Synopsis from the streets Each of the 13 prior IRL IndyCar Series seasons began on an oval, either Walt Disney World in Orlando or Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida were the usual kickoff with exceptions in the 1996-97 (Loudon, N.H.) and ...
Synopsis from the streets
Each of the 13 prior IRL IndyCar Series seasons began on an oval, either Walt Disney World in Orlando or Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida were the usual kickoff with exceptions in the 1996-97 (Loudon, N.H.) and 2001 (Phoenix) seasons. This year was different. Again the year started in Florida, but this time it was on the street circuit at St. Petersburg.
After a jaunt out west to Long Beach, the series now leaves circuits that require right turns as well as left until July, for a stretch of six consecutive ovals including the premier event of the series, the 93rd Indianapolis 500. We now look back on the action from the street courses and some of the newsworthy items that have popped up or the potential to escalate in the coming weeks:
New wheelbase rules for ovals
IndyCar is attempting to level the playing field on ovals following the two street courses. The series released an announcement yesterday that there is a new spec wheelbase rule, only 122-inch wheelbases. In years past, wheelbases could be run anywhere between 118 and 122 inches and this gave the series' "big three" teams of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Green an opportunity to work within the rules and trim the car out to go even faster.
"Because (the wheelbase is) longer, the cars won't be as sensitive in traffic as a short car," the series' Technical Director Kevin Blanch told IndyCar.com. "It limits the options the engineer has, but it makes it more important to get it right every time and it makes it more important for the guys working on the car to really pay attention to what they're doing.
"If you're wheel isn't spinning free and the next guy's is, you're talking hundredths of a second top to bottom (of the field) on an oval in qualifying. Just how easy your wheel spins could make the difference," Blanch added.
If you had a dime for every time someone said "red"...
Then you might be a millionaire. IndyCar added one of best assets pioneered by Champ Car for the road and street races this year, with the adoption of the Firestone Firehawk "reds", or alternate tires. Passing opportunities at St. Petersburg were spiced up when it was otherwise difficult and differing strategies added another variable to the races. It also was the most-repeated phrase on television coverage.
In St. Petersburg, Justin Wilson did not have his lap times fall off as laps clicked off on his first set of reds. He was still as quick at the end of his stint as he was at the beginning. And as Ryan Hunter-Reay had the reds on for the final restart, he at least had an opportunity to get Ryan Briscoe into turn one having used the reds to his advantage to pass Wilson just prior to the final caution flag.
AGR lacking pace, but scored results
Andretti Green Racing was never on pace at Long Beach, no cars starting higher than 11th and really running towards the back most of the weekend. Fortuitously timed pit stops coincided with cautions to promote Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti to top-ten positions and to their credit, they all kept their cars in those spots the rest of the day in third, fourth, and sixth.
Patrick's finish was her best on a road or street course since unification, and a needed fillip in her cap after a crash in qualifying when she spun out in the off-camber left-hander at Turn 10 just before the hairpin. Opinions were mixed about whether she gassed it too hard or not enough at that point. Her strength, ovals, may see her in the mix for a victory as she looks to add to the one she recorded this weekend last year in Motegi, Japan.
PT's back, and gets upstaged by Helio... again
Paul Tracy is back - if only for Indianapolis - and that is much needed good news for the series. Tracy may not bring in new fans but is a figurehead that is either loved or hated by series diehards. He has sat out the better part of the last year and a half waiting for any opportunity to arise.
It's in the series' best interest to promote Tracy versus Helio Castroneves as a serious rivalry after their notorious battle at the end of the 2002 Indianapolis 500, Tracy's last go at the Speedway. Act II of their bout can also be scored to Castroneves as his acquittal on Friday allowed him to leave Miami and arrive at Long Beach on the same day as Tracy's announcement. The Brazilian upstaged the Canadian once again.
Car count news
Car count remains a hot topic. Last-minute deals for Hunter-Reay, Darren Manning and Alex Tagliani bolstered the St. Pete field to 22 cars, and at Long Beach with Helio Castroneves' return, Will Power justly earned his third car for 23 in the field. It will fall to 22 again at Kansas with Power and Tagliani not expected to run, but Sarah Fisher atones for the losses with her season debut in her own car.
Dreyer & Reinbold is the team most in flux for Kansas and beyond. The team is involved with four entries for the Indianapolis 500, the two standard cars for Mike Conway and a driver to be announced later in its usual second car but also John Andretti in the much-discussed Richard Petty Motorsports car and Davey Hamilton in conjunction with Kingdom Racing.
Indianapolis 500 Entry List released
There were 40 entries announced for the Indianapolis 500, 28 with confirmed drivers. Entries with the ubiquitous "TBA" currently in the driver's seat include: two from Conquest Racing and Roth Racing, and one apiece for Dreyer & Reinbold, KV Racing, Rahal Letterman Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Fisher Racing, Hemelgarn Johnson and Bryan Herta Autosport.
Expect the usual host of characters not currently in rides, probably Alex Tagliani, Darren Manning, Oriol Servia, Buddy Rice, Tomas Scheckter and Bruno Junqueira among others, to fill those seats.
Oh Jack, fact-checking is not optional...
A brief gripe about VERSUS' coverage before a detailed review of its first two races. For a reporter of Jack Arute's experience level and professionalism, there were several very embarrassing mistakes he made during the Long Beach coverage.
Arute said the term "to finish first, you must first finish" can be attributed to, as he described, "the late Stirling Moss." The great Sir Stirling is still alive and well and he was not the quote's originator, but rather it was four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears who coined it.
Arute also said the difference in the race would come down to "push-to-pass", however at no point has IndyCar installed the horsepower-boosting device on its cars. It might be in the series' best interest to do so as the cars looked painfully slow in launching off the hairpin onto Shoreline Drive in comparison to the cars that have been there in recent years.
The VERSUS effect
Overall, the expected growing pains are occurring with the switch of IndyCar's television coverage from ESPN to VERSUS. The bad news out of the way first - a 0.3 registered rating for the St. Pete opener meant roughly 233,000 households were tuned in. The IRL marketing team was expecting lower ratings to begin with and perhaps this was a truer estimate of viewers specifically watching IndyCar racing.
The poor ratings can be spun in one of two ways. First is that the IndyCar product is unlikely to grow beyond its niche market and/or Indianapolis-centric mentality. Contrastingly, it could be argued VERSUS does not yet have the far reaching capabilities or recognition as a major mainstream sports network a la ESPN or SPEED to draw in more viewers.
On the bright side, the coverage the first two races have been drastically improved and very much caters to the core fan base. The announcing team had good chemistry with insightful analysis and genuine enthusiasm - even if Bob Jenkins still isn't immune from the occasional name slipup.
There were more and better camera angles and, perhaps more shockingly, a willingness on VERSUS's part to ensure the viewer got every last bit of detail from the entire weekend.
On debut at St. Petersburg, there was a qualifying show on Saturday, a three-hour time block committed on Sunday with a 45-minute pre-race show and even going 20 minutes over that allotment to ensure the top eight (eight!) finishers were interviewed.
This is the conundrum that IndyCar finds itself in. It now has a network that is sincerely committed to promoting and advancing the product, but still not the level of eyeballs tuning in to attract more sponsorship, which is especially difficult in this economy.
But overall, the general consensus out of the first two weeks is that IndyCar may have found a long-term partner in VERSUS that is not just a broadcaster but an active promoter fully engaged with improving these numbers, and that has to be a positive on the long road to recovery.
The oval season begins next Sunday in Kansas, with stops at Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Texas, Iowa and Richmond to follow.