RACER editor David Malsher argues that a complete rebirth of Indy car racing's technical philosophy is key to the survival of the IZOD IndyCar Series.
I'm not sure how or why the Associated Press got hold of an early draft of the Boston Consulting Group's evaluation of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but assuming you've read Jenna Fryer's summary of its content, I'm sure you, like me, were alternately pleased and appalled.
Some of BCG's observations merely stated the obvious – the series suffers from lack of awareness, and it would be better to have just one TV partner. (Gee, ya think?) The ideas that filled me with dread were: 15 races in a 19 week period, a three-race playoff, a three-race playoff that includes the IMS's charisma-free road course and an international series in the offseason. The encouraging parts were: 1) The suggested redistribution of what is currently the $1.1m-per-team Leader's Circle subsidy into a far bigger purse for each race. 2) The focus group that BCG employed was adamant that IndyCar should differentiate itself from NASCAR in terms of how to steer the on-track action and how to portray the drivers; and, 3) the diversity of track types was perceived as a good thing.
What we haven't seen are suggestions for a change in philosophy regarding the cars, yet I believe that's absolutely vital if IndyCar is to rebuild its brand. OK, I admit I'm a late arrival in this debate; some sages in the paddock have been arguing this point for a decade or more, whereas I was quite sure that gripping on-track action and improved marketing strategies would be enough to revive interest in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Three years of exciting competition but feeble TV viewing figures suggest my faith was misplaced.
Now, I'm not going to write a 115-page review, I'm not going to pretend my ideas are definitive or all-encompassing, but nor am I going to charge a seven-figure sum for my consultancy services. A $50 Starbucks card and a model of a Penske PC10 would be great…but I'd feel happier yet just knowing that the points outlined below had been taken on board.
To my mind, one of the primary problems across all forms of motorsport is that too many governing bodies are obsessed with the closeness of the competition to the exclusion of all else. Few seem prepared to accept that there are days, weekends and even seasons when a driver/team/car combination is going to excel and be rewarded for it. Now you can say tight racing attracts casual followers and turns casual followers into ardent fans, and that's true, but it cannot come at the expense of real racing. (The entertainment quality of racing can be improved with one very simple philosophy, which I'll come to later.) In the world of fast, spectacular cars, a show is what Ken Block produces on his magnificent Gymkhana videos. A sport is about competition; by definition, it must be a meritocracy.
So are the governing bodies merely pandering to public opinion because public opinion can so easily be expressed these days? Are the fans demanding close competition, however manufactured it is? If so, I'm convinced that this mentality has emerged only in the past couple of decades. For instance, in 1980, had I been old enough to gamble, I'd have bet a month's wage on Johnny Rutherford winning the Indy 500. It all made sense. The Chaparral 2K (ABOVE RIGHT) should have won Indy the previous year in the hands of Al Unser, and since then the car's reliability bugs had been largely ironed out. Unser won the final CART race of '79, his replacement at Chaparral, Rutherford, won the first race of 1980, and no other team in the mean time had come up with a car that could match John Barnard's magnificent “Yellow Submarine.” Watch that race again and see how JR could run anywhere on the track, how the canny veteran didn't need to make risky maneuvers in traffic because he always had pace and grip in reserve.
Most of those in the grandstands – the ones who'd seen Unser dominate the first half of the previous year's race, for example – and everyone in pit lane and press room knew that Rutherford was having a slightly easier ride than his rivals, but were there complaints that the race was too predictable? Hell no! The 300,000 spectators applauded the brilliance of driver, car and team. Was that because J.R. is just one of those low-key, modest, nice guys who's impossible to dislike? Was it because he had already proven himself at Indy, scoring two wins while not possessing a car advantage? Was it because in 1980 he was driving one of the most beautiful cars ever to grace the Speedway?
Well, maybe a combination of all three…. But at the risk of sounding as old as the venue itself, I wonder if we've simply lost the ability to appreciate this kind of performance. Of course, some of the late-race Indy 500 shootouts that we've seen since ('82, '91, '92 and '06 spring immediately to mind) and the final-lap dramas we saw in the past two years were more thrilling to more people. But does every race have to be that way so that fans don't smear web forums and social media with words like “boring,” “predictable” and “yawn”? Once upon a time, we weren't looking for a full-course caution 10 laps from the end of a race in order to falsely fashion a five-way fight to the checkered flag. We empathized with the victor whether he won by two tenths, two seconds or two laps. We appreciated that it was won on merit.
EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT
Some race fans are more interested in drivers than the cars. They don't care if technological boundaries are explored, reached or breached, nor whether the engines have any road car relevance. Others perceive racing as a technical tour de force, with cutting edge ideas and exotic-looking machinery that works as the clichéd “high-speed laboratory” that may one day produce something useful for the common man. To maximize its appeal, a race series must try to attract both categories of fan. IndyCar currently appeals to those who are drawn to drivers; those tantalized by technology, by contrast, are short-changed to a woeful degree.
The IZOD IndyCar Series, as the pinnacle of U.S. open-wheel racing, should not just be a driver-centric drama with the cars as 200mph props. It must be a meritocracy for all participants, which means there should be diversity of equipment, something that encourages technical ingenuity. Besides which, the ability to work with engineers and help develop the cars was one of the defining qualities in such heroes as Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran. Imagine how frustrated they'd be if they were racing in the current era.
Attempts to equalize performance, I feel, must end. Too often in racing series all around the world, excellence is punished, be it through weight ballast, air restrictors, engine tweaks, rule changes (often disguised as “clarifications”), dubious calls from race control, whatever. In fact, I find it quite extraordinary that so many car companies apply their logos and dollars to racing when they aren't allowed to shine for more than a few races. Seriously, who cares if David slays Goliath when, for equalization purposes, the big guy has his feet nailed to the ground and the kid has unlimited swings of the sling?
It's a subject Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, wrote about back in January on this site. “If IndyCar is to garner the respect of the fans as one of the top forms of motorsport in the world,” he said, “we need to get away from this mentality of having spec cars with limited testing. I am not advocating a free-for-all for our benefit. Rather, we have to allow testing so new drivers have a chance in the sport and we have to allow teams to differentiate themselves beyond just having their own dampers. Fans want to see the teams generate evolutions and if IndyCar continues toward making the rules suit the budgets of the lowest teams, it will soon take a back seat to not only NASCAR, but sports car racing as well.”
Amen to that. The philosophy behind racing's increasingly blatant attempts to manufacture close competition, compressing the distance from the front of the grid to the back, would be laughed at in any other sport. Imagine if, in order to reduce the difference between the best and worst teams in a 4 x 400 relay, the fourth runner on a squad wasn't allowed to set off until all teams had exchanged batons for the final leg. Suddenly the team element would be gone and it would all come down to the last man.
In motorsports terms, that would mean the driver had the only meaningful contribution to a race, because his team's engineering knowledge, technical smarts, or strategy expertise had been neutralized by the regulations. IndyCar must remove this ridiculous glass ceiling for engineering staff, or eventually the pit lane will be populated by Pep Boys rejects, while the best guys and gals head to series where their talents can flourish, where they have a greater influence over the race results. What appeal would IndyCar have for the ambitious young wannabe race engineers?