Fans & Drivers Diverge

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By Paul Dalbey

Note from George – When I first started this site in 2009, it was not uncommon for a guest blogger to show up here from time to time. Since then, I’m not sure there has been a guest-blogger here for the past five years or so. With all the buzz surrounding the MAVTV 500 this past weekend, I thought now was as good a time as any to allow others to share their opinions.

Today, I’m happy to welcome Paul Dalbey to end that five year drought of guest-bloggers. Most remember Paul from his days at “More Front Wing”. Paul fits the main prerequisite to be a guest-blogger because he thinks a lot like me. We don’t agree on every single thing, but those subjects are few and far between. Thanks to Paul for contributing his time and writing ability for today. I’ll return here Friday, July 3rd. – GP

June 11, 2000. That was the day it all changed.

Only two weeks prior, I sat in my customary seat at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Tower Terrace, Section 47, Row J, Seat 5 – and giggled with pride as Juan Montoya made a mockery of the second-rate Indy Racing League drivers in the Indianapolis 500. What was assumed for four years was now cemented in fact. CART boasted about having the best drivers and the best teams. And now the best of CART had come to the IRL’s playground and conquered their biggest event in what almost seemed like an afterthought to Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

In my previous days as co-editor of More Front Wing, I was the IRL guy. I was the guy who most assumed loved the IRL, hated CART/Champ Car, hated road course racing, loved Tony George, loved everything the IRL stood for. Few know that I actually started the Great Open Wheel Civil War firmly on the CART side of the aisle. I may not have been ChampCarFanatical, but other than the Indianapolis 500, I didn’t care one single bit for the IRL. In fact, I even wrote a paper in college in 1999 lambasting Tony George for destroying the sport I so vigorously loved.

June 11, 2000. That was the day it all changed.

It wasn’t an overnight transformation by any stretch of the imagination. The lack of the Indianapolis 500 on the CART schedule, the event that I truly loved and that transcended series, had started to wear on me. Ovals were being removed from the schedule, and in time, I realized the road and street racing just wasn’t holding my attention. I noticed that if I missed a race because I was mowing the yard, it wasn’t a big deal to me. I was beginning to believe that CART, though still trouncing the IRL in publicity, was losing its way, especially once the management converted CART to a publicly traded company and blew through millions of dollars in like a carefree teenager having come into a large inheritance. The passing of Greg Moore on Halloween 1999 only made me question my allegiance more. A long off-season ensued, and I was wondering if CART was really up to the challenge of winning the war.

June 11, 2000. That was the day it all changed.

I remember it like yesterday. I was driving back to Champaign from my parents’ house in Springfield. Station surfing on the radio, I came across the familiar voices of Mike King and Mark Jaynes calling the IRL Casino Magic 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. In an instant, I was hooked. Suddenly I remembered the days when I first started watching racing and what made me love the sport. Like watching the masters Chuck Gurney and Jack Hewitt driving wheel-to-wheel on the dirt at the Springfield (IL) Mile, the action from the TMS was like nothing I’d ever witnessed in major open-wheel racing. When I got to Champaign, I ran into the house, turned on the TV as quickly as I could, and stared unblinking and probably without breathing as the laps clicked away. I could not believe what I was seeing.

Scott Sharp won the race that night, edging Robby McGehee to the line by 0.059 seconds. But the reality was that the players weren’t all that significant to me. The show was the spectacle. For the nearly 100,000 fans in attendance that night, the spectacle was the show as well.

For many years, such racing was the norm in the Indy Racing League. Fans clamored for that type of racing on the ovals. (Say what you will, but the crowds in those days dwarfed the oval crowds now. I’d be willing to bet there were more people in line for that bathroom that night in Texas than were in attendance at Fontana last weekend.) And for the most part, the drivers loved the action as well. Sure, Eddie Cheever would famously call it “absolutely lunacy” a year later, but by and large, this was the big-boy version of the racing many of the drivers had cut their teeth on at local short tracks across the country. It was close, it was exciting, and yes, it was dangerous.

As it was becoming clear the IRL was “winning” the war, more teams from CART (and eventually Champ Car) joined the fold, bringing with them both their CART manufacturers and their CART mentalities. The old way of the IRL stuck around for a few years, but in 2005, the IRL took to the Streets of St. Petersburg to usher in a new era. The Pandora’s Box of road and street course racing had been opened.

