IndyCar’s Needlessly Divided House

By Paul Dalbey

Note from George – Disagreements are a good thing, a healthy thing. They prompt discussion and possibly some enlightenment of both sides. Our society is quickly losing the ability to disagree in a civil manner. More times than not, two people not seeing eye-to-eye these days suddenly turn into bitter enemies. That’s a shame.

My good friend Paul Dalbey and I agree on most things, but occasionally we find ourselves on the opposite side of a stance. We are both opinionated, but we both have the ability to listen to the other side. Best of all, we have the ability to remain good friends despite the fact we don’t agree on everything.

Such was the case with Saturday night’s running of the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. Paul and I had differing opinions of that race. I stated my case on Monday, he is stating his case here. He makes several good points, even if I disagree with his overall take of the race. That’s why he needs to return to the blogosphere. We need varying IndyCar viewpoints Read it with an open mind. If you agree with what Paul says, I take all the credit for it being on my site. But if he says something that infuriates you, just remember – his opinions are his own and his viewpoints do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of this website. – GP

Saturday night’s DXC Technology 600 IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway has divided fans regarding its excitement and reignited a long running debate about high-downforce pack racing versus low-downforce technical oval races. And like so much of discussion across the broader spectrum in American today, those most vocal on both extremes don’t allow anyone to sit in the middle – it’s fully one way or fully the other. Unfortunately, that has come to light again since Saturday.

Let me preface my comments by regurgitating a bit of my open-wheel history if for no other reason than transparency. When The Split started in 1996, I was fully on board with CART. I still attended the Indianapolis 500 but didn’t watch any other IRL races throughout the year. It was of no interest to me, and I didn’t particularly care to even learn much about it. However, through the late ‘90s, I became more and more disenfranchised by CART as they moved away from ovals and moved toward road and street courses that didn’t spark my interest as oval racing had done since first attending USAC Silver Crown races at Springfield in 1987.

Furthermore, the arrogance displayed by CART through those years eventually just turned me off. I started to realize that I genuinely didn’t care if I missed a street race in Vancouver or a processional road course at Portland. CART kept telling me how wonderful I should find the racing they were presenting, yet such technical nuances didn’t keep me glued to the television. I didn’t begin following the IRL at that time. I simply found myself less and less committed to racing in general.

And then the June 2000 IndyCar race at Texas happened. To this day, I remember driving back to my apartment in Champaign from my parents’ home in Springfield and stumbling across the radio broadcast of that event. The call of Mike King and Mark Jaynes had me transfixed until I arrived, and then I ran inside to turn on the TV as fast as I could. The candle had been relit.

I tell this story not to say that I’m a pack-racing enthusiast (as I believe I was called Saturday night), but to honestly and openly admit that it was that pack racing that drew me back into the sport. But… that’s the not the whole story.

As more CART teams migrated into the IRL, pack racing changed. No longer were drivers interested in lining up 2×2 for eight or ten rows and simply going wheel-to-wheel for a couple hundred laps. The new drivers into the series didn’t want to race that way, and the new IRL chassis introduced in 2003 didn’t allow them to do so quite as easily as the previous generation. Racing began to be more spread out, but there were still large packs racing wheel to wheel. It was still exciting, but it was beginning to change.

The lowlights of this package occurred at Richmond in 2008 and Texas in 2009. At Richmond, I remember watching the leader (I think it was Scott Dixon) trail a lapped car for nearly 30 laps without being able to pass, something that should never happen in any race. At Texas, a race I attended in person, Ryan Briscoe led a parade that featured almost no passing and built a gigantic lead but was eventually topped by Helio Castroneves during a pit stop and could never get back around.

Gimmicks such as push-to-pass and aero tinkering throughout at the remainder of the year tightened up the ovals again, and by the time the series reached an unseasonably chilly (ok, downright cold) night in Chicago at the end of August, close oval racing had been restored. It was a breath-taking display of driving that ended with Ryan Briscoe in victory lane, and less than 0.1 seconds covering the top four positions.

