Keep The Starts Better Aligned
One of the hot topics to come out of Randy Bernard’s “State of IndyCar” address last week was the double-file re-starts on ovals that will be utilized for 2011. Most of the reaction among drivers and fans has been negative – very negative. Aside from the fact that I hate to see the IZOD IndyCar Series copy anything that NASCAR created, some may find it a surprise that I’m fairly indifferent on the subject. I can see merits and disadvantages on both sides.
Listening to Tony Kanaan on Trackside last Thursday night, he made some excellent points on why he is against it. His concern is the situation of marbles up in the gray area of the turns – you know, those little bits of rubber that accumulate out of the normal racing groove. They’re called marbles for a reason – once your car hits them, it’s pretty much like walking on a bed of marbles. It’s almost impossible to control the car. Even if you are lucky enough to make it through the turn without contact with the wall, your tires have picked up all of that extra rubber and it can cause some irritating vibrations.
I don’t know if you’ve ever handled a racing tire, shortly after it has been on-track. Several years ago, I was at a race in Charlotte and happened to come away with a tire that came off of Tony Stewart’s car. I made the mistake of rolling it through the grass. I spent the next two days trying to pull the grass out of my new souvenir. It was like flypaper, it was so sticky.
Kanaan said that if they are going to do double-file re-starts at Indianapolis, where the racing groove is so narrow – that fans should prepare themselves for extended yellows so that they can sweep the track for every caution period.
There is now a debate whether or not the rule should be introduced at Indianapolis, which happens to be the first oval race of the 2011 season, or if they should wait until Texas. Kanaan thought that they should wait. Curt Cavin thinks that it should begin at Indy. Curt’s reasoning is that they are doing this to create fan interest and closer racing. Why not do it when you’ve got your largest viewing audience so that it can be showcased for these potential new fans? I disagree.
I’m inclined to always make the Indianapolis 500 the exception to this rule – not just this year, but every year. The Indy 500 seems to have its own set of rules anyway, so this would be no different. But if they are going to mandate this at Indianapolis, do it next year. This is a major experiment with the rules. I don’t think you need to make the narrow straightaways of IMS at over 220 mph, the first place you want to see this tried. If you use Curt’s argument that you want the large audience to see this showcased – what if it doesn’t work? What if it is a disaster on every re-start? You’ve now gotten a black eye (or worse) in public perception due to trying this out for the first time on a world stage. In addition to that, extended yellows have already become a problem in the series. Do we really want our largest viewing audience of the season to be exposed to a lot of long caution periods?
As far as making a case for closer racing…maybe. The field gets pretty strung out on re-starts. On a short track like Milwaukee, the leaders are already through turn one as the back is just coming off of turn four. The double-file restart would probably have the biggest impact at a place like Texas or Michigan (if the series can ever get back there), where there is plenty of room for side-by-side racing.
Where I wish the series would place its focus is on the start of the race. At road courses and ovals alike, the front of the field is strung out and gone from the pack before they even cross the starting line. I hate to give the NASCAR folks credit on anything, but they seem to know how to start a race. They are bunched up and do not begin accelerating until the green flag flies.
Don’t tell me that IndyCar must do it differently because the open wheels may touch. It wasn’t that long ago that open-wheel cars started this way also. If you have any old VHS tapes from CART in the nineties, go back and watch the start of their races. Phoenix, Michigan, Road America or Indianapolis; it doesn’t matter – the starts were well aligned and together.
To me, there is no more dramatic moment in sports than the start of the Indianapolis 500. I’ve watched many of them in person since 1965 and many others on television. The anticipation of the teams and drivers combined with the roar of the crowd makes for an unforgettable scene as the cars race down the straightaway to the green flag. Lately, however, that moment has been tempered by Brian Barnhart instructing the front row to string out before crossing the start-finish line so that everyone will be in single file by the first turn.
Mr. Barnhart says for the sake of fans and sponsors, he doesn’t want carnage at the first corner of the first lap. I’m not sure how successful that strategy has been. With the ugly, ragged and anti-climactic starts that Brian Barnhart prefers, we’ve still had opening lap crashes in three of the last five Indianapolis 500’s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we need to see a repeat of 1966, when a third of the field was eliminated before the first turn. Nor do we need another 1995, when Stan Fox inexplicably turned right into Eddie Cheever’s car in the short-chute at the south end, while taking out five cars. Still, Randy Bernard proclaims that these are the best drivers in the world. If that’s the case, they should be able to navigate turn one safely without being told that they must yield the first corner to the pole-sitter.
They did announce one change that will at least help starts and re-starts. By moving the acceleration cones closer to the start-finish line, the field will not become so spread out.
Over the past week, I’ve gotten a few e-mails asking me my opinion of the subject of double-file re-starts. Being the traditionalist that I am (read: old), I think many expected an impassioned plea on my part. Several others in the blogosphere have done that far more eloquently than I could, and I’m just not that passionate on the subject.
In fact, I will do something that is normally out of character for me; I’ll give some due credit to Danica Patrick. She is one of the few drivers that has said she’d like to give the double-file re-starts a chance. She had a refreshingly candid appraisal about the whole thing. She essentially said (paraphrasing): “Let’s give it a try. If it doesn’t work, I’m sure we’ll stop doing it”.
It is a sign that the Mayan calendar may be correct in predicting the end of the world in less than two years, if I’m taking Danica’s side in an issue. But her simplistic way of looking at it may be the best viewpoint yet. It’s not that big of a deal with her. Quite frankly, it’s not that big of a deal to me either.