With the new teams and drivers coming on board, more focus was placed on the road and street course racing, the thinking being that those drivers could adapt easily to the ovals along the way. The runs of Montoya, Castroneves, Castroneves (again), and de Ferran winning at Indianapolis between 2000 and 2003 certainly gave credence to their theory (though Sam Hornish was still able to slay the dragon in 2002 and beat the mighty Team Penske for the IRL Championship). Soon though, a new mentality began to permeate through the paddock, one that was less interested in running side-by-side and one that saw constant passing as watering down the skill involved. What was once the hallmark of IRL racing was being removed, replaced (begrudgingly in the eyes of some fans, joyously in the eyes of others) by tactical maneuvers, the art of setting up a pass, of forcing another driver into making an error.

Coincidently or not, as the old way of IRL racing started to fall by the wayside and tracks that produced such racing were removed from the schedule, the fan interest in oval racing also started to wane. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t great to start with but what was once a 100,000-person crowd at Texas dwindled to maybe – MAYBE – half of that a decade later. Drivers voiced their opinions about “that type of racing,” and it was largely negative, at least from those drivers who were still new-ish to the series. They didn’t want the race to be decided by bravery. They didn’t like the idea of running two-by-two, lap after lap. They wanted their space. They wanted ovals to essentially be run like road courses.

What was a grumbling by drivers about the dangers of pack racing was growing louder and louder by the end of the decade. Unification had brought the rival series back together, and what was left of the two fan bases tried to merge along with them. Bitter divisions of allegiance still reigned though, and IRL supporters certainly felt they were being squeezed out by the foreign contingent who saw ovals only as a necessary evil. Many fans wanted more ovals back on the schedule, but drivers didn’t want to race them like they used to. Unfortunately, it took a tragic event in October 2011 to bring both sides together.

The passing of Dan Wheldon solidified what the drivers and a growing number of fans had been claiming for years – this type of racing was simply too dangerous to be sustained. The IRL had dodged bullets in years past – Davey Hamilton, Kenny Bräck, Ryan Briscoe, Mike Conway being among the names who survived horrifying crashes involving the catching fencing – though few of the major accidents in the series history were actually a result of pack racing. On that fateful day though, the viciousness and danger of pack racing came to a head with 34 cars barreling full-bore around a 1.5-mile, high-banked oval. The outcome of that day need not be again rehashed here.

In the days, months, and years that followed, INDYCAR made a very concerted effort to remove all vestiges of pack racing. The hope was to make the cars more difficult to drive, to make the drivers have more input on the racing, and to break up any packs. For the most part, the efforts worked. Cars were separated and largely able/forced to run alone. Good cars would still be fast and be able to work their way to the front of the field, but gone were the days when the photo finish was the norm rather than the exception. Sometimes the formula worked well and produced great racing. Texas and Fontana in 2012 were both spectacular races. More importantly, they were safe. More times than not, though, the racing was lackluster, strung-out, and leaving fans empty, longing for the excitement of oval races from yesteryear.

As the years have gone on, something has been missing from INDYCAR in their oval package. While the series has constantly tinkered with the aero package to strike an optimal balance, many fans would argue the oval racing has been ruined. Judging by the attendance at many of those races, it is hard to argue with those voices. While there is certainly a portion of the INDYCAR fan base who find it exhilarating to witness a “cracking and proper” setup of an overtake that may or may not come to fruition (a large portion, some might justifiably argue), for many fans, the ultimate satisfaction is rarely realized in the foreplay.

This past weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, the racing of old is exactly what the old-guard fans of IndyCar got. This was not pack racing in the sense of Texas 2001. Nor was it what we saw at Las Vegas in 2011. While Las Vegas saw 34 cars on a 1.544-mile oval, last weekend’s race had 2/3 the number of cars on a track 1/3 larger. (For those mathematically disinclined, that is 240 feet/car at LVMS, 459 feet/car at ACS. By comparison, the Indianapolis 500 has 400 feet/car.) More importantly, cars at Fontana were able to use up to five racing grooves across the track, and very rarely were cars lined up in 2×2 formation with nowhere for a car to move. For 500 miles, the cars and drivers had room to roam, room to maneuver, and room to race. Over the course of 250 laps, there were 80 official lead changes, 2,537 total on track passes for position, and 3,173 total passes (representing 51% of the 6,248 total on-track passes thus far during the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season). Fans were on the edge of their seat, breathless and exhilarated by the end of the race.

One formally-prominent-but-lately-only-bitter professional racing writer again recently posited that fans lack of attendance shows IndyCar fans aren’t interested in "IndyCar’s version of NASCAR restrictor plate racing." I suggest the lack of attendance at recent ovals flies counter to his claim, and quite oppositely, the lack of fans at current oval races is a rebuff by the fans of the current style of strung-out, processional oval racing. They want to see passing. They want to see speed. They want to see wheel-to-wheel action. They want to know the drivers they watch are pushing to the limit and staring danger right in the face. Since about 2009, they have mostly been left void of that type of racing. Having one exciting race after years of mostly lackluster displays is not suddenly going to increase the number of fans in the stands half way through that exciting race.

