Random Thoughts On Texas

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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.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Texas”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    ABC has got to go….

  2. madtad1 Says:

    They really lived up to their name: Always Bad Coverage.

  3. I agree with George, this was the worst race coverage I have ever seen and I have been going to IndyCar races since 1953 and watched every IndyCar race since they started televising them. ABC HAS TO GO !!!!!!!!!

  4. This race did remind me of years past. And that is not necessarily bad. The commentators have to do a better job of conveying what is going on beyond who is leading. That would require more feet on the ground and more communication than I think ABC is willing to do.

  5. Doug in Indy Says:

    Again George. Spot on. I thought the coverage was unbearable. i was also confounded by the length of the yellows for both Pippa and Dixon’s tow in. Pippa must have laid down a lot of fluid so there is that expalination , but a 7 lap caution for a tow in. Not the kind of TV package Indycar needed.

  6. I agree with Bob above. A race that involves strategy, mangement, and other non “balls to the wall” skill is a great race, but it also requires the crew to do a good job of conveying what is going on. It wasn’t just Texas where ABC failed at this; they completely missed Pagenaud’s lead and how it enabled him to come out of his last pit stop with the lead. That’s something they should have built up for a lap or two before, and been the only thing they followed until done.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I think some of the frustration with the race being “boring” stems from this not being the great race the series needed for its first prime time ABC time slot. Sometimes a race just isn’t great, but this one was not marred by anything that should prevent the die hard Indycar fan from appreciating it.

    Thumbs up:
    – The race rewarded both good strategy and sheer speed, as Helio had the best of both.
    – The temperature and humidity were both much lower than in recent years for the race. Still hot, but more bearably.
    – This event is extremely well run. Staff is plentiful and usually helpful. Concessions and merchandise are widely accessible. Ingress and egress into parking and into the grandstands is about as painless as it gets. Gossage even sprung for Spanky Spangler Jr. to drive an Oldsmobile up a ramp and into a stack of cars for pre- race entertainment.
    – No wrecks, despite Bourdais’ best efforts. Unfortunately, the lack of wrecks makes the cars look easy to drive. I understand that is not the case, as even fast guys like Hunter-Reay and Kanaan seemed convinced they were on the edge of spinning, not to mention the demon-possessed cars that Rahal and Tagliani had. I do think drivers are being especially cautious at Texas, probably more so than at any other track on the schedule.

    Thumbs sideways:
    – The crowd was similar to last year’s. Between stands, suites, and camping, my guess would be around 60,000. TMS can accomodate nearly 4 times that many folks.
    – The racing vs. last year. Last year, you started seeing the effects of poor tire management (as in passing) within 20 laps of pitting. That window was 35-40 laps this year. We saw similar action, just less of it. I can’t give a thumbs down for a 1 year sample.
    – ABC’s coverage. Watching the race on tape, I saw pretty much the same coverage I always do. It’s not good, but I just can’t come up with something more to say about it. Attending the race live first probably colors my opinion of the coverage though.

    Thumbs down:
    – Beaux Barfield not waving off the final restart (after Servia’s spin). ABC did not catch this on camera or mention it, but Helio brake checked the field badly before the restart. The ensuing “accordion effect” saw several cars in the back pass others before the green flew. Helio was warned for this (according to the guy in front of me with a scanner), which was fair. There was ample opportunity to wave off the restart and do it again the next time around, though. Not doing so was a mistake.

  8. It was one of the worst broadcasts I can remember, and the race was easily the worst Texas race in the last few years. The broadcast was so bad it seems there are a lot of people unaware that the reason Helio won the race was because he was one of the only (if not the only) cars to only pit 3 times. Everyone else pitted 4 times. He drove a good 12+ laps in the middle of the race going well below the normal speed in order to drive enough laps to make the 3 stops possible.

