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The 2015 IndyCar season in the rearview mirror

Horace Walpole wrote “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”  That pretty much sums up the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, doesn’t it?

The tragedy of Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono will cast a pall on this season for years to come.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will always be known for the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald in 1964 and Scott Brayton in 1996.  Las Vegas Motor Speedway will always be remembered for Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011.  These types of accidents leave indelible scars on facilities, series, and fans.  Indelible.

Accidents like these leave other lasting marks, too.  Smaller fuel loads, fuel cells, and methanol were mandated after 1964.  Soon after the basal skull fracture death of Scott Brayton, HANS devices were mandatory.  Catch fence research is still ongoing after Dan Wheldon’s accident in Las Vegas.  Now, after Justin Wilson’s death, discussion about how to protect drivers in open cockpit cars is taking place.  Lasting.

But pathos has two faces.  While we are heartbroken for the family and friends of Justin Wilson, other far less tragic situations in the 16 races of the season leave us smiling, pulling our hair, or just shaking our heads.

  • Scott Dixon’s come-from-behind pulling-a-rabbit-out-of-his-hat championship surprised everyone and no one.  A strong, consistent team with the steadiest of drivers is a pretty good recipe for success.
  • Graham Rahal and his one car team proved once again that relatively equal equipment in a series can be exciting.  Fans were pulling for him to finish in the top three in the championship.  Underdogs make for compelling drama, and the series had plenty of that.  Nice to see Rahal mature into the racer people always hoped he would be.  Plus, he is the absolute best shill among all the drivers. *sips Steak ‘n Shake milkshake while hooking my car to a Battery Tender*
  • The Indy 500 qualification debacle once again proved that perception is reality.  Series officials looked like knee-jerk reactionaries bent on placating Chevy while hanging Honda out to dry.  The truth is probably different, but who can tell?  This is how it looks so that must be how it is.  People believe what they want to believe.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series quite often makes it easy to believe anything.
  • The loss of Derrick Walker as IndyCar president of competition and operations is another example of perception being reality.  The perception is even the best qualified individual cannot stay in this position.  I’m not sure Mark Miles, who has appropriated the job, is best qualified to head the competition aspect of the position.  Did anyone else hear General Alexander Haig’s declaration, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House”¹ in Miles acceptance of the job?
  • The ascension of Josef Newgarden to star status has begun.  The series needs him as the face of the series.  Real recognize real.
  • The failure of Penske Racing in general and Juan Pablo Montoya in particular down the stretch is another reason to like equal equipment.  With spec racing, money will buy a pretty good driver, but it can no longer guarantee a championship.  Still comes pretty close, though.
  • With all the talk about “date equity” for races, the series really needs “race equity” instead.  Let’s have the same races each year.  The maybe-but-not-quite race in Brazil and the rain-soaked one year experiment in New Orleans aside, the loss of Fontana and the life support of Pocono and Milwaukee leaves fans wondering not just what the dates of next year’s races will be, but what next year’s races will be.  It’s understood that races and promoters come and go, but IndyCar seems to dispatch both with an easy regularity.
  • All is not doom and gloom, though.  The addition of Road America and the possible addition of Phoenix could be harbingers of better things to come.  Or not.  Paying customers are what the series needs.
  • The TV ratings are up.  What a wonderful thing to be able to say.  It could also be said that figures lie and liars figure.  The hope that springs eternal is that high ratings usher in commercial partners and open pocketbooks.  At least it’s something to watch during the interminable off-season.

There you have it.  The season as it fades over the horizon was one to both remember and forget.  2016 cannot get here soon enough.

 

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  1.  The history behind Alexander Haig’s quote for the youngsters out there. http://adst.org/2014/03/al-haig-and-the-reagan-assassination-attempt-im-in-charge-here/

 

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IndyCar goes down a brave new road

No one should  be surprised at the recent announcement that INDYCAR has entered into an agreement with USA Today Sports Media Group as a preferred marketing partner.  It seems that the bosses at INDYCAR and Hulman Motorsports have decided to control a little more of the message leaving the confines of 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.  The hard core fans wanted action, right?  Here is is.

