Random Thoughts On Texas
Saturday’s IndyCar race from Texas Motor Speedway was not the usual edge-of your seat affair. Marco Andretti led the first fifty-two laps. Ryan Hunter-Reay led some, before Helio Castroneves flexed his muscle and showed the others that they were just pretenders and not contenders. He led more than the last half of the race in dominating fashion, giving himself and Team Penske their first win of the season.
The crowd was decent – by IndyCar oval standards, but not great. But the weather sounded like it was perfect.
Instead of the usual pack-racing we’ve come to expect from Texas, this race came down to tire management. The drop-off in tires became evident when Tony Kanaan made his last stop and got new rubber and proceeded to blow by those on older tires as he stormed to a surprising third-place finish. I say surprising because prior to that last stint, his car did not seem to be handling well at all as he languished between seventh and tenth place most of the night.
But in the end, it was Castroneves winning and showing he was the class of the field. Unlike previous races, this was Team Penske doing what they do best. They executed their pit-stops almost flawlessly, and they came prepared. Helio made several comments prior to the race indicating how they knew that tires were going to be an issue with this downforce package and they managed them perfectly.
TV Coverage: Where do I begin? OK, I’ll start off by giving my blunt opinion; and it is just that – my opinion. I thought that what I saw Saturday night was the worst race broadcast I’ve seen ABC/ESPN do in years. The only one I can think of that rivaled this one was the Watkins Glen race several years ago that began with them missing the start of the race due to Vince Welch talking about tire compounds in the pits. That one went downhill from there. This was about as bad.
It’s doubly disappointing since this was the first network prime time race for IndyCar. I thought that Randy Bernard staged a coup by getting ESPN to agree to stage this race in prime time. It would be a perfect opportunity to showcase what this series is all about to a large audience. Instead, ABC/ESPN saw it as an opportunity to run what seemed to be a record number of commercials with some race coverage interspersed between commercial stints. It seemed we spent most of the time watching the leaders pit through the picture-in-picture side-by-side feature. We also got to see Scott Dixon’s fire through the postage stamp window along with Helio’s traditional victory celebration of fence climbing.
So did we get good coverage when there were no commercials running? No. There were only two drivers that fell out due to mechanical issues – Pippa Mann and Scott Dixon. Did we hear from either of them? No. There were no interviews from either of them. I would have liked to have heard from Pippa on what might have happened when her engine went up in a plume of smoke on Lap Two, or from Scott Dixon when an oil line came loose in the pits. Instead we got nothing.
I was following along on Twitter during the race. Shortly after Dixon went out after sixty-one laps, I learned via Twitter that several of his crew members had been burned by the oil line rupturing. We heard nothing of this from ABC until a quick mention after the race. By that time, I already knew that they had been burned, taken to the care center and released before even a mention on ABC.
I was also perplexed at the course of "Basic IndyCar Racing 101" that we were subjected to. Scott Goodyear sounded like he was explaining racing to a five year-old with statements like “Drivers have what’s known as spotters that stand way above the track to tell the driver what’s going on around them”. Another gem was “There’s this thing on the end of the fuel hose that’s known as a buckeye. It goes into the hose acceptor on the car. Sometimes it doesn’t fit so neatly and the fuel won’t flow”. I understand that a primetime race is an opportunity for new fans to tune in, but don’t use so much time dumbing down the coverage catering to them that you lose the interest of the informed fans.
While we got the usual dullness from Marty Reid that we’ve come to expect; I thought Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever were well off their game also. Between the three of them, the entire broadcast was about as exciting as staring at a forty-pound bag of fertilizer. The camera angles had no imagination. There was nothing to convey the sense of speed, excitement and drama. Instead, I got the definite impression that Marty Reid didn’t want to be there.
One conspiracy theorist on Twitter opined that maybe NASCAR has worked a deal with ABC/ESPN to kill the series with bad coverage. I don’t usually go for conspiracies, but what was delivered to us on Saturday night makes one wonder. If this is what we are to expect from ABC/ESPN, I may start changing my tune and decide that maybe it is time to let NBC have the whole package – including the Indianapolis 500.
Not tough enough? This was an exceptionally clean race – as well as a clean weekend. No cars suffered any contact damage throughout the entire weekend at Texas. The teams needed this, given that this was the fourth race in thirteen days. With the double-header they had last week, there was the potential to have a lot of carnage in a short period of time. For the crews that have to rebuild them, it’s good there have been few cars damage lately.
