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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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Ten Worthless Opinions: Auto Club Speedway MAVTV 500 Edition

What better way to end the Verizon IndyCar Series than with a season-ending Ten WO’s (worthless opinions).  Some might think the better way to end the season was watching the actual race, but what do the fans know?  Don’t waste your time forming your own opinions.  In the truly modern American way, let an uniformed, totally biased, on-line media blogger masquerading as a mainstream journalist do it for you.  Here you go:

1.  How about a slow clap for Will Power?  He outdistanced his own racing demons to finally win a Verizon IndyCar Series championship.  No drive-through penalties, no overly optimistic passes, no gestures, no shoulder shrugs, just flat out badassery.  His passes on the late restart should become legend.  He only eased back on the throttle when teammate Helio Castroneves  took himself out of contention with an ill-timed penalty.  His post race interview as he exited his car really showed the pressure he was under to finally get it done.  He had nothing left.  Good on ya’, Will.

2.  Speaking of Will Power, his brother Damien, a comedian in Australia, live tweeted during the race.  Not sure how much was planned or how much was spontaneous, but it certainly was entertaining.  You can check it out at @DamienPower01 on Twitter.  He may or may not have been drunk.  The jury is still out.

3.   Yin requires Yang.  You can’t speak of the tortured artist Will Power without mentioning the effervescent Helio Castroneves, a gracious and positive championship loser once again.  It seems Power’s late season luck has been passed on to Helio.  His adventure above the pit-in blend line that resulted in a penalty took him out of the championship picture.  A word of advice: remember Lloyd Braun from the Seinfeld series.  His mantra was “Serenity now.”  That’s Helio, but he needs to know it’s okay to vent.  Lloyd Braun changed his motto to “Serenity now, insanity later” when he realized holding all that bad juju in was not a good idea.  Let it out, Helio!

4.  If you didn’t see it coming, Penske Racing is back with a vengeance.  Even though the teams are still making some in-race mistakes such as putting more front wing in for Power instead of taking it out, the triumvirate of Power, Castroneves, and a strangely upbeat and personable Juan Pablo Montoya may be set up to dominate next year.  Scary.

5.  I am sure that the schadenfreude fans of all sports who live in the Pacific Time Zone feel in the angst of the Eastern Time Zone fans who had to stay up until 1:30 AM to see the post race on NBCSN was sweet.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Now go back to watching the NFL at 10:00 AM on Sundays.  And enjoy F1 and the Premier League at 4:00 AM.  Seriously, did the late time really hurt viewership?  Since only hard-core fans watch on TV anyway, the numbers might surprise.

6.  Should IndyCar continue at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana?  Only if you like good racing.  Not many cars but there was passing, tire performance falling off, and enough OMG moments to keep it interesting.  Although the prerace activities on the concrete and asphalt were beyond hot, the race was run with the sun down.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to be here.  Big ovals are a dying breed in the series.  This one in the California racing market is worth saving.

7.  A negative for the series on big ovals is car count.  Twenty-one cars on a big track looks like ten.  Indy will never be a problem, but Pocono and Fontana need more cars and more on track action.  It may not look empty on TV, but it sure does in person.  And for the big ovals like Pocono and Fontana to survive, they need people in the stands and suites to make a profit for the promoters.  Fontana is lucky to have MAVTV signed for a few more years.  If they didn’t, this race would be gone.  Pocono needs that sort of sponsor security, too.

8.  The Dallara DW12 is a beast.  Not only is it a great race car generally, it’s a great race car specifically.  In both road/street and oval configurations it is racy.  If that is not enough, it protects the drivers.  Mikhail Aleshin’s wreck was as nasty as they come, a fence-ripping, chassis-shearing shunt that proved once again that form follows function.  Build it to be safe then build it to be fast.  Dallara has my respect as does, in retrospect, the ICONIC committee that chose it.

9.  Enough cannot be said about the Holmatro Safety Team in the Verizon IndyCar Series.  They were at the Aleshin accident before the cars stopped moving.  They are the best in the racing business, the gold standard.  No one else comes close.  Additionally, a hat must be tipped to Hulman Motorsports and the Verizon IndyCar Series for continuing to fund this vital piece of each race.  In a time when corporate cost-cutting is the number one way to increase the bottom line, they put safety over profit.  My utmost respect to both the Holmatro Safety Team and Hulman Motorsports for a dedication to doing what is right.

10.  With all its shortcomings regarding a short season, TV ratings, large oval problems, street race comings and goings, and road course disinterest, the Verizon IndyCar Series, week in and week out, puts on the best show in auto racing on the planet.  The product is there.  It’s up to the suits in corporate to have the vision and to execute the plan to sell it.  Everyone else is getting the job done.  Even though the off-season for the series is lengthy, it is an important one for the future of the series.  Your move, bosses.

