Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sanity returns in Canada at AntiToronto

Today's Edmonton race saw a return to sanity and normalcy for the Indycar series. As far as normalcy, Will Power led the bulk of the way and won over another Penske car and Dario Franchitti. Regarding sanity, little of the crazy driving seen in Toronto was present. In the most jaw-dropping development, Indycar series officials handed down penalties when the "avoidable contact" rule was broken-which it was, several times.
Even when Tagliani pitted for repairs after knocking Graham Rahal out before the first lap was complete and wound up at the back of the field, he still had to serve a green-flag drive-through penalty, like he should have. Hopefully this is a trend that will continue.

Rahal and Paul Tracy were completely knocked out of the race by incidents, and Simona de Silvestro suffered a rare (for the technologically mature Dallara/Honda combination) mechanical failure. Graham made a good contribution to the broadcast by joining the TV crew after he was out. Every one else continued in some fashion. After a promising Toronto race, Scott Dixon's championship hopes took a hit when EJ Viso inexplicably (well, maybe not considering the perpetrator) rammed him, breaking his radiator and flooding the cockpit with hot coolant. Still, his team effected repairs and he returned to the hunt. Normally clean Oriol Servia was taken out by Mike Conway in one of those incidents that is maddening for its lack of a clear camera angle.

I thought one of the most interesting parts of the race was the good showings of a number of drivers that are supposed to be really good at this, but have been largely invisible all season. Justin Wilson came out with a top 5 and Sebastian Bourdais was 6th without the assistance of severe attrition (18 cars finished on the lead lap). The Andretti cars were notable for either their absence from the spotlight, or their propensity to run into others. Seventh, 8th, and 9th belonged to RHR, Conway, and Patrick, respectively. A fuel strategy gone awry relegated Briscoe to 10th, and JR Hildebrand showed a respectable 11th.

The closing laps promised a three-way battle for the lead as Helio sniffed at Power's rear wing and Dario laid back, waiting for an opportunity. Power (despite claiming afterwards that his tires had gone off) appeared better able to put power down and stay in front of Helio until the end, despite some aggressive braking moves. Alas, the last 20 laps gave no more changes at the top and that's how they finished.

I thought it was a decent race, though not spectacular. Again, the most newsworthy item was the enforcement of the rules by race control, which is a positive development. Even if it shouldn't be.

The series moves to a sentimental favorite track of mine in two weeks: Mid-Ohio. Again, I anticipate few lead changes, but hope for a solid, entertaining race. More to come this week...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who Will Go To Milwaukee?

A question was Tweeted this evening by the one and only Pressdog about the state of the Milwaukee Mile race track and what could be done to attract fans. I understand that the track is owned by the state, as part of the State Fair Park complex. The past couple of years have been tumultuous for the century-plus old facility: After successful events in 2009, NASCAR and Indycar stayed away in 2010 when sanctioning fees went unpaid. I still don't know exactly how or if anything was resolved, but the NASCAR Nationwide series has moved on to Elkhart Lake's Road America road course, the Camping World Truck series has moved on, and Indycar ran a great race last month. Trouble is, few showed up to see that great race.
Drivers and fans love the Milwaukee Mile. In contrast to the Charlotte Motor Speedway clones that dot the countryside, the Mile requires braking and real handling finesse to successfully negotiate. Its long, long history also give it a special pedigree.
The question was posed, if a private company were to clone the track, set it elsewhere in the greater Milwaukee area, and add parking, luxury boxes, and fan amenities, would attendance improve? After all, the existing goodness of Milwaukee (challenging track to drive) is retained, while modern race fans (and sponsors!) get everything they're accustomed to.

I believe the answer to that question is "No." After all, the 2009 races were well attended, and there were no suites then, either. So why did fans show up in 2009, but not in 2011?
Was it promotion and marketing? I doubt it. Looking back, I think I heard less about the race beforehand in 2009 than I did this year.
Was it the weather? Possibly, race day this year was cold and rainy until a couple of hours before race time. A less intrepid (or more distant) fan may not have risked the trip for a wet, raceless day.
Who attended in 2009? The guys I bought my ticket from were servicemen who got freebies. A co-worker said he used to go every year-when his buddy got freebies from Marlboro.
Was it the quality of racing? The 2009 race wasn't nearly as exciting as the 2011 race.
Maybe it was promotion during prior races. In '09, the race was held less than a week after a relatively dull Indy 500. In '11, it was three weeks after the most exciting and interesting 500 in recent history and one week after a buzz-heavy doubleheader at Texas.