Since Mark Miles took over at Human & Company, change has been the reality for INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The board of the company has changed, leaving the family with decidedly less power to act on whim, misinformation, or provincial politics.  The entire structure of racing has been reformed as Hulman Motorsports, putting both INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway under the authority of Mark Miles, as well as consolidating many of the duplicate jobs of both the series and the Speedway.  C. J. O’Donnell was brought in as the Chief Marketing Officer of Hulman Motorsports and Jay Fry was brought on board as the Chief Revenue Officer.  In other words, the series and the Speedway are essentially one entity now being run by motorsport professionals.  Derrick Walker brought a racing background to the series as the Director of Competition.  Allison Melangton, the leader of the Indiana Sports Corp team that brought Indy the Super Bowl, is now Senior VP of Events.  Even though this is all old news, it is mentioned to note that the leadership team is now in place.

Now the new game has started.  In recent years the series and its leadership have been ignored and bullied in the media.  The Indy 500 aside, news organizations have not followed the Verizon IndyCar Series on a national level.  Other than as a sidebar or in agate type, news about the series and its races was difficult to find and impossible to promote.  What made it worse was, other than the Indianapolis Star, only online sources followed the series on a regular basis.  Every fault was magnified and every mistake dissected in a quest for clicks.  All the series could do was grin and bear it.  At least until they were ready to act.

The announcement last week was the act.  By teaming with USA Today Sports Media Group, INDYCAR just swung for the fences.  Yes, it is going to cost INDYCAR some folding money to do this, but the possible return on investment is enormous.  Cogitate on these numbers.  Gannett Company, Inc., the parent group of USA Today, has 81 publishing groups with both print and digital coverage.  They own 46 TV stations.  Gannett’s domestic internet audience is 65 million unique visitors a month.  USA Today has 6.6 million readers daily across its platforms.  The team at INDYCAR finally has the audience to market the series.  The ball is rolling.

The team at Hulman Racing is built with some pretty smart boys and girls.  They knew a quick-fix was not an option.  It seems they turned down the volume on the digital naysayers and opted to have a plan and stick with it.  It is agreed that the schedule is a thorn in their side.  They have to know that, and Mark Miles’ recent comments that he did not make himself clear on how the series wants 20 races with a late winter start certainly seems to be an acknowledgement of the fact that sponsors, partners, and teams want a longer season to market themselves.  Smart people learn from their mistakes.

The series will not forget its hard core followers.  These fans will most certainly appreciate a growing series with more media visibility.  And they will always have the digital websites, message boards, and social media to vent their anger and discuss the minutia of the series they love to hate and hate to love.  They just won’t be as loud.

Will this work to build the series?  Who knows?  It certainly is INDYCAR flexing its muscles and finding a media partner who will help to promote it, not constantly castigate it.  IndyCar fans have certainly been conditioned to hope for the best but expect the worst.  Hopefully, this new partnership is the beginning of the momentum the series needs.

 

 

Who cares about IndyCar’s race director?

The announcement of Brian Barnhart as the Verizon IndyCar Series race director came as no real surprise.  Really.  Although it is easy to see the appointment as another example of a tone deaf series leadership actively trying to alienate its dwindling number of hard-core fans, the fact is that it does not really matter.

Think about it.  To whom does it really matter?  The most important constituents are the drivers, who, while not really gushing over the appointment, are not lining up to hide-strap Barnhart to a pine rail and run him up the Monon Line.¹  Of course, he has not yet fumbled a call or made an egregious decision to race in the rain, either.  Give him time.  Truthfully, Barnhart is a known quantity who was in race control last year.  He never really went away, continuing to do some of the weekly heavy lifting of the series.  The drivers know him.  While familiarity may breed contempt, it also breeds comfort.  The promise from Derrick Walker is that a triumvirate of stewards will assure decisions are discussed and, hopefully, fair.  It appears the drivers have bought into that narrative.

