Sunday, 30 August 2009

Indycar Entering a Minefield NASCAR Knows Well

Various hardline fans of the two series might not agree but on recent evidence Indycar seems to be heading for the same sort of worries that have been writ large during this NASCAR season.

As fans of Indycar will no doubt be aware the powers-that-be within the series introduced a raft of measures aimed at improving the races, especially on the oval tracks they visit. There were various aerodynamic widgets added, or made optional, to increase downforce, while others were taken away to increase close racing, and then they introduced an engine boost that a driver can use a set number of times during a race, to help pass a rival, defend from a rival, or catch up to a rival.

The first oval race, in Kentucky, was a revelation (especially compared to what had gone before it). There was close racing, doses of overtaking and lowly Ed Carpenter for Vision Racing came as close to breaking the life extinguishing stranglehold that the powerhouses of Penske and Ganassi have had on ovals as anyone has in eons.

Reviews were almost universally positive, or at least heralded the first steps out of the levels of catatonic boredom Indycar had all too regularly visited, and so it was a certain level of excitement that fans braced themselves for the second oval race since the rule changes. This time at Chicagoland.

Now, here I have to point out my observations on the race are based on Indycar’s online highlight package and various written reports, so they may not be perfect.

The finish was the race was spectacular (as recent finishes at the Illinois track have been) but this was a little extra than recent finishes. Without wishing to pour scorn on greatness Ryan Briscoe’s winning margin of 0.0077 seconds pales into insignificance compared to last year’s so-close-they-called-it-wrong episode. What made this a little special was the fact that covering the top 13 cars – every lead lap finisher – was 0.8269 seconds. In fact there was only a shade over half a second covering the top 12. There may only have been a handful of green laps before the finish, but what it still shows is that the stringing out of the field can be almost non-existent.

Now, you can’t fault close racing. It’s what people want to see when they spin the turnstiles and sit in the stands or pay the subscription and sit in front of their TV, which is what Indycar wants and needs right now, but a look away from the open wheel world shows the minefield they may be stepping into.

A minefield in which NASCAR has been getting its legs blown off in for years.

Where can you get close, fast racing in NASCAR? Daytona and Talladega, the restrictor plate tracks, where the sanctioning body artificially bunches up the field by taking away horsepower from the engines. Now, there is nothing that artificial about Indycar’s rule changes, but it’s having a similar effect.

And what else, aside from close racing, have NASCAR’s plate races become synonymous with?

Huge crashes.

Even to the point that the networks that are “lucky” enough to be broadcasting these races use the threat of “The Big One” in its marketing for the race. Huge crashes may get viewing figures, but I’d guess that even the IRL don’t want that.

Two of the three plate races this year have had massive crashes in their closing laps (often after late cautions like yesterday’s Indycar race), with several very damaged cars, and handful of injured fans and a return to post-Dale-Sr levels of fear over safety in plate races, with several drivers being very vocal in their criticism of the racing.

And as far as safety goes NASCAR’s jalopy knocks an Indycar into a cocked hat. They have fenders, so minor touches are just that, rather than the danger of inter-locking wheels in Indycar. NASCARs also have a roof, and have nothing of an Indycar Dallara’s tendency to take off if the air flow gets under them.

Perhaps the latest (and most re-shown) instance of this last trait has been Dario Franchitti’s flight at Michigan when he drove for AGR.

A small amount of contact at speed gets him sideways, the car get’s airborne, before landing back on the track (and other cars) and sending any nearby scattering.

Now, instead of the half a dozen or so cars he has within a second of him there, put 12, 15 or a full field behind them as would have happened if the same accident struck at Chicagoland last night.

You have the makings of Indycar’s very own “Big One” with all the consequences you don’t want to think of.

That said, there are some there is nothing wrong with NASCARs plate races, and they continue to be huge audience draw, which is what Indycar needs.

They just don’t need it to go wrong.


  1. Great points,all, JB. I watched the entire race Sat night and was amazed at how close they raced, 2x2, all night long.

    I believe that the relative safety of a stock car tends to give those drivers more of a false sense of security. Which in turn leads them to make bold, or foolish, moves that the IRL guys won't attempt, as they may have an idea of the pain involved if something goes wrong.

    The IRL in Chicago was fantastic....especially compared to their snoozer in Sonoma six days prior. They must somehow get their competitive racing more exposure. Direct TV dropping Versus will not help there.

  2. It's as fake and contrived as plate racing and it is equally as enjoyable.

    But die hard Indy fans can't seem to see this and they simply think their series is great again.

    All very odd.


  3. They have an engine boost they can use X number of times!??! That just sounds wacky!

    Seems we are back to the age old question is auto racing a sport or entertainment....tweaking the product is becoming a bad habit.

  4. The only thing I would say is that before Helio crashed, the 3 leader cars had pulled a 6 second lead on a 4th place, and in fact the field was a tad scattered around, though tightly racing where people were together.

    Clearly this is not the forced pack racing of old. Good cars are able to pull away given time. 8 final laps when everyone is jockeying for finishing position is not that amount of time.

    People are also forgetting how much Chicago's track had to do with this equation being very banked. Lets see what Motegi and Homestead are like, and then we can revisit the aerodynamics. I think we are closer to the medium than people realize the 2 extremes are.