Breaking News! NASCAR Teams Form Owners Association! Has CART Returned?!?!

 

7/7/2014. This may be a day that will mark a change in racing history. NASCAR’s top 9 teams formed an organization called Race Team Alliance. Penske, Ganassi, Hendrick, Stewart Haas, Gibbs, RPM, MWR, Roush, and Childress have all united to form the group. This is a big deal. NASCAR has resisted organization or franchising since its inception. This is contrary to many other forms of racing.  These associations are clearly positive for the teams, but whether they are good for fans or the direction of a series as a whole is much more debatable. What is going on in NASCAR is unclear. The RTA claims to be after nothing more than improving the sport, increasing marketing, and streamlining costs. Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Micheal Waltrip Racing was elected as President of the Race Team Alliance, and in an interview claimed that fans should welcome RTA. Perhaps. But a look at the history of racing and team owner organizations is troubling to say the least.

Most infamously CART was organized in 1979. CART saw Indycar rise to unprecedented levels of popularity while at the same time squeezing out American drivers, ovals, and smaller teams. CART and IMS CEO Tony George fought an infamous power struggle which brought down American Open Wheel Racing. After Unification, team owners again stretched power which has resulted in everything from the firing of innovative, fan focused CEO Randy Bernard to the elimination of double file restarts. Drivers and team owners have increased their power in Indycar, and many of their decision are not necessarily helpful in creating an exciting product for fans.

MotoGP has two organizations, the IRTA for the teams (generally speaking non-factory teams) while the motorcycle manufacturers has the MSMA. These two groups are not as infamous as CART, nor are their decisions so wholly destructive. Yet rules out of these two groups still can be troubling, and give a ton of power to motorcycle manufacturers irregardless of whether these rules are good for the series as a whole or fans. Examples such as the various rules about electronics, tires, and bike specifications exist. Even when not destructive, the process of sharing power between these organizations, Dorna, and the FIM leads to more politics and simply more time in making decisions. Formula One teams formed an association called FOTA in 2008. This organization nearly caused a  Split in Formula One, though its power waned considerably and the organization dissolved this season.

NASCAR’s history with organization was more focused on preventing a drivers union than a team organization. Two key attempts at organization were create in the early days of NASCAR. 1961 saw the attempted formation of a drivers union with some involvement of the Teamsters Union. Curtis Turner was a driving influence in the creation of the Federation of Professional Athletes which saw many drivers join. The union’s most enthusaistic supporters were given lifetime bans while Bill France Sr. also created the Grand National Advisory Board to give some voice to others. The FPA failed as everyone involved left, and the drivers given bans (greats such as Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, and Fireball Roberts) were all reinstated. Eventually.

1969 saw a new organization brought into existence. This time the movement to create the Professional Drivers Association was led by Richard Petty. Key issues included insurance and pension for drivers. No one was suspended this time, but conflict flared up over Talladega. Tire issues at Talladega caused most of the drivers to seek a postponement. Bill France Sr. would not allow that. 32 drivers boycotted the initial race at Talladega. The race went on however, with many drivers in what is now the Nationwide series (then Grand National) filling in. 1970 saw the introduction of a rule which said that any car entered into the race would have to race, regardless of whether the initial driver did or not. In 1973 Richard Petty left the drivers organization which then collapsed.  Thus ended any sort of power sharing agreement in NASCAR, at least until now.

I am not saying that massive conflict will happen in NASCAR. I am not saying a Split is imminent. Or a boycott, or anything of that sort. Clearly, everyone at this point knows that a “Split” would be incredibly destructive. Yet the risk is there. With team owners looking for more power, and NASCAR famously jealous in its guardianship of said power, conflict seems likely. NASCAR’s response to this was short. Yet the timing of this announcement right after Brian France’s mid season State of the Sport is telling. Until more details come out it we can only speculate on the goals of RTA and NASCAR. But it seems to me to imply some serious dissatisfaction with the current state of NASCAR.

So what if there was a “Split” in NASCAR? Again, I am not saying this will happen or is likely to happen, but what if? The teams would only be able to do this if Bruton Smith’s SMI joined with them, or at least let them race on SMI tracks. As such RTA would have at minimum Bristol and Charlotte as marquee events. They would also have Vegas, Kentucky, Loudon, Sonoma, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway. Interestingly enough SMI also owns North Wilkesboro Speedway though it would need updates. NASCAR would race at all of the ISC tracks as well as NASCAR owned Iowa and DMG controlled Road Atlanta and Sebring. Whether NASCAR would continue to run SMI tracks is hard to say, but it is decidely unlikely RTA would be allowed into any NASCAR controlled tracks.There are a number of independent tracks which could swing either way, or run both. Pocono, Indianapolis, Dover, Gateway, Milwaukee and Nashville most notably. If a Split were to happen it also might mean more road racing in NASCAR. From Nola to Road America, Montreal to Mosport, Mid Ohio to New Jersey Motorsports Park, a lot of potential road courses are out there, and in a desperate situation might be able to get a NASCAR and/or RTA race. RTA includes Roger Penske, who of course promotes the Belle Isle street race for Indycar. Could an RTA series use street courses as a way to make up for the loss of ISC tracks?

The possibility and power of a Split would depend on if all the RTA teams left together. If they did, and if they took all of the drivers with them then NASCAR might be in some trouble. As it currently sits what would NASCAR have left? Would fans stick around if the stars went to another racing series? NASCAR would have the Daytona 500, but is it enough to sustain the series? On the other hand could RTA survive without Darlington, Daytona, or Talladega? For television, the most successful way for RTA to position itself would be to get back on the ESPN team. Were that to happen ,and RTA to have the full power of Sports Center on their side, NASCAR would be in considerable trouble. All of this is purely hypothetical and unlikely to happen, but it is an interesting thought experiment.

Could positive developments come out of the Race Team Alliance? One thought some people have is that the RTA may mean more of NASCAR’s television and sponsorship money given to the teams. Revenue sharing and franchising could be a positive move for NASCAR. It could reduce ride buying, improve parity, and stabilize the lives and livelihood of drivers, pit crews, mechanics, and all of those whose living depends on racing. On top of that NASCAR is going to have many of their races on Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports starting next year. This may have a dramatic affect on the television ratings. Indycar ratings dropped incredibly when they moved from ESPN to NBC Sports. If that happens to NASCAR there will be some significant issues with sponsorship for teams. This would make revenue sharing even more vital for the survival of the several teams. The other hope with RTA is that it really does lower costs and help get more teams or at least more cars to races. Though the history of cost savings in racing is filled with failures, perhaps RTA will help push NASCAR along to a successful path. Certainly, NASCAR has a number of serious issues. Fans are disappearing, and engaging younger fans and non-traditional NASCAR fans has been an incredible struggle. RTA claims to want to focus on marketing so perhaps a new approach is what NASCAR needs.

The Race Team Alliance could have any number of results. It might even be much ado about nothing. But it does make me a bit uncomfortable. I’ve seen too much in Indycar over the last four years to really feel good about seeing team owners get more power. If nothing else, lets have a moment of silence for Randy Bernard, the Indycar CEO removed by Indycar team owners. I certainly hope RTA either has no effect on NASCAR, or has a positive one. I just can’t shake the feeling that the NASCAR world will never be the same again. Whatever happens, and whatever you think will or should happen, this is a story that should be followed closely by anyone interested in racing.

Houston and Pocono Race Reviews: Three for the Price of One

This article also appears at http://www.wfopenwheel.com 

The condensed Indycar schedule has resulted in lots of races in quick succession. As such Houston and Pocono are getting combined into one race review. The Houston double header went first. Race one was held in the rain while race two was dry. Pocono produced a long green flag run and a fast race. Overall I was very surprised about how exciting Houston was, especially the first race. As for Pocono I was very disappointed with the lack of action seen during this weekend. After the less than thrilling race last year and the boring race out of Texas this year I was not exactly surprised about what we saw out of Pocono.

Firestone Delivered Real Rain Tires: The most interesting aspect of Houston for me was the new Firestone rain tire. Rain tires have been a major issue in Indycar for years. The tires Indycar had were only suitable for small amounts of water and thus rarely were useful. The new tire had been promised all year, and the first weekend it was available it saw use. The results were incredible. A street race in the rain. That was shocking. The new tire seemed to preform perfectly. If there is one concern it is the fact that Indycar does not have an intermediate tire. The old rain tire was more of an intermediate tire but it has been retired completely.  The tire seemed to preform well as the rain slowed, and in all honestly the red tires (softs) were pretty good on the half wet track as well. But I would be somewhat concerned that in really heavy rain or in very marginal rain that the new tires might not preform as they’re meant for too wide of range. I really think if Indycar’s going to race a lot of road and street courses they need wet and intermediatetires, just like Formula One and MotoGP.

Huertas, Alishen, and the Rookies: Carlos Huertas won the first race. I love underdog success stories, but that wasn’t the underdog success story I wanted to see. After thinking about it I now feel a little more generous about it. After all it proved anyone can win in Indycar. Literally. While it’s nice to see Hawksworth and Alishen and Munoz have success they’re not really the younger drivers Indycar needs to succeed. I love rookie drivers doing well; just not these rookies. I mean, the 2013 Lights Champion is rideless. Anyways, it was good to see but I would just hate to see Alishen or Hawksworth one day get a ride that otherwise would have gone to Karem or Newgarden. JPM and Munoz joined on the podium. Graham Rahal or Tony Kanaan might have had a podium however Rahal speared Kanaan coming to the final (called off) restart and was then penalized.

