Random Thoughts On Toronto
If I had to sum up the Honda Indy Toronto this past weekend in one word, it would be – “exhausting”. It had to be exhausting for the teams and crewmembers. I’m sure it was exhausting for the drivers. I’m also quite certain that those brave and devoted fans that sat out in rain are exhausted this morning. It was even exhausting for those of us at home that had the luxury to come and go at our leisure.
Saturday started out well enough. I was able to watch qualifying live online and get a few things done around the house before Saturday’s pre-race show started with rain falling. It was downhill from there. A forty-five minute pre-race show turned into more than three hours of air time as we watched the rain puddle up on various sections of the track. In that time, we saw a couple of failed attempts to start the race, a lot of speculation from the booth, the genesis of a conspiracy theory and a lot of waiting.
To their credit, race officials did what they could to get in both races of the double-header. What we saw this weekend was an unintended consequence of the double-header format. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that IndyCar officials had no contingency plan in place in the event of a rainout. Shortly after NBCSN went off the air on Saturday, the rainout became official. What we got was a full day of racing on Sunday. The first race ran yesterday morning, while the second race took place in its original time-slot.
Except for a Lap One crash that brought out the red flag to clear up the mess, the first race went off without a hitch and was dominated by Sébastien Bourdais, who won his first race since 2007. Helio Castroneves finished second and extended his points lead over teammate Will Power by twenty-eight points.
Barely more than three hours later, they were back at it again for the back-end of the double-header. Unfortunately, the rain came back not long after the start of the race. Unlike Saturday, the cars were allowed to race in the rain on Sunday. It made for some interesting calls on tire-strategy and reminded me why I like an occasional wet race.
Tire-strategy won the race for Mike Conway and Ed Carpenter Racing. Conway was one of the first to duck in and put slicks back on the car. A timely yellow immediately following his pit stop put him at the front of the field. Once he got there, he checked out. Conway has been hot & cold this season. He won at Long Beach but was invisible in many other races he’s run. But he was hot on Sunday. In fact, he was in a class of his own, just as Bourdais had been in the first race.
While there was decent racing in both races, this was not a good weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derrick Walker should have made himself more available to the television booth, other than coming into the booth just thirty minutes before they went off the air on Saturday. Even if he doesn’t know anything, he should tell us he knows nothing, rather than giving the impression he has hunkered down into the bunker. This would have also helped to dispel the supposed controversy that some teams were allowed to work on their cars during red-flag conditions. Instead, social media was allowed to run amok with a lot of misinformation (more on this later).
Ultimately, I think Walker and IndyCar made the correct call to not race on Saturday (more on this later). But they gave the appearance of being disorganized and indecisive. This is the time of year when teams are getting their sponsors and budgets for the next season firmed up. For a sponsor that is on the fence right now, this weekend would have done nothing to sway them to invest in this series.
When the series goes to Mid-Ohio after a well-deserved break next weekend, I think all involved with the series will look at this year’s double-header in Toronto as a weekend to forget. It was…exhausting.
TV Coverage: It wasn’t pristine by any stretch of the imagination, but given the circumstances, I thought the entire NBCSN crew did a great job. I said it after Pocono and will say it again – Bob Varsha is very easy on the ears. Nothing against Leigh Diffey, but I would not complain one bit if Bob Varsha was made the permanent lead announcer on the telecast.
Paul Tracy continued to show that he also deserves a shot at a full-time seat for next year. He and Townsend Bell interact with each other very well and Varsha directs traffic seamlessly. Tracy also came up with a new term to go with his trademark “chrome horn”. He has now added “side horn”. Robin Miller adds a lot to the telecast, but I wish they would give up on his pre-race grid walk, that comes off as nothing but awkward.
Sunday’s segment on Dale Coyne was excellent. I was not a fan of Dale Coyne back in the nineties, but I have really grown to like, respect and admire him as a car-owner over the past several years. He has done so much more with far less than anyone else in the paddock. This segment just made me appreciate him that much more.
You would expect there to be a lot of gaffes as they tried to fill air time – and there were some. Paul Tracy introduced “electronicals” as a new word to our vocabularies and Bob Varsha referred to Sarah Fisher as Sarah Fisher Hartman. For those that don’t know, Wink Hartman is Sarah Fisher’s business partner. Sarah Fisher is married to Andy O’Gara.
Pre-Race Ceremonies: Both invocations for Saturday and Sunday were tasteful and brief, which is what they should be. The American National Anthem on Saturday was not good, but I’ve heard worse. My only problem was that the jazz-singer tried to stylize it. But it was great, compared to the bizarre version of the Canadian National Anthem that followed. It was some dude that sounded like he didn’t know the tune and chose to whisper it.
They were both put to shame by the male opera singer who belted out stirring renditions of both National Anthems on Sunday. I wish they could take him around from track to track.
Some have complained that I even bother to comment on the National Anthem on this site or on Twitter. My response? It’s important to me. I hope it’s important to every citizen of their respective country, that their National Anthem be performed in a tasteful manner. After my Twitter comments on Saturday, I heard from several Canadians who said they agreed with me and they were embarrassed by what they had just witnessed.
