Random Thoughts On Long Beach
There’s a reason that I want to attend the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in person one day. That’s because the race is sometimes so boring to watch on TV, it’s got to be much better to be there in person, doesn’t it? Yesterday’s race was one of those races.
You know you’re watching a boring race when the pit reporters do “Through the Field” and they actually get all the way through the entire field, simply to fill some airtime. You also know things are a little dry when the two major points of the race involved watching a pitted car blend back into the field before heading into Turn One. The first time was when Scott Dixon beat Helio Castroneves to the turn. The second was when the eventual race winner, Simon Pagenaud, drove over the blend line in order to beat Dixon to the corner and take the lead that he never relinquished. More on that later.
The start of the race was impressively clean. The field came off of the hairpin better aligned than I’ve seen them as they took the green flag. As the field sped toward Turn One, there was a lot of jockeying for position as Helio held off a charge from Dixon. Except for some flying bodywork in the opening lap, things stayed green as they came around to complete Lap One…and Lap Two…
I never wish a crash on anyone. Nothing infuriates me more than hearing a non-racing fan tell me that I just go to races to watch the crashes. But an occasional legitimate yellow can spice up the show and make things interesting on restarts. Having said that, I credit IndyCar for not throwing the phantom yellow for debris or having a mandatory caution, like some racing series do.
The result was pretty much a single-file fuel-saving parade that featured very little passing, and stayed green from start to finish. The most bored person in Long Beach may have been the flagman who got to wave three flags – the green at the start of the race, the white and the twin-checkered flag at the end.
After the race, the general theme of the drivers was (1) the series needs to go back to the original DW12 and (2) the races need to add a few laps so that there is no way to do it on two stops. Add a few more laps and let them race full out instead of putting fans to sleep by saving fuel. I know it’s a part of racing, but watching drivers save fuel does not put butts in the seats. Fans want to see drivers racing at full song. Those that are interested in fuel economy are probably not racing fans to begin with.
It’s probably a good thing there was controversy at the finish, otherwise there would be very little to write about or have fans talking about over the next week.
But if you’re Simon Pagenaud, a win is a win. Many drivers in the past have won races with a cloud over them. Once the cloud disappears over time, the win is still there. Scott Dixon will always remember it, but most fans will forget about it – mainly because there will most certainly be more and bigger controversies along the way this season.
So congratulations to Simon Pagenaud on his fifth career win and his first since joining Team Penske last season. Leading the points and notching his first win after two second place finishes, three races into the season is not a bad start. Instead of wondering if Pagenaud would survive his second year at Penske, we may start wondering who might catch him if he keeps this pace up.
TV Coverage: I would have no problem at all if Rick Allen called every Verizon IndyCar Series race from this point on. As I said after the Phoenix race, you can’t tell that this is only his second-ever IndyCar race to call. He gives an understated, yet flawless delivery to set up a situation and then sits back and let the two experts in the booth, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, take over.
Bell and Tracy have learned to curtail some of their banter and just give viewers enough to come off as witty, but not tiresome. Although this was only their second race together, this trio fits like an old glove.
I would also give a nice tip of the hat for including Al Unser, Jr. in the opening just before the start. Little Al was the King of the Beach, winning this race a record six times. With his personal issues, I understand why there may be some hesitancy – but we need to see more of Little Al. It was good to see him yesterday.
Pre-Race Ceremonies: It was good to hear a different voice on the PA at Long Beach, so we didn’t have to be asked if we were ready. I was very impressed with the voice and style of Sgt. Marcus D’Angelo of the California Army National Guard. He sang the National Anthem straight up and didn’t try to stylize it like so many “professional” singers do. I say seek out local military talent for every race, rather than trot out some no-name “star” who will usually use the unique opportunity only to butcher their own rendition just to get noticed.
We need more singers like Sgt. D’Angelo. Also, kudos for the choice of the C-17 Globemaster for the flyover. That is one impressive looking airplane.
As for Oscar de la Hoya giving the command to start engines, did he really need a cue card?
The (Non) Call: In any sport, there are two types of calls – judgment calls and those of the black & white variety. In a football game, we might get infuriated over a pass interference call or non-call – but that call is subject to the opinion of the official on the field. He presumably has a better angle than we do at home. But if the left tackle jumps before the snap, that’s pretty black & white. It’s hard to ignore. The lineman didn’t mean to jump, calling it could affect the outcome of the game, but his team is penalized five yards regardless. Those are the rules.