When the checkered flag flew, as if predictably on cue, many within the paddock came out swinging and talking about how INDYCAR had put them in a position they swore they would never be in again. Team Penske in particular was harsh in their criticism from team president Tim Cindric, defending series champion Will Power, and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya. Power was incredulous afterwards, repeatedly asking “What are we doing? What are we doing?” Others, such as Ed Carpenter and Marco Andretti, defended the racing, saying it was fun and the show the fans want to see. Even Ryan Briscoe, whose frightening barrel-rolling crash coming to the white flag ended the race, called the racing “awesome”, “fierce”, and “exciting.” Series statesman Tony Kanaan took the sensible middle ground, calling the racing dangerous but conceded it would be justifiable if the fans showed up. (Well of course the fans didn’t show up. The race was scheduled for the middle of the afternoon at the end of June in Southern California, and the last oval race was dreadful. You do the math, Mr. Miles! But I digress…)

On social media, fans were divided as well. Though immediate reaction during the race was of thrill and excitement, the tune of some fans changed afterwards once they were able to decompress and some of the drivers started to speak their views. For the most part, however, I would guess 70-80% (a very, very unscientific estimation) of the fan reaction to this race was positive.

And therein lies the problem. The fans have largely spoken that they want the exciting oval racing to return. They define that excitement as high-speed, wheel-to-wheel, slicing and dicing. Is it fair for fans to demand that of the drivers in the most diverse racing series in the world. I believe absolutely so. Is that type of racing for every driver? Probably not. It may very well not be what some of these drivers signed up for. And if that is the case for some drivers, there is no shame in admitting as much. I am not now nor would I ever question the courage or commitment of any of these drivers. However, it takes a certain kind of driver who is willing to risk everything in this type of racing. Some drivers are just not of that mold. And that’s ok. When Mike Conway bowed out of oval racing at Auto Club Speedway, I think most considered him more courageous than scared and applauded his decision. If IndyCar wants to continue marketing itself as the most diverse series in the world, high-speed, wheel-to-wheel oval racing is another discipline to be mastered. If drivers today are not willing to take that risk, the list of very talented men and women ready to step in will not soon be exhausted.

But let’s not pretend for a second that either auto racing is safe or that oval racing is the only type of racing where danger exists. Sure, advances have come a long, long way over the years, but to insinuate the factors that led to tragedy on the streets of Toronto in 1996 are any more mitigated than those that led to tragedy in Las Vegas is foolish and naive. But for a miracle and a couple inches, the street course at Reliant Stadium in Houston may have been added to that list of haunted facilities less than two years ago. Sobering? Yes. But it’s reality.

I know there are people out there that say this type of racing isn’t necessary. People will say that CART didn’t race like this in its heyday. While that argument is certainly true, I would venture that many race fans today are guilty of revisionist history, and those who would go back and watch a 1993 Michigan 500 would likely be bored by the end of it. Going back to what worked 20 years ago is not, and never will be, the answer. If there is anything this country has learned in the past week, it’s that the way forward is not in looking back. Blame my instant-gratification generation all you want, the fact is the reason why doesn’t matter. The type of racing that worked 20 years ago doesn’t work today. Adapt and move on.

So where does INDYCAR go? Hopefully it stays right where it is!! There are only two tracks left on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule where this type of racing still exists – Texas and California. The remaining ovals on the schedule don’t lend themselves to the pack-ish racing that was on display last weekend. Pocono is the last superspeedway of the year and the geometry of that track simply doesn’t make that type of racing possible.

INDYCAR has a terrible history of constantly tinkering with aero formulae to fine tune its oval racing. In nearly every circumstance, it has failed and backfired, leaving fans bored and uninterested. Racing as was on display last weekend is what will bring back attendance. For the most part, casual fans seem completely uninterested in the aero kits. Honestly, they seem only slightly less apathetic to the actual engine competition. Exciting racing is what puts fans in the seats and eyeballs on the TV. I grant that testing, perhaps extensive testing, should be undertaken at Texas before next season to ensure this formula doesn’t go all the way back to the Las Vegas-style of pack racing, but please, INDYCAR, I beg of you please don’t mess this formula up if the Series is blessed to return to Fontana in 2016.

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37 Responses to “Fans & Drivers Diverge”

  1. Love this! Very nicely said and true. This sport is in trouble, big trouble! It is scary and dangerous to drive these cars, but it is scary to drive to work.