Simon Pagenaud Wins Race 2: Speaking of talented but non exciting people, Simon Pagenaud won race 2 and won the pole for race 1. He’s an incredibly talented driver but again does Indycar need another talented but bland international driver? Don’t we already have Briscoe and Dixon? Do we need another? Pagenaud’s win was never in doubt once Helio crashed. Pagenaud is mulling over his options for 2015. I personally hope he moves to F1 or joins the WEC. But that’s unlikely. Right now it looks like Andretti Autosport or staying at Schmitt are his options. I prefer to see him stay at Sam’s team, and I think from Honda’s perspective that makes the most sense. After all that gives Honda 2 very strong teams instead of just one superteam at Andretti. His potential Andretti ride appears to be a fifth car. Which is more acceptable to me than him getting a ride at Penske and Ganassi; after all Andretti employs the very marketable Hinchcliffe and the potentially series saver Marco. Penske and especially Ganassi on the other hand could use a younger American or at least fun personality under 30. So if Pagenaud has to get a Big Three ride I’ll take Andretti over Penske or Ganassi. Though I do worry how  this could hurt Hinchcliffe and Marco.

The Chicanes: One aspect about Houston that needs to be improved are the chicanes. As the track is set up in a parking lot I am not sure some of the chicanes are needed. They just spread the field out and ended up getting cut a lot of times anyways. In particular the chicane every seemed to cut the most (Pagenaud and Hinch cut it a ton in race 1) seemed pointless and unnecessary. The racing was pretty good, but since this is a parking lot track lets get a longer straight away, okay? Honestly, despite the good racing I just have a hard time really getting into a race in a parking lot, but at least if we’re going to do it lets make it the best course possible.

2nd Race: Race 2 managed to be fairly exciting outside of the top 2. After Helio and Bourdias made controversial contact Pagenaud and Alishen pulled away from the field. Juan Pablo Montoya charged ahead to try and take 3rd from Jack Hawskworth. Lots of good racing ensued. In the end JPM fell back to 7th but he and the other drivers in the top ten managed to keep the race interesting. Overall I enjoyed race 1 slightly more than race 2, but I think that’s due to the rain, and the fact Hinchcliffe ran upfront for so long.

Timed Races, Overtime, Green White Checkers: I am no fan of timed races, but I do understand the need at times. Rain slows a race way down, and it needs to be done within a reasonable television window and before sunset. Even a race is timed I still think there needs to be an overtime system; or a green white checkers rule. Most people consider soccer (or football) a fairly pure sport and the World Cup features both Overtime and Stoppage Time. Indycar needs a similar rule. Otherwise the most dramatic part of a race can be lost. There could have been a fantastic finish to the Houston race… instead Huertas won because Rahal crashed Kanaan under yellow. Is that really how you want a race to end? Also, as I’ve said on numerous occasions Indycar has more yellow flag finishes than any other racing series. To me that is a problem.

Pocono 

Juan Pablo Montoya’s First Win! At least his first win in Unified Indycar. Juan Pablo Montoya qualified on pole and ran up front. Just like Indy he seemed to stretch fuel slightly longer than most drivers. As he went to pass Will Power on the only restart Power threw a massive block. They made contact and part of Montoya’s front wing was clipped off. Power was penalized while Juan seemed no worse for the wear. He easily held on to the lead until he had to pit. Joseph Newgarden and Tony Kanaan took the lead when Montoya pitted. They could not save enough fuel and so without a yellow were unable to make it to the finish. Montoya retook the lead when they pitted and won by over 2.5 seconds. Montoya’s win vaulted him up to 4th in points behind Helio, Will, and Simon. Though he is a longshot Montoya appears to be back. He intends to run next season as well. Can Juan Pablo Montoya win another championship during his comeback tour?

Another Dull Oval! The 2014 Indianapolis 500 was a great race. The 2014 Texas race was incredibly boring. Pocono is flat and long so it is more similar to Indianapolis than Texas. However the racing we saw was much closer to what was seen out of Texas than Indianapolis. The racing was processional, the focus was on fuel saving, and the fact it was the fastest 500 mile race (or one of the fastest three, can’t remember/don’t care) really doesn’t mean much when the racing was… sub par. The most interesting moment of the race came when JPM passed Power. Other than that the race was fairly spread out and the drivers were more comfortable saving fuel than racing side by side.

Long Green Flags: I am not convinced long green flag runs are such a great thing. To be clear I do not watch racing for crashes, nor do I support phantom cautions or making the cars harder to drive on ovals. But seriously I do not see how having long green flag runs are a positive. Homstead in 2009 saw only 3 cars on the lead lap. Texas this year had six. In 2012 Rahal hit the wall and still finished 2nd. Will Power’s penalties at Texas and Pocono were made significantly less worse because of how spread out the field was. How is any of this good? Long green flag runs spread the field out, they encourage strategy and fuel savings over on track action. It may make the racing more like Formula One or Le Mans but that doesn’t make it good. On a related note I’m not sure 500 or even 400 miles at Pocono is a great idea. Would a 300 mile race have been more exciting? Or would it have been over in an hour?

Low Car Count: The racing at Pocono was not helped by the poor car count. The 2014 season features just 22 cars (Formula One like and not in a good way) and this race only had 21 starters as Jack Hawksworth was injured and BHA pulled out. While that decision makes sense from the teams standpoint from the series standpoint dropping to 21 cars was not a positive. NASCAR has a rule where if a team enters a race it must race, regardless of whether a driver gets injured or not. This rule was put in place generations ago to prevent a driver boycott, but it also means if a driver gets injured a relief driver is always found. Perhaps a rule like this should be implemented in Indycar.

Is Pocono the worst oval in America? Well, Dover and Nashville are probably as bad if not worse. I mean, NASCAR or Indycar, Pocono just doesn’t seem able to produce good racing. Very Dover like, at least on the NASCAR front. I do not particularly imagine that an Indycar race at Dover would be particularly enjoyable either. Some people enjoyed the Pocono race, and I guess if you like technical racing and race strategy then maybe I can see it. But Pocono certainly wasn’t the type of racing I want to see, in any series.

The Myth of the Flat Oval: Some people like to say that Indycar should run flat ovals. They say this is what Indycar’s were designed forSince I’ve watched Indycar (2007-now) the best racing I have seen has been at the banked 1.5 mile ovals, Indianapolis (new car) and Fontana (new car, but presumably good with the old). Pocono? Loudon? Milwaukee? Richmond? Nashville? Some have been better than others, but overall they have not produced great racing. Perhaps they used to with USAC and CART, but today, not so much. Iowa is an interesting track because it is short yet banked. Some great racing has been seen there, though since 2012 the race has started to spread out a bit as well. What will we see next weekend at Iowa? Flat ovals may be safer (though Hawksworth may disagree) but that doesn’t mean they produce great racing or are better for Indycar than more banked ovals.

Attendance Issues: I have already discussed attendance and Pocono in a previous posting. Based off the racing we’ve seen the last two years how is it surprising that attendance is a bit low? The Indycar race may have been more entertaining than the NASCAR races at Pocono, but it was not very exciting. I love Indycar oval racing, and I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to see what we’ve seen the last two years from Pocono. Attendance looked okay on television. Some angles looked very strong, other angles were less positive.

Ryan Hunter Reay’s Championship Falls? Another bad result, another mechanical failure saw Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter Reay’s title hopes take what appears to be a terminal turn. Though I suppose anything is possible it will take a miracle for RHR to win the title.

Houston demonstrated that Indycar can run in the rain. Pocono demonstrated that some tracks are not terribly exciting no matter what cars are put on them. Indycar can produce great racing, but something needs to change. What we saw at Pocono was simply not exciting. It’s especially disappointing because of how good the racing has been at Indianapolis. I do not want to see Pocono go away because we cannot afford to lose any more ovals and because I do not want Indycar to become a 14 race series. Yet at the same time if Indycar were able to trade Pocono for another oval (preferably a banked oval) then I would be ecstatic. Maybe aero kits will improve the racing, or maybe it will lead one manufacturer to lap the entire field. As for Iowa there is always the potential for a great race, but the new car has not been as good there as I would have liked. It’s not been as bad as Texas, but it is not as good as it was in 2010 and 2011. Hopefully this year will see an improvement. Otherwise we could be in for the third dull ovals in a row. When this happened in 2009, Indycar made changes which created some great oval races. Should be see 3 poor ovals in a row, will changes be put in place for next season?

 

You Should Not Blame Fans for Pocono’s Problems: Or Why Indycar Must Grow

This article also appears at http://www.WFOpenWheel.com 

Indycar went to Pocono for the first time in over twenty years during the 2013 season. The deal signed was for three years, and the race is part of the double points awarding Triple Crown. However yesterday the AP broke some disturbing news regarding the 3rd year of the deal. Apparently pre-race ticket sales are low and the future of the race is in doubt, even for next season. The AP article contains quotes from the Pocono CEO  Brandon Igdalsky about how researched fan interest has not equaled as many ticket sales as expected. This has led to a lot of debate about what has gone wrong. Normal issues have been discussed (promotion, distance, number of fans) but others have pointed the blame to the fans themselves. After all, if fans want more ovals, why don’t they show up? There’s nothing wrong with that logic….

