The Frontstretch: Potts' Shots: Do IndyCars Belong on Ovals? NASCAR Gas Gimmicks & More by John Potts -- Thursday October 20, 2011

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Potts' Shots: Do IndyCars Belong on Ovals? NASCAR Gas Gimmicks & More

NASCAR Fan Q&A · John Potts · Thursday October 20, 2011


J.D. Stephens asks, “Is this American Ethanol a gimmick? Last week at Kansas Speedway there were two tankers parked in the infield and they both had SUNOCO RACING FUEL on them, and that’s where the teams were going to refill their gas cans. NO mention of ethanol any where on the SUNOCO tankers.”

I’m sure the ethanol was mixed into the Sunoco Racing Fuel, J.D. It has to be part of the agreement NASCAR has with Sunoco.


This comment from Steve, “I really like that race format you listed in the last question, John. It would make qualifying important and spice up the event which I assume would be run all in one day except maybe qualifying. It would beat some of the snoozefests we have to endure on a weekly basis. It would also allow breaks to get those commercials in every week and not interrupt as much racing. There are a lot of things that make sense with this format. Probably why it will never happen.”

Steve, there’s not much I can add to that. Your thinking and mine seem to coincide on every point you made.


George writes, “I assume you were watching the IndyCar telecast from Las Vegas on Sunday, and I know you must be as saddened as all of us have. I’m wondering what your take is on the comments by Jimmie Johnson, as well as the future of those cars on oval tracks”.

Following the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon, many — including Jimmie Johnson — have stated that IndyCars do not belong on ovals.

You’re right, George, I was watching that race, and the accident scared me from the second it began. An old friend of mine called shortly after it happened, and wanted to know how bad I thought it was. I told her that I was worried from the time I saw the crew cover up Dan Wheldon’s car after they took him out of it.

Yes, we’ve lost a driver. I didn’t know Dan Wheldon personally, not having been at the Indianapolis 500 for ten years or so. From all accounts, he was an outgoing, life-loving man, a devoted father and husband, and not so incidentally a great driver. It’s always tough when something like this happens. I think Bobby Rahal spoke for a lot of us when he said, “Racing can be a bitter sport, but life in the racing community is so exhilarating that, year after year, incident after incident, drivers choose to race. “The community will grieve – racing isn’t heartless – and then it will do what it always does in the aftermath of tragedy: We will do what Dan would have done; we will go racing again.”

As for Jimmie Johnson’s comments that IndyCar shouldn’t race on ovals…he’s entitled to his opinion, of course. And, because he’s a five-time champion, his opinions are going to be picked up and published.

My feeling is that he’s wrong because I don’t believe he has any knowledge of those cars. Also, that comment came shortly after he took what I think was his first big hit in a NASCAR stocker (and did anybody else find that crash freakishly similar to one in February of 2001 at Daytona?). His accident may have shown how far safety has come in NASCAR. Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, two legends of racing who have won in NASCAR and in Indy cars (both in the front engine and rear engine eras), have voiced disagreement with Johnson’s comments.

Foyt spoke with his usual shoot-from-the-hip style, something we’ve always admired, saying, “I don’t think Jimmie Johnson knows what he’s talking about. He’s never drove one, and he’s pretty stupid to make a statement like that. You could say the same about stock cars. I’ve drove both, and I’ve been hurt real bad in both.”

A.J. also noted that the two accidents which were probably his worst – in a stock car at Riverside in 1965 (broken back, ankle, severe chest injuries), and an Indy car at Elkhart Lake in 1990 (shattered legs), both occurred on road courses. (In fact, I was told that in the Riverside crash, the track doctor was ready to pronounce him dead, but Parnelli Jones saw some movement and he was revived.)

Andretti called the Las Vegas accident,“…a fluke, a freakish accident,” and said it would probably be addressed by a new chassis design next year – one for which Dan Wheldon has done most of the testing, and which will be named in his memory.

“We’ve come a long way,” Mario added. “In the ’60s and ’70s, open-wheel drivers had a 35-40 percent of surviving a career. Today, it’s 99.9 percent. Some things need to be revisited perhaps, but to say after 100 years, we don’t have the knowledge to make these things safe enough for ovals is absolutely absurd.”

Andretti also said he had talked to Jimmie, and there was no tension between them. I don’t think I’m as qualified to speak on this subject as two guys I respect. I have some other comments, but I’ve gone on long enough for this week.

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10/20/2011 11:02 AM

The problem is not Indycars on ovals, the problem is Indycars in pack racing—just like restrictor plate BS in NASCAR.

