IndyCar 2010 — What really mattered

IndyCar commentary — By on November 10, 2010 6:42 pm

Now that we are five weeks removed from Dario Franchitti’s clinching of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship, I finally feel like I am starting to get a better grasp on the events and storylines that shaped this past season.  The passage of time allows us to look back at this year’s events with a 30,000-foot perspective (that’s 9,144 meters for our non-American brethren) and better evaluate the big picture rather than microfocusing on the finer details that seemed important at the time.  With that in mind, allow me to present five stories that I think will make up the bullet-list history of this past season when we look back 10 years from now (in no particular order).

Dario Franchitti solidifies claim as one of the greatest open-wheel racers ever. Yes, that is a bold statement (literally and figuratively).  For much of his career, Dario has flown under the radar and has unfortunately been left largely devoid of the accolades he deserves.  After a mostly miserable rookie season in CART in 1997, Dario lost a tie-breaker to Juan Montoya for the 1999 CART Championship.  Sadly, it took Dario many years to regain his form, and it wasn’t until the second half of the next decade that the racing world really started to recognize his talents.  Three IndyCar championships and a pair of Indianapolis 500 victories later, there is no denying that the 37-year old Scot’s career ranks amongst the best of his generation and perhaps amongst the best in modern history.

Given Dario’s career stats (26 race wins, 24 poles, 3 championships and 2 Indianapolis 500 victories), it is a shame that he is still often overshadowed by drivers with lesser results.  Though drivers such as Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are often held up as the poster boys of IndyCar, Dario seems to go largely unnoticed until late in the season, and even then he is often considered an underdog.  Much of this slight may be attributed to the fact that Dario has largely failed (or consciously avoided the opportunity) to connect with the IndyCar fans in the way other drivers have.  While drivers such as Castroneves, Kanaan, Wheldon, and others have made significant use of social media to connect with their fans, Franchitti has mostly shied away and kept his life very private away from the track.  (From that perspective, it seems ironic that he is married to someone as high-profile as Ashley Judd.) Furthermore, many longtime supporters of the Indy Racing League (I use that term consciously to describe the faction of fans supporting the all-oval series during The Split) find themselves still biased against Dario for his cold, openly indifferent attitude towards the Series and the Indianapolis 500 when he first arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002.  Though I don’t have a quotation handy, Dario made no secret of the fact that he did not particularly enjoy racing on ovals, did not consider them to be a true test of racing skill, and didn’t find the allure of the Indianapolis 500 all that exciting.  While such sentiments were not shared solely by Dario, those who did express them, particularly during some of the most bitter years of the open-wheel civil war, were considered to be front-line targets for fans on either side of the aisle.  (To be fair, he admitted several years later that Indianapolis presents a unique challenge and that it is worthy of its place amongst the world’s greatest races, and it now seems evident that he considers his two Indianapolis 500 victories to be the highlights of his career.)

Will Power dominates road and street circuits. 2010 would without a doubt be known as “The Year of Will Power” if the only the season had consisted entirely of road and street courses.  In the nine events held on twisties, Will scored five wins, two seconds, a third and a fourth.  That’s a pretty good year.  Unfortunately for Will, the 2010 IICS season included eight oval events, and his bests efforts there were a third, a fifth, and a pair of eight-place finishes.  (Yes, I admit he improved tremendously on the ovals this year and several bad finishes were not of his doing.)  Though Will was not able to overcome his shortcomings on the ovals, his year on the roads and streets raised the performance bar across the entire Series and left most of his competitors wondering how he could be so far ahead.

What makes Will’s performance this year even more impressive is the effort required for him to even get back into the car after his savage, back-breaking accident at Infineon Raceway in August 2009.  Though Power endured months of painful physical therapy and time out of the car, his performance at the season-opening race in Sao Paulo left no doubt that he was back at 100% and would be a force to be reckoned with all year long.  If Power can maintain his mastery of the road and street circuits in 2011 while continuing to make significant advancements on the ovals, he will be a very difficult driver to catch and a certain pre-season title favorite.

Renewed enthusiasm and hope for the IICS. When IZOD was announced as the title sponsor of INDYCAR’s top series in November 2009, most observers were cautiously optimistic that they would help to bump the needle on the public radar and help to increase the visibility of open-wheel racing over the coming years.  However, I don’t think anyone really anticipated how far IZOD would push the Series forward in their first year.  Within weeks of the deal’s announcement, the IICS was being promoted on new avenues and in media outlets not seen in many years.  In January, commercials for the Series were seen by more than 100 million viewers tuning into the NFC and AFC Championship games.  Drivers were whisked away to exotic Caribbean locations for commercials shoots.  And plans were beginning to fall into place to bring the IZOD IndyCar Series to fans nationwide, from store windows of New York City to the streets of Los Angeles.

Things were already looking positive for the IICS by February 1.  Then news broke that some rodeo guy was fixin’ to be the new sheriff in town.  Suddenly things were about to change even more.

When Randy Bernard took the reins on March 1, the 43-year old former CEO of the Professional Bull Riders had never been to an IndyCar race and he didn’t know anyone in the racing world.  While most derided him for not being familiar with the nuances of IndyCar racing (or racing in general), it turns out that his naiveté may now be looked back on as having been his greatest asset.  In an industry with a reputation of being run by folks with a mantra of “it can’t be done,” Bernard brought with him an attitude of “make it happen.”  Within weeks of his arrival, Randy formed the ICONIC Committee to assist in the development of the 2012 IICS engine and chassis specification — a program that had been dragging for several years and left the Series with cars and technology that’s eight years old and counting.

