Good News/Bad News

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As we get closer to the opening practice of the IZOD IndyCar Series just two weeks from today, news is coming in at a pretty rapid pace. Not only will drivers be named to the few remaining seats left in the next couple of weeks, but also more new rules may keep popping up in the next few days.

On Wednesday, two more rule changes were announced. One made me very happy, the other – not so much. On the positive side, the IZOD IndyCar Series announced that the official starter will wait on all starts and re-starts at all races, before dropping the green flag. In recent years, drivers were allowed to speed up while still in turn three at most tracks. This brought very ugly, disjointed looking starts – especially at the Indianapolis 500. Regardless of how ragged they appeared, Brian Barnhart favored these kinds of starts because they presented less risk to drivers and equipment.

The new rule calls for the field to approach the starter’s stand at around 60 mph and the green flag will not wave until the front row is about 300 yards from the starting line. This was a very welcomed change to me – especially regarding the Indianapolis 500. I know I’m slightly biased, but in the past – there was no more dramatic moment in all of sports than seeing the eleven rows of three approaching the green flag. That sight has adorned book covers, posters and paintings for years. Then in recent years, Mr. Barnhart saw fit to deprive us of that special moment in order to ensure that there were no crashes on the first lap. It didn’t work.

For the past two years, there have been crashes on the opening lap. Last year, Tomas Scheckter collided with Davey Hamilton in turn two of the first lap. The year before that, Mario Moraes and Marco Andretti got together in the south chute. Anytime you have aggressive drivers going for the same piece of real estate, contact is likely to occur.

Don’t misunderstand me. I certainly don’t want a repeat of Stan Fox’s horrifying crash on the opening lap of the 1995 race or the melee that occurred at the start of that dreadful 1973 race, when Salt Walther’s car spun upside down spraying methanol over spectators after crashing into the catch fencing on the front-straightaway. None of us want that.

What we want is to see a thrilling battle as drivers fight for position to see who can lead going into the first turn – without incident. Yes, there is a greater chance for contact. But these drivers are advertised as the greatest in the world. Let’s see them earn that moniker.

Although I’m not a fan of the double-file re-starts, I’m glad that there will be a battle for the first turn on each re-start. This should provide much better racing than we’ve seen at Indy in recent years. Better racing is what we pay to see.

That was Wednesday’s good news. The bad news is that the “Lucky Dog” is coming to the IZOD IndyCar Series. For those fortunate enough to not know what that is, NASCAR contrived the Lucky Dog rule late in the 2003 season. In IndyCar when the yellow flag flies, the field is frozen at that moment. Good rule. In NASCAR when the yellow came out, drivers were inexplicably expected to race back to the starting line before their positions were frozen. For years, I always thought that was an accident waiting to happen. It almost did at New Hampshire. NASCAR decided to stop that practice immediately.

For some unknown reason, they decided to add a twist – they allowed the closest lapped driver to be waved around and join the lead lap at the back of the field. When Jacques Villeneuve won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 after being two laps down early in the race, he did so by earning his way back onto the lead lap. I attended that race and have watched it several times. For the life of me, I still don’t really know how he did it, but they say he did so I believe them. But one thing I can tell you – he didn’t have those laps handed to him as a Lucky Dog.

If I’m leading a race and I work for several laps to finally get around a driver to put him or her a lap down, why should that effort be for naught when the caution flag comes out. It makes no sense. Yes, sometimes yellows can ruin someone’s race if they just pitted under green, then the rest of the field gets to pit under yellow. But you know – that’s just part of racing. It always has been. Just as luck can put you a lap down, sometimes luck plays a role in getting that lap back – like it did in Villenueve’s case. But I have a real problem with that lap being handed back to a driver.

When we heard of the double-file re-starts a while back, several people warned that this was coming. In denial, I told myself that the Lucky Dog would never make its way into IndyCar. I was wrong. I just don’t understand why they’re doing it. I always laughed at NASCAR for having the Lucky Dog, and now IndyCar has it too. Like limiting each field to 26 cars, I have to ask – why?

What’s next – eliminating hydraulic jacks in favor of a jack-man to run around and jack up each side of the car? How about putting five lug nuts on each wheel instead of the one center lug. Maybe the crews will start making wing adjustments with sledgehammers. It seems that IndyCar is intent on adapting the NASCAR rulebook. At least when IndyCar claims they invented the SAFER barrier and HANS device, it’ll be true.

