IndyCar Must Get Phoenix Right

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After the “Test in the West” or “Prix View” or whatever they called the open test at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend, it seemed that some things never change – Team Penske set the pace and Honda was lagging behind Chevy. That’s pretty much the way things shook out after two days of “Spring Training” last year at Barber Motorsports Park. The only difference was, Honda teams left this year feeling concerned, while last year – they left Birmingham embarrassed.

There were some sessions when a couple of Honda drivers were at or near the top, while other sessions showed a clear indication of dominance of Chevy over Honda. A combined chart of all sessions over the two-day test showed that all twenty-one cars broke the twenty-year old track record of 183.599 mph set in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk.

Helio Castroneves set the fastest lap of the test during the last session at 190.894 mph. His Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud was second quick; turning a lap of 190.747 mph during the third session. Teammates Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter were third and fourth respectively. Newgarden was just a tick behind Pagenaud at 190.714, while Carpenter ran a Session Three lap of 190.321. The top-four speeds of the weekend were all turned in by Chevy powered cars. You had to look all the way to fifth to find the fastest Honda – that of Marco Andretti at 190.286, turned in the final practice.

Does this mean anything? It’s hard to tell. Honda teams will say that they were working or race setups while the Chevy teams were going for speed. Chevy teams might say they were working on race setups also.

Does it really matter who was the quickest? Not if you’re a Chevy team. They were clearly the fastest last year and didn’t really have anything to prove. Honda was the one that has the questions going into the season, but I don’t know if a two-day pre-season test in Phoenix was the place to try and make a statement. Someone could have been sandbagging, while others may have actually been working on race setups. Where it is important to make a statement will be next weekend in St. Petersburg and three weeks after that when the series returns to Phoenix to race.

One might get a real indication of who was fastest by what teams want more downforce in Phoenix for the race and which ones don’t. Michael Andretti is correct in saying that IndyCar really needs to get things right for the show on April 2. In order to accomplish that, the owner of Andretti Autosport feels that more downforce needs to be added to all cars before the series returns to race in Phoenix. His argument is that current downforce levels make these cars tough to pass. Scott Dixon, of Chip Ganassi Racing feels that the downforce levels used during the test are just fine for racing. Andretti runs Hondas, while Ganassi has Chevy engines in his cars. Hmmm…

I am not an engineer and don’t pretend to be one. But I did hear Jon Beekhuis say on Trackside the other night that he thought that the downforce should remain the same for the race. He discussed ideal weather conditions and grip levels that sometimes make little or no sense to me, but what did make sense were the g-loads. Beekhuis said that g-loads are already approaching what they have at Iowa and more downforce would increase g-loads.

One thing I did agree with Andretti on is the show. IndyCar cannot afford a bad show at Phoenix. They want and need for those in attendance to leave the track wanting more, not glad that a parade is over. After a ten-year absence, IndyCar must do what it can to make sure that this time around in Phoenix works. If it doesn’t work this time, that’ll be it.

Those that know more than I do, say that the crowd at Phoenix will be small this year. Their logic is that it’ll start out small but grow over the years if the product on the track is good. Personally, that logic scares me. That’s the same formula that has been used at Pocono since the series returned in 2013 after an absence of more than two decade. The crowds have been very disappointing, even though the racing has been good. For the last two years, we’ve been waiting on edge to see if it shows up on next year’s schedule. At some point, Pocono will throw in the towel if things don’t improve dramatically.

The story at Milwaukee was much the same until it finally went away for this season. Optimists said that history and great racing was on its side. They figured that as long as there was a decent crowd, Michael Andretti would never pull the plug. Historic or not, Milwaukee is gone and I’m not sure it will ever come back.

Open-wheel racing has much more history at Phoenix than at Pocono, but not near as much as Milwaukee. Unlike Pocono and Milwaukee, Phoenix is an ISC track that has to answer to shareholders. They will probably not be as patient as Pocono has been and Milwaukee was. My thinking is that IndyCar has to make a much more immediate impact at the gate.

As I said, I’m not an engineer and I trust Jon Beekhuis and ultimately Bill Pappas who will be the one to make the downforce decision. But if they don’t change the downforce and we watch cars in a parade the night of April 2nd, Michael Andretti is going to be able to say I told you so. I’m thinking Michael would probably prefer to be wrong in this case.

The season hasn’t even started yet and there’s already chirping from the Honda and Chevy camps. We already know it will be an interesting season. I just hope that Phoenix is an interesting race.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “IndyCar Must Get Phoenix Right”

  1. From what I have been told it appears to that Honda should be a bit more than concerned. They had a spec engine last week and the “new” 2016 engine is still being tested or whatever that means. When Honda was at the front last week it was because the teams were carrying less fuel. Even with an improved aerokit for Honda, it looks like another big year for the Bow Tie Guys. This might bode well for Ed and Newgarden.

    By the way, right now I am driving a Honda and would like to see improvement. I would love to see Rahal, RHR and Foyt in the mix.

  2. tonelok Says:

    I heard Graham Rahall say -give us road course boost levels. There problem solved right? I am sure it is probably not that simple.

  3. tonelok Says:

    Rahal. Whoops.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    When discussing or mentioning the Milwaukee Mile, remember that the track there is owned-but not managed-by the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board, unlike a track owned and managed by the ISC or where the track owner is also the promoter such as at RA. So the entity that ran out of patience there was Andretti Autosports. The Andretti decision to quit promoting the Milwaukee race may well have been influenced by their overall financial difficulties.

    I continue to believe that 20-30,000 is the new normal attendence level for one mile oval tracks. Unless IndyCar adjusts their business model to reflect that, then three and out will continue to be the case for this vagabond series regardless of the “show”.

    I always get a bit nervous when there is talk of the series management tinkering with downforce levels to make the race more “racy”.

    • Hmmm….20-30k “normal”? I don’t think there were more than 15,000 at MKE in the past few years. It was never 50% full and it seats far fewer than 40k. There’s no good way to make races viable with 15k in the stands with a $1.5MM sanction fee unless you have located a particularly generous title sponsor.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Regardless of the chosen downforce mandates, the cars are going qualify and race bad fast at Phoenix next month. I do agree that making a good first re-impression to Phoenix race fans is critical. I’ll trust the powers that be to write rules that would put on a good show because I’m not nearly well-versed enough in aerodynamics to give forth my own idea.

  6. SteveK51 Says:

    My concern is in regards to suspension failures last year, like Montoya had at Iowa. Add downforce and the odds of that happening again increase.

  7. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I see some faulty logic on the argument that higher downforce leads to “better racing”. I’ve always thought higher downforce equated with more packs of cars and LESS actual passing.

    Seems lower downforce will allow some cars to be faster and some to be slower and some in-between, which would sound like a recipe for a LOT of passing on a short but fast oval.. That, in turn, also sounds like something that would put on a great show for the fans.

    A pack of cars running more closely together is more parade like than anything else.

    Indycar will be giving the fans something they haven’t seen in long time – speed. Let them also be amazed at how racy these fast cars can be.

    LET-THEM-RACE! LET-THEM-RACE!

    • It was hard to tell from the short video clips of the test if there was “real” passing going on. My fear is that it will be sort of like MKE in that with everyone on fresh tires, the field will quickly end up single file, and only when tires start to go off will there be any significant amount of passing.

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