 

 

 

The conservation of energy in IndyCar

It’s good to see IndyCar teams working so hard on being green.  After all, it’s important that all racing series commit to conservation, recycling, renewal, and whatever else puts a smiley face on the critics of auto racing who decry motorsports as models of conspicuous consumption¹.  At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the employees picking up litter and emptying trash cans wear green (!) bibs that proudly proclaim “Ecology” as their department.  I’m sure that title makes picking up the detritus of race fans so much more appealing.  IndyCar has even added laps to races in an effort to conserve energy.

In 2013, IndyCar added laps at St. Pete, Milwaukee, and Mid-Ohio to discourage the use of fuel conservation from the beginning of the race.  It seems fans actually prefer to watch cars pass each other for position on-track.  Since a race like the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio normally calls for three pit stops to get to the finish, basic high school math proved to teams that if you slowed down and used less fuel, then you could finish the race on two stops.  That seems like a sure-fire way to win a race, so why don’t all the teams do it?  If going slower not only saves energy, thus making a series greener, but also enables a car to make fewer stops, it would seem to be the only choice for a politically correct and ecologically sustainable series.

Apparently, a high school math story problem, pit stop deltas, and yellow flags are the monkey wrenches that get tossed into the works here.  A team conserving energy (saving fuel) to limit the number of pit stops by going slower allows teams who are not conserving energy (saving fuel) to go like hell, thus increasing the lead for these energy wasting, planet hating drivers and teams.  Here is where the term “pit stop delta” gets thrown around by really smart guys like Jon Beekhuis.  The pit stop delta is simply the time it takes to enter the pits, stop, and re-enter the track.

It is the fervent hope of our green, planet loving drivers and teams saving fuel that they do not fall so far behind the energy wasting, planet hating teams and drivers that the time behind the leaders plus the delta for them to make two pit stops is more than the delta for the energy wasters to make three stops.  The problem is how far behind the energy savers fall while they are trying to save fuel.  That time behind the go-like-hell leaders is the all-important variable in our high school story problem.  If an energy saving car goes too slow, it falls so far behind the leaders that two pit stops cannot make up the difference.  That is what happened at Mid Ohio.

Both Penkse Racing’s Will Power and Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti played the environmental card and went slow to save energy.  They hoped for one wild card to be played during the race: a yellow flag.  That is the other variable in the strategy to save the earth and win races.  When yellow flags happen, it not only bunches up the field, it allows the noble energy conservers to save even more energy.  The result is to let them drive like hell later because they saved even more fuel.  Unless, of course, a race is run with no yellow flags, which is what happened at Mid Ohio for the second year in a row.  The perfect scenario is for a yellow to fall after the savers have taken their second pit stop and before the users have taken their third pit stop.  The result of that is a fuel saver becoming the leader.  Power and Franchitti could not save enough fuel to race hard at the end.  And part of that is because the IZOD IndyCar Series added five extra laps to the race.  The result of those added laps was the fuel savers had to go even slower during the race to save fuel to use a two stop strategy while the three stoppers could continue to go like hell.  The earth hating Charlie Kimball decided to go like hell and waste our precious resources to win the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio.  Shame on you, Charlie!

So hats off to the earth loving fuel savers!  Like tree hugging conservationists everywhere, you fought the good fight only to become the victims of the rampant and thoughtless exploitation of our precious fossil fuels.  We can only hope that in the future, IndyCar will lengthen the distances of all races while limiting the number of pit stops.  Then we will have a series that can proudly claim to be the best at using the least.

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1.  The term “conspicuous consumption” was coined by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class.  I footnoted it for two reasons.  One is to use the name Thorstein Veblen.  I considered it as a Twitter handle, but it was already taken.  The second is because his theories of leisure class, consumption, and technocrats are still viable today.  Don’t read the book.  Just check out this Wikipedia page.

A Tale of Two Detroit Cities

With sincerest apologies to the memory of Charles Dickens,  “It was the best of races, it was the worst of races…” at Detroit this past weekend.  What, you don’t recognize the mangling of the opening line from Tale of Two Cities?  What were you doing in high school?  It was required reading!  You can always count on New Track Record to bring up arcane connections to help you understand the value of a liberal arts education.  Let’s look at the best and worst of the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit.

