The Rules, They Are A-Changin’

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener at St. Petersburg approaches, more and more nuggets of information are being thrown out to fans.

Spring Training for the Verizon IndyCar Series took place this past Monday and Tuesday at Barber Motorsports Park, just outside of Birmingham. The most imposing figure over the two-day test was not Will Power, Juan Montoya or Justin Wilson – it was Mother Nature. Most in the Midwest probably look at Alabama in mid-March and think sunny skies and warm temperatures. They don’t really think of winter. Well, think again. While those of us here in the south haven’t experienced the brunt of the winter that Indianapolis has – we’ve had our share of cold weather. Much of that was on display earlier this week in Birmingham, as well as here in Nashville. They got in some limited running between cold temperatures and periods of drizzle.

Over the two-day span, there were not a lot of eyebrows raised by anything on the track. There was nothing unexpected about Will Power being the fastest on both days, but Justin Wilson turned a few heads with his second-quick time on Tuesday in his Dale Coyne powered Honda.

The most notable story came just off the track, literally trackside, during a pre-recorded interview for Trackside with Jon Beekhuis. It was during his conversation with Kevin Lee that Beekhuis casually slipped in an “oh, by the way” nugget regarding rules for the engine manufacturers.

To my knowledge, this has yet to be confirmed by IndyCar. But according to Beekhuis, there is no longer a ten-spot grid penalty for each infraction of an unauthorized engine change. Instead, the engine manufacturer will be docked ten manufacturer points from the championship totals. The exception to that will be if it is proven that a driver or team purposely blew up an engine in practice, just to get a new engine.

Later during the week we heard that entrant-initiated engine change-outs would result in the loss of ten driver and entrant points. It was also said that an unapproved engine change-out by an entry will result in it starting from the rear of the grid in the next race.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure what the deal is. From the way I heard Jon Beekhuis explain it on Trackside; the grid penalties were gone and would now be points subtracted from the manufacturers championship. I liked everything I heard about that. Then by last night, I was seeing the reports of drivers moving to the back of the field for the next race and having points reduced from their championship totals. To me, these sound like conflicting reports.

I should withhold comment until it is clarified, but I won’t. To me, penalizing the driver for an engine change is absurd. If the driver or crew is suspicious that an engine is either underpowered or on its last legs, why wait until the thing blows up?

I understand the rationale behind making an engine last 2,500 miles, but I don’t like it. I know it is to save overall costs, but it tells me how detuned the engines are. That goes against the very essence of racing. Racing is about hanging it out over the edge and going as fast as possible. If the engine blows up in the process – blame the driver. He or she went too far over the edge.

If I’m interested in endurance and reliability, I’ll watch Sebring or Le Mans. I watch the Verizon IndyCar Series for sheer speed and drivers pushing the limits. A driver is punished if the engine blows up from being pushed too hard. The driver’s race is over. I don’t get a thrill from knowing that a driver has rolled the dice to stay with the same tired old engine that has been through several races, simply because they want to avoid penalties. That just doesn’t do it for me.

But seeing drivers penalized doesn’t do it for me either. Whether it’s points or spots on the grid – that really leaves me cold. For the past two seasons, we saw drivers with great pole runs start no better than tenth. Some races last year saw half the grid penalized. That put a lot of mid-pack drivers up on the front row. Many liked that because it mixed things up. I didn’t like it because it put a lot of inexperience at the front where their mistake could easily take out the penalized cars behind them. It cheapened qualifying and it confused fans.

I was ecstatic when I heard Jon Beekhuis explain what he had heard, but my excitement was tempered when I heard the rest of it on Thursday night. If they want to do more than dock manufacturers, fine the owners – but quit messing with earned points and earned spots on the grid.

Another nugget that came on Thursday was the announcement that the points structure had been changed for the three five-hundred mile races; Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana. In essence, they are doubling the points for those three races. While winning a race at most other tracks will net a driver fifty points, at any of those three – it’ll be one-hundred. All other respective positions will pay double points. Qualifying at Indianapolis will also have a separate point structure that is too complicated to go into here, but winning the pole has the potential to pay forty-two points. That pays more than finishing second at most races.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the Verizon IndyCar Series was smart in leaving its point system alone in favor of chasing some pointless gimmicks, just for the sake of change. I guess I spoke to soon. I’ve never liked the idea of giving more weight to any one race over another – even if the more heavily weighted race is the Indianapolis 500. I think all races should count the same. In the NFL, if the Titans play the Colts one week and the Jags the next – most would say that the Colts game is a bigger game. But in the NFL standings, they both count the same. A win is a win. Beating the Colts doesn’t count in the standings any more than beating the Jaguars. That was the beauty of the Verizon IndyCar point structure. There were no gimmicks and no phony contrived chase. Drivers went out and chased the same points race after race. Now a driver can put out a half-hearted effort at Sonoma, because he or she knows that they can make up double points the next week at Fontana.

