Punching A Hole In the Air

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Rather than watch the six hours of hype prior to the Super Bowl this past Sunday, I spent my Super Bowl Sunday afternoon watching the full replay of the 2013 Indianapolis 500. This was my first time to watch the race since I viewed the replay upon our return home last May. There were several things that struck me while watching.

First of all, even knowing the outcome – I still found myself getting goosebumps watching Tony Kanaan taking the checkered flag. I thought of all the disappointments he had had in his previous attempts. I thought back to when I was growing up and how Lloyd Ruby had suffered through even bigger disappointments. The problem was, “Hard Luck Lloyd” never got to drink the milk at Indianapolis. On such a cold and gloomy day this past Sunday, it was certainly heart-warming to watch Kanaan fulfill his life-long dream.

Another thing that stood out was a question – how in the world did Andretti Autosport manage to lose that race? They completely dominated with three of their five cars – Carlos Muñoz, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti – at or near the front all afternoon. Those three cars ended up second, third and fourth respectively, behind Kanaan. A side-note to that is how impressive Muñoz was. Now that he will be full-time for Andretti Autosport for the upcoming season, I consider him to be a force to be reckoned with.

After the excitement of Tony Kanaan’s victory subsided, it occurred to me all of the lead-changes that had taken place (64). As exciting as the last fifteen laps were – I found the constant changes for the lead to be a bit tiresome. Sure it’s great for SportsCenter, but it seemed a little cheap and gimmicky – even though that was an unintended consequence of the design of the DW-12 Dallara.

I will probably get in trouble here, as I know really nothing about aerodynamic design – but from what I understand, the bulbous design of the rear-sidepods essentially punches a big hole in the air. This makes it very easy for the car or cars behind the lead car to draft and slingshot out to the lead. That lead sometimes only lasts for one lap, before another car does the same thing and assumes the lead.

To me the Indianapolis 500, or any race for that matter, should be about who brings the fastest and best prepared car to the track – and who can manage to keep the car together and on the track for the entire race. It shouldn’t be about who wants to be in second place when the white flag waves. This is what the Daytona 500 has devolved into – whoever can manage and anticipate the draft.

Tony Kanaan had just assumed the lead on a restart, when Dario Franchitti crashed with two laps to go. There was no time to clear the track, so everyone got to savor the moment of Tony Kanaan cruising around to take the white flag and then the checkered flag, while under the caution. As happy as I was for Kanaan, had the race stayed green – it’s quite likely that either Carlos Muñoz or Ryan Hunter-Reay would be the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion. But the history of the Indianapolis 500 is filled with “what-ifs” so I won’t start worrying about that.

What I would like to see are some aerodynamic changes in the DW-12 for Indianapolis. We didn’t see this “punching a hole” effect at Texas, Pocono or Fontana – the other three tracks where the Speedway configuration was run. Only the Indianapolis 500 had a ridiculous amount of lead changes last year. Fontana had only about a third of the lead-changes compared to Indianapolis.

Not only do I not know anything about aerodynamic design; I know nothing about the rules for the aero-kits that we are told to expect in 2015. Are the new kits allowed to eliminate the huge bulge in front of the rear tires? Is that even the cause of the excessive lead changes in the Indianapolis 500? I have to think that if an aero-kit can come up with a way to allow a driver to hold the lead and not make it so easy for trailing cars to close up behind and pass – that would be good for the 500.

It wasn’t that long ago, that announcers would tease us with the stat that the driver leading the Indianapolis 500 at Lap 190 usually does not win the race. The way last year’s race was shaping up, there could have been six or seven lead changes had there not been two yellows in the last ten laps. While the Indianapolis 500 is always in search of better ratings, is it worth cheapening the entire event?

It used to mean something to lead the Indianapolis 500. In 2013, fourteen different drivers led the race at one time or another. That’s getting close to half the field. For comparison’s sake – the 1991 Indianapolis 500, which has always been one of my favorite races, had six leaders. The 1994 race only had three leaders, though that may be too few for even my liking. Anyway, I think you get my point.

By now, some are thinking that I’m just another case of a crusty old goat harkening back to the good old days. Perhaps I should just get on board with this new form of racing and embrace it, or else go find another hobby. After all, the days of the roadster, an all-brick straightaway and thirty full days of track activity in May have all gone the way of the riding mechanic – meaning they’re gone and they’re not coming back. I don’t think so.

