Welcome to the IndyCar Round Table! Several times throughout the season, your favorite writers will get together to discuss the latest IndyCar news, rumors and so much more!
*This Week’s Participants*:
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch IndyCar Editor / Michael Annett Driver Diary)
Danny Peters (The Yellow Stripe / IndyCar Writer)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer)
*With the cancellation of the China race this past weekend, consensus is still that trying to throw together a replacement was a bad idea, but it left the IZOD IndyCar Series with no presence at all for essentially three weeks in the prime of racing season. What does this do to the momentum of the series and how can they get folks back and interested for the run to the championship?*
Huston: Prime of racing season? I didn’t know there was such a thing.
Toni: I think there is. You can maybe get away to a gradual start of the season, and Indy traditionally only has the one race in May, but when it’s summer and you are gearing up for a championship battle, it seems like a huge momentum killer to me. I have to confess to me it feels like the IndyCar Series has been out of sight forever, maybe because everyone else has been in full swing.
Huston: The interesting aspect to that question is that both NASCAR and F1 have taken some kind of break in August. But because those other two series have taken breaks, it might have behooved INDYCAR to hold a race or two. I agree, their schedule is one of their things that holds them back. With only 15 races and a start date in March, why not just wrap up the whole she-bang at the end of August and then they wouldn’t compete with NASCAR, F1, and college and pro football?
Matt: Yikes. Not good to say the least. I was a vocal opponent of INDYCAR’s decision not to fill the spot, and this is mostly what I was worried about. NASCAR is at peak momentum right now with its race to the Chase, and most other major racing series have had at least a semi regular presence during Indy’s time off. IndyCar gets lost in the shuffle to begin with, thus a three-week gap in the schedule only further buries whatever momentum carried over from Mid-Ohio. And there wasn’t much of it to speak of anyway.
Toni: I still don’t think trying to throw together a race was a good idea, but the cancellation just dealt them a tough hand. How do you get up there and shout at people “Hey, we’re over here and we’re back now!”
Huston: The second part of the question, how does INDYCAR regain interest, is more difficult. With such a break, it seems tough to reclaim people’s focus.
Matt: Poor planning and scheduling has been my biggest gripe with INDYCAR the past few years, and I feel that if the sanctioning body really wants this league to take off, they MUST learn to schedule properly. Three-week gaps and a heavily unbalanced oval/road course ratio are things that can’t happen going forward.
Danny: I’m seeing this question a different way: We’ve now got three races in four weeks to decide what has been a fantastic race for the title. A number of drivers can technically still win but you’re really looking at four who are truly in the mix: Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon. I’m expecting a compelling and fascinating battle for the title that may just go down to the very last lap at Auto Club Speedway. Can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
Toni: I think they maybe missed some opportunities though to at least keep themselves in the public eye and hype that upcoming battle. Tagliani raced in NASCAR (last weekend at Montreal in the Nationwide Series), so why didn’t they hop on that for a publicity push? He raced Montreal because he had the sudden opening with the China cancellation.
Huston: The whole deal with the China race, cancellation and attempt to schedule another, makes the series look weak.
Toni: It seems to me with nothing going on on the track, they should have made some push to get publicity–should have found a way to get drivers out there. Even if they just went to some other races. Send out ambassadors and get them on TV.
Matt: As for what INDYCAR needs to do to regain interest, I think they need to focus on the race at Auto Club and really build that event into something larger than itself. That’s really the only race that’s going to get any meaningful attention in the greater racing world anyway over the next few months, so if I was INDYCAR I would be doing all I could to make sure that that event was truly a big deal. Get some bands lined up to play that weekend at the track. Build a great marketing campaign. Hype up the fact that the race will be 500 miles. Hype up the championship. If that race weekend is successful, Indy could benefit greatly.
Huston: Yeah, I still think that they haven’t figured out a way to market the drivers. They should be popping up all over the place, TV shows, radio shows, supermarkets, wherever.
Matt: Great point about the lack of marketing with the drivers. They are essentially invisible to the greater sports world. That has to change.
