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Archive for the month “July, 2014”

In defense of IndyCar Race Control

In recent days, IndyCar race control has been low-hanging fruit as far as finding something to disparage about the Verizon IndyCar Series.  In Toronto, the main criticism really wasn’t whether to run in the rain or not, it was the apparent waffling on the subject. The cars were on the track.  They were off.  The race started.  No, it didn’t.  You guys can start in your regular positions.  No, you have to go to the back.  You guys cannot work on your car, but you guys can.  Yikes.  Perception does become reality to many people.  The problem is that perception is often not reality.

I don’t pretend to have any special insight into IndyCar race control, but I do know a little something about officiating.  Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time race control gores your particular ox.

1.  You can’t call it all.  In the NFL, officials can call holding on every play.  They don’t do it because they know better.  If they did, then new officials would be hired.  Like water, the game finds its own level where the players and officials understand what is acceptable.  Racing is the same.  You can’t call everything because every pass, every defensive move, every decision could be seen as violating some rule.  You officiate the spirit of the rule. No harm, no foul.

2.  Owners and team managers, like coaches, don’t really know the rules very well.  Exceptions like Dale Coyne notwithstanding, owners and team managers think they know the rules.  Ask any official in any sport if most coaches get deep in the rulebook.  They don’t.  And that’s too bad, since knowledge of the rules can benefit you like working under red flag conditions truly benefited Sarah Fisher at Toronto.  Never assume the owners know what they are talking about.

3.  Don’t trust the announcers.  The only ones who know less about the rules than the owners are talking heads and ex-drivers.  The ex-drivers knew some of the rules when they drove, but I can guarantee that they only quote the rulebook when someone points out the rule to them.

4.  Let’s talk ox goring again, shall we.  Any official’s worst nightmare is the coach or player who wants every violation called on every play.  They never shut up.  Of course, they never want the same thing called on them.  Not mentioning any names, but IndyCar is full of drivers who see the world as against them all the time.  According to them, they are always innocent and everyone else is always guilty.  Be honest, how many drivers and owners came to mind?  More than one, right?

5.  No official sees it all.  Instant replay and slow motion have ruined the integrity of officiating in all sports.  We no longer trust the officials to get it right.  Actions take place at full speed in any sport, and that full speed in IndyCar renders real-time calls almost impossible.  I don’t care how many cameras IndyCar has, the crew in race control will never see everything.  Never.  A basic rule in officiating is to call it, you must first see it.  Guessing is not allowed.  When you add the idea of intent, then you have opened yourself up to second guessing from people who neither know the rules or are capable of interpreting them.

6.  One problem in racing is that decisions are often reached by committee.  Beaux Barfield may make the call, but he has input from the other stewards.  This is not a criticism of the decision makers; it’s an acknowledgement of the difficulty of reaching a consensus decision.  Having multiple voices in race control is endemic to auto racing, so there’s no changing it.  It also offers a little protection for the derriere.  And that’s important.  Officials need to believe they can call them like they see them.

7.  Officials can’t fight back.  Derrick Walker, other than an occasional ill-timed presser, has been solidly in race control’s corner.  His defense of the decisions made by Beaux and the boys goes a long way to silencing the critics.  Nothing is easier than sniping the decisions of an official.  The series needs to zip the lips of the teams in this regard.  You don’t see much official disparaging in the NCAA, NFL, NHL, or NASCAR because the league punishes this quickly and strongly.  Don’t allow the pot-stirring.

So cut the boys in race control some slack.  Whether you like the job they do or not, they are going to continue to call ’em as they see ’em.  As they should.

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The Honda Indy Toronto: Red Flag Edition

Who knew there would be so much angst over a piece of red fabric.  The red flag flew on Saturday and Sunday at the Honda Indy Toronto multiple times amidst accusations, confusions, rain, wrecks, and A.J. Foyt sarcasm.  It was the current incarnation of IndyCar at its finest.

Red Flag #1: The first attempt at a start on Saturday was simply cars taking a few laps to determine that there was too much spray.  The standing start was aborted and the red flag flew.  So far, so good, other than the fact the fans have been led to believe that the series really does race in the rain.  Keep in mind that it was not a deluge, just steady wetness.  Big question: Is the Firestone rain tire a true full rain tire or is it simply an intermediate tire masquerading as a full rain tire? Just asking.  Does it design create the spray seen at Toronto or does it mitigate it?  Again, just asking.

Red Flag #2: Another attempt is aborted when Ryan Briscoe sticks his nose into the tires.  The question arises again:  Are the Firestone rain tires really full rain tires?  You might even ask about the tires on the Honda Accord safety car* since Arie Luyendyk took it for a slow spin going into Turn 3 on the next lap.  Apparently, it had slicks for better grip.  Oops.  Finally, a start kind of took place with Will Power tagging the wall.  This led to many people seeing red.