Another important constituent is the series itself.  Again, Barnhart is a known quantity who has been very competent at his recent job.  He kept his mouth shut when he was exiled from his race control fiefdom and accepted another position without public complaint.  Basically, he has been a good soldier, and this is his reward.  When Derrick Walker became president of competition and operations, the position of race director now had someone with a racing background to ride herd on the race director.  In other words, former race director Beaux Barfield had a boss who knew racing and the same holds true for Brian Barnhart.  Just like Barfield, he no longer has sole authority over competition.  The series investing in modern technology also gives Barnhart and his staff of stewards a much better handle on the race.  Welcome to the 21st Century, IndyCar!  Nice to have Verizon on board, isn’t it?

While it rankles and burns, the least important constituents are the hard-core fans who follow the series.  The Peter Principle states that people in an organization eventually are promoted to their level of incompetence.  From the hard-core fans’ view, Brian Barnhart is the poster boy for this belief.  More than that, the hard-core fans feel marginalized.  As the few who are devoted to the series, they believe that their opinions matter.  The powers that be at INDYCAR have clearly demonstrated that they don’t.  And they have good reason to discount those beliefs.  An organization that makes all of its decisions based on public opinion will fail.  Just look at Congress.

The Verizon IndyCar Series cannot prosper by just placating the rabble.  They must draw in new fans to survive, and those new fans do not care who the race director is.  Nor should they.  Who serves in race control should not matter.  Even though Brian Barnhart is in the house, the stewards should be faceless.  It is a guarantee, though, that many fans will have their pitchforks and torches ready just in case this all falls apart.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  The IndyCar hard-core are a pessimistic lot. And they have history to support that pessimism.

Will this work?  I call it 50/50.  If the three stewards are truly independent and honestly voice their opinions, then the vote on violations and penalties should be accurate.  But if Barnhart has a minion in race control with him weekly, then watch out.  That would be the recipe for a return to the autocratic choices of the previous Barnhart regime.  If just one steward owes Barnhart a favor, wants to advance his own career, or just wants to be liked by the boss, then it will be a return to the past with one difference – Barnhart will be completely protected behind the human shield of a three person race control.

The drivers, series, and fans are all hoping that this choice works and the name Brian Barnhart remains unspoken for the rest of the short IndyCar season.  If not, well, that’s what Twitter, blogs, and fan forums are for, isn’t it?

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1.  This is a paraphrase of one of my favorite lines from the movie Hoosiers.  A parent tells Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) that this will be the consequence if he screws up the season.  Seems apropos here.

 

 

 

IndyCar starts and stops

Let’s have a quick cringeworthy headline contest about standing starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series being suspended.

Starts stopped in IndyCar series

IndyCar puts the brakes on standing starts

Standing starts never took off in the IndyCar series

Lack of technology stops IndyCar series in its tracks

Most versatile drivers in world can’t handle standing starts

Most versatile cars in the world can’t handle standing starts

IndyCar series dumps fan favorite standing starts

Even though imaginary, these are the type of snarky headlines the series doesn’t need.  And in today’s media, what other kind of headlines are there?  It is obvious that the tone of these headlines is less than complimentary, and the Verizon IndyCar Series needs positive vibes.

The standing starts did ramp up the excitement at the beginning of street and road course races.  The lights, the expectation, the unknown – these all create a mystique, an aura.  For all these reasons, the series needs the option of standing starts.  But better reasons exist for dropping them.

The Verizon IndyCar Series is at a crossroads and in the cross-hairs.  The series desperately needs good press and PR.  The standing starts provided neither.

When a standing start results in cars left on the grid or stuffed into a wall or each other, that is the indelible image that viewers take away.  That’s the news.  And when so few media outlets cover the series, any news needs to be good news, especially in a sport where tragic news is always a possibility.

