; the Center for the Performing Arts has been playing host to some inspired performance art and theater in its smaller venues, the Tarkington Theatre and Studio Theatre.

Complete lineup and ticket details at the Center for Performing Arts website.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Slideshow: Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit

Posted by on Fri, Apr 13, 2012 at 2:29 PM

The Squidling Brothers delivered their unique brand of sideshow mayhem to the White Rabbit Thursday night. We would promise all this stuff would make sense in context, but that would make us dirty, dirty liars.

Slideshow
Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow)
Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow) Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow) Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow) Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow) Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow) Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow) Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow) Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow)

Squidling Brothers at White Rabbit (Slideshow)

By Paul F. P. Pogue

Click to View 16 slides

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Inside Thebes: The chorus speaks

Posted by on Mon, Apr 9, 2012 at 1:21 PM

Chorus members Zachariah Stonerock and Katelyn Coyne flank Logan Moore as Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus. - SCOT MCKIM
  • Scot McKim
  • Chorus members Zachariah Stonerock and Katelyn Coyne flank Logan Moore as Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus.

Watching the Theban plays unfold on the IMA's lavish gardens is like watching a television epic. Instead of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, the chorus religiously follow The Oedipal Cycle. As super-fans, we introduce audiences to our favorite epic, highlighting key moments and occasionally stepping into frame. We walk a nebulous line between players and watchers, moving through the fourth wall like specters capable of living in both worlds.

My fellow chorus member, Zachariah Stonerock, and I are essentially rehearsed audience members. Our primary job in rehearsal for this site-specific piece is as a tool for the directors to keep the audience's presence in mind. Where do they stand? How will they move? We use our focus to cue audience focus. We speak from amongst them.

In other ways, the chorus has been left to our own devices, to discover who we are in terms of the world of the play. How do we feel about what happens in our favorite saga? Who do we like or dislike? And why?

Not until the plays found their shape beyond the script could Zach and I formulate these opinions. Now that we've finally experienced a few run-throughs, we're able to discover who we are in context of these stories. I met with Zach prior to a rehearsal at the IMA to discuss:

"It's interesting that we go through our own arc in the cycle," says Stonerock. "In the first show [Oedipus Rex], we're really distanced and detached from the action. It's most clear with Oedipus. While Oedipus is trying to get away from his fate, we disrespect him. But when he finally excepts it, he's like good ole' Grandpa Oedipus. We respect him. You can always tell when somebody's not being true to themselves."

We discuss this realization in terms of what we have created thus far. Our conversation turns to television: our entry point for understanding how modern audiences might perceive the play. While our watching habits differ, we both follow Breaking Bad, and do our best to compare the two epics. While our main character, Oedipus, doesn't run his own crystal-meth lab, he does grapple with his destiny like the central character in the AMC smash-hit.

"That character that Brian Cranston plays..." I say.

"Walter." Zach interjects.

"Yes. Walter seems like he's going against his destiny. But we see his true nature come out. It becomes obvious what his destiny really is."

"I think that's why its easy to like him," says Zach. "He had it in him the whole time. We see his transformation in the first season. We like him because he chooses to embrace his destiny."

"Even though his destiny is morally wrong?" I ask.

"Well that's in our play too," Zach answers. "Some characters have a destiny that isn't morally right. But their destiny has to occur so Oedipus' destiny becomes truth. It's an interesting philosophical question. Really, the play would argue that right and wrong doesn't matter, because you're going to do it. What you think is essentially irrelevant. Oedipus clearly didn't want to sleep with his mother, but it's going to happen. So whatever, good luck dealing with it."

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Notes from the Honda Indy Grand Prix in Alabama

Posted by on Fri, Apr 6, 2012 at 11:00 AM

Helio Castroneves stopped at corner 10 on his victory lap after winning the 2012 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to pay respects to the sign honoring the late Dan Wheldon.
  • John O'Neill
  • Helio Castroneves stopped at corner 10 on his victory lap after winning the 2012 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to pay respects to the sign honoring the late Dan Wheldon.

Having never been to the deep south, but having seen Deliverance and listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and also given my leftist politics, I was naturally wary of visiting Alabama to attend the IZOD IndyCar Series race last weekend. I'm pleased to report, however, that my experience there was delightful.

Exhibit A: That whole "Southern Hospitality" thing is no joke. Absolutely every local person I encountered was polite, friendly, chatty and kind.

Exhibit B: It's beautiful there. Like, for reals. Mature trees, rolling hills - this is my kind of topology.
And nowhere is it more visible than at Barber Motorsports Park, which played host to the race. I got my first look at the place, situated on the eastern fringes of Birmingham, late Thursday afternoon.

The lowering sun bathed the entire 740-acre facility - which consists of a 17-turn, 2.38-mile track and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (a must-see for any gearhead) - in what photographers call "golden light."

When I arrived, my spouse-type person (STP), Olivier, who is an engineer for KV Racing, was about to set off on a "track walk" with his driver, EJ Viso, the young Venezuelan who pilots the #5 machine, so I tagged along.

