Open Wheel Wednesday · Matt Stallknecht · Wednesday June 13, 2012
Score one for the drivers. Last Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers finally got their wish and were granted an aero package that at last broke up the much maligned (by drivers at least) “pack-style” of racing that has been a staple of races on the high banked 1.5 milers over the last few years. IndyCar officials settled on a new package that featured less downforce and less wing angle. This obviously led to higher speeds but also less grip, meaning the drivers were forced to lift entering the corners and thus put a greater emphasis on a driver’s ability to find grip through the corners. In short, IndyCar broke up the packs.
Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of personal opinion. I have always favored the “pack-style” of racing from an excitement standpoint, both in NASCAR and IndyCar. Many in the racing community deride pack racing in both series as somehow “less legitimate” or “less skill-oriented” than more traditional forms of oval racing which place a greater focus on mechanical grip and the need to lift and find grip through the corners.
Such assertions could not be farther from the truth. Pack racing as a style of racing requires just as much if not more driver skill to be successful on a consistent basis in such races due to the strategy and white knuckle intensity that accompanies this type of racing, and the need for a fast race car is amplified with the competition being as close and competitive as it traditionally is in “pack races.” The stats show that certain drivers are much more successful than others at this form of racing (Dario Franchitti and Ed Carpenter come to mind as two drivers who excel at pack racing more so than others). But that debate is a story for another day. No matter how exciting the “pack races” are, they simply have no place in a motorsport in which the driver’s heads are openly exposed. The chance of disaster is simply too high, as evidenced by Dan Wheldon’s tragic death in last year’s season finale at Las Vegas.
With this in mind, I can’t help but applaud IndyCar for taking the bull by the horns and switching to a package that prevents the cars from riding around in huge packs. In a sport like NASCAR where the cars are much safer and can take more of a beating, pack racing is an absolute boon for the sport, and offers a unique and utterly exciting departure from the traditional races on the calendar. IndyCar, on the other hand, simply has not proven that its cars are safe enough to conduct such a form of racing.
If nothing else, Saturday’s race proved that you can have an exciting race without the packs, as the focus on tire wear and driver input made the race very fun to watch. Sure, the current package can not match the excitement of pack racing, but if it means that the race is safer, I am all for it.
And for those who were disappointed by how “spread out” the racing got in the Texas race, understand that both IndyCar and the teams are still in the midst of fiinding the right balance in terms of aero adjustments, so you can rest assured that the racing will continue to get better.
The perfect scenario would be to have a package for the 1.5 milers that lets drivers make exciting slingshot passes like what the Indy 500 package had, without the hair-raising packs of the past. Having said that, IndyCar is still a ways off from finding that perfect balance, so what we have now will just have to do whether the fans like it or not. Safety should always come first.
Whether the teams are able to get to that perfect balance remains to be seen, but make no mistake, IndyCar has at least found a package that is both exciting and much safer. If nothing else, the sanctioning body deserves big praise for finally making such a thing happen.
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