The rules are clear: you cannot work on a car under red flag conditions.  After Will Power’s wreck, Team Penske took the car behind the wall and began repairs.  Other teams, according to Michael Andretti, were apparently prevented from working on their cars on pit lane.  What’s the rule?  According to Race Control, the race never started, so repairs could be made.  A.J. Foyt used sarcasm as opposed to profanity to question this by saying he’s not too old to learn new rules.  Classic stuff.

Red Flag #3:  This is a metaphorical red flag.  It was not waved but is there nonetheless.  Toronto exposed a communication issue between the teams and Race Control.  This is not to say that the race should have been run on Saturday, or that the teams should or should not have been able to work on their cars.  The truth is most fans don’t care.  The red flag here is that teams seemingly did not know what the hell was going on.  A paddock is a loose society of equals.  When one team is seen to be given a boon or an exception to rules, everyone else will be angry and loud.  That is when the nit-picking, accusations, and sarcasm finds its way onto the TV and into the paper.

Red Flag #4:  Once again, this is a metaphorical red flag.  Who is in charge of the message at the Verizon IndyCar Series?  Certainly Derrick Walker is in charge of the message to the teams (see above).  Beaux Barfield and his team are in charge of the in-race calls, but Walker is in charge of quelling any insurrections resulting from these calls.  The anger in the pits made good TV, but it did not make the series look like it had control of the situation.

Who is in charge of the message Derrick Walker sends when he gives an impromptu press conference explaining the red flags, the rain, and the reasons behind the decisions?  In his interview Saturday, it seemed like he was speaking in tongues; it sounded like it made sense, but it really didn’t.  At what point is someone from C.J. O’Donnell’s shop in charge of messages that emanate from the series?  Just wondering if the new regime at Hulman Motorsports/IndyCar is still staking out turf.

Red Flag #5:  Real red flag this time.  In race one on Sunday morning, a pile-up on the first lap brought the field to a stop.  Good call since the track was blocked and much clean-up was required.  Teams were not allowed to work on cars this time since the race had actually started, so the red flag rules were followed, but Dale Coyne, the master of the rulebook, found a loophole.  A team working on its car can be penalized a minimum of 20 seconds.  Robin Miller, pit lane reporter/activist/consultant/pot-stirrer, relayed Coyne’s info to Sara Fisher, who decided to take the penalty and use the time to repair Josef Newgarden’s car.  It was a great call as Newgarden advanced to challenge for a top ten finish until a burst of optimism put him off at Turn 3.  The official IndyCar box score shows a drive-through penalty for the 67 for “entering a closed pit,” so I’m not sure whether to believe my eyes or the box score.  In any case, a red flag win for SFHR.

Red Flag #6: Once again, this was a real red flag.  Race Control chose to throw the red flag on lap 51 of what was a timed race.  The red enabled the series to stop the clock.  Yes, I said stop the clock on a timed race.  No problem here with the decision, but teams who were on tire strategies that had them in the lead, such as Dale Coyne Racing with Justin Wilson, certainly had their strategies changed by IndyCar finessing the rulebook to ensure a chance at a green flag finish.  If red flags at the end of races are going to be used to create a green flag finish, then the rule needs to be codified and propagated.  When the series appears to make up rules as it goes, that perception becomes the de facto reality.

The two races at the Honda Indy Toronto once again had small teams on the podium with KV Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Mike Conway hoisting the champions’ trophies.  That’s green flag all the way in my book.  But I have to wave my own red flag at the Verizon IndyCar Series for “failure to communicate with the real race control.”  And all the fans who buy the tickets handle the TV remotes are the real race control.

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*  Okay, before people knee-jerk about whether it’s a “pace car” or a “safety car,” let me explain.  At the Indy 500, it’s an “official pace car.”  People pay to have their car called that.  It’s a big deal.  In the rule book, the term is “safety car.”  Technically, even at the Indy 500, it’s a “safety car.”  I don’t know.  I just write what seems correct at the time.

 

Ovalistas, where are you?

Yankee baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.” This convoluted philosophy is exactly what the Verizon IndyCar Series is fighting at all ovals on the schedule that are not the Indianapolis 500.  Ovals in the series are on life-support, and whether the fans or the series like it, the economic concept of supply and demand will have its way.

Other than Indianapolis and Iowa, the ovals suffer from woeful attendance issues.  The series, trying to appease what seems to be a very small but VERY vocal minority of fans, has worked diligently to add ovals to the menu.  For all I know, all of the oval fans may be going to the races.  It doesn’t seem that there are very many of us left.  In any case, it is not enough.

The ovals all have their own unique issues.  With Texas and Fontana, the heat is oppressive.  Unless you are absolutely hard-core, it’s easier to stay in the air-conditioning and watch on TV.  Milwaukee lost its prime schedule real estate when Roger Penske demanded and received the week after Indy slot and the accompanying momentum and ABC network broadcast.  Pocono, while being in driving distance of East Coast fans, soon discovered that there don’t seem to be many fans in those locations who want to venture into the mountains on an already crowded and expensive 4th of July weekend.  Iowa Speedway, even though the crowd has remained steady, is now owned by NASCAR, a series with a history of showing very little love to IndyCar.  Many of the venues suffer from lack of on-track activity before the race.  And with the economy often limiting fans to attending fewer events, even the Indianapolis 500 is in competition with Milwaukee and Pocono.