    Jim Hickman was killed on a slower oval in Milwaukee, Jovy Marcelo died at, what, 75 miles an hour at IMS? Gonzalo Rodriguez died on a road course. What’s my point? It can happen. That is why I make 5 figures and the best of the best in Indycar make 7 figures. They live a lavish lifestyle of travel and beautiful women, the price they may pay though, is the ultimate.

    I got A LOT of backlash for my opinions on Dan Wheldon but I stand by them, we can’t continue to run this series based on fear. Dan was a great driver who, as I noted, was not respected nor liked by many until it became cool to mourn him. Most felt he had pissed on too many owners and didn’t deserve another top ride (a la Briscoe). Dan took a risk, knowing he had children and a family and he paid the ultimate price. Someone, in a big city will also pay that price today in a traffic accident. Waking up is a risk, life is dangerous.

    It is really disheartening to hear wealthy drivers and owners, who make that money because sponsors pay them, because fans pay to watch them and sponsors pay for exposure to fans (see the connection here? The fans pay the bills) complain about what they do and what they have chosen…. Tony or Will can go manage a Dominos Pizza if they want less of a rush. Tony has been out there a bit too long anyway.

    The series needs fans who want to watch, that won’t happen until you let them know, with the product, that they should come out! How were we to know that race was going to be so good? I think that is another topic but in short, we as a society likes to react in the now and then debate the past…..

  2. Exactly! Close racing at Kentucky and Chicagoland (Zero fatalities at those tracks in Indycar!) is what got me into Indycar in the first place! I agree with Ed/Marco/Rahal/Newgarden/Karam/Ganassi/Briscoe and Foyt’s comments about the race. I was already a fan of Newgarden/Karam/Rahal/Ed before Fontana and I continue to be a fan after.

  3. jhall14 Says:

    I remember that same day Paul, I came home from a Colts game to find my wife and oldest son in front of the TV watching the IRL race in Texas. I got no kiss welcoming myself home, it was “your missing a hell of a race” and I sat down and joined them.

    I have always said, you strap that IndyCar on, you are vulnerable to anything, regardless of the track or the speed. I sat in “the” stand in Michigan when Adrian Fernandez crashed in turn 4, his wheel assembly was punted over the fence and into the grandstand. I remember watching this wheel come directly at me and my family, with no place to go. It finally wobbled off line but ended up in our row, some 2/3 the way up in the stand, a few feet from where we sat. Unfortunately, some fans paid the price that day, and that was a single car crash.

    My point being this, this is a dangerous sport, participating or watching from the stands. The simplest things can happen with tragic results or what appears to be spectacular in other ways with nobody receiving a scratch. The MAV TV 500 had the “it” factor. I hope IndyCar realizes “it” and we see more of the same in the future. I hope it also puts a lot more butts in the seats for Milwaukee. Only time will tell.

    Great column, and you are correct, this race stirred the pot.

    • Wow, I hadn’t even considered this angle, more fans and officials have died since 1996 from Indycar crashes than drivers. That is sad but as you say, it is dangerous. Those fans who died paid money to see the race, they didn’t make the average american yearly salary in one day like the drivers did. They left children orphaned without a 7 figure trust fund. Again, not brining a positive to Dan’s death, but as I said yesterday, many children lose parents each day and don’t have the funds to be “ok” after they are gone. I feel for Dan’s family but he signed up for that race, so did Greg and Gonzalo, Paul, Scott and Jeff Krosnoff.

  4. sejarzo Says:

    “The show was the spectacle.” There are certainly some OWR fans that believe that, and that’s great. But there are lots of OWR fans who don’t watch NASCAR oval racing because of that philosophy.

    • BackHomeAgain Says:

      I would disagree with you on two points: 1) That Fontana was Nascar restrictor plate racing, it wasn’t and 2) Nascar oval racing thrives because of fans love of crashes. IndyCar’s Fontana race was popular with fans because of the incredible action and thrill of the talent and skill shown by drivers. IndyCar fans want the close racing withOUT the crashes.

      • sejarzo Says:

        I made absolutely neither of those points–you inferred those–and I would never make those points. It’s that as Paul notes, the tastes of the general viewing public have changed, and no longer appreciate a dominating performance by a driver or team. Instead, a race that involves a lot of random back and forth within the field attracts more viewers these days–even if most of that passing is meaningless when it comes to who is in front at the checkers.

        • BackHomeAgain Says:

          I apologize if I misinterpreted your comments, that’s just what I took from them. But I would also add that the general viewing public feels that way about all sports, being basketball, football, baseball, and have for many years. Every fan loves to watch a last minute drive to win the game, or the walk-off home run or the last second buzzer beating 3 pointer. It’s a part of ‘entertainment’ that every sports entity has to deal with. And part of the reason that the a dominating driver or team is a harder sell.

