Open Wheel Wednesday · Toni Montgomery · Tuesday May 28, 2013
Welcome to the IndyCar Round Table! Several times throughout the season, your favorite writers will get together to discuss the latest IndyCar news, rumors and so much more!
This Week’s Participants:
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch IndyCar Editor / Michael Annett Driver Diary)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer)
What an Indy 500! What did you think about the record setting race, the ending, and also our winner, Tony Kanaan. He’s very popular, but he’s not American—does his popularity anyway make up for that?
Toni: I loved the race—I thought it was by far the best race of the day! And for me personally, I did not find it ending under yellow to be a letdown. It didn’t even cross my mind at the time.
Matt: It was certainly the best race of the day, followed by the Coke 600. Monaco was a snoozefest as per usual.
Toni: Because there was no passing at Monaco, which is the norm because the circuit really isn’t conducive to it.
Huston: In agreement about it being the best race of the day.
Toni: The Coke 600 was good mainly because it was kind of bizarre. Although in a sense I guess Indy was too since they doubled the old lead change record.
Matt: The big story of the race for me was the sheer competitiveness. The race had a great balance between drafting and needing a great car to get to the front, which meant you always had a group of four to five guys up front going at it. It was fabulous.
Toni: I thought so too. I chalk it up to the new cars and the package they have on them combined with having a year with the cars for the teams to really get them figured out. Last year was good but it was only the start—it’s even better now that the teams know how to get the most out of the cars.
Huston: True. Though I agree with Oreo’s article from ESPN where he stated that it’d be good if speeds actually picked up a notch.
Matt: This type of package is perfect for IndyCar oval racing. It’s a toned down version of the Hanford device racing.
Huston: One of the things I thought made Indy an excellent race was the low number of cautions.
Toni: I chalk that up to the drivers having a year to get used to these cars, Huston. The veterans at least. But the rookies also did stellar.
Huston: As for TK winning, it’s great. I’m sure someone has made the comparison already, but TK winning the 500 reminded me of Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 — everyone was happy to see him do it.
Toni: I had the same thought about TK’s win, Huston.
Matt: TK’s win won’t resonate much outside of the sport’s hardcore fans. He’s a sentimental favorite among Indy folk, but his win won’t move the needle much for the sport.
Toni: I just think it’s kind of ironic that we always talk about the importance of the American drivers and an American champion, but TK beat the American champion and yet the place went wild.
Matt: Indy brass needed Marco or Munoz to win for it to really make an impact on the mainstream.
Toni: I don’t know if that’s true, Matt. I know a lot of non-Indy fans who “got it” about TK’s win.
Huston: I think that only one driver could have transcended the Indy sphere, and that is Marco — just because of the name. I’m not real sure about Munoz, though his performance was great.
Matt: Munoz could have, being a rookie. That would have been a huge story.
Huston: Carpenter or Hinchcliffe probably would have more impact.
Toni: Dinger. That would have been big too. Marco probably has the mainstream reach at this point due to name familiarity but I still think Allmendinger would have been huge, too—the NASCAR connection. Although I’m not sure it would have really been great.
Matt: Marco is really the only guy with any mainstream reach at this point.
Toni: Dinger might have given ammunition for NASCAR fans not interested in getting along to say Indy is easy and NASCAR has better drivers. Forgetting of course that Dinger came from open wheel to start with….
Matt: An AJ win definitely would have been a big deal, I was extremely impressed with him too.
Toni: I know Dinger really wants to be in NASCAR, but he’s just so good in open wheel cars…
Huston: Yeah, I think Dinger needs to focus his attention on open wheel and let NASCAR go.
Toni: Munoz was super impressive though. Cool as a cucumber.
Huston: Munoz’s dejected interview after the race was awesome.
Toni: You have to be impressed by a rookie who was disappointed with second because he’s sure he could have gotten more.
Matt: About Munoz, he impressed THE HELL out of me. Haven’t been that impressed with an Indy rookie in I don’t know how long. His racecraft is impeccable and far beyond anything I’ve seen for a kid his age. His future in this sport is bright and unlimited. Looking forward to seeing more out of him.
