Some Food For Thought On Pack Racing

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The biggest question coming out of the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway this past Saturday night is what can be done to eliminate pack racing? If that was the biggest question, the second biggest question was should it be eliminated? I am not an engineer, so I have no idea how to answer the first question. To be truthful, I have mixed emotions on the second one.

As someone correctly pointed out here on Monday, fans and celebrities weren’t tweeting about Detroit – but they were about Texas. Nor was anyone falling asleep during the Rainguard Water Sealers 600, even though the race was not over until midnight on the east coast. During the green-flag periods, it was edge of your seat excitement as fans were treated to some extraordinary, and not so extraordinary, displays of driving.

That’s the dilemma. In fact, that’s been the dilemma that track promoters and sanction bodies have faced for decades. It’s a fine line between excitement and too dangerous. Not only is it a fine line, but it is also a moving target.

Let’s be honest – and I mean very honest with yourself. If cars could go 250 mph at Texas and you were guaranteed that there would never be a crash and that no one could possibly be injured, would you watch? Some would because there is a segment out there, myself included, that is very content to watch shiny race cars go fast around a track.

To me there is nothing better than sitting in the stands and watching practice. Once in early 2003, there was an IndyCar open test day scheduled at Nashville Superspeedway. I took the day off from work and drove out to the track to sit in the stands all day – and I mean all day. There was a short rain delay, but with lights they were able to extend the test session into the night. They ran in the dark for a couple of hours and wrapped up the test around 8:00 at night. During the rain delay, I carried on conversations with some of the crew guys and the few open-wheel fans who had come out like I did. It probably sounds torturous to some, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a vacation day in my own town. But I realize I am in the vast minority.

Most fans are not content with watching single-file parades. They want action and lots of it. With the price of tickets these days, I can’t say that I blame them. Had I been a paying customer at Texas this past weekend, I would’ve walked away a happy customer. Had I paid money to see races at Phoenix or Belle Isle, I would’ve re-examined my choices when renewal time came up.

Nothing infuriates me more than hearing a non-racing fan tell me that the only reason I like racing is to watch the crashes. That’s an insult to my intelligence and that person loses any potential credibility with me when they say that. What they don’t understand is I would be happy if I never saw another crash in a race. What does appeal to me is the ever-presence of danger, but the drivers muster up the courage to do the extraordinary anyway – despite the risk. That’s the thrill I get out of watching races.

If you read the comment section last week, you saw our friend Ron Ford reposted a quote attributed to Sir Stirling Moss. I’ll admit I had never seen or heard the quote, but when I read it – it perfectly described why racing appeals to me and a lot of others out there. I took the liberty of copying/pasting the quote from Ron’s comments last week:

“You go through a corner absolutely flat out, right on the ragged edge but absolutely in control, on your own line to an inch, the car just hanging there, the tyres as good as geared to the road, locked to it, and yet you know that if you ask one more mile an hour of the car, if you put another 5 pounds of sidethrust on it, you’ll lose the whole flaming vehicle…You’re on top of it all, and the exhilaration, the thrill is tremendous, and you say to yourself, all right, you bastards, top that one!”

To me, that sums up racing’s appeal and it further questions whether or not IndyCar should or should not do anything about pack racing.

First of all, was it pack racing we saw on Saturday night? I thought it was, but many people who are a lot smarter than I am thought differently. Steve Wittich writes for Trackside Online, a steal at twenty-two dollars a year in my opinion, but I digress. On Monday, he wrote that after watching the replay of the race, his takeaway was that the drivers were not taking care of each other and it was on them to remedy that problem. I agree. Later on Monday, Ed Carpenter essentially said the same thing.

Yesterday, David Malsher of Motorsport.com quoted Sébastien Bourdais as saying he was happy to not be a part of the bull***t Texas race Saturday night. He went on to refer to everyone’s short-term memory syndrome regarding Dan Wheldon’s fatal crash at Las Vegas. He said he was holding his phone, shaking and praying when the green-flag dropped.

Many drivers were not expecting the type of track they got Saturday night. Some of them admitted they were prepared for a single-file processional. Perhaps they were not mentally prepared for the close side-by-side racing that evolved as the race went on. That might account for drivers not taking care of each other. I’m reaching here, but that may have something to do with it.

So, I am very hesitant to get up on my soapbox and demand that IndyCar does something to reduce the risks – especially when I haven’t the slightest idea on what to do or how to do it.