          • sejarzo Says:

            Stick-and-ball analogies are tough at times. But do stick-and-ball sports change the rules for every different field merely so that the teams with less talent can keep it closer?

            The only way to increase random outcomes–which inherently means the less skilled will finish higher more often than they would based on skill alone–is to create a rules package that handicaps the more skilled participant. Unfortunately it’s an economic reality these days that didn’t exist in the past and has no easy solution.

            This comes from a long-time fan who’s never attended a twistie race, I might add…only ovals.

          • billytheskink Says:

            While stick-and-ball sports do not generally change the rules on a game-by-game or venue-by-venue basis in order to make competition closer, they have instituted things like results-ordered drafts, salary caps, revenue sharing, and free agency that serve to level the competition over time.

            As you said, though, stick-and-ball analogies are often tough to effectively make when it comes to racing. This seems to be one of those cases.

  5. Paul, I haven’t thought about it, but it does seem that my interest waned back in the early days of the IRL, too. Suffering through the first Disney race and then those first 500s hurt. However, I did pick up when Chip brought Montoya to Indianapolis in 2000 and you could tell from his excitement that things were about to change. I started following Hornish afterward and was on the edge of my seat watching him take the top of the track and win. Last Saturday was very much like that. TK was even “slicing and dicing” throughout the race. I loved it.

    However, the Boston Consulting Group should have made a point in telling Miles to be consistent with the schedule. I am sure that throwing Fontana into late June killed attendance. If you look at College football schedules, pretty much year in and year out the big rivalries are held on traditional weekends. There is a reason for it. With that said, I don’t think that a consistent schedule will cure the ills of the series, but I do think that it is an important part of a cure. Obviously, this isn’t a sprint, but that crowd at Fontana as well as the start time has to be addressed.

    Good one Paul!!!

    • The BCG wasn’t going to address consistency of the schedule, but instead advocate for adjusting as needed to save costs. The BCG provided a roadmap for making Hulman & Co more profitable and IMS more valuable. The primary purpose was to secure the $100M taxpayer funded bond. That is the only reason it was made public.

  6. I received clearance from the wife and kids for the weekend off next weekend and I am going to drive from Louisville, KY in my Honda to Milwaukee, WI because : a) I have never been to the Milwaukee Mile, and b) this may be the last chance I may ever have to see IndyCars race there. Fast forward to 2015 folks and this is the reality we are living in. We have got plenty of problems in this country, too many to count but IndyCar racing is our relief, our interest, our entertainment, our leisure, our enjoyment, our time away from the daily grind, our excitement, our hobby, and it has been a part of my personal life for at least 30 years or more and counting. Next weekend I am going to do my part and have my ass in the stands at a race that is flirting with extinction. The IndyCar series could very well loose a significant part of its heritage and I implore others that are able to travel to do the same if you live with a reasonable distance of the famed mile. If this venue is lost, which one is next? They are dropping like flies, and if Milwaukee is gone, a piece of history is gone with it. Just what we need- another shopping mall in place of a automotive racing history landmark. I applaud Michael Andretti for his efforts at keeping this venue off of life support but he can only do so much.

    IndyCar has reached a point of critical mass in my opinion. In a state of decline an unexpected surprise has occurred, planned or not, (I’m sure it was not intentional, there is no way management is that smart) and how it responds to the attention it is getting in the wake of this last race in Fontana, will undeniably have an impact on how it functions in the future, if there is a future. It may be time for the Mike Conway effect to cycle through the field, and I sure hope Mark Miles is paying attention to what is going on and not thinking about tennis. I think Team Penske needs to decide why they are involved in this form of racing and weather or not they want to continue being involved. One thing is for sure if Penske is gone, IndyCar is gone.

    Wake up Mark Miles.

    • Golf to be played and tennis to be served. A legendary quote. Is Mark Miles really Sam Wyche? That would explain a lot.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Bless you for doing this. I hope we can somehow arrange to meet. Just look for a guy in the pits who looks as old as the track.

  7. BackHomeAgain Says:

    I voted yes for ‘in the direction’ of the old pack racing. I don’t want to see the old IRL pack racing, but I don’t think that Fontana was that. Cars were more strung out and there was more passing. That is the type of oval racing that IndyCar needs to become successful again.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    Well written Paul. Thanks for taking the time.

    While it would be great if every oval race was as exciting as the race last Saturday, I think that is unrealistic. And if IndyCar were to somehow tinker with downforce levels or whatever to ensure that every oval race was that exciting, that would be artificial.

