Chicagoland: Steph’s Saturday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on August 29, 2010 8:51 pm

Paul’s take on race day at Chicagoland was to give specific commentary on a couple of key features of the proceedings.  I’ll look at things a little more generally and provide smaller snippets on a broader range of details.

Let’s start with the day’s races.  The action in the Firestone Indy Lights race got started in a way that no one ever likes to see:  with a driver standing on his head.  Charlie Kimball and Gustavo Yacaman got together on lap 6, and the contact was just such that Kimball caught air and landed on the air intake.  This means that, for the second race weekend in a row, we watched a driver walk away from this type of incident (the last one, of course, being Dan Wheldon’s flip at the start at Infineon).  For all the talk about how the Dallaras are out-of-date, ugly hack-jobs, they prove themselves to be safe and sturdy time and again, and this is never a point to be ignored.  (As an aside, between the talk of the 2012 car, the incidents on track, and an interview that will appear on More Front Wing shortly, the word safety came up so many times yesterday that I’m still reeling from trying to form opinions on it all.  It’s a topic that’s on the minds of many people in many different contexts at the moment.)

There were a couple of other points of note from the FIL race as well, one being that it’s very surprising Pippa Mann managed to cut Martin Plowman’s tire and not only drive off scot-free but still have a decent enough car to carry on to second place considering the damage she took to her left front wing in doing so.  But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the incident is that it didn’t result in a war of words after the fact — it looked as though those two cars were very wobbly throughout that dicing as compared to the rest of the field, though from an outside perspective it wasn’t immediately obvious whose car it was that was doing most of the wobbling.  I’m sure each of those drivers has an opinion on the matter, but it seems we won’t get to hear it this time around.

It was also great to see some different faces on the podium.  Upon realizing that this was third-place finisher Philip Major’s first-ever race on a 1.5-mile oval — and while noting that he hasn’t exactly had an incident-free season — I turned to Paul while watching Major fight to stay in the middle of the lead pack and said that I just didn’t see how he was going to get through to the end if the race kept up its intensity.  It was an unexpected and pleasant surprise to see him prove me wrong.  And while she was understandably disappointed at the end, Pippa’s aforementioned second-place result was a fan favorite.  She’s overcome her fair share of criticism and a number of disappointments this year — not the least of which being the recent hand injury that caused her to struggle in two races and miss Mid-Ohio entirely — and watching her bounce back from that to post a solid result was quite popular indeed.

But the most notable story of the day was that of James Hinchcliffe, who came back from a fuel pump issue in qualifying and a 13th starting position to pull off a textbook oval-racing victory.  However, while coming away with a win can never be seen as having been a bad day, further examination of the results paints a dismal picture for Hinch in the championship standings and a positively rosy one for his chief rival, JK Vernay.  Vernay’s fourth-place finish allowed him to retain a 53-point lead over Hinch in the championship, which is a sizeable margin to overcome with only two races left in the FIL season.  Hinch has three wins this year, but his up-and-down performance has offered something to talk about at nearly every event (and not always in a good way); Vernay has five wins, but the only thing to discuss about him has been his reliability and consistency, which have appeared remarkably effortless.  Barring any significant surprises, this book appears to be written:  yesterday’s win has come too late for Hinch.  It was his championship to lose, and that’s precisely what he did.

However, the story is not nearly so cut and dried in the IZOD IndyCar Series point standings after yesterday’s event.  By most accounts, the assumption going into the race at Chicagoland was that we would see Dario Franchitti’s well-rounded skill set pitted against Will Power’s potential struggles after showing a heavy talent bias for road and street courses.  But what we actually got was Power leading 17 laps and ready to take a run at the victory before a fuel miscalculation forced a splash-and-go — another gaffe by Team Penske to add to several this season from an organization that we’re simply not used to seeing as anything but unflappable.  And what we’re left with now is Power going into Kentucky with a much smaller margin in the point standings but also having proven that he’s getting this oval-racing thing figured out in a big hurry.  He passionately declared in a post-race interview his intention to come away from Kentucky with a win; it may actually have been the most emotive we’ve seen him all season.  In other words, the entire championship battle just got a whole lot more interesting.

