Mid-Ohio: Sunday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on August 9, 2010 6:51 pm

(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

Apologies for getting this out to you a day late.  By the time everything finished up yesterday, after taking the anticipated traffic into account, I was already looking at a 2 AM arrival in Toronto.  Staying to post a write-up on top of that would have been complete insanity.

But even a day later, there’s still plenty to talk about.  Let’s take a look at the on-track activity first.

The Firestone Indy Lights race, unfortunately, was once again a complete snoozer at Mid-Ohio.  The only events of any real note were that 1) Martin Plowman led from flag to flag and left with his first FIL victory, and 2) James Hinchcliffe threw away a perfectly respectable second-place finish to attempt a pass for the lead and went off-course, only to rejoin in what would become his final position of seventh.

When I spoke with Hinch earlier in the weekend, he indicated that he felt wins were the only thing that would make enough of a difference at this point in the season to turn his championship hopes around.  However, this misstep cost him much more through the loss of the potential points difference between him and JK Vernay (who finished eighth) than he would have been helped with a win — and through taking the victory, Plowey is now tied with Hinch for second in the standings.  Patience and consistency are the traits of champions.  Hinch simply hasn’t been displaying them, and Vernay has.  As we get later into the year, it appears more and more that Hinch will be looking back at the end of the season and examining how each of these lost points opportunities cost him the championship.

As for the fact that the race was as dry as toast, there are a couple of factors to point toward.  The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the track since it’s no secret that passing is a challenge in open-wheel cars at Mid-Ohio.  But in retrospect, this isn’t the first FIL race this season that hasn’t been thrilling — and once we start down that line of thinking, it quickly becomes obvious that the true problem is simply the low car count.  There’s no point in harping on about this, though:  FIL teams and administration are well aware of that problem and are looking for ways to bring costs down and attract new entrants.  Short of offering up brilliant solutions (and I certainly don’t have any), all that can be done about it at this stage is to wait and see what the folks in charge come up with.

The IZOD IndyCar Series race, while also not among the most exciting we’ve seen this year, turned out to be better than had been anticipated.  For those who managed to slog through the early going (and Paul’s reported mid-race nap indicates that he wasn’t one of them), there were enough interesting stories to follow in the latter portion of the race to reward the viewers who stuck it out.

In a refrain that’s getting tiresome to repeat week in and week out, all three KV cars had incidents on Sunday.  Moraes’s came not during the race, though, but in the morning warm-up after he struck three of his crew members while pulling into his pit box.  Two of them, his air jack operator and his fueler, sustained injuries serious enough that they weren’t able to perform their duties during the race.  (And watching his fueler be strapped to a stretcher and rushed to the medical center unconscious provided a scary moment on pit road, though all three were eventually treated, cleared and released.)  Moraes and his team bounced back from the incident to a clean and quiet 12th-place result.  As for the others, EJ Viso was the first to have an issue during the race when he and Justin Wilson made contact on lap 23 to bring out the first full-course yellow.  After the restart from that caution period, Sato took a trip into the tires all on his own and caused another.  None of the cars involved in either incident was able to continue.  As KV’s woes carry on, there’s little left to do but to sit back and shake our heads.  Where this team is concerned, the upcoming off-season will be very interesting to watch.

By the time the day was done, though, there were plenty of smiles on pit road as a number of smaller teams posted excellent performances.  The story of the race was clearly that of Alex Tagliani and the FAZZT racing team, who were able to capitalize on an off-sequence fuel strategy call to lead the most laps and bring home a solid fourth-place finish (which made them the only car to break up the Penske/Ganassi party at the top of the field).  This should prove to be an excellent morale boost and momentum shift for this team after a challenging stint in Canada.  Other drivers who had good days were: Simona de Silvestro, whose prior experience at this track likely contributed to her season-best finish of 8th; Ryan Hunter-Reay, who with the help of his team recovered from what could have been a race-ending shunt in the pits to end up 10th; Bertrand Baguette, who had a great weekend by Conquest standards with an 11th-place finish; and Milka Duno, who drew attention to herself simply through the fact that she was still running at the end at all (though not without having been involved in a few touch-and-go moments).

The late-race battle for the win is worth putting under a microscope.  Dario Franchitti, of course, is the driver who came away with the victory, but it appeared that Will Power might give him a run for it on the last lap.  Will said in the post-race press conference that he was definitely quicker than Dario at that point but that it’s just impossible to get a run on anybody here.  And when Dario was asked if he was worried that Will would get by him, he replied that he really wasn’t — there was only one point on the circuit that he was concerned about, and Dario had consistently been able to open up a gap on Will there.  So, while it looked from the footage as though there might have been a heated battle toward the end, it turns out that — in typical Mid-Ohio fashion — this race was won on pit lane, and there was never a proper chance for it to play out otherwise.

