Thursday, June 18, 2009

What to do?

OK, I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while now, probably too long, since the uproar after the non-race at Texas has been somewhat forgotten and died down by now. But, I wanted to get some thoughts out there before this weekend’s race at Iowa Speedway and before tonight’s Trackside with Cavin and Kevin show, when they’re going to be tackling this same subject with Larry Curry of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

To briefly reiterate the point that I’ve read and heard all over TV and the blogosphere since the Texas IndyCar race: IndyCar’s current oval racing largely sucks. There is very little side-by-side racing, no pack racing, and basically no passing is possible unless you have a huge performance advantage over the car in front of you. Two of those things, the first two, I don’t necessarily think we need to have in the sport. If we wind up with side-by-side or racing in packs, that’s fine, but the thing that I think is potentially lethal to the series as a whole is the inability of cars to pass each other.

It’s been well documented that Ryan Briscoe led roughly 518 laps at Texas and at one point held a 96 second lead, however, once he was passed by Helio Castroneves in the pits, he was unable to find a way back by. Fishy, no? Seems like somebody who is able to pull away from the entire field while supposedly still conserving fuel should be able to complete one pass (even if it’s one on his teammate for the lead) in the final 30 laps of the race, especially if it’s on a track that has long been renowned for its spectacular competition. It was the same sort of thing that we saw at Kansas, and most of the day at Indy: you make a pass in the first lap or two after a restart, or in the pits, or you’re cruising around holding your position, unable to make much of an impression on anybody in front of you. There were a few exceptions to this rule (Oriol Servia and Townsend Bell at Indy, Marco Andretti at Texas), but nothing like the ability to pass that we’ve seen at any other point in the history of the series.

What do we do? First off, let me say that something absolutely must be done. The next generation of cars are not due to appear until 2012, or maybe even 2013. That is a long, long time from now. Judging by the discontent in the blogosphere, among people who are long time hardcore proponents of the sport, people are going to start walking away or turning the channel. (Personally, I'm going to skip Iowa this weekend, even though the fact that it's a short track means that the racing might be better. If it turns out to be another woofer, I don't feel like going to my third sub-par oval race this season.) If TV ratings do not increase past where they are now (and if the racing continues not to inspire fans, they won’t), there will likely not be a 2013 for the League. Sponsors will evaporate, teams will close their doors, and then we’ll wind up with four red and white cars driving around with 5-6 guys following them around, laps behind.

For starts, I’d like the League to acknowledge that we have a problem. It’s pretty clear that nobody, not myself, not Robin Miller, not Jack Arute, not Andy Granatelli, knows of a silver bullet that will fix the racing overnight. An overnight fix is probably not even possible. But, I’d sure hope that Tony George, Brian Barnhart, Tony Cotman, Terry Angstadt, and whoever else at the IRL is ordering food in every night, locking themselves in a conference room on 16th Street, sleeping under their desks, calling every technically minded person they know and burning the midnight oil, until they can hatch a plan to make next year markedly better than this year.

Let me get them started: aerodynamically-induced understeer is keeping drivers from getting close enough to the car in front to attempt a pass. OK, where does most of the problematic turbulence come from? The wings. Get Dallara started on making smaller, less effective wings, right now. Hey, Dallara, you got an exclusive contract to build the next generation cars, right? You wanna see that next generation actually come to light? Then help fix the one we’ve got now. Cut the wing-produced downforce by 10-20%, and work on instituting ground effect tunnel blockers to cut another 10-15%. You need some help on that? OK, here you go. I found that on The Google in 0.25 seconds. Search “cart+tunnel+blocker” for more info there, or ask Adrian Reynard. There, it’s a front wing, a rear wing and some underbody parts. You’ve got about four months to do the design work, and then a further 5-6 months to crank out enough parts for all of the teams.

What is all of that going to fix? Drivers will be able to follow closer than they can now, and the good ones will be able to set up and complete passes like they could before the days when the cars were pinned to the track by over a ton of aerodynamic assistance. It’s true that it’ll probably be even harder for people to go side-by-side than it is now, but I think all we’re really asking for is passing. Side-by-side for lap after lap after lap isn’t actually all that fun, really. Watch NASCAR at Talladega this fall. Is it thrilling? Sure, but only because you’re waiting for somebody to do something dumb and spark a 30 car pileup. We’re looking to avoid that in the IndyCar series, since a multi-multi-car pileup would likely result either in a car getting in the grandstands, or a team going out of business due to a huge repair bill.

Next, most folks think that the current cars don’t have enough power. Well, Honda has a perfectly good 4.0 liter V-8 engine that they’re using in another series right now, but rumor has it will be on a shelf collecting dust next year. Some minor tweaks will make that compatible with oval racing, given that it’s a development of the 3.4 liter LMP2 engine, which was in turn a development of the Honda IndyCar engine. Some sources say that the 4.0 liter is good for “620+ HP” breathing through restrictors, so taking the restrictors off should be good for at least 700. 50+ extra horsepower over what we’ve got now is a good start. Plus, that engine is designed to run for 12+ hours, so reliability shouldn’t be a problem. Swap the 4.0 liter in for the current 3.5 liter, and let’s see which drivers can handle the extra power. Also, with all of that reduced downforce from above, we’ll be looking at straightaway speeds of at least 5-10 MPH more than what we’re currently getting, plus visible acceleration out of corners. Fast is good, right?

OK, next, get Firestone on the line, and tell them to make the tires softer, and maybe even a little wider. Reliability problems, you say? Well, three paragraphs ago, I took 20-35% of the downforce off of the cars. That’s a lot less vertical force on the sidewall, and subsequently, a lot less horizontal strain on the tread in the corners. Soften up the tires and we might get some side-by-side back, plus it’ll force drivers to be careful about abusing their rubber. Beat on your tires too much, and you’ll be vulnerable to the smooth guys (and girls) before your next pitstop, just like with the current option tires on the road courses. I’ll hear no talk about “marbles” here. They’re already a problem that is getting no better, even with Firestone making harder tires every year, so you might as well go the other way and see if you can improve the show.

There you go, the entire Dallara-Honda-Firestone package re-imagined in under a dozen paragraphs. It’s possible that this formula would produce racing that’s no better than the 2009 product. But, can we really afford to knowingly accept two more seasons of what we’re currently getting?