The current State of INDYCAR: anticipation

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on February 16, 2012 3:28 pm
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The two-day State of INDYCAR conference has wrapped up, and the overriding emotion of the event was anticipation.

While the news coming out of the event was mostly positive (though let’s be honest — this wasn’t the type of event where INDYCAR would likely drop bad news on the assembled masses), the general sense we were left with was that drivers and teams can’t wait to unleash the beast and get the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season underway.

By now, our readers have read most of the key metrics released during the conference, all indicating that INDYCAR is on the upswing and poised for continued growth in 2012.  In short, revenues are up (INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard called 2011 the organization’s best year financially, though he was careful not to call it “profitable”), TV ratings are up, sponsors and car counts continue to climb, and the new car is gaining traction (slight pun intended).  However, the greatest takeaway from the conference was not one that could be easily quantified: the confidence of incoming INDYCAR President of Competition and Race Director, Beaux Barfield.

When Barfield to the podium to speak on Tuesday morning, he did so in front of a captive audience that was hanging on his every word to hear what the new sheriff had to say and how he expects to conduct business.  When he was finished, people knew that — right, wrong, or otherwise — Barfield was going to make his expectations crystal clear and that, in the end, he would be the person in charge of making calls during the race.  If nothing else, it was clear that Barfield’s confidence in himself went a long way in attracting confidence from the race personnel in the room.

From a balls-and-strikes perspective, Barfield didn’t go into great detail about his ruling philosophy for Race Control, but he did offer a few examples of how he will run the show differently than his predecessor, Brian Barnhart.  Barfield reiterated several times that he believes over-officiating is detrimental to the sport.  As such, drivers, teams, and fans should expect to see more frequent defensive driving in 2012 as Barfield believes the ability to defend your position is fundamental to racing.  However, he promises to make a very clear distinction between defending and blocking.  With better communication between officials and drivers, Barfield believes much of the controversy and second-guessing can be eliminated before it ever becomes an issue.

Barfield also introduced the stewards who will be assisting him in Race Control this year.  Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, the driver who still holds all three prominent speed records at the Indianapolis 500, will be the driver’s steward and will be responsible for coaching younger drivers.  Johnny Unser and Gary Barnard will also be assisting in Race Control.  However, it will be Barfield who makes the final decisions, and he sees it as the only fair way to gauge where the current regulations and expectations may fall short.

To that end, Barfield also emphasized that now is not the appropriate time for him to completely overhaul the existing rulebook when he has yet to use it in practice.  Instead, he felt that a facelift was more appropriate.  After understanding the shortcomings while using the current rules structure through 2012, he expects to make more wholesale changes where necessary prior to the 2013 season.

My lasting impression of Beaux Barfield coming away from this meeting was that he will be stern but fair.  More importantly, he will be predictable, and that alone should make for less controversy from Race Control.  It would be great if this was the last major appearance by Barfield in 2012, but with a fan base that has become more accustomed to worrying about Race Control than the race itself, some people are choosing to take a wait-and-see position before passing judgment.

Apart from Barfield’s presentation, the other factor that set this year’s conference apart from those previous was the focus on the new technical regulations.  There have been few major technical developments to discuss for the past several years, so any discussion of new chassis and engine regulations will be a change of pace.  With the addition of Will Phillips (VP of Technology), Trevor Knowles (Director of Engine Development), and many others, INDYCAR has significantly bulked up its technical staff as a result of the return of engine competition.  Whether additional staff will be required when aero kits are introduced in 2013 was not discussed, but given INDYCAR’s intention to maintain a reasonably level playing field, further hires seem likely.

Most of the information that came out of these sessions won’t be of much importance to the average fan — things like universal mounting points for engines and the date of homologation of internal engine components — but a number of fans may be interested in some of the testing details and early performance characteristics of the new chassis and engine.  Those interested in this type of detail should visit the More Front Wing Twitter stream to go over items presented during the conference.  Perhaps the most interesting news to come from the presentation, at least from a fan standpoint, was the boost pressure limits on the various types of tracks.  The turbocharger pressure on speedways (Indianapolis, California, Texas) will be limited to 38 inHg (inches of mercury).  At the short ovals (Milwaukee and Iowa), engines will be allowed 41 inHg, and at road and street courses, the maximum pressure will be set to 46 inHg.  All boost pressure will be controlled via the spec ECU, not the old-style pop-off valve that led to so much controversy through the CART years.

The other major news out of the engine presentation is that push-to-pass will not be present at the beginning of the 2012 season.  After hearing from INDYCAR and Honda that push-to-pass could not be effectively implemented on the normally aspirated, 3.5L V8 because of the lack of a turbocharger, fans had been led to believe push-to-pass was imminent with the new, smaller, turbocharged engines.  With the smaller displacement and less available torque in the new engines, many fans are justifiably worried that passing may not be improved in the new era due to an overall lack of power and Barfield’s re-opening of defensive driver procedures.  Knowles did indicate that push-to-pass may be added at some point during the season but certainly didn’t guarantee it.

Aside from the technical discussions, many of the drivers indicated that they are very excited about the upcoming season and seeing how everything shakes out when they get to St. Petersburg, Florida, in five weeks.  While none of the drivers believe any teams are really showing their full hands just yet, all believe that it will be a great battle between manufacturers and that competition will only serve to push everyone harder.  They all also indicate that they are enjoying the opportunity to be back in the developmental environment and to be part of building a great program.  Lotus-DRR driver Oriol Servia in particular said he was enjoying the development, and even though Lotus is admittedly behind in the development cycle, he appreciates their conservative, measured approach in moving forward.

KV Racing Technology driver Tony Kanaan pointed out that, while the DW12 chassis has come a long way since last fall, there is still much to be learned and improved about it.  In particular, he says the chassis is still forcing drivers to adapt their driving styles to the car rather than allowing teams to set up the cars to the desires of the drivers.  This could have a significant impact on driver performance this season as both engineers and drivers struggle to match the cars to their driving styles.  One would think that a driver who has more experience in various types of cars, thus having spent more time fine-tuning style to car, would have an advantage over a driver who has driven nothing but the Dallara IR03 for the past several years.

(For more driver thoughts and insights, check back with More Front Wing later in the week as we post audio from Monday’s driver availability.)

Finally, while the state of INDYCAR is generally strong, all involved realize that there is still much more work to do to get INDYCAR racing back to where it should be.  While metrics are certainly trending in the right direction, improvements in the measurable metrics — attendance, ratings, sponsorship dollars, paying rides, etc. — are necessary in 2012 to keep the momentum moving forward.  INDYCAR cannot allow itself to be satisfied with the status quo.  The general feeling coming away from this meeting was cautious optimism that those metrics are improving, but many people are hoping that 2012 is a fresh start to a new era that will come with more sizable increases.  In order to bring more sponsorship, which ultimately leads to stronger teams and less reliance on the sanctioning body for assistance, those key metrics will need to see dramatic improvements over 2011 and show businesses that sponsorship in the IZOD IndyCar Series is a worthwhile endeavor for their marketing dollars.

Just as getting the ship turned around didn’t happen overnight, the necessary growth won’t happen overnight, either.  However, solid groundwork has been laid over the past several years, and it now finally seems that people — or INDYCAR and its teams, at least — are singing from the same hymnal and are ready to lead the Series forward to a period of substantial growth.

For the first time in many years, there is real reason to hope that 2012 will be a true turning point in the history of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

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