During the track walk, drivers and engineers hoof a lap around the course and confer about the line (that is, the fastest, best way around), track conditions (i.e., how bumpy the track is), and whatnot.

As EJ and Olivier ambled around the circuit along with various members of EJ's entourage - including two young drivers in the Firestone Indy Lights series, which is one step down the ladder from IndyCar and runs a similar schedule - I hung back with EJ's assistant, a gajillia-lingual woman who looks remarkably like Giuliana Rancic on Fashion Police (read: gorgeous, tall, and skinny) and gossiped.

It was a spectacular evening - the kind where you can't quite believe your luck that your dad's swimmers (ew) found your mom's ovum (gross) and produced you, rather than someone else.

A new look for IndyCar

The track walk revealed a circuit marked by hairpin turns and dramatic changes in elevation - which, I suspect, are rather exciting to experience when strapped into an open-wheel car and traveling at a rate upwards of 160 mph.

It sure looks that way when the cars are moving, anyway - which they were, the next morning, during the first practice session on Friday morning. (Friday's second session was cut short by an end-of-days‒style deluge and a third session, the next morning, was fogged out.)

Speaking of cars, this year, the IZOD IndyCar Series has introduced a new model, the Dallara DW12, named for driver Dan Wheldon, who helped test the new car before he was tragically killed during last year's IZOD IndyCar season finale in Las Vegas.

It's taking some time for my eye to adjust to the new chassis, which looks significantly different from its forebears. Among other things, the side, called the sidepod, looks kind of bulbous, and there are new bumper-type pieces behind each rear tire.

Lots of people hate the new car, but I admit it's growing on me. It looks especially nice in the various team liveries; those bulbous sidepods make the sponsor decals really pop.

In addition, for the first time in several years, there are multiple engine manufacturers involved with the series: Chevrolet, Honda, and Lotus. Their turbo engines are newly designed to IndyCar's specs, meaning the manufacturers haven't gotten everything hammered out yet - which is to say that they (the engines, not the manufacturers) may occasionally blow up. Which should be interesting.

Leveling the playing field

All these changes mean there's more parity in the series than there has been in years. Because the cars and the engines are new, no one team has managed to gain a significant edge in terms of research and development (although the larger teams, such as Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, and KV, have been able to apply more resources to testing).

Indeed, this year's field is incredibly tight. Witness the results of Saturday's qualifying event, in which each of the top six cars was from a different team.

Yes, the usual Goliaths were present: Penske driver Helio Castroneves (Chevy) claimed the pole, and Ganassi driver Scott Dixon (Honda) claimed the third spot on the grid.

But surrounding them were Andretti driver James Hinchcliffe (a.k.a. "Manica," having landed the seat vacated by Danica Patrick, who left the IZOD IndyCar series for NASCAR), whose Chevy-powered car sped to P2 during qualifying; AJ Foyt's driver, Mike Conway, who piloted his Honda-powered machine to the fourth spot on the grid; Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand (famous for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the last turn of the last lap of last year's Indianapolis 500) slotted his Chevy-powered car into the fifth spot; and veteran driver Tony Kanaan, whose Chevy-powered KV Racing machine landed the number-six spot.

While it's true that there is significant parity among drivers, this is less true of the engines. So far, Chevy appears to have a slight edge over Honda, with both Chevy and Honda dominating Lotus.

Indeed, with the exception of the #7 car, owned by Dragon Racing and piloted by Champ Car legend Sebastien Bourdais, which has shown decent if not dominating results, the Lotus contingent (composed of HVM's Simona Di Silvestro (a.k.a. The Swiss Miss); BHA driver Alex Tagliani, who snagged the pole last year at Indy; Spaniard Oriol Servia, now driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, who finished third in the points last year; the aforementioned Bourdais; and Katherine Legge, also with Dragon, a former Champ Car driver making her IndyCar debut after several seasons out of the car) finds itself in the unfortunate position of being the bug rather than the windshield.

That being said, the Lotus cars are among the most gorgeous on the grid - particularly Bourdais's black-and-gold machine. I said as much to my friend Didier, who is Bourdais's crew chief, as I surveyed the grid before the race.

The lighter side of racing

Speaking of "before the race," pre-race is one of my favorite periods of any race weekend - when all the teams ferry their cars onto the track, lined up in their start order. A happy chaos ensues, as spectators mill around the machines while fire-suited mechanics stand guard.

I always walk from the first car to the last and back again, letting the crowd wash over me, watching everything unfold. With each passing year, more faces on the grid have become familiar. Yes, I'm part of this world only tangentially - I'm just Olivier's +1 - but I like to think I've made a few friends of my own by now.

Pre-race is when I give each one a hug, wish them luck, and most importantly - especially after the horrific accident that claimed Wheldon's life last year, from which the entire community is still reeling - tell them to stay safe.

Enough chit-chat. Here's how race day went down for us: EJ had a good, well-balanced car, but his tires seemed to degrade more quickly than normal, meaning he had no grip.

But he drove a smart race and kept the car in one piece, which was a positive. He finished 18th. (Penske driver Will Power was the victor, with Dixon and Castroneves joining him on the podium.)

Next stop: Long Beach, April 15. I'll be there!

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