The old-style Dallara, which ran from 2003 through 2011 had the opposite problem. In 2009, series officials mandated certain aerodynamic restrictions that caused severe turbulence behind the car, making it very difficult for a trailing car to come up behind and make a pass. Once fans complaints about the quality of the racing got loud enough, Brian Barnhart reluctantly allowed teams some freedom as to what they could do with certain aero pieces. The result was better racing in the remaining races.

Again, I don’t claim to have the answers as to what series officials or aero-kit designers can do to prevent the slingshot drafting. Maybe I’m the only one that doesn’t care for it, but I doubt it. Here’s hoping that the aero-kits in 2015 give the cars more than a different appearance.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “Punching A Hole In the Air”

  1. These days there seems to be a almost constant yammering at all major levels of racing about what needs to be done to attract the almighty TV viewer (who are likely to be tweeting and texting during the race anyway). Was it better when Vukovich was in a different time zone than the rest of the field for four straight years? Bernie Ecclestone just blamed the 2013 loss of 50 million TV viewers on Vettle running away from the field for most races. NASCAR is tweaking their Chase in hopes that someone besides Jimmy Johnson might win for a change.

    Change will come to the DW-12 and what you refer to as “the new form of racing”, but in the meantime it is what it is and that ain’t bad IMHO. When change does come I hope it is not simply to attract the almighty TV viewer. So there were 64 lead changes. That is sure as hell of a lot better than the usual Brickyard 400 snoozefest.

  2. Doug Gardner Says:

    Good piece as usual George. The problem with the DW-12 at Indy is that I believe Indycar has decieded to let the teams us more downforce due to the lack of banking. This accompanied by the silly rear pods lead to that big hole in the air. At the other speedways they trim the cars out so much that they are just more unstable, thus the drivers don’t just dive right into the turn with as much gusto. The other speedways are rough compared to Indy. Well, Pocono is not anymore. Indy due to the diamond grinding is very tacky for the Indycars.

  3. I agree with Ron, I don’t like changes that are designed to attract the casual fan who wants to see something that really takes away from the sport.

    Doug…the info I have from some well-informed sources is that they run as little downforce as the regs allow at IMS–much **less** than at other tracks. Walking around Gasoline Alley last May, every rear wing I saw was set at “most negative” setting or just one click away from it. One driver who was struggling a bit to find that last 1 mph that the car was missing versus others on the team said that all their cars could were totally trimmed out per the regs. It’s the undertray of the DW12 that produces massive downforce; the wings are primarily used to tweak the balance. The main method by which downforce is adjusted is via the ride height: it’s increased to “break the suction” and cut downforce (and thus drag) for qualifications, then dropped back down to make the car handle in traffic for the race.

  4. Considering it’s a bunch of cars with the same body and basically the same engine, it’s not surprising. But I like it. I enjoy the overtaking. But I also look forward to the question marks that will come with aerokits.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    I agree that the lead should mean something in the Indy 500. Drivers should not be trying to be in 2nd or 3rd on the final lap. Passing should be possible but take courage and skill.

    I thought 64 lead changes in 2013 was too much. However, the 2012 race was terrific – there was still plenty of action but the leader seemed less of a sitting duck. Maybe if they went back to the 2012 aero specs that would be good enough. We don’t want the leader to be a speck in the distance, but was also don’t want a nascar plate race.

  6. I disagree completely. The lead changes at Indy made it the best oval race of the last few years. All Indycar needs to do is to bring that type of excitement to Texas and Pocono which were rather dull the last few years.

  7. Oddly enough, I did this same thing a couple of weeks ago during some down time. I have it DVR’d, and there was nothing good on TV at the time. Anyway, I agree with your point about the number of lead changes feeling cheap/gimmicky.

    I hope they can find a balance between the old car and the new car. We don’t want to have 80 lead changes next year, but we also don’t want pure domination, ala Montoya in 2000. My hope is that the new aero kits will allow some flexibility, and that teams will have enough testing/practice time to get it right.

  8. Appreciate your candor. My reaction was like yours, first 25 or so passes were cool, but then by 60-some it was, ah, kinda tedious. I heard a lot of “greatest Indy 500 ever” proclamations post-race, but I certainly didn’t share that view. Certainly not the worst ever either. I’d rather have 60-some passes than the Indy 500 Road Oval that we’ve had in the past where there nobody can pass anyone. The whole aero package for each track is always a work in progress, so hopefully they will continue to tweak on the car etc. to improve the show.

  9. It’s almost like you rewrote my commments on this site about that race. It played out like a NASCAR plate track. At least you have the GWC there. To watch the whole race knowing it will come down to the last lap and not get a last lap was a punch to the stomach.

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