Random Thoughts On Texas
If creating a buzz was the shared goal of Randy Bernard and Eddie Gossage, when they announced that this year’s Texas race would be divided in to separate but equal “twin” races – then I’d say they got their wish. It’s too bad that the buzz came after the race and not before it. On Sunday, the internet was certainly buzzing with opinions ranging from saying this was the greatest to worst idea ever. I think it falls somewhere in between.
I’ll give Randy Bernard credit for trying. No one can accuse the man with sitting still. In his fifteen months on the job, he has definitely had more hits than misses – but I’m not sure he connected with this one.
By the looks of the crowd on Saturday night, I’m not sure that the attendance increased at all. In fact, I’d venture to guess that the crowd might have actually been down a little from previous years. If that was indeed the case, it’s a shame given that this was the first IZOD IndyCar Series race since the monumental Indianapolis 500.
Apparently, the locals didn’t feel that their race needed to be jazzed up. With this being the second-most attended race of the season, I might want to agree. Perhaps they should have tried to spice up Kansas or Chicago last season, but not Texas. The show on the track has been the selling point at Texas Motor Speedway.
I always look forward to the Texas race. Now that it’s over, I almost feel a little bit cheated. Looking back, the entire evening felt just a little disjointed to me. There was no flow. I found the first race to be a little boring after things settled down following the frenzy of the first few laps. The second race was predictably more exciting, since drivers weren’t being so careful to make sure they were around for the second race. With that being the case, I found it odd that the second race ran caution-free.
Of course, the low-light came during the “halftime” game show atmosphere of the blind draw. I’ve read several comments from people saying they thought this was great because every driver was interviewed. I merely found it awkward as thirty drivers came on stage, muttered the same sponsor mentions and told how they hoped to improve in Race 2. I felt embarrassed for Bob Jenkins and Kevin Lee as they reluctantly took part in this way too cheesy exercise. About halfway through, I could almost hear the TV sets of casual observers that may have tuned in following the Indianapolis 500, clicking away in droves.
And then there was the draw itself. I’ll admit that when the idea of “Twin” races was first announced, I didn’t give much thought to the idea of a blind draw to set the grid for the second race. I guess I was too perplexed with why they would try to change the premise of what was already a great event. Even during the day Saturday, I never really gave much thought to how a blind draw could affect the championship. But when I saw that Dario Franchitti drew the twenty-eighth starting spot after Will Power picked third on the grid, the systematic flaw suddenly became clear to me.
Sunday, I read comments that said Dario was needlessly whining and simply needed to shut-up, because this was just part of racing. Well, no it’s not. There are many examples of how blind luck plays a part in racing. A car randomly spinning in front of a driver is part of racing. Running over a wheel assembly from a car that just crashed in front of you is part of racing. Having just pitted under green before a yellow allows the rest of the field to pit under caution is part of racing. But setting up a blind draw to set the starting grid for a race is an unnecessary and artificially induced variable that exists for the sole purpose to mix things up.
If they wanted to properly mix things up, the field should have been inverted. There are arguments that a driver may sandbag in order to get a better starting position for the second race. With equal points paid for both races, that’s not a likely scenario. If a driver did choose to do that, it would be his or her choice. In the case of Saturday night’s draw, Dario Franchitti had no choice. His worse case scenario played out in that Wheel Of Fortune environment when Will Power, the person Dario is chasing for the championship, chose the third spot from the front and Dario was stuck with the third spot from the rear.
Suddenly, the rules were different for both. Power would have to pass two cars to win, while Dario would have to pass twenty-seven. To make matters worse, he would have to do it in only 114 laps without the advantage of any yellows or re-starts. Dario earned his place for the first race by qualifying second. Inverting the field would have put both drivers at or near the back and they would have to battle through the field together in order to win. Team Penske has always been about having the “unfair advantage”, but that is more about preparation, hard work and superior engineering – not dumb luck. This was a completely unfair advantage. To his credit, Will Power agreed with Dario that it was unfair, but he’ll still take his twenty-one point lead into Milwaukee this weekend.
I will reiterate what I said immediately after the race. I am an unabashed fan of Team Penske, and I am not a fan at all of Chip Ganassi. I respect and like both of their drivers, but root against them anytime when up against Team Penske. This is not about “my driver got screwed” or a social commentary about how the big teams should always be punished just for being big. This is about an unfair, illegitimate and not-so-credible way for the IZOD IndyCar Series to decide their champion.
