Toronto: Steph’s Sunday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on July 11, 2011 3:14 pm

Whew! I decided to take the night to reflect before tapping this one out, but even 24 hours later I’m still catching my breath!

Let me describe the crowd first since I think that will be the shortest conversation. I was very concerned through Friday and Saturday and even through the Lights race on Sunday morning that the final turnout wasn’t going to be promising. But by the time the INDYCARs were gridded, the frontstraight grandstands were packed and there was a definite buzz about the place. It felt awesome. It’s not yet approaching the glory days, of course, but it’s not reasonable to expect that quite yet. New grandstands were added this year and the majority of seats were still sold, so there’s definitely upward trending. And corporate support was noticeably higher, which is of greater significance to the promoters. (That being said, I spoke to quite a few people with a stake in the event who felt that Green Savoree Promotions aren’t getting the word out sufficiently well to make that upward trend fast enough. With the 2011 race in the books, promotion of this event is now up for negotiation. I heard more than a few people say they hope that the bid is won by Octane, the company that’s responsible for the F1 race in Montreal and is taking over promotion of Edmonton this year. An outfit with an understanding of how to market an event in Canada could definitely be an asset. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.)

As for the race itself, it appears that it was highly polarizing, but I fell firmly on the side of loving it. Yes, there was a touch more carnage than is ideal, but I’ll take the type of race we saw yesterday over a strung-out parade any day of the week. Besides, this may be the last year that we’ll see mayhem to this degree. This comes out so often lately that it sounds like an excuse, but the constant contact at this track for the past few years really is a product of spec racing. With cars that are all but identical, the only thing that can make a difference while approaching a passing zone is the driver. And when you have two extremely talented drivers such as Will Power and Dario Franchitti coming into a corner together, the differences in line and how late they’re able to brake come down to feet in the single digits. That means that cars are going into the apex with wheels interlocked every single time, and there are only so many times that can be done in any passing zone, no matter how wide, before contact is going to result. The constant refrain that things will be different next year is getting tiresome, but this is another situation where that truly is the case.

That said, not everyone likes this type of racing, and that’s fine. When building the most diverse schedule in all of motorsports, there is simply no way to please every single person 100% of the time. What we all need to work together to appreciate is that maintaining that unparalleled diversity is extremely important to the growth of this sport from the perspective of attracting interest and that this should be prioritized over anyone’s individual preferences. The driver who can master a short oval, a 1.5-miler, a superspeedway, a natural-terrain road course, an airport circuit, and a concrete canyon is the one who walks away with the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. That requires an incredible amount of talent to which no other drivers in the world are able to lay claim. Anyone who can look at that list and still complain that one type of track doesn’t belong on the schedule because he or she doesn’t like it is refusing to look at the big picture. This model works because it pleases a lot of people some of the time. The model that pleases a few people all of the time has been proven not to attract enough interest or pay the bills. If we can all understand and appreciate that, we’ll make great strides in bringing a more positive tone to discussions about this sport, and that change may be the one that’s needed above all else.

Of course, the controversy from yesterday that’s drawing the most attention is the situation surrounding whether Dario Franchitti drew a penalty for his contact with Will Power in turn 3 on lap 56. Having been on the ground to witness the entire situation, I truly don’t believe this one was INDYCAR’s fault. I wasn’t listening to Race Control during the event (though I now believe this is something I need to rectify in the future), but I spoke to several people who were, and they all told me that no call ever came from Brian Barnhart that Franchitti would receive a penalty. I was told by an INDYCAR representative that they believe the television team reached that conclusion on their own, and it looks as though the announcement then filtered from there to IMS Radio and some of the teams (Dixon, for example, told the post-race press conference that he was told there was a penalty and that it was later rescinded).

In fact, INDYCAR was extremely open with reports to the media about the penalties almost immediately after the event. Six situations were reviewed for avoidable contact during the course of the race:

– contact between Briscoe and Kanaan in turn 3 on lap 3 (no penalty was issued);
– contact between Conway and Briscoe in turn 8 on lap 55 (Conway served a stop-and-hold penalty);
– contact between Franchitti and Power in turn 3 on lap 56 (no penalty was issued);
– contact between Tagliani and Power in turn 5 on lap 66 (Tagliani would have served a penalty but had already lost time due to damage);
– contact between Patrick, Jakes, and Tagliani in turn 3 on lap 71 (Patrick would have served a penalty but had already lost time due to damage); and,
– contact between Rahal and Hunter-Reay in turn 3 on lap 80 (no penalty was issued).

The only call I disagree with here is the situation between Briscoe and Kanaan (though, admittedly, I don’t remember them all extremely well, so the Versus replay may change that). A lot of comparisons were drawn between that incident and the one between Franchitti and Power, but they actually differed in a significant way: Briscoe still had room between himself and the wall when he forced Kanaan wide, while Franchitti was right up against the wall and had nowhere to go when Power squeezed over into him. Franchitti accepted afterward that he probably shouldn’t have tried the move and said he couldn’t back out in time, which means both drivers were partially to blame and that it can be chalked up to a racing incident. Briscoe, on the other hand, didn’t do everything he could have to avoid contacting Kanaan — he didn’t back off, and he didn’t leave as much space as he could have. I would have been in agreement had Briscoe drawn a penalty.