And it happens because of the nature of the track: lots of banking and relatively large.

1.5 mile crapovals with NASCAR are boring. 1.5 mile crapovals with Indycars are terrifying.

The solution is to go back to Milwaulkee, go back to PPIR (if it even still exists), go back to Phoenix, go back to Loudon… Go back to tracks that require drivers to DRIVE instead of being passengers, that require different lines, and passing, and braking, and actual skill instead of just pure balls and luck.

And other than Indy, keep them 1 mile or less.

10/20/2011 02:33 PM

I believe fuel is always dispensed from tankers for race day, if not practice too. Believe it was to solve/prevent contamination issues at the venue. Less chance of water or other contamination than trusting a venue underground storage…

Don Mei
10/20/2011 02:56 PM

John, you said it perfectly. As to Johnson’s opinion, obviously he is entitled but I would be far more likely to listen to Stewart, Montoya or Almendinger speaking to the same subject. Be interesting to know what those three think since all have won on ovals in open wheeled race cars.

Kyle Eaton
10/20/2011 03:19 PM

As soon as I heard Jimmie Johnson say those words, I knew that he had not said exactly what he meant…. as evidenced in his later statements. Jimmie was referring to the high banked ovals, and I tend to agree with him…the speeds these cars reach on the high banked ovals is a tragedy waiting to happen, and last Sunday, it DID happen. IRL has moved away from the tracks that seemed best suited for it… Would a chasis design have saved Dan? My guess, from years of involvement with the medical staff at IRP, is no. Jimmie’s comments were like A.J. Foyt’s, straight from the hip. Doesn’t mean he said what he meant. We are all guilty of making statements in which we leave out a crucial word or two, the omission of which changes what we REALLY meant to say. After all, remove IRL from IMS? I do not believe for one second that was what Jimmie wanted to convey; he is a lot smarter than that. Should he have been called out for his exact words – yes. And he was. In situations of stress and pain, none of us can be counted on to say it 100% correctly. Accept the fact that Jimmis has said that he didn’t state things quite right, and get over it, folks.

10/20/2011 04:01 PM

No one is a compete expert in these things, and there never will be, nor necesarily should there be, a speed sport without a degree of danger. But this was just stupid. The IRL cars now are a spec series – the same chassis, aero, engine and tires. At Vegas, EVERY CAR was running full throttle 100% of the time. Not a lot of either setup skill or driver skill involved – a basic setup and a driver willing to keep his foot flat to the floor was all that was required. It was inevitable that the entire pack stayed together.

At any race, a proper formula should be in place that causes the driver to lift in the corners – especially on qualifying. If you have to lift, even slightly, in qualifying trim, then once in the race, lifting would be required as well. A combination of lower-grip tires, less downforce, high adjustability of the suspension and TONS of horsepower would cause separation. In Vegas, had the tires been less grippy, had some of the downforce been dialed out, had a wicker (or Handford) been used, the pack would have been so spread out that, even had there been an issue, there may have been time for backmarkers to react to something occurring forward of them. However with a spread-out pack, the probability of a Vegas-style incident happening in the first place would have been markedly reduced. Add in inherent dangers with open-wheel, open-cockpit cars and the potential was high for a serious, serious incident. And the drivers knew it. Too bad they didn’t stage a Texas-type of walk-out.

From the pictures, the new 2012 version of the IRL car, addresses some design concerns. It appears that there is a rear-cowling to eliminate the possibility of another car coming from directly behind and launching off the rear drive wheels – although there is a space where the top of the tire is still exposed. In Wheldon’s tragic incident, that exact issue caused 4 flying cars at the same time – including Wheldon over Tracy. And I don’t understand why there is no fighter-jet-type canopy. Unlimited hydroplane boats long ago understood that was the way to save their racers when so many were being killed.

Danger will always be present in racing and there will always be freak accidents. But it’s way too easy to blame the track or ovals in general. The tracks are known and are a given. The cars are adjustable and controllable. This incident was entirely foreseeable. And that is the problem.

Shayne Flaherty
10/20/2011 05:01 PM

Open wheel cars should not race on banked ovals at the speeds they’re capable of running. Team owners need to grow a pair (in NASCAR too) and tell the circus promoters we’re not going to risk a driver’s life for racertainment anymore. Don’t like the 2 car tandems at Daytona and Talladega, stand up and refuse to put your cars on the track. The same common sense should have been used last weekend in Las Vegas.

10/20/2011 07:20 PM

I guess Jimmie misremembered what he had practiced saying. I guess NASCAR should have quit the road courses after J.D.‘s wreck.