Many opined on Sunday that IndyCar got lucky this time, but if they delay any action on making changes, someone will die. That sounds a little harsh to me. Pack racing didn’t kill Dan Wheldon. Hitting the top of his head directly on a fence post killed Dan Wheldon. He could have just as easily been launched by one car, instead of ten. Remember when Mike Conway was launched into the catch fence in the closing laps of the 2010 Indianapolis 500? He had come up on Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had just run our fuel. We saw how easily Scott Dixon went airborne after hitting just one car at Indianapolis last month. Fortunately, Conway and Dixon managed to hit the fence without fatal consequences. Dan Wheldon was not as lucky.

My point is; I’m as much about safety as anyone. I think the HANS Device is one of the greatest inventions in racing, right up there with the SAFER Barrier. Some chirped that the SAFER Barrier encroached on the racing line when it was first introduced. It didn’t take too many head-on crashes into it to make people forget about any encroachment. I remember when Dan Gurney first wore a closed-face helmet in 1969, many fans laughed at it. The next year, most of the grid had them.

But if we make the sport so safe that it is essentially danger-free, will anyone watch? They might, but they might not. Some would argue that no one is watching now. Well, that’s not true. In fact, in an era where shrinking numbers are prevalent in televised sports – IndyCar has been showing a slight increase in viewers. Granted, it’s slight but any increase in today’s world is good. If every race is like Saturday at Belle Isle, you can probably kiss them goodbye.

So are fans over-reacting? Is pack racing actually good for the sport? Is IndyCar sitting on a potential time bomb that will eventually go off in the worst possible way? Can anything be done to separate the cars, yet still encourage good racing? Is that even possible? There are many questions regarding the type of racing we saw Saturday night, but very few answers.

Remember the 2009 Texas race? It was a yawn-fest of epic proportions. Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were Penske teammates. They combined to lead 217 of the 228 laps, with Helio leading the final fifty-two on his way to victory. Oh, his pass for the lead on Lap 176? It occurred in the pits. Is that what we want to go back to? Not me.

But I don’t want to get into a situation where every oval is like Las Vegas in 2011, where everyone (drivers included) is scared to death. Can IndyCar get away from the close racing but still make for an attractive product? You tell me. And for those that are offended by the use of the word product, when describing what IndyCar puts on the track – tell me a better word and I’ll use it.

So before we all climb on our high-horse and insist that IndyCar does something about pack racing, be careful what you wish for. Never forget the law of unintended consequences. You may get a race that is so boring, it will become unwatchable.

There’s my food for thought on pack racing on a Wednesday morning.

George Phillips

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18 Responses to “Some Food For Thought On Pack Racing”

  1. S0CSeven Says:

    I like NASCAR pack racing. With the HANS device I naively assume that everything will be OK.

    Not so in Indycar.

    I thought that the only real all out racing at Texas was Vautier who had something to prove and Hinch trying to get his lap back.
    The rest was just drivers going around in circles waiting for the last few laps.

    But at that speed?? In Indycar it’s not just exciting but exciting/SCARY.

    Indycar pack racing is fine with me but at a much lower speed ……. so here I am again wondering why the downforce on these cars isn’t greatly reduced. If the cars go around at 150 instead of 220 it’s OK with me.

  2. Thanks George this is well written. The bomb went off on 10/16/11, worst crash imaginable, nothing heaver quite happened like that before. Saying that, I hated the idea of that race, I hate thinking about it, it hit me hard, really hard. That said, I still came back to watch races in 2012.

    In the 80’s I remember a lot of talk about these drivers being the playboys, almost like Crockett and Tubbs, living this life of danger and luxury. I liked that, it drew me in (Much like Miami Vice drew me in). I think the point I am getting to is the lure of danger kept me watching into adulthood, these weren’t the tin-tops, this was danger. I loved those races in the early 2000’s, I think it kept the IRL in business.

    Those IRL races were safe, the races lately seem less safe. I place a lot of that on the drivers taking care of each other. I don’t feel like we see that these days.

    With that though, we also can’t avoid it, Scott Dixon flying at Indy wasn’t a pack race thing, Bourdais flipped on his own, no other cars around. Justin Wilson wasn’t in a pack race when he died in what started as a single car accident.

    I think Indycar has been unlucky, the drivers have been daring and the fans have been vocal. What can be done? I don’t know. I didn’t even feel that was pack racing Saturday. Much like NASCAR faces though, there has to be a way to get between pack racing and single file parade, there has to be a way!

