Random thoughts on 2009 thus far

IndyCar commentary — By on August 27, 2009 12:04 am
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

Since I’m stuck for 6+ hours at the Seattle airport, I’ve got plenty of time to jot down some thoughts on what we’ve seen in the IndyCar season so far. I haven’t reviewed anything, so whatever comes to mind are those events that really stick out.

Penske/Ganassi domination. Yes, everyone expected it, and we all knew that unless something very miraculous happened, it was going to be a four-horse race for the championship this year. As it turns out, Helio has never really gotten his sea legs, and the four-horse race has turned into a three-man sprint. Still, the fact that nobody has run away with the points lead is encouraging in my book. Even though the red cars have dominated, there are been many good drives this year by many other drivers. The points lead has swapped back and forth something like 13 times so far this year, and I don’t think the lead has ever been greater than 10 points. That will make these last three races very exciting — every point will make a difference!

Dale Coyne wins at Watkins Glen. If the rest of the field had a shot at winning anywhere this year, it was going to be at a road course. That’s just what happened when the Little Team that Could stood tall in victory lane at historic Watkins Glen International. After 25 years of trying, Dale Coyne and his guys finally broke through for the win. Not only did Justin Wilson claim victory, but he won going away. This is probably the best “feel-good” story since Buddy Lazier won Indy with a shattered back or Alex Zanardi drove his final 13 laps in Germany after nearly losing his life two years prior.

Wheldon/Panther are lost. Nobody expected Dan Wheldon to be competing for victories week in and week out this year at Panther as he had in previous years with AGR and Ganassi. However, I don’t think anyone really expected the team to look as lost as they have. Other than the runner-up finish in the 93rd Indianapolis 500, Panther has not been competitive at any races this year, and their road course package has been nothing short of embarrassing. The loss of Vitor Meira really hurt the team’s performance on the road courses, but what has been a great surprise to me is that Dan’s oval skills have not helped that team more on the all left-hander circuits.

Danica’s contract discussion. Never mind the fact that she is statistically the strongest driver on the AGR team this year (I’m not ready to say she’s the strongest driver due to TK’s horrendous luck). People outside of the IndyCar world don’t realize that she is holding her own in fifth place in the points championship. All they have been concerned about is her very public openness about running in NASCAR next year. Of course, 95% of the IndyCar paddock understood that Danica was about 5% interested in actually driving in NASCAR and about 95% interested in boosting her negotiating leverage. But nonetheless, it didn’t stop the NASCAR talking heads (Darrel Waltrip and Larry Mac, mostly) from talking about how perfect she would be for their series (i.e. how much more NASCAR could make off of her). Though Danica hasn’t made it official yet, all signs indicate that she will stay at AGR next year. Love her or hate her, IndyCar could in no way afford to lose her — she is generally the only driver that gets mainstream coverage outside of Curt Cavin, Jeff Olson, Robin Miller, and Bruce Martin.

Power/Philippe accident. This one probably makes the list only because it’s recent. Nonetheless, the terrible accident at Sonoma was really a highlight that nobody wishes to relive. First, the bad: it was nearly eight seconds from the time that Nelson’s car stalled and sat helplessly on the side of the track, transverse to the driving line and just beyond a blind corner, before Will Power made contact. Why Will would not have received any form of communication that there was danger ahead is beyond me. The crew should have been able to radio to him, his lights should have been on in the cockpit, and there should have been corner workers waving flags in the area. However, the crew (or spotter) claims they did warn him, the team has confirmed that the dash lights were not properly functioning, and the corner workers were apparently located on the wrong side of the track to be seen by the drivers. In the end, it was a tragic set of circumstances that could have been much worse — which leads us to the good part. Eight years ago, an accident not completely dissimilar nearly took the life of Alex Zanardi when he was helplessly t-boned by Alex Tagliani in Germany. Now, that crash was slightly different in that Tags hit Zanardi just behind the front wheels, almost at Z’s knee caps. In the Sonoma accident, Power was able to steer his car ever so slightly to the right and make contact with the front corner of the car. Nonetheless, we see that technology has evolved significantly over the past eight years and both of the drivers involved in this weekend’s crash will race an IndyCar again. We all hope that the side-intrusion panels on the Dallara racing machines are never needed, but accidents like these show us that drivers are definitely more protected with those panels in place than they ever have been before.

