Indycar Entering a Minefield NASCAR Knows Well

James BroomheadAnalyst IAugust 30, 2009

JOLIET, IL- AUGUST 29:  Ryan Briscoe, driver of the #6 Team Penske Honda Dallara, edges out Scott Dixon, driver of the #9 Target Ganassi Honda Dallara, for the fourth closest finish in history during the IRL IndyCar Series PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300 on August 29, 2009 at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo By Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Various hardline fans of the two series might not agree, but based on recent evidence Indycar seems to be heading for the same sort of worries that have been writ large during the NASCAR season.

As fans of Indycar will no doubt be aware, the powers-that-be within the series introduced a raft of measures aimed at improving the races, especially on the oval tracks they visit.

There were various aerodynamic widgets added—or made optional—to increase downforce, while others were taken away to increase close racing.

Then they introduced an engine boost that a driver can use a set number of times during a race that would allow him to pass, defend, or catch up to a rival.

The first oval race in Kentucky was a revelation, especially compared to what had gone before it.

There was close racing, doses of overtaking, and lowly Ed Carpenter for Vision Racing came as close to breaking the life-extinguishing stranglehold the powerhouses of Penske and Ganassi have maintained on ovals.

Reviews were almost universally positive, or at least heralded as the first steps out of the levels of catatonic boredom Indycar had all too regularly visited. So it was with a certain level of excitement that fans braced themselves for the second oval race since the rule changes, this time at Chicagoland.

Now, I have to point out my observations on the race are based on Indycar’s online highlight package and various written reports, so they may not be perfect.

The finish proved spectacular. Though recent finishes at the Illinois track have been exciting, this one provided a little extra juice.

Without wishing to pour scorn on greatness, Ryan Briscoe’s winning margin of 0.0077 seconds pales compared to last year’s so-close-they-called-it-wrong episode.

What made this a little special was the fact that covering the top 13 cars (every lead lap finisher) was 0.8269 seconds. In fact, there was only a shade over half a second covering the top 12.

There may only have been a handful of green laps before the finish, but what it still shows is that the stringing out of the field can be almost non-existent.

Now, you can’t fault close racing. It’s what people want to see when they spin the turnstiles and sit in the stands or pay the subscription and sit in front of their TV, which is what Indycar wants and needs right now. But a look away from the open wheel world shows the minefield they may be stepping into.

A minefield in which NASCAR has been getting its legs blown off in for years.

Where can you get close, fast racing in NASCAR? Daytona and Talladega, the restrictor plate tracks, where the sanctioning body artificially bunches up the field by taking away horsepower from the engines.

There may be nothing that artificial about Indycar’s rule changes, but it’s having a similar effect.

And what else, aside from close racing, have NASCAR’s plate races become synonymous with?

Huge crashes.

Even to the point that the networks that are “lucky” enough to be broadcasting these races use the threat of “The Big One” in its marketing for the race. Huge crashes may get viewing figures, but I’d guess IRL doesn't want ratings that badly.

Two of the three plate races this year have had massive crashes in their closing laps (often after late cautions like yesterday’s Indycar race), with several very damaged cars, and handful of injured fans, and a return to post-Dale-Sr. levels of fear over safety in plate races, with several drivers being very vocal in their criticism.

And as far as safety goes, NASCAR’s jalopy knocks an Indycar into a cocked hat. They have fenders—minor touches are just that, rather than the danger of inter-locking wheels in Indycar.

NASCARs also have a roof, and nothing like an Indycar Dallara’s tendency to take off if the air flow gets under them.

Perhaps the latest (and most re-shown) instance of this last trait has been Dario Franchitti’s flight at Michigan when he drove for AGR.

A small amount of contact at speed sent him sideways and the car was airborne before landing back on the track (and other cars) and sending anyone nearby scattering.

Now, instead of the half-a-dozen-or-so cars he has within a second of him there, put 12, 15 or a full field behind them. This would have been the situatioon if the same accident struck at Chicagoland last night.

You have the makings of Indycar’s very own “Big One,” with all the consequences you don’t want to think of.

That said, there are some there is nothing wrong with NASCAR's plate races, and they continue to be huge audience draw, which is what Indycar needs.

They just don’t need to sacrifice safety to do it.


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