Huston: How come there is no hype for the fact that four drivers have a legitimate chance to win the title with three races to go? Where is the PR push?
Matt: Exactly my point Huston. There’s times when I feel like INDYCAR is so caught up in trying to fix tiny things that they forget to focus on the big stuff. One can only wonder what gets discussed behind closed doors at INDYCAR HQ.
Huston: I’d love to see how that braintrust works.
*Should the IZOD IndyCar Series even be doing international races or should they leave that to F1 and concentrate on building the audience in North America (or even in just the U.S. if you want to bring Canada into this discussion)?*
Danny: I think the crowds at both the Canadian races and also the Sao Paolo race earlier in the year show there is a healthy appetite for the series beyond the American borders. All three races will, I hope, be on the 2013 schedule. Certainly there’s work to be done to build the domestic audience but judging by the rumors swirling around next year that should be the case. One thing’s for sure, I hope we see more races.
Toni: I can see why Brazil, because there are a number of Brazilian drivers, although not as many as there have been in the past at times, and Brazilian sponsors, but why were we going to China anyway?
Huston: Consider me torn on this one. Seemingly half of the field comes from other countries, which means there’s likely appeal from outside the U.S. But I know so little about how they are selling the sport to places like, say, the U.K., Australia or Japan, that I don’t really know. In contrast, most of the races are run here in the States. So maybe this all illustrates another problem: IndyCar’s identity. Is it an international or American series? I don’t have a problem with them racing outside of the U.S., just do it right. Race on some of the F1 tracks, hit Australia, England, etc, just be smart in the scheduling.
Toni: I really think they need to pick one and focus on it. Personally, I am not sure they need to be racing all over the world right now. I think they need to differentiate themselves from F1. Although I do agree with Huston about drivers from other places. But why China? I can see maybe going to England or Australia for the same reasons as Brazil. I can see continuing Brazil. I’m all for Canada–I think it should at least be a North American series and not just a U.S. series.
Matt: This is tough. On one hand, IndyCar is unusual in that it is actually more popular in other parts of the world than it is here (the American Midwest being a notable exclusion). With that in mind, it makes sense that the series should spread its wings a bit and go international. But, the interest level in IndyCar’s home country is so dismal that I can’t help but feel it needs to be focusing on building American interest before it tries to build it elsewhere.
Toni: Funny Matt, but to the rest of the world a race car looks like an Indy car. To most Americans it’s a stock car and Indy cars are that wine and cheese crowd stuff.
Huston: Just call it IndyCar of the Americas, and run on those two continents. Speaking of which, how come there’s no race in Mexico?
Toni: I was just thinking that myself Huston. I would be in favor of including Mexico, although there are no Mexican drivers right now, are there?
Matt: IndyCar is more popular than NASCAR in Mexico I believe. The problem is many of the Mexican tracks are cash strapped and/or incapable of supporting a major league racing event.
Huston: No Mexican drivers that I’m aware of. Part of the confusion with IndyCar still comes down to the road course v. ovals. Not sure other countries have ovals. Oh, is the track that the Nationwide series used, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez (I believe), hurting?
Matt: There is one track in Mexico I’m aware of that has a 1.0 mile oval similar to New Hampshire. It is the Autodromo Miguel E. Abed. It could stage an Indy event, but I’m not sure the infrastructure is solid enough to support it. Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez used to be considered a world class venue, but that track is not in the same shape it was 10 years ago.
Huston: Bummer, I kind of liked that track.
Toni: Plus Mexico is a little scary these days so there would be safety concerns for the teams. I think the last time the NASCAR teams went, the haulers were a little nervous going through gang territory.
Matt: Exactly. Ten years ago Mexico would have been a great place to stage an event. But that country is in disrepair right now and likely too unstable for an already unstable sport.
Huston: Figure out what to do in the States before being aggressive abroad. Say, get 14 or so in the U.S. and go outside for another 4 or 5.