    I continue to think the larger, overriding issue with ovals is the exasperating way that IndyCar management screws up the schedule each year. I relate mostly to the Milwaukee Mile as I live near the track and have been attending races there since 1949. The race there has been on a different date and time for the last three years. This year the Sunday start time is 4:30 PM. If you were to deliberately try to discourage fans from surrounding states from attending, starting the race at 4:30 would (and will) do the trick.

    The Andretti Group has done the best job of promoting the Milwaukee Mile race in my long memory. Despite that, the crowd is usually about 20-25,000. If we are lucky, that will be the attendence again this year. I believe that is the new normal for the race; the baseline, if you will, for a variety of reasons unrelated to the racing product. IndyCar needs to adjust their business model to that level and build on it. Constantly making it more difficult for Michael Andretti and his staff to make money there as IndyCar does is frustrating for fans and for the promoter.

    The 4:30 start time for Milwaukee was set to please the TV suits. As exciting as the Fontana race was for folks watching on TV, it will not put more fans in the seats if IndyCar does not return the race to October. Are we getting to the point where how many fans are in the stands is irrelevant as long as the TV show is good?

    Finally, for the commenter here who continues to think that comparing Dan Wheldon’s family’s financial situation after he died to that of the family of a John Doe who died in a traffic accident is appropriate or relavant to a discussion of last Saturday’s race, PLEASE give it a rest.

    • Jhall14 Says:

      Ditto Ron.

    • “Finally, for the commenter here who continues to think that comparing Dan Wheldon’s family’s financial situation after he died to that of the family of a John Doe who died in a traffic accident is appropriate or relevant to a discussion of last Saturday’s race, PLEASE give it a rest.”

      I’ll second that. Even growing up in a big house with little financial worry does very, very little to patch over the emotional scars that go along with growing up without a parent or losing one’s spouse. All the money in the world can not bring back a deceased loved one, and I’m certain that every one of the Wheldon clan lives through that heartbreak every day. Not to diminish the pain that others go through, but to pretend that the Wheldons could/should somehow be more emotionally resilient than other people of less means is incredibly calloused.

    • 4:30 start time for Milwaukee. If the race ended at 4:30 and I could get back to Indy by 9:30 that would give me reason to take my son to the race. Any race drivable from Indy should be run at a time where people from Indy can actually make it work.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    Great to hear from Paul.

    Perhaps some compromise between what we saw at Fontana this year and what we saw at Texas (which I enjoyed, by the way, but not as much as Fontana) would be an appropriate course of action. How to accomplish such a compromise, I do not know. I do know that Indycar has too many drivers, teams, promoters, and fans on both sides of this argument to simply tell one side to take a hike, given the state that the sport is currently in.

    Some would say that compromise pleases nobody. There is often truth to that, and I am unsure that Indycar’s constituencies would satisfied in any way by such a compromise, especially with some of the rhetoric I have seen thrown around (even a little by some professional writers I greatly respect). I would hope they would be, if the alternative is an assured further decline.

    Much of this post-Fontana firestorm reminds me of an instance during my “service” during the CART/Champcar-IRL wars. On the old Speed Channel message boards, I often advocated for Champcar to make an effort to return to oval tracks. These discussions met with various levels of agreement and (usually) opposition, but once I was responded to directly by a poster who claimed to be a former Atlantic series driver. He asked me something to the effect of “how many more drivers must die at ovals to slake your thirst for blood?” I’m not exaggerating, the fellow really did use the word “slake”. There is no compromise when this type of rhetoric is thrown around. There probably isn’t even discussion, and this is not what Indycar needs.

    • One good thing came out of that exchange of yours on the old message boards: I just learned a new word. I’ve literally never heard “slake” before. I’d have to agree with you on that point, though, compromise is going to be really hard to find, if it’s possible at all.

      • You’re obviously way too young to know about the old tagline for Falstaff Beer in the late sixties or earlier seventies: “Falstaff – The thirst slaker”.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        I have no thirst for blood, but I have been slakin’ my thirst for beer for some time now. My son recently recommended a craft beer with ‘piney overtones” to me. He said I have piney overtones. Perhaps.

  10. I watch mainly NASCAR and F1. But, the Fontana race, for me, was the Race Of The Year in ANY series. Racing like that will bring the fans. But, if they mess with the aero package, it will become another bore. IndyCar is barely breathing. This kind of racing will bring it back.