  9. I watched the race on DVR after getting off work Saturday night. It didn’t take very long. After so many good races this year, I was disappointed at how boring this race was. No matter how you dress it up, this was a boring, boring race. Surprisingly so, since previous Texas races have been competitive and exciting–at least in my memory.

    ABC can’t or won’t cover races properly, that much is obvious. But you can’t blame this race on ABC. The new car has worked so well on street and road courses, and we’ve had good racing this year, but this was not one of them. I think, like you said George, the problem lies in not pushing the envelope or something. It just seemed boring to me.

  10. Jim Gray Says:

    I enjoyed the race, beyond Pippa going out early, and thought it was a good way to spend an evening. The strategies we were allowed to see added to the fun. It was definitely not a normal TX race. To me it was almost F1-ish in that the driver didn’t matter nearly as much as the engineers and pit crews….not sure I would like this every race. You are correct in that the TV coverage was horrible! Everyone has covered the points pretty well so no need to reiterate all the ABC problems. In my eyes, it was still better than a NASCAR race.

  11. I would have switched to the Nationwide race had it not been rained out. This race was brutal. At least they could give us decent restarts double filed. Instead we got one car restarting and the rest of the field a quarter lap back.

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    I think that comments by RHR, TK, and others after the race belie the armchair blogger’s suggestion that perhaps these cars are too easy to drive.

    The race was not that exciting compared to what we are recently used to seeing, but sometimes races are just like that. I can recall when Vukovich was in a different time zone than the rest of the field at Indy. This weekend Vettel ran away from everyone at Montreal. Jimmy Johnson ran away from everyone at Pocono.

    I agree with Billy, the last restart was horrible and should have been waved off. By the way, when did Simona pass the pace car? I missed that, as did the ABC crew.

    This was not ABC’s best effort, that is for sure. I think that many of us hard-core fans were hoping for an exciting finish and good TV coverage because this was a rare prime time network broadcast.

    On to the Milwaukee Mile. While the Andretti group did a fine job of promoting the race last year, I can tell you as a local that this year they have promoted the race better than any promoter that I can recall and I have been attending races here since 1949. There has been good TV and press coverage. There will be lots of live music, classic cars, classic race cars, a lively marching band, free infield rides for the kids, watch qualifying free, good fan interaction zones and events, and classic Wisconsin food such as the iconic bratwurst and cream puffs.

  13. I was fine with the race. I liked ABC going to the team/driver radio chatter and I thought that Jamie Little did her usual top-notch coverage. Really, Jamie is one of the best.

  14. It wasn’t the greatest race, but it was far from the worst either. People complaining about the race on Twitter really need to get a new hobby. Sure Helio ran away with it in the 2nd half of the race, but it was no less competitive than Vettel’s win in Montreal or Johnson’s in Pocono.

    I too often wonder if all these folks yearning for “the good old days” can remember what the races were actually like back then. The big drama in half of those races was whether or not the leader who was 5 laps ahead of the field would suffer an engine failure before the finish.

    I’m done complaining about ABC. I now watch the race with the IMS radio broadcast on my Verizon phone and mute the TV. Even with the 10 second delay it’s more interesting.

  15. Chris Lukens Says:

    I actually felt insulted by some of Goodyear’s comments. I sure that some casual viewers tuned and thought; ”Well, if only kindergartners are watching this, why should I be interested”.

    As far as the conspiracy theory , I think that there may be one, just not involving NASCAR. Remember that TPTB used a crappy aero package at Richmond to destroy that race so that they could race over the railroad tracks in Baltimore. They used a crappy aero package at PPIR (only three cars finished on the lead lap) so that they could race one more year in Denver before that race failed.
    Maybe the same thing is happening here so that all of the owners that want to turn this into F1-lite will get the 1 oval – 15 twisty schedule they seem to want. Will this be the excuse used to drop TMS but continue with the race in the parking lot in Houston?

    One last thing. Major props to the 12 year girl who sang the Star Spangled Banner. That is the way the National Anthem should be sung.

