By David Malsher
The SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond wasn’t a race – it was a high-speed parade, and I honestly don’t think I’ve been more embarrassed for this branch of the sport than last Saturday night.
NASCAR has its critics, myself among them, for making every nuance, every driver’s barely adequate performance and every passing maneuver into a matter of great import – “and X has passed Y for 28th place and cut him off on the exit of the turn, maybe as payback from the last race where they were dueling over a place in the top 15 and they touched fenders,” yadda, yadda, yadda… But hell, at least there is overtaking, at least the drivers are having a go, at least the spectators and TV viewers have something to watch 95 percent of the time.
The most exciting part of Richmond’s latest IndyCar race was news of the pregnant Emma Davies-Dixon – Scott’s wife – and her contractions, which recurred after Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s final pit stop. I’m glad to see someone was excited by the race, but it has to be said, she did have skin in the game – and I bet the contractions stopped after that pit stop. From then on, she knew that her husband, barring a mechanical failure in his Dallara-Honda, was home and dry.
There may be some reading this who think I’m exaggerating to describe Richmond’s event as the worst oval race I have ever seen. But yes, it was even worse than Champ Cars at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. What those dormant events had, that Richmond lacked, was lapping maneuvers. Even as I type this, I can’t quite believe I’m referring to a situation where some of the bravest and most talented racecar drivers on the planet are unwilling to lap backmarkers. In the closing laps at Richmond, Dixon didn’t want to go off-line to lap Ed Carpenter’s Vision Racing entry…And he didn’t need to because his teammate Dario Franchitti wouldn’t have dared to try a pass on him as one of the Ganassi cars would have ended up on the marbles and therefore, very likely, eaten concrete. On a day when both Penske cars had crashed out, the Ganassi boys needed to take full advantage.
I really hoped that, given fuel windows of around 100 laps, anyone who stopped with 60 laps to go might cut loose in their final stint, run full rich on the gas, and carve through the field. Not a chance. With shortfills and a one-groove race track, no one was going to take a chance. Even yellow flag periods, with the fields packed together for restarts made no difference. Within two laps, once everyone’s tires were up to temperature, the order had calcified.
I’m not lashing out at the series on the strength of one race. It has to be said, this has been coming for a while. Kansas was dull, the Indy 500 was poor by its own standards and Texas was a drone, save for Marco Andretti. Sure, Iowa was fun, thanks largely to Tomas Scheckter and Dan Wheldon, and a nice bit of wheel-to-wheel running between Briscoe and Franchitti for the lead, but I’m afraid that’s not a good hit rate. I’m worried that the less than committed fan who happened to tune in to Versus for Richmond will choose to give the ABC-broadcast events from Watkins Glen and Toronto a miss. “Ovals are the tracks where it’s most easy to pass, right? And the next two races are a road course and a street course? Hmmm, okay, I’m off to do something more interesting, like picking fleas off the dog.”
For next month’s issue of RACER magazine, Robin Miller, Jeff Olson and myself have canvassed the opinions of some of the most significant voices in the IndyCar Series about where they want it to be in two to three years’ time. Each of our interviewees, naturally, veers toward the areas that most affect them. Team owners talk about marketing and costs, component suppliers talk about technical regulations and costs, while drivers – and ex-drivers – speak of the need to improve the quality of the racing.
But on the evidence of this year’s oval races, that isn’t something that can wait for two to three years. Dixon’s comments, recorded just before the Richmond race, seem even more appropriate now. Here’s a sample: “The critical part is the racing. It had always been fantastic, but recently we’ve lost it. For me, that’s the key point. People are in the stands to watch a race, and right now we aren’t giving it to them.”
After the race, Franchitti echoed the sentiments of his teammate – and live on TV, God bless him. Okay, that won’t win him friends at the Indy Racing League, but it had to be said. And it needs to be said repeatedly until something is done about it. Dario added: “It’s not like we’re just cruising around, but nobody can get close enough to make passes. We need to look at that and fix it.”
“The only person that got close to me was my teammate,” Dixon observed. “To be honest, I don’t think he was going to pass me even if I went half a second or a second slower.”
Now bear in mind these are two of the four guys most likely to benefit from this state of affairs. Sure, half the time Penske has the edge, but generally, the worst that a Ganassi driver can expect to finish on an oval is fourth. Any further down, and it’s because of a screw-up in the pits, a crash or a bright day for one of the Andretti Green Racing drivers.
