The Frontstretch: IndyCar Round Table: Dixon Domination, ESPY Triumph, and Forward Momentum by Frontstretch Staff -- Wednesday July 31, 2013

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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)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer / Four Burning Questions)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer / Happiness Is)

The big discussion for the first half of the season was the different and sometimes surprising winners but suddenly the season has taken a Scott Dixon turn. What has suddenly woken Dixon and team Ganassi and is this a glimpse of what’s to come for the rest of this year?

Matt: Well, I think it needs to be said that Scott Dixon is just a top of the line, first tier driver. He’s criminally underrated. He has put the team on his back as they’ve sorted out their setup issues, and now that the team has sorted that stuff out, Scott has positioned them perfectly to make a title run.
Huston: I think the subtext of the question is, how has Honda rebounded? It seems they’ve figured out something recently, and Ganassi has put that to good use, especially with Dixon.
Toni: It’s a bit surprising to see him suddenly become so dominant. He was always kind of lurking there but not really as much of an actual threat. And suddenly pow.

Chip Ganassi’s teams got a slow start to 2013 but appear to be firing on all cylinders now.

Huston: It’s also important to remember, as Matt points out, Dixon is no slouch. Dude is a former champ, has a wheel-barrow full of wins, and has often been overshadowed by his teammate.
Matt: It was really only a matter of time before Ganassi’s engineering team sorted out whatever it was that put them behind the 8 ball early. Up until now, Scott’s ability to carry the load while they fixed things is what allowed them to get to where they are today. Plus, Honda in general has caught up to Chevy.
Huston: What’s behind this aspect goes to something we discussed in our last chat, and that was the question of the powerhouse teams, and Ganassi is once again showing it is part of that realm.
Toni: Interesting timing, too, because the league has just announced that everyone will have to use twin turbochargers next season. Done to address the apparent advantage Chevy seemed to have but maybe not as good for Honda as you’d think if they just sorted out their issues with their single turbocharged engines…
Matt: They may have been focusing on the twin turbo behind the scenes, hence their late grasp on the current package. I’m sure they’ve known about the twin turbos longer than we have.
Toni: Oh, I’m sure they have—I don’t think that’s the sort of thing INDYCAR would just spring on them—they’d have to have development time for that. Well maybe that’s it—they were so busy working on what’s to come they got lax on what they had to work with this year. And I completely agree on Dixon—never underestimate Scott Dixon. It was around the same time last year that Hunter-Reay started on the tear that led him to the championship so yes, perfect timing for Dixon’s sudden success.
Matt: The fact that Dixon was able to stay so high in the standings despite the team’s obvious struggles just goes to show how well he’s performed this year in spite of all that. Now that he has a good car underneath him, his previous labors are now bearing fruit.
Huston: So is the battle for the championship down to Helio and Scott?
Matt: I wouldn’t count out Marco and RHR just yet.
Toni: I wouldn’t either. Especially RHR.
Huston: Glad to be the contrarian here, then. I don’t see them coming back
Matt: They have too much to speed to be counted out at this point. RHR in particular could easily go off and win the remainder of the schedule with how good both he and his cars are right now.
Toni: RHR’s biggest stumbling block at times this year has been himself, not his cars.
Matt: And a full throttle Takuma Sato.
Toni: Well yeah there was that one…
Huston: Matt, I love your love of RHR, but I’m not on board. I’m sure he might win a race or two down the stretch, but he’s got a lot of points to make up at this juncture.
Toni: And in Marco’s case, he always seems to get the car that breaks…
Matt: Marco’s luck has been cruel this year. He should easily be in the title hunt right now. Surprised he’s remained so composed.
Toni: Marco is growing up it would seem.
Matt: Dixon has carried the load all year long, and he now has cars that match his ability. Watch out, field.
Huston: Final thought, it’s great to see Dixon performing like he has. The guy has been a great racer and a good soldier, he deserves what he’s getting. Let’s hope he keeps it up.
Matt: He’s a class act. A true role model to young fans.

What does the exposure of Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the ESPY mean for IndyCar? He got his award off camera, though. Do we think that would have been the case if Brad Keselowski had won it or is this a statement about motorsports in general?