Racing is no different. There are judgment calls like blocking. You and I at home may look at a replay and swear our favorite driver was being blocked. The stewards in race control may see it differently and say the other driver did nothing wrong. We may not like it, but that is the interpretation of those that have the experience to know better.
But racing also has black & white rules that are not open for interpretation. Running over an air-hose is a good example. It’s not a question of intent or to what degree the air-hose was run over. There is no gray area. Either it was or it wasn’t.
It’s the same with the blend line at Long Beach. If the rule clearly states that the right tires must stay to the right of the line until it ends and never touch it – it’s a violation, if you do. I think there is no question that Pagenaud violated this rule, when he crossed the line in order to come out early enough to stay ahead of Scott Dixon. Every angle of every replay indicates that he did, and he improved his position by doing so. Yet, Pagenaud received only a warning even though it was the last round of pit stops in the race.
Somewhere when the new race stewards were announced before the start of the season, someone gave everyone the impression that there would be no warnings this season. I can’t say who said it or when, but they must have. Scott Dixon said that after the race. Paul Tracy said it during the broadcast and several in the media echoed it on social media during the race. I don’t recall hearing that, but since some fairly top people with IndyCar are all saying it – I don’t think it is just an urban legend.
However, IndyCar was quick to send out a tweet out after the race saying “Per IndyCar penalty guidelines 188.8.131.52; failing to follow procedures entering or exiting the pits can be a warning”.
That leads me to believe there is one truth among these possibilities. Either the stewards did not know the rulebook, when they gave the impression there would not be any warnings; the rulebook was printed after this statement was made; or that such a statement about warnings was never made.
Chip Ganassi was surprisingly calm in his post-race interview. He was right though – the stewards have a tough job. I would never want that job.
But after three races, it seems that the stewards in Race Control have been trying to avoid controversy by “swallowing their whistle” and making non-calls whenever a decision has to be made. I guess they are taking the approach that an official should not insert themselves into the outcome of a race unless a situation is so blatant, that they would be committing malpractice by not making the call.
I think what happened yesterday was that situation. Curt Cavin tweeted out that according to the Penalty Sheet, stewards can determine the extent of an infraction. If it is determined to be minimal, they can choose do nothing (in this case issue a warning – same result). If they consider an infraction to be a medium infraction, they can put the car at the back of the lead lap. An infraction determined to be flagrant can result in a drive-through penalty.
Not that I’m qualified to be a race steward, but common sense has to come into play somewhere. Doesn’t it? Had Pagenaud crossed the line and blended in behind Dixon, I would call that a minimal infraction. I would do likewise if he crossed it to blend in ahead of a lapped car. But not only was this move for position, it was for the lead and led to Pagenaud winning closely over Dixon.
Had I been in race control, regardless what the Penalty Sheet says – I would have made Pagenaud give up the position to Dixon on the track as soon as it happened. That way, Pagenaud is not heavily penalized and is still in a position to earn the win by passing Dixon on the track.
By sticking their head in the sand and doing nothing, the Race Control stewards have greatly affected the points battle. Dixon would have left Long Beach with his fortieth win and the points lead. Instead, Pagenaud leads the championship by fourteen points.
But the greater damage is the perception that drivers, teams and fans took away from Long Beach. What was promised to be new and improved now looks to be the same old, same old. There now appears to be as great an inconsistency in rule enforcement as ever. That won’t settle well with drivers or fans – and the perceptions of both are important.
You can say this is an isolated incident. After all, these stewards are new on the job. To think they will go through even one season without controversy would be asinine. If this is the worst they do this season, hats off to them. The optimist in me wants to believe that. The pessimist in me says that this is the first of many blunders for the new stewards. Reality is probably somewhere in the middle.
Unless you’re Scott Dixon, we should probably raise our collective eyebrows at this incident, mentally file it away in case it happens again and then move on. But if you are Scott Dixon, you have every right in the world to be absolutely livid. He should be given championship points just for showing the restraint he did in the post-race interview. Race Control needs to regroup over the next week and figure out a way to become more consistent in their rulings, or else they’re going to have a mess on their hands. They never need to be the story of a race. Period.
All in All: There’s no way to spin this one. It was a dull and boring race. There were a few decent moves by a couple of drivers, but nothing that you could classify as breathtaking. It’s no big deal. It happens. Not every race can be scintillating.
As I said earlier, had there not been the controversy at the end – this race would have no chatter at all about it afterwards. I do think the drivers are on to something regarding extending the race a few laps in order to force three fuel stops, so that fuel mileage is not a concern.
Other than that, it’s time to turn the page and move on to Barber.