    One more last thing. Hooray for Helio.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Thanks Chris for mentioning the young girl who sang the national anthem. That was spot on how it should be sung.

      I also would echo Johnny Macs comments about about Jamie Little. She does a great job. I don’t know how she gets around so fast

      • Ditto on the anthem girl. After that, I turned to my parents (visiting from out of town) and said, “every arena should hire that girl to sing the anthem for every sporting event from here on out.” Spot on, indeed.

  16. I am busting a gut over the line “As exciting as looking at a forty pound bag of fertilizer”. I need oxygen, George! That pretty much sums up the absolutely lousy coverage I saw off and on during the broadcast. If it were not for twitter……..

  17. As for non-anthem thoughts, I’ve said it before about a million times, but it bears repeating: every race broadcast crew (on air talent, producers, directors, graphics folks, everybody) should be made to get a TiVo with a season pass for NBCSN’s (used to be Speed’s) Formula 1 coverage. Do everything that they do. If it’s a run away up front, dig and find the stories that are worth telling. How did that guy get up there? Pit strategy? If so, give us elapsed times in the pits vs. other key players. Overtaking during pit cycles? If so, give us in and out laps for comparison. What about the guys further back? Focus on the battles, give lots of info on gaps between cars that are closing in or getting further apart. Comparative lap or sector times are excellent. This stuff isn’t so complex that somebody tuning in for the first time can’t understand within 5 minutes, and it’s the stuff that keeps the hardcores informed.

  18. Ron Ford Says:

    Norris McDonald writing for the Toronto Star reported that the country of Canada, the province of Quebec, and the Montreal Hotel and Restaurant Association each kicked in 5 million dollars for the F1 race. So, 15 million dollars plus for the excitement of watching Vettel run away and hide from the field.

    It would appear we got a bargain in Texas.

  19. Carburetor Says:

    I’ve complained enough about ABC and their commercial broadcasts with a little racing thrown in on the side. I think the facts are that they keep trying to make it a NASCAR broadcast–especially their pit stop descriptions i.e. “he’s taking on 4 new tires, and full load of Sunoco fuel…” and very little else. They really do not give you any insight into what it takes for an open-wheel race car to go faster and the adjustments needed during the course of a race. Unlike the guys at NBCSN who really seem interested and emotionally invested in the series–these guys just seem to be told to “show up at 7:00 and give a general description of what is going on, but be sure to properly lead in to our commercial sponsors….”

    I thought the race was exciting enough, but would agree that the series does not seem to be pushing the envelope enough–or as much as I believe longtime IndyCar fans would prefer. I too, noticed that Helio was conserving his tires by running laps as much as 8-10mph below other cars in the field for as many as 10-12 laps, but with no risk to losing position. With the reliability of the cars and engines, we’re getting less and less caution-flag racing. I was half-expecting the proverbial NASCAR “debris yellow” to come out with about 10 laps to go, just to bunch the field… Interestingly, if they had done so, TK and Ed would have dueled for the victory as each had much fresher tires than Helio. I’ll be very interested in how Milwaukee develops, because though I despise conspiracy theorists, I can see where this ends up with the 15 twisties+1 oval in the near future as someone mentioned above….

  20. George says “Speed is Life.” I may not go that far, but it’s fairly important in the racing business.

    Made me wonder what the average lap times were in that race, compared to say…some other racing series that also races at Texas and used to race at much slower speeds but now is probably fairly close in speed? I’d say Indycar has an oval car that–while not anyone could drive–professional racers from some other series don’t seem to have much trouble adjusting to.

    I think maybe they’ve homologated the meanness out of Indycar.

    • billytheskink Says:

      The fastest NASCAR race at Texas, Spring 2012, was run at an average speed of 160.577 MPH with 2 cautions for 10 laps.

      Saturday’s race averaged 177.257 MPH, with 3 cautions for 27 laps.

  21. .Once again the motoracing noise drowned out the announcer’s audeo.
    Anyone listenening to the over the air feed at ABC?

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