This discussion is less important than the overriding point, though, which is that the reviews and penalties were clearly laid out after this race to make this discussion possible in the first place. This is a huge step in the right direction for INDYCAR in terms of openness with the media and fans. I can’t tell you whether things were this open after the previous events since this was the first race I attended this year as credentialed media, but I can report that, for this specific race, the availability of this information was excellent.

A couple of final point about the listed penalties: one situation that apparently wasn’t reviewed at all was the contact between Patrick and Sato in turn 3 on lap 7. This incident had nothing to do with the blocking rules that were outlined in the drivers’ meeting, so this leads me to believe that only incidents that involved those rules were reviewed for avoidable contact penalties. And one other point that came up in discussion with INDYCAR personnel this weekend is that the issued penalties aren’t recorded on the box scores, so there’s no official way to track this information across multiple races. I was told this will be looked into for the future.

Speaking of the notes from the drivers’ meeting, those were openly available to the media this weekend as well. Again, since this was my first race of the year in the media center, I can’t say for how long or how consistently this has been the case. For this weekend, however, the notes were typed up by Barnhart in advance and read off in the drivers’ meeting, then immediately brought back to the media center by an INDYCAR representative and made available for distribution. I looked through the notes and disseminated quite a bit of information from them through the site’s Twitter account, @MoreFrontWing, but I didn’t see very many others give them much attention. There’s a bit of a grey area in terms of whether the responsibility of informing fans about the details of those notes falls on INDYCAR or whether it’s enough to simply provide them to the media and allow them to decide what fans care to hear. One change that would be great to see would be to have INDYCAR post these notes to the media section of their website so that they can be reviewed by members of the media who aren’t attending a given weekend but may take an interest in their contents. But given that there’s often a quick turnaround for the document (Sunday’s notes were distributed at 1:30 PM for a race with a 2:50 PM start), this could be a tricky proposition.

I also asked about whether Tony Cotman releases notes from the Firestone Indy Lights drivers’ meeting in a similar manner, thinking that it could be very interesting to make comparisons between what the Lights drivers are being told as opposed to the INDYCAR drivers. Unfortunately, I was told that he doesn’t.

A few other quick notes:

– Helio Castroneves looked ridiculous all weekend. He’s reportedly still trying to learn how to left-foot brake to keep up in this highly competitive series (which was the culprit behind the incident at Long Beach, so the story goes), and it’s clear from watching him this weekend that this process isn’t going well. I sat in turn 3 for one session on Friday and saw him lock up/head for the run-off several times, and he plowed right into the side of Tagliani in turn 3 on lap 30 of the race for the same reason. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that Helio starts picking up on this very soon (or that he gives up and holds out for the disparity coming in 2012).

– The raw emotion coming from the drivers after this weekend is fantastic. Randy Bernard has said many times that he wants to see the drivers speak their minds more often, and the field is clearly starting to get more comfortable with it. This gets fans more invested in what the drivers are going through on the track and is excellent for building interest in the IICS, on the condition that it remains authentic and doesn’t become scripted and orchestrated. And yes, even Twitter is a good venue for this. I’ve seen some people comment that the drivers should be having these discussions face to face, but taking it to Twitter puts fans right in the middle of it and keeps the conversations going long after the race is over. This is what social media is all about, and INDYCAR is using it perfectly. This is another ingredient in the recipe for growth, and I sincerely hope the team PR representatives and sponsors allow it to continue.

– Despite some claims to the contrary, the double-file restarts actually went relatively well: of the start and eight restarts, only the last three saw incidents on the same lap. Dario mentioned in the post-race press conference that late-race restarts got tricky because the sweepers weren’t bringing up all of the marbles. The problem here isn’t so much whether the restarts worked properly as figuring out why the track wasn’t cleaning up as well as expected toward the end of the race. If that can be resolved, these restarts are no cause for concern (and no excuse for incidents) here in Toronto.

– Scott Dixon made it very clear in the post-race press conference that the Target team and G2 don’t consider each other teammates. The G2 team has access to the Target team’s data, and that’s as far as the relationship goes — the drivers don’t debrief together, and the goals of the two operations are different (i.e., G2 focuses more on the development aspect of things, for obvious reasons). It was easy to glean from Dixon’s comments and tone that the reasons for the divide may not be entirely administrative.

– A 6th place finish for Sebastien Bourdais is a very good one for him and the Dale Coyne Racing team that’s sadly being overlooked with all the other stories to follow. That has to feel like redemption for him after the awful run he had in the first segment of his season.

– The results that the Canadians brought home really didn’t speak to their performance, particularly in the case of James Hinchcliffe, who had an excellent drive cut short by an incident that was in no way his fault. He’s going to be a rock star in this town in no time.

With that, I’ll bring my weekend’s coverage of the Honda Indy Toronto to a close. Thanks very much for following along both here and on Twitter. We’ll talk through many of the issues coming out of this race on this week’s More Front Wing podcast (and, we hope, get to chat with a couple of the drivers involved as well). Stay tuned to MFW over the next couple of weeks as we continue to discuss Toronto and look forward to the next event at the City Centre Airport in Edmonton, Alberta.

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