Well actually, there is a lot wrong with that. On the most basic level is the fact that many people cannot attend these races, whether they want to or not. From my personal perspective I am a twenty-one year old college student who lives in South West Michigan. It’s not like I can just go and travel to Pocono on a whim. I would say it’s the same for a lot of fans. I want more ovals, but other than MIS it might be a bit hard for me to get out to them. Personally, I don’t believe I am a disloyal or bad fan just because I will not spend all of my money, free time, and perhaps not so free time to attend Indycar races. I do what I can for the series; I watch the races, I blog and podcast about it (though whether that is good for the series or not may be debated), and I do what I can to get other people to watch. To expect every fan to travel to a ton of races is unreasonable; for most sports fans a majority of our fandom will be based on television and the internet. Outside of local sports that is the reality. If you think about it that’s how it has been for generations. Sure today has television and social media, but it’s not like in the 1920’s sports weren’t broadcast on the radio and reported on in newspapers. Sports writers and radio broadcasters were huge; they brought these sports to the fans.

Another reality is that attendance for NASCAR tracks have been down since the recession in 2008. Some argue that this is because ovals are dead and everyone wants to watch street races. The television ratings tell a different story. NASCAR clearly has some issues, especially with gaining new and younger fans, but it still pulls fairly strong ratings and has a ton of interest. Attendance is down for many reasons. Travelling is expensive and the cost of hotels (which often increase dramatically for race weekend) and parking adds up quickly. On top of that a majority of oval tracks are not particularly close to major population centers. The on track action at a lot of tracks in NASCAR has suffered; look at a lot of the 1.5 mile tracks, the Bristol repaving, and Pocono in general. The most clear cut way this relates to Indycar is the decline and fall of the season ticket holder. In the past (pre 2008) many tracks sold season tickets. In fact to get seats for Cup races these tickets were often nearly required. As such people got Indycar tickets at tracks such as Chicagoland, Kentucky, Texas, and many other ISC and SMI tracks. Unfortunately since the recession, NASCAR attendance has plummeted and thus the season tickets have largely fallen by the wayside. Thus the lower attendance for Indycar races is not surprising. I have no way to prove it, but I also wonder if the disappearance of Indycar onto Versus and NBC Sports has hurt more casual fans interest in going to Indycar races. Getting back to television ratings, look at the massive gap between Indycar ratings (a .4 at Texas on cable) and NASCAR (2.0+  on cable). On broadcast outside of Indy the ratings gap is similarly large. If you look at it that way, everyone should be grateful anytime the attendance is a quarter that of NASCAR’s.

Ovals aren’t dead. True, some of the Indycar road and street races are very well attended. Not that the alleged 100,000 plus people saved Baltimore. But it is also true that almost anything promoted in the center of Long Beach would outdraw something promoted in Pocono. That doesn’t mean everyone who goes to Long Beach is a hardcore Indycar fan. Nor does everyone who goes to Indianapolis watch all of the races. If they did… ratings would be higher. So should we blame those fans too? On top of that attendance between Indycar races are between about 15,000 and 40,000 people outside of the center of city streets. Houston’s Astrodome track and Belle Isle are not exactly overflowing with fans. Barber sells out every year, but they limit the number of tickets sold. That is not to say that Barber is poorly attended, it’s just to say that the “sold out” Barber race is not necessarily more attended than the “half sold” Texas. Though this depends on whose attendance figures you decide to believe. As I said (and a number of other people have also made this comment) it’s not like Pocono didn’t know that Indycar attendance has been low for awhile. It’s not like NASCAR attendance at Pocono is breaking records right now either. So the attendance figures shouldn’t be a complete shock to the CEO of Pocono.

As James and I talked about with John Hall on our latest podcast, at least in the South, even NASCAR has lost some interest to the local tracks. I am not saying short tracks, dirt tracks, or short track/dirt track drivers are the solution. I’m just saying that everyone (Indycar, NASCAR, track owners) should look at this phenomenon and try and recapture some of that magic.  As has been pointed out by many people there is also a lack of stuff to do at many Indycar ovals. If you look at most of the road and street courses a lot more racing takes place. The entire Road To Indy shows up at most events. Pirelli World Challenge, Robby Gordon’s trucks, various other smaller series, and occasionally the TUDOR United Sports Cars show up. That is a lot more value for fans than what we’re seeing at Pocono which appears to be simply Indycar and Indy Lights. Concerts and partying are another option, though as John points out in the context of NASCAR, focusing too much on that side of things can have some negative consequences.

The heart of the problem is simply the lack of fans Indycar has, rather than the fact that the fans they do have are terrible, horrible, whinny assholes. Some people have said they are fine with Indycar being a .4 sport. That growth doesn’t matter to them. That’s fine, but the reality is without a bigger  Indycar, without more fans and without more growth this is what you will get. You’ll smaller fields, more ride buyers, and less tracks. That is kind of how these things work. So it’s grow, or lose all the things that make Indycar worth watching. Whether growth is likely or not is irrelevant. If you do not want more Pocono issues, there has got to be growth in the fanbase.

There is some good news. Ratings on NBC Sports have been up in the second half of the season. Both Houston and Texas were seen by over 400,000 people. That is not a good number, but it’s better than what has been seen typically on that channel. Perhaps NASCAR to NBC Sports will help these ratings. I tend to be optimistic though I know many intelligent people who are less than optimistic. There are also rumors of some sort of change in the Indycar television contract to get more exposure. We will have to see what happens, but there are reasons for optimism. For tracks in Indycar to be successful, they are going to need television ratings to sign sponsors, create stability, and keep races on the schedule. But we have to get there first. That is the multi-million dollar challenge. At least if you want more ovals, road courses, and more than fifteen races per year.

Another interesting thought I have had which has not been discussed much is the fact that the racing at Pocono last year simply was not that good for Indycar. NASCAR’s racing at Pocono has been bad for ages as well. Texas has had the same problem, at least in my opinion. Perhaps this has something to do with the lack of a crowd this year. Perhaps not, but it would be something worth pursing. Do you really expect people to travel long distances for sub-par racing?

It is not all doom and gloom. Though the comments out of Pocono are disturbing to say the least nothing is set in stone. That means that the Pocono race may come back. We don’t know what politics are being played by the series and the track, or how that relates to said comments. There is plenty of reason for concern and even panic, but the end is not set in stone. If you can attend Pocono this weekend you certainly should. A strong walk up crowd would be encouraging for the track, and if the worst happens at least you’ll have got to experience  Indycar at Pocono one more time.  On the other hand if you are like me and cannot attend, it is not your fault for the problems at Pocono. These issues are much more complex than just rotten, ungrateful fans.

By the way if you haven’t listened to Triple League Racing Podcast #16 you really need to do that! We don’t talk a lot about Indycar with John from LiveFastRacing, but a lot of good points are made about racing in general in our NASCAR and MotoGP/AMA/WSBK discussion.

Triple League Racing Podcast #16 The Return of John Hall!

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Today’s podcast features special guest John Hall, formerly of the LiveFastRacing Podcast fame. He joins James and myself and we talk a lot about NASCAR and MotoGP, with a little WSBK and AMA thrown in. For the motorcycle road racing fans, this show is a must listen. This episode was recorded during and after the Sunday Indycar race, so at the end of the podcast James and I discuss Indycar. Just a note, no monkey’s were dropped in the making of this podcast.

Triple League Racing Podcast #16

 

Triple League Racing Podcast #15

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Technical issues have been fixed, and the Triple League Racing Podcast is back! It is another long show, where James and I discuss Indycar, NASCAR, and Formula One. We cover Indy, Texas, Montreal, Haas, Adrian Newey, Ed Carpenter, Dale Junior, and much more! Don’t miss it! Download it from here or listen on Itunes!

TLR Podcast #15

2014 Indycar Texas “Race” Review: At Least Ed Carpenter Won

 

This article also appears on WFOpenWheel.com 

That wasn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became an Indycar fan. Those were my thoughts throughout this year’s Texas Indycar race. I became an Indycar fan for the high speeds and close racing. Due to aerodynamic changes and tire degradation to prevent the horrors of pack racing Indycar has managed to take both of those things out of their race at Texas. Drivers seemed to enjoy it and so did some fans. Many fans, myself included, felt rather disappointed after the end of the Texas race. Whether you enjoyed the race or not I have a little secret for you. It was basically a NASCAR Sprint Cup Race. Actually, scratch that. Some of the NASCAR races this year have been a bit more exciting than that. The Indycar race at Texas this year was actually just like the Coke 600 and the Jimmie Johnson dominated race at Dover. Cars got lapped early, very few cars were left on the lead lap, long green flag runs stretched the field out, one or two drivers dominated, and drivers had to fight their cars. As a side note, I was not terribly impressed by either of those races.

