Keep The Starts Better Aligned

One of the hot topics to come out of Randy Bernard’s “State of IndyCar” address last week was the double-file re-starts on ovals that will be utilized for 2011. Most of the reaction among drivers and fans has been negative – very negative. Aside from the fact that I hate to see the IZOD IndyCar Series copy anything that NASCAR created, some may find it a surprise that I’m fairly indifferent on the subject. I can see merits and disadvantages on both sides.

Listening to Tony Kanaan on Trackside last Thursday night, he made some excellent points on why he is against it. His concern is the situation of marbles up in the gray area of the turns – you know, those little bits of rubber that accumulate out of the normal racing groove. They’re called marbles for a reason – once your car hits them, it’s pretty much like walking on a bed of marbles. It’s almost impossible to control the car. Even if you are lucky enough to make it through the turn without contact with the wall, your tires have picked up all of that extra rubber and it can cause some irritating vibrations.

I don’t know if you’ve ever handled a racing tire, shortly after it has been on-track. Several years ago, I was at a race in Charlotte and happened to come away with a tire that came off of Tony Stewart’s car. I made the mistake of rolling it through the grass. I spent the next two days trying to pull the grass out of my new souvenir. It was like flypaper, it was so sticky.

Kanaan said that if they are going to do double-file re-starts at Indianapolis, where the racing groove is so narrow – that fans should prepare themselves for extended yellows so that they can sweep the track for every caution period.

There is now a debate whether or not the rule should be introduced at Indianapolis, which happens to be the first oval race of the 2011 season, or if they should wait until Texas. Kanaan thought that they should wait. Curt Cavin thinks that it should begin at Indy. Curt’s reasoning is that they are doing this to create fan interest and closer racing. Why not do it when you’ve got your largest viewing audience so that it can be showcased for these potential new fans? I disagree.

I’m inclined to always make the Indianapolis 500 the exception to this rule – not just this year, but every year. The Indy 500 seems to have its own set of rules anyway, so this would be no different. But if they are going to mandate this at Indianapolis, do it next year. This is a major experiment with the rules. I don’t think you need to make the narrow straightaways of IMS at over 220 mph, the first place you want to see this tried. If you use Curt’s argument that you want the large audience to see this showcased – what if it doesn’t work? What if it is a disaster on every re-start? You’ve now gotten a black eye (or worse) in public perception due to trying this out for the first time on a world stage. In addition to that, extended yellows have already become a problem in the series. Do we really want our largest viewing audience of the season to be exposed to a lot of long caution periods?

As far as making a case for closer racing…maybe. The field gets pretty strung out on re-starts. On a short track like Milwaukee, the leaders are already through turn one as the back is just coming off of turn four. The double-file restart would probably have the biggest impact at a place like Texas or Michigan (if the series can ever get back there), where there is plenty of room for side-by-side racing.

Where I wish the series would place its focus is on the start of the race. At road courses and ovals alike, the front of the field is strung out and gone from the pack before they even cross the starting line. I hate to give the NASCAR folks credit on anything, but they seem to know how to start a race. They are bunched up and do not begin accelerating until the green flag flies.

Don’t tell me that IndyCar must do it differently because the open wheels may touch. It wasn’t that long ago that open-wheel cars started this way also. If you have any old VHS tapes from CART in the nineties, go back and watch the start of their races. Phoenix, Michigan, Road America or Indianapolis; it doesn’t matter – the starts were well aligned and together.

To me, there is no more dramatic moment in sports than the start of the Indianapolis 500. I’ve watched many of them in person since 1965 and many others on television. The anticipation of the teams and drivers combined with the roar of the crowd makes for an unforgettable scene as the cars race down the straightaway to the green flag. Lately, however, that moment has been tempered by Brian Barnhart instructing the front row to string out before crossing the start-finish line so that everyone will be in single file by the first turn.

Mr. Barnhart says for the sake of fans and sponsors, he doesn’t want carnage at the first corner of the first lap. I’m not sure how successful that strategy has been. With the ugly, ragged and anti-climactic starts that Brian Barnhart prefers, we’ve still had opening lap crashes in three of the last five Indianapolis 500’s.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we need to see a repeat of 1966, when a third of the field was eliminated before the first turn. Nor do we need another 1995, when Stan Fox inexplicably turned right into Eddie Cheever’s car in the short-chute at the south end, while taking out five cars. Still, Randy Bernard proclaims that these are the best drivers in the world. If that’s the case, they should be able to navigate turn one safely without being told that they must yield the first corner to the pole-sitter.

They did announce one change that will at least help starts and re-starts. By moving the acceleration cones closer to the start-finish line, the field will not become so spread out.

Over the past week, I’ve gotten a few e-mails asking me my opinion of the subject of double-file re-starts. Being the traditionalist that I am (read: old), I think many expected an impassioned plea on my part. Several others in the blogosphere have done that far more eloquently than I could, and I’m just not that passionate on the subject.

In fact, I will do something that is normally out of character for me; I’ll give some due credit to Danica Patrick. She is one of the few drivers that has said she’d like to give the double-file re-starts a chance. She had a refreshingly candid appraisal about the whole thing. She essentially said (paraphrasing): “Let’s give it a try. If it doesn’t work, I’m sure we’ll stop doing it”.

