Let’s start with something positive. Thanks to the presence of Fernando Alonso, the 101st Indianapolis 500 magically got the bump it needed to avoid a post-100th birthday hangover. Alonso was the compelling story this year’s race would otherwise have been lacking and he and McLaren Technology Group CEO Zak Brown delivered in a big way, certainly on an international level.
If the Indianapolis Motor Speedway successfully produced an encore to the hundredth Indy 500, the IndyCar Series is still struggling to figure out the best way to follow up the month of May at Indianapolis – period.
I want to like the Detroit Grand Prix, or to use its full and proper title, Roger Penske and Corporate Detroit bring you the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix INDYCAR Dual in Detroit presented by Lear Corporation.
I want to believe that it’s the best place the IndyCar Series could be the weekend after the Indianapolis 500, a venue that showcases the versatility and talent of Indy car drivers, teams and cars.
But it’s not. And no matter how hard Penske and his powerful corporate partners want you to believe, it never will be.
Penske often talks about delivering value to his shareholders, but the bottom line is that the Detroit GP offers little value to the IndyCar Series.
Then there’s Texas Motor Speedway, which is a problem for INDYCAR in a very different way.
TMS president Eddie Gossage desperately wants the post-Indy date, and from my standpoint, it makes sense to run another oval coming out of Indy. It would lighten the workload on the crews and provide some kind of continuity for three million casual fans who apparently watch the ‘500’ every year on TV yet fail to tune in for next week’s race(s).
Texas is a beautiful racetrack, with spectacular views and top-notch accommodations for fans and the media. The facility as a whole is second to none, and the PR staff does a tremendous job representing the track and the market.
The problem – and it’s not restricted to Texas – is the fundamental notion of Indy cars racing on high-banked 1.5-mile tracks. I believe it is unacceptably dangerous.
Since 1997, through IRL, CART, Champ Car and INDYCAR sanction, nobody has been able to figure the right combination of horsepower, mechanical grip and aerodynamic downforce that will create a happy medium between thrilling (but extremely hazardous) pack racing and boring single-file shows.
Texas has become the scapegoat because these days it’s the only high-banked oval on the schedule. But the problem would be the same at Las Vegas, Charlotte, Kentucky or any other high-banked intermediate track. INDYCAR has comprehensively failed to work out a safe way to race at that kind of venue without going too far on the side of conservatism and winding up with a spread out parade.
Since the very first IRL race at Texas in June 1997, pack races involving Indy cars have scared the hell out of me. I remain convinced that, eventually, a car is going to be launched into the grandstands with unthinkable results.
I fully understand that the same thing could happen at Indianapolis, or at any road or street course for that matter. I just think the odds are a lot greater when a dozen cars are running inches apart side by side and nose to tail at 220 mph, almost always in a corner and with no escape route.
There’s a vocal group of fans that loves pack racing, but I don’t think they truly understand just how dangerous what they are cheering for has the potential to be.
These fans – and a few unnamed IndyCar Series drivers – are the people Sebastien Bourdais was referring to when he gave some extraordinary quotes to David Malsher of Motorsport.com.
“Back in the day, particularly when Dan [Wheldon] died, we told ourselves that we would never do that style of racing again. And actually, as far as I’m concerned, Texas last weekend is not even the first time we’ve done it since then. We’ve done it at Fontana in 2015 and in a couple of other places,” Bourdais said.
“I keep hearing and reading comments that I feel in disbelief about; people saying, ‘This was awesome! This was such a great show!’ and I’m like, ‘Man, oh man, people are suffering short-memory syndrome, big time.’
“If we haven’t proved to ourselves that we can’t do stock car-style racing with open-wheel cars without putting drivers’ lives at risk to a massive amount, then clearly we haven’t learned anything and we’re just delusional. I’d just like people to tell it straight – ‘This was a big mistake, we’re just really glad that we made it through, and let’s never make this mistake again.’ But that’s not what I’m reading. I’m reading, ‘How great was that?!’
“It’s not all about the show. It’s about making sure that we can race, and race hard but don’t put the drivers and teams and series in a spot where we shouldn’t be. It’s all fun and games until somebody dies. And then what?
“As soon as that green flag dropped, I was holding my phone and shaking, praying that nobody would get hurt. That is not how these races should be.”
I’m in 100 percent agreement with Bourdais. And to his credit, he has always felt this way about high-downforce oval racing and he is NEVER afraid to tell the truth as he sees it.