Its not like this was a surprise. We have seen Indycar totally neuter the 1.5 mile ovals due to the death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas. Is that the right decision? I don’t agree with it. Indycar didn’t change everything when Tony Rena or Paul Dana died. They haven’t changed everything due to Dario’s career ending injury at the Houston street circuit. Maybe some changes were needed. Maybe they were not. Either way there are other ways to get to close racing than just with the packs. We have seen close racing at both Indianapolis and Fontana with the DW-12. However we have never seen that at Texas. I believe that more downforce and a slower wearing tire are the answers. Others argue that it is due to the differences between Texas and Indy/Fontana that we do not see at Texas the type of drafting we saw at Indy. They would say that Texas does not have as long of straights and thus less room to draft. Perhaps they are right. All I want is to see some racing a little bit closer than what we saw this year. I don’t care if it is a pack, draft and pass, or something else. I just want something closer than Texas has been in the DW-12 era.

Traditionally Indycar (USAC/CART) was based upon a combination of short ovals, road courses, and street courses. Much like traditional NASCAR and Formula One races often could end with only one car on the lead lap.The later part of the 1990’s changed this. The IRL was based upon close, wheel to wheel action. CART also became famed for this in their oval races in the period between the start of the split and the bankruptcy of CART.  I started watching Indycar in 2007, and became a fan in large part due to said wheel to wheel action. Indycar was faster and closer than anything I had watched before, and I came from a NASCAR background. NASCAR has at times had close racing on the 1.5 mile ovals, but more often than not their racing on these tracks was sub-par. Indycar has had some rough 1.5 mile oval races; Texas in 2009 springs to mind. Of course after terrible races at Indianapolis, Texas, and Richmond in 2009 Indycar made some changes in their package (including adding push to pass) which helped create excellent races at Kentucky and Chicagoland in 2009.

Texas this year (and for the most part in 2012 and 2013) featured low downforce and high tire wear. This has lead to a number of things. There certainly are no packs (which btw were not seen in the last few pre-DW-12 Texas races). It has also created a situation where there is not much passing and the field spreads out fairly quickly. How spread out? Rahal hit the wall in 2012 and still finished 2nd. This year Will Power got a pit road speeding penalty under green, which dropped him from 2nd to 6th place. Ever since the introduction of the DW-12 we have seen a majority of the field fall a lap down very quickly. This sometimes happened with the old car, and it happened at Fontana last year. Sometimes this can still produce good racing. At Texas however we saw Ed Carpenter have an over 14 second lead on Tony Kanaan before the caution. Low downforce, hard to handle cars, worn tires, and dirty air combined to create a perfect storm of boredom. Not only has it spread out, but the lack of downforce and quick wearing tires has caused the cars to be significantly slower than in the past. Initially the Indycar’s could run 215mph lapspeeds, but after a little while speeds would slow down near, or even below 200mph. At least the dreadful, Helio dominated 2009 race featured some higher speeds than that!

Some people love seeing the drivers fight the car. Some people hate having the cars flat out. Many of the drivers, especially those from a road racing background are on that side. The current format has led to a lot more driver vs. car and a lot more emphasis on tire and fuel strategy. Some people really prefer watching that. I can understand that sentiment, but I do not agree with them. Judging by twitter, fans, journalists, and bloggers seemed pretty split. A lot of it comes down to why a you got into Indycar, and racing in general. What do you want out of it? Certainly some cracks in the fan base were on display.

Outside of the quality of the racing what was most clear was how good Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, and Ed Carpenter were this race. Power was dominant early. Only Ed Carpenter could stay with him, and even Ed could barely do that. Ed did manage to pass Power on track as the two entered traffic. Carpenter led into the final pistops under green. Ed’s pitstop was fine. Will Power on the other hand got caught speeding on his entrance to pit road. Considering Indycar’s have pit road speed limiters the fact Power has done this at both Indy and Texas is actually somewhat impressive. What appeared to happen is that Power did not slow down enough before he entered pit road and turned the limiter on.

Because of how spread out the field was, Will Power’s green flag speeding penalty wasn’t that bad. While it appeared to take him out of contention for a win, he only dropped to 6th place. Considering Ryan Hunter Reay was out of the race this wasn’t a terrible result. Ed Carpenter then stretched a massive lead out. Tony Kanaan had a decent race and was in second until Juan Pablo Montoya passed him and took over 2nd position. Ed completely checked out on the field. He was over 14 seconds ahead of Montoya when a caution came out for an engine failure by Takuma Sato with 7 laps to go. While many feared the race would end under caution, it did not. What happened instead breathed a bit of (anti-climatic) excitement into this race. The field is set by how they are scored. In other words the lap down cars were set behind the lead lap cars. Since there were only six cars on the lead lap this meant that they had the potential to pit and have fresh tires for the final two lap shootout.

This was by the way incredibly NASCAR. Seriously, that is what happens during Green White Checkers finishes. Someone always pits to try and make up position by charging through the field with fresh tires. Will Power and Simon Pagenaud took tires and tried this gamble.  The start was rather messy; it was a typical spread out Indycar start. Ed may have jumped the start. At least that is what Juan Pablo Montoya accused him of. On fresh tires Power managed to charge to 2nd while Pagenaud topped out at 4th. Ed still managed to finish over a half second ahead of Power despite the worn tires.

As an Ed Carpenter fan I was very glad to see him win this. I was a bit conflicted as I really did want him to win, but also wanted a close finish. We did not get a terribly close finish, though there was more drama than anticipated before the yellow. While I was unimpressed with the race, Ed’s win really should shut the Carpenter haters up. He’s won three oval races. At Kentucky it was a flat out duel. At Fontana he won in the era of draft and pass. And at Texas he won a race where the main opponent was the track and the car. By the way, his three career wins put him ahead of Rahal, Andretti, or Danica. Ed has carved out a powerful niche for himself as a driver. And his team has shown it can win on ovals and street courses. If they could only cut down on some of the errors they’ve made and the bad luck they easily could have had four or five wins this year. That is crazy to think about. Ed needs a second, full time and fully funded car because with the right driver there is no reason they could not contend for the championship.

Andretti Autosport struggled and had major engine problems. Both Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter Reay failed to finish due to engine problems. James Hinchcliffe had a poor handling car which saw him drop multiple laps. Honda powered cars struggled; Sam Schmit carried the day for them as Pagenaud finished 4th and Alishen finished 7th. Newgarden finished 11th, Rahal 12th, and Munoz 13th as well. Helio finished off the lead lap in 8th while Dixon and Kanaan were the last drivers on the lead lap.

In the end I’m sorry, but this race was boring. It sucked. I was not entertained. A 10+ second lead on an oval usually is not a good sign. Whether this is how it used to be or not is irrelevant to me. Races like what we saw at Texas were not why I got into Indycar. I got into Indycar for wheel to wheel action and high speeds. Somehow Indycar managed to lose both at Texas! Although I would be happy to see the packs back, that is not the only way to get close racing. We have seen close racing at Indy and Fontana. Something along those lines would have been great at Texas. I really could care less if that makes me a bad person, fan, or blogger. What we saw at Texas was not acceptable; it was not Indycar. I hope changes are made; I hope that one day Texas can again become one of the most highly anticipated races of the year, instead of one what we got this year, and last year, and the year before that. I do not necessarily have confidence that will happen. Hopefully Iowa,  Milwaukee, Pocono, and Fontana produce better racing than what we just saw. They should, but you never know how much downforce the drivers will try and get taken off (RE: Iowa last year). The risk of another Texas hangs over the series head.

Final side note, I’m not (just) being sarcastic when I say people who enjoyed what we saw at Texas would enjoy NASCAR either. The Coke 600 and the Texas 600 were incredibly similar races, for better or for worse.

2014 Belle Isle Grand Prix’s In Review

This Article Also Appears on WFOpenWheel.com 

Belle Isle. It is not a place famed for great racing. The track has had some major layout changes which were designed to make the racing better. Could the DW-12, double headers, and new layout rewrite the narrative about Belle Isle? That depends on who you ask. The racing was much better than the old Belle Isle; unlike some of the pre-DW-12 Indycar road races the top five after qualifying were not the same at the end of the race. On the other hand the races were largely stratagey based. There was hope for a close battle for the lead; the reality was a lot of anti-climax. The race was O.K. The question is whether or not just O.K racing is good enough. Many people will say it is, but I am not quite so sure.

Double Header Format: The double header format is used by Indycar at a few of the street courses. Promoters and people who attend the races are big supporters of it. Drivers and teams however often find the format very challenging as it pushes them to their limits in terms of physical, mental, and logistical capabilities. I am not know as a major advocate of the teams interests, but I too have mixed feelings on the double headers. As a blogger I find them a bit confusing in terms of coverage. With two races (plus the other races I watch over the weekend) trying to remember who did what to who can be a bit tough. There is also an issue of time management for fans watching with two races. The ABC races are thankfully uploaded to ESPN 3. Plus, does anyone really want to watch two races at Belle Isle? If Indycar were to try this format at another track, like hypothetically Michigan International Speedway or Road America, or Iowa or even the Indy GP, maybe it would be a bit easier to judge. Another thought is that if Indycar is going to run two races a weekend, perhaps they should run a shorter race? Most other series which run double header formats (Pirelli World Challenge, AMA Pro Racing) run two sprint races over the course of the weekend.

