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IndyCar’s Sunday drive in Long Beach

Officiating anything is a thankless job.  Someone is always on the wrong side of a call and many will hold a grudge forever.  I know this.  I was a high school football referee for many years.  At one stadium a fan screamed, “You &$%#@*% zebras!” at us as we entered the field 45 minutes before game time. At another, an athletic director at a perennial powerhouse let us know before the game that if the coach liked us, he would be happy to have us back again, offering the subtle suggestion that we were their officials.  We had police escorts off the field, and at one stadium, we had a police escort onto the field.  We were castigated for flags we threw and for flags we did not throw.  But at the end of the night, we left the field knowing we had done the best we could, mistakes and all.  And even though the triumvirate in INDYCAR race control does the best they can do, they find themselves in the news once again for their decisions.

At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, race control’s call for a warning on Simon Pagenaud’s violation of pit exit rules in the closing laps was controversial.  As with most official decisions, there was a winner and a loser.  Pagenaud benefited from race control waving a rolled up newspaper at him while saying, “Bad dog.”  Runner-up Scott Dixon was the one who had his slippers chewed up when Pagenaud’s clear violation of the pit exit blend lines allowed him to maintain his lead on Dixon.  Not sure the “no harm, no foul” concept applies here.

Unlike other sports where violations have one penalty, INDYCAR race control once again put itself in the situation of having to make a judgement on the severity of the violation and went with the rolled up newspaper warning.  In football, a flag means a penalty with clear consequences: offsides is 5 yards, offensive holding is 10 yards, a personal foul is 15 yards.   The judgement is whether the foul occurred or not.  Once that judgement is made, the penalty is clear.  In baseball you are safe or out.  A call is made and the consequence is absolute.  Maybe INDYCAR can finally decide it is time to make consequences crystal clear.  Remember, the calling of the violation is not controversial.  Race control made the correct call.  The penalty is what is furrowing brows.

Of course, the real problem at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is that the penalty was the only thing that seemed worth remembering.  Yes, the end of the race battle for the lead between Pagenaud and Dixon was great, even without a pass.  But the rest of the race?  Put it this way.  What we saw was less racing and more driving down the street trying not to make a mistake, albeit at 170 MPH.  People tune in to and attend events to see racing.  It’s called racing instead of driving for a reason.  Passes are what people pay money to see.

The drivers complained post race about fuel saving making the race boring.  Their suggestion was making the race longer to require three stops and allow racing throughout.  That’s an easy fix.  Drivers also complained about aero issues making following and passing difficult.  No new news there, but the fix, while simple in concept, is not so simple in application.  There is no magic wand to make the racing better.  Aero kits changed all of that.

So for fans who enjoy the big Chevy teams lining up in their single file parade in the front while the Honda have-nots and smaller Chevy teams duke it out in back for best-of-the-rest honors, the Verizon IndyCar Series has you covered.  Welcome to the new F1.  For me, bring back the racing.  Bring back anything that keeps a line at pit exit from being the big story of a Sunday drive.  Excuse me, I mean a Sunday race.

 

 

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Five Worthless Opinions: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Edition

What more could the Verizon IndyCar Series ask of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach?  They had beautiful weather, tremendous crowds all weekend, and almost non-stop track action throughout the three days.  After the debris debacle in St. Pete and the weather worries in NOLA, the series had everything they needed…except an exciting race.  I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but woof.  This was an ugly race in a totally different way than the the first two.  Here are five totally worthless opinions about why that is true.

1.  The Start: The new sheriffs (plural) in race control decided that since all the cars were on the track at the same time, it was close enough to perfect for a green flag start.  That’s one way to keep poor driver decision making at bay.  Long Beach has always been a difficult start for the series with the hairpin at the beginning of the front stretch and antsy leaders like Helio Castroneves refusing to wait for the pack to form up.  Helio simply decided that since he was ready to go, everyone should be ready to go.  Race control appeared to take the public employees’ mantra of “Close enough for government work” to heart and turned a blind eye to prevent mayhem.  Maybe it was a good choice.  Maybe not.  Two words: standing start.  That shouldn’t be hard for the most versatile drivers in the world, should it?

2.  Debris Free: The drivers did behave themselves, though.  There was only one yellow for four laps.  Deep down in my heart, I want that to be because of their innate respect for each other and superior driving skills.  The more likely scenario is that they don’t have enough spare parts to replace the glass-like front wings and box kite-like rear bumpers.  The lack of yellows for wing debris is an absolute positive.  Drivers being unable or unwilling to force an issue or dive bomb a pass due to the fragility of the wings is not.