Toni: Whether or not the ESPY really means anything, I think it still says SOMETHING that the IndyCar guy won for a change.
Matt: ESPN would have been all over it had Keselowski won it. Sadly, I think the lack of buzz surrounding his win is a sad indictment of just how far IndyCar has fallen in the public eye.
Toni: Although who knew who the winners were and when did they plan out the show? It could have been motorsports as a whole that was kind of shoved aside.
Huston: I’m taking the latter p.o.v. here. The fact that ESPN didn’t want to pony up the money to keep NASCAR indicates how they see motorsports at this point. While they put good people behind it, both on TV and in print, they seem like it’s a step-kid they don’t want. , I just think ESPN doesn’t really give a whatever about motorsports anymore. They’ve got the NFL, MLB, and college sports, and they’re raking it in — they don’t need (nor want) these other things.
Matt: It is, however, a nice reminder that IndyCar is every bit as competitive and talent-rich as NASCAR is. Frankly, I’m not sure how RHR won. Common sense would tell you that the average American sports fan that is voting would default to the NASCAR guy. The fact that RHR beat out Brad is both impressive and mind-boggling at the same time.
Toni: You know though I also wondered if it was more the fact that people didn’t like Keselowski than that they really liked RHR.
Huston: I looked up the ESPY awards for best driver, and F1 drivers have also taken it. The fact that Vettel didn’t even seem to register is a whole different thing. It’s great that RHR won, and maybe at the very least it might make a few people curious, which is just what IndyCar needs.
Toni: Maybe RHR has more appeal than we realized.
Matt: My best guess is that IndyCar fans made a big push to support RHR. He’s definitely one of the more well-liked and respected drivers among fans.
Toni: And Matt, that’s what I mean—maybe the average fan that would default to the NASCAR guy doesn’t like Brad—who is a polarizing figure—and so they knew who RHR was and tossed him their vote instead.
Matt: That’s a good point Toni.
Toni: Although the IndyCar loving side of me wants to think it’s really that they liked RHR and thought he was a good champion…
Huston: I find it interesting that you both write that RHR has good traction with fans, but for some reason I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m missing something there.
Matt: Plus Brad hasn’t exactly been “Best Driver” material in his title defense season.
Huston: You’re spot on with Brad as far as his competitiveness this year.
Matt: I think a combination of these factors listed here led to RHR’s win, quite honestly. Needless to say, I was shocked to see he got it.
Toni: That was a huge factor in my mind—Brad has not been doing much and RHR was in the championship mix again—that scored in my mind.
Huston: It’s great to see him get it. Kind of one of those upsetting the applecart moments.
Matt: In all honesty, Vettel kind of got robbed. But that’s a story for another day. Jimmie Johnson and Helio Castroneves both should have been on the ballot too.
Toni: I’m guessing the F1 guys that got it before had much more familiar names to the American voting public than Vettel. Like maybe Schumacher.
Matt: It was a great win for IndyCar, all told.
Huston: Anything that helps bring more exposure to IndyCar is a good thing, and even a silly award like the ESPY helps — we didn’t even debate the concept of the actual award.

INDYCAR seems to have a lot of positive momentum going right now from the ESPY and from some good recent racing—how do they best capitalize on this positive attention?

Toni: The obvious answer would be on the track—no bonehead calls on the track would be a good start…is Beaux Barfield back this weekend?
Huston: The easy answer is not to have a three-week break in the middle of summer.
Toni: I’m really hoping Brian Barnhart is not running things this weekend. I’m laying all the Toronto confusion squarely on him. Yeah, I know we talk about the schedule a lot but I thought this break was so poorly timed with all the good exposure they’ve recently had.
Matt: A really electric finish to one of these races would help. The racing has been solid but the finishes have lacked some pop.
Toni: That might be a tall order at Mid-Ohio. Especially with Dixon coming on strong just as they get to one of his best tracks…
Huston: I’m kind of disappointed that they’ll not be hitting an oval this coming week. I realize that they just raced at Pocono and Iowa, but the oval races have been pretty good this year.
Matt: I never would have imagined Brazil would have an amazing finish, but lo and behold it did. Anything is possible, plus Mid-Ohio is a good track for IndyCar.
Huston: If you’re asking how do they capitalize, I think the main thing is to go out and just have a good race weekend.
Matt: Huston, you nailed it. I’d love to see a track like Phoenix or Richmond in this section of the schedule.
Huston: Put out a good product, don’t have any silly snafus, and let ‘em race. Matt — yes, perfect tracks.
Matt: I’m with Huston. Continued good racing is the best way to capitalize.
Toni: Like I said, is Barfield back? If he’s back, we have fewer silly snafus.
Matt: He should be Toni. A clean weekend with good racing will be the best way to carry momentum. INDYCAR is doing everything right just now. Finish out the season strong, make good calls, and the momentum will continue to build.
Huston: In truth, fans just want to see the cars on the track. It’s been a while and when it goes too long: out of sight, out of mind. Let’s see a decent race.
Toni: Who ever thought we’d say “INDYCAR is doing everything right just now”? But they pretty much are.
Huston: I wrote that in the last column.
Matt: It’s really good to see. The next step is doing the right things in the off season.