Helio acquitted of tax evasion. Yes, this should have probably been higher than #6, but since it’s been over four months now since it happened, it slipped my mind a bit. When Helio was first indicted on the charges of tax evasion and a host of other crimes, many folks in the know intimated that Helio’s odds of acquittal were slim at best. However, in ways that I will never claim to understand, his lawyers were able to prove to a jury of 12 individuals that Helio did nothing wrong and that he deserved to be a free man. Less than 24 hours later, Helio was in an IndyCar at Long Beach and driving like he had never been away. It was a welcome scene when he arrived, and I don’t think there was anyone at Long Beach on that Saturday who was not thrilled to see Helio back behind the wheel (except possibly Will Power).

Versus TV coverage. Let’s cut to the chase: the ratings on Versus are abysmal this year. Drawing ratings that are basically statistical noise brings us back to when Champ Car was in their time-buy on Spike several years ago. We knew the ratings numbers were going to struggle in the IndyCar’s first year away from ABC/ESPN, but I’d be hard-pressed to believe that anyone at League headquarters thought they would be this bad. There is hope, though: the product that Versus has put together has been truly a quantum leap forward from what the IndyCar fans had been getting from The Mouse for the past many years. If anyone doubted that, all they had to do was watch the painful broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 to see what a lackluster performance and half-hearted effort ESPN was really giving to the IndyCar Series. Even though not many people are finding the broadcast right now, those who are finding it are across the board very pleased with what they are finding. More importantly, the numbers have to go up from here…

2010 schedule. Yes, this has been beaten to death, but let me just go officially on the record as saying I am not a fan of the schedule for the next year. I am an oval racing fan and would honestly be perfectly content with a 100% oval schedule. That said, I do actually prefer to see some twisty circuits occasionally but would never be an advocate of more than 50% road and street courses. IMS Radio Network pit reporter Kevin Lee often asked, “Would you rather see an IndyCar race on a street circuit or no IndyCar race at all?” Quite honestly, Kevin, if the races are the follow-the-leader parades we saw at Edmonton and some other courses, I would actually prefer no IndyCar race at all. At least then I wouldn’t feel guilty when I cut out half way through to mow the yard. I’m still waiting for the day that Scott Dixon jumps out of the car on a road course, finds the nearest TV camera, and apologizes to all the fans about how boring the race was in the same way he did at Texas and Richmond.

Boring oval package. Another major issue that has drawn the ire of the IndyCar fans this year was the boring racing at Kansas, Texas, and Richmond. Prior to this season, the Indy Racing League removed some of the aerodynamic options that the teams previously had. Among those were the removal of the sidepod extenders and the rear-tire ramps. The League, along with Honda, also reworked the exhaust system to give the cars a more pleasing tone (although I must admit that I honestly can’t tell the difference), and the exhaust is now vented out above and in front of the rear suspension instead of from below it as in years past. Somewhere amongst all these changes, the cars lost their ability to race closely on the ovals. Drivers also complained that the lack of options on the cars had made them too similar, and with everyone maxed out (after using the same car for seven years), passing was nearly impossible because everyone was going the same speed. Luckily, by the time the Series reached Kentucky Speedway, the League had made a number of changes that allowed the teams to actually do some engineering on their cars, and we witnessed a fantastic race. I, for one, am not quite ready to consider the problem solved just yet, though. What concerns me is that the car setups at Indianapolis did not fall under the off-season restrictions, i.e. the cars had use of the sidepod extenders and the rear-tire ramps. The racing at Indianapolis this year was definitely substandard compared to what we have seen there for the past four or five years as well. If that racing was diminished there with an otherwise unchanged package, are those elements really to blame? Many folks have theorized that the new placement of the exhaust is the main cause of the difficult race conditions. I am not ready to rule that out until we see how the cars race at Chicagoland this weekend.

So, there are nine stories from this year that stand out in my mind as I sit at the Seattle airport and watch a stunningly beautiful sunset. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’m sure our readers will point out other great (and not-so-great) stories from this year. I look forward to reading your comments. Right now, however, I’m looking forward to sauntering on down to the African Lounge and enjoying a frosty Mack & Jacks African Amber Ale — truly one of Seattle’s finest features!

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