After the Las Vegas tragedy in 2011, INDYCAR vowed to make changes and break up pack racing. The goal was to separate cars while still allowing for close racing. By and large, the stock DW-12 did just that. Ovals races between 2012 and 2014 were scintillating and did not come under the guise of pre-2003 pack racing. In general, drivers had room to negotiate and move around the track. The 2012 race at Texas was fantastic, as were the 2012 and 2013 races at Fontana, none of which I recall having 20 cars in parade lap formation at 220 mph.

So while it was indeed the old-style pack racing that drew me back into open-wheel racing and specifically toward the IRL, I have not recently or previously ever advocated that INDYCAR should return to those days. I believe that a driver with a faster car should be able to pass on an oval and not be held behind another driver (a lapped driver or for position) simply because the track allows only a one-groove, but I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation.

During Saturday night’s race, I made several comments publicly and privately saying that the race was not as exciting to me as previous IndyCar races at TMS. Yet somehow my comments were twisted to suggest I don’t appreciate “real” racing or that I somehow want to see big crashes take out half the field. These are preposterous claims that, again, come from people who feel that unless I am fully with you, I am fully against you. That’s just not how it is. Nowhere did I say the race was “boring.” I did agree with one person who said they felt the race had been “neutered,” but I never insinuated it wasn’t a real race. I simply made the comment that, in my opinion, this race did not live up to standard of excitement that many fans had come to expect from an IndyCar race at Texas.

And to those who took it farther and suggested that I am promoting drivers being fatally injured simply because I wasn’t over-the-moon excited during Saturday’s race, shame on you. Shame on your disgusting mindset that finds it inconceivable that someone might actually have a different view of things than you and that their view might not be 100% wrong. It was voices like these that fueled so much hatred during The Split and caused so much acrimony within a fan base innocently caught in the middle of two rival factions within the same family.

It would be disingenuous to say I knew Dan Wheldon well, but I knew him enough to be on a first-name basis with him and him with me. I mourned his loss and I questioned whether I really wanted to continue blogging after that day in October 2011. I’ve seen what happened in that race, and I don’t need to be reminded.

But I’ve seen what happens in other races as well. During my lifetime (which spans back to 1980), there have been ten drivers fatally injured in American open-wheel racing. Of those ten drivers, five were lost in “true” single car crashes (Smiley, Marcelo, Brayton, Moore, and Renna). I say “true” because there were truly no other cars involved in the crash whatsoever. Two others (Dana and Wilson) were fatally injured after somehow being involved in another driver’s single-car crash. One (Krosnoff) lost his life as a result of a crash on a street course and another (Rodriguez) as the result of a single-car incident on a road course. And one (Wheldon) was the result of pack racing.

I’m not implying that close racing on ovals isn’t dangerous. It absolutely is. But so is non-close racing on ovals. In fact, of the five drivers noted above who lost their life in single-car oval crashes, only one of them, Greg Moore, happened during a race. The others occurred in qualifying, practice, or testing with no other car close by. It is amazing there haven’t been more major accidents, but I attribute that to IndyCar drivers being truly the most respectful group of drivers in the world and some of the most talented.

They appreciate, respect, and value one another and (usually) take care of each other when on track. There is probably a healthy dose of luck involved, but the vast majority of the credit goes to the drivers on track. Nonetheless, to say that enjoying to see close racing is akin to promoting injury and death of the drivers is simply not supported by the facts.

All that being said, let’s get back to Saturday night…

In an article on his website on Monday, John Oreovicz, whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for and whom I consider a friend, quoted a pair of my tweets saying Saturday’s race was not “the type of race I tune in to see @TexasMotorSpeedway” and “If tactical racing is your thing, there are other short ovals and road courses for you. TMS has an IndyCar reputation for excitement and this is falling short.” Three days later, I still stand by those comments and fail to see what is so offensive about them.

I’m not saying I am right and John is wrong. We simply have a different opinion on the race. And that’s ok. A healthy fan base should be able to have a difference of opinion without resorting to attacks saying one wants to injure drivers or calling other Euro road racing snobs. If I was in Speedway this week, John and I would probably enjoy a healthy debate about this subject over dinner and drinks at Dawson’s on Main because we respect each other even in the many times we don’t necessarily agree. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, for many others, it has once again devolved into a pissing match that “my kind of racing” is better than yours.

