Is IndyCar heading in the wrong direction?
A highly respected motorsports journalist turned to me before the first Verizon IndyCar Series (VICS) race of the 2014 at St Petersburg and, with rolled eyes said, “I am so over this series.” I was shocked because this person has had nothing but the best information from the series’ public/media relations staff, from teams and drivers. Whatever this writer needs, this writer gets.
Feeling let down
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so shocked? After a campaign that began the last weekend of March and ended with August’s final gasp, I’m left feeling let-down by a racing series I’ve known, loved, hated and covered with passion since 1975.
The good of this INDYCAR season: 11 different winners, finally a championship for Will Power, new pole sitters (did anyone expect Sebastian Saavedra’s pole in the Indy GP?) and extremely competitive racing throughout the field (how about that win by Huertas too?).
Watching Scott Dixon carve through the competition to win at Mid-Ohio was textbook Dixie and should be taught at every driving school. Tony Kanaan’s win in the season finale and his belly-kiss to wife Lauren was a true feel-good moment.
The bad of INDYCAR in 2014 includes another failure by Helio Castroneves to win anything but a glittery ball in Dancing with the Stars, inability within the series to augment any marketing or proper scheduling for itself, the fall of Chip Ganassi Racing, which won only two contests all year, the same ugly (but thoroughly raceable) Dallara cars and the horrid scheduling that had these poor teams rushing cross-country to compete before minuscule audiences.
The ugly? Well, let’s start with the schedule is horrid, TV times and INDYCAR’s insistence on hiring people that don’t care a whit about racing (but they can learn on the job, right?), a reliance on outside sources like Boston Consulting Group to decide what happens in the series, nepotism and constant on-site tweaks to the rules. Watching an oval race take place in 100-degree Southern California heat the final weekend in August - with zero pre-race activities - was a capper to a five-month battle that failed to captivate the public.
The loss of Barfield
Changes have already begun within INDYCAR and the first shoe to drop certainly wasn’t the best. Beaux Barfield, who came to the series to serve as chief steward and race director after a hellacious end to the 2011 season, has chosen to leave and return to sports car racing, where he’d worked prior to joining INDYCAR.
Barfield properly prefers to work in an autonomous situation: this year he had a rotating group of co-stewards in race control all year, including Brian Barnhart, Johnny Unser, Arie Luyendyk, Tony Cotman and Jon Beekhuis. Of that group only Unser, Luyendyk and Beekhuis join Barfield as having professional time behind the wheel. Barnhart, of course, has shown he has no right to retain control of racing procedures - who lets racers compete on an oval in the rain? Only Brian Barnhart.
When a racing series disappears for a minimum of five-six-seven months and leads a vacuous tenancy of the balance of the year, it signifies a distrust in the product and in those producing said product. Beaux Barfield was a breath of fresh air before being emasculated by committee ruling; he presided over a good product on-circuit, but one that seems to have zero destiny. He departs to repair a race control problem at the Tudor United Sports Car Championship (TUSCC) whose early-season mishaps quantified an entire year.
Where we're at
And INDYCAR? They’re left with a diminishing group of fans, an insular compound of racers that’s getting smaller all the time, tiny fields on big tracks being watched by solar reflectors. The VICS is led by a tennis guy, “marketing” men that have brought nothing new to the series (the Verizon deal was in the works long before they showed up), a race control with zero leadership (sorry Derrick Walker, but it’s true) and a charismatic champion who got his eight minutes with David Letterman and won’t be heard from again until they light ‘em up - who knows when or where because there’s no schedule yet for next season.
I hate to agree with my highly respected journalist cohort about the Verizon IndyCar Series, but they’ve given me little reason to hope there’s a turnaround in the near - or even distant - future.