The Frontstretch: Standing Starts: INDYCAR's Latest Attempt at Cheap Emulation by Matt Stallknecht -- Wednesday July 17, 2013

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Standing Starts: INDYCAR's Latest Attempt at Cheap Emulation

Matt Stallknecht · Wednesday July 17, 2013


The Honda Indy 2 In Toronto (jeez, that’s a bit of a mouthful, no?) came and went this past weekend, and for the most part, the event was largely a success. Both races were entertaining, the crowd looked decent enough, and the weather held up throughout the weekend. But something happened during Race 1 on Saturday that has been bugging me for the past few days, and I have to think I wasn’t the only one who was a bit bothered by what I saw in that race.

This thing that has been bothering me of course, was IndyCar’s curious decision to implement a standing start for the Race 1 event. IndyCar hyped the standing start all week leading up to the race, thinking that it would provide a nice jolt of excitement to kick off the weekend’s slate of racing. Sadly, as we all watched that day, the standing start ended up being a complete and utter fail. Josef Newgarden’s car failed to start, creating an unholy mess for the officiating crew that resulted in IndyCar defaulting back to a normal rolling start for the first race. Luckily, Race 2 featured a successful standing start, thus redeeming what was lost in Race 1. Both races went off without a hitch, but you can’t erase the fact that the Race 1 standing start punted the series into the throes of embarrassment once again.

The IZOD IndyCar Series features some great racing…but the sport struggles to find its own identity. Photo courtesy INDYCAR

Given that, as mentioned earlier, the weekend was still a success in spite of the Race 1 standing start fiasco, you’re all probably wondering at this point what it was that irked me so much about the whole ordeal. To clarify, I have no issue with standing starts. I enjoy watching them in Formula One and think they can be very exciting as long as they go off without a hitch. The issue I do have, and one that seems to be cropping up again and again, is INDYCAR’s obsession with emulating and trying to be like other racing series, which is exactly what the attempt at a standing start was.

For years and years, INDYCAR, in all of its various forms, has utilized rolling starts in all of its races. They are not always perfect, and certainly could be officiated more effectively, but they have nonetheless been a cornerstone of this form of racing since its inception. Standing starts, on the other hand, are very much a European-esque Formula One concept. This isn’t the only recent example of INDYCAR trying to be like Formula One. The increased reliance on road / street circuits, podium ceremonies, fruitless development of aero kits, multiple tire compounds, these are all efforts by INDYCAR to be like Formula One. Standing starts are just the latest example. And frankly, it is becoming a sickeningly emblematic example of just why this series has fallen so hard and so quickly in the United States. What is INDYCAR’s identity anymore? Does it even have one? What is it trying to be?

Back when this series was at its height in the late 80s and early 90s, it had a very clear and unique identity that largely personified what American racing was all about. Oval tracks, the quintessential American track format, dominated the schedule, and a smattering of road and street circuits were included for variety. Every track had a winner’s circle. The series featured some of the best drivers America had to offer, and served as the pinnacle of American automotive innovation. Moreover, all of the rules and regulations the series followed were developed by INDYCAR for INDYCAR, and there was none of this wishy-washy picking and choosing of different gimmicks (such as standing starts) from other series in an attempt to “add variety”. It was right around the time that INDYCAR started trying to “add variety” that the series and the sport fell the hardest. One could theoretically read the “split” of the mid-90s as an example of one side of the sport wanting to be more like Formula One (the CART side), while another wanted to be more like NASCAR (the IRL side), while neither simply wanted to maintain tradition and just be like “INDYCAR”. Ever since the split, INDYCAR, in its various forms, has gone back and forth between trying to emulate NASCAR (the pack racing era of the late 2000s was an attempt at that), and trying to emulate Formula 1 (which is what the sport is trying to do now).

All the while, the sport has continued to bleed fans, as every time the sport bounces from one extreme to the other, a section of the fan base becomes disillusioned and quits following along. When INDYCAR killed “pack racing” in early 2012, a section of the fan base who enjoyed that version of INDYCAR left with it. If INDYCAR were to ditch all of its road races and go back to a NASCAR-esque all-oval format (like the IRL of the early-2000s), a massive portion of the current fan base, who enjoy the more European-style road racing that permeates the sport today, would leave in droves just as well. No matter INDYCAR does at this point, it stands to lose, all as a result of a gradual loss of identity that has been going on since the split.

My ultimate point in all of this, and the point that I hope both the readers and INDYCAR as a whole understand, is that INDYCAR’s best chance of survival is to either a) get back to its roots, or b) stick with one set of ideas instead of vacillating over what the sport should be. With the return of Pocono, INDYCAR demonstrated a desire to return to the kind of sport that it was at its height in the 1980s. Those are the sorts of ideas that INDYCAR should focus on, ideas that rekindle the spirit that filled this sport’s illustrious history.

Standing starts are cool and all, but they are not the sort of thing that will return this sport to its former glory. I certainly do not have all the answers, and the leaders of this sport seem to have things turned in the right direction, but there is no denying that this sport could benefit from simply sticking to its roots. Is that even feasible anymore? One can only hope so.

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07/17/2013 08:33 AM

i’m not sure i agree. i think moving forward and trying new things is what will maximize the popularity of the series. yes, they must remember and build off of the past, but they’ll never be able to get back there.
the thing about toronto that irked me so much was the situation with dario, that to me looked like a return to the sanctioning body making calls of meddling favoritism. mr walkers explanations of the decision process and mention of mr barnhart on camera did not sound like he had his heart in them.

07/17/2013 10:47 AM

Messy officiating. Brian Barnhart in charge while Beaux Barfield is away. Coincidence? Or the reason Brian Barnhart lost that position in the first place? Here’s to hoping Beaux sorts out whatever personal business kept him away and returns for the next race.

07/17/2013 10:47 AM

I didn’t watch Toronto as I mainly prefer the oval races and besides, there was so much NASCAR to watch over the weekend as well as DTM at Norisring which is a must-watch.

Having just said I enjoy oval races more, I don’t think going back to an IRL type schedule will do anything for Indycar. The problem lies in the overall product. The cars are totally foreign and the stars are mostly foreign. The reason the series still thrived through the 80s and early 90s was because it still had some of the great American names like Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Johncock, etc. And more importantly, NASCAR was still a small-time southern sport at the time.

Things have changed permanently for Indycar and I don’t think it’ll ever recover, no matter how many new tricks they try.