Fans & Drivers Diverge
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.