Fighting for the Lead: I was a bit disappointed with the amount of action for the lead. Yeah there were a couple passes (Conway, Briscoe) but overall it was pretty much pass in the pits. Or in the case of race 2, watch Helio sail off into the distance. Rahal and Power had an interesting finish, but can you really call it a great battle when Rahal never passed him, or even came up to his side? I would say no, you can’t. There were some good battles on track, but for the lead they were very rare and mostly strategy based. There was a lot of anti-climax both in race 1 and also in race 2. Race 2 was especially bad as two late race restarts saw… absolutely nothing happen for the lead. Whether Power was hanging aback on purpose or simply not fast enough, Helio won unopposed. Before one pitstop Helio had a 38 second lead, and until the yellow flag had over 9 seconds on Power. Power did not challenge Helio at all on either restart. Some people say they want to see the best car win. Be that as it may, watching someone win so easily does not make for compelling television.

On Track Battles: The race did have some good battles for position. The contrast with the old Indycar is clear. Another interesting thing I noticed was the ability to pass in unusual areas. I feel a lot less negatively about RHR’s wreck at Long Beach after seeing some of the risky passing attempts work at Belle Isle. That was good, and ABC actually showed us some of the action in the field. Rahal in race 1 and Power in race 2 provided the most excitement/passing and enjoyment. The divergent strategies at times helped and at times hindered the on track action. In the end the race was not what I would call action packed, and most of the passing appeared to be done in the pits, but it was not as bad as some of the past Indycar races at Sonoma and Edmonton where the top five after qualifying were the same top five, in the same order, at the end of the race.

James Hinchcliffe, Qualifying Vs Racing: As a James Hinchcliffe fan 2014 has been a bit disappointing. Hinch has drastically improved his qualifying but the actual races have been more challenging. Hinchcliffe has started 2nd five times this year, but has a single top five to show for it. No podiums either. Hinchcliffe might have got a podium on Sunday however as he tried to pass Kimball on the last lap he got pushed into the wall. Hinch survived for a 5th place finish however. Belle Isle was a fairly good weekend for Hinchcliffe; he was the best Andretti car. Hopefully he’ll build on this for a great comeback in the 2nd half of the year.

Will Power’s Contact Filled Weekend: Contact was the name of Will Power’s weekend. He struggled both days in qualifying, only to be much more competitive when the race started. However he also made contact on both days. First with Pagenaud which has led to an escalation of their rivalry. Then on Sunday he made a massive dive which took out Newgarden and Rahal. This gave Power a drive through  penalty. Power has certainly become a polarizing driver this season. He also finished 1st and 2nd which allowed him to retake the points lead.

Ryan Hunter Reay Disaster: Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Belle Isle weekend started off well as he led in first practice. Then he made contact with the wall in second practice, and never looked back. Qualifying was a disaster both days. Both races were disasterous as well. Race 1 would have been an average finish had he not crashed on the final lap. Race 2 saw mechanical issues take him out of the race. At least he won the Indy 500, and got the double points.

Rahal Redemption: Graham Rahal entered Belle Isle as the only full time driver without a single top ten. Race 1 from Belle Isle changed this. Rahal finished second. Race 2 had him get wrecked by Will Power at the start and he never recovered, ultimately either crashing or suffering mechanical failure depending on who you ask. More importantly than just finishing 2nd was the fact Rahal made legitimate on track passes and fought hard. He looked like a real racer. Now if only Rahal can carry this forward. I was re-watching the epic 2009 Chicagoland race the other day and Rahal was very competitive their as well. If he could just get it together Graham could be a threat everywhere.

Unlikeable Rookies: I’ve changed my mind on Hawksworth to a point. But I still can’t stand Alishen or Huertas. I also find the cheering of these two, from fans, journalists, and announcers a bit disturbing. Indycar does not need a sanctioned Russian bank sponsored ride buyer or random Colombian to win races. It is fine to talk about them, but when they get large amounts of airtime then there may be a problem. Instead lets focus that positive energy on more deserving people, like Newgarden, Rahal, Pippa, Servia, Karam, ect.

Is This A Strategy Game? I accept that strategy is part of racing. But I do not think that strategy should be the main part of racing, and this year Indycar seems to have had way more strategy than on track action. ABC’s covered the Indy GP, Indy 500, and both races at Belle Isle. I have heard more about fuel savings and race strategy over the course of these races than I’d care to. Indy GP was a pure strategy race, and had we not seen the yellow at lap 150 the Indy 500 would have been the same. Belle Isle saw a lot of strategy as well, though I believe in race 2 the strategy was somewhat negated by the final couple of yellows. I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable race fan, and I understand at least part of the strategies used, but I honestly could not give a full recap of the race and explain who used what strategy and for what reasons. Great way to attract new fans, right? I am fine with some strategy and an occasional fuel mileage race, but it feels like that is the default setting for Indycar, and that is a problem. I do not know of a solution though I really think removing the fuel knob would help. It would make fuel saving more driver reliant, and less predictable. If I wanted a strategy game, I’d go to MatrixGames.com!

ABC’s Best Broadcast: Belle Isle was ABC’s best broadcast. They were much better on showing racing through the field than at any other ABC race. Certainly much improved over the Indy GP where they only showed the leaders. Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear are not good commentators. They aren’t as annoying as the Waltrip brothers, but Goodyear and Cheever do not add a lot to the booth. They also make odd comments, fight with each other, and still seem to have some grudges and resentments from their racing careers. All of this negatively impacts their ability to commentate. They also have a basic information issue. They at times do not understand the rules as well as Alan Beswick or Pippa Mann. Can someone please replace them? Preferably NOT Dario. I guess if Dario does get it, that is okay as long as he doesn’t complain about safety, close racing, ovals, or show pro-Ganassi favoritism. Much more preferably, get Paul Tracy, or another likable driver who wants to commentate.

Fence Climbing: Helio won the pole both days, and won the second race. Helio’s was very fast all weekend. Every year, people want to write off Helio. Every year, Helio wins races. Last year he contended for the title and it appears this year he will be in the thick of the fight for the championship as well. Power usually gets the accolades for being faster at road and street courses so Helio’s win and the speed he showed over Power could be a major sign of improvement from Helio. Will 2014 be Castroneves’s year for his first Indycar title? Also Helio reminds me of a celebrity chef. I mean that as a compliment, by the way. I don’t really watch those shows, but I know people who do and have thus seen a number of them. Helio’s personality would fit if he were a celebrity chef. Since those shows and those chefs are more watched than Indycar this is not a bad thing. Perhaps that should be his next reality TV venture.

  Race Control and Penalties: While many people are upset with Race Control, I am not. Less is more when it comes to penalties, especially on the tracks Indycar runs. If drivers don’t push and make high risk moves, what would we have had left at Belle Isle? Even more fuel savings and strategy. I like what Barfield is doing and hope that minimalist penalties continue.

  The Future of the Isle: Belle Isle’s future is secure. Sponsors re-upped and a multi-million dollar repaving is planned before next years race. I have very… mixed feelings on this. While I understand that it is good to have money put into Indycar, and Belle Isle is Penske’s race, it is very…. frustrating, to see money and attention put into events like Belle Isle and Barber and Mid Ohio and Sonoma rather than in tracks which produce better racing. It reminds me of a quote from Game of Thrones, “The worst ones always live.” Yes Chevrolet needs a race in Michigan, but there is a track in Jackson which has produced great open wheel racing. On top of that it is concerning that the State of Michigan, which allegedly has no money and cannot fund education, is involved in some funding for remodeling at Belle Isle. As someone who’s a Public History major, I do like to see money spent on historical places, and Belle Isle is a historical place. So I have some very mixed feelings on that one as well. Money spent on Indycar is good, but I really would like to see it at a better track. I really hope that the repaving includes some more widening and passing zones.

Overall: Belle Isle was much improved this year over some of the races ran in the past. But it still is a pretty big come down from Indianapolis. I personally did not enjoy Belle Isle. I really am not thrilled about the long term future of the place either. According to what I have read, people who went their had a great time. That is wonderful, but does not make compelling television. I hope that the repaving includes some new passing zones and that one day Belle Isle turns into a Montreal like track. I am not holding my breath.

Overall I’ve been slightly underwhelmed by Indycar this year. Outside of Barber no race has been horrible, but outside of the Indy 500 no race has been that great either. There has been an inordinate amount of fuel saving and race strategy in my personal opinion. Things have improved from the past, but there is still more that needs to be done. I do not have all the answers, but I really hope that the series continues to look for improvements and does not just give up and say things are good enough. Road and street racing can be compelling. The Pirelli World Challenge series has great racing (though Belle Isle was also a bit disappointing), Tudor United has good moments, and despite Marquez’s dominance MotoGP featured a great race for the LEAD. I started watching Indycar for exciting races and on track action, not race strategy and fuel mileage.

Now it is on to Texas. Texas has produced great Indycar races in the past, but the removal of downforce to prevent pack racing has also prevented any close racing. I hope that this year we see some classic Texas action, rather than another spread out processional race. I am not sure if I can handle another strategy/pass in the pits race.

Jumping on the Pirelli World Challenge Bandwagon!