Huston: Wow, drinking the Munoz koolaid, eh? I’m not going to disagree in a complete manner, but we need to see more of him in the rest of the series before he makes a claim for being something special.
Matt: I don’t know Huston, to be that competitive at Indy for the whole race at such a young age just screams “future star” to me. Plus Munoz is versatile, he’s tearing it up on the street circuits in Indy Lights.
Toni: I would love it if we could see Munoz run a couple more races this year.
Matt: I kept expecting Munoz to crack under pressure late in the race….and he never did.
Huston: Yeah, I understand that, but Indy is still one race. And as you noted, Indy Lights isn’t exactly the pinnacle of competition these days.
Matt: Very fair point. I’d like to see him run Iowa and one road race to really see if his Indy performance was indicative of his potential. I’d also like to see him do Pocono just for the fact that he could probably contend for the win, given the similarities of that track to Indy. Same goes for Allmendinger.
Huston: At this point, the Pocono race is the one that intrigues me the most.
Matt: That race has every indication of being an instant classic a la Indy. Pocono and Indy are the perfect race tracks for the current oval package
Huston: Anyway, I thought it was great to see TK win. Due to Indy’s place in the sports world right now, other than Marco winning, I’m not sure that anyone would move the proverbial needle.
Matt: Great race, finish was underwhelming, feel good winner. But the big story was the continued competitiveness and excitement of the DW12 oval package.
Toni: Someone did ask me if what we saw yesterday was what we see every week in IndyCar. Tricky question. I did say on ovals, a lot of the time, yes. Some road courses are better than others…and this sort of leads to our next topic.
The Indy 500 gives the sport momentum when it’s that great of a race, so how do they keep it through Belle Isle where it always seems to dissipate? Or is it impossible to leverage a crown jewel event into a season?
Toni: I really hope in cheerleading for open-wheel beyond Indy, no one ends up thinking I’ve steered them wrong. Because we’re just not going to see the same thing in Detroit. It’s just a different animal. Now if they are willing to hang with us until Texas they might be happier…
Huston: Here’s what bothers me in a weird way — I think there should be a week off between Indy and whatever race follows. Yes, I know they just sat at one track for a month, but let things settle and then go back to the grind.
Toni: I personally kind of liked when they went to Milwaukee next. I always thought that combo worked well.
Huston: As for keeping ‘momentum’, I’d say the key is not to shoot themselves in the foot like they so often do. TK win. Walker hire. Things look good.
Toni: We are talking INDYCAR Huston….
Huston: Right, I forgot. Expect someone to do something stupid in the next 24 hours.
Matt: They should be going to Texas or Iowa directly after Indianapolis. The road / street racing is more difficult to appreciate for casual fans. That brand of racing is an acquired taste. Not better or worse, just takes a more refined tongue to enjoy so to speak. With that in mind, INDYCAR would be wise to schedule one of the more mainstream friendly races (read: oval tracks) right after Indianapolis as a way of continuing the similar style of excitement from the week prior while simultaneously indoctrinating the fans to the more palatable form of IndyCar Racing. After those fans have a taste of oval racing, then transition back into a road / street section of the schedule.
Huston: Texas or Milwaukee work. Of course, let’s ignore the fact that there are other ovals which Indy doesn’t visit and that’s still a problem.
Toni: I agree Matt. I also wish we at least went to a better road course. There are racier ones on the circuit.
Matt: Watkins Glen is perfectly suited for IndyCar. So is Road America. They’d be great for IndyCar. But we’ve already been over that.
Huston: Belle Isle doesn’t not raise anyone’s heartrate.
Toni: No. I’m sorry Belle Isle, but it doesn’t. Stick it somewhere else on the schedule so it’s not left to make an impression on casual fans who were so impressed with Indy they wanted to try a few more races. I don’t mind having a road course race shortly after Indy, because I don’t want to “hide” that aspect of what the series is, but just pick a better one.
Matt: Sticking a by the numbers street circuit in after the most exciting race on the schedule is just poor planning. Belle Isle is also going to be one of these dreadful split weekend events which ought to confuse viewers even more.