Also, in a sport that advertises the most versatile drivers in the world, it is a little unseemly to have them left sitting on the grid.  The problem with standing starts is not human, it is technical.  These cars were not designed for standing starts.  That is not what the average fans sees, though.  The average fans sees a driver who cannot use a clutch and accelerator correctly.  If IndyCar wants to control the narrative that these are the most versatile drivers in the world, then they have to create the plot that moves it along.  That plot no longer needs the situational irony of standing starts.

The facts are today’s IndyCar drivers and the Dallara chassis are both the most versatile in the world.  The car was a robust design for protection on high-speed ovals, yet was racy enough for road courses.  In other words, it was a compromise and needed to be so.  Standing starts were not on the radar when it was built and apparently do not fit this car well.  That is one of the hazards with fly-by-wire design: you can’t just bolt on a new part and expect it to work.  It needs to be designed that way.  You know, like anti-stall.

What matters most about losing standing starts is that the fans lost something entertaining that was promised to them.  In a press release, IndyCar president of competition Derrick Walker said, “We know the fans enjoy it, and we love it, too.”  It might be a tad disingenuous to suggest that IndyCar loved it.  Drivers seemed to say that they did it because the fans liked it.  And the fans certainly seemed to enjoy it, if for no other reason than it was something new and different.  IndyCar needs to keep searching for new and different.

The timing and technology just wasn’t right in the Verizon IndyCar Series for standing starts.  Maybe next time they will plan it before they execute it.  In other words, no more starts and stops.

 

 

A scary IndyCar Halloween

How about all the news out of IndyCar since the season ended in September?  You remember, right?  A race was announced for Brazil…and, uh….wait a minute…I know there’s something else.   Oh, James Hinchcliffe changed teams and has a beer named after him, and Simon Pagenaud is now driving for Roger Penske.  Did I miss anything?  The long off-season of the Verizon IndyCar Series has begun with what many predicted: a scary lack of anything resembling the buzz that IndyCar so desperately needs.  The fear that IndyCar will not build on its spectacular racing and personalities is only one of the tricks that the series may have played on it.  Here are a few more.

I sure would love to start planning my IndyCar travels for 2015.  To do that, of course, the series would have to release a 2015 schedule.  With all the talk about the importance of date equity, it seems that movement to new dates for Toronto, Milwaukee, Fontana, and Pocono may be in the offing.  Mark Miles and his team have suddenly gone quiet on when the schedule will come out after falling into the old IndyCar trap of talking about races before the checks have cleared.  Cue the sound of rattling skeletons in the closet.

Will one of the aero kits being designed (and clamored for by internet trolls everywhere) shift the balance of power between Honda and Chevy so much that the season will become class racing?  Could one aero kilt be dominant on ovals and another on road and street courses?  Sure.  The old Law of Unintended Consequences could be in full effect here.  Be careful what you ask for.  The racing last year was great, but that is no guarantee that next year will be.

Derrick Walker has stated that the series is closing on on having race control sorted out.  This recurring Nightmare on 16th Street could wreak havoc on the credibility the league has been so desperately pursuing if the decision is somehow mishandled.  With the track record of the series, this has the potential to be a flaming paper bag full of potential problems on the front porch of the series.  On one side, the hire needs to have the support of the owners and drivers form the beginning.  Beaux Barfield was an outlier and his support in the paddock was lukewarm, at best.  Brian Barnhart was a control freak that was liked in the paddock but had terrible PR with the public.  How about somewhere in the middle?  No tricks here, please.

One of the things I like about the holiday triumvirate of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas is the buzz.  You cannot escape the marketing might of corporate America from October to December.  Granted these marketing mavens have a lot of money to throw around, but they are out there selling every day.  Where’s the sell, IndyCar?  I know it is too early to have commercials on television, but where’s the buzz?  Did you know that John Green (3,296,107 Twitter followers), best-selling author of The Fault in Our Stars, was in the two-seater at IMS?  How about Deadmau5 (3,015,012 Twitter followers) being on track with James Hinchcliffe?  It should be noted that IMS did tweet about these appearances as they happened, but not much before or after.  Build the buzz.  Both of these artists have more followers than the total viewers of every IndyCar race the last two years combined.  Leverage that.  And if Deadmau5 plays at the Snake Pit this year, that is HUGE, even if you have no idea who he is.  He wears a mouse head as he DJ’s electronic dance music, for what it’s worth.  Costumes are big this time of year, right?

