Open-Wheel Wednesday · Toni Montgomery · Wednesday June 6, 2012
Editor’s Note: This column is the first in a new weekly commentary series focused on IndyCar. Let us know what you think of our new “open-wheel” Wednesday coverage in the comments section below!
In case you haven’t noticed yet, Frontstretch has expanded its reach into the open-wheel world with new coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series and Formula 1. Scary territory, right? After all, those series are so different from NASCAR, Frontstretch’s main area of focus. How could the readers of a NASCAR site possibly hope to relate to those odd, pointy cars?
But what if I told you that NASCAR has far more in common with the IZOD IndyCar Series than you might realize? What if I told you IndyCar fans are looking at some of the exact same issues and discussing the exact same things as NASCAR fans? It’s true, and I can prove it. Using just the last two weeks in the IZOD IndyCar Series, I bet I can make a case so strong you won’t be able to tell the two series apart, except that one has pointy cars.
Two years ago, during the 2010 Daytona 500, the asphalt on the track started to fall apart, opening a pothole and bringing out a lengthy red flag. NASCAR and track workers scrambled to patch the surface enough to continue the race and after delays totaling 2 hours and 24 minutes, the show went on. It was actually a good race, but most people probably don’t remember much besides the pothole. It was poor timing for stock car racing; the series was in a ratings slump, and hopes were high for the crown jewel event at Daytona to save the day. It was critically important to have a good race, one that even casual fans remembered — but was that momentum lost due to a problem that really wasn’t NASCAR’s fault (or even ISC’s, for that matter)? The pothole, after a lengthy investigation was the result of a sinkhole under the track surface.
Two weeks ago, the IZOD IndyCar Series had high hopes for their crown jewel event, the Indy 500. New cars, new engines and a competitive field gave reason to hope to regain some of the importance the event once held in the public eye on Memorial Day weekend, years after finishing well behind NASCAR’s evening race. Indy ended up being everything they hoped for, and although they still finished behind NASCAR in the television ratings, the IZOD IndyCar Series closed the gap considerably.
Then they went to Detroit and it all fell apart. Literally.
Just as in Daytona two years ago, the track surface disintegrated and brought a stop to the race for about two hours while track crews made repairs. Like NASCAR and ISC, it wasn’t the fault of IndyCar or track promoters. Belle Isle is a temporary street course, and polymer patches used to fill in cracks from the normal weathering of paved roads were being sucked out by the downforce of the cars. Like Daytona, however, that major problem could also prove to be a huge momentum killer at a critical time. It’s hard to hold more than the most devoted of audiences with two hours of nothing, and at least the broadcast from Daytona offered some continuity, even if it was just air filler. In contrast, the IndyCar broadcast ended on ABC at 6 and picked up on ESPNews, an entirely different channel, after 6:30.
There is also the question of the track itself. Think of Belle Isle as the IndyCar version of the dreaded NASCAR “cookie cutter.” It’s been a stock car debate for years whether or not going to a 1.5-mile or 2-mile oval, directly after Daytona kills any momentum the big event musters. Fans just don’t care for those tracks. In the world of IndyCar, most fans, and particularly the casual ones, prefer ovals. They like Indy, but are less enamored with road and especially street courses. Belle Isle, in particular has never been high on their list, so it’s the equivalent of NASCAR’s “cookie cutter.” There are three ovals coming up in a row on the schedule now, but did Detroit, by its nature combined with the red flag issues, already drive all those new eyes away before we can even get to Texas and beyond?
But wait… there’s more.
There are also the cars. Once upon a time, one of the great things about the marquee event of the season was that all sorts of teams would show up with all sorts of entries. There were rules, of course, to keep things within reason, but they were broad and there was room for new ideas and innovation. Some really creative things showed up at the track in those days. Now, there is a very specific rulebook. Engines, chassis, it’s all closely mandated and essentially, even though the cars bear different manufacturer brands and the engines have some subtle differences, everyone pretty much has the same thing. The fans aren’t fooled, either. So am I talking about Daytona or Indy? It could be either or both. That’s the point. Fans of both series have been talking about the tight rules package and the lack of innovation being allowed. Fans of both series miss the days when manufacturers decided what kind of cars to make within a broad and general rulebook that allowed them to do some of the thinking.
Then, there are the race winners. If you look back at our race recaps from Indy and Detroit, there are comments about the racing action but there are also posts about the winners. Dario Franchitti won at Indy and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon won at Belle Isle. I have to carry this one back a bit further than the last two weeks to make mention that Team Penske drivers won the four races prior to that. As great as the action was at Indy it was noted that, in the end, it was just another Ganassi or Penske car in Victory Lane at the end of the day. If you take out Ganassi and Penske and fill in Hendrick and Roush, you could put the same comment on most NASCAR recaps. The fact is, the teams with the most sponsorship have the most money, the most resources and, at the end of the day, the most trophies. In NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1 or any other series you can think of, that’s the nature of the beast.
Hopefully, you aren’t a disgruntled NASCAR fan and I’ve now managed to give you a poor view of the IZOD IndyCar Series as well because it has all the same issues. The point here was to help race fans see that the pointy car types really aren’t all that different from the door ones.
And while we’re on that subject, we pointy car types will be here every Wednesday from now on to bring you a variety of topics for Open Wheel Wednesday. The things we’ll be talking about will be topics you already understand. For example, next week Matt Stallknecht will address pack racing, something we’ll be seeing at Texas Motor Speedway this week. We also plan to have interviews and roundtable discussions in addition to commentary. If you have reader questions, feel free to send them and we’ll do Q&As too. We hope IndyCar fans that have enjoyed our race coverage will join us and we hope that NASCAR fans will give us a read and see what the IZOD IndyCar Series is really all about!
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