The Pirelli World Challenge has been operated by the SCCA  for 25 years. Despite this fact, and the fact that for many years it was televised on SpeedTV, I did not pay attention to the PWC until this year. It seems I am not the only one who is guilty of this, as use of their online streaming service has increased dramatically this year. Why? Two reasons. Firstly the ALMS/Grand Am “merger” and the issues it has created have made some people look for a non-Daytona owned alternative to sports car racing. Secondly the PWC allowed GT3 cars to enter unmodified for the 2014 season. The combination of these two changes have resulted in new teams, drivers, cars, and fans. The fact that this has resulted in some superb racing doesn’t hurt either. Nor does the fact that the Pirelli World Challenge has acted as an Indycar support series throughout most of the 2014 season.  I did not pay much attention to the Pirelli World Challenge until after Barber. In the gap between the Indycar race at Barber and the Indy Grand Prix I watched the livestream replay on YouTube of the St. Petersburg race. What I saw shocked me. During the fifty minute PWC race I saw more passing at St Pete than I’ve ever seen before. I quickly watched the races from Long Beach and Barber afterwards. I may have been slightly late to the party, but I did arrive.

The first thing to understand about the Pirelli World Challenge is that it has five car classes and six driver classes which run in two groups. The GT, GTA, and GTS run as the premier series, while the touring car based TC, TCA, and TCB run together as a smaller series. At most of the Indycar street races the GT series runs alone, while at some natural terrain road courses the touring cars join them. These two series still do not run on track at the same time. The touring cars also head out to smaller tracks such as Mosport and Donnybroke. One note on the coverage; PWC races are shown live via an online stream which is then posted to YouTube. After awhile they are broadcast on NBC Sports, which is also then put onto YouTube. Eventually the races can be seen a third time at MavTV. The livestream, though it is very good at the main races, sometimes is of very low quality at the stand alone touring car events. Currently Mosport is not even posted onto YouTube, and according some of what I have read was not really worth watching as they only had a couple cameras.

As for format, the races are sprint races. The GT series run fifty minute races, while the touring cars run forty minute races. Usually the series attempts a race Saturday and Sunday although this year weather has led to a few events being canceled. Canceled races are made up at a latter date, often during stand alone race weekends. As such the touring cars made up races at Mosport, while the GT series will make up races at the season finale at Miller Motorsports Park. Starts changed this year from rolling to standing starts which have gone very well, except for some issues the Mclaren GT3 cars have with stalling on the grid. Local yellows are often used, but full course cautions can happen. There are no pit stops unless a driver has a problem or penalty, and as they are sprint races there are no fuel mileage races. Since it is a sprint race tire management does come into play; the Pirelli tires do a very good job at wearing at just the right rate. They fall off but not so much that it causes problems.

The GT and GTA class run GT3 and some other cars. The GTA class is distinct from the GT in only one way; it is for amateur, or gentleman drivers. This is a brilliant decision as otherwise many of the non-professional drivers would not have a chance to have any success. With the expansion to include GT3 cars this would be particularly problematic as more teams and drivers, professional and non-professional have joined. Drivers entered as GTA compete for their own trophy and get their own podium; drivers who finish on the podium overall (RE: for the GT category) lose their GTA status and instead get entered as regular GT drivers. This is what happened to Nick Mancuso, a young driver who won a pole and finished on the podium at Barber driving a Ferrari. He was happy to be upgraded, however, and currently sits sixth in GT points. Nineteen year old Andrew Palmer actually did this in the first race of the year (he finished 3rd). He then won at Barber as a GT driver. The GTS class runs a combination of muscle cars, sports cars, and a few other cars including a super competitive Kia team.

The touring car classes include Touring Car, Touring Car A, and Touring Car B. Touring cars are typical touring cars which mostly are hatchbacks with a couple roadster sports cars thrown in. TCA are touring cars with rules that keep a large number of the parts stock and thus lower the cost of competing. Female driver Shea Holbrook races in this class, and she won the Barber race. TCB are very close to stock cars which allows entry into the PWC at a  low cost, and the cars in this class are of a similar spec to other SCCA series. This allows club racers a chance to race at a national level. In both touring cars and GT the different classes are very distinct in speed. This means that the lower classes get lapped by the main classes fairly often. This in turn results in some great racing, as the leaders of the second class are fighting for the lead while the leaders in the first class attempt to pass them. This makes both classes even closer and more competitive. Sometimes the leaders of the GT class will start to spread out, only to hit the GTS cars (especially their leaders) which causes them to get close again.

The drivers in the series are a bit unknown except to hardcore fans, but there are some very interesting drivers and personalities in the series. There’s a huge spread in terms of age, with some drivers in the fifties and some in their teens. Both age groups can produce winners. Johnny O’Connell, former Corvette GT driver, races for the factory Cadillac team. He won Long Beach and sits second in points. Teenaged Palmer beat him at Barber. Mancuso is a in his late twenties and while originally an amateur driver has a ton of promise. Alex Figge, former Champcar driver, won a race last year and currently drives the Mclaren GT3 car. He’s had a rough start to the season but should turn it around as that car gets used to PWC racing. Tomas Enge entered the St. Pete with a Lamborghini GT3 car and won; he hasn’t been back since, but it was still a pretty cool win. Anthony Lazzaro is the points leader with his Ferrari. Jack Roush Jr. races a Mustang in GTS. Ryan Eversley has entered a couple races in a Suburu WRX in GTS. as well.

The cars are the stars of this series. There are a ton of interesting cars and a fairly close balance of performance. GT and GTA are my favorite. Cadillac won last year and the CTS-V is a very competitive car. Ferrari has the strongest GT3 car at this point; they currently hold the drivers championship. The Audi R8 LMS Ultra is also very strong, and while most of the time the Lamborghini’s are being used by amateur drivers, with Enge in it they won their debut race. There are also Mercedes, Mclaren, Viper, Porsche, BMW, and Aston Martin GT3 cars entered at various stages of competitiveness. If that is not enough, Dyson racing is going to bring a Bentley Continental GT3 car to Road America, and plans on expanding to a 2 car team afterwards. Acura was supposed to enter a car at Detroit, but testing problems delayed their debut. Kia has two wins in the GTS catagorey which also has seen a Porsche Cayman and Chevrolet Camero in victory lane. Aston Martin, Ford Mustang, Nissan, Audi TT, Porsche 911, Subaru Imprexa, and a Scion are also represented. TC is mostly Honda and Mazda, while TCA has those two plus Kia. TCB has Ford, Honda, Mini, and the occasional Fiat.  There is also a manufacturer championship where points are given to the highest finishing car per maker per class, with points only going to top six finishing positions. Car manufacterers have to be part a corperate sponsor for SCCA to get points, which most auto manufactures are. Pirelli World Challenge could be described as Forza, Grand Turismo, or Top Gear made real.

As has been hinted throughout this article, the on track action is fantastic. The first four GT races featured four different winners representing four different automakers. St Petersburg and the second race at Barber were incredible and featured great racing for the lead and some late race action which has to be seen to believe. Long Beach also featured some very close racing, as did the first race at Barber. What makes the racing so great? A combination of factors. As mentioned earlier it appears that the combination of multiple classes and sprint racing are two major factors in creating a ton of action. These factors help keep the racing for the lead competitive. Tires fall off, but since pitstops are not a standard part of the series and there are no fuel mileage races drivers who want to win have to push. The tire wear, and the way different cars wear tires at different rates helps as well. Overall the PWC has done an excellent job with the balance between GT3 and non GT3 cars. Cadillac has a car which is better on the street courses than the GT3 cars, but due to lower downforce struggles a bit at some of the natural terrain road courses. They wear tires a little faster and tend to be fastest on the starts and restarts. Ferrari is the oppisite; these GT3 cars have more downforce, wear tires less, but also take longer to heat up the tires. As the GT3 cars start to adapt it appears likely that more and more of them will become competitive. All of the other classes are also close. This series creates some incredible races on tracks which are not typically known for great racing, and I am incredibly excited to see them at Road America.

The Pirelli World Challenge Series is basically going through a honeymoon phase right now. It remains to be seen if they can continue to keep this momentum when things inevitably go wrong, but at the moment the signs suggest they will. The rules make sense. This is a minor point, but compared to the mess that Tudor United has been facing this year is a big deal. When and if teams (especially GT teams) get upset with Tudor, the PWC presents an alternative place for them to go. The online stream works, and the races do get televised eventually on two channels. As the series moves forward live TV would be nice, as would better coverage for touring car stand alone events. Maintaining the balance of performance between the cars, and especially the GT3 and non GT3 cars will be incredibly important. Keeping everyone happy will be tough. The PWC is heavily tied in with Indycar which is a good thing; it will be interesting to see if new Indycar events such as Nola and the Indy GP get worked into the PWC schedule.

As a side note, this article was wrote on Friday, May 30th. As the PWC will be racing twice at Belle Isle today (day of publishing) and tomorrow some of the facts will change. If you are attending Belle Isle I highly recommend watching these races. If you like road racing, or really if you like exciting cars and racing, you have to check it out. The races are streamed live online and if you miss that then get posted online. I cannot guarantee it will be a great race, but based on the last four races I think its likely. For Indycar fans, the PWC will join Indycar again at Toronto, Mid Ohio, and Sonoma, as well as race with Nationwide at Road America and NASCAR West series at Miller. As a side note, this series has some crossover with the Blancpain series in Europe. By the way, if you, or someone you know, complains about the lack of diversity in racing, or about how racing is no longer stock, they have got to watch this series. Seriously, if you are reading this article you most likely are a race fan. And if you are a race fan, you need to watch the Pirelli World Challenge Series.