I was at Eurospeedway Lausitz in 2003 when Bourdais won in his oval track debut. It wasn’t a pack race, but in an effort to save costs, CART basically ran road course aero on the 2.0-mile low-banked oval and the high downforce level allowed the cars to run very close together. In my report for National Speed Sport News, I called Bourdais’ dice for the lead with Mario Dominguez (as well as Bruno Junqueira and Michel Jourdain Jr.) “sometimes frightening in its intensity.”
Seb thought the style of racing was stupid then and said he was glad they only had to do it once a year. And his viewpoint remains the same.
The other factor that feeds into the “Texas problem” is that modern racing fans have come to want or demand a closely packed field with lots of passing and a photo finish every week. Those are unrealistic expectations.
For one thing, in a pack race where everyone is running foot-to-the floor flat out, passing is theoretically impossible. A pass demands one car to be faster than another, and if every car is maxed out, how can one of them go faster?
I find it more exciting to watch a driver work his way through the pack from 20th place to first, even if it means passing a single-file train, because it’s a clear display of skill and a fast car. One year at Milwaukee, Al Unser Jr. qualified something like 17th, and it took him just 30 laps to take the lead. It was a beautiful thing to see.
A few years ago, Mauricio Gugelmin shared his thoughts with me on this subject, and his words still ring true.
“I remember when we ran the 240 mph laps at California Speedway people were saying, ‘You’re crazy to drive at that speed!’ But we had a car that was designed to run at those speeds that was well balanced with small wings and we didn’t hurt people,” Gugelmin said.
“Yes, maybe it wasn’t as close as some people would like to see. But we still had some very good racing and I think people may have forgotten a little bit about what racing is all about. It has gone completely the other way and now in every series all they talk about is passing. Even Formula 1 got into that, and in America it’s even worse. They want to see that last-lap dash to the line, but when you get highly competitive people that close together in open-wheel cars, you’re going to run into trouble.
“You can have good stewards who do a good job of controlling the drivers and making sure they respect each other, but when the old ‘red mist’ drops, you’re going to have problems. Like an airplane accident, a racing crash usually doesn’t happen unless there are a number of factors involved. Somebody takes their air, they drop a wheel on the grass, and there they go. The cars are too much on the edge.
“I hope some of the drivers have the courage to step up and say this is unacceptable.”
That’s what Bourdais is doing. And what reaction does he expect?
“Oh yeah, I know I’ll be seen as the dick for saying all this, but I’ll deal with that. That’s fine,” he told Malsher.
“If we have not yet learned our lessons from these types of races, then what is it going to take? How many times are we going to need to do that? How many millions of dollars do we need to throw away to finally understand that this type of racing is something we can’t do? I don’t know. I’m almost speechless when I read the comments – good or bad – that some of the drivers make which just miss the point.
“What happened on Saturday has got nothing to do with anything other than the aerokits have put us in a spot where we cannot run the appropriate amount of downforce to create separation. We need to run that little amount of downforce that we aren’t flat all the way around, so we aren’t two-wide, six-deep for a whole lap, lap after lap.
“What I worry about is that I don’t see anyone acknowledging we’ve done wrong, so we can’t identify what we’ve done wrong and so we don’t identify how to fix it. If you’re in denial that there’s a problem then you’re not going to identify what the problem is, so then how do you find the solution? You don’t.”
As Bourdais added, the introduction of a new aerodynamic philosophy with the body and floor being designed for the 2018 spec IndyCar is a golden opportunity to get the basic power-to-mechanical and aerodynamic grip ratio right at Texas and every other venue on the schedule. It’s encouraging that the test and development drivers are expected to be Oriol Servia and Juan Pablo Montoya, drivers with nearly 20 years of experience in both high- and low-downforce Indy cars.
Renderings of the “new” car show that it looks the business. Let’s just hope INDYCAR can make it drive as good as it looks.
One final thought on following up the Indianapolis 500: If the powers-that-be insist on racing the very next weekend, Texas deserves the slot more than Detroit. But I think the IndyCar Series needs to be realistic about moving on to somewhere else in the near future if racing at Texas can’t be made safer and less artificially competitive. It’s worth noting too that crowds at the track are about a third of what they were in the heyday, maybe 30,000 tops.
The answer may lie less than 300 miles away at Circuit of the Americas. It may be a road course, but it’s a fast one with a high standard of presentation that would make the series look good. Eddie Gossage has made clear that TMS and COTA cannot co-exist on the IndyCar schedule, so a hard decision may be looming for all parties not too far down the line.