The Frontstretch: NASCAR And IndyCar: How A Pothole Can Unite Two Series by Toni Montgomery -- Wednesday June 6, 2012

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NASCAR And IndyCar: How A Pothole Can Unite Two Series

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.

IZOD IndyCar officials take a look at the disintegrating track surface at Belle Isle on Sunday. Look familiar?

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.

If you thought the first photo was something you’ve seen before, that’s because it was. Officials surround the sinkhole that opened up during the 2010 Daytona 500, causing a 2 1/2 hour red flag.

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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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
NASCAR Mailbox: A ‘Normal’ Saturday And A Valuable Lesson
Beyond the Cockpit: Tony ‘The Sarge’ Schumacher
Open Wheel Wednesday: Controversial Moves, Long Beach Crowds, and Being a Fuddy Duddy
The Frontstretch Five: Pleasant Surprises of 2014 So Far
IndyCar Driver Profile: Takuma Sato
Beyond the Cockpit: Tommy Baldwin on Owning His Team, Hall of Fame and the Number Seven


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06/06/2012 10:30 AM

And let’s not forget that Ganassi also won that Daytona 500 with Jamie McMurray when the pothole opened up in turn two, so this is not the first time that Ganassi won a race affected by a pothole.

06/06/2012 12:53 PM

I was a disgruntled CART/IRL fan long before I got disgruntled by NASCAR

For what it’s worth, NASCAR may have Delayed the Daytona 500 by hours, but at least they noticed the problem and dealt with it without destroying two potential top 10 drivers’ cars. The corner workers in Detroit were incompetent.

I want, so bad, to like Indycar. I was a HUGE follower of CART in the mid-late 90s/early 00s, and the IRL’s current schedule is a half-decent mix, just like CART used to be. I don’t want it all on ovals, especially not Super Speedways.

But the Penske/Ganassi Juggernaut has absolutely turned me off Indycar. It’s so, SO boring to know that those three drivers are basically going to share every win on the season, other than a very rare win by the OTHER Penske drivers, Briscoe and Castroneves.

Yes, I realize every now and then a surprise pops up (Andretti or Kanaan, occasionally someone like Justin Wilson), but in general, it’s absolute domination, on the same sort of level that Ferrari had in F1 8-10 years ago.

It’s mind-numbingly boring, knowing you have so much great talent and interesting drivers in the midfield, and you can pretty much guarantee you’ll never see them win a race. Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Rhey, Takuma Sato, Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, Joseph Newgarten, Ed Carpenter… So many interesting stories, which the commentators do their best to flush out, but in the end they always have to come back to Penske/Ganassi. People complain open wheel racing has no interesting AMERICAN drivers—bull! They’re right there, they’re just buried by a Scotsman and two Australians!

I’m not asking/hoping for NASCAR-esque parity, where you have like 15 winners in a season… But why not a baker’s dozen or something? Can no one do anything about their domination?

You say Hendrick and Roush win everything in NASCAR? They certainly win a lot of championships, but there are a LOT of individual race winners from the other teams. It’s not a fair comparison at ALL.

And Franchitti, god… I used to be a fan of his back in the Kool-Green days, but ever since he started winning EVERYTHING he’s turned into such a self-important whiner and a dirty driver. I’m not talking about barely giving Sato any room at Indy, I mean any number of other incidents in the past five-six years where he’s whined about someone else driving perfectly well, or done something TOTALLY deserving of a penalty that the race stewards have just COMPLETELY ignored. In terms of bad driving, Franchitti has a magic horseshoe you-know-where. And I’m tire of hearing from his has-been wife EVERY week too.

If he’s the best and the guy who’s representing Indycar, that might explain why a lot of Americans just aren’t interested. If someone like my boy Hinch or Graham Rahal or Hunter-Rhey were to start contending CONSISTENTLY for race wins, I suspect the ratings would improve.

And since I’m on my soap box… Get rid of the Super Speedway races and replace them with PROPER Indycar ovals. People are dying, and the racing is contrived, just like Restrictor Plate racing. It has nothing to do with skill, everything to do with balls and luck. It’s terrifying and it’s not real racing.

Keep Indy of course (you have to TURN at Indy), and otherwise go to tracks where these belong, like Nazareth, Pocono, Pikes Peak, Gateway, Richmond, Loudon, Milwaukee, and Iowa. Places where Indycar racing is even BETTER than NASCAR.

And street racing is good, if the TRACK is good. St. Pete and Long Beach are great, and so is Toronto. But what happened to the truly great road courses? Go back to Road Atlanta, Road America, VIR… Montreal, Mosport! The race at Edmonton is always good, how about going back to the lakefront at Cleveland!

06/06/2012 02:47 PM

I don’t have a problem with the cars. next year will bring different aero kits and another engine manufacturer.

I don’t have a problem with the same teams winning. YET. I’m seeing a lot of racing back in the pack, something that rarely appears on NASCAR broadcasts.

But Detroit was a bad follow-up for Indy. Even if the track hadn’t come apart, it wasn’t going to maintain the excitement for new fans who became curious after the 500. And old fans aren’t thrilled either. They needed to have another oval, like Michigan. Or a REAL roadcourse, like Road America or Laguna Seca. Street tracks are slow and difficult to follow.

I also have a problem with TV coverage. ABC isn’t perfect but they’re better than Fox in every way. But most of the races are NBC-Sports and I’m not going to go up a level in cable packages to get it. They really need more network coverage. Not their fault, or Randy Bernard’s, but it needs to happen. CNBC is on many basic cable packages and spots are open on Sundays.

Keep up the good work Toni! I’ll be following you and looking for sports bars that will show Texas.

06/06/2012 05:13 PM

Andy90: “Yet”? It’s only been like 6-7 straight years of it… :/

I do agree that they do a MUCH better job of covering races in the back of the pack, which is why I bother to watch at all. The results are still the same though.