Pirelli World Challenge Website

Pirelli World Challenge Twitter

Pirelli World Challenge YouTube

Pirelli World Challenge Wikipedia Page 

The 2014 Indianapolis 500 In Review

This article also appears at WFOpenWheel.com 

The 2014 Indianapolis 500 capped off an interesting and unusual month of May. A lot happened over the 500 miles. Some teams and drivers shined, while others saw various issues take them out of contention. The race was different than expected, with a lot less passing in the middle of the race than last year, but it ended with a much better finish. Ryan Hunter-Reay in fact won the 2nd closest Indianapolis 500 in history against Helio Castronveves. My pre-race picks and predictions were largely wrong. James Hinchliffe and Ed Carpenter crashed each other out, while Newgarden was a non-factor who had pit problems. Kurt Busch was the strongest of the four, with a 6th place finish. I was right in saying pick Andretti cars though.

Ryan Hunter-Reay- The First American: Ryan Hunter-Reay is America’s best active open wheel driver. Despite winning a number of races and the 2012 title with Andretti Autosport, Ryan Hunter-Reay doesn’t get the respect that Dario, Dixon, Helio, Kanaan and Power command, nor does he have the popularity and name recognition of  Carpenter, Rahal, or Andretti. As I’ve said both in podcast and blog form, I hope this 500 win raises his profile. The fact that he is the first American to win since 2006 certainly got some mainstream attention. A little more attention on Hunter-Reay is not a bad thing, after all he is likely to win a significant number of races and titles between now and when he retires. Ryan Hunter-Reay has been first or second in every race this year except for Long Beach, where he crashed trying to take the lead back! All things considered Hunter-Reay is the title favorite, and has shown himself to be capable on both the ovals and the road and street courses. The Indy 500 win also helps cement his legacy as one of the best drivers of his generation in Indycar. Does a winning American matter? It certainly mattered in the media coverage of the race, and I think having Hunter Reay leading a pack of talented American’s is an excellent sign for the future of Indycar.

Helio’s Alive, and so is Montoya: Helio Castroneves has three Indy 500 wins, and is one of the most famous drivers in Indycar. But he often is overlooked in favor of his teammate Will Power in terms of contending for a title. Part of this is the fact he’s a little bit older than many of his rivals. Every year people write off Helio, and so far he’s always come back. While a 2nd was not what Helio wanted, with the double points it puts him firmly back into title contention. Juan Pablo Montoya had a strong Indy 500 and was stretching fuel for a potential fuel mileage finish. A speeding penalty during green flag pitstops had shades of the Brickyard 400. However the cautions later in the race put him back into contention and he finished 5th. Will Power was running up front however a green flag speeding penalty while pitting hurt him, just like JPM. Power recovered for an 8th place finish, losing ground in the championship fight to Power and Helio, while gaining ground on Pagenaud and Dixon.

The Big Wreck: Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe were both competitive. Ed ran up front all day were as Hinchcliffe led early, faded, then recovered during the late race cautions. Both had a shot at winning, but it was not to be. Instead on a restart Townsend Bell passed Ed Carpenter on the outside while Hinchcliffe tried to pass Ed on the inside going into turn one. The results were Carpenter and Hinchcliffe crashing, and apparent damage to Bell which would cause him to crash a few laps after the next restart. This wreck generated a lot of controversy. Although some people blamed Bell, a majority blamed Hinchcliffe. James himself took the blame, and Ed was certainly willing to Hinchcliffe himself. Ed commented that the only reason he didn’t punch James was due to the fact Hinch was recovering from a concussion. I thought the comments were fine, its the type of hate and emotion we need in Indycar. However some people were incredibly upset by Ed’s comments, and some controversy between those people and ECR’s twitter feed increased this. I really had no problem with any of Ed’s actions. It felt to me like the controversy with Ed was increased due to lingering resentments over Tony George, the IRL, and other things of that nature.

As for Hinchcliffe he had another potential strong finished erased by a problem. Hinch was in contention at Long Beach until RHR took him out. He was in the top ten at the Indy GP until debris took him out, and he was in the top 5 at Indy until he did an RHR and caused a crash. Eventually his luck will turn around, and he should be back to his winning ways. A lot of people thought Hinchcliffe should have been more patient. He probably should not have tried to make it three wide, but I understand his motivation. With the way Helio and Hunter-Reay were moving ahead of the field and the potential for more cautions, Hinchcliffe needed every second of the race to get himself in contention for the win. It didn’t work out obviously, but it was understandable.

Double Outlaw: Kurt Busch struggled early. Although he said the lack of cautions during the first 150 laps of the race, he fell a bit down around 17th place. As the race entered its latter stages Kurt staged a comeback. He avoided penalties and crashes which allowed him to get into the top ten. Kurt handled the restarts well, and ended up 6th. A doubter would argue that attrition helped him some, or that the Andretti cars were the best in the field, and he was the last of the Andretti cars until Hinch’s crash. All of that may be true, but for Kurt Busch’s first open wheel race, it was a massive accomplishment. Busch made no major mistakes during the race and finished very close to the front. Kurt’s night at Charlotte did not turn out as well, but it shouldn’t take away from the fact that Kurt Busch has shown he’s one of the best drivers out there, no matter the style of racing. Kurt Busch deserves the Rookie of the Race award as well.

Sage Karam, Top Ganassi Driver: Sage Karam qualified on the last row, but the Indy 500 was an excellent debut race for him. During the long green flag stretch he worked his way into the top 10, but had to pit earlier than everyone else and fell off sequence. The yellows at the end saved him and he again fought up into the top 10. Finishing 9th demonstrated that he needs to be a full time driver. It was especially impressive considering where he started. He also got the honor of being the top Ganassi driver due the fact that the other four drivers for Ganassi all had issues of some sort. Kanaan had a fuel problem, Dixon crashed when they removed downforce to let him fight for the win, Kimball spun, and Briscoe had some mechanical problems though he finished the race.

The First 150 Laps: The first 150 laps of the Indy 500 were run without a single yellow flag. It was unprecedented, and I for one was glad to see the yellow come out. Incredibly glad. Because had it not happened we would have almost certainly been subjected to a fuel strategy based finish. Overall the race was fairly close and competitive for the first two pit cycles, but after that it started to become spread out. A combination of the long green flag runs, fuel conservation, and the high track temperature resulted in a lot less passing, lead changes, and excitement in the first 2/3rds of the race. Some people felt the lead changes last year were gimmicky and so preferred this years race, but I can’t say I agree. I was pretty worried from about lap 100-150 that we were in for another anti-climatic strategy race in Indycar. There seems to me to be a slight issue in Indycar with races generally being fuel mileage races from the drop of the green flag. It seems this season that fuel strategy is the default, which sometimes gets changed by events on track, when really it should be the other way around. As the year continues that is something worth watching. While it won’t fix everything I really believe removing the fuel knob would be a good start. On flat out ovals there’s not a lot of fuel which can be saved without the knob, other than in the draft.

Dramatic, Green Flag Ending! For the first time in over four years the Indianapolis 500 finished under green! Not only that, but first caution came out at the prefect time to prevent a fuel mileage race! Once the first restart occurred the on track action picked up and everything was exciting. Marco, Helio, Ed, and Hunter-Reay battled for the lead. Once Ed and Hinch crashed the race became a three way battle between Marco, Hunter Reay, and Helio. The racing was excellent, and the battles for the lead were incredibly close yet clean. Overall Hunter-Reay and Helio seemed to have a slight edge over Marco. Thankfully, the race was red flagged when Townsend Bell crashed with about 10 laps to go. The last thing Indycar need was another yellow flag finish for the Indianapolis 500. People say that Green White Checkers rules are wrong because they would turn it into the Indy 505, but had another race ended under caution I would have purposed to call it the Indy 490.

The Flag: Some people didn’t like the red flag at the end. Others thought it was okay because of the SAFER barrier repair, but would not have been fine otherwise. The majority though understood that that was the best possible outcome. I am of course a horrible person who’s advocated for a GWC rule in Indycar, but I thought the red flag was the best outcome possible in that scenario. Otherwise it would have been an incredibly anti-climatic finish under yellow, or a two lap shootout that almost certainly would have had a crash which would have thus ended the race under yellow. I don’t really get the outrage over changing the race distance. The advertised race distance does not take into account pace and warm-up laps, so it’s already more than 500 miles. While its true those laps are different from race laps, incidents during them can take a driver out of contention for winning. The only problem with the red flag is the lack of on-board starters. But they made it work in Fontana and they made it work here, so when tv windows permit hopefully this will become more common, and yellow flag finishes in Indycar become less common.

Other things: Newgarden ran out of fuel as he came into the pit which destroyed his shot at winning. He then got ran over by Martin Plowman as they field slowed down for a caution. Plowman spent his Month of May crashing into people. Nice guy, good driver, but a terrible month. Buddy Lazier was not competitive at all, his Carb Day speed appears to have been a one time thing. Simon Pageanud was a non factor. Sebastian Bourdais had a solid 500 which may help restore his confidence. Rahal was taken out be electrical issues. He’s below Kurt Busch in points. ABC was okay, still didn’t show enough racing through the field, but better than at the GP. Ratings and attendance were both good from the 500. TV wise the Month of May was a success, can the momentum continue? Pippa Mann had a bad race, she finished but an issue in the pits left her laps down. JR Hildebrand looked like he could contend for a win early, but a tire problem took him out of contention, though he finished 9th. Jim Nabors performance was incredible, and he will be missed. I am not sure if this race was better than last years. It had a better finish, but was less exciting for the first part of the race. Both were great races.

