Brian Barnhart Opens Up

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Fortunately, Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee have their finger on the pulse of what the fans think and want to hear about, regarding the IndyCar Series. As promised, they featured Larry Curry to give a non-league perspective on the poor state of racing on the ovals, so far this season. The surprise however, was that they were able to get Brian Barnhart as a guest on their weekly radio show, Trackside With Cavin and Kevin. This is required listening for any IndyCar fan that has grumbled (like me) about the quality of the product on the track. A link to their show is provided on this site, to download the archived show from last night.

My biggest problem with Brian Barnhart has been his perceived silence on the entire issue. We had heard nothing from the league except for the usual media rhetoric about how exciting each race has been. That’s all we had to go on, except for forums and blogs that let you know that fans thought otherwise.

Well, kudos to Mr. Barnhart. He was open, frank and told us what we needed to hear. Does he fully understand what the problem has been? No, but no one else does either, especially we armchair engineers – and yes, I include myself in that bunch. Is he concerned? Apparently yes, and I’m glad to hear it. Most importantly, he acknowledges that something needs to be done sooner than later.

Barnhart referred to this problem as a “perfect storm of parity”. He said that the teams have had these cars for so long (this is the seventh year) that everyone has figured out how to squeeze every tenth of a mile an hour out of them. Therefore, they are all running at the exact same speed and there is just so much difference a driver can make.

Probably the most encouraging thing I heard from Barnhart was that he wants to do away with situations where races are decided by pit stops and re-starts. His logic is that if they can get some competition and excitement back into green flag racing, then there won’t be races decided in the pits.

Overall, it was very encouraging to hear. He didn’t really come out with anything new or that we hadn’t heard before — he just finally acknowledged the problem. Not only did he say that there WAS a problem, he outlined some of the tweaks they will try and implement in the very new future.

One regular caller to the show, Paul from Racine, WI – who is also a VERY regular caller to Donald Davidson in May, later reiterated a point that Barnhart had made. These tweaks aren’t just done independently. The league has to consult with Firestone and Honda to see how each tweak might affect their respective product.

It’s a very thin balance that the league has to work with. I’ll give Barnhart the benefit of the doubt for now. I have been critical of him for the past couple of weeks for failing to acknowledge the problem. But for being very forthright and candid last night…he deserves some praise.

Before Barnhart was on the show, they spent about ten to fifteen minutes talking to Larry Curry, engineer for Dreyer & Reinbold. Curry has been in the IRL from day one (with the exception of an unplanned sabbatical) and was with John Menard when he was running Indy-only in the early nineties. He was very open and engaging, as well. His take was that everything needed to open up…more manufacturers on ALL fronts from engines to chassis to even tires. I certainly agree on the engine and chassis, but I’m not a fan of tire wars. I think safety is compromised WAY too much in a tire competition.

His most poignant comment was when he said (paraphrasing) “If I were a fan of this series right now, I would have a hard time watching what we’ve been putting on the track this year”. To me that was a very telling comment.

Larry Curry also had an interesting take on set-ups. He said the teams should have the flexibility to make the cars hard to drive. He clarified that by explaining that the cars right now are WAY too easy to drive on the ovals. They basically hold their foot down and aim the car left. By making it hard to drive, you are making it faster on the straightaways but harder to manage in the turns. This puts the skill back into the hands of the drivers. Those drivers with talent will work their way to the front.

As I’ve said on many occasion – I am not a gearhead and I’m certainly no engineer. But Larry Curry’s explanation on different tools that should be made available again to the teams, was fascinating.

For me – this was a big FIRST step for the IRL and Brian Barnhart. Admitting there is a problem is half the problem. Now let’s see what kind of follow-through they come up with. Did he have all of the answers? No, nor did I expect him to. But his appearing on the show last night offered validation for those who have been complaining about the quality of the racing.

One thing I want to make clear. When I have criticized Brian Barnhart and the IRL, it hasn’t been with bitterness or venom. It has been out of passion for the series. Unlike some, I want this series to succeed. I want it to thrive. The only way it will thrive is to reach out to new fans…a lot of new fans. My fear was that the league believed this current version of racing was going to reach that goal. From what I heard last night, Mr. Barnhart knows what needs to be done. If he succeeds, I’ll be the first to heap praise on him.

George Phillips

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2 Responses to “Brian Barnhart Opens Up”

  1. James O. Says:

    “everyone has figured out how to squeeze every tenth of a mile an hour out of them. Therefore, they are all running at the exact same speed and there is just so much difference a driver can make.”
    I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this. By that argument, shouldn’t all the teams be qualifying in such a small window that the grid would be jumbled every week? Wouldn’t everyone (outside of someone misjudging an apex and hitting a wall) end on lead lap? How does this explain AGR? Tony Kanaan hasn’t forgotten how to drive.

    I’m not arguing against diversity and competition among equipment suppliers (I miss the Goodyear/Firestone rivalry), but I think the effect of parity is overstated when you still have two teams who consistently lead, another couple who consistently run fast, and a couple who always run last. Penske/Gassassi always seem to shave fractions from their pit stops, they make fewer mistakes in the pits, their drivers generally don’t scuff the walls. Little things add up.

    The flip side of this: go back to–I think it was 1994? Penske had the MB engine and blew everyone off the track that year. Nigel Mansell was with Newman-Haas and said everyone else was racing for Best of Class. Fun if you’re a Penske fan, but frustrating if you’re interested in anyone else. You ask yourself, am I watching a great driver and a great car, or could Milka Duno dominate in that thing? If the answer’s the latter, a lot of interesting things about racing evaporate.

  2. tim nothhelfer Says:

    This has been an issue in racing outside of INDYCAR….MOTOGP and AMA SUPERBKE come to mind. Is itlikely the the current car set ups are so efficient and narrowly focused (with the reduced horse power to contain the speeds) the cars are competitive in a smaller grove where rubber marbles make driving “outside” slow, dangerous or impossible.
    I would be interested in hearing what divers need to have the opportunities and advantages to running a high grove where a loose and fast set up thrive. Sam Hornish made lots of hay running high two and three wide.

    Motogp bikes have changed recently from higher horsepower beasts that rewarded rear wheel steering front wheel controlled high speed turn in racing that rewards the rider with the fewest mistakes. Not so great this year and last.
    I would like to see: the drivers be able to use more of the tracks width developing two or three groves; the drivers have to modulate the throttle more instead of stretching throttle cables from constantly being flat footed; breaks being used to scrub off speed for turn entry; penalties for blocking and break checks….(.what if race control deactivated one or two cylinders for infractions…) More power/less aerodynamic grip.

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