This weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series takes a step into the realm of new technology to enhance the fan experience. Since Spring Training at Barber Motorsports Park in mid-March, the series has been experimenting with new LED displays that will theoretically be visible to fans at the track and maybe even for television viewers. These displays are primarily designed to show a car’s race position, but will also show when a car is utilizing the “Push to Pass” (P2P) feature and even times in the pit box.
The old-school curmudgeon in me says it’s a lot of nonsense and is not really something that was needed. The blogger in me who has been insistent that the series should listen to its fans, says at least they’re trying something new that many fans have been clamoring for. To me, this may be more significant than the actual technology being introduced.
I don’t think I’ve seen these LED panels in person. Supposedly, they were tried in practice for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. I was there for qualifying on Friday and the race on Saturday and do not recall seeing them on any cars. Perhaps they were tried in Thursday’s practice and were scrapped. I don’t know.
But I do know that there were plans to have the panels on the cars for the Indianapolis 500 two weeks later, and it didn’t happen. The same plans went awry for the double-header in Detroit. Now, almost five months after they were first seen at Barber, they will finally make their debut this weekend at Mid-Ohio. Just what kept them off the cars all this time is unclear. Where there technical glitches to work through or was it just a function of having so little time to install them on the cars?
As someone who watches the majority of races from my couch, I’m not planning on seeing a huge benefit as a TV viewer. So many shots are either head-on or too far back to get a good look at. Nor do I plan on getting any huge benefit at next year’s Indianapolis 500. Cars are whizzing by too fast to catch much of a glimpse of an eight-by-seven inch panel with an electronic number. Besides, from my seats I have a nice view of the scoring pylon as well as the new video boards.
Where I do think this will come in handy, however, is when we make our annual trip to the Barber race next spring. We usually sit on the hill overlooking Turn Two at Barber. The temporary video screen is small and set up too far away to really get a good idea where each driver is running in the race. They have the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network playing, but the sounds of the cars make it difficult to hear very well. The cars go rather slowly through the Turns Two and Three complex, so it will be good to be able to get an instantaneous look at where each driver stands.
Systems similar to this one have been used in other road racing series. What sets this one apart is that it will update multiple times throughout a lap – every time the car passes over the embedded sensor in the track; whereas the system used in other series only updates each time the car passes over the start-finish line.
The ability for fans in the stands, and other cars, to see the P2P displayed is a plus. But I guess that if the driver getting passed sees the green “PP”, the passing car is already alongside and it’s probably too late at that point to defend. Teams may be able to notify the driver that the approaching car is “on the button”, but other than that, the benefit will be to the fans.
As for the pit box timer, I have my doubts who might be able to see it to get any real benefit from it. But if the technology is there and they can work it in, why not use it?
As I said earlier, the crusty old race fan from the sixties in me says this is all about nothing. I’ve been going to races all my life and have gotten by just fine without a distracting electronic display on the cars. But I said the same thing when FOX first introduced the permanent info box in the corner of the screen for their NFL games in 1994. I found a box permanently placed in the corner of the screen to be a useless and intrusive gimmick. Nowadays, I cannot imagine watching a football game without those graphics. The info box (or bar) has become a vital part of every televised sport – racing included.
Will the LED panel in IndyCar have such an impact? Probably not, since the impact will mostly affect those at the track and will probably be most noticeable at road/street courses. Plus, very few people attend the majority of races in person. Of the sixteen races on this year’s schedule, I attended four of them with no plans to attend the final three. I have an idea, that’s probably above the norm. If I had to guess, I’d say most fans attend one to two races a year if they attend any at all.
But give the Verizon IndyCar Series some credit – not only for trying something new, but for listening to and responding to the fans. Lately, it seems all I’ve done is (justifiably) criticize series management for settling for the status quo and for their bunker mentality where fans have no voice. It was never a big deal for me, but many fans have been clamoring for this feature ever since Swift Engineering proposed them in their concept design that was submitted to the ICONIC committee in 2010. Many, myself included, thought that the Swift design was one of the more aesthetically pleasing designs. Their design also resonated with many fans due to their proposed position lights.
As I said, that part was not that important to me, but many liked it. It took a while, but they will finally find their way onto the cars in an actual race this weekend. Although it was not a personal ho-button topic for me, I applaud IndyCar officials for following through with something – anything, that the fans have been wanting. Is that a sign that other issues and concerns will be heard by the series? We can only hope. It’s a step in the right direction.
Now about that five month schedule…