Another problem, reminiscent of being and F1 fan, is that watching ovals has become a somewhat esoteric activity.  You need to be an oval fan to understand and appreciate oval races.  Pocono, from my perspective, was a great oval race.  Strategies were in place to save fuel, leading to Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden being in front with the laps dwindling down.  Pit service had to be spot or you dropped back.  The low-banked and long corners created edge-of-your-seat racing that was incredibly fast and edgy in person but did not necessarily translate to television.  Fuel saving at Pocono, while a strategy, created a holding station situation for the drivers.  Saving fuel meant that there was very little racing for position until the end of the race.  The longer the race went without a yellow flag, the slower the cars went and the more they strung out.  Like it or not, these are the types of strategies that go with oval racing.  With just one yellow flag, the cars never had a chance to restart and race hard.  The one time they did led to an OMG moment as the pack hurtled toward the first turn with Will Power continuing his turn to a heel by blocking teammate Helio Castroneves.  It was a scintillating racing moment.  You just had to be a fan willing to wait over 400 miles for it.

Brandon Igdalsky rattled his saber the week before the race because of low ticket sales.  Unlike promoters such as Eddie Gossage at Texas, who enjoys taking public shots at the Verizon IndyCar Series and its drivers, Igdalsky called out the fans by pointing out that he added IndyCar because research showed that the fans wanted it.  Basically, he told the fans to put up or shut up.  And that’s where the oval fans in IndyCar are right now.  Hopefully, Iowa Speedway is packed for the Iowa Corn 300.  If not, then it may be time to shut up about how many ovals are on the schedule.  Of all the things that Yogi Berra misspoke, I certainly hope the following becomes true about IndyCar ovals: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

 

Spec racing in IndyCar: long live the spec!

Love it or hate it, spec racing is now part and parcel of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and that is a good thing.  This particular view will be met with pitchforks and torches from many segments of the IndyCar universe, but like street races, it’s here for the foreseeable future.

What I am NOT saying is that open development of chassis, motors, aero, and other parts is bad for racing.  It’s not.  The COST of this development is bad for the racing business in today’s economy.  Want proof that economic warfare in racing is bad news?  Look at F1.  IndyCar has a vested interest in keeping costs down and has done so in a way that benefits the most people.

The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston was a great example of what the parity in spec racing gives the fans.  Parity equals better racing.  Better racing SHOULD equal more fans at the race or viewers on television in the future.  The Jack Hawksworth/Juan Pablo Montoya battle was the scintillating example of big racing small and small coming out on top.  Fans should love this action.

The winners at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, Carlos Huertas of Dale Coyne Racing and Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports are the beneficiaries of this parity.  While it is hard to argue that SPH is small, it is certainly not of the size of the Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti operations.  They can compete precisely because the spec gives them parity of equipment.  Now the differences are drivers, pit deltas, and strategy, and none of those areas are affected by the car’s specifications.  In the Saturday race at NRG Park, Dale Coyne won with strategy, not money.  Toss in the Sunday podium of Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin from Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports and Jack Hawksworth from Bryan Herta Autosport, and you have the poster for what is right about the current formula in IndyCar: cost containment and development restrictions that lead to all the teams on the grid being competitive.

Of course, not everyone in the IndyCar universe is happy about spec racing.  Certainly many fans champion unlimited spending and unlimited regulation that allows the richest teams to dominate the sport with research and development.  That’s one way to look at it.  Bankrupt the small guys or force them to race for the mid-pack/backmarker trophy.  The bigger teams, who demanded cost containment, only wanted costs contained if their ability to develop/fabricate/source certain parts that gave them an advantage was unfettered.  With the old Dallara chassis, the shops of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti were able to use their expertise and money to shave tenths and hundredths from lap times, and in an age when the rest of the car was the same, that was enough to dominate.  Other than shocks, the teams can no longer develop parts to find an edge.  Parity on the track is the result.

In Houston, Mike Hull complained of a spec part failing on Scott Dixon’s car, and Will Power alluded to a spec shim for camber falling out.  These were parts that the bigger teams could identify as weak and fabricate themselves.  While not making a car faster, it could make it more dependable.  To teams with the resources to identify and fix this and other similar problems, spec racing chafes because they can’t use in-house R & D to make their cars faster and more dependable.  What’s the advantage of being big if it doesn’t help in putting cars on the podium?   Well, the larger teams can still hire the best people to help with preparation.  And better preparation is an advantage, just not one that necessarily makes the car faster.

Fans are a fickle bunch and identifying what will bring them through the gates and put them in front of televisions is a science and an art best left to the experts.  But if they would ever ask if I preferred great equipment or great racing, the racing would win.  And if the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston is the result of spec racing, then why change it?  For now, spec racing rules.  Long live the spec!

 

 

 

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