Not INDYCAR’s finest day

IndyCar commentary — By on April 18, 2011 11:35 am
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Let’s just get something out of the way up front: I watched today’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach several hours delayed because we had an open house this afternoon trying to get our house sold.  As I type this on Sunday night, I have yet to gauge fan reaction on Twitter, I haven’t seen what people are talking about on TrackForum, and I haven’t read any press releases from the teams or INDYCAR.

Why?  Because these are my own, off-the-cuff reactions to today’s IZOD IndyCar Series race, and I’m in no mood to read polished spin and agenda-laden opinions on why I should or shouldn’t have enjoyed this race.

With that, let’s start by looking at the good parts.

First of all, I cannot say enough good things about Mike Conway and his splendid run today.  After nearly suffering career-ending injuries last May at Indianapolis and being labeled by many as a talentless ride-buyer for Andretti Autosport, Conway drove the wheels of the car today and showed that he does indeed have the talent that we have seen glimpses of over the past two seasons.  It would take a very shocking occurrence throughout the rest of the year to bump today’s victory from the title of Feel-good Story of the Year.

A shout-out also goes to Conway’s teammate at Andretti Autosport, Danica Patrick, for a very respectable seventh-place finish.  She’ll probably get little praise, especially from fans who consider themselves truly devoted to the Series (enough so to visit More Front Wing) as most of Danica’s fans are very casual observers who don’t really know enough about Danica to root against her (fans’ opinion there, not mine!).  After a tough start to the weekend, Danica kept her nose clean, drove a nice race, and actually passed some cars on the track, which is more than most cars could say of the day.

Defending Long Beach champion Ryan Hunter-Reay also had a great run today, and it was a real shame that a fluky gearbox issue kept him from a fight with Conway in the last 10 laps.  It was the second year in a row that a faulty gearbox has affected a contending driver after Will Power’s gearbox momentarily hiccuped last year, causing his to lose a pair of positions that he was never able to recover.

And it was another great weekend for the comeback kids at Newman/Haas racing.  Oriol Servia continues to let his driving do most of the talking, which is really too bad because most everyone agrees that Oriol has the best accent in the paddock.  And I don’t think for one second it’s a coincidence that James Hinchcliffe had such a stellar run this weekend following his much-heralded debut on the More Front Wing podcast last week (forgive the shameless plug).

Mike Conway takes the checkers at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to win his first IZOD IndyCar Series race. (Photo courtesy of LAT Photo USA)

But as good stuff goes, that’s all I’ve got. Now, it’s time for me to get up on my soapbox. You’d better sit down — I’m going to be here a while.

Have you ever sat down in church and within five minutes felt really guilty for looking at your watch and thinking of 15 other things you’d rather be doing?  That was pretty much how today’s race felt to me.

The first blame goes to the drivers.  I hope you all really enjoyed driving in a snoozefest parade during the first half of the race because your incessant bitching and moaning over double-file restarts damn near zapped anything that could have been mistaken for excitement right out of this race.  I have never seen such an pathetic-looking group of “professional” racers try to line up for the starting formation of an automobile race.  Massive congratulations go out to Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who apparently accomplished the impossible in managing to get side-by-side for the start — or at least within a couple car lengths of it.  For the rest of the field, it seemed that the third-place starter being on the gearbox of the leader was good enough, while the fourth-place starter couldn’t pedal fast enough to be within 100 feet of the guy he was supposed to be next to.  Beyond fourth place, who knows what was going on, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the drivers at the back of the field were probably still in turns 9 and 10 as the front row took the green flag.  For all the fears of crashes in turn one, that definitely wasn’t going to be a problem unless someone did something really stupid.  Actually, it would have been miraculous to have any sort of contact when cars were spaced out a couple hundred feet apart from each other on every start and restart.

If INDYCAR is serious about making double-file restarts work, something is going to have to change.  Either every driver is going to have to be put on probation for screwing up starts so badly, or INDYCAR is going to have to tinker at every track to make sure two-wide starts can be accommodated.  In the case of Long Beach, the start of an IICS race has never looked as terrible as it did today — it was simply an embarrassment.  If the problem is the hairpin at turn 11, then INDYCAR should investigate starting the race on the backstraight, much in the same way it does at Mid-Ohio.  There is plenty of room between turns five and eight to get lined up and started without causing a complete melee.  Otherwise, there is no point in even assigning drivers to rows.  Just line them up single-file and let them go.

