WF Open Wheel Repost: Boredom at Barber: Highlighting Some Serious Flaws in Indycar
Barber Motorsports Park is a track which some people love, and others (your author included) are significantly less fond of. Barber is loved for its park like setting which includes picturesque statue gardens, manicured lawns, and a museum. The track is enthusiastic about Indycar (probably because the motorcycle road racing it was built for is struggling so badly) and the drivers and teams love it. It is a short, fast road course that is apparently fun to drive. Too bad it isn’t fun to watch on television. The main complaint about Barber is that it has too few passing zones. Barber is a short, narrow, and fast track. Road America it is not. Rain can be a great benefit to a road or street course. Many incredible Formula One races have taken place in the rain. Sadly this was not the case for the Indycar race at Barber. The problems with this race are not just one time issues; they represent major problems endemic to Indycar.
Racing in the rain can be one of the most exciting and yet most treacherous aspects of road racing. The World Superbike race at Assen was red flagged and delayed due to a heavy storm. There are times when conditions are too dangerous to race, with running water on track and lightning being two of the most significant. Lightning and running/standing water were the two main issues at Barber. A delay of some sort may have been inevitable (or it may not have). My concern and issue is that Indycar seems totally incapable of racing in the rain. It seems that every time there is rain on a road or street course there is a delay. Other series sometimes have to delay due to rain. ALMS had to end a Petite Le Mans due to rain. It is also true street races can be more difficult to run in the rain than road courses. Barber itself apparently has some issues due to how the hills drain water into the track. I have watched Indycar (IRL+Unified Indycar) since 2007 and the struggles of rain have been seen every single time it rains during a road or street course.
The rain issue is compounded by a lack of good rain tires. Formula One has both intermediate and full wet rain tires; Indycar only has one. This is a serious issues. Firestone’s last rain tire was considered more of an intermediate compound and was not suitable for heavy rain. This season Firestone is going to upgrade the wet weather tire although I am not sure if it was in use at Barber (I know it was not in use at St. Petersburg). I would imagine the lack of rain tires and development is a cost issue, as well as the fact that Indycar used to not have enough road and street races to make it worth the investment. Now however road and street races make up a majority of the schedule. Good rain tires aren’t optional at this point. Really, if Indycar wants to be considered a top level series and run a lot of road and street races fixing the issues with rain are of paramount importance; after all everyone from the AMA to MotoGP to F3 and Formula One can do it, surely Indycar can too. Or at least buy/lease/rent an Air Titian from NASCAR.
Due to the rain delay the Indycar race became a timed race. This meant that the race was run for an hour and forty minutes rather than the full length which is based upon number of laps rather than time. I really hate timed races. To me it represents a lot of what is wrong with Indycar (seems cheap/third rate, creates odd strategys, has plenty of potential for disaster or boredom), and might be unnecessary. Sure, NBC Sports needed to show playoff hockey but there’s always CNBC and MSNBC. On top of that there was a very long post-race show at the end of the race. Was that really necessary? Some say that sponsors really want post race stuff, and perhaps that is true. However I watch a lot of racing, and typically the post race is what is cut first when time starts to run short so I wouldn’t say that should have higher priority than actually getting the race in. You need to at least have a victory lane celebration, but that still left a bit more time for racing. Besides the Victory lane celebration gave RHR’s sponsors more screen-time, but did nothing for all of the other sponsors in the race (can you say National Guard?) while continuing the race might have helped their exposure. Which was made even more galling because a late race caution which might have added an exciting finish to a fairly dull race ended up ending the race due to the time issue. Where as yellow flag laps slow down a race normally, they don’t slow the clock. As such instead of an exciting late race finish we got a race where RHR had an over seven second lead that was then ended under yellow, instead of Marco Andretti having a shot to get his first win in years. Awesome.
Speaking of yellow flags, here to Indycar has some serious, long term problems. Yellow flags in Indycar take forever. This is particularly problematic due to the fact that Indycar does not have a Green White Checkers policy (which they should get, imo) and thus later in a race a long caution can end the race itself. This issue is made worse because Indycar’s lack onboard starters. I do not really understand why; not having onboard starters is a traditional part of Indycar. One would hope this tradition would be overturned, but so far it has not been. Something has to be done however. We spent what felt like a majority of the race under caution, and long caution periods have become an unwelcome hallmark of Indycar racing on all types of tracks. Perhaps Indycar or their tracks need more corner workers and safety crews. Local yellows, a staple in non-Indycar road racing may need to be adopted. I do not know for sure what the solution is (lie, its onboard starters) but again, this is a long term problem that Barber simply highlighted again for us.
These issues could have been more forgivable if the racing itself was exciting. It was not. despite the rain, Barber was by far the most processional and least interesting race Indycar has had this season. In fairness to the track, while rain usually makes for more exciting road and street racing (RE: F1 in rain vs. normal F1) it appears to have had the opposite impact here. The track was slick and which led to a lot of drivers being less aggressive, and more time spend under yellow due to crashes caused by the slickness. Juan Pablo Montoya was the biggest exception; at least until he spun. There was some good action in the pack, but in the last thirty minutes or so I don’t believe there was a single on track pass in the top ten, although Kanaan may have passed someone to get to 10th (Most position changes in the top 10 appeared to be pit stop based). Up front Will Power created a massive lead, until he went off track and Ryan Hunter-Reay took the lead and created a massive gap. The only on track pass for the lead came when Hunter-Reay passed an off strategy Sebastian Saadavera, and then went on to a seven second plus lead. Thrilling stuff. Although Long Beach and St. Petersburg were better races, and featured some good battles in the field they too became pretty spread out up front. Will Power put an impressive pass on Takuma Sato, and that’s been about it. Most other lead changes have been due to pitting or accidents. Remember when Indycar races were won by 7/ths of a second rather than 7 second? I miss those days.
There are obviously excuses which can be made for these issues. Some of them may even be legitimate. According to some people I talked to on twitter, Barber has some issues with their lovely hills pushing water into the track which helps explain the rain problem. Yet it seems like it always comes down to this; Indycar has issues, and a bunch of people try and make excuses for it. My question is, for how long can you make excuses for all the things Indycar can’t do. Even if all of the issues mentioned in this post were excusable, the fact remains these issues are ones which have repeatedly plagued the series. Even if it had not helped at Barber, surely they should have been addressed by now. There are lots of excuses; from how much it costs to safety to time and the amount of return on investment. However I believe Indycar should be about what can be achieved, not what they can’t do. And it seems to me, from double file restarts to speed records at Indy, oval races to racing in the rain, the list if things Indycan’t is long. Some things may truly be impossible or impractical, but in the end that can’t, or at least should not, be the over-ridding storyline.
In the interest of full disclosure I am not a fan of Barber. In my opinion the track simply is not designed in a way to create great racing. Yes, it is beautiful, yes it is great to attend. Yet as I said on twitter if what you want is a gorgeous facility there are literally limitless parks, zoo’s, museums, and gardens you can go to. Race tracks should be about the racing. No excuses. The Dw-12 has improved the racing at Barber. Yet as this weekend showed those improvements can only go so far. Barber Motorsports Park promised numerous times in the past to change the course layout to add more passing zones, perhaps they’ll actually do that? I love Indycar; I love racing. I want to see them succeed. But the time for excuses is over. Indycar has a lot of things it is doing right, but that does not excuse what it is doing wrong.