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The IndyCar Revenant

It’s movie time for the Verizon IndyCar Series once again.  This time, the movie connection is The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Academy Award winning vehicle.  Of course the plot of the entire movie doesn’t reflect the current state of IndyCar, but one scene certainly does.  The scene in question is THE scene in the movie.  DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his compatriots.  Violent, bloody stuff it is.  Which leads us to the current state of IndyCar.

The DiCaprio character of Hugh Glass is Honda Performance Development and the grizzly, of course, is Chevy.  Currently, Chevy is having its way with Honda, both with engine power and aero kit performance.  And it’s bloody.  In the movie, the DiCaprio character vows revenge.  We can only hope that Honda Performance Development has the sand that the movie character displays.

And that’s the question, isn’t it?  After years as the only engine supplier, using dependable, de-tuned motors, Honda welcomed Chevy to help with the heavy lifting and to provide much needed competition in a stagnating series.  So far, so good.  The competition was scintillating, particularly at Indy.  Then the decision to implement aero kits for each manufacturer was made.  Hello, Mr. Grizzly Bear.

Each manufacturer teamed with a different engineering firm for aero kits: Chevy with Pratt & Miller Engineering and Honda with Wirth Research.  Chevy ended up with an aero kit that teams understood and developed while Honda ended up with a work of modern art that offered too many solutions to the problems of aerodynamics.  After the perceived favoritism afforded Chevy last last year in Indy with airborne cars and changed qualifying rules, Honda has found itself falling further and further behind.  And that leads us to this moment in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Other than by using pit strategy, Honda has not been able to move to the front of pack this year at either St. Pete or Phoenix.  As expected, the Honda teams are complaining, particularly about the coming use at Indy of domed skids, devices designed to increase downforce in a spin to prevent flying cars.  After testing, the Honda teams have vociferously protested the domed skids as both unsafe for high speed racing and a detriment to competition, particularly at Indy.  Chevy, on the other hand, is just fine with it.  How about that irony?

At Indy last year, INDYCAR used safety as the absolute reason for revamping the qualification rules after cars became airborne.  Even though Honda aero kits had not suffered the same fate, it was hard for Honda to argue with safety, right?  Now, Honda is using safety as the same argument this year to remove or modify the domed skids.  Will the series succumb to the same argument this year?  Sorry, Honda.  The grizzly bear is holding all the cards.

Did Honda Performance Development hitch their wagon to a falling star in Wirth Research for its aero kit?  In hindsight, the answer is probably yes.  Truthfully, that is simply the way it goes.  Racing, as in all competition, has winners and losers.  The problem with this in the Verizon IndyCar Series is that there are only two engine and aero kit providers, and it is imperative that both remain in the series.  The series is always walking a very thin line to keep everyone happy.  Would fans like to see racing where everyone is in competition?  Sure, they would.  Do aero kits really help differentiate the cars for the fans?  No, they don’t.

For Honda, this is all about Indy.  They need to be competitive in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”  For manufacturers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, this is an absolute truth.  The politics are vicious because the only thing worth winning is the Indy 500. These small stakes are huge for owners, drivers, and employees in the series, too.   Sponsorship depends on success.  Expect politicking from Honda and its affiliated teams to continue until the month of May to remove or modify the domed skids.  It would be the safest thing to do on many levels.

 

 

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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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