Not sure if you have noticed or not, but Caddyshack (arguably the greatest movie ever made, and easily the most quoted) has been on cable a lot lately, most recently having been on the Golf Channel and ESPN Classic in a steady rotation. I mention this because as I slipped in and out of consciousness this past Sunday, sprawled out prostrate on my Aztec-print sofa watching the abomination that was the 2008 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, I remember thinking how great it would be if I were watching Caddyshack instead of the carnage that was being broadcast. It also would have been fitting to hear Dale Jarrett or Dr. Jerry Punch issue one of Zen-golfer Ty Webb’s classic lines:
“You’re not, ahhh… you’re not… you’re not… good.”
Wow. Did that really happen?! A 160-lap race punctuated by no less than 11 caution flags, six of which were “competition yellows” – code for “issuing a caution flag before something really bad happens.” But that still didn’t stop a few black eyes from being bruised on a number of occasions throughout the day. Just ask Matt Kenseth, whose car was apparently fitted with three Goodyear Eagles and one IED, as the back of his No. 17 Roush Fusion was obliterated as if it had suffered 1,000 lashings from a possessed DeWalt sawzall. Juan Pablo Montoya apparently hit a landmine on the backstretch as well, seeing as the debris field from his mangled Mopar is most likely still scattered somewhere along the fairway of the third hole of Indy’s infield golf course.
In my 25 years of watching motorsports, I have never seen the abomination that was, with a straight face, labeled a race, as the one I endured on Sunday. At least I got a front-row seat to watch the debacle for free in 57 inches of High-Definition gore, instead of being there in person with the rest of the media horde. Those 1,080 lines of progressively-scanned resolution allowed me to better view the 6” x 12” swathes of steel and polyester cords from what, just six minutes earlier, were a $1,700 set of racing slicks.
Goodyear Tire Company had an ad campaign a few years ago that boldly proclaimed, “The best tires in the world have Goodyear written all over them.” Does that still apply if they are ground into a fine, black powder, decorating Kevin Harvick’s instrument panel? Again, Mr. Webb:
“The Zen philosopher Basho once wrote, a flute with no holes is not a flute. And a donut with no hole… is a Danish.”
…And a tire with no air in it at 200 mph is probably not conducive to auto racing. How in the year 2008 – in the premier motorsports division in North America – this happens is beyond me. At least when Michelins were shredding prior to the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2005, the company offered to airlift new tires immediately to be delivered to the speedway – or suggested a chicane be installed to limit the stress that was being applied to their product. When both of those options were nixed by the FIA, Michelin-shod competitors had the common courtesy to pull off the starting grid prior to the green lights illuminating.
The 43 drivers that rolled off Sunday were playing a similar game of Russian Roulette with five rounds in the cylinder, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find many fans that would have faulted drivers had they all pulled in and parked themselves coming to the green flag after having bore witness to what transpired this past weekend. But instead of stopping, each one played a game of stop and start that was equivalent to going through the motions, collecting a check while watching the cash of 240,000 spectators promptly go to waste.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Judge. You’re a tremendous slouch.”
It is usually not a good sign when the president of the operation has to come on live television in the middle of a broadcast to explain why cars are running at three-quarter speed (witness Greg Biffle, lifting at the start/finish line late in the going) and why NASCAR is throwing a yellow flag so teams can change tires at 10-lap intervals. Imagine the uproar that would follow if, during the Yankees/Red Sox game on Sunday, Bud Selig was forced to appear in the booth with Joe Morgan and Jon Miller to explain why bats were shattering all over the field anytime a batter so much as swung at a ball.
For NASCAR’s second-most prestigious race of the year at the most famous racing circuit on the planet, this was as poor of a showing as one could expect. The wagon-circling, politicking and spin machine was turned up to 11, with the sanctioning body, tire supplier and many of the competitors shrugging off any appearance of ill-doing as soon as the race was over.
“Ahh, Danny, this isn’t Russia. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia, is it?”
So who, or what, was to blame? As we begin to recover from this epic catastrophe, who is ultimately at fault? Let’s examine a few possible culprits:
Tire Wars: With as many tire issues as have been experienced in recent years and complaints by drivers growing louder and more pointed, some have suggested it may be time to break Goodyear’s monopoly as NASCAR’s official tire supplier. Many argue that competition is always good and promotes a better product. But it is also extremely expensive and – as has been proven in years past – not always an attractive option.
How many of you remember the name Loy Allen Jr.? Right, three of you. Allen won the pole at the 1994 Daytona 500 for perennial powerhouse (sic) Tri-Star Motorsports. He finished 22nd, leading zero laps in the process. But Allen was on Hoosier tires then, which were a tick faster because they had less contact surface and therefore less rolling resistance. Geoff Bodine won three races that season on Hoosiers (and ironically, Rick Mast won the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400 on Hoosiers) but the other races were won with Goodyears. Did it make for a better tire or better competition? Probably not, but what it did contribute to was a lot of accidents.
A tire war is not something that many drivers who have lived through one are clamoring for, as they are the ones who are situated on the front lines of such a fight – with their own lives at stake.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway: A few years ago, we were treated to “levigating” at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. At Indianapolis, we are now aware of “diamond cutting” as the potential cause for ills at America’s oldest superspeedway. The rough surface, some contend was the culprit for Sunday’s exercise in futility disguised as a stock car race.
The IndyCar Series didn’t seem to have an issue this past May with the racing surface or their Firestone tires. Come to think of it, last year the Cup cars ran at Indy without much trouble, running the final 83 laps with but three cautions – two for “debris” and one for oil. They didn’t have to stop the race every 10 minutes to retrofit everyone’s tires for their own safety. That leaves one more component to the puzzle…
The Car of Tomorrow: Ah, yes… my favorite target. And why not? It is a big one. There it was, in all of its gaudy, front-splittered, big-winged, high center of gravity, no downforce and extreme right-side weight-biased glory. Who would have ever imagined that after a year and a half of teams begging NASCAR to let them work on it to gain some adjustability, balance, and desperately-needed downforce, that something like this would have happened?
An unbalanced, heavy car with a high center of gravity combined with a hard tire and a track surface that, by most accounts, is like that of a cheese grater… what could possibly go wrong?! Instead of going all out for the second-biggest race of the year, NASCAR attacked this problem hard – by scheduling a tire test with but a handful of teams, then not following up on those results. Was there enough data to show what was going to happen once the cars hit the track? Would it have made sense to allow some more adjustability or leeway with the car to get it to handle properly, and not completely destroy a set of tires within a few minutes? Good God, imagine the bloodbath that would have ensued had there not been the scheduled caution flags, or if the cars still had the standard 22-gallon fuel cells rather than the new 18-gallon pieces. Not that they would have ever made it halfway through a fuel run anyway…
Elton John had a hit in 1976 with the song “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” whose chorus of, “It’s a sad, sad, situation; and it’s getting more and more absurd,” came to mind after hearing the explanations from Robin Pemberton, Goodyear officials, and the rest of the NASCAR brass. Even ESPN was a bit beige in their observations of what was actually transpiring on the track, as if there was anything other than shock and horror that should have been expressed from competitors making essentially mandated tire changes as they were just coming up to temperature.
Much like the fans who attended the Formula 1 disaster that was the U.S. Grand Prix in 2005, the 240,000 paying spectators, as well as the millions more frustrated at home, echo their sentiments – as well as those of Ty Webb:
“Thank you very little.”