But alas, where stupidity is possible, someone in this bunch of drivers will find a way.  For the second time in three races, Helio Castroneves takes the What Were You Thinking?! award.  Remember last year at Texas when Helio and Mario Moraes tangled in an incident on the frontstraight that was probably 50/50 in terms of blame?  If you do, you probably remember that Helio was all up in Moraes’s business about making a stupid, aggressive move at such an early point in the race.  Likewise, I recall another incident at Michigan a couple of years ago with Vitor Meira where Helio was very upset that someone had the audacity to race him close, resulting in a race-ending incident.  Now that Castroneves’s 2011 brainfarts have left Marco Andretti on his head and Mike Conway and Scott Dixon eliminated at St. Pete, Meira off-track at Barber, and both of his teammates eliminated in separate races (Briscoe at St. Pete, Power at Long Beach), I wonder how much leverage he thinks he’ll have when he is eliminated next time he’s involved in what’s truly a racing incident.  Who’s ready to show Helio that they’ve had enough of his antics?

One thing that’s glaringly obvious is that it’s not going to be Brian Barnhart who puts the smackdown on Helio.  In the past, I’ve tried to be genial with Brian and give him the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.  After three races, I’m wondering if it’s time to take off my rose-colored glasses.  I used to joke that NASCAR’s rule book was most likely written in pencil, but after the first three INDYCAR events of 2011, I’m starting to wonder if INDYCAR’s rule book is even written down at all.  Whatever rules Barnhart and his crew are using to officiate these races is less like the Constitution of the United States and more like that of our British forefathers — meaning that it’s constantly changing at the whim of those responsible for upholding it.

One of the biggest slams against INDYCAR Race Control is the lack of consistency in doling out penalties.  The perfect example from today is how Castroneves and Paul Tracy were handled differently for what appeared to be very similar infractions.  Both Helio and Paul rear-ended drivers in turn 11, causing those drivers to lose significant track position.  Though Justin Wilson was able to continue after getting punted by Helio, poor Simona de Silvestro was left stranded on track after getting turned around by PT.  Somehow though, PT received a penalty for avoidable contact, and yet Helio drove on without penalty.  Perhaps somewhere in the couple dozen media releases that currently sit in my inbox, this situation is explained.  Perhaps the blame for the discrepancy lies partially with the television crew on Versus as they didn’t seem to explain what was different.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t care.  I don’t care if I do have a statement from INDYCAR now, five hours after the conclusion of the race.  I don’t care if part of the blame is on Versus for not explaining it to me.  No one should have to explain it to me!  If I’m a fan of the IZOD IndyCar Series, particularly if I’m a casual fan who is tuning for one of my first races, I shouldn’t need to have it explained why one incident is handled one way when a seemingly identical incident is handled completely differently.  If INDYCAR is going to have a rule book and dictate penalties, it needs to abide by the KISS principle: keep it stupid simple.  I’m at minimum an extremely passionate fan, and if I don’t have a clue why something is happening, there absolutely no way that a marginally interested spectator is going to understand it.  I shouldn’t have to be a driver, or a team owner, or a race strategist, or a lucky member of the credentialed media who gets to attend the drivers’ meetings to understand what rules are in effect at what times.

Speaking of consistency (and continuing to speak of Helio, for that matter), readers who follow Steph and I in our Counterpoint articles on INDYCAR Nation will recall that last week I wrote in support of Ryan Hunter-Reay receiving an avoidable contact penalty for his hopeless move on Ryan Briscoe at Barber Motorsports Park.  However, Hunter-Reay’s move was a sure thing compared to what Helio did to Will Power.  When the leading three cars all navigated down Shoreline Drive on that mid-race restart, it was obvious that they all accelerated at about the same point and that they all braked at about the same point, inducing little of the accordion effect that is typical when drivers navigate through a corner.  Somehow, Castroneves thought he could brake about 200 feet later than the leaders and still successfully make the turn.

At St. Pete, Helio blamed a dusty track that made it difficult for him to see what was going on (always a good reason to go barreling into a corner too fast with an aggressive move, right?).  I have no idea what Helio is blaming the incident on here, but he once again pulled a far-too-aggressive move and got off the hook with no penalty from Race Control.  I’m sure that Race Control will argue that his penalty was the loss of track position.  Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but what about Will Power’s loss of track position?  Is he to blame, too?  Or what about Oriol Servia?

