This is the 50th year I’ve covered IndyCar racing. I’ve been lucky enough to see A.J., Parnelli, Gurney, Mario, Rodger Ward, Herk, Don Branson, J.R. and the Unsers on mile dirt tracks, road courses and ovals from Trenton to Hanford.
I’ve seen Mike Mosley and Tom Sneva go from last to first at Phoenix; Foyt, Branson and Ward work their magic at DuQuoin, Springield and Sacramento; Jim Hurtubise thrill us at Terre Haute and Rutherford go from 24th to first at IMS.
I’ve witnessed Gordon Johncock stave off Rick Mears (pictured below) in the most dramatic Indy finish ever, and Mario spin out and come back to score his first-ever IndyCar triumph at IRP. I saw Jackie Howerton beat Big Al and Mario in the best Hoosier Hundred ever, and Parnelli and A.J. go wheel-to-wheel at Salem for 40 laps.
I’ve watched Ryan Hunter-Reay drive through the grass to beat Helio Castroneves, Emerson Fittipaldi bounce Unser Jr. into the wall going for the win and Dick Rathmann out-duel Ward.
But I’ve also seen Rick Mears win Indianapolis by two laps. Mario and Michael lap the field twice at Indy before their cars failed. A.J. win the Hoosier Hundred by more than lap. Al Unser Jr. destroying the competition at Long Beach. I ran the pit board for the great Lloyd Ruby once at Trenton, and only four cars finished the race.
So here’s the point of this history lesson. IndyCar fans have become spoiled during the past few years with slam-bang insanity at the checkered flag at Texas and Fontana, and fantastic finishes at Indianapolis. And even the road courses and street circuits have gone from predictable parades to entertaining shows.
Yeah, yeah, I know the cars are spec, and Honda and Chevrolet are as equal as anyone could hope for, and Firestone builds a great tire so the competition should be close and good. But we are so conditioned to seeing something special that we overlook the fact that sometimes we can have a decent race without all the bells and whistles and heart-stopping finishes. Like last month’s 102nd Indianapolis 500, and Saturday night’s race at Texas.
There weren’t 35 lead changes last month at Indianapolis because the aero package didn’t allow for the non-stop sling-shotting where passing was automatic, if not a bit contrived. And it was a pretty pedestrian first 100 laps as some past winners and damn good drivers crashed trying to deal with the lack of downforce. But not everybody crashed. Will Power and Ed Carpenter drove superlative races. And not everyone was stuck in traffic – Alexander Rossi, Oriol Servia and Graham Rahal found ways to get around people and get to the front.
Texas didn’t have the OH MY GOD finish of James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal in 2016 (pictured below), or the Rollerball of 2017. But it wasn’t the yawner a lot of drivers predicted, either. Sure, Scott Dixon made sure there wasn’t any drama at the end because he kicked everybody’s ass, but rookie Zach Veach passed 10 cars in carving his way up to third place before grazing the wall, Hinch overhauled a bunch of people in finishing fourth, Robert Wickens was on the move and impressive as ever before being taken out, RHR made some daring passes and Rossi kept us watching as he tried to get past Simon Pagenaud, who managed to overcome his blistering tires and charge back from 14th to second.
Was it a great race? No. Was it a bad race? Not at all. Just like Indy, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Was it better racing to see Rossi risk it all with some of the best and ballsiest outside passes ever, or do you prefer non-stop passing because it’s almost impossible to keep someone behind you?
Alex Zanardi hated the Hanford Device because it was manufactured passing, and he had a point – but the fans seemed to love it.
And that’s what IndyCar and its drivers and teams must make their priority. Is it better to give the fans a good show or a good race? A lot of the drivers show disdain for pack racing, yet there is nothing like it on four wheels on this planet. It’s scary, hairy and you watch with one eye closed, but racing at this level is supposed to be kinda dangerous, right? I mean that’s why people watch – not to see anyone get hurt, but because it’s risky business. And the driving, not the cars, was the culprit for most of the crash damage in 2017.
Many drivers have been calling for less downforce, more horsepower and lifting in the corners to put the driver back in the seat, and I think that’s what we’ve seen in the past two ovals – but some are still bitching.
IndyCar has a good group of talented guys who are accommodating with fans and media, but sometimes they’re their own worst enemy as they tell people how bad or boring the race is going to be. Shut up! We’re trying to get people to watch, so don’t give out a bad review before the show starts.
Drivers today have more say in the rules than ever before (maybe too much) because in the 1960s and 1970s they had no voice. They showed up, buckled up and raced in whatever configurations and conditions awaited them.
Jay Frye and his staff have gone overboard to try and accommodate the paddock in terms of making the racing better, safer and tougher. Do they get everything right? Of course not, but they’re trying to balance competition with common sense and pocket books while not losing sight of giving the paying customers a good product.
I watched the Canadian Grand Prix on Sunday, and the highlight was Daniel Riccardo jumping Lewis Hamilton on a pit stop. It was the only time the announcers raised their voice. There were more meaningful passes on Saturday night in Texas than there have been all season in F1, but those Ferrari fans didn’t seem to care that Sebastian Vettel led every lap and was never challenged.
And NASCAR? They’ve run out of gimmicks with caution clocks, lucky dogs and stage racing. None of it is compelling.
IndyCar has the best racing on four wheels (sans USAC sprints and midgets) in North America, with the most opportunity for a driver to shine and potential for the results to be unpredictable. We can all be pretty critical at times if the racing doesn’t live up to a previous donnybrook, but the bottom line is that IndyCar has never been more competitive.
Hell yes I miss the innovation of the good old days, the mile dirt tracks on the Champ Car schedule and the raw edge a great driver possessed in a deadly era.
But IndyCar today beats the hell out NASCAR and F1, and we should embrace that fact. Not constantly complain.