I think the 2016 Texas (the part run in August) was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen. It was challenging for the drivers and close for the fans. Fans and drivers alike were breathless after the race that featured a dominant car (at one point, I think Hinchcliffe was ahead by over four seconds) but plenty of close racing and passing throughout the pack. Some cars got better and moved up while others got worse and moved back. Isn’t that what we want?

But the 2016 race was not a 2×2 pack race that featured 10 rows of cars stuck in position with nowhere to go. Oreo himself said as much following that race. Though he did admit INDYCAR might be flirting with disaster, John conceded in an ESPN article, “Despite the extra downforce, a full-fledged pack race never really broke out. But the frantic shuffling between Rahal, Hinchcliffe, Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves in the closing laps certainly brought back memories of those days — the kind of memories that excite some fans and terrify others. The difference, according to the drivers, is that they were being forced to lift for the corners and balance the car, rather than just floor it and steer.”

John’s fellow “Gang of Four” colleague Robin Miller went further in his review of the race, saying, “Now, I never liked those old IRL races at Texas that featured eight or 10 cars lined up two-by-two, stuck together running wide open lap after lap. That was more like Russian Roulette than racing. But don’t confuse what you watched Saturday night with IRL pack racing… And if you didn’t like what you saw Saturday night and your heart wasn’t pounding, then it’s probably time to start working on that living will.”

Fourteen months earlier, Miller had also raved about the Fontana 2015 race, saying, “In terms of pure excitement, it ranks as one of the best ever. And it wasn’t a Handford Device race from the CART era where nobody wanted to lead and passing was so artificial. It also wasn’t one of those old IRL pack races where eight rows of two ran in formation for 30 laps.”

Obviously these two superb writers, who have something like 75 years of open-wheel racing experience between them, know a thing or two about racing. And if they found the 2015 Fontana race and the 2016 Texas race riveting at the time, why is it suddenly out-of-bounds for me to suggest I enjoyed those races more than I did Saturday’s race?

The difference between those races and the 2018 Texas race was in the drivability of the racetrack. In the two prior races, extenuating circumstances led to the drivers having an abundance of downforce, making racing in multiple grooves possible but not so much that every driver was stuck to another. As noted, Hinch was able to drive away for a bit in 2016 (perhaps in part because his car was later found to be illegally low) and other cars were able to move forward as their cars improved. However, in 2018, the second groove at Texas simply never came in, at least not in Turns 1 and 2. It was a single-groove track throughout the night that squashed passing opportunities over and over again.

Without going back to rewatch the race, I would guess there were at least 15 passing opportunities shown on the NBCSN broadcast of a driver having a healthy run going into Turn 1 and just stalling out trying to go to the outside. Alexander Rossi probably had five or six such runs on Simon Pagenaud in the final stint. In previous years, Rossi would have been able to complete the pass and take a shot at Dixon. I honestly believe this race would have been significantly different if the drivers were given just a hair more downforce to make that second groove workable. Even Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, both of whom are masters of running the high line and making spectacular passes, stalled out in their passes time and time again.

Some drivers like Zach Veach and Zachary Claman DeMelo were able to make passes stick a bit further back in the pack, but even they stalled out as they got closer to the front. Rossi appeared to have a much faster car than Pagenaud, and it would have been interesting to see if he had anything for Dixon.

As a side note… many fans pointed to the tire management issue as another point of intrigue and interest on Saturday night, saying it’s something they found fascinating as the race unfolded. I can’t help but wonder why tire-management races are seen as a good thing but fuel-management races are often chided to the point that many claim Alexander Rossi’s win of the 100th Indianapolis 500 was somehow less worthy because he coasted across the line. But that’s for another article.

Another point Oreo made in his article implied that I wasn’t satisfied with an IndyCar race unless it included a photo finish and that I don’t appreciate a dominating performance like Dixon had Saturday. That simply isn’t the case either. In 2016, I sat in the grandstands at Iowa and watched Josef Newgarden led 282 out of 300 laps on the rural bullring, a masterful performance that set a single-race laps led record that is unlikely to ever be broken.