In fact, the race results were also quite different from what we’ve become accustomed to seeing this year.  Dario was the only driver from either Target Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske to finish in the top five; second place went to Dan Wheldon while third through fifth went to drivers from Andretti Autosport (in order: Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Tony Kanaan).  Scott Dixon was a non-factor all weekend, Ryan Briscoe had a strong start but fell back on a pit stop and wasn’t handling well enough in traffic to advance, and Helio Castroneves was set back by another Team Penske fueling issue, though his came on his first pit stop.  It’s unfortunate that seeing a different set of faces at the top nearly always means that the bigger teams have made mistakes rather than that smaller teams have made breakthroughs, but regardless, it needs to be viewed as a positive any time there’s a shift on the leaderboard these days, at least from the fans’ perspective.

While the viewers were busy catching their breaths at the end of the race, though, the prevailing emotion among the drivers appeared to be one of concern for safety, both in the style of racing and in the performance of some of the backmarkers.  A review of some post-race quotes on the subject corroborates that statement quickly:

HELIO CASTRONEVES: “My car was not as good in traffic as it was toward the front of the field and, honestly, it was a little unnerving back there.  The cars at the back of the field were moving around quite a bit and it was difficult to find racing room.”

TONY KANAAN: “It was a great effort for us tonight, but it was a crazy race.  It’s great for the fans, but it’s hard to enjoy it as a driver.  For most of the night, you’re in survival mode.  Everybody is going to get mad at each other at one point or another in a race like this because there is nowhere to hide.  People were doing crazy things out there and it’s a bit upsetting.”

DAN WHELDON: “There were a lot of unpredictable people, and it was difficult to drive with Will.  He was not giving me any room at all. … You can virtually touch wheels, but it’s stepping over the line and being unpredictable which is not good. … I’m not going to hold back.  I think Ryan Hunter-Reay and Moraes were unprofessional, and they could have hurt somebody, to tell you the truth.”

DARIO FRANCHITTI: “That’s the trouble with this style of racing sometimes:  sometimes it’s either how brave or how stupid you want to be. And there were some very nice moves made out there, and there was some bloody stupid moves made out there, and there was also just some misunderstandings out there. Sometimes it’s not what you do or the person next to you, it’s the person three up or something, or the backmarkers. The backmarkers were not being very helpful at all, the usual suspects. I shouldn’t really be surprised with one of them, for sure.”

In the aftermath of this, at least a few people have been quick to dismiss these comments as whining on the part of the drivers.  But examining the relative experience level of the people who are speaking up on this point paints a more vivid picture.  The truth is that situations like the one that developed between Dan and Dario, where they had the confidence in one another to help each other out to stay out front, used to happen much more often once upon a time.  These days, it seems that few drivers are paying attention to what others are doing around them, and those who are have very little confidence in their competitors’ abilities to do the same.  And if a driver is expected to lock wheels with someone at 215 mph, it’s only fair to expect to have trust in that person’s abilities.  Ultimately, this comes down to the fact that developing a predictable racing style of one’s own and being able to read that style in others are two oval-racing skills that are lacking with the majority of today’s field, which is a significant safety concern that is perfectly fair for the veterans to call out — after all, they’re the only ones who would be able to identify such a problem — and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.  (That said, it’s likely that more than a few people are surprised to see Dan call Ryan out by name.  Ryan isn’t one who would normally lumped in with the usual suspects in such a discussion.  Perhaps his oval craft needs work more than we would have thought.)

From the administrative side of the IZOD IndyCar Series, a number of interesting points were revealed yesterday.  Paul covered the discussion of the 2012 chassis between the owners and the Series in great detail in his summary post, but that same press conference turned to other topics once the chassis situation had been addressed.