Most things point to the '11 race as one that should have been better attended. Maybe "promotion and marketing" are to blame... Yes, some was done, but maybe the wrong kind. I recall the days of the "Detroit Grand Prix", whether or not it was held on Belle Isle. That was a big, big deal in the Detroit media market. The buzz cranked up more than a week ahead of time, and local TV and newspapers kept everyone abreast of all the news, developments, and what the stars were doing. Everyone could go to practice on Friday's "Free Prix Day" for no charge. There were races all weekend, with Saturday's action capped by a Trans-Am race. One might also see stars of tomorrow in smaller Indy-like cars, cars like one drove on the street in the NATCC or World Challenge races, or your favorite radio or TV personality in the Neon Challenge. I saw or heard nothing like this in the lead-up to either Milwaukee race.
Somehow I think the race and the surrounding activities (lots of on-track action, for instance-something done well in 2011) need to be assimilated into the annual summer activities here. We have the Summerfest Music festival, numerous ethnic festivals, the State Fair, the Brewers, several racing weekends at Road America, even June's annual Bead and Button show gets a fair amount of press. Local media has to get talking about the race and let the population know about it. I'm no marketer, but I'm guessing there are defined ways to do this sort of thing? Can they distribute videos to the media outlets? Run drivers and personalities through every major TV and radio station? Give away (or discount) tickets at every turn?

I hope something happens and the race at the Milwaukee Mile becomes an annual institution once again. Not only because it's my "home race," but because it's an interesting, historical track located in a hotbed of racing enthusiasm.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Armchair Course Marshall

This weekend the Indycar series continues its swing north of the border as it returns to a reworked Edmonton airport circuit. Nothing happened there last year, did it? Oh, wait, yes it did. And its fallout continues to affect the series, at least in the eyes of die-hard fans.

To refresh your memory, Helio Castroneves was leading the race late when, on a late restart, he took an unapproved line through turn 1. He was black flagged, but remained in the lead until the conclusion of the race when, despite finishing first, he was not shown the checkered flag and was instead scored last on the lead lap. The emotional Brazilian then went on a memorable rampage that culminated in begging Security Chief Charles for his life. (Citation needed)
Seriously, Helio received that elusive gift-a penalty for blocking. Often discussed but seldom seen, it's a rule that purports to improve the racing by facilitating passing.
As I watched the replay last year, I realized that Helio was, in technical terms, a sitting duck. Will Power had a monster run on him on the restart and would surely have overtaken his teammate. Helio countered by taking a 'bad' line through the corner-one that would have slowed him, but also prevented Power from making the inevitable pass. Castroneves didn't, in my opinion, have much of a choice.

The outcry was fierce, and nearly unanimously negative. I think of myself as a pretty informed race fan, and I'm still not sure I understand why a driver shouldn't be allowed to defend his position.

This event, along with events in races earlier this year (Long Beach, Milwaukee, and Toronto, to name three) have brought up a number of questions, in no particular order, about the officiating:
Why don't they consistently call penalties for "avoidable contact", blocking, and failure to properly restart?
What are the policies for said infractions?
Why aren't penalties consistently handed down?
Why does this climate exist in the first place?

Starting with the last item, I'm going to go way out on a limb here and speculate that this climate exists as a holdover from the Tony George era. While Tony is obviously knowledgeable and passionate, he never struck me as a particularly friendly or gregarious individual-a man of few words who doesn't speak unless he thinks it necessary. These are not necessarily bad qualities, but race fans have grown extremely frustrated with the (non-) calls made this year and last. If this is the culture within the organization (and I will be the first to say that I'm just thinking out loud here, and that I don't know), then it needs to change. We're seeing the beginnings of this, and Al Unser, jr's appearance during the Toronto broadcast was a big step in the right direction.

As for consistent penalties, the officiating team came out and said that Paul Tracy was penalized for a move similar to one made by Helio Castroneves (who was not penalized) because Helio's actions had already sent him to the rear of the field, and serving a drive-through would not have cost him anything. Now this just doesn't make sense. Do the crime, do the time. It doesn't matter whether or not he loses anything as a result, the scorecard needs to show that he was treated fairly and equally.