  11. Walking on the edge of a high cliff and escaping with no harm, maybe even after a heart pounding stumble, is ludicrous but people still do it. Racing is similar for me in that they know the danger but they do it anyway and we cheer when they walk away safely. Sadly, when they don’t we all ask why. Why were they in that car, why were they on the edge of that cliff, why do they take these crazy chances, why, why, why? The answer is simple, because it makes them feel alive, it thrills them to do something not many can do, to hold that power and tame it lap after lap, to display a skill so refined that they can place a car within an inch of the line every lap for hundreds of miles, to have the adoring masses cheer for their bravery. It is the fear of the unknown, the chance to see them risk it all that keeps fans coming back. It is a paradox but neuter the risk and you lose fans, the problem is that no one really wants to see it when they don’t walk away. Tough questions are involved and good answers are hard to come by as they walk that tightrope.

  12. Tony Dinelli Says:

    I remember growing up looking to racers thinking, ‘these guys have balls of steel’. They were fearless, willing to risk it all, get the win, get the trophy, get the girls. I don’t want to take away from the drivers of today and their willingness to step into the cockpit, but this is why we watch racing. It is something the average Joe can’t do. It is racing, it is supposed to be dangerous. If there are any racers not willing to take that risk on superspeedways, there will be others that will take that risk and put on a show like we saw in Fontana.

  13. OK, I’ve done some thinking about this over the last four days, even to the point where I failed to follow up on my promise (threat?) to leave some long winded thoughts on Monday’s post here (though I obviously had the time and wherewithal to post enough responses to other people’s comments such that we have a Neeeeewwwwwww Oilpressure Commmmmmment Recooooorddddd…and sorry to Milka Duno for her losing out on her old record). I’ve decided to come at this the most natural way I know, and that way is with the “nerdiness” turned up to 11.

    The way I see the issue at hand with superspeedway racing (though you can say this about any kind of racing, or really, any kind of endeavor of human life) is via a graph. The X-axis is “time” (or laps, I suppose). The Y-axis is “risk”. The area under that graph is effectively the potential for bodily harm or death. There are different things that can make the graph “spike”, to one extent or another: cars passing one another (a relatively brief and short spike), a part falling off of a car (another relatively brief spike caused by the potential of a car/driver to hit that part, followed by a valley that’s the result of the ensuing yellow flag), two cars driving side by side for an extended period (the height of the spike being the same as a regular “pass”, but the length of the spike is obviously much longer), and so on. The heights of the spikes are basically determined by the differential in speed of the objects involved (and to a lesser extent, the masses; we’re talking kinetic energy here). Two cars going the same speed side by side, but six feet apart from each other? Eh, not much of a spike. One car passing another, but going 40 MPH faster? A pretty moderate spike (if the cars were to make contact, that 40 MPH differential would create a sizeable impact, should the passing driver misjudge the pass and hit the other driver, or the slower driver swerve at the wrong moment). A wrecked car sitting sideways across the track with a car approaching unabated at 200+ MPH or a car headed straight head-on toward a wall? That’s a colossal spike (there’s a huge amount of kinetic energy that needs to be dissipated, and a big amount is liable to go into the driver[s]).

    OK, with the setup out of the way, I think that any reasonable person can see that Saturday’s race had a “longer” plateau of risk vs. pretty much any other race that we’ve seen in the last four years. And at over 200 MPH (so there’s a lot of kinetic energy involved), the baseline height of that plateau is higher than at any non-speedway track. This means that any accident carries higher potential consequences, and we can ask James Hinchcliffe about this (single car accident, driver suffered great bodily harm). To my mind, the most troubling aspect of what folks have come to know as “pack racing” (not that that’s exactly what we saw on Saturday, just that it looked more like “pack racing” than what we’ve seen the past four years) is that at the speeds we’re talking about, if there is an accident at the front of the pack, many cars will arrive on the scene of the accident (which will be littered with heavy bits like engines, gearboxes, wheels/uprights, and even tubs with drivers still inside) faster than the drivers can react (whether that’s slowing down or trying to go around). And if you have a bunch of cars wadded together, that also limits the drivers from being able to properly avoid an accident in front of them (they have nowhere to go but into other cars, and they probably can’t see the accident ahead or around them, either). So, every car that arrives on the scene without sufficient time to slow down or make an avoiding maneuver spikes that “risk” graph by a huge amount.

    Right now, you’re probably either saying “get to the point, nerd” or “so, you want to ban ovals?” To the first point, I’m almost there. To the second, I most definitely do not want to ban ovals. I love ovals. I’ve been to way more IndyCar races on ovals than I have been on road courses (that number being 29 oval races vs. just 10 road races), and I want IndyCar to be successful on ovals. My thought is just that having situations where 10+ cars can arrive on the scene of an accident without sufficient time (I guesstimate this at between 1 and 1 ½ seconds, though I’m sure someone could come up with an average reaction time for the IndyCar field of drivers) to avoid the accident is not something that can be done long term without more drivers being gravely injured or killed. Sure, it’s possible to get away with this for a while. But eventually the odds catch up with you, and you have a driver who winds up on the wrong side of that “risk” line that I’ve been yammering about.