The Great Debate I: I will fully admit that I changed my mind on whether or not they should be racing as the day went on. Some on Twitter said I waffled. I will say I had an initial reaction, listened to the other side when it was presented and decided that the other viewpoint was more reasonable than the one I had originally.
At first, I couldn’t believe that the race wasn’t running. After all, Firestone doesn’t develop rain tires just to move cars around in the pits. These cars were mean to run in the rain, unless there is excessive puddling which would ultimately cause the cars to hydroplane.
When the cars were on-track during their parade laps, I kept wondering how they could see. Based on what we were shown on the in-car cameras, there was no way they could drive safely. I just figured that the drivers could actually see better than what we were seeing. Paul Tracy said otherwise. Still, I felt like they should be racing. After all, that’s what they are paid to do.
It was when practically every veteran driver climbed out of the car and said there was no way they should race, that I changed my tune. I’m all about the Verizon IndyCar Series listening to the fans; but on racing and safety issues – they should also listen to the drivers. If the drivers feel like they are being put into a situation they deem too risky, the series should listen – and they did.
I’ve heard and read all of the arguments. The old-schoolers say that today’s drivers are wimps. Many Saturday night were claiming that IndyCar no longer races in the rain. Neither are true, as we saw in yesterday’s race.
There were several factors that came into play on Saturday. This was not Portland, Road America or Barber, where we have seen Indy cars race in downpours. Those tracks have large runoff areas. If a car slides, it goes relatively harmless out into the grass or gravel traps. On the city streets of Toronto, a sliding car goes into the concrete wall and ricochets back into the path of oncoming traffic. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Plus, those natural terrain circuits offer quicker evaporation. A rooster-tail of water is partially blown into the surrounding grass and helps get water off of the track. Due to the confining nature of a street course, with concrete barriers and surrounding signage, there is little chance for the water sprayed up to go anywhere but back down on the track – or onto another driver’s visor.
Facebook and Twitter was on fire Saturday night as fans voiced their displeasure over the race being postponed until Sunday. It’s certainly easy for us to sit on the safety of our couches at home, having never climbed into a cockpit to compete on-track, and tell drivers that they should needlessly put their lives at risk. After hearing both sides of the argument, I came to the conclusion that the series was wise to listen to the voices of the ones that were actually doing the racing.
The Great Debate II: Will Power spun just before the field took the green-flag, therefore it was considered a non-start. That means there was no race. It never happened. Power’s team was allowed to thrash the car together in just over twenty minutes and get it race-worthy in case the green ever came out.
It is here that I’ll enter the disclaimer that I am a fan of Roger Pesnke – the man and his team. Having said that, I still think I am looking at this from an objective standpoint.
To me, this was a non-issue. To others on social media, it was a felonious act. Our friend Pressdog is famous for saying “Never engage the crazies”. I should have heeded that advice. I got into it on Twitter and Facebook on this subject with one person that I know. The argument lasted through Saturday night and into Sunday morning, when cooler heads prevailed. We both ended it on a happy note and simply agreed to disagree.
The same cannot be said about the Facebook argument I had on this subject with former car-owner Paul Diatlovich – whose ineptitude as an owner is exceeded only by the bitterness he shows toward the current series. This topic of Will Power’s car being worked on obviously became very personal with him, because he saw it as one of the big power teams (Penske) getting a free pass on everything.
I offered him a comparison to the start of the 1982 Indianapolis 500, when Kevin Cogan initiated a melee before the field ever crossed the line or took the green flag. Diatlovich was involved in that race and even acknowledged that 1982 was a non-start. With that being the case, teams (including AJ Foyt) were allowed to work on their cars before action resumed. Why? Because the race never started. Need a more recent example? CART fans should remember the aborted start of the 1996 US 500 at Michigan on Memorial Day weekend. Those drivers in damaged cars were allowed to go their backups for that exact same reason. The race never got started.
Had the field taken the green flag and run for only one lap, the race would have officially started and cars could not be touched during a red-flag. But this was not during a race. It had not started. It never happened.
That was no different than what happened on Saturday. Will Power, Juan Montoya and Ryan Briscoe all had their cars worked on before another attempt to start the race. Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi knew they could work on their cars since the field never took the green flag. Penske and Ganassi know every inch of the rule book. Other owners should know it as well, rather than come off looking foolish for whining about a rule they did not know about.
The envious ones have said that Roger Penske has an unfair advantage. It’s true that Penske studies the rulebook and looks for every loophole he can find. Such knowledge led to the top-secret development of the 1994 Penske-Mercedes pushrod engine. Roger Penske doesn’t manipulate the rulebook. He simply uses it to his advantage.
Other car-owners might take note that knowing the rulebook inside and out can sometimes work to their advantage. It’s no wonder that Penske and Ganassi have been the top two teams in the sport for the past twenty years. They don’t cheat, they do their homework. Robin Miller pointed out yesterday that Dale Coyne is another one that studies the rulebook. He passed along a tip to Sarah Fisher regarding working on Josef Newgarden’s car during a red flag. Why don’t all owners know these things?
