COUNTERPOINT: Standing starts

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on October 7, 2011 11:22 am
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on September 20th, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.

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STEPH’S POINT:

Over the weekend, Randy Bernard revealed on Twitter (yes, he now has a Twitter account — follow him here: http://twitter.com/RBINDYCAR) that he posed the question in a meeting with the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers of whether the Series should move to standing starts on road and street courses in 2012. He reported that 16 of the 26 drivers in attendance voted in favor of the shift.

This, of course, launched another heated discussion of the topic. Opinions have long been sharply — and roughly evenly — divided on this one, and each side holds its ideals with passionate fervor.

For my part, I started this iteration of the debate with the same position as I always have: firmly planted on the side of retaining rolling starts. Along with others my age, I grew up watching rolling starts in Indy cars, and I’ve long felt that they’re a uniquely American feature of Indy car racing and offer a way to differentiate it on the world stage. It would be very sad, in my opinion, for IZOD IndyCar Series starts to look the same as those of every other open-wheel racing series in the world. If people want to see standing starts, they can just watch F1, right?

But this time, my stance was rebutted with some very good, very solid counterarguments, and I was surprised to find myself convinced enough to hop the fence. Readers who have been following me for a while will appreciate how very rarely this happens, and so I feel some responsibility to share the points that swayed me in case they might convince others as well.

- First, there’s no question that standing starts are just plain thrilling, especially live (something that a number of fans of open-wheel racing in America have never experienced). For every single driver on the grid, so much is at stake — a standing start offers far greater potential to improve on a qualifying position than a rolling start does, but it also holds a much greater risk for error such as a stall or contact damage. This creates an unbelievable build-up of suspense as the engines are revved in harmony and the adrenaline starts pumping. It’s truly a sight to behold. From the perspective of excitement, standing starts wouldn’t take anything away from the on-track product, but they certainly could add to it, which leads into the next point…

- Rolling starts can be thrilling, too, when they’re done right — but getting them right in INDYCAR these days has been challenging. A number of tracks on the circuit are simply not well-suited to getting the entire field lined up before the green flag falls, which can lead to issues like the polesitter getting a huge run or the accordion effect that can cause drivers at the back of the field to slam into cars ahead of them because they don’t have to check up as much. On top of that, Brian Barnhart told More Front Wing a few months ago that Race Control strongly prefers not to wave off starts due to safety concerns (http://morefrontwing.com/2011/04/27/barnhart-speaks-out/). The result is that race starts often look uglier than viewers at home expect, which takes a lot of the thrill out of them. Standing starts are easier to police and would solve all of these issues.

- In most other parts of the world, rolling starts are reserved for junior formulas while the higher levels of racing expect their drivers to be able to handle standing starts. If rolling starts create the perception internationally that the drivers in the American formula aren’t capable of performing a top-tier skill, that’s clearly not a good thing for INDYCAR’s credibility.

- And expanding on that point, using standing starts on road and street courses while retaining rolling starts on ovals adds yet another dimension to the skill set required to be a successful INDYCAR driver. Standing starts require different thought processes, different sequences of actions, and different types of reactions from the drivers. We’ve been saying lately that INDYCAR drivers are the most diversely skilled in the world, and going to standing starts on road and street courses would only serve to support that claim.

- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, going to standing starts doesn’t require INDYCAR to give anything up. We’ll still see rolling starts on ovals (including the Indianapolis 500, so there’s no risk of lost tradition there), and restarts will still be rolling and double-wide on all types of courses. Changing to standing starts on roads and streets truly does offer the best of both worlds.

If there’s one thing that we all should have learned thus far from the Randy Bernard era of INDYCAR leadership, it’s that doing something a certain way just because that’s how it’s always been done is a poor excuse for hindering progress. I still do feel that it will be sad to see a unique aspect of the American open-wheel racing disappear, but it’s become clear to me that there are plenty of very good reasons why going to standing starts is the better option. I hope that the traditionalists are able to look at the situation objectively and see that moving to standing starts has the potential to be one positive change among many that can herald a new era for INDYCAR racing in 2012.

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PAUL’S POINT:

It’s definitely frustrating (although I suppose some might say it’s exciting) to watch drivers push their cars to their limits through practice and qualifying only to see a few strong contenders eliminated by carnage in the very first turn of the race. Nobody ever wants to see that happen, especially the drivers and team members who work so hard in the days and weeks leading up to an event. Nonetheless, the teams pack up the cars, ship them off to another country, and run another event a couple of weeks later.

Oh, did you think I was talking about INDYCAR just now? Nope, I meant Formula 1 — you know, where standing starts prevent accidents from happening in the first turn. Right…

I’ve heard a lot of justification for why INDYCAR should adopt standing starts, ranging from “it’s a safety issue” to “they are more exciting to watch” to (by far the lamest) “because the rest of the world uses standing starts.” None of these have ever been proven to me to be good reasons, and moving away from the rolling starts that Indy car racing has always used would be a sad strategy.

American-based racing has used rolling starts since Carl Fisher first introduced the practice in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. It’s worked fine since that time with only a small percentage of races impacted by first-turn incidents. Though I don’t have the statistics available to me, my hunch and empirically based notion is that the number of starts with an accident in INDYCAR is not significantly greater than the number starts that have pile-ups in Formula 1. (I’m sure someone will quickly post supporting data on this, especially if I’m wrong.) If the statistics don’t bear out much of a difference, I see no point in going down this path for the simple reason of trying something different. In a time when INDYCAR racing needs to differentiate itself from the countless other formulas throughout the world, removing a long-held part of its identity doesn’t stand to reason.

There is no denying that Indy car racing has had its issues at the starts of races over the years, but the problem shouldn’t be considered excessive. With the exception of the debacle at St. Petersburg this year, all road and street course races have been successfully started sans carnage this season, including at Long Beach, Toronto, Edmonton, Baltimore, and Motegi — all of which were predicted to have turn 1 melees. You see? It can be done! It’s not the procedure nor the tracks that are the problem — the issue lies squarely with the seat-to-steering-wheel connector.

Ultimately, cars only crash and collide because drivers try to put their cars were someone else’s already is. When the green flag flies, drivers seem to lose all sense of reason, and suddenly any pavement becomes racing pavement, leading a driver to attempt brazen, hopeless passes on five or six cars with little chance of success and massive risk of elimination. When drivers are four, five, and six cars wide trying to funnel into a turn that can barely handle two, chaos will ensue. This is exactly the genesis of the phrase, “you can’t win a race in the first turn but you can certainly lose it there.” Clearer heads and smaller eyes would go a long way toward making a lot of drivers’ races much longer.

If there were a host of good reason for implementing standing starts in INDYCAR, I would be more open to the idea, but I’ve yet to really hear of them. I don’t see them as being safer. I don’t see them having an impact on the number of first-turn accidents. And I don’t see getting rid of something that set the series apart from European road racing as a good thing. There are plenty of policies that can and should be changed during the off-season and set straight for 2012. However, the starting procedure on road and street courses is not one of them.

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