A pair of badly timed yellow flags resulted in a margin of victory of “only” 4.3 seconds when Newgarden should have realistically lapped the field at least twice. Through it all, I was enjoying it as much as any other Iowa race. And those who know me know I extol Iowa as often as possible and encourage every fan to attend a race there. Not only was it thrilling to watch a driver, car, and team at performance perfection, the action through the rest of the field was intense and frantic.

That isn’t to say that I want every race to be a blow out though. Just because I can and do appreciate a race where one driver and team is in a league of their own doesn’t mean that I want to see it week in and week out. Sometimes races just work out that way and that’s okay. Sometimes racing comes down to a thrilling three-wide finish and that’s good too.

So while I may not have thought the Texas race this past weekend was the most exciting race I’ve ever seen, how about we drop the attitude that others who feel like I do don’t appreciate “real racing”? How about we start to recognize that IndyCar fandom isn’t a set of two opposing poles where you are fully in one camp or fully in another? How about instead we recognize there is a continuum along which all fans fall and that while some might be closer to the close racing oval pole and others might fall closer to the technical road racing pole, very few fail to find enjoyment and respect at the opposite pole. How about we start to recognize that every time we accuse another fan of not being a “real” IndyCar fan, we are, without saying it, simply accusing them of sitting on the other side of the 22 year-old fence that should have been torn down ten years ago?

8 Responses to “IndyCar’s Needlessly Divided House”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I think a lot of this has to do with the anonymity of the internet. If these same discussions were had in a pub over a few pints (or tenderloins) they would remain mostly civil and friendly. Put that same conversation on the internet and it quickly devolves into an argument. It’s silly, and why I refrain from most internet comment sections.

    Thanks for the great article Paul. So when’s your new blog starting up? 🙂

  2. I enjoy racing where cars can pass, what has hurt racing these days is the aero dependence of the lead car vs. the other cars. We saw it in the NASCAR race when the faster 4 car couldn’t pass the 14 car and it rained, 14 wins because he held the lead.

    Same with Indycar, not saying Dixon is a backmarker, but in at speed situations, it seems a slower car, if they can fight off a fast car on a restart, they won’t be passed easily. That’s the issue.

  3. Meh. These same posts have been written and rewritten forever with minimal impact, frankly. The undertone is “if only you could see points A through G, you’d change your view dramatically.” Nah. I don’t judge present entertainment value on historic events, honestly. A race like Texas happens, umbrage is taken to whatever people think about it (whether they find it boring or interesting) a spasm of blog posts occurs (see Oreol, Miller, George, now this) and everybody moves on.

    Texas was like Indy in that it was a strategy race, fuel/tire saving/track position strategies, etc., the best chances to overtake are on restarts, and if you don’t get it done then (Ed Carpenter) then you’re screwed (Doug Boles!). Ed will kick himself for not inhale Power on the restart FOR-EVER. Long story short, this is the nature of the beast. I was on vacation in Colorado and tuned in the race for a few minutes, saw what it was, turned it off. MURICA. If the strategy thing is the thing, I’ve evolved to a point where I’d rather watch a road course with plenty of overtaking chances (so, not Sonoma or a street race) then a tire preservation exercise like Texas.

    It’s fascinating how much effort and energy is put into telling someone what they like is not likable, and vice versa. I get that forums like this (and my Stonehenge-like retired blog) are for discussing why you like what you like. If you enjoy the Texas style race, great. If you didn’t, fine. No need to justify your taste, IMO, and definitely no need to call the other guy a bullshit race fan.

  4. There is a group of people who aren’t going to like Texas because its too dangerous, pack racing or too boring, a parade, or because its owned by Eddie Gossage. The oval haters that hate every oval that is not Indianapolis. The “Why can’t we run at COTA?” crowd. Probably some of it comes out of the split, when they learned to hate ovals because Tony George favored them and because F1 did not run them. The F1 Lite gang.

    What makes some races special is that they are out of the norm. Perhaps Texas had issues this year, but it was not a boring race. And perhaps next year is the year we have a close finish. One for the ages. That’s racing.