Randy quickly understood that the old way of doing things wasn’t cutting it and that, for a real turnaround to happen, everything had to change — the mindset of the Series, the perception of the fans and the media, the public’s awareness of the drivers, everything.  Randy knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight but he also knew that you can’t turn the boat around until you stop going in the direction you’re currently headed.  Bernard realized before even taking charge that his lack of knowledge required him to listen to many people from all facets of the IndyCar community to understand the fragile ecosystem that is American open-wheel racing.  Suddenly, people from all walks of the IndyCar Nation — team owners, drivers, fans, etc. — felt that their voices had a chance of being heard.  Randy obviously couldn’t put into action the thoughts, opinions, and desires of everyone, but no one is left these days feeling there’s no opportunity to plead a case.  This era of transparency and accountability has been a blessing for the IICS and a marked change from years gone by.

Most importantly, Randy understands what his job is and what his job is not.  Randy knows it is not his job to write the 2012 technical specifications, to devise the rules, or to be the chief enforcer between the green and checkered flags.  His job is to create an environment where the rest of his team can do its job,  to create a business model that allows for solvent, healthy teams, drivers, and manufacturers to participate freely, to ensure that the IZOD IndyCar Series has the best drivers in the world regardless of their nationalities or funding, and to grow the Series from all directions, including participants, fans and, by extension, financial viability.

After eight months on the job, Randy has clearly done his job well.  There is certainly a long way to go to make the IZOD IndyCar Series mainstream again, but after years of languishing, it finally seems that IZOD and Randy Bernard have the ship pointed in the right direction.

No team steps up to be a contender.  In Year 2 PME (that’s Post Merger Era), it seemed that several former Champ Car teams and some smaller IICS teams were ready to step up their game and be serious contenders in the 2010 IICS season.  Unfortunately, none of them were able to keep their form, and many of them took large steps backwards.

After a very promising second half of 2009, the trials of KV Racing Technology were well-documented throughout the 2010 season (41 crashes and incidents by MFW’s unofficial count).  I predicted before the season started that this team, running two third-year veterans known for crashing and a former F1 driver with a reputation for being fast but posting DNFs, could produce the most expensive season that the IICS has known.  That said, even I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it turned out to be.  Aside from a third-place finish by EJ Viso at Iowa, a fifth-place finish by Mario Moraes was the team’s only other top-five posting on the year.  Sadly, the team spent most of the season being the butt of jokes rather than contenders on any level.

Unfortunately, the news wasn’t much better for a number of other teams.  Though no other team came close to replicating the carnage of KVRT, the lack of success was a common theme throughout the paddock.  Newman/Haas Racing (which started the year as Newman Haas Lanigan Racing) lost their McDonald’s sponsorship shortly before the 2010 season began and was unable to retain driver Graham Rahal.  Taking the Formula Dream sponsorship money of Hideki Mutoh, NHR was unable to back up their solid 2009 effort and suffered through what has to be considered one of the most disappointing seasons in its history.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing had very high hopes coming into this season with road course ace Justin Wilson joining the team after giving Dale Coyne his breakthrough victory in 2009 at Watkins Glen.  After a pair of runner-up finishes in the first four races of the year, Justin struggled to regain his form during the remainder of the season, though he largely dominated the Toronto weekend before an unforced error led to a heartbreaking seventh-place finish.  After teammate Mike Conway suffered a devastating crash in the closing laps of the Indianapolis 500, the #24 car became a revolving door of drivers that included Tomas Scheckter, Ana Beatriz, Paul Tracy, JR Hildebrand, and Graham Rahal, none of whom posted particularly strong results.

IICS bids a not-so-fond adieu to ISC. After years of being treated like red-headed stepchildren, the IICS and International Speedway Corporation (run by the France family of NASCAR fame) have finally agreed to part ways and put an end to their frosty relationship.  IndyCar fans have for years decried the lack of effort that ISC tracks have put into marketing the Series, and the abysmal attendance at those events made IndyCar events seem less than second-rate.

The most disappointing aspect of this acrimonious divorce is that two ISC-owned tracks, Michigan and Phoenix, are on the list most often cited by IndyCar fans as locations they want to see back on the schedule.  The unfortunately truth, though, is that neither of those events were working when the IICS last raced there, and the likelihood of them working again in the near future is slim.  ISC is and always will be in existence to give NASCAR a place to race.  Unfortunately, as long as NASCAR’s attendance and TV ratings continue to decline, 95% of ISC’s focus will be on NASCAR and promoting those events.  The more NASCAR continues to suffer, the less attention that ISC will pay the IICS.  This was painfully obvious this year when IndyCar events at Watkins Glen International and Chicagoland Speedway were almost completely ignored by track operators and many vestiges of prior NASCAR race weekends were simply left in place, apparently considered too much of a burden or hassle to remove.

The good news for fans is that ISC’s main competitor, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI), has stepped up to the plate and is looking to cement its relationship with INDYCAR.  After being bitterly disappointed at being left off the 2010 IICS calendar, New Hampshire Motor Speedway will return to the schedule in 2011 after a 12-year absence, joining other SMI tracks in Texas, Kentucky, and Infineon Raceway.  Bernard has also been very vocal about returning the Series to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another SMI-owned track, as the 2011 season finale.  While SMI has had its share of failed IndyCar events as well (Charlotte, Atlanta, and the aforementioned races at New Hampshire and Las Vegas come to mind), it is encouraging that they see the progress the IICS is making and believe it to be a product they can successfully sell to their patrons.

In the end, though, the one key take-away from the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season is that it was one of positive change and growth, and all signs point to these encouraging developments continuing to evolve as the Series looks to its future.

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