My suggestion going forward is that a reckless driver serves a penalty for every other racer he or she screws over by pulling a stupid move like this.  In this case, Helio lost track position; that was his penalty for screwing himself.  Beyond that, he should have served separate drive-through penalties for causing loss of track position for both Will Power and Oriol Servia.  Once these drivers start feeling the real pain of screwing over their counterparts, perhaps they’ll start driving a little smarter.

And speaking of reckless drivers: by my count, EJ Viso is now up to seven incidents in three race weekends.  From what I saw of his incident today, it looked like Viso tried an outside pass on Danica Patrick, much in the same way he tried an outside pass on Simona at Barber. Like last weekend, he pinched the inside driver a bit too much and got spun around.  After over three years of racing in this Series, it just doesn’t seem like EJ is getting it, and he actually seems to be regressing at an alarming rate.  Sadly, crashes during race weekends are no longer be a question of if but when and how bad.  Thankfully for KVRT, Tony Kanaan continues to be rock-solid, and Takuma Sato has improved vastly this year.  As the road and street courses are supposed to be less expensive for these teams to race on, I shudder to think how much Viso is going to cost this team once the roudy-rounds start up at Indianapolis.

By and large, I actually thought the television coverage of the Long Beach event was very good.  The revamped crew continues to work well together, and the new guys — Wally Dallenbach, Jr., Marty Snider, and Kevin Lee — seem to be fitting in very nicely.  The one bone I do have to pick, though, is that the producer or director seems to have a terrible habit of switching away from a camera just as a pass is being made.  It happened several times at Barber, and it unfortunately happened again several times at Long Beach.  At one point, it appeared that Graham Rahal was starting a pass heading into turn nine when suddenly the shot switched to a fascinating view of Roger Penske on Ryan Briscoe’s pit stand.  Thankfully, Jon Beekhuis made mention of the Rahal pass, but replays of the pass were, as our friend Pressdog would say, NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, in much the same way as figuring out how Conway went from 21st to 4th was mostly glossed over.  In a race that only had about a half-dozen on-track passes that didn’t involve contact, glitches like these need to be corrected.  Given the quality of the other work this crew is doing, I’m confident these little kinks will be worked out before long.

Overall, the first 60 laps of today’s race were some of the most boring I’ve watched in all of my years of following racing.  Watching the abhorrent start that ensured there would be no passing for most of the first half of the race put me in a pretty foul mood and, to be quite honest, if it wasn’t for Helio’s stupid move later in the race, it probably wouldn’t have gotten much better.  I’ve heard all the excuses before about street racing: it’s a festival atmosphere, you have to be there to experience it, it’s about the strategy and setting up the pass, it’s about waiting for the other guy to make a mistake.  But the fact is that nobody who stumbled across the first 60 laps of this race on TV who hadn’t specifically tuned in to watch would have sat through it to the end.  And nobody who watched the first 60 laps of this race would be likely to tune in again for the next one, especially in light of the thrilling NASCAR race at Talladega (well, the thrilling last three laps, at least).  Worse, the drivers and race officials completely blew the only chance they had to give this race any entertainment value whatsoever.  Drivers to this point in the season have at least been giving lip service to the double-file restarts and pretending that they care that they are entertaining for the fans.  If only their actions today had said as much.  Of course, the restarts were only a part of the problem; they couldn’t even get the damn start of the race in respectable order.

I’m not going to lie:  I’m an oval racing fan.  I would always prefer to see a pack of 15 cars slicing and dicing at 215 mph at Chicagoland or Kentucky or battling nose-to-tail at Milwaukee or Phoenix.  At least a terrible race at Barber or Somona can be chalked up to being at a Gorgeous Facility.  But that being said, I do appreciate a good street race and generally find something good in most of them.  I very much enjoyed my visit to St. Pete earlier this year and am still looking forward to the IICS returning to Sao Paulo in a couple of weeks after the very entertaining event there last year.

However, short of Mike Conway’s great victory today, I really had to search to find the good in today’s event.  Between the boneheaded moves, the extremely inconsistent and confusing officiating, and start and restarts that killed any chance of exciting racing, today’s race will have earned the 0.3-0.4 TV rating that it likely pulled in.

Randy Bernard has said many times that INDYCAR needs to put on the best product possible to get better ratings.  Bad news, Randy:  this was not it.  Some things really need to change before that goal can be achieved.

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