One major subject was the 2011 schedule:

  • Randy Bernard says that the schedule should be ready by next week but that the release may be delayed somewhat depending on how big of a media push they decide to do with it.
  • He also couldn’t reiterate enough how badly he wants to see Milwaukee back.  His chief motivations are that he believes there’s a fan base in that area that feels left behind and that he wants to ensure that tradition remains an important part of IndyCar racing.  He says there are several promoters interested at this stage and that he doesn’t want to, nor should the Series need to, lean on the state of Wisconsin for support.
  • Having said that, though, he quantified that he doesn’t feel the Series needs both Milwaukee and Chicagoland.  He also repeated as part of this statement that there’s no rift between ISC and the Series per se but that the two entities are not “on the same page.”
  • The schedule is being planned based on seeking out the promoters who want to do the most activation for their events.  RB says he loves one-year deals because they help to increase value.  He thinks that he’s putting a lot of money on the table if he signs three-year deals right now and wants to be able to reassess the schedule diversity balance on a more short-term basis.
  • He also addressed the common refrain that fans want to see Road America back on the schedule.  He’s aware of it but isn’t able to make anything to happen for next year.  It is on his radar, though.
  • He said outright that there will be 17 races on the schedule next year (and yes, that’s counting Texas as one event).

RB also talked about his trip to Europe to woo potential engine and chassis manufacturers, which he left for today and returns from on September 9th.  He is accompanied by Gil de Ferran and Tony Purnell.  Here are the details of the tour:

  • The first stop is Italy where the group will meet with Dallara, Maserati, and Ferrari.
  • Next up, they’ll visit England to meet with Renault, Nissan, Lotus, Cosworth, and McLaren.  They’ll make the rounds in a press junket on this leg of the trip as well.
  • After that, they go to Germany to visit Mercedes and Audi.

In keeping with this information, RB was asked how confident he is that there will be a new car in March of 2012.  His reply was, “100%.”  He’s also confident that at least one engine manufacturer will be joining Honda in producing power plants for the Series.

On a final note, I have a few things to add to Paul’s thoughts on the Chicagoland race day experience.  This was my second year here and, to be honest, nothing really stuck out to me as being significant compared to last year’s event.  One thing I did differently, which I regret in hindsight, is that I arrived on Saturday morning and was only in attendance on race day.  It made the whole event seem less significant somehow to treat it as a day trip.  I’ll avoid doing that in the future if at all possible.

That said, there wasn’t really anything in the way of track activity on Friday that was enough of a draw for me to spend a bit more and stay the extra night.  This, coupled with the poor attendance at oval events across the board, could point to a bigger issue:  there’s a great deal of down time in the way that oval events are structured right now, especially as compared to road and street courses (an observation that Paul made in reverse when he visited Toronto this year for the first time).  Perhaps oval events would be an easier sell if there was more on the daily card to entice people into the stands a little earlier and make them feel that they’re getting their money’s worth out of the price of a day at the track.  (On the other hand, it could be that this sort of thing is what Randy Bernard is hinting at when he says he’s looking at incorporating more USAC-level involvement as part of next year’s marketing strategy.  That would be a highly popular move — it certainly goes over very well right now in Iowa.)

And, again, Paul went over the promotion issues with this track in great detail in his summary posts from yesterday and Friday.  I only wish to add one point for your consideration, which I submit without further comment:  I absolutely agree that there was a great deal of NASCAR inundation in the marketing here, but as prominent as it was at Chicagoland, I found it to be even more explicit earlier this summer at The Glen.  Take that for what you will.

Lastly, I want to extend a thank you to the tweeps who put together the last-minute tweet-up in Champions Park yesterday afternoon.  The entire More Front Wing team was able to attend, and we were joined by Pat at @VisionRacing, Kim at @FollowAndretti, @Pressdog, and many more fantastic IndyCar tweeps — some familiar faces and some new.  It’s always a pleasure to spend time with a group of this sport’s most passionate fans.  (Apparently @RoyHobbson was too busy sleeping in or something to be bothered to meet us.  Slacker.)

With that, we’ll wrap up the weekend summaries.  Thank you as always for your kind words and support on our race weekend coverage.  We still have a couple of things to offer you from this weekend, so be sure to keep an eye out over the next few days!

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