By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The Verizon IndyCar Series ran their second event on the schedule, and the first oval event of the year last night. Target Chip Ganassi driver, Scott Dixon, won the race in a dominating fashion leading the final 155 laps at Phoenix International Raceway. Allow me to share some observations of what we witnessed on Saturday Night.
1 ) The Aero Package isn’t quite right
As a few drivers and team owners predicted, the racing became largely processional with the cars becoming strung out. Drivers found it difficult to run in the dirty air. One of the first signs that the race might become a snoozer came in the early stages when leader, Helio Castroneves, came up upon the last-placed car of James Hinchcliffe, and couldn’t put him a lap down.
The only passes for the lead happened when Castroneves, and then Montoya ran into tire problems. Montoya did manage to catch Kanaan for second in the early going, but other than that, most of the passes we saw came on restarts or through pit-work.
There was some passing midfield in the late stages, and a few of these led to brushes with the wall or ‘avoidable contact’ penalties. Rookie Max Chilton, in the Ganassi car, provided some of the more exciting racing of the night.
On top of that, the Gs that the cars are producing with the high-downforce setup make it very difficult for the drivers.
Penske driver, Will Power has been the most vocal about this issue.
“Man, the Gs were unbelievable,” said the 2014 series Champion. “We were wide open at the end there when it cooled down. So much load! You gotta be a body builder to drive these things.”
Now, I’m no aerodynamisist, and I don’t claim to have the fix, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that there is an awful lot going behind the rear wheels of the short oval aero-package.
Oval racing is a part of the series that has been on the decline in recent years, and the Series really needs to work on the quality of the oval racing if they ever hope to rebuild it.
Admittedly, nobody wants to see a pack race. The tragic events of Las Vegas 2011 have made that abundantly clear.
There is, however, a middle ground that can be reached to allow passing and produce a better product for the fans. I’ll leave it up to the engineers to figure it out.
2 ) Ryan Hunter-Reay will contend for the title
Re-watching the race, and listening to Paul Tracy’s commentary, it occurred to me that Tracy’s admiration of Ryan Hunter-Reay borders on hero worship. He took several opportunities to praise Hunter-Reay throughout the event.
Even in the post race, when Tracy was talking about the winner he said, “Scott Dixon is the total package, just like Ryan Hunter-Reay.”
It got me thinking that Paul Tracy is absolutely right. RHR is one of the top drivers of this generation, and a threat to win on any race track.
Since Hunter-Reay’s championship season in 2012, he has been a bit lost in the shuffle. Sure, he won the 500 in 2014, but that was the high point in an otherwise unremarkable season.
Andretti Autosport began the 2015 season behind the curve with the Honda aero package, at it wasn’t until late in the season that we saw the Ryan Hunter-Reay that we are accustomed to.
Hunter-Reay took a podium at St. Pete, and he came out swinging last night. At the drop of the green, the Andretti Autosport driver took a high line, up into the marbles, jumping up from his 12th place starting position into the top five.
Unfortunately, bad luck struck Hunter-Reay not once, but twice, when he pitted under green, only to see the yellow come out shortly afterwards.
“We had two cautions – TWO of them – that put us laps down.” said Hunter-Reay reflecting on his evening. “Just had a heck of a time out there. Some of the best starts I’ve ever had, some of the best restarts I’ve ever had, and to come away from it with 10th is a pretty dejecting result. We should have finished second tonight.”
I fully expect Ryan Hunter-Reay to fight the good fight for Honda all season long.
3 ) Honda has a lot of work to do
For lack of a better word, the Honda teams got spanked in practice, qualifying, and in the race by the Chevrolet teams.
Despite the opportunity to improve their aero-kit in the off-season, Honda looked woefully behind the curve yet again.
Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan driver Graham Rahal managed a fifth-place finish for Honda. Realistically, had it not been for cut tires for both Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, we may have seen two more Chevrolets ahead of Rahal.
Rahal echoed the sentiments of the Honda drivers saying, “It was tough to pass. I felt like I had a really good race car. Unfortunately, our competition had about a 5 mph advantage on us, I feel like. I was just doing everything I could to get it.”
Long Beach is next on the schedule. It remains to be seen if the tight street circuit will have more of an equalizing effect on the field and give the Honda camp a fighting chance.
4 ) Questionable Cautions
Nobody likes to see a race end under caution, but unless IndyCar institutes an overtime rule, or a G/W/C like we see in stock cars, yellow finishes will remain a reality. To their credit, we have seen a few instances where they have preserved a green flag finish for the fans. At the 2014 Indianapolis 500, officials threw a quick red flag to avoild finishing under the yellow, setting up a thrilling finish.
Things happen so fast on a short oval that the decision whether or not to throw a yellow flag must be made in an instant. Filippi spinning on course, Munoz stopping on course, and Carpenter slamming the wall: all of these lead to cautions, and legitimately so.
When Josef Newgarden and Charlie Kimball tangled, Kimball slid on the apron, managing to keep if off the wall and continue. They may have gotten away without a caution there, but again, with the way things happen so quickly, a caution was the best course of action.
On lap 146, Sebastien Bourdais lightly brushed the wall, and drew a caution. No damage, he kept going, but a caution nonetheless.
Perhaps the most curious caution was the one that was not thrown. With the laps dwindling down, Ryan Hunter-Reay clipped the wall quite a bit harder than Bourdais. Hunter-Reay lost a part of his rear winglet, which was deposited on the race course. And, no caution?
Now, I am not a fan of manufactured drama, but this would have been a prime opportunity to bunch the field and set up a dash for the finish. The restarts provided the most exciting moments of the race all night long.
After all, there was definitely a piece of debris on the track, that race control chose to ignore for some reason. Perhaps they didn’t see it? The NBC-SN cameras certainly saw it.
Interestingly enough, the driver that should have drawn the caution likely would have benefited the most from it, given Hunter-Reay’s prowess on the restarts.
In the end, on lap 248 of 250, when Alexander Rossi got it a bit sideways on the front stretch, the final caution came out, ensuring a dull finish to a dull race.
5 ) What is a respectable attendance number?
The Arizona Register reported a projected attendance of 17,500 fans. With the 100th Indianapolis 500 projecting a sellout of 235,000 tickets, this number seems absolutely minuscule.
Now, mind you, comparing the Phoenix Grand Prix to the Indy 500 is a bit like comparing the World Series to your local Double-A baseball team.
With that being said, I was discussing this matter with my Tribute Racing colleagues and we seem to have divided opinions as to whether or not this constitutes a success.
With 67,000 available seats, the crowd of 17,500 was swallowed up and looked rather small. At the same time, the crowd was much larger than the ones we saw at recent oval events like Fontana and Milwaukee.
And, it is certainly far and above the early IRL era events, like the one at Dover, where it was reported that the number of team personnel, security, track workers and vendors actually outnumbered the paying fans.
The race may have benefited from a date farther off from the recent NASCAR race. Many families cannot afford two race weekends with a month, that’s reality. With NASCAR having a much more recent presence in the area, the decision probably wasn’t that hard for those that had to choose.
Overall, for an event returning after eleven years, within a few weeks of a Sprint Cup weekend, I would call 17,500 a respectable turnout. I wouldn’t call it a slam-dunk success, but it is a nice number to build on.
IndyCar just needs to finds a way to improve the racing if they expect to maintain and grow that number.
Image: Chris Owens/INDYCAR