Possible Confusion: I understand that it’s a sign of the times that sponsorship rotates from race to race. This season, we have already seen Simon Pagenaud sponsored by Oculus, Charter Cable and Lucas Oil. Helio Castroneves has carried the livery for Hitachi, Shell/Pennzoil and AAA. The same thing is going on in NASCAR. It can be confusing for casual fans, but it’s where things stand now. Gone are the days when three Penske cars all carry the familiar Marlboro livery throughout the season. Most of us have gotten used to it.
But Team Penske is doing something I flat-out don’t understand. For the past two races, Juan Montoya has driven a car adorned with the PPG livery that actually won at Pocono. This past weekend, the exact same livery was on the track but you’d have to be a pretty die-hard fan to know that Montoya’s teammate, Helio Castroneves, was in the PPG car this weekend. Montoya was in a car decked out in Hawk Performance livery – which looked great, by the way. Helio was in a car that was identical to the car that Montoya drove in the past two races.
In a sport that is trying to promote the few stars we have, it seems that moving liveries and sponsorships among teammates does nothing but confuse those that are trying to become fans of the sport. I’m sure there’s a good reason why they did this – I just haven’t heard it yet.
Earlier Starts?: My personal opinion is that the Verizon IndyCar Series could do themselves a favor by starting their races earlier. Yesterday’s race was scheduled to start at 4:15 Eastern time. That’s a little late. I live in the central time zone. Most races have had coverage starting at 2:00 my time with the race starting around 2:45 and ending at 5:00. That pretty well blows an entire weekend afternoon.
If the races were scheduled to start sooner, there is more flexibility to work around weather delays. With such a late start on Saturday, there was a finite time before darkness would have become a factor. On a selfish note, if races started around 2:00 (1:00 my time), that gives fans a chance to do something with their afternoon after the race is done.
The Red Flag: Let’s all agree that my wife is a casual fan, for the most part. She would tell you that, as well. Susan enjoys racing and knows who the drivers are and what cars they drive. But she’ll be the first to say she is not a student of the sport.
However, she had a very astute observation near the end of yesterday’s race. When the red flag came out with 4:33 remaining in the timed race, she remarked “I can’t ever remember a season when they had so many red flags”. I think that pretty well sums it up.
If you’ll recall, I was one of the few that was not praising the decision to wave the red flag in the final laps of this year’s Indianapolis 500. It reeked of NASCAR and I thought it cheapened the finish. Now, it turned out to be an outstanding finish making everyone applaud what a great decision this was. When I came out against it, I was labeled a traditionalist, a curmudgeon, and generally an inflexible fuddy-duddy; which are all true, by the way.
When the red-flag came out yesterday, I saw a few more comments in my camp. I simply don’t like the whole concept. If the yellow flag is out when the race is over, so be it. That’s a part of racing. Lots of football games finish with the anti-climactic quarterback kneel-down. They don’t make the quarterback of the leading team throw up a Hail Mary just to give the fans some last minute excitement.
But if they are going to use the red flag as a means to manufacture excitement, they need to not be so selective about it. Why was the red flag used in the second race at Toronto, but was not used in the first race at Houston? Had they pulled it out at about the same point in Houston, when Saavedra got spun around in Turn Four – there may have been a completely different outcome. Maybe Carlos Huertas can’t hold off Montoya. Perhaps, Graham Rahal doesn’t punt Tony Kanaan off of the podium. Why do Indianapolis and Toronto merit a green flag finish, but Houston and Barber do not?
To me, the over-zealous use of the red flag this season is taking us down a slippery slope. When the racing gods invented the red flag, it was to stop the race due to unsafe conditions – not to try and give fans a green flag finish. But if they insist on using it – they need to be consistent.
All in All: This was not a good weekend to be an IndyCar official. Except for bringing out the red flag at the end of yesterday’s race, overall I thought they did a good job. Could things have been handled better? Of course. As we saw with Brian Barnhart and then Beaux Barfield along with Derrick Walker – making the tough calls is a thankless job. Someone will always be ticked off.
Had they made the call to go ahead and race on Saturday, then someone was seriously injured – the same people that vilified them for not racing would have crucified them for putting drivers in harm’s way. It’s a no-win situation. They stumbled a little bit, but overall – they made the right call and were able to squeeze both races in. Of course, this begs the question about the whole double-header concept in general. Promoters say they love them, but this weekend – promoters got to see the ugly side of double-headers. Personally, I think the two-year experiment should be called just that and the concept should be abandoned.
As for the two races on the track, they were decent considering how disjointed the weekend was. There was good racing and a ton of different strategies used in both races. But for once, I was glad to see this weekend come to an end. After six races in four weeks, I think everyone is ready for the break coming up this weekend. It seems everyone’s nerves – teams, drivers, officials and even fans – are a little frayed, currently. Mine too. A week off will do everyone some good.