Huston: I’m not going to comment on the double aspect of this coming weekend.
Toni: I’m reserving judgment on that concept until I see how it plays out.
Matt: INDYCAR’s infamously bad scheduling is only going to serve to kill their Indy 500 momentum
Huston: At this point, Indy just needs not to muck things up. Celebrate TK’s win. Keep all the backroom chatter out of the press.
I know Huston already talked about this in his Open Wheel Wednesday column a couple weeks ago, but let’s discuss as a group our thoughts on Derrick Walker’s hiring as the new INDYCAR President of Operations and Competition.
Huston: The Walker hire, to me, is one of the smartest decisions that someone in a position of power has made in Indy in quite a while, and was exactly the move that Bernhard should have made
Toni: I think it’s a smart move. The way I see it, they could not find one person to do what Randy Bernard did—he was good on the commercial side but ran into problems in the paddock. So they split the job and found a guy who CAN handle the paddock.
Matt: I dig the fact that he has a lot of ties in the sport and that he’s not some shady businessman.
Toni: Walker has the respect of the team owners, he understands what they need—but he can also separate from them and understand what works for the sport, I think. Because he’s not one of the big boys who serves their own interests first but he has been around for a long time. He’s been one of them but of a different sort.
Huston: Walker has continually bounced around. He’s kind of one of those guys that has seen it all.
Matt: It’s a good move on the surface. I don’t know a whole lot about him but it seems like a smart hire.
Toni: If Bernard had done this, he might have saved himself. But that’s kind of neither here not there.
Matt: His success or failure will rest on his ability to work with traditional oval and road facilities to get more non-street tracks back on the schedule, along with his ability to play nice with the owners while still maintaining a firm grip on them. Those are not easy tasks.
Huston: Neither is keeping costs down, which is one of his other big points.
Toni: That comes from the fact that when Walker was a team owner he was one of the little guys.
Huston: It is a tough one to reconcile, as teams with money are always willing to spend money to win.
Toni: I don’t know that any racing series has really resolved the haves vs. the have nots issue, have they? They all want to try, but has anyone really solved it.
Huston: not sure that it is something that really can be resolved.
Toni: But really I think it is important for Indy. Half the field is made up of small teams and if those teams can’t make it, you have a big problem when your field is 25 cars to start with.
Matt: I’m more worried about INDYCAR’s finances then I am the teams’ finances. Most don’t seem to be struggling too badly. The spec nature of the cars keeps costs down naturally. INDYCAR on the other hand has trouble being profitable. That’s really what he has to focus on. A lot of that profitability will rest on future TV contracts and his ability to secure series sponsorships (ie “The Official __ of INDYCAR”). Notice how there are not very many of those? NASCAR is ridiculously profitable mostly based on TV money and sponsors such as “Coors: The Official Beer of NASCAR”, etc.
Toni: Ah but only part of that is on him. The TV part probably. The venues which will also help. But my impression is there will be another person handling the sponsorship side.
Huston: I feel that Indy has only found a sense of traction in the past couple years — finally moving on from the split and being able to show themselves as a product. As it stabilizes, the naming rights packages will come about. The trick, and something NASCAR has killed, is that you don’t want to take too many sponsors away from the teams.
Matt: Sadly, TV numbers tell a troubling tale Huston. Ratings for the 500 have taken a shocking tumble since the mid 2000s. Sunday’s race registered a 3.8 overnight…..which is the lowest of all time. That is shockingly bad.
Huston: Yeah, I was surprised at the ratings. Last year, had decent ratings, 4.1 or 4.2 I believe — didn’t think they’d drop this year.
Matt: I believe Indy 500 ratings were somewhere in the 7.0s and 8.0s in the early 90s. Last week’s race in Brazil was a .22 I believe, which equates out to around 220,000 viewers.
Huston: The Brazil race confuses me. It’s a decent product, but I don’t understand why it gets broadcast so early.
Toni: Time zones. Brazil is actually ahead of the east coast in time zones.
Huston: But if Australia can host an F1 race and cater to Europe, than Brazil can host Indy and cater to better time slots.