Derrick Walker has been in charge for two months now—any thoughts on the job he’s been doing so far?

Toni: Maybe he’s why we’re saying things like INDYCAR is doing everything right…
Matt: I think he’s done an excellent job thus far. Officiating has been mostly clean, the product has been mostly solid under his regime, and he is saying all the right things.
Huston: The Walker hiring was an excellent one, but I don’t think his true impact will be noticed until next year when he’s able to command things from the get-go.
Matt: Having said all of that, his real test will come this off season. He needs to be proactive in getting the rules package nailed down as well as working to improve the schedule.
Huston: Matt, we all harp on the schedule, deservedly so, but will Walker be able to have much input on that, because I think that’s a different arm of INDYCAR?
Matt: IndyCar fans should give him three years to work out all of his ideas and policies. So far it’s been a good run, but we need to see what he does long term before we can really assess his ability.
Toni: I agree though on that being the test. A lot of what he’s overseeing right now is stuff he inherited. Time will tell as we start seeing his ideas come out and come to be. He’s doing great implementing the things he inherited in the best possible way but we’ll see when it comes to developing an idea from the start.
Matt: That’s a good point Huston, but at the end of the day the schedule is still a reflection on him. He needs to at least be giving some positive input to that arm of the sport and work to see that they are making the right calls.
Huston: Walker’s 10 year plan has specific ideas in mind, and I think his influence is a protracted one rather than immediate. And Toni, as much as you are banging on Toronto, Walker was part of the decision-making there too. Ah, the schedule — pretty much the biggest issue in the sport at this point. They just seem so out to lunch on that aspect.
Toni: I still don’t think that whole schedule thing can be blamed on INDYCAR alone.
Matt: Ovals baby, ovals. That has to be the goal. We are maxed out on road/street courses. There needs to be some effort to bring INDY-friendly ovals into the fold.
Toni: Derrick Walker can want to go to all the right tracks all he wants, but if they don’t want INDYCAR it comes to nothing.
Huston: Get it to 22 races without the doubles, and hit more ovals. That seems to be a good way to go
Matt: To your point Toni, it’s not. But that’s where he and his marketing team need to find some savviness. Ovals are crucial to the survival of the sport. Plus, last I checked, only 13,000 some people showed up for Toronto. 30,000+ attended Pocono, and that’s the usual trend for what I see at ovals versus street courses. Street course crowds may look fuller, but they almost always get beat out numbers wise by ovals, even though the ovals look empty by comparison. All things considered, Walker’s regime is best judged by what he does in the off season. That being said, he’s done a fine job so far.
Huston: Yeah, he’s handled things well thus far, but he really hasn’t been able to do much. The offseason and how 2014 begins are what will show his value and influence.
Toni: I’d like to think management of INDYCAR is finally on the right track, but time will tell. Longevity and the chance to generate some ideas and bring them to fruition will determine his success ultimately.
Matt: Agreed.

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07/31/2013 05:13 PM

Im very optimistic about Indycar with Walker in charge. Don’t forget, what comes up, must go down. Prior to the Tony George Ten Year Temper Tantrum, open wheel regularly outdrew Nascar. I think a few more years of France’s mismanagement and we might see that scenario again. Time will tell, but you are right, more ovals and non street course road courses along with the development of more American drivers. Kyle Busch in the series would be a BIG plus.