I’m also a big believer that qualifying at Indianapolis should count the same as winning only the pole at any other race – not where even the cars on the back row at Indianapolis earn points. A driver can win the pole at Indianapolis and win three five-hundred milers and come out with around 350 points without even showing up for the other races. Last season, Scott Dixon won a championship with a total of 577 points. To me, this whole revision cheapens the point system and tends to make tracks like Iowa or Long Beach less significant, because they don’t pay as much.

Was the pursuit of the Fuzzy’s Triple Crown not enough? After all, even if you won two of the three races, you would still win an extra quarter-million dollars and a good-looking trophy. Now they’ve altered the strategy of teams and the importance of certain races, and I’m not sure why.

Most joke how I detest change and it’s true. But I’ve always said if I’m shown a good reason to change, then I’m all on board. So far, I’m not on board with this.

So this week, we were teased that a very unpopular rule was going away, then we heard that it is only being changed and there will still be penalties. I’m still not sure what’s up with that. I guess we’ll learn more in the coming days. But I heard all I need to hear about doubling points at the three big ovals this season. So with apologies to Bob Dylan; I guess it’s true – the rules, they are a-changin’.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “The Rules, They Are A-Changin’”

  1. SkipinSC Says:

    George, if my memory serves, didn’t the 500 milers get more points back in the USAC days? It seems to me that back in the days when A. J. was winning all his championships, the points paid for winning Indianapolis gave the winner a pretty good leg up on the points race. I may be wrong, but that sticks in my mind.

  2. Whatever the wrong decision is, I have no doubt that Indycar management will choose it.

  3. The info about the new engine change penalty structure on the Indycar site’s page on the new rules doesn’t add up…it’s rather poorly written and potentially contradictory, so I think we need to wait on the 2014 rule book’s official language to see exactly what will happen. My guess is that there are not going to be any early swaps merely for an upgraded spec because that costs the driver 10 points, the entry 10 points, and the car starts at the back of the grid. Looking back at Pocono last year…f you thought you could take a new engine early for Pocono and win the pole, you’d start 11th…and be much better off than starting, say, 18th with an engine thought to be down on power, right? Now it doesn’t matter where you qualify, you take an engine early, you take the points hit and start all the way in the back, which is about the most severe penalty possible.

  4. Doug gardner Says:

    This is the way USAC kind of did things with points being established based on miles per race. However, this new structure clearly benefits those racers that struggle on road courses and fly on ovals. Ala Ed Carpenter. This structure somewhat penalizes a guy like Wil Power who has traditionally struggle on ovals. I don’t see how anyone beats Scott Dixon. He is the most dominant on both disciplines.

  5. I like points for Indy qualifying but I don’t like double points for the 500 milers.

  6. Regarding the point changes: It stinks! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This has the aroma of a decision done bya committee or a consultant.

    With all due respect to George and his power to influence, what would really be helpful is the name or names of the people responsible for such decsions and a way to contact them. Otherwise we are basically preaching to the choir. We could do that with Randy, but now it is like pushing on a rope.

  7. The driver and entrant points deduction and back-of-grid penalty appear to be applicable only when the engine failure is due to team abuse or if the team requests an early engine spec upgrade and the OEM agrees to it. But do we really expect an OEM to accuse its own team of abuse? According to the 2014 rules (links have been made available in a public forum) the team then has to cover the costs for the replacement rather than the OEM, but is an OEM really going to demand an action that costs its customer both driver and entrant points plus starting from the back of the grid? Seems highly unlikely to me. Indycar does monitor a number of telemetry data points and team comms during track action, so I wonder how that abuse rule will be administered…will Indycar press the case if they believe an engine has been abused, perhaps? Sounds like something that’s a good concept but potentially very difficult to practice!

  8. I’ve come around on the double points for the Triple Crown races since my initial horror yesterday. I’m still not exactly in favor (to my mind, if a race has extra prestige over the others, then the winner personally benefits from that extra prestige, whereas the championship system should weight all races equally to give equal reward across the races selected for that year’s schedule), but I’ve gotten more comfortable with what IndyCar is trying to do. I actually don’t think they’re copying F1 so much as they’re taking a page out of Mark Miles’ previous employer’s book, ATP Men’s Tennis:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ATP_Rankings

    There, the events award differing points, varying by size of event. Grand Slams award 2000 to the winner (they’re guaranteed to attract all the top players who are not injured, by their prestigious positions in the tennis world), the season-ending World Tour Finals awards 1500 (the only players invited are in the top-10, so you have to beat all top level players to win), Masters 1000 events award 1000 (big tournaments that are thought of as more “optional” than the Grand Slams, so less top players play), and on down the line. When I was a big tennis fan from about 1991 to about 2007 or so (haven’t had the time to dedicate for the last 6-7 years), I always felt like this was a great system to find the most deserving player and make them champion at the end of the year. Racing has always been set up differently, so I’m not as in favor of using a similar system (which, as Doug Gardner points out above, USAC did used to do 40+ years ago), but I think I’m getting used to the idea.