We’ve had three new rules introduced this week – capping each non-Indy field at 26, waving the green just as the cars approach the starting line and the Lucky Dog. I’m in favor of one and dislike two. In baseball, that would be a good average. I don’t expect to be on board with everything that the IZOD IndyCar Series comes up with. I don’t think anyone does. But I do wish they would explain their reasoning behind some of the new rules and not be so intent on duplicating the NASCAR rulebook.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Good News/Bad News”

  1. A few folks have told me that the Lucky Dog apparently improves racing and for the life of me, I don’t understand the claim at all.
    Maybe I just one of the oft-vilified purists, but if someone gets lapped, tough!! That driver and crew should work to get back on the lead lap, but having the lead lap handed back to him/her is – in my opinion – just nonsense.

  2. The Lapper Says:

    I don’t see how the “Lucky Dog” improves the racing either. More times than not, those lapped cars need to be a lap down. I know because I am The Lapper.

  3. I guess the only decent thing about the lucky dog rule is that if a driver who is going at a torrid pace goes down a lap for whatever reason, penalty, caught out be a yellow flag then at least they can challenge for the win if they are back on the lead lap.

    I don’t quite think any of the current crop of Indy Car drivers are as good as Jacques Villeneuve so maybe the lucky dog rule might come in useful for a good finish, particularly at a long race like Indy

  4. I personally live the lucky dog rule. It makes things more exciting. So what if they are just given it for free? Of course it’s not real racing. You want real racing, watch ALMS or Grand Am racing. IndyCars are quick two hour sprint races and there is nothing wrong with a few gimmicks that have been proved to work in other series. Just because NASCAR uses it doesn’t make it bad. Ever wonder why NASCAR is kicking Indycars ass in TV ratings and general popularity? It’s more entertaining because it’s more contrived. Pressdog actually had a good take on this topic. When your favorite driver gets his or her lap back and rallies for a good finish you will be thrilled and won’t care that it was handed to them. Just hope IndyCar gets some of that Aaron’s money.

    In addition to the previous paragraph, you have to have a Lucky Dog if you are going to have double file restarts since only lead lap cars are at the front. You would be moving the lapped car, artificially behind lots of lead lap cars after a caution that never lapped them which gives them no chance of getting their lap back. The lucky dog gives these guys a chance now.

    Lighten up IndyCar nation. This us good.

  5. I’ve gone back and forth on the idea, but I think Steve K may actually be right. (Excepting his worship of the purity of ALMS.) Just because it came from Nascar, doesn’t make it bad. (On the other hand, copying Nascar on everything won’t work either.) So what if some driver gets a lap back? I could see it working out okay–especially on twisties. And I am so ready to see three wide on the front stretch. Is this rule officially enacted or are they just floating a trial balloon? Whatever happens, I hope they come up with a better name for it than Lucky Dog.

    The concern is about safety on the first lap of Indy is very serious. But it does seem like it’s basically up to the driver’s to police themselves on this, and I’m not sure they want that responsibility.

    I am also ready to stop talking about rule changes and promotions and want to start watching some races. It’s been too long.

    • Just read in C. Cavin’s column that now Indycar is “reconsidering” the Lucky Dog based on “fan feedback.”

      Actually the waffling concerns me more than the decision. Make a decision and stick to it–or wait to gather more information before making it. But don’t waffle back and forth–it makes it seem like you’re not sure what you’re doing.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    For this post I’m going to refer to the “lucky dog” rule by it’s non-Aaron’s sponsored name, the “free pass”.

    The free pass rarely has any effect of the outcome of a NASCAR race. It’s primary aim is to give fans whose interest in watching a race is tied to one or two drivers a reason to continue watching when those drivers wind up off the lead lap. This “moves the needle” at least a little in NASCAR because several drivers have fanbases who watch the race only to see them.
    In IndyCar, Danica is probably the only driver with many fans like that, maybe Castroneves. And aside from those two, you’d likely have to go back to Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, and Bobby Rahal to find other IndyCar examples.
    For the free pass to have any effect on attendence and ratings, IndyCar needs a lot more fans who watch races because of a couple of favorite drivers.

    The free pass is a silly contrivance (not as silly as artificial rain, but…) that serves a purpose in NASCAR. I really doubt it will attract more casual fans to IndyCar than the racing “purists” it will drive away; and neither group will be numerous.