Yes, I do have some suggestions, some of which are so obvious I can't believe I have to spell them out:
1. Obtain and use the equipment necessary to police the race. Justin Wilson said on Trackside last week that race control had fewer camera angles available than even TV-and I thought the broadcasters were sorely lacking in options. I don't know all the technical details behind this, but something should be investigated.
2. Define blocking and enforce it consistently. Perhaps race control can put together a highlight reel of historical "blocks" and "non-blocks"-called or not-and use it to clarify the rule to drivers, teams, and fans.
3. Define the double-wide restart rule and enforce it consistently. Perhaps this means that the standard for enforcement changes race by race-it's apparently extremely difficult or impossible to line up the entire field in two rows at Toronto and Long Beach. Fine. Tell everyone ahead of time and outline the expectations. For example, "at Toronto, we expect the first two rows to be lined up side-by-side when the race goes green" or "at Milwaukee, all cars should be lined up in two rows when the race goes green". Any driver who does not obey race control will receive one warning. The second time, he or she is moved to the back of the field.
4. Enforce the rules consistently. If someone makes "avoidable contact," he or she must serve a drive-through penalty. If his or her car is too damaged to continue or the race ends before the penalty can be served, then that driver will start last in the next race.
5. Explain penalties and potentially controversially non-calls. Put the information in a "Steward's report" on the Indycar website Sunday night or Monday morning.
6. There shall be no favortism due to driver popularity, points position, team owner, etc.

I think that's all I have in me for brain dumps right now.
Oh yeah, the race. Um, Power is hungry and Dixon is on the cusp of a great second half of the season. So watch them. Rahal's been nigh unstoppable as of late, and Ryan Hunter-Reay looks back in his element. Finally, Tony Kanaan is a perpetual threat and hungry to win one.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Going (Back) to California (Speedway)

It was announced last week that Indycar will return to the oval at California’s Auto Club Speedway (the Track Formerly Known As Fontana, or California Speedway). This is good news for several reasons. It’s another oval race, something most fans seem interested in keeping for at least half the schedule. It’s a track that, despite its relative youth, has some open-wheel history: Both the world closed-course speed record and the fastest 500-mile race in history came here. It’s also a track owned by ISC, indicating that at least some part of that company is interested in investing in Indycar’s product.

I’d like to see it run as a 500-miler, but I’m not sure that will happen since it was also announced that it would be a night race. I think the area’s climate would make the race a good fit either early or late in the season-but the night race part of that might mean that Indycar has other ideas. Adding Auto Club to the schedule is also a good move since it only hosts a single NASCAR Cup race. This means that there is less competition for ticket sales than somewhere like, say, Phoenix that hosts two NASCAR weekends per year.

This announcement raises other questions. Open-wheel racing at California under IRL sanction had trouble drawing enough fans to fill up a small track like Milwaukee. One hopes Indycar has learned a lesson and will hire a promoter willing and able to sell enough tickets to make the track at least look full. ISC had been so lax in promoting Indycar events at their tracks that they disappeared from the schedule in 2010. The return of an ISC track would seem to indicate that they are, in fact, interested in Indycar and would presumably be interested in investing in advertising and promotion.

After next season (and the 2012 Dallaras have ample test and race miles to sort out teething problems), I’d like to see a 500 mile race run in early February-before the Daytona 500. Whether or not this would be allowed to happen at an ISC track remains to be seen (especially with a NASCAR Cup race run a month or so later), but I’d pitch it as a chance to feed hungry race fans early in the year and to steal some attention from NASCAR.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wings get Eaten in Toronto

Well, that was, um, exciting. Interesting. Hope you all have your spoons ready, because the pot is getting stirred...

It sounds like this race has already created a lot of anger-between drivers, between teams, between fans and race control, and I don't think Versus did anyone any favors. Well, let's get started.