My hope is they will do away with the twin format at Texas. It is strong enough to stand on its on. If they still feel the need to spice up an oval, maybe they should try it at New Hampshire or some place like that. If and when they do try this again, they need to look at doing away with the blind draw for the second race.
TV Coverage: First of all, I thought that Dan Wheldon did a superb job as a guest analyst in the booth. He brought a fresh, candid and current perspective to the broadcast. Normally, a former-driver analyst is a decade or two removed from the track and doesn’t bring any real current insight. They can only relate stories and experiences that involve other retired drivers. When Dan Wheldon says that E.J. Viso is highly unpredictable on the track or that Marco Andretti is usually good at the beginning of a stint – you know it is a current assessment from someone used to running side-by-side with this group of drivers.
Wheldon also showed his strength as the ultimate pitchman. He did a good job of referring to different driver’s sponsors several times throughout the broadcast. Going in, I thought that Wheldon might be tempted to talk too much or over-analyze, but it was just the right amount of each. Bob Jenkins did a good job of setting up questions for Wheldon and letting him go in whichever direction he chose. If I were Versus, I’d try to set him up for more appearances.
Where I thought that Versus dropped the ball was when they missed a golden opportunity in the second race. They chose to follow the lead pack of cars almost exclusively. They had a great opportunity to focus on the Target cars as they tried to carve their way up through the field from the eighteenth and twenty-eighth starting spots respectively. Instead, they gave periodic mentions that “Dario Franchitti is now in twenty-first”. They didn’t follow Dixon until he had already made it to the lead pack. This would have made for some high-drama following Franchitti’s comments immediately after the draw.
I think I’ve already made my case about the awkwardness of the blind draw. I don’t fault Bob Jenkins or Kevin Lee – they were just following orders. But one thing that made it worse was the annoying Top-40 music being piped in as each driver was being interviewed. That just made an already bad situation that much worse.
Wither Kevin Lee: Apparently the suits at NBC have decided that the Versus crew was way too casual in their attire over the last couple of years. Maybe it was Jack Arute sweating through his blue buttoned-down shirt. Whatever the case, all of the on-air talent (except for Robin Miller) was apparently given a memo that suits and sport coats would be required apparel for all shows in 2011. How else would you explain Kevin Lee sitting on the outdoor stage prior to the race in near 100-degree heat? With sweat pouring off of his forehead, he looked like he was about to melt. His usually well-coiffed hair was soaking wet as he looked like he had just finished an afternoon of pick-up basketball. He was his usual professional self and never once alluded to the fact that he was burning up underneath all those clothes. Someone needs to tell the fashion police at NBC to lighten up on the dress code. This is a race they’re covering, not a state funeral.
Enough with the sunglasses, already: One of the few bright spots to come out of the embarrassing halftime game show, was that none of the drivers could justify wearing their ridiculous looking, oversized sunglasses in the dark. For once, we were actually able to see what the driver’s eyes looked like. I know I sound old saying this, especially to a generation of texters who generally hide behind keyboards – but seeing a person’s eyes is important.
If I were Randy Bernard, I would mandate that unless a driver has sunglass sponsorship, they should be required to remove sunglasses for all television interviews. I’m surprised their handlers don’t have them do it. Randy Bernard is a huge proponent of marketing these stars. It’s really hard to market someone who seemingly hides behind outrageously oversized sunglasses. You can get a much better feel for a personality when you can actually see their eyes. It’s a small thing, but to an old coot like me – it’s important.
All in all: Most know me as being a person who doesn’t like change. There’s a good reason for that. I don’t. Still, I’ll look at certain situations and embrace the change if I think it is warranted – like double-file re-starts. I was not happy when that change was first introduced, but now I’m all in favor of them.
Such was not the case with the Firestone Twin 275’s. I hate being the old curmudgeon, but I was not an overall fan of the twin race concept. I was willing to give it a try going in, but I ultimately found it to be a night of distractions, with no flow to the racing. They took a good race and messed it up. Texas does not need spicing up. If you want to introduce a new format, do it at a race that needs it.
Fortunately, the IZOD IndyCar Series is now headed to a track that needs no spicing up – The Milwaukee Mile. This is a track that de-emphasizes the engineer and puts the results in the hands of the driver. No twins will be needed there.