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