Mid-Ohio: Steph’s Sunday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on August 8, 2011 8:47 am

First off, please accept my apologies for the late delivery of my Sunday report. Torrential storms and construction on I-90 turned a three-hour drive from Lexington to Erie into a five-hour one last night, and I lost my writing time as a result. (I’ve now encountered nasty weather on the drive toward home three years in a row. You’d think I’d have learned to plan for it by now.)

Now, about that race — look, there have always been fuel mileage races in racing, and as long as cars carry tanks that don’t hold enough fuel to go the full distance, there always will be. Paul and I have decided to tackle this topic in our Counterpoint article for INDYCAR Nation this week, so I can’t get too far into this discussion here (and give away all of my arguing positions!). All I’ll say for now is that fans have become far less tolerant over the past 20 years or so of races that are decided in the pits, and I’m not really sure why, nor do I fully understand it. It’s all great racing to me.

During the race, I floated a question on Twitter (because, you know, I had the time): do fans prefer the type of racing we saw at Mid-Ohio, or do they prefer the crash-fest that we had at Toronto? Responses were extremely varied. There were some people who stated a clear preference one way or another, and those opinions were split almost evenly down the middle. There were others who drew on Edmonton as an example of a moderate middle ground that’s preferable over either extreme. And there were still more fans who pointed out (correctly, in my opinion) that the beauty of the IZOD IndyCar Series is that it offers many varieties of on-track product within which everyone should be able to find the type of racing they love. Getting fans to be tolerant of the types of racing they don’t love in between is the trick, it seems.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to find a way to add some opportunities to overtake into the mix and make the event at Mid-Ohio more pleasing to more people. During yesterday’s post-race press conference, I had the opportunity to ask all three podium finishers for their thoughts on how to do just that. Each of the drivers had different and valuable suggestions, so I’m going to highlight those in a separate post because the topic warrants a thorough discussion on its own. Keep an eye on MoreFrontWing.com for that to appear later today.

One item worth noting from the race was the drive by James Hinchcliffe.  After his early-race off-road excursion instigated by Alex Tagliani (who himself was trying to avoid contact with the car in front of him, Charlie Kimball), Hinchcliffe’s team made the perfect call by bringing him in for an off-sequence pit stop right before a full-course caution. For the entire second stint, Hinchcliffe held the lead and kept both Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars behind him without a misstep. Unfortunately, the misstep came shortly after the last set of pit stops when Hinchcliffe took a trip off-track all on his own for which he was effusively apologetic to his team on the radio. It was a disappointing end to a strong run, but it provided direct evidence of the resurgence of Newman/Haas Racing that we’ve been seeing all season long, and it also provided glimpses into the promising career many fans hope to see from the young rookie.

Unfortunately, while pit sequence can go one team’s way as it did for Hinchcliffe, it can just as easily go awry. When a full-course caution came out right before Will Power’s planned pit stop, it threw a rather nasty wrench into his championship hopes, leaving him 62 points behind Dario Franchitti coming out of the event. Franchitti isn’t quite running away with it yet, but one more stroke of bad luck for Power could easily take the wind out of the sails of the points battle and let Franchitti run away with his third-straight title. If it does happen, it can’t be helped, of course. But it would be very unfortunate timing given the excellent job that INDYCAR has done of building up excitement for the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at a time when attention for the sport is sorely needed. (Is Dario’s dominance bad for INDYCAR? That’s another topic worthy of thorough examination.)

There were a couple of on-track incidents that raised some questions regarding why they didn’t draw penalties after the heavy-handed officiating we saw at Edmonton. EJ Viso instigated an melee that caused damage to both Helio Castroneves and JR Hildebrand in a portion of the track that had been identified in the drivers’ meeting as a place to “follow the car in front of you.” Later, Danica Patrick edged up next to Graham Rahal in the Keyhole and left a donut on his sidepod as she got him sideways and put him into the gravel. Some fans would prefer that these types of incidents not draw penalties, but others perceive the lack of calls as inconsistent when compared to other races this season. I’ve asked INDYCAR for further clarification on this and will report when I hear back. (Incidentally, JR Hildebrand drew a warning from Race Control late in the event for putting the chop on Danica, and this seemed to add to the confusion among viewers. But JR was several laps behind the cars around him at the time, so that appears to be the difference that drew Race Control’s attention.)

In the end, it was Scott Dixon who was the class of the field all day and all weekend long, and it was the type of smackdown we’re used to seeing from him much more often. It took longer this season than usual for him to put forward his resurgence, but it’s nice to see him have some luck finally go his way and bring him back to form.

The nearby Honda assembly plant garners enormous spectator support for this weekend every year, and 2011 was no exception despite the threatening weather forecasts. Although this race takes criticism for not producing a very televison-friendly race, it’s an excellent place to watch in person. The fans sitting in the Esses got an even more thrilling show than usual with the double-file restarts all having taken place on the backstretch. Once again, I didn’t get the opportunity to walk around the facility nearly as much as I’d hoped to this year (and I missed a lot of people who I wanted to visit due to family obligations; apologies for that!). But I did get to try out one new viewing area during part of Sunday’s World Challenge race, that being the Carousel. It’s a popular spot with the campers, but it’s not a passing zone, there are no concessions nearby, and there are no CCTVs in the area, so it certainly wouldn’t be my first choice for watching a race that I wanted to follow closely. For my money, I’d still be getting to the track as early as possible to secure a high spot in the Esses or the Keyhole. (But you really do have to get there very early to snag the best spots. The most dedicated fans camp on-site and set 5 AM alarms, and I’m just not that coherent first thing in the morning.)

If the track’s new owners are looking to make minor improvements that could make a huge difference to the fan experience, I have a suggestion: please pave the pedestrian lane on the overpass between the parking area and the infield. There’s only one bridge that connects the two areas, and while the two lanes for car traffic are laid with asphalt, the pedestrian lane is covered with very loose and coarse gravel. For people with rolling coolers, wagons, baby strollers, and other items on wheels, this makes getting around that section of the track flat-out miserable. I only had the opportunity to make one brief visit to the infield this weekend for that exact reason — after snowplowing a stroller across that bridge once in the blazing heat, I vowed that I wasn’t doing it again. This is a change that would be relatively cheap and easy to make that would be a massive improvement for the everyday fan.

And no story about race day at Mid-Ohio would be complete without a discussion of post-race traffic. I don’t mean to brag, but a local gave me directions for a super-secret back-roads shortcut that allowed me to avoid Steam Corners Road completely and got me away from the facility in record time this year. I’m not going to give it up here and get myself into trouble, so I’ll just say this: take a look at a map of the track and examine where all the different exit gates are, and then look at the State Roads immediately surrounding them. It’s fairly easy to figure out with a bit of ingenuity. (That being said, I heard reports that outbound traffic was generally much better organized this year than it has been in the past, so that may have contributed to my ease.)

With that, I’ll bring More Front Wing’s coverage of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to a close. As always, thanks very much for following along — without our readers, we wouldn’t get to do what we do, so we appreciate you very much! Please visit us again later this week for our podcast reviewing this event and looking forward to next weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. As always, we look forward to talking about INDYCAR with you then!

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