    On the other hand, awarding up to 42 points for the pole at Indy, and points for every qualifying position at Indy (where, say, qualifying 14th on Saturday will net as many points as finishing 10th at any of the non-Triple Crown races, all for 10 miles worth of work)…that is too much. A bridge too far, in my opinion.

  9. Mark Miles is a damn fool.

  10. Our friend Brian Carroccio over at AR1.com makes a great point in his piece today. Sato’s 7th at Fontana last year would have netted him more points than his win at Sao Paulo (or any other non-500 mile event.) Is that right? I don’t think so…not at all.

  11. racingAsh Says:

    I’m generally a go with the flow type of person, who is completely cool with the Series trying new things, but the new point structure really gets under my skin. On the face of it, it sounds simple enough. The Series is ‘balancing’ ovals and road & street courses. Unfortunately, they have created a new point system that’s completely unbalanced and a race hierarchy that someone unjustifiable. Six of the race weekends (9 races) now count towards 60% of the Championship points and three of those races are worth 30%. The other 9 races are now worth 40% of IndyCar’s Championship. If you want to win the Championship, you just need to nail six weekends, even if someone wins all nine of the other races, they could be mathematically out. 7th at Pocono is worth more than winning the Long Beach Grand Prix. I’m cool with awarding additional points for 500 mile or marquee races, but doubling points under the ruse that you are balancing the schedule is absurd. Doubleheader street races are one event, but they are two races. Sure, I’d like to see other tracks and for IndyCar to not be doubleheader heavy, but the economics haven’t presented themselves. Anyway, you can do well one day at a doubleheader and poorly the next. Now, I imagine we’ll see less ‘racing’ at 500 mile races because a DNF means you are out of the Championship points. Also, I think we’ll see bigger teams bring in drivers for the 500 milers, especially at Fontana to play wingman. Tennis has grand slam events, but those are the marquee events. IndyCar’s not awarding points on its biggest events. If the goal was to minimize the important of local races across America, they’re going to be successful. St. Pete, Long Beach, Barber, Indy GP, Texas, Iowa and Milwaukee are all less important to the Championship now. IndyCar shouldn’t be surprised if the promoters of these races want to reduce their sanctioning fee. Don’t be surprised, if Long Beach’s City Council decides to entertain an F1 bid because IndyCar believes their ‘marquee race’ is worth half the points of Fontana down the road. Don’t forget Eddie Gossage down in Texas. I imagine he’s miffed the second most attended oval, IndyCar race isn’t a marquee event worth double the points. The Triple Crown is cool, but it only holds nostalgia for fans with graying hair (such as myself). I wish they would have left the point system alone and put their energy elsewhere, where it’s really needed… I think this will have a lot of unintended consequences.

  12. Matt B. (Dayton, OH) Says:

    I am against points for qualifying, at Indy or anywhere else. In my mind points are earned during races, period. I go back and forth on the double points for 500 milers idea. I’m generally a purist and a “leave things be / change is bad” kind of guy, not unlike George, but doubling the points paid for 500 milers does put additional emphasis on oval performance, which is perhaps another way of getting a balance in the series since we presently can’t seem to get more oval tracks on the schedule. (I’m one of those who wants a 50/50 schedule – ovals versus road/street). Looking at it that way, meaning from a “How do we have to perform to win the championship?”, it’s like adding 3 more oval races to the schedule.

  13. billytheskink Says:

    What worked well in the old USAC system is that it had a well-defined structure, points were awarded to the top-12 finishers of each race beginning at a rate of 2 points per mile run (not mile scheduled). The Indianapolis 500 did not pay 1,000 points to the winner because it was the Indianapolis 500, it did so because it was the longest race on the schedule.

    What I do not like about this new points system tweak is that it does not employ a non-arbitrary method to weight points based on race distance or track type. This really seems like an attempt to cancel out the impact of big points paydays at street course double-headers and increase the number of drivers mathematically in the championship hunt at Fontana. It is not an appalling change, but I would definitely prefer last year’s system.

    Though I think the new structure pays out a few too many bonus points, I like the continuation of the separate points system for 500 qualifying. Bonus points are the best way to incentivize competition when you cannot afford to dole out bonus prize money. Given that that 500 qualifying asks as much if not more of teams in preparation, track time, and risk and that any non-500 race and that it is intended to be a spectator and television event, the extra points seem quite justifiable.

    One thing I did not see in any of these announcements was a points structure for Iowa qualifying heat races. I am guessing that means they are off the table, not surprising with NASCAR trucks moving to the Indycar race weekend. It is too bad, though, I really enjoyed those heat races.

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