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Time, Part 1 (IRL)

August 12, 2009

It’s been a strange year for the IRL thus far in 2009 – a poor global economy, Tony George ousted at the Indianapolis Speedway, some surprisingly processional oval races and virtual dominance from two teams has brought the series in for a lot of criticism from all sides.
On the other hand though, we have had some very good road/street course races, the first win for Dale Coyne Racing after some 25 years of competition, the emergence of Will Power in the (occasional) Penske No 12 car as a potential Indycar star of the future; so regardless of the drawbacks, there is still a lot to be positive about.
However, I have no intentions to dilly-dally about – I suppose you could call this a view on the IRL from the eyes of a European citizen and Formula 1 fan, so let’s get going…

Schedules and Overreactions

Something that disappointed me was not necessarily next year’s schedule, but indeed the reaction to it and while I understand that many fans of the series are disappointed that road/street circuits outnumber ovals for the first time in the series’ history, I believe that fans should also embrace the fact that the IRL has one of the most diverse circuit line-ups in motor racing right now. Rather than criticise it, I think it should be applauded; however like everyone else, I do have some concerns.

First thing’s first – I am not a fan of either Edmonton or Sonoma racetracks. For the life of me, I just don’t see how Edmonton City Centre Airport qualifies as a circuit – rarely ever is enough speed built up on the straights to generate enough of a tow to bring cars past; while the corners themselves are too fast to encourage out-braking manoeuvres and too slow to power past on the exits onto the straights due to the dirty air from a car in front.
Sonoma – something of a dust bowl – suffers from general twistiness and a lack of long straights thereby removing much opportunity to be fast enough to draft by an opponent; while regular season opener, St Petersberg on the other hand often leaves me cold and a little bored – I just hope the IRL does not go down the Champ Car route of a parade in the car park’s of Denver.

If it were possible, I would like to see them replaced with a super-speedway along the lines of Fontana and at least one other tri/1.5 mile oval. Of course, it goes without saying that Milwaukee should be on the schedule and although the new promoter’s are in talks with the IRL to place the race in its usual spot just after the Indianapolis 500, I have often wondered if it was this very fact that has potentially harmed numbers at the circuit over the years. Should the worst happen and it not be on 2010 schedule, then I hope that they can claw back enough finances for it to follow the 2011 Indy 500 – which of course would celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first 500-mile event – a fitting tribute for a venue which has a long history of its own.

With regards to the new Brazilian race in Rio, it is such a shame that most of the Jacarepaguá circuit (right, 1987 Brazilian GP) is now gone – the old Formula 1 track there was very fast and leant itself to some fantastic overtaking, while the inbuilt tri-oval circuit there was also very good when CART visited the circuit from 1996 to 2000.
However when I learned that there plans being put in place for a street circuit, my head dropped somewhat. Street circuits can be interesting if they are done right – Monaco did it right, Long Beach did it right, Montreal did it right and Toronto did it right (I may also add to that list Macau; but for its supreme driving challenge as opposed to great racing). All of the above tracks also have a great deal of history – a story if you will – and that is something that you cannot manufacture from concrete and gravel.

Unfortunately many modern circuits do seem to possess a very basic flaw, with overtaking areas being manufactured into the layout and design; as opposed to tracks that flow with the gradient of the land as it naturally is. While this is not a point against a designer like Herman Tilke (current Formula 1 track designer) per se, it is not awfully inspiring to see land completely flattened, so that straight line/tight corner combination’s with a certain percentage of twisty bits can be applied – driver’s constantly refer to these as technical circuits. The moment anyone mentions those faithful words, I know it’s going to be a dull race, regardless of the Formula that is in action.

That the series in 2010 is being opened in Brazil is a mistake as I think it could do better if slotted with Motegi later on in the season (what a shame Surfer’s Paradise is not on the schedule, as a three-tier flyaway scheme could have worked very well); the IRL is, after all, at heart an American racing series and having a US race to open the season should be a bit of a no-brainer. However, without knowing of any timing, TV or contractual issues, I can’t help but feel that Long Beach would be more of a “grande” opening to the year.

Dissent and Formula 1
Regarding the dissent concerning the 2010 schedule, I was surprised by some of the responses I came across on the web – while many were disappoint, there were many comments that were more than just anti-F1 insults, but folk were taking digs at people from certain countries and bringing old innuendo’s and stereotypes to the fore. This simply is not on at any level.
The problem with being on the inside looking out is that you often have a mistaken idea of what the outside actually represents. Many Formula 1 fans catch the following years schedule and often think “that race track is horrible, this particular country obviously does not dig F1, why are we going there..?” Etc, etc…
It was something that was drilled home by the incredibly low attendance figures at the Malaysian, Chinese, Bahrain and Turkish Grand Prix this season. The Valencia Grand Prix reported extremely low ticket sales until the return of Michael Schumacher was announced and rumoured numbers for the upcoming Singapore Grand Prix do not look impressive. Crowd numbers for Friday morning practice at this year’s British Grand Prix (at approximately 10am) were around four times higher than the attendance for the actual Bahrain Grand Prix. Remember IRL fans, if you dislike the IRL schedule, you should only look in despair at the places Formula 1 goes to…

Physical Regulations
Simply put, not all road courses are going to work, but a lot of what does work depends on the regulations that a series runs at any particular time; something that became apparent on some of the ovals this season.  It also fits in that while the cars may be powerful and fast machines on ovals, when it comes to the road courses, they simply are not fast enough. At 650bhp, they seem to tumble around many corners in awkward manor that at some sites is not pretty at all and makes the cars appear like lumbering JVC’s.
It would be interesting if Honda (or whichever engine manufacturer is in the sport in 2012) could build a budget engine that runs at 750bhp, but is detuned or HP limited on ovals so that speeds can be kept in check – there are obviously no need for some of the insane speeds that CART was achieving in 2000.

