St. Pete: Sunday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on March 28, 2010 11:38 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

So, after what felt like about seventeen thousand phone calls, it looks like I’ll be heading back to Canada a little later than expected!  It’s quite something to watch an entire sporting league spring into action when unexpected accommodations need to be made.  Of course, with oval tracks being the temperamental things they are when bad weather arises, the Indy Racing League is old hat at postponing the show on short notice.  It just adds another vibrant layer to the already interesting tale of my first live race as a blogger.

It was obvious well before the official announcement was made the race wasn’t going to happen today, and putting it off was unquestionably the right call.  To say that the rain was torrential really doesn’t fully capture the intensity of it, and even when it had largely lifted as the originally estimated 4:30 ET start time approached, there was still standing water on the track as deep as six inches in places.  It was a terrible shame that the fans who came out despite the ominous weather forecast missed out on the main show and spent several hours trapped under shelter, but from the tweets I observed, they seemed to be making their own fun, so perhaps not all was lost.  There were still four races today, after all, and they offered plenty of on-track action to be enjoyed.

My very favorite moment of the day came when the League announced that general admission to tomorrow’s rescheduled event will be free of charge.  This was such a good move. It requires the league and the promoters to eat some of the costs of running the extra day, but it instills goodwill with the fans that have been inconvenienced while at the same time potentially putting the Series in front of eyes that wouldn’t necessarily see it otherwise.  The League even covered off the possibility of angering its paying customers by ensuring that grandstand seats will still require a paid ticket.  It makes for awesome PR all around, and it’s a decision deserving of high commendation.

However, tomorrow is unlikely to come off without some challenges.  There is no scheduled warm-up before the green flag drops at 10:00 AM EDT, so the race will start on a track that has no rubber laid down whatsoever and that could potentially still even be wet depending on how the weather behaves overnight.  This might catch a few overly ambitious drivers off-guard and make things very interesting for the start and the first few laps.  Also, St. Pete’s scheduled distance, which Brian Barnhart confirmed today will be honored, is 100 laps, but this event is notorious for going long easily.  It’s reasonable to assume that a) ESPN will not have given the race a broadcast window of more than two hours, and b) the race won’t actually fit within that time frame, so we may find it ending a little earlier than the League is anticipating.

When announcing the change in plans, the IRL offered information on the last open-wheel event to be postponed due to weather, which was the 2008 race in Motegi.  Over dinner, though, my travel companion @whatimthinking and I got to thinking that, being that rain-delaying a race on an oval track is a relatively common occurrence, tracking down the date of the last road or street course race to be postponed by a day would be a much more relevant statistic.  We believe that this dubious honor goes to the Champ Car race in Montreal in 2006, but if anyone knows differently, please drop a note in the comments.

All right — let’s talk about the racing that actually did happen today.

USF2000 race 2 (or: Follow the Leader Part 1). This race was won without contest by Andretti Autosport’s Sage Karam, who finished with a lead of nearly 17 seconds.  No surprise there.  Much more notable is the fact that the event was amazingly low on incidents.  Given that it started at 8 AM, the ambient temperature was around 66 degrees, and there had been rain in the area overnight — all of which contributed to track conditions that were the polar opposite of Saturday’s race — it was quite remarkable that there were only minor scuffles throughout.  It showed a great deal of maturity, which was very encouraging to see from a young field in a new series.

Star Mazda (or: Follow the Leader Part 2). The runaway winner for this race was Conor Daly, who was never truly challenged for the lead despite losing sizeable margins several times to full-course caution periods.  There was a fair bit more attrition in this event, but Star Mazda’s healthy car count meant there were still enough cars running throughout to keep things interesting.  Seeing the entire Road to Indy system on track on the same weekend served to highlight the fact that Star Mazda, being under IMSA sanction, is the only series in the ladder that uses standing starts on road and street courses.  The hair-raising start to the IICS event in Sao Paulo has made rolling/standing starts a hot topic as of late, and this point adds a very interesting layer to that debate that could (and very well may) become the subject of an entire post of its own.

Firestone Indy Lights (or: Follow the Leader Part 3). The race that turned out to be the final event of the day was won by JK Vernay, the French rookie driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, with a margin of 11.578 seconds.  This one didn’t end without its fair share of drama, however:  the rain that had been anticipated all day began to fall just as the cars were gridding, and some teams opted to start on wet tires while others started on slicks.  This turned the first few laps of the race into a mild farce and necessitated a red flag on lap 7 to allow everyone to change to wets.

While the mindset behind the red flag is understandable — it essentially forced teams into doing what they should have been doing on their own — it seems strikingly unfair to allow the cars that started on slicks to make their tire changes without paying the price of falling behind those that made the right call from the beginning.  FIL teams aren’t equipped for pit stops the way that IICS teams are, so changing four tires is a time-consuming affair.  Erasing that penalty, particularly when only a portion of the field would be affected, simply rewards poor planning — an unfortunate message to send in a series that’s meant to be the final developing ground before racing with the pros.  In future, black-flagging the teams in question might be a more just solution.

That being said, though, the incident that became the story of the day wasn’t related to this issue.  At the start, Philip Major, who started in ninth position, made a spectacular dive into turn 1 that would have seen him move into second position had he managed to get away with it.  Unfortunately, upon reaching the turn, he clipped the car of pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe and ended the day for both of them.  To see Hinch fall victim to rookie over-ambition that was completely out of his control was heartbreaking after the promise he had shown all weekend.

All told, while Vernay came away happy, most other teams had a challenging weekend and will be happy to leave it behind and turn their attention to the next race at Barber Motorsports Park in two weeks.

A couple of quick asides to wrap up:  I took another walk through the official store this morning to pick up a purchase for a friend, and I noticed a few things I hadn’t seen yesterday.  There are more team shirts than I had spotted initially, including Penske polos and Sarah Fisher gear.  I also picked up a gem from the women’s section – a pair of plaid socks with IZOD IndyCar logos on them.  So fun!

Also, a minor correction to my post from yesterday — while most of the paddock was under the cover of the parking garage, there are five teams that are parked just outside:  Penske, Ganassi, Luzco Dragon, Foyt, and FAZZT.  These teams had the usual temp course paddock setups with tents to protect the teams and equipment from the elements (though that can only have helped so much today).

I’ll be tweeting live from the race @99forever for those able to join in the fun.

Once again, more tomorrow.

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