    What I’d propose is trying to find a way where you never have 10+ cars arrive on the scene of a potential accident. Basically, we could achieve 85-90% of the “spectacle” of what we saw on Saturday by trying to get the groups of cars down to more like 5-6 cars covered by a second or so (with the old rule of thumb of “an IndyCar covers a football field every second” that I remember from some mid-‘80s Indy 500 broadcast, this means 5-6 cars per hundred yards or so…which is probably not too different from what we’ve seen at Indy lately). Spikes in risk are reduced in quantity and maybe slightly in height, and we still get plenty of wheel-to-wheel racing and passing. It’s going to be a delicate and not-overnight process for IndyCar to find just such an aerodynamic formula that will produce this, but that is what I’d target.

    • sejarzo Says:

      Also consider this from the official Indycar investigation report of the LVMS debacle:

      “Examination of the video of the October 16th event demonstrates normal ‘pack racing’ that is common of high-banked ovals. However, what was also witnessed was nearly unlimited movement on the track surface under race conditions. This capability of relative free movement on the track without the restraints of natural racing grooves must be attributed to track geometry beyond banking. Whatever the reason, the combination of track geometry factors allowed for relatively unrestricted movement within the racing pack not previously experienced. This movement not only allowed for increased probability for car to car contact but made it more difficult for drivers to predict the movement of other drivers. As a result, the opportunity for this incident was increased.”

      What allowed for that “nearly unlimited movement on the track surface under race conditions”? Excessive downforce for the track.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Wow! Sometimes I think I should have to pay for this stuff. Very interesting and thought provoking Geekster.

  14. Ron Ford Says:

    I think David Malsher at Racer.com has just nailed it regarding the Saturday Fontana spectacle. Too easy to drive, too easy to pass.

    • sejarzo Says:

      The fact that Bobby Unser is also of that mindset is duly noted.

    • Read his article. Can’t say that I agree. Whatever we do we don’t want parades. We have enough of those on the street/road courses.

      • I don’t believe they’re advocating for parades. I believe they are advocating a setup where passes arise from a misstep from the driver in the lead that allows the driver behind to overtake.

        A car that is less planted and requires more driver finesse to achieve the best lap times will also have a substantially increased amount of variation in lap time for every driver.

        Saturday’s race was extremely exciting. That said, the essence of auto racing should be out-driving the opponent, rather than overtaking him because somebody else is in the way or nobody is out front for him to draft.

        One of the most highly reviewed Indy 500’s in recent years also featured the most lead changes. However, it was much less enjoyable when you listened to the teams order the drivers out of the lead to save fuel. That’s not racing.

        The Fontana race was great to watch. Rahal wasn’t the best driver out there any more than the 25 ball was the best powerball in the machine on Wednesday. Indycar isn’t going to enjoy long term success with winners decided by lottery rather than skill or setup. Indycar hasn’t been enjoying success from a variety of winners resulting from pit closures creating lottery style “right place, right time” winners either.

        The best performances should win out long term. Best performance is not defined by result, but instead actions that contribute to the result. Rahal did not outperform the rest of the pack in a meaningful way… in fact his performance would be judged by many to be inferior to others.

        A race like Fontana was a novelty that captures attention for a short period. It isn’t going to be a successful product strategy for growth or sustainability.

  15. Bruce B Says:

    I have mixed feelings on “pack” racing. However, our beloved sport is at a serious crossroads of surviving or not. Will it keep the fans interested enough in the long run? As stated previously…”pack” racing can only truly occur on a couple of tracks. And look how exciting Fontana was! Make it your finale on a Saturday night in late September.

  16. ecurie415 Says:

    I take issue with the description of a ” formally-prominent-but-lately-only-bitter” professional journalist. By my count, there are maybe five to ten sports writers who pay any attention to open wheel racing in the US. One of those is still prominent but bitter with good reason. I’m hard-pressed to identify anyone writing today with more experience than the formally prominent but lately only bitter journalist. I do not know of any current professional journalist who has been more committed to open wheel racing for as many years. I don’t know any that aren’t cynical and sarcastic on their social media, unless they are just…dull. That does not even begin to address how poor the prose flows from most of today’s racing writers, some of whom struggle to be coherent and will never approach being “interesting” to read. I’m just as guilty as being an arm-chair race reporter, but I will never understand why people complain when an experienced writer speaks his mind.

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