So Happy Halloween, IndyCar!  The fans are still waiting for their treats, but keeping their fickle interest may be the biggest trick of all.

 

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.

The confusion of being an IndyCar fan

The Verizon IndyCar Series put on a pretty good show at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.  There was a great pass for the lead that viewers saw on TV, and many passes for position that fans only knew if they listened to the IMS Radio Network or read post-race media releases.  Even if you were in attendance at the race, you only knew about in-pack action if you actually saw the pass or listened to a scanner or radio.  And since the series is hoping that the TV audience will eventually supersede the spectators at the race, it’s incumbent on both the series and television to, you know, kind of get things right for the viewers.  That was not the case at St. Pete.

Television, whether it is ABC or NBC Sports, simply cannot show everything on a street course; there is just too much going on in too many places.  Both networks do as well as they can under the circumstances, I guess.  It would be a Herculean effort to pick out the most interesting battles and find time to show them.  All the fans really ask is for the broadcast to be accurate.  Therein lies my issue with the ABC booth at St. Pete.

Up to Will Power’s restart kerfuffle/gamesmanship/screw-up, the booth of Allen Bestwick, Eddie Cheever, and Scott Goodyear had been acceptable.  Bestwick brought enthusiasm and certainly seemed prepared.  The scenario should go like this: Bestwick tells the audience what just happened and Cheever and Goodyear explain why it happened and the consequences of it happening.  The fans only ask that they be given accurate information and commentary.  This did not happen on the lap 82 restart after Charlie Kimball’s spin.

Will Power, as everyone watching the race knows, brought the single-file field around for the restart very slowly and waited until the acceleration zone to, you know, accelerate.  Even though this was, according to Verizon IndyCar Series president of operations and competition Derrick Walker, exactly how the drivers were instructed to restart, ABC’s Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear vilified Will Power, comparing the start to something you see in go-carts and placing the blame for drivers in the rear of the field laying back and accelerating to pass on the lead driver doing what he was instructed to do.

It was the new play-by-play guy Bestwick who knew that Power had not reached the acceleration zone.  This begs the question of the preparation of both Cheever and Goodyear.  The viewers want to know both facts and opinions on those facts.  The color guys need to know what the play-by-play guy knows.  Shouldn’t both Cheever and Goodyear know what the drivers have been told?  Fans don’t need to be confused; they need to be enlightened.  Uninformed knee-jerk commentary does not help achieve that goal.

To top it off, on the next restart Power accelerated much earlier, and Cheever lauded him by saying, “That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”  Really?  Derrick Walker later said that Power received a warning on the second restart for accelerating too early.  Confusing, huh?

Gamesmanship will always a subject of debate on restarts.  Power did admit to lifting on the first restart to keep his teammate Helio Castroneves in line.  But according to the IndyCar rulebook as explained by Derrick Walker, no rules were broken.  I liked the enthusiasm of both Cheever and Goodyear, but do the fans a favor announcers: know the rules and tell us when they are broken or when they are followed.  Maybe Cheever and Goodyear visited the Dali museum inside the track at St. Pete and were inspired by Salvador Dali himself, who said, “What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it.”  If that’s the case, then carry on.

The tale of the turbo in IndyCar: let’s all just get along

Derrick Walker, the IZOD IndyCar Series president of competition and operations, recently announced that both Chevrolet and Honda have agreed to move to a twin turbo engine for the 2014 IndyCar season. The press release says in part, “In an effort for parity throughout the turbocharger range, mandating only a twin turbo system simplifies our efforts to ensure even closer competition.” What a sound political statement. Allow me to translate: “Because Chip Ganassi won’t shut up about performance, Honda has decided to scrap their single turbo to make life easier.” Or something like that.

