Dancing is life in Brazil. The main straight for the Sao Paulo Indy 300 is the Sambadrome, the 30,000 seat home to the carnival parade put on by the samba schools in Sao Paulo. The samba schools are year-round organizations that are the social hub of the city. Think the Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans or the 500 Festival for the Indianapolis 500. You can always count on New Track Record to sprinkle a little culture in with the racing. With that in mind, here are this week’s WO’s (worthless opinions) on the IndyCar dance soiree in the streets of Sao Paulo.
1. Of course, you have to get to the dance first. Penske Racing may have outsmarted itself by waiting to put down a hot lap in the first round of knock-out qualifying. Both Helio Castroneves and Will Power were unable to get a time since Tristan Vautier and James Jakes both had problems on track and the clock kept on ticking. The line to the dance starts in the back, boys. The Andretti Autosport strategy of banking a lap early paid off for pole sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay. Will this become the strategy in future rounds of road and street course qualifying?
2. Like a dance, a race needs a great first step. The long straight of the Sambadrome allowed a stellar start and great restarts all day. It is a matter of fairness. Backmarker or not, no driver should be at a disadvantage at the beginning of a race other than that of his qualifying position. The hairpins at St. Pete and Long Beach are unfair on starts and restarts to any driver from the middle of the pack back. If you cannot get all the cars lined up in a fair way, then standing starts are in order.
3. The Penske boys just didn’t seem to have the rhythm at Sao Paulo. It’s low-hanging fruit, but Dancing with the Stars champion Helio Castroneves and his dance partner Will Power stepped on each other’s toes going into the newly designed first turn. Come on guys, figure out who’s leading.
4. After moving quickly through the field, Power’s day ended with what seems to be the new IndyCar problem du jour: a header fire. Will there be more flames at Indy? Castroneves, always the entertainer, even did a nifty pirouette in the first turn to show the crowd that he still has some sick dance moves, but the judges weren’t impressed with his cha-cha as he headed to the back of the pack.
5. There didn’t seem to be any wallflowers at this ball, though. Everyone wanted to dance. Passing was happening throughout the field. The problem with a television broadcast is the inability to follow action throughout the field. A street course, live or on television, only allows you to see what happens in front of you. Ovals allow you to see action building. At the risk of sounding like a shill, that’s why you should attend an IndyCar oval race.
6. The boys in the booth back in Indianapolis did what they could with the Brazilian television feed. Jon Beekhuis added intelligent technical commentary without speaking down to the ordinary fan, and Robin Miller apparently had nothing better to do, so he showed up in the studio. Miller is the most underutilized asset of the NBC Sports broadcasts. He has value. Find him something to do, or don’t invite him to the dance.
7. Spec racing or not, the IZOD IndyCar Series is fun to watch. Whoever choreographed this big dance number deserves an award. Edginess permeated the day. Multiple, and interminable, cautions ruled. Takuma Sato took the lead late and fought off Josef Newgarden before finally succumbing to James Hinchcliffe on the last turn of the last lap. The newly patient Marco Andretti quietly finished third. NASCAR had the “Big One” at Talledega and made the news. IndyCar just continues to have the best racing on the planet and is ignored. I guess the dance marathon at Talledega was more exciting than the IndyCars doing the lambada at Sao Paulo. America still like its dancing and racing the old-fashioned way: boring.
8. The judging of this particular dance contest was called into question on both the broadcast and social media. As the laps wound down, Takuma Sato made some highly questionable moves to keep James Hinchcliffe behind him. Beaux Barfield gets the benefit of the doubt if only for being so transparent on the fact that something is being investigated. The secrecy and favoritism that typified race control in the past has disappeared. Of course, that does not mean that every call is correct. If those moves had happened between cars fighting for 4th and 5th, would the call have been the same? One would hope so, but no one likes to see the winner decided on a call on the last laps. Blocking? Yes. Right call? Yes. As Townsend Bell said on the broadcast, “It’s good, hard, knife fighting racing.”
9. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing are fast becoming the stories of the year. These single car entries are tap dancing at the front of the pack and challenging for wins. The spec formula for the Dallara DW12 was designed to do just this – give smaller teams a chance to win. It’s working. Of course, since it benefits the smaller teams, Chip Ganassi will have a problem with it. Don’t those teams know they are the chorus, not the headliners?
10. The belle of the ball was James Hinchcliffe, though. He pressured Sato after Newgarden fell back and took advantage of Sato’s last corner slide to duck under him for the victory. The bigger story is Andretti Motorsport. After years of being the best dancer in the chorus, the Andretti team is auditioning to be the prima ballerina in the IndyCar company. The aging grande dames of Penske and Ganassi are just not quite as robust and hungry as Michael Andretti’s team. It is interesting to note that Andretti Autosport does not split its resources and time with a NASCAR team but has instead invested in the IndyCar ladder series. It takes focus to be a champion.
All in all, the IndyCar samba in Sao Paulo was a great performance. While the ratings may not be as high as Dancing with the Stars, I’ll take Dancing with the Dallara anytime. It’s time to quick step to Indy.