After the finish, there appeared to be disappointment from the fan base that we didn’t see an exciting last-lap pass to decide the winner.  But on further inspection, had Will managed to get past Dario and beat him to the checkered flag, it’s likely that there would have been a negative response to that as well:  with Will’s last couple of wins, the overriding reaction has been a collective yawn at his dominance on the road and street courses (which was solidified, by the way, as he locked up the Mario Andretti Trophy and the road course championship this weekend).  It seems that the only results that get fans fired up in a positive way are those where a driver — any driver — from a less-dominant team is able to make a breakthrough, which just isn’t happening very often.  There’s the predictability aspect of this, of course:  people get tired of watching the same two teams win every weekend, and that problem has been around for a while.  But the bigger problem — and the one we’re supposed to be spending more time looking at these days with Randy Bernard running the show — is that, with the possible exception of Helio, the drivers who hold the most competitive seats in the Series at the moment simply don’t generate excitement within the fan base.  For Will, this is shifting somewhat; this is only his first full season with Penske, and there do seem to be a few more folks taking an interest in him than there were early in the year.  But despite the fact that Dario is one of the great talents of our time and has had a long and illustrious career, it’s very difficult to find anyone who would claim to be a dedicated fan of his.  (In fact, there were mutterings of trepidation online that his win would result in a post-race television interview with Ashley — her appearances alone seem to have many fans wishing sub-par results upon him.)  Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe also generate largely indifferent responses.  When four of the drivers in the top five seats in the Series exactly fail to make anyone care about where they finish, and when those five drivers fill the top end of the field 99% of the time, it’s a formula for marketing disaster.  (This isn’t really news, but this weekend’s results brought the issue back into light especially well.)  Asking the top two owners in the Series to fire some of the most talented drivers around to make way for more sellable personalities isn’t likely to go over well, so some other solution needs to be found.  Nothing else would be as singularly effective in getting the sport over the hump and back into headlines.

Now, as for my time spent not watching races this weekend, I regrettably failed once again to check out some of the more remote viewing areas Mid-Ohio has to offer.  But I did get to spend some time wandering around the infield on Sunday, and I came away with some interesting observations.

For one, if the racing here is as boring as everyone says it is, someone forgot to tell the massive crowd that turned out as per usual.  I went by the Esses at around 11:30 on Sunday morning, and by that time there already wasn’t space left on the hill for even one more folding chair.  Coming into this weekend, I recalled noticing last year that the free ticket line-ups at the Marlboro trucks were extremely long and that I should make a mental note to see whether their absence this year had any impact.  In the end, I’m not sure it made a lick of difference.  People love this place and come to it in droves, often driving for hours to do so — though detractors will be quick to point out that the ticket giveaways at the Honda plant down the road bolster attendance quite a bit.

Speaking of Honda, it occurred to me this weekend that the last three races in a row have had the IICS’s sole engine manufacturer as their title sponsor.  As excellent and committed a partner as Honda has been, this just plain doesn’t look good on paper.  With the aforementioned Honda plant being a significant presence in this area, it makes a lot of sense for their name to be all over the Mid-Ohio event.  But the Canadian races really should be looking for alternate title sponsorship.  (Easier said than done under the current economic realities, of course.)

I also made a stop into the IndyCar Store on Sunday morning for the first time since I’d done so in St. Pete.  (I visited it in Toronto as well, but there wasn’t much to say about it — customs complications prevent the Series from shipping the vast majority of merchandise across the border.)  While the selection available for men is more or less the same as it was early in the year (and it was a pretty excellent offering even then), the options for women and kids have been vastly improved over the last few months.  There are now many more shirts to choose from, and there are some great accessories available now as well.  In fact, I found a hat that I loved so much that I had to pick it up, and I am very much not a hat person.  The store also had flip flops, costume jewelry, little bags for sundries, hair baubles and more.  It really can’t be overstated how important this is — the fact that women hold the buying power in the average American household is common knowledge, and it’s excellent to see that potential market now being adequately served.  The only tiny complaint I came away with (and it truly is a niggling point) is that some logoed IICS polos in proper women’s cuts would be a nice touch.  But while it would likely attract purchases, I’m not sure this is an item that’s necessarily being actively missed by many others.

On a final note, the traffic leaving the facility was a total nightmare this year.  Granted, I left maybe an hour or so after the end of the race, and I’m told that waiting for another hour alleviated this quite a bit (which is an hour I could have spent getting started on this report instead of sitting in a long line-up of idling cars).  But I would have sworn that both lanes of Steam Corners Road were turned outbound last year to help bring the congestion down, and that wasn’t the case this year — in fact, traffic needed to be stopped several times to allow inbound vehicles to move through against the stream.  If this change was indeed made for this year and isn’t just a figment of my imagination, it makes no sense whatsoever.  More can and should be done to funnel the masses out to I-71 as quickly as possible and alleviate headaches for race fans and locals alike.

We received an overwhelming number of positive comments for our coverage here at Planet-IRL this weekend, and for that we truly can’t thank you enough.  As always, it’s been our pleasure to offer our observations of yet another IZOD IndyCar Series event.  We’ll be providing commentary of the next race weekend in Sonoma from the comfort of our couches.  But Paul and I will be tag-teaming for the third time this year with our coverage at Chicagoland Speedway, an event at which Paul will be returning the favor I paid him earlier this year of playing host to me for his hometown race.  We hope you look forward to it as much as we do!

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