Look, I’m not a gearhead. I have a general understanding of how things work, and I’m a pretty good listener if you explain something to me. Concepts might have to be dumbed down a little (OK, a lot) to help me truly grasp the intricacies of an exotic racing motor, but even I get what a turbo does: it increases horsepower by using exhaust gases to spin a turbine injecting more air into the cylinders. More oxygen into the cylinders equals a bigger explosion when fuel and compression are introduced. The bigger explosion equals more horsepower. Simple enough. But why all the fuss?

Basically, the IZOD IndyCar Series is tired of refereeing the pissing contest between Honda and Chevrolet and the teams using the two engines. In 2012, when Honda was allowed to upgrade its single turbo, Chevrolet issued tersely worded press releases with veiled threats of doing something about it. In 2013, Chip Ganassi publicly questioned whether Honda was working hard enough to be competitive. All this is about regulating how much turbo boost (the amount of air) to allow the different turbos. It’s like two garden hoses with different nozzles and two neighbors complaining about which one creates more pressure to wash their cars. Both neighbors want the pressure to be equal as long as their nozzle works better. Anything else is unfair. And yes, I understand that does not make sense. But then again, we are dealing with the IndyCar rule book.

So there we have it. In a series that has identical cars and identical tires, the rules now stipulate that one of the differences in the two motors used in the series must be changed to make them more identical. Not only has team innovation been stifled in every area other than shocks and dampers, one of the areas of engine development that was significantly different has died a quiet death. Our sensitivity to political correctness and creating an even playing field for everyone has led to another decision to just keep everyone happy.

In the end, I’m torn. The competition with the DW12 has been superb. If you want exciting racing with passing for the lead, the IZOD IndyCar Series is the nonpareil. If you want a series that lacks innovation and legislates conformity, then this is the series for you. Somehow the slogan “IndyCar: the series that simplifies its efforts to ensure even closer competition” just doesn’t seem to send the right message.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Toronto Poutine Edition

IndyCar had quite the time in Toronto.  Border security, rules interpretation, feuds, and Scott Dixon’s domination mixed together in a doubleheader race format to provide a highly entertaining  weekend.  In other words, the IZOD IndyCar Series is sometimes just a blogger’s dream.  So grab your poutine (fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds) and settle in for that other messy treat that is “Ten Worthless Opinions.”

1.  There are so many interesting/entertaining/puzzling storylines to the weekend, I truly don’t know where to start.  Let’s go ahead with what was the big interest going into the weekend: standing starts.  The IndyCar series has a knack for taking the big story and fumbling it like Sebastien Bourdais did his runner-up trophy after Saturday’s race.  Standing starts are a big deal only because IndyCar has for years been unable to have competent two-wide starts due to driver gamesmanship and officials unwillingness/inability to enforce a standard for rolling starts.  The only reason to use a standing start to spice up the beginning of the race is because the normal rolling starts are so brutally ugly.

2.  The standing start concept did, however, generate interest, which makes the fumbling on Saturday even more egregious.   I have no problems with IndyCar using standing starts.  My problem is the seemingly amateurish handling of the concept.  The drivers and team principals are allowed to publicly question/ridicule the choice of starts.  That’s the way to build a brand, if your brand is churlishness.  The fumbling occurred when the officials decided to abort the standing start when Josef Newgarden had an issue.  And I’m OK with that choice.  What leaves me rolling my eyes is how IndyCar did not make clear to its on-site and TV audience what the rules for using or not using the standing start were.  I’m pretty sure if IndyCar handed a list of the standing start rules to NBC Sports and said,”You might want to make a graphic of this for your booth and your audience,” they would have done it.  And NBC Sports is not off the hook.  How could they not request/demand the rules in a production meeting?  Picture the fans at the venue and the hundreds watching on television with their palms up saying, “What the hell’s going on?”  Be prepared to tell the story.