3.  No Passing:  A big part of the no-passing issue at Long Beach was the tenderness of the wings.  The drivers know that damage to a wing, winglet, flick, or kick can ruin an otherwise great day.  Another part of the problem was all the dirty air that the Honda and Chevy aero kits produced.  The end of the race had the four cars of Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, and Sebatien Bourdais nose-to-tail for positions three through six.  Not one attempt to pass was made.  Maybe I’m reading too much into this.  Maybe the drivers, hard chargers all, simply decided to points race since race winner Scott Dixon was long gone for the victory.  Maybe.  Last year there would would have been a tussle, a nudge, a bomb, and some harsh words after the race.  Some passing attempts would be nice, though.

4.  Strategy: This was a strategy race.  Drivers needed good in-laps, out-laps, and pit decisions.  Helio Castroneves lost the lead to Scott Dixon, and likely the race, when his left front tire changer wisely held him up as Tony Kanaan was pulling into his pit stall directly in front of Castroneves.  The human factor of pit road service and decisions is and should be part of a driver winning or losing a race.  I’m not sure I want it to be the only reason a race is won or lost.  That may have been the case at Long Beach.

5.  Dominance: Must be nice to have a Chevy engine so you can have a Chevy aero kit.  There’s a chance that the oval configuration may be different for Honda, but the road and street circuits are Chevy’s playground, the fuel strategy win of James Hinchcliffe in a Honda at NOLA notwithstanding.  Will the fans, and the Honda teams, be longing for the halcyon days of parity that the DW12 spec aero kit provided?  The first seven positions were Chevy and the first five were Ganassi and Penske.  As The Who sang many years ago, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

The negatives did not exactly outweigh the positives at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.  In fact, some might say that the esoteric nature of strategy and aero made a race like Long Beach sublime.  Tell those esoterics that IndyCar isn’t soccer.  I hope.

IndyCar edgy at Long Beach

The Verizon IndyCar Series has taken on a country club feel in recent years.  The drivers are all buddies. Before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, James Hinchliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay even joked on camera about flipping a coin to see who was going to lead the first lap.  I wonder if those two still had their senses of humor after the race.

Humor is nothing new in IndyCar.  Eddie Sachs was known as “the clown prince of racing” in the 60’s.  Bobby Unser was not only shockingly honest as a racer and an announcer, he was also a born storyteller.  Still is.  A.J. Foyt’s humor was always sharp and biting.  Still is.  So it is nothing new that today’s racers are funny.  What’s different is the politically correct way they interact.  The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach certainly changed all that.

To spice up the broadcast, NBCSN brought in Paul Tracy, four-time Long Beach winner and notorious truth-teller.  Everyone just knew he would stir the pot a little bit.  Sadly, PT was just another talking head, saying nothing controversial.  Sigh.  I am sure he will get the message to go find the real Paul Tracy.

This all leads us to how a pretty good race became an entertaining one.  Bad moves led to bad feelings, sheepish honesty, and a few apologies that may or may not have been accepted.  Hopefully, it will lead to a little ill will.  Then maybe Paul Tracy can get on board and put the hammer down on some people.

One of the best products of the close racing in IndyCar is the fact that anyone can win.  The spec chassis and similar power plants mean the shoestring budgets can hold their own with the deep-pocketed teams.  You just know this small budget competition chafes the big dogs.  The best part of the close racing is that Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson can call out Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon; SFHR’s Josef Newgarden can place the blame on Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay; and SPHM’s Simon Pagenaud can mock the apology of Penske Racing’s Will Power.  Now THAT’S parity.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to have this kind of close racing though the pack every week..  TV does not do it justice.

The irony in the series is delicious right now.  The top dogs were forced to act like contrite backmarkers. Scott Dixon apologized for pushing Justin Wilson into the wall and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Will Power apologized for punting Simon Pagenaud with his usual it’s-my-fault-that-it’s-your-fault line and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Ryan Hunter-Reay apologized by saying a real racer goes for it when he sees the chance at exactly the wrong spot and his apology was UNACCEPTED.  I just love to see the shifty-eyed apologies of schoolboys caught in the act without a plausible story to tell.  Not ironically, Graham Rahal was his usual self and refused to accept any blame for anything.  Never change, Graham.  Both Michael Andretti and James Hinchcliffe were less than pleased with Hunter-Reay’s antics.

