The 6.0 Napa Valley earthquake Sunday morning stole the headlines from the exciting Verizon IndyCar Series Go-Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Okay, that may have been sarcastic. Other than in the San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star, the race, earthquake or not, likely garnered only sidebar status. Even though the race had no earth-shaking outcome, it was an example of all that’s right with the current iteration of the series.
That’s right, it was a great race – another example of how the caliber of drivers, the equivalency of the equipment, and the diversity of venues makes the Verizon IndyCar Series the most compelling racing in the world right now. The 2014 vintage of the race will be remembered as a very tasty one.
It’s agreed that the lack of team development of chassis and motors means that the rock star teams of Ganassi, Penske, and Andretti can’t just out-engineer everyone else. Graham Rahal and Mike Conway, both driving for one-car teams, managed to find their way to the lead, not through aerodynamic artistry or detailed engineering skills, but through strategy and driving skill. Isn’t that what the series and fans want?
Even strategy savant Mike Hull of Chip Ganassi Racing noted that there were so many teams on so many strategies that it was difficult to keep track. The days of racing a stock-block engine until it blows are over forever. These motors last, and everyone has one. While not to everyone’s taste, strategy in racing is so much more compelling than watching the big teams win every race just because they can. And yes, there’s a certain irony that Will Power and Helio Castroneves of Team Penske are battling for the championship, seemingly negating the anyone-can-win concept. Anyone-can-win-any-race may be the more appropriate interpretation. The championship rewards consistently high performance over time. You can buy that with personnel.
Passing for position on track happened all race. The first lap kerfuffle involving Helio Castroneves completely changed strategy for many teams. In auto racing today, the term “strategy” is shorthand for “saving fuel” which usually means the track becoming a no-passing zone. With so many teams on so many strategies at Sonoma, some were holding station and some were on the move. Mike Conway’s outside pass of Tony Kanaan up the hill in Turn 2 was scintillating, as was Scott Dixon’s pass of Mike Conway at the same place for the lead and the win. Conway and Graham Rahal were victims of their own fuel strategies when a hoped for late caution never materialized. As so often happens, Scott Dixon managed his fuel until it was time to race.
Fuel saving has become the antithesis to great racing for many. Bulletin: ALL racing requires fuel saving to some degree or another. Those that use this strategy the best win; those that don’t lose. Rahal and Conway took a chance and lost. Next time it may work out for them. The cognoscenti of auto racing appreciate whatever strategy is employed, whether it is fuel, tires, passing, or the timing of a pit stop. What is great about IndyCar racing is that ovals, street courses, and natural terrain road courses all have their own strategic quirks. Discerning fans notice these nuances and appreciate them; many casual fans just yell for pack racing and wrecks.
Do casual fans need to be educated about strategy on television and at the track? Sure, and that is on the series and the broadcasters. Appreciating the fine wine bottled in the Sonoma Valley takes a little time, knowledge, and effort from the consumers. It takes the same things for the fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series to appreciate what they have. So pull out a cork, pour a glass, and start tasting the Verizon IndyCar Series. You will notice hints of ethanol, rubber, and suntan lotion on your palate. It is delicious.