But it begs the question – are these cars too easy to drive? On one hand, the DW12 has produced exceptional racing at most tracks. The racing has usually been close and the cars seem to allow passing – something that the old style of Dallara did not do exceptionally well. On the other, while I certainly don’t advocate crashes making for good racing – I’m not sure it makes for compelling drama if everyone in the field can take these cars to the limit. Perhaps a more accurate statement is that these low-horsepower engines aren’t capable of reaching the car’s limit. The favorite tagline of late has been that this field is so deep that anyone can win. That has certainly been proven out now that we have seen our seventh winner in eight races this season and we’ve seen wins coming from teams who are not usually in the hunt.
For the entire Month of May, there was only one incident in practice and qualifying – when Conor Daly made hard contact with the outside wall coming out of Turn One. Conjecture has it that something broke on the car, although I’ve never heard that confirmed. Other than that, there were no incidents at all. One theory is that with so few cars entered, there was no need to push the envelope because teams knew their cars would be in the field. Consequently, many teams were working on race setups in the week leading up to qualifying. In the race, there were few accidents, giving a long stint of 130 laps of green flag racing.
Saturday night, there were no crashes. There were a couple of yellows for cars with mechanical issues not making it back to the pits, and then Oriol Servia’s spin where he managed to not hit anything.
Crashes are certainly not a necessary ingredient for a good race. Knowing that the possibility of a crash exists if a driver goes too far over the line, should be a consequence of pushing the limit too far. Is there too much downforce? Is there not enough horsepower? I think most insiders would tell you that the answer to those questions is yes. Watching the race at Texas, you get the impression that if a driver holds his or her foot down and they turn left – they’ll do just fine. The only question is – which engineer set the car up to go the fastest?
Most of the drivers not named Helio Castroneves did not care for the downforce package at Texas. I’m neither a driver nor an engineer, but as a fan – I got the impression that not many drivers were hanging it out over the edge. That’s what fans want to see. Helio’s engineer did the best job setting up the car and Roger Penske did a good job calling the race. Helio also did the best job for managing the tires. That’s why they won the race. But you’d like to see more control put in the hands of the drivers in a race like this. If it produces crashes, that’s generally what separates the really good drivers from the average ones. Parity is not always a good thing.
Pippa’s woes: Pippa Mann’s night ended way too early Saturday night, through no fault of her own. Her engine expired on Lap Two – hardly enough time for her to show what she can do with her talents. Both Dale Coyne cars were way off the pace early in the weekend. They both had the slowest qualifying times of any cars that posted a speed, with Pippa out-qualifying her fulltime teammate Justin Wilson. By the final Friday night practice, the team had found something for both cars and Pippa posted the tenth quickest speed. It was shaping up that both Coyne drivers would work their way through the field with their newfound speed. It was not to be, as Pippa’s hopes went up in blue smoke that poured out of her Honda engine. As usual, Pippa took the high road. She offered no excuses and didn’t play the blame game. She simply took the approach that this stuff just happens in racing. It’s good for the series to have her in a car. Her time will come, hopefully sooner than later.
What makes good racing? Based on the opinions of fans on Twitter, a race needs to have side-by-side racing with a photo finish in order for it to qualify as a good race. Anything other than that is not worthy for viewers – or so those on Twitter would have us believe. Fans seemed incensed that there were only five cars remaining on the lead lap at the end of the race.
Something tells me that these are a lot of the same fans that yearn for the good old days of the late eighties and early nineties. Go back and check the box scores of those races. That was pretty much the norm. In the famed Indianapolis 500 of 1989, when Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi were battling for the lead at the very end – any guesses as to how far back third place was? It was Raul Boesel, who was six laps down – but that was considered a great race. Ditto for the 1991 Indianapolis 500 that had a late race duel between Rick Mears and Michael Andretti – but they were the only two on the lead lap.
You don’t have to have passes for the lead every lap and have everyone running wheel to wheel to generate excitement. I was fascinated to watch how Helio could stretch his fuel mileage and tire wear better than anyone else out there on Saturday night. There is a lot more to racing than watching cars stay close to each other. Different strategies unfold. Some work out at the end, while some fizzle. To witness the different strategies play out between teams, while their driver pushes the limit on every lap while keeping the strategies in mind – that’s what I enjoy in watching a race.
Those that say that Saturday night’s race was boring probably don’t like baseball or any other sport where a strategy is developed and executed. I guess we have the sound-bites and highlight reels of SportsCenter to thank for developing that mentality and culture among sports fans. To me, racing has it all. It’s a chess game at over 200 mph, where the consequences of a mistake can be dire. If fans need non-stop action for running on SportsCenter, I suggest they go watch the X-Games.
All in all: I thought it was a good race. It didn’t offer some of the nail biting we’ve seen from Texas over the years, but I was certainly entertained. The ABC/ESPN crew gets the next race off as NBCSN steps in to cover the next race at the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday. Hopefully, they can regroup and get their act together for Iowa – that is, if they even care.