TV Rating
As for the TV ratings, it has been reported on Pressdog and My Name is IRL on a number of occasions that the numbers of Versus are somewhat low, however Versus, like the IRL itself, is still very young and although numbers are low now, it will be beneficial to both parties to stick together and grow in tandem and while it may never recover the viewing figures of years gone by, the series may attain a healthy following that will allow it flourish and expand.
It struck me during the Kentucky 300, that every-so-often in the corner of the screen, Versus was advertising live Cage-fighting, so it is safe to say, that this is not mainstream television that I am writing about here.

Drivers
Again there seems to be a lot of criticism from fans of the series regarding the domination of Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing, however I think there is more to the domination of the almighty red cars than meets the eye.
I stated earlier in the blog that the IRL should be applauded for a circuit schedule that is diverse and representative of multiple forms of racing – may I add to that, that I believe in Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe, the two leading teams have also cornered the best drivers on the grid – the only possible exceptions being Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Will Power (who happens to drive Penske’s occasional third car).

While a number of drivers have shown supreme capability on a certain tracks (i.e. – Wilson on road circuits and Carpenter on ovals), the above drivers are potentially the only drivers that are showing heightened skills on multiple circuit layouts. Admittedly Kanaan’s and Patrick’s performances have been overshadowed by the fact that AGR are having a dreadful season, but the glimpses are evident.
This is key to the success and a clue to the organisation of Penske and TCG – that they can identify drivers because of their multiple skills and then nurture those skills later is why TCG has been at the top since the mid-90’s and why Penske has been successful in open-wheeled-racing for over forty years. Their success did not come overnight and it is up to the other teams to get their act together in order to challenge the status quo – something that Dale Coyne took big steps to achieving this year, however even they have a long way to go.
With this, I must congratulate Dale Coyne Racing once again; to go from a back of the grid squad to earning a first win and a second place is excellent and let’s not forget, Wilson (I believe anyway) had also bagged 2nd place at Mid-Ohio until his pitstop.

At the other end of the scale, there is Dreyer and Reinbold Racing. I really feel for them, for I would really hate to see them go under, as it really is Milka Duno’s sponsorship cash that is getting the team by, because it sure as hell isn’t prize money from results – however, this week Mid Ohio race was the limit. Mike Conway is fast – very fast in fact, but he is erratic and for every fast lap he puts in, he is destined to crash next time around; this was apparent in Formula 3 and in GP2 and it is sad to see, but the chap has not learned any lessons over the years.

Duno though, is just truly awful. I mean awful in Jean-Denis Deletraz kind of way (look him up). It was pretty obvious that she was just far too slow and could not hold any of her racing lines – it is absurd to think that on a track that Briscoe qualified in 66 seconds that she is somehow eight seconds per lap slower. To be lapped twice before lap 20 is a joke and considering the ever growing and outspoken complaints about her driving, I can’t see her being awarded a license for next season.
To add to that, that such bad drivers happen to be in the field has the consequence of lowering the overall perception of quality of the grid and opens the series to ridicule – in the same way that F1 was ridiculed in the mid-90’s for having the likes of Deletraz an Giovanni Lavaggi driving around hopelessly laps behind everyone else. Surely there has to be at least one driver out there with sponsorship that is better than Duno – at least one!!
One thing is certain though – as soon as F1 had its commercial aspects rise in the 90’s and the economy’s around the world improved, it’s field quality drastically heightened – ironically it was the time pay drivers began to disappear and racers that appeared on the grid were there on merit.

Time
So what’s the point for all this malarkey then?? The common theme for me is time. There has been an awful lot of negative press regarding the Indy Racing League’s movement towards road/street circuits at the expense of ovals, the poor TV ratings and constant driver switches; but there are factors outside the IRL’s control at play here.

Currently, one of the major problems (everywhere) is the economy. Fans are struggling, teams are struggling and circuits are struggling – US-based sponsors are not now in a position to throw money at sports, especially motor-racing. Circuits are seeing lower attendances (also in NASCAR and in F1) and teams have no choice, but to take on pay drivers to survive.
During economic boom times, it is easy to note that the quality of driver in any racing series is higher, due to the fact the sponsors are a little easier to come by, therefore negating the need to sell rides. As time goes by and the series progresses and (hopefully) the economy improves, this may also come to pass.
On the other hand, there is an overriding impression that when the IRL and Champ Car merged in February 2008, that things would pick up and repair open-wheel racing fairly quickly – unfortunately that is simply not the case. Once again this is about time – the split lasted 14 years and it may take just as long for the rift to fully heal.
One of the consistent thoughts pervading through F1 this year was the feeling that if F1 and FOTA did split, it would do similar damage to single seater racing in Europe, kill it completely in the middle-east and parts of Asia and cremate it forever in North America.

Now it looks like F1 is going back to Canada and we’ve just seen some well attended races at both Kentucky and Mid-Ohio, while numbers at Indy were also on the up this season. The series needs an awful lot of work, but it also needs people who can look long term as well as appealing to fans that demand fixes in the here and now. For a true gauge of how the IRL is doing, we may need to wait until at least 2012 before we can look in depth at the series’ condition again, but let’s just keep an eye on it for the minute, shall we..?

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