But winning easily is not why Dixon and Franchitti or 90 percent of the IndyCar drivers do what they do. They’re racers who don’t want to have their natural talents boxed in by highly restrictive track conditions. They want to show their flair, show why they’re the best at what they do and show why this is such a demanding branch of the sport.
Many advocates of spec racing will point out that not only does commonality of chassis, engine and tire help reduce costs (as long as the providers of the components don’t abuse their monopoly by overcharging for their parts and service), but it also turns the emphasis of the racing back to the drivers.
Well, that’s only true if you allow the drivers to race. What we saw at Richmond had no significance whatsoever, and proved nothing in terms of driver skill. I hope Dixon doesn’t take it badly when I say that after his final pit stop, you could have parachuted any one of 15 of his rivals into that No. 9 Ganassi car and it would still have won. Most of his pursuers were cruising to save fuel, and they were unable to pass because there was only one line on the track. When drivers as brave on ovals as Wheldon, Scheckter and Andretti can’t show off their talents, there is something desperately wrong.
So what are the answers? For 2009, it’s hard to see there can be any on the technical front. But there are procedural changes that can alleviate some of the problems and can be put into effect straight away.
Firstly, pit allocation should be random – names and numbers drawn out of a hat. There’s no way that a car/driver’s performances thus far this year should be allowed to snowball into getting a favorable pit slot for the next event. That’s like setting the grid in the order of finishing position from the previous race. (Except as we’ve all seen, having a prime pitbox is more important than pole position.) The championship table is for rewarding accumulated good performances. Each race is supposed to be a do-over, an event in itself.
Secondly, stipulate that each driver must make at least one pit stop under green-flag conditions. Or if we wanted to be truly radical, keep pits closed throughout full-course cautions – though that does raise the specter of cars running out of gas on-track.
Thirdly, if tire marbles are the problem, the track needs to be cleaned at quarter, half and three-quarter race distance, or whenever a full-course yellow falls roughly within those boundaries.
For 2010, Firestone must change the construction of its tires to a harder compound that doesn’t send balls of rubber spraying off the ideal racing line and onto the potential second or third grooves. It’s wrong that one company should take all the rap for what’s wrong with the current breed of Indy car, but there’s no question that soft rubber equals marbles equals one-groove racetracks.
Honda must be pushed into being far braver with its power boost. The recent announcement that a 200rpm rise in the rev-limit has produced a temporary five horsepower boost left me unsure whether to laugh or cry. It’s hard to make a 50hp boost without a turbocharger, but 5hp isn’t enough, and everyone knows it. What's the maximum that can be extracted out of their V8 as a push-to-pass extra? Someone in Honda must know.
Dallara, before it sets to work on the new breed of Indy car for (probably) 2012, has to modify the current car. The underwings need to have proper venturis, and the overall area of the front and rear wings needs to be heavily reduced, so that they are simply balance trimming tabs. For those worried that increasing ground effects would increase corner speeds on ovals, the harder tires should help offset that. Increased corner speeds on road courses could be prevented by stipulating a minimum ride height and stiff springs that don’t allow the car to be sucked down to the track. And street courses are generally bumpy enough that the ride-height has to be raised beyond the venturis’ effective range.
And then bring on the new engines for 2011 with 800hp turbos (minimum), please.
The IndyCar Series cannot afford to wait if it is trying to entice additional fans and sponsors. Hell, races like we've seen at most of the ovals this year could even drive away the loyalists. A series cannot be sold on one driver alone, and even if Danica Patrick had won at Richmond, that wouldn't have made it a good race.
The time for action – short-, medium- and long-term – is now. Major decisions need to be forced through now. As Dixon, the reigning champion, told RACER: “Not long ago, we had side-by-side racing at places like Richmond and Texas and Kansas and Chicago. It’s what made the IRL. Now we have single-file races in which the winner is decided by fuel strategy or a fast pit stop or an untimely crash. That’s not conducive to drawing new fans to the sport.
“All of us are racers at heart. It’s cool when you’re winning, but the show is the key. The show determines whether more people watch, which determines whether more sponsors come on board and whether more people are exposed to our sport. We need to be putting on a show, but right now we’re not.”