  7. SkipinSC Says:

    I am all for slowing the starts down and keeping the cars in formation until 200 or so yards from the line. My problem with that, however, is that you’re going to have a BUNCH of cars, packed more tightly, and all trying to work up through the gears. Given the propensity for wheel spin in these cars, I think this is an invitation to a low-speed, multi-car pileup. And, lets face it, any significant contact whether it’s at 60 mph or 150 mph means several “someones” are going to be watching the next 499 miles of racing. If you move the start speed up to, say 150, I think you lessen the chance of that.

    Indy used to advertise its green flag as “The World’s Fastest Flying Start.” (Check some of your old souvenir programs.) Bring the cars to the line at 60 mph, and it might become the world’s slowest.

    If you hit the cone 200 yards from the start finish line at 60, this means cars are going to be tightly packed and accelerating steadily through 1 and 2 before hitting “full song” somewhere on the backstretch. Each driver will be trying to find his own racing space and driving up through the top 3 gears at the same time. We’ve had “issues” with the start even with the field spread out and everyone (almost) at speed going through 1 and 2. This will make for exciting starts, but also “unintended consequences” if a couple of cars get out of shape. (Does the name Kevin Cogan ring a bell? I guarantee it does with George’s hero and mine, A. J. Foyt.)

    Very seldom do you see any or many comments attached to Curt Cavin’s column, but there were quite a few when I read this last evening, almost universally devrying the “lucky dog.” Not only is this one of the less popular things with NASCAR “purists,” (and believe me, living in South Carolina I hear all about it. SOme even go so far as to call it the “Dale Jr. second chance” rule.) But, if applied to INDYCAR, I think it goes a long way toward taking pit strategy right out of the game, particularly on the shorter tracks (Iowa for example.)

    As I pointed out in my comment thereon, Jacques Villeneuve came from 2 laps down, and Rick Mears came from 1 down to win the 500. Those two wins required skill, not LUCK. I just don’t want INDYCAR to become “WWE light.”

    • I’d submit to you, though, SkipinSC, that the way that they’re proposing doing starts and restarts is basically the same way that they did them from basically the beginning of the sport until at least the mid- to late-’90s. The only wheelspin related accident that I can think of off the start of the race is that one “Damn Coooogin” incident, which may or may not have been caused by a broken halfshaft (I’ve watched that accident dozens of times now, and just can’t rule out mechanical failure, even given Cogan’s mediocre skills). And given the fact that the current cars have 200-300 less horsepower than the cars of the ’80s and ’90s had, I think wheelspin will be even less of a problem than it was then. Besides, like George points out, we’ve seen plenty of first lap crashes in the past few years, and still had to suffer through strung out starts. Why not ensure that the starts are good and close?

      You and I do see exactly eye to eye on the Lucky Dog, though. I just posted this at Pressdog’s site, so forgive the same sentiments here, but getting a lap back has always taken great tactics, skill and a little luck. That’s why a lap down car getting a lap back was a “once in a blue moon” event, and why Jacques getting 2 back in one Indy 500 and then going on to win the race was like lightning striking the same tree 6 times in a row. Now, a car getting a lap back will happen every 20 or 30 laps. Yawn.

  8. Cowboy Racer Says:

    I do not understand why IndyCar has to screw up a race with their plan for Lucky Dog B.S. on lapped cars and double file restarts. Why not just let everyone pit when the pits are open and let them race out of the pit and back onto the track. Every lapped car that beats the race leader out of the pits and those that did not pit get a wave around to rejoin the tail of the pack. This is excitement for the fans leave it alone. If somebody running 2nd or further back does not pit, then they assume the lead and any lapped cars behind the new leader gets stuck a lapped down. Then line the cars up two abreast as they are in line. If lapped cars are between the first and second place cars so be it. It gives these guys a chance to race back onto the lead lap and it gives the leader a buffer that he deserves by lapping cars. One exception, with less than 10 laps left, all lapped cars go to the back of the field. These are professional drivers and they can handle the restarts. If they can’t, then the owners will not be so quick to hire them because they tear up equipment and the officials will not be so quick to give them a license to drive. It really is pretty simple! Just do it!

    • The Lapper Says:

      Well said.

    • Mike Silver Says:

      Well put, Cowboy. I personally would bnot close the pits and if you are right there when the yellow comes out, duck in. That’s racing , also. Any car getting the free pass would likely be lapped again anyway. I’m glad it won’t be applied on every yellow. I hope that is made more clear or communicated to the fans when it will or won’t be applied.

  9. The double line restart put all the lapped cars at the tail, so it’s way harder to get a lap back…
    They should allow the “waive around” cars to pit after getting their lap back thats all !

  10. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    …and now NBC is pulling the live streaming from indycar.com ?? Bad move… again.

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