Overall:  I loved the last 50 laps of the Indy 500. Close, wheel to wheel racing is why I got into Indycar in the first place. I love that the current car has turned Indy into one of the best ovals in Indycar. Now its on to Belle Isle. The best thing I can say about that is that RHR will have a decent shot at winning back to back. Then after that is Texas, the 2nd oval. Will it be exciting and compelling like Texas of old? Or will it be… something less than that.

 

Pre Race Picks and Predictions: 2014 Indianapolis 500

This article also appears on WFOpenWheels.com 

Welcome back, after a couple years away, this feature makes its return to Triple League Racing (or entrance onto WFOpenwheels). The Indianapolis 500 is one of the biggest races of the year, and the pinnacle of the Verizon Indycar Series. 33 in 11 rows of 3 will start the race, which also will award double points for the championship. Since the introduction of the DW-12 (new car) the racing at the Indianapolis 500 has become much more competitive. Slingshot passing has become common and close racing the norm. This is a huge improvement from the Indy 500’s of 2008 and 2009. There’s also a ton of storylines and competitive drivers to follow.

Storylines:

Buddy Lazier: Buddy Lazier won the Indy 500 and the IRL championship during the Split. Before that he also had some top tens in CART on both ovals and road/street courses. Lazier is in his late 40’s however, and with a team he owns. Lazier was the slowest car throughout qualifying by a large margin, and he did not have a good race last year. So why am I talking about him? Simple. Lazier was 14th fastest at the end of Carb Day. Can Lazier finish as high in the race? If he did it would be a massive accomplishment.

The Young One Offs: 

Pippa Mann, Sage Karam, Martin Plowman, JR Hildebrand, and James Davidson are very different drivers coming from very different places. All of them are Indy Lights winners and young drivers in Indycar. They also are all Indy 500 one-offs. This is a moment that could make their career, and help them get a full time ride. The goal is clear; don’t become like Townsend Bell or Alex Lloyd. Can these drivers convert a good 500 into a future of full time racing? One can only hope. Hildebrand has been the best so far, Karam has some potential as does Pippa. Plowman and Davidson so far have struggled.

Double Outlaw: 

Kurt Busch is attempting to run both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coke-a-Cola 600.  Despite a very strong field at Indy he has generally been competitive. Busch is getting a ton of mainstream attention; more than Carpenter, more than Hinchcliffe, more than Marco or Rahal. If nothing else Busch kept people interested in qualifying on Saturday. A wreck during practice Monday may have hurt his competitiveness, however, as the backup car he’s using was not originally prepared for ovals. Still, Kurt appears to be the strongest rookie so far. But can he hold it together for 500 miles?

Andretti Autosports: 

James Hinchcliffe was injured during the Indy Grand Prix. No one knew if he was even going to be allowed to race, much less qualify. He was able to qualify, and despite almost no practice time qualified 4th on Saturday before getting 2nd during the Fast Nine. He’s back, and should contend for a win. The only problem is that the team had a vibration during Carb Day. James Hinchcliffe is one of the most fun and exciting drivers in Indycar. He won three times last year. An Indy 500 win could be his big break into more mainstream popularity. Ryan Hunter Reay is the top American driver in Indycar, and one of the top three drivers in the series. Despite this his profile is rather low. An Indy 500 win would be big for him and big for Indycar as it would mean one of their regular winners also would have a 500 win and the mainstream appeal which comes with it. With double points RHR also has a shot at getting to first in the points. Conversely if he struggles and either Power or Pagenaud wins, then he’s in trouble Marco Andretti is one of the biggest potential stars of Indycar, but he’s only had two wins in an nine year career. He’s been strong this year and is the favorite (literally, odds-makers rate him as #1) to win this year. Marco Andretti winning is one of the best possible outcomes from the 500. Munoz did very well last year and runs an odd line which seems to work for him, and only him.

The Red Cars:

Penske’s team has been strong all month, Ganassi’s didn’t find speed until Carb Day. Both teams are a threat. Will Power and Helio Castronves are both fast, and both got in the Fast Nine. A win for Power is good for all the same reasons as a win for RHR is. A 500 legitimizes and mainstreams him, at least to a point. Helio’s win would put him in the elite 4 time winners club and re-invigorate his quest for his first career Indycar title. Juan Pablo Montoya starts 10th, and was the 2nd fastest car Sunday. Montoya’s struggled all season, but a 500 win would turn it around. Scott Dixon and Ganassi struggled Saturday in qualifying, but seem to have turned it around. A Dixon win would probably put most of the fans asleep, and subject talk show viewers to some very boring interviews. If Dixon wins, it also will give him a boost in the title fight. Tony Kanaan has struggled in his first season at Ganassi, but only to a point. He’s run fairly well and qualified poorly. He’s great at Indy, and a win would put his season back on track. Briscoe and Kimball haven’t been great but maybe they’ll be stronger in the draft.

Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher 

Ed Carpenter’s team has been on fire this month. During qualifying he was easily the fastest car on track. Whenever he went out he went to the top of the time sheets. Hildebrand’s been strong as well and also made the Fast Nine. Both drivers can win this. For Ed, it would be his 3rd career win, the team’s 2nd win this year, and an incredibly legitimizing moment for him. It would prove that he really is the best oval racer in Indycar. If Hildebrand wins, it will hopefully get him back on the radar for a good full time ride. Alex Tagliani and Joseph Newgarden are both driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman. Newgarden has been very strong this year; he finished 9th at St. Pete despite starting from the last row. He was in contention at Long Beach until RHR hit him, and he finished in the top ten at Barber in the rain. He’s going to start in the 8th and has a shot at winning. Tagliani struggled in qualifying but continues to improve, he maybe be competitive.

The Others:

 Don’t count out Simon Pagenaud. I don’t want him to win, but he’s been fast all month. Despite not having a tradition of success on the ovals he made the Fast Nine and qualified 5th. Pagenaud winning would move him from dark horse to main contender for the title. Alishen has been fast, but a win from a Russian driver sponsored by a sanctioned Russian bank would be disastrous for Indycar. If Hawkworth doesn’t crash he may have a shot; it would be big for BHA and himself after a great Indy GP. Justin Wilson at Dale Coyne Racing and Townsend Bell at KV both have some speed, and should be watched. Finally we’ve got Servia and Rahal at Rahal-Letterman Racing. Graham has sturggled, so it will be interesting to see if he can turn it around at Indy. Servia may do well if the team doesn’t hurt him.

Green Flag Finish?

A lot of Indy 500’s have not had a green flag finish in recent years. Everyone pushes towards the end, and someone ends up going over the ledge. So will it finish green? I really hope so. If it does not, expect to hear the Green-White-Checkers wars erupt. Three yellow flag finishes in a row might just force Indycar’s hand and see some sort of change to ensure that we do not see four yellow flag finishes in a row.

Draft and Pass:

As far as anyone knows it appears that plenty of draft and pass will be seen during the 500. I have enjoyed the passing in the 2012 and 2013 Indy 500’s greatly, though some do not. Will the potential of aerokits and new track records change the amount of passing in the future? Or is this the new normal? Either way, savor the close racing!

Broadcast Quality: 

ABC will be doing the television broadcast. They did a good job at St. Pete but were not very good at the Indy GP. It will be interesting to see what they do at the Indy 500. Its the biggest race of the year, with a ton of storylines and a lot of expected passing. Can they keep up? Fans everywhere can only hope they do. If not, there’s always online timing and scoring plus the Indycar radio.

Picks:

Winner….James Hinchcliffe! He’s proven he can win last year. Andretti has been fast all month, and a win following his concussion would be a massive, massive story. Between that and the fact he’s officiating Kimball’s wedding latter this year, he’d be talkshow gold. Indycar needs him to do this, but often Indycar misses out on the best storylines (notice that between them, Danica, Marco, and Graham combine for 4 victories). If the vibrations on Carb Day scare you, then pick any other Andretti Car, they’ve all got a good chance at winning.

Likely…. Ed Carpenter! He’d be the favorite if he hadn’t won the pole last year, only to fad at the end. This ECR has been fast and won a race, so maybe that will help put him over the top. Ed winning would make him the first American driver to win since Sam Hornish, and would be a very popular local win. The only problem is, he won’t be on track at the next race. I think almost everyone would be happy to see him in victory lane.

Darkhorse….Kurt Busch or Joseph Newgarden! I can’t pick between them. Until his crash Monday I would have picked Kurt. I still think he can do it, but it will be tough as his car is not as good. But he’s in Andretti, so if he pits well and avoids crashing Kurt will have a chance. Some see a Busch victory as a negative for Indycar, but I don’t. Outside of perhaps Pippa winning with the Susan G Komen for the Cure car, I don’t think there’s a person in the field who would generate more headlines and attention with a win than Busch. Newgarden is a big rising star in Indycar. A win at Indy would help build his reputation and fanbase, while simply validating his already competitive results this season. He’s starting up front and there’s no reason why Newgarden cannot get his first career win at the 500.

 

 

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