Best of Times

  • Roger Penske has created one of the best street courses in IndyCar racing.  He took a broken track in a broken city and made it racy.  From a track where passing was nonexistent and asphalt patches attacked the racers, Penkse revealed a new layout that not only held together but allowed actual passing.
  • Besides making a racy layout, Roger Penske is building one of the crown jewels of the IndyCar season on Belle Isle.  Yes, the racing is good, but so is the event.  Roger Penske is a businessman and promoter nonpareil.  At a time when most venues see no value in hosting the IZOD IndyCar Series, he saw an opportunity.  Instead of banking on ticket sales for his profit, Penske worked the business-to-business angle and made his money on corporate sales.  Having Chevy as a title sponsor helps, too.  According to Doug Guthrie of The Detroit News, grandstands across from pit row will become double-decker corporate chalets next year.  And we all know that a “chalet” is much tonier than a suite.  Great event, great people, great organization.
  • One of the best things about the year is the parity between the big and small teams.  Fill-in driver Mike Conway won the first race for Dale Coyne Racing and landed on the podium for the second while Simon Pagenaud won the second race for Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports.  You know that has to chafe Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, and Michael Andretti like sand in the swimsuit.  Expect changes to the formula that allow the teams with the most money to buy success.  It’s the American way.
  • Mike Conway’s win was the best thing of the weekend.  A journeyman winner is always welcome, particularly one who suffered such serious injuries in a horrific crash at Indy.
  • Honda had a pretty good weekend in the heartland of Chevy.  After failing on the national stage of Indianapolis, the Japanese marque showed their twin-turbo street course savvy at Detroit by winning both races and sweeping seven of the top ten spots on Sunday.
  • Personalities once again shine.  In the first race, Sebastian Saavedra waved the double middle finger salute to Marco Andretti while Will Power, known for a similar obeisance to race control two years ago, hurled his gloves at Sebastien Bourdais after a safety worker restrained him from an actual physical attack in the second race.   Anything that makes me laugh out loud is the “best of times.”
  • Beaux Barfield, whose honeymoon is over with the drivers and teams, made a great call with a local yellow for Ryan Briscoe’s shunt into the tires at the end of the first race, allowing the race to end under green and silence the groundswell of moronic insistence for a green-white-checkered rule to prevent yellow flag finishes.  Kudos, Beaux.
  • Call it what you will, the doubleheader format worked.  The ratings were up, and the crowds were good.  The drivers, and especially the crews, suffered from lack of turn-around time, but tin-top drivers and dirt track racers have been doing it for years.  It was a good show.  Do it again.

Worst of Times

  • After the first race had only three yellow flags, there were high hopes for plenty of green flag racing for the second contest.  Not so fast.  Whether it was fatigue, as suggested by the television crew, or an abundance of optimism and idiocy, as suggested by me, the drivers could not seem to get out of each other’s way.  Ed Carpenter nerfed Alex Tagliani. Sebastien Bourdais biffed Will Power, starting a six car scrum.  Simona De Silvestro and Ryan Hunter-Reay both found the same wall.  Not quite the smooth event from the day before.  The big question about the two race format is simple: what if these wrecks happened during the first race?  Would safety be compromised because of crew fatigue and time constraints?  If the format is continued, we will find out.
  • The worst luck of the weekend happened to A.J. Allmendinger.  The Penske Racing driver did not complete a lap either race.  The cherry on his bad luck sundae was that both wrecks can be chalked up to driver error.  The pathos of his sincere sorrow and completely defeated demeanor touched me.  It truly was “the worst of times” for A.J.
  • Could the timing of IndyCar’s press conference regarding aero kits be any worse?  Since Mark Miles, the new chief plumber at Hulman & Co., has not yet been able to plug the press leaks that have plagued IndyCar, the series was forced to go public with their plan to increase speeds, provide more team development opportunities, and allow manufacturer designed body parts before they were ready.  Way to steal a promoter’s thunder, IndyCar.  We wouldn’t want the media talking about the race happening on the track, would we?  The politics and drama of the series continues to provide fodder for low-life bloggers like me to mock the dysfunction.  And I thank you.
  • Social media once again provided entertainment.  The Twitter dust-up between Randy Bernard (@RBINDYCAR) and Panther Racing (@PantherRacing) made me smile.  Gig ’em, Randy!  I actually debated which category this fit.  For entertainment, it’s the best; for the IZOD IndyCar Series, it’s the worst.  Call it a coin flip.  If you are not on Twitter, you are missing people talking first and thinking later.
  • The gimmick of double-file restarts causes wrecks on narrow street courses.  No debate.  Proponents can justify them by arguing TV ratings and NASCAR, but they create pack racing and lead to FUBAR’s like the six car melee that ended Will Power’s day Sunday.  Unlike the 40+ cars in NASCAR, the IndyCar Series has a diminishing number of contestants and open cockpits.  Exciting?  You bet.  Dangerous?  Absolutely.  Necessary?  That’s the real question, isn’t it?
  • Listening to the radio feed of an IndyCar race is exciting.  The announcers scream about the action in front of them.  It sounds like something is happening.  Listening to the ABC broadcast is mind-numbing.  The vapid and insipid delivery of the boys in the booth truly harshes the buzz of the great racing we are seeing on the screen.  I wonder if Lunesta, a sleep aid advertising on the race broadcast, complained about ABC/ESPN competing with them with its choice of broadcasters?

If only this writing was “a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”  Get it?  That’s the last line from Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities.  You Philistines simply must read the classics.  It is always high art here at New Track Record.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Sao Paulo Indy 300 Samba Edition

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.

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