Right away, Briscoe (on the inside) makes contact with TK's right rear, and takes him out. The booth guys seemed to dismiss it as "a bit of oversteer", which, based on my experience (though I'm not a professional race car driver), seems pretty reasonable. His car slipped. TK happened to be in the way. Didn't stop him from being pissed, though. And I don't blame him for that, though I would think he'd change his mind when seeing the replay. (TK has been more than fair to other drivers when he's had trouble due to their mistakes this year).
The pivotal moment of the race (and, by my count, at least the third pivotal moment in the championship battle) came shortly after the second round of pit stops. Like many incidents today, analysis of this one was seriously hampered by the lack of any alternate camera angles. What could be gleaned, though, was that Power led Dario into the corner, Dario made a pass attempt, Power was hit and spun. By the angle that was shown, it looked to me like Power had left room for Dario on the inside, then took an odd line through the corner that had him close back up and make contact, so that Dario's left front hit Power. I got that feeling again, knowing that the anti-Franchitti crowd would have a field day with this. I'm pretty sure, however, that Power was more at fault (despite Dario's post-race acceptance of "50% of the blame"). His line just looked strange. A post-race interview with the Target driver confirmed this. What will end up worst of all for Franchitti's image (tarnished by whining this year and apparently being able to capitalize on lucky situations), Versus reported on TV that he would be served with a drive-through penalty. He never appeared prepared to serve it and Chip Ganassi professed ignorance of any penalty. Eventually the broadcast crew reported that the penalty had been "rescinded." Apparently, race control never issued a penalty. I don't know why Versus would have reported that they had, or what the punishment would be.
Power's day would end for good several laps later when he and Alex Tagliani would hit. It was after this car-parking incident that Power would complain about Dario's "dirty driving" and wonder why he never got penalized. Will would go on to call Tagliani a "wanker" and blame the crash on him. I didn't see any interviews with Tags, but I did see that he replied via Twitter, saying (among other things) "Problem with Will is that he drives like nobody exist around him". I think I've seen this. Power has no problem leading and winning-so long as he's out front and not near traffic. Put him around other cars, and he seems to lose his edge. His numerous poles may have allowed him to break out and put him into position to exploit his strengths and translate those into wins. If anyone has more/different insight, I'd love to hear it.
The rest of the race was, well, carnage. A strong Rahal got punted to the rear of the field, and the strongest car not sponsored by Target was newlywed and hard-luck champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. Great for him. An invisible (save for taking out a bunch of cars late) Marco Andretti and Vitor Meira rounded out the top 5. Other top 10 drivers included:
Sebastian Bourdais-right after I wondered if he'd been sorry he came back this year for a bunch of DNFs and a DNS.
Ryan Briscoe-The most trouble-free of the Penske cars. At least the only one who didn't need a new wing and alignment, or worse, on pit road.
JR Hildebrand-What? He was in this race?
EJ Viso-Somehow, this is the KV car that makes it to the end?
Simona de Silvestro-Her Yo-yo season seems headed back towards the top...
Two of my other favorites, Servia and Rahal, finished on the lead lap in 12th and 13th.

I guess I was a little disappointed that one of the usual suspects won such a strange race, but I really can't fault him. I really think that none of the above incidents were intentional (Race Control seemed to agree, but they don't always appear to be very consistent. Props though to Al Unser, Jr, who went on Versus immediately following the race and explained why penalties were not issued in each situation.) I'm not looking forward to wading into the blogosphere's fray tomorrow, but I guess that's the price of an interesting race. Talk to you all soon (and don't be afraid to leave a comment).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Toronto Mini-Preview

It feels like forever since I’ve posted any updates. The holiday/Indycar-free weekend didn’t help, and the NASCAR race I watched the conclusion of did its best to crush my soul. But things are looking up this weekend…

After four (or five, depending on how one counts) consecutive oval races, the Indycar series returns to the road and street courses. Sunday will see the teams and drivers in the Land of Labatt’s, at Toronto’s Exhibition Place.

While those were all great races, I’m happy for the series to start making right-hand turns again. It’s a reminder of the versatility of the series’ drivers and cars.

Will Power once again threatens to dominate, provided he’s recovered from the concussion he suffered at Iowa. For that matter, the whole of the Penske/Ganassi contingent will, as usual, be tough. Dixon, Briscoe, and Castroneves (a contender until undone by punctured tires at the last two races) are particularly hungry. Other notables include part-timers Paul Tracy and Sebastian Bourdais, guys-on-a-roll Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia, plus Justin Wilson and Mike Conway will hopefully start making the noise they deserve to, being back in their element.