3.  Loved the NBC Sports booth of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Steve Matchett.  Matchett in particular brought enthusiasm and insight to his first foray into IndyCar.  He watched it like a well-informed fan.  Bell continues to be smooth, and his low-key delivery is a nice contrast to Diffey’s exuberance.  Jon Beekhuis excels at giving technical information, this week explaining how the clutch works in a standing start.  NBC Sports broadcast shames ABC, which seems to simply go through the motions.

4.  I did question how NBC Sports handled the Dario Franchitti/Will Power contretemps, though.  After Franchitti blocked/held his line against Power’s aggressive/optimistic/stupid move in turn three, there was a great opportunity to build a feud between members of the two dominant teams in the series.  How did NBC Sports handle it?  They had the two talk it out on the Sunday broadcast with Robin Miller, the same Robin Miller who says, “Hate is good.”  What a let-down.  Where’s the shit-stirring Marty Snyder when you need him?

5.  The racing was great.  And that’s not just shilling.  Other than Scott Dixon absolutely checking out on Sunday, cars were passing and being passed on both days.  Scott Dixon may be rather vanilla when it comes to personality, but what a racer.  He did not put a wheel wrong all weekend.  Speaking of Ganassi Racing, the in-race and post-race comments of Mike Hull are always informative, even when he is being sly about strategy.  Chip Ganassi was at his well-behaved best in the post-race interviews, even welcoming Dragon Racing’s Jay Penske to the rich guys’ club.  His feigned magnanimity chafes me since his normal demeanor is peevish and irascible.  Leopards and spots, you know.

6.  I wonder if we will ever hear the full story of IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield and his border bang-up?  Was he smuggling Cuban cigars into Canada?  I mean, who doesn’t like a good Cuban to smoke after dinner?  Was his passport not up-to-date?  That happens to the best of us.  The truth is probably mundane, but I would love to know.  Until then, I will just make it worse by offering conjecture and innuendo, as a reputable blogger should.  Of more concern is Derrick Walker’s seemingly less-than-enthusiastic support of Barfield in Jenna Fryer’s recent AP story.  Beaux had relatively free rein under former boss Randy Bernard.  My guess is life is different under the dominion of Walker.  Keep your eye on this relationship.

7.  Let’s talk about rules!  In race one, the rule was that two wheels had to be in contact with the racing surface at all times to keep the drivers from curb jumping.  IndyCar gave warnings for violations and then rescinded the rule during the race Saturday when the drivers continued to jump the curbs.  I imagine the conversation going something like this:

  • Race Control: “Stop jumping the curbs!”
  • Drivers: “No!”
  • Race Control: “Stop it!”
  • Drivers: “No!”
  • Race Control: “Never mind.”

8.  More rules interpretation.

  • Race Control: “Dario Franchitti, you blocked Will Power!”
  • Franchitti: “No, I didn’t!”
  • Race control: “Yes, you did!”
  • Franchitti:  “I’m getting my dad!”
  • Race control: “Never mind.”

9.  Even more rules interpretation.

  • Race Control:  “You will do standing starts/double-file restarts/two laps on red tires.”
  • Drivers: “No.”
  • Race Control: “OK.”

10.  OK, that last was a cheap shot.  The drivers and teams knew about the rules for aborting the standing start, the change from double-file to single-file restarts, and the codicil permitting a change of tires without using them for two laps.  The people who did not always know were the broadcasters and the fans.  And since IndyCar is trying to engage the fans, it might consider keeping them informed.  Just a suggestion.  One more: when announcing rules interpretations to the audience, IndyCar might want to include the phrase, “Pursuant to Rule #…”  That would certainly have helped the NBC Sports crew give the audience the facts instead leaving both the booth and the fans twisting in the wind.

There you go, my WO’s (worthless opinions) for Toronto.  Now if you will excuse me, I have to get these poutine stains out of my shorts.  The stuff really is messy.

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