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Spec racing in IndyCar: long live the spec!

Love it or hate it, spec racing is now part and parcel of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and that is a good thing.  This particular view will be met with pitchforks and torches from many segments of the IndyCar universe, but like street races, it’s here for the foreseeable future.

What I am NOT saying is that open development of chassis, motors, aero, and other parts is bad for racing.  It’s not.  The COST of this development is bad for the racing business in today’s economy.  Want proof that economic warfare in racing is bad news?  Look at F1.  IndyCar has a vested interest in keeping costs down and has done so in a way that benefits the most people.

The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston was a great example of what the parity in spec racing gives the fans.  Parity equals better racing.  Better racing SHOULD equal more fans at the race or viewers on television in the future.  The Jack Hawksworth/Juan Pablo Montoya battle was the scintillating example of big racing small and small coming out on top.  Fans should love this action.

The winners at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, Carlos Huertas of Dale Coyne Racing and Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports are the beneficiaries of this parity.  While it is hard to argue that SPH is small, it is certainly not of the size of the Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti operations.  They can compete precisely because the spec gives them parity of equipment.  Now the differences are drivers, pit deltas, and strategy, and none of those areas are affected by the car’s specifications.  In the Saturday race at NRG Park, Dale Coyne won with strategy, not money.  Toss in the Sunday podium of Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin from Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports and Jack Hawksworth from Bryan Herta Autosport, and you have the poster for what is right about the current formula in IndyCar: cost containment and development restrictions that lead to all the teams on the grid being competitive.

Of course, not everyone in the IndyCar universe is happy about spec racing.  Certainly many fans champion unlimited spending and unlimited regulation that allows the richest teams to dominate the sport with research and development.  That’s one way to look at it.  Bankrupt the small guys or force them to race for the mid-pack/backmarker trophy.  The bigger teams, who demanded cost containment, only wanted costs contained if their ability to develop/fabricate/source certain parts that gave them an advantage was unfettered.  With the old Dallara chassis, the shops of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti were able to use their expertise and money to shave tenths and hundredths from lap times, and in an age when the rest of the car was the same, that was enough to dominate.  Other than shocks, the teams can no longer develop parts to find an edge.  Parity on the track is the result.

In Houston, Mike Hull complained of a spec part failing on Scott Dixon’s car, and Will Power alluded to a spec shim for camber falling out.  These were parts that the bigger teams could identify as weak and fabricate themselves.  While not making a car faster, it could make it more dependable.  To teams with the resources to identify and fix this and other similar problems, spec racing chafes because they can’t use in-house R & D to make their cars faster and more dependable.  What’s the advantage of being big if it doesn’t help in putting cars on the podium?   Well, the larger teams can still hire the best people to help with preparation.  And better preparation is an advantage, just not one that necessarily makes the car faster.

Fans are a fickle bunch and identifying what will bring them through the gates and put them in front of televisions is a science and an art best left to the experts.  But if they would ever ask if I preferred great equipment or great racing, the racing would win.  And if the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston is the result of spec racing, then why change it?  For now, spec racing rules.  Long live the spec!

 

 

 

IndyCar’s street cred

IndyCar’s credibility with sponsors, television, and the media is not, as most would agree, at an all time high.  Ovals are an endangered species; potential title sponsors for races are keeping their checkbooks in their pockets; television ratings are in need of resuscitation; and, if some people are to be believed, the mainstream sports media are cackling as they complete their nefarious conspiracy to relegate the IndyCar Series to the margins of sports entertainment.  What does IndyCar need to do right now?  It is obvious that the series needs some street cred.  It’s time for IndyCar to throw down.

After looking up words in the Urban Dictionary to give this post a “street” flavor, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only can I not use any of those words without sounding hopelessly like an aging hipster, I can’t even use them ironically without sounding like I’m trying too hard.  Sometimes it really stinks to be so Midwestern suburban, yo.  See what I mean.  That’s the last time I throw in any urban argot, I swear.  In any case, IndyCar is beset on all sides by critics and reality.  The only thing to do is fight back.

Mark Miles started the IndyCar response by announcing that IMS would be hosting a road course race, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.  He had on his Breaking Bad Heisenberg pork pie hat throwing up IMS and IndyCar gang signs to the audience saying, “If you ain’t down with a road course at Indy, then you ain’t down with IndyCar, yo.”  Sorry.  I said I wasn’t going to that again.  That’s wack.  Anyway, Miles is doing what he can with what he has. He HAS the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  To have an opportunity to use the facility, make a profit, and be on network television is money in the bank.  Hopefully that interest can be parlayed into more sponsorships and more races.  To many fans of the series, the down side to more races is that it may include more street courses.

While I’m still waiting to see how a hotter-than-the-hinges-of-hell Houston in June race plays out next year, the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston had two things going for it: the names of Shell and Pennzoil in the title.  Any race, no matter where it is run, will be on the schedule if it brings the Benjamins.  Was Benjamins too hipster?  Sometimes the line between hipster and doofus is a little blurry.  In any case, IndyCar can only race where it is wanted, and it is only wanted where there is a chance to make money.  Just like a great athlete trying to come back from an injury, IndyCar has to rehab and train if it wants to compete at the highest level again.  If racing in a parking lot around the Reliant Center in Houston gives the series the exposure it needs to garner interest from Road America and Watkins Glen, then do it.  For the series, money is the name of the game.  And IndyCar needs to get back in the game.  How about that?  Was a The Wire reference to the game street enough without sounding all I’m-trying-too-hard-to-be-hip?

IndyCar really is the most diverse series in the world with its ovals, street courses, and road courses.  This IS the point that IndyCar needs to hang its pork pie hat on.  The series will never again be an all oval or mostly oval series.  That ship has sailed, and the taste of the fans has changed.  IndyCar has a great product for which it needs to find an audience.  An engaged title sponsor for the series, relentless selling by the yet-to-be-hired commercial director for IndyCar, and creative marketing by the series and race promoters are first steps to show television and sponsors that the series is a viable platform for investment.  If more street cred means more street races, I say bring on Providence, Rhode Island in two years.  As Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really.  Get busy living or get busy dying.”  It seems IndyCar has started to make its choice.  And I’m down with that.

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