It is a sign that the Mayan calendar may be correct in predicting the end of the world in less than two years, if I’m taking Danica’s side in an issue. But her simplistic way of looking at it may be the best viewpoint yet. It’s not that big of a deal with her. Quite frankly, it’s not that big of a deal to me either.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Keep The Starts Better Aligned”

  1. Double file restarts will be challenging for drivers and exciting for fans. I think moving the restart area to the start/finish line is KEY. (Why it ever left the start/finish line is beyond me.) I thought Curt C. made a good point–if you’re doing this for fans, then do it at Indy.

    It obvious they’re going to try it at some point. The questions are–will they try it at Indy and will they continue to “borrow” from N-car and give lapped cars the drive-around to line them up behind the leaders?

    I’m all for the three wide start at Indy, but again, keeping them slowed down until the actual START would seem to be pretty important for that also.

  2. Jim Will Key Says:

    The key will be making sure the “restart” line is pushed much closer to the start/finish line.

    At Indy, the problem has been jumping on it and being at full-speed in the north short-shute. Get it back to where the field is accelerating coming out of turn 4.

    You can still space it where its not too “dangerous” for the so-called greatest drivers in the world.

    And the other key will be punishing those that either don’t or can’t start and restart a race properly. No more chicken-blank break-checking games. You mess up a start, you go to the back. Just like its done at racetracks all over the country. You get penalized once, you won’t do it again.

  3. I don’t have a problem with double file restarts at Indy. It’ll be a little rough, and it’s just another reason why the series needs a pre Indy Oval, but it shouldn’t be that bad

  4. The American Mutt Says:

    If I recall correctly, Tony Cotman addressed the downside to restarts on the start/finsih line. Again, going on spotty recollection, but I believe the problem came from the cars being too light, with too much horsepower and that gunning it from pace speed to full throttle is a great way to spin the cars, hence the acceleration zones. Why they needed the zones so far back is beyond me, and I believe they’re addressing that this year by moving the acceleration zones considerably closer to the start finish line, but, as I said, based off bad recollection, I don’t think they can just punch it at the line on every start/restart like Nascar does because of the difference in weight of the cars.

    • I remember him saying something like that, but really, shouldn’t professional race car drivers be skilled enough and smart enough to accelerate safely without spinning a car?

      It’s almost like the driver’s–in regard to starts, restarts and double-wide–are saying “but I can’t keep doing it the way I’m used to doing it, so it’s unsafe.”

      I expect them to be able to adapt.

      • Savage Henry Says:

        I agree. If these truly are the best drivers in the world they should be able to accelerate without spinning the car. F1 drivers go from a standing start in lighter cars with more horsepower without doing donughts, INDYCAR drivers should be able to do the same starting from 120 MPH. Those who can’t can find another way to make a living.

        Like George, I’m concerned about the double-file restarts at Indy. I think that they key is setting the acceleration point closer to the start/finish line. That way they’re not turning into Turn 1 at 225, maybe its 190 or 200. That should help by giving a little extra time to make good decisions and give them a little more mechanical grip, too. Again, this is a change that will help to separate the drivers. Those who adapt will continue in the series and the others probably won’t.

  5. Timnothhelfer Says:

    I dislike restarts. Rarely clean, often mid packers up front with too much confusion and crashing…..

    As for George’s Carolina end table base to bad about the grass, pretty much ruins it for indoor decor, I hope you have a screened-in patio to use it.

  6. Chris Lukens Says:

    As a traditionalist I am opposed to two wide restarts, but appears that we are going to get them anyway. If the problem with these restarts is going to be the marbles, why doesn’t the IRL mandate a harder tire. Don’t try to tell me it’s a safety issue. In the early sixties , Firestone brought tires that would last the entire race. I don’t think it was safer to go 160 mph in a Watson roadster with 6 inch wide tires than it is to go 220 with the wide tires we have today.
    ps. The starts were a lot closer and tighter then also.

  7. With the restart line being moved to the front stretch,maybe Dixon’s shenaningans will cease, like “Jim Will Key” said, maybe the brake checks will cease.And all those jumps that Alex Lloyd did last year in turn 3,just maybe then Barnhart sees them, even though there are cameras all around the track. Let em race and those restarts from 04 -07 will come back again in turn 3, where they are not 2 wide, but 3 wide and diving into the turn. Get your seats in the Northeast Vista boys & girls. It should be fun!!

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    As far as the restart shenanagans go I think there’s an easy solution. They already have a button on the steering wheel that keeps them from speeding in the pits and a “push to pass” button. Why can’t they have a “restart” button that keeps them at a predetermined speed? Create a line where all of the drivers have to get on the button and then the restart line when they can get off the button and get on the gas. Any driver that violates the protocol goes to the back of the line unless he/she has a really good reason (e.g. avoiding a crash). It should be easy police this rule – on the Versus telecast they can already tell us who is using the “push to pass” button – BB should be able to monitor the use of this button.

    I think in this way they can ensure an orderly field leading up to the restart line and hopefully more exciting restarts – which is why they are doing this anyway.

  9. With the new oval restart plans, cars may be lined up in with all the lapped cars moved to the back (that is if Randy Bernard’s request pans out, per SpeedTV report). Not a fan; it does not seem fair. My take: a lapped car sits at the end of the field in 33rd place. 20 laps later he is still in 33rd place but has moved all the way back through the field and now runs between the fourth and fifth place cars. Caution then comes out; all the progress he made is taken away as he is forced to pit after the lead cars have pitted and then moved back to the end of the field. I could only imagine Tony Kanaan going a lap down (let’s say he has a tire issue) fighting his way back but a caution screws him. If you’re going to do this, use the NASCAR method during the final 10 or 20 laps as any lapped car would be deemed out of the race at that point.

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