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    I am not qualified to comment on the Texas race as I did not see it. Listening to it on the radio the announcers said many times that “Dixon is alongside Power” and I kept thinking “why can’t Dixie get around him”. My only strong memories of IndyCar “pack racing” are of Chicagoland, Fontana, and Las Vegas. Fontana was beyond exciting. WOW! So I have mixed emotions about pack racing for all the reasons that George has put forth above in his typical fine manner. I will add this: When there is no open wheel racing to watch on TV, I will go to a local dirt track or watch Nascar on TV. Of all the Nascar races the ones I can’t stand to watch are Daytona and Talladega. They are very boring and basically all those watching are mostly just waiting for “the big one.” Fontana on the other hand was anything but boring and I don’t believe that IndyCar fans ever wait for “the big one” except with dread.

    Time to get off this thing and head north. I hesitate to elevate Phil’s blood pressure today, so I will simply say I am heading to Elkhart Lake to watch the open test. It appears that they may be racin’ in the rain. I received a Andretti newsletter in which they reported that they will have their Road to Indy drivers running at RA today.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    I do not think there was that much difference in this race and last one. If Firestone had had more time to develop the tire it would have been fine. The tires were blistering but not degrading like they should. That alone would have given some separation. We need these kind of races. Yes the drivers have to look after each other. Robin Miller is right, get rid of the grass. That would have prevented the big one. No more competition yellows. These men knew the tires were blistering, they could have managed it.

  5. Steven Kilsdonk Says:

    It’s a fine line between too much downforce causing a pack and too little causing a parade. And the problem is that weather and track conditions make that line shift. So the rules package to hit that sweet spot is probably a moving target.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    “Danger has always been a passenger. Like the track and the speed, it is a constant. Ever present, it too is a part of the lore. Without that risk, the men are just ordinary.” – Paul Page, 1991 Indianapolis 500 intro

    Ed Carpenter’s words ring true when you consider that if no one had attempted to run 3 wide through turns 3 and 4 on Saturday night, 3 wrecks (involving 10 cars) would not likely have happened. But that is so much easier said than done when dealing with 20+ extremely competitive drivers. I would compare Bourdais’ words about the most recent Texas race to his actions in previous Texas races, for example. I have seen him race extremely aggressively in close quarters there (not for the sustained periods we saw on Saturday, but not unlike it at times), sometimes to the point of foolishness. I don’t say this to accuse Bourdais of hypocrisy, but to illustrate how competitive nature can sometimes overwhelm better judgement in even the best racers.

    I think it is important to point out that, much like Fontana in 2015, Indycar did not shoot for making the race like this. I don’t think they ought to, because they don’t need to encourage additional danger and expense, especially at high speed tracks (at least not without some additional reward). But they should be shooting to make races competitive, and the series, teams, drivers, and fans should accept that sometimes circumstances add unplanned danger to a race. They must be prepared to adapt to it when it arises.

  7. My general problem with “pack” racing is that outside of the greatly elevated levels of risk involved with having 10-20 cars running around covered by 1-2 seconds (such that if there is an accident at the front of the pack, the rest of the pack arrives on the scene with basically no time to react), it’s actually pretty boring. Many, many passes happen back in the pack, but none have any kind of lasting effect until the last handful of laps (a driver can plummet back through the pack just by having to lift off the throttle, but then move back up nearly as quickly) and the leader is usually able to camp out on the white line and not get passed (like we saw with Will Power for most of the race, although it was true for basically anybody else who led for even a couple laps). At that point, what you’re doing is, to borrow a phrase from many of the folks who look down on motor racing, “watching cars drive around in a circle for a few hours”. Having a car that’s “faster” than most matters basically not at all, if your actual position on the track doesn’t matter until 10 laps to go, and the same goes for trying a different strategy (which only matters if you catch a yellow at the right time, and as Tony Kanaan proved, even getting caught out on a bad strategy doesn’t matter, as he made up a two lap penalty in less than half the race and finished second).

    So, yeah, Texas was getting more attention from folks doing a “channel drive by”, but if that type of racing doesn’t attract a LOT more viewers long term and makes it more likely to send a driver to the morgue, then there’s a lot of downside with not much upside to balance that out.

  8. Bruce Waine Says:

    A factor that has not been discussed but in these financial times for all forms of racing would be beneficial to implement is a performance fee per each entrant kept in escrow.

    Should an entrant’s driver be found to have intentionally crossed the line of what the Rules Book defines as “Responsible Driving” and causes ostensible loss to another race vehicle, then the entrant forfeits their fee which is then paid to the team whose vehicle was ostensibly damaged and or totaled.

    For example, Dale Coyne’s or Sam Schmidt’s financial loss this past Texas race is a prime example.