    Ovals are where you are going to see the exciting racing. It can happen at times at the very best road courses, but not as much potential there as on the ovals. I have to believe Indycar is working to perfect the current car set up to allow for more passing, an issue discovered at the practice at Indy around the first of May on the ovals. Americans have been running on ovals for over 100 years. They’ve done it before. 2019 at Texas should be an even better race.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    I do not anticipate watching a race, oval or otherwise, with any particular expectations. Since I have no stake in the game, once the race is over, I feel no need to go to some website and go on and on and on about whether the race was boring, not boring, or simply better than Nascar. Instead I go mow the lawn or whatever and look forward to the next event on the schedule. I am simply grateful that there was a race to watch, particularly since I can no longer attend races at my beloved Milwaukee Mile.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I think it should be noted that at both Indy and Texas, the series did not set out to necessarily create the kind of racing that occurred. They undoubtedly had an idea of what they wanted to see, but you are not going to know for sure how things will play out in a race situation. TMS’ relatively new track surface, a new aerokit, limited practice and testing in evening race conditions, and the ever-changing weather were all variables in the race and Indycar could not truly predict how they would ultimately mix.

    Gabby Chaves said as much in the “tweet-up” prior to the Texas race: he was not expecting the high line to come in through 1 and 2, but that that might change when the sun went down and the track cooled.

    The (in)famous Fontana race in 2015 too was affected by this unpredictability and would likely have been more spread out had the temperature and humidity not been lower than expected. Cars were given additional downforce at that race over Texas because it was assumed that it would be necessary in conditions that were expected to be hotter and slipperier than they wound up being. That it was the first day race at Fontana with the current generation of car and the first in the aerokit ear added additional levels of unpredictability to the event.

    Indycar is not necessarily trying to stamp out the kind of race you might prefer, nor can they necessarily guarantee it will happen. Folks debating the recent oval races would do well to remember this, in addition to remaining civil when discussing your racing preferences.

  7. James T Suel Says:

    I enjoyed the race at Texas last Saturday night. I agree that 2016 at Texas and 2015 at Fontana were outstanding races. I’ve been watching indy cars ,sprint and midgets, and champ dirt cars since the late 50s. It the fans that have come along since the spilt and those that came in at the start of the IRL, have these opinions that think their view is the only one!! Texas this year was not the best ,but it was a good race.

  8. Well, I haven’t had a chance to watch the race in full yet and thus cannot comment on the style of racing.

    Texas Motor Speedway is my 3nd to least favorite oval to be on the schedule in recent years (which ranks it higher than Phoenix – not suitable for Indycar anymore after the banking was raised – and much higher than Fontana which I feel is too dangerous because of the seams). TMS raced better before they resurfaced it but as the new tarmac ages, the track will get better again. From what I’ve seen so far, it must have been quite a good race. It’s too bad this track has presented a few clunkers for races over the years but those have been exceptions.

    TMS has got a lot of history with IndyCar racing and though many say it may not be exactly suitable for open-wheel racing, it does deserve its place on the schedule. And the fans there love IndyCar, which is what counts most in the end. I just usually don’t watch it live: it’s way out of my time zone here in Europe, and I did watch it live once years ago but was then pretty useless the next day. That battle of Danica for P2 in that race was a sight to see, though. Maybe her best race ever.

    But I digress. Even though I don’t like pack racing because of the danger, I feel IndyCar has got to fight burning oil wells with explosions here, because if an oval race unexpectedly turns into a pack race of some kind like some say Fontana 2015 did, what is better? To have drivers in it who are experienced at being patient and comforting to each other and have practised leaving each other room – or having drivers in it who have no experience with pack racing because the sport’s governing body has decided to avoid it at all cost by regulatory means? I’d say it would make a lot of sense for safety to have one, just one pack race per year, which offers lots of time to practise for teams, so drivers can accustom themselves to pack racing. A situation like Fontana 2015 can could come up any time again on all big ovals in spite of the regulatory body’s attempts to avoid it. I’ve watched Chicagoland in 2010 and the drivers were almost all experts at this style of racing. Comparing that to the skill level involved in later pack races clearly shows a difference: Simon Pagenaud dropping like a stone at Fontana in 2015 would be the prime example for a driver in need of further practise.
    So scheduling a pack race once a year for safety reasons would make sense. But the place to best do that is probably not TMs but Chicagoland.
    And that comes from a guy who doesn’t like pack racing and prefers natural terrain road courses and 1 mile flat short ovals like the Milwaukee Mile.

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