How Much Chaos do we Really Need?

One of my fellow IndyCar bloggers made an interesting and accurate point before Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series race at Portland. Mike Silver, of The Pit Window, was on site at Portland last weekend. His post regarding Race Control’s new procedure that allowed the field to accelerate as they were leaving the final turn to take the green flag, was the first I had heard of it. He astutely observed that the lack of chaos in Turn One could make for a boring race. He turned out to be very right. You can access his excellent work under my Blogroll to the right.

True racing fans loathe the casual fans that say we just like to go to races to watch the crashes, because it is so untrue. Like most of you, I cringe every time I see two cars tangle or when a car goes into the wall. We have learned over time that some of the most innocent looking crashes can have devastating consequences, and that we would prefer not to have any crashes in any race.

But is there a difference between a crash and chaos? I think there is. The infamous dusty pile-up in Turn One at Portland in 2019 was more than chaos – just ask Marco Andretti. Anytime your car ends up upside down, that’s much more than chaos.

Chaos is when two cars harmlessly touch each other, causing one or both to spin – without doing any real damage to either car. However, it is not uncommon for a driver to stall the car in a spin. A front-running car that has to be restarted and ends up in the tail-end of the field – that’s chaos.

While most teams were happy to leave Portland without facing a huge repair bill, and those still in the championship hunt were relieved that they didn’t get tied up in some foolishness in Turn One – Portland had been billed as a wild card, where the unpredictable almost always happens. Well, it didn’t happen this year and the first two-thirds of the race was fairly underwhelming. It took an inexplicable caution from Rinus VeeKay shoving Jimmie Johnson into the wall, to bring out the only caution of the day. The ensuing restart brought some excitement into the race, saving it from becoming a total snooze-fest.

Did Race Control go too far with their new starting procedures on Sunday?

Where is the line drawn? Fans hated the crash-fest that has occurred in Nashville for the past two years, but judging from what I read on social media – they weren’t too keen on the lack of action at Portland, either. Where exactly is the sweet spot?

Personally, I’m not too crazy about chaos at this time of year. Points leader Will Power could have been easily spun out by Pato O’Ward in Turn Two on the restart on Sunday. At best, he would have been sent to the back of the field. Even worse, he could have sustained damage that would have made him drop out. Do we really want to see a championship season derailed over some random and desperate move? If something like that had happened at Road America or Mid-Ohio, I’d simply say it’s a part of racing. But when we are down to two races remaining, is that really how we want to see the championship decided?

Apparently from what I saw on social media on Labor Day Monday – many fans do want to see the championship decided that way.

Some chaos is good. That’s why March Madness is such a success. Unknown teams like St. Peter’s, come out of nowhere and strike down the mighty Kentucky in the first round. But they beat them fair and square. They didn’t maul Kentucky as they were taking the floor or lock half the team in the locker room. They beat them on the court.

Graham Rahal had a refreshing take after Sunday’s race, when asked about his trying to overtake Pato O’Ward on the backstrecth. He said that was the way he liked it, mano a mano – two men racing each other cleanly and deciding things on the track. I notice he didn’t say that he liked it when races and championships were lost in the first turn due to over-aggression from a driver that was mathematically eliminated from the championship a month ago.

So where is that sweet spot? It’s obviously somewhere between Nashville and Portland. While we don’t like to see a driver risk injury or damage their cars, I think we can all agree that sometimes seeing a yellow flag flying is a welcomed sight. Not only does it give fans at the track a restroom break, but it bunches up the field and gives those in mid-pack a chance to make up some ground on a restart. Watching Tony Kanaan on a restart was sometimes worth the price of admission alone. But he pulled off exciting restarts cleanly. Few in today’s field can handle restarts as cleanly and with the excitement that Kanaan did.

Instead of marveling at wheel-to-wheel excitement on Sunday, we were left to admire the resiliency of Scott Dixon moving steadily through the field the entire race, to go from starting sixteenth to ending up on the podium. That’s something a true racing fan can appreciate in a race like we had at Portland on Sunday. But the casual fan just stopping by, doesn’t care about Dixon’s race craft near as much as they do non-stop action.

For those of us that are race fans, I’m happy that no pile-up in Turn One at Portland decided the championship on Sunday. Scott Dixon hurt himself on Saturday by qualifying so poorly. He redeemed himself on Sunday, but you wonder how he could have performed with a much better qualifying effort. Josef Newgarden hurt himself by choosing the wrong tire strategy on Sunday. Scott McLaughlin helped his slim championship hopes by winning the pole, the race and leading the most laps – thereby maxing out on points. He did what he had to do. Will Power helped himself by doing what he had to do – stay out of trouble and increase points over his nearest competitors. That’s they way championships should be decided – not by random fate.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “How Much Chaos do we Really Need?”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    I think they should remove the hairpin at the first corner and use the track as it was meant to be. Let the race run its course without all the man made nonsense. As close as these spec cars are, I think you would have a better race.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Here’s an idea for controlled chaos at Portland: let drivers cut the first turn chicane… ONCE.

    It becomes a a joker lap. Use it at the start to avoid the turn 1 traffic jam or get a big jump, or save it for later where it might help you make a key pass, pull out a big gap on a restart, or lay down a monster in-lap before pitting. It would be a total gimmick, sure, but a fun one.

  3. Thanks for the shout out, George.

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