IndyCar: Consistently Leading From The Back of the Field

Over the past several days IndyCar nation has been rocked with spectacular crash after spectacular crash, the most recent sending James Hinchcliffe to Methodist Hospital for surgery and a visit to the Intensive Care Unit. We old timers would say – and some still do – that if this were the 80s and 90s this wouldn’t be a big deal. For the most part, I agree with that. But as we all know, the perception of IndyCar as a sport right now isn’t high, and having its most popular and successful drivers suffer high profile accidents at its highest profile track will do nothing to change perception.

In the past, three cars flipping through the air would barely make the news outside of the racing community. In 2015, where unfortunately social media and 24-hour news cycles rule, anything that might come close to resembling Dan Wheldon’s 2011 crash will be the biggest story coming out of Indianapolis.

“It’s amateur hour, they’re throwing darts at a board,” said a former IndyCar champion of the process.

Casual fans forget that IndyCar, and its open-wheel; open-cockpit cousin series’, are inherently more dangerous than stock car or drag dracing. Most drivers assume the great risk for the greater reward and the show it would provide.

Fine. I get that. Cars will go 234 [check] miles per hour and there will be accidents. I’ve been around motorsports long enough to know that accidents happen. Comparing Hinchcliffe’s accident to those of Castroneves, Newgarden and Carpenter is in poor form.

[Why Helio Castroneves' car flipped – Marshall Pruett/RACER]

I’m not smart enough to speculate on the technical issues of what happened with the first three crashes, but I am smart enough to know that there needed to be some type of oval testing before the cars arrived at IMS. Or, at the very least, more time in practice before qualifying. I believe it’s unreasonable to have expected engineers and IndyCar to have actually tested the car going backwards to see if it would flip. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have an idea that cars could flip while going backwards. To that end, I can’t see a driver in their right mind volunteering – no matter what the amount of the check – to test that theory.

My single and only issue: why, if IndyCar has never tested these new aero kits on ovals, would the first place this testing happens is at Indianapolis in a compressed schedule? I’ve been largely silent on this issue, but as good (me: bad) as the Grand Prix of Indy has been, these accidents show that race is held in the wrong part of the season.

There is no reason to have the Grand Prix in May at the expense of expanded practice and testing time for the oval race. This thesis is proven further when IndyCar fails to schedule any oval races before the Indianapolis 500.

Was IndyCar right in reducing the boost in Honda’s cars as it did in Chevy without evidence of a cross-manufacturer problem? I don’t know, but I would guess that it was more a liability move than anything else. Robin Miller spoke with one driver who said, “We look like a bunch of pussies,” and that point is hard to ignore when you consider how many accidents drivers have endured in open wheel racing.

Drivers know what the risks are when they sign up to race in any series. Those same drivers understand that open wheel is probably the most dangerous because of the open cockpit, high speeds, and high G-forces they face on every lap. On the other side, sometimes someone has to protect drivers from themselves. In this case, I don’t agree with forcing the Honda teams to reduce boost and qualify in race trim. It makes the series look like it has no control over its car.

So, what are the results of Sunday’s qualifying changes? The obvious: qualification speeds were down 3-5 mph, and the resulting hype and expectation was completely erased.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the qualifying format they used, but the Fast 9 should have been retained instead of the Last Row battle. I don’t think Indy needs two days of qualifying anymore, and I know that traditionalists won’t like that, but doing all of the qualifying on Saturday means Sunday and Monday are rain days and can be used for practice if qualifying is done. It’s literally a win/win for fans and teams alike.

To be fair, I didn’t think I’d be in favor of this format until I heard Kevin Lee and Curt Cavin talk about it on Monday’s Trackside. I was sold on it as soon as they brought up the potential to have two rain days if needed.

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Sunday will be the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, but it would be ignorant of IndyCar to ignore the issues of a compressed May schedule. IndyCar cannot afford to have the national media ignore cars posting speeds of 234 mph because accidents that can’t be explained are happening multiple times in one week. Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles and IndyCar Derrick Walker need to lead from the front when these issues arise instead of reading the tea leaves then making a decision.

Honda won’t say it, but they were done wrong by IndyCar this weekend. I’m not a fan of making up the rules as we go, and I’m not a fan of the appearance of IndyCar shenanigans.

But for some stupid reason, I’m still a fan of IndyCar.

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