Simmering feuds, unaccepted apologies, and possibly a little bit of hate await us at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.  Barber is narrow, twisty, and just not conducive to the type of racing that the IndyCars are capable of right now.  The boys in back are not going to move over for reputation alone any longer.  In fact, when push comes to shove – and it will – the little guys are going to flex their muscles and push and shove back.  And consider this: Juan Pablo Montoya has not had a problem with anyone in two races.  Wait until that happens!  It’s good to see some of the politically correct veneer come off the series.  This is the racing and these are the racers people want to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach: Surf’s Up Edition

According to information on the Legendary Surfers website, Long Beach, California is often credited as being the site of the first use of Hawaiian surfboards in North America when two world travelers arrived home with boards after a trip to the islands.  They started a culture in California that largely defined the West Coast to the rest of the world.  And once you add cars and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, you have the beginning of another Endless Summer on the track.  With that kind of history, how can you not be totally stoked about the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, dude?  And yes, I will be attempting to use surfing slang in this “Surf’s Up” edition.  Since I am landlocked in Indiana, you can assume I will fail miserably.

Some attention needs to be paid to the bruhs on the NBC Sports telecast.  It would be a step in the right direction if the viewership on TV was greater than the total attendance at the event.  That remains to be seen.  The deep thinkers at the network continue to tinker with the production.  With Leigh Diffey calling F1, they had Brian Till as the anchor with Townsend Bell and Wally Dallenbach as color.  Brian did a nice job, but I cannot tell one announcer from another since all three sound alike.  The booth needs Leigh Diffey’s Aussie dialect to differentiate him from his booth mates and his firmer hand to rein in Townsend and Wally, so they don’t get off subject and, you know, miss what is happening on the track.  And missing the action is not cool, man.  Don’t be a Barney.

Pre-race with the boys in the pits was absent human interest, features, and Robin Miller, who seems to be slowly hanging up his NBC longboard.  If you are a hard-core fan of racing, the pre-race worked.  If you are new to the sport, and the series needs new fans, then NBC Sports did nothing to bring you closer to the competitors as human beings.  It is a fine line between simply reporting and telling stories.  I think the pendulum moved to the reporting side a little too much this week.  I do like the Wally Dallenbach/Townsend Bell track lap better than Robin Miller’s grid lurch, though.  Wally shooting Silly String in Townsend’s ear to disturb his focus while driving was a nice touch.

Dakota Meyer, a Marine Corps Congressional Medal Of Honor winner said the most famous words in racing: “Fire those things up!”  OK, he decided, in true California fashion, to do it his way.  Anyone with a CMH can say anything he wants for the rest of his life.  Semper Fi, Dakota.

The start was gnarly.  As long as you have the hairpin at the head of the frontstretch and the flagstand in the same location, rolling starts at Long Beach will always be ugly.  Standing starts anyone?  The benefit of this line-up is that it strings out the cars before the point break of turn one.  Even so, it seems that there is always someone ready and willing to drop in on another driver as they enter the turn.  These drivers can be so territorial here in Long Beach.

One thing you don’t want to do in the line-up waiting for a set is to drop in on a wave when it isn’t your turn.  Charlie Kimball did just that to Alex Tagliani at Long Beach, trying to snake under him and wiping out in the same location and in the same way as Sebastian Saavedra did earlier in the race and Ryan Hunter-Reay did near the end.  That’s what happens when you try to snake a wave, or a racing line, dude.

In case anyone is noticing, the IndyCar series has the best racing anywhere.  The DW12, even though it is as ugly as a mud fence, is a racy machine.  Cars competed for position throughout the pack all day with Justin Wilson, Marco Andretti, and Scott Dixon surfing through the field to the front.  The problem with TV is you never see the great racing until it reaches the top five.  That’s just another reason to watch this series in person.

But the Big Kahuna at Long Beach was Takuma Sato for A.J. Foyt Racing.  He carved the corners all day on his way to his first IndyCar win.  After the race, team director Larry Foyt said Sato had driven the perfect race.  You know what he was doing, don’t you?  He was in the pocket, riding the front of the IndyCar wave at Long Beach.  He was in the zone.  He never put a wheel wrong all day.  Takuma Sato was soul surfing down Shoreline Drive.  The way he drove, he may not be looking to share many waves this year.

Well, it’s time to put the longboard back in the quiver and tool back home in the woodie.  Until next time, listen to the Surfaris and try not to “Wipe Out.”  Hang loose.

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