    The Good Ole Days, fortunately, are history when drivers were “allowed” to take revenge on a driver during the next race.

    Following racing since 1960, I have not been able to rationalize why a driver who creates damage to another driver’s vehicle just walks away from the situation without being financially responsible to pay for the damage that they created.

    Would financial responsibility create more responsible driving?

    Perhaps, not…………………

  9. Lets just get rid of ovals and any competitive racing. Will that make the naysayers happy?

    We know if we don’t stop racing at Indianapolis, someone in the future will get killed. It’s certain. Got to stop that from happening now. They were racing 5 wide at one point this past May. Madness. Worse than Texas. This “pack racing” is insane. Two or three cars going into a turn. Gotta stop that.

    At least no one gets hurt on road or street courses in their parades. Just ask Dario.

    • I don’t think you’re listening to what the “naysayers” are saying. Five wide on the backstretch at Indy, or three wide into a corner? That’s fine. It happens only for a brief moment or two, and then the spike in risk dissipates for a while (although, to be sure, the baseline level of risk in the line of work of “IndyCar Driver” is a heck of a lot higher than in the line of work of, say, “cosmetics sales”, and I think it’s that baseline risk that Paul Page was talking about and that attracts people to the sport). It’s the 2-3 hours of constant wheel to wheel “something could go wrong at any second, and if it does, half the field could be wiped out”‘ risk that isn’t sustainable, both in financial terms and in terms of potential cost of human life.

      Can drivers be seriously hurt or killed at non-pack races? Of course. It goes with the territory of “driving really, really fast”. But eliminating “pack racing” doesn’t equate with eliminating ovals or eliminating close, competitive racing (I, personally, don’t want IndyCar to do either of those things). It just means being smarter about what risks you’re accepting.

  10. Sports create events, bouts, contests, matches, games, and races. They don’t make widgets or products. Major-league sports are like show business. Customers attend events, performances, competitions, and races. Home viewers watch races. Dallara IR-12 chassis are products. Tires are products. You can write of INDYCAR “races” or “events” (includes qualifying sessions and test sessions). respectfully, Brian

  11. Product is what the media buys from IndyCar.
    in person, it’s an Event, Race, Competition, etc.
    after the Network buys the Rights, it’s Content.

    • ABC licenses the right to show a race. Alan Bestwick, Eddie Cheever, Scott Goodyear, Jerry Punch, et cetera perform, race teams perform, and a television show is viewed. A competition is viewed. A race is viewed. Sport is turned into show business, not product manufacturing.

  12. Pack racing didn’t kill Dan Wheldon, but it directly contributed to the circumstances that killed him. The IRL were very lucky that no one was killed in pack racing on the 1.5 milers in the crapwagon era, but a lot of drivers got hurt because of wrecks in packs of cars. Thankfully, no injuries from Texas 2017.

  13. I like pack racing. I realized what is really annoying to me though. If people do not like pack racing, then try and find other ways to have exciting racing. I find it a little annoying that many people who are terrified of pack racing are the first to get upset when people call a boring Indycar race (Detroit/Long Beach/Phoenix/Indy GP/St. Pete) boring. Indycar without pack racing would not be Indycar to me. But if we’re not going to have it, or if we’re scared of it, then at least replace it with something better than what we saw at Texas on and off from 2012-2015. If you are going to complain after the most exciting race of the year, then don’t get mad when people complain after the least exciting races of the year. If you don’t appreciate pack racing, maybe don’t get so upset that many of us don’t appreciate fuel mileage races. I just wish the people (drivers, journalists, bloggers, twitter people ect.) who are up in arms over pack racing would get 1/10000th as up in arms after the boring races. If the races at say, Long Beach, were more exciting, maybe a lot of us wouldn’t be so excited to see races like Texas.

    In 2009, the pack races at Chicagoland and Kentucky were about the only reasons to watch that year outside of Watkins Glen and maybe Toronto.

    Beyond that, I am starting to come around to closed cockpits (IF they are the fighter jet style ones) only because Indycar needs to get rid of the fear. I honestly don’t think they are necessary for safety. But fear is the pervasive attitude among so many people both in the paddock and watching/tweeting/in the stands so maybe closed cockpits will at least put peoples minds at ease. And if they are safer too that’s also a plus. It’s not just at Texas or pack racing. Fear seems to be pretty pervasive in Indycar anytime we do anything since 2011. So if closed cockpits help dissipate that fear then I guess it’s worth it, whether they really are safer or not. That, or take a NASCAR COT body, chop off the fenders, and put in a bigger engine and call it a day. Chassis would, at least, become pretty cheap.

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