Toni: This is a discussion for another time perhaps, but I wonder how much of the dwindle is caused by the same thing that’s shrinking NASCAR ratings? The apparent loss of interest in motorsports as a whole. We’ll take that topic on in the future.
Huston: Seems like a good one.
Matt: That sort of thing is an “ebb and flow” issue. Motorsports will be en vogue again sometime soon I’m sure. Everything is cyclical.
Derrick Walker and Hulman and Co. CEO Mark Miles introduced a new initiative to allow more technical innovation on the cars with the idea of incrementally increasing speeds, specifically targeting breaking the one lap record at Indy. What do you think of this idea?
Huston: Big fan here.
Matt: That’s a dangerous game they are playing with flirting with the speed record. Super high speeds have been a detriment for NASCAR. High speeds often make close racing even more difficult to achieve.
Huston: Part of the history of Indy is the notion of racing cars as fast as they can go.
Toni: This might be the first idea to increase interest in the series. But at the risk of sounding like a wimp, they purposely slowed them down for a reason.
Huston: Whether or not they can raise speeds and maintain a semblance of safety is the real question.
Matt: I think the speeds are fine right where they are, from a safety and competitive standpoint.
Toni: I get that they are also going to work on safety stuff, but we’re not even two years removed from losing a driver. It makes me nervous.
Matt: High speeds are grossly overrated. Slower speeds almost always lead to better racing. I’d rather see them pressure Firestone into making tires that wear out more.
Toni: Gil de Ferran hit something around 245 in a Champ car at Fontana I believe. To me that’s not as much interesting as terrifying. I like the drivers, I like them alive. And I don’t necessarily think they need to be going faster in order to put on a better show.
Matt: Besides, if the ticker on screen didn’t show you the lap times, would you really be able to tell the difference between 220 mph and 235? I don’t think so.
Toni: No. See everything Matt is saying are exactly the arguments put forth when they explained why they were going to slow the cars down. And I agree with all of them.
Huston: I think, like Toni mentioned, the speed aspect is a way of creating their own niche. NASCAR is one thing. F1 another. But Indy might see it as a way of selling themselves.
Matt: There is a sweet spot in terms of speed for every car/aero/tire package that a racing series develops. IndyCar is in that sweet spot with the current package. NASCAR’s Gen 6 is not in the sweet spot, hence the racing there has been hit or miss. Too slow, and the racing becomes crapshooty, too fast, the racing is flat out boring. You gotta find the middle ground. The only cars that can get away with unlimited speed are sprint cars because of how light they are.
Toni: And on top of that, there’s already a series that exists solely to go as fast as possible. It’s called the NHRA. And they go over 300 mph. I think there’s a limit of how fast you can drive a car on an oval and not start getting people killed.
Huston: I’m a little dubious towards the notion that Indy has hit the sweet spot right now. Though the 500 was excellent, I also believe that a car/driver should be able to drive away from others if they’re better and that was not really the case yesterday.
Matt: I’d argue there is probably 5-10 miles per hour more speed that could improve the racing and spread the field a bit more, but anymore than that and you risk bringing aero issues and negative-draft into play, a la mid 2000s Indy. Draft is hugely important at a place like Indy in terms of making passing viable. There is a fine line that must be towed such that the draft is strong enough for passing, and not too strong such that the racing is farcical. The Sunday race had a nice balance.
Toni: Yeah but no one ended up upside down or with a broken spine yesterday either.
Huston: Yeah, I understand that, and no one wants to see drivers get injured — but with that being noted racing is still a dangerous endeavor and it’s impossible to mitigate all sense of that danger.
Toni: It’s not that I’m completely against the idea, and like Matt says, there may be more speed to be had, but it just makes me nervous because is there a point where we say enough is enough and where is that point?
Matt: Anything over 230 mph is just overkill. There’s no need to be going any faster. Indy has a great package right now. Some more speed would be nice, but they’d be wise not to push it.
Huston: Walking a fine line. The big concept to be gleaned here is that Indy is trying to bring innovation back to the series and that is something it badly needs.
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