Matt: Let’s focus on bringing back the U.S. tracks that need to be on the schedule (Michigan and Pocono for sure) and focus on building interest here. After that, test out the international waters.
*A few changes were made to the track in Sonoma in an effort to give more places where drivers can get side by side and pass. Thoughts?*
Huston: This may be terrible, but I didn’t know they had made any changes. Where are they? And that shows how much INDYCAR keeps people out of the proverbial loop.
Toni: They changed the configurations of turns 7, 9, and 11 a little to make it more conducive to passing.
Danny: I visited the track at Sonoma on vacation a few weeks back and it really is a beautiful setting for a race. Given the importance of every point and position I think we’ll see plenty of passing (or attempts at passing) and the changes will hopefully be positive. As I said in answer to an earlier question, I really can’t wait for Sunday to see how it all unfolds.
Matt: I’m not sure it will have a huge effect. Turn 7 is definitely much improved, but this is a difficult track to pass on regardless of what layout is used.
Huston: I agree with Matt — passing is just plain difficult at this track.
Matt: Sonoma is a very technical road course to begin with. It certainly is better than a street course, but it is not exactly the kind of track that is going to be conducive to passing anyway. Consider these changes band aids more than anything else.
Toni: Anyone else find it interesting that they suddenly made changes after we’ve seen some less than spectacular and potentially momentum killing road races recently? Although it was another missed opportunity for publicity as Huston points out. When a NASCAR track does something in hopes of amping up the action, they let everyone know about it as loudly and boldly as possible.
Matt: Yeah, that definitely wasn’t an accident. The fact of the matter is that IndyCar is not well-suited for many of the road circuits that are on the schedule right now. As far as road racing goes, Indy cars run best on circuits which are high speed and have lots of sweepers and good flow to them. Watkins Glen and Road America come to mind as two tracks well suited for IndyCar racing.
Huston: It seems that on almost every road or street course that the racing becomes single file. What usually makes for passing is having someone’s tires fall off or some mechanical problem. Usually the best are at the front to begin and all that seems regardless of track.
Matt: Sonoma is a decent track for IndyCar, and the changes will help, but I wouldn’t expect it to be anything drastically different from last year.
Huston: Just curious, does anyone know why Watkins Glen wasn’t on the schedule?
Matt: It is due to a dispute INDYCAR had with International Speedway Corporation I believe. It’s a shame really, as Watkins Glen is easily the best road course in America. IndyCar always put on a great race there.
Toni: Watkins Glen has always been one of my favorites. Every series seems to put on a great show there.
Huston: I agree. I have felt that the Watkins Glen race is excellent. As for Sonoma, I’m just hoping that it proves interesting, rather than follow-the-leader. Any changes to help that concept are ok with me.
Matt: Watkins Glen is so great because it has a simple layout that is fast enough to promote drafting and has great flow through the corners. The changes to Sonoma were a step in the right direction, but we’ll have to wait and see if they provide any meaningful improvement to the racing.
*It’s Silly Season time so let’s speculate on who might be going where for 2013.*
Danny: I love some idle speculation just like the next man, but there seem to be too many variables at this stage (with three to go) to make many informed decisions. I will say this though: I think we’ll see a fair bit of movement.
Toni: Can I just say I am always lousy at trying to figure these things out?
Huston: Let’s see, how do I put this — um, no one of importance is going anywhere? The only person in a top-notch ride that I can see having a reason to sweat is Ryan Briscoe.
Toni: I find it interesting that Briscoe isn’t signed. And if it does mean he’s out, I wonder who they have their eye on for next season?
Matt: We know Graham Rahal is out at Ganassi for next year, so I’m expecting Simon Pagenaud to slot into the empty ride there. I see Graham bringing his Service Central sponsorship to his father’s team. I think Ryan Briscoe is out at Penske, and I think you could see Sebastian Bourdais possibly fill that void.
Huston: Briscoe is 9th in points and hasn’t really been a factor for most of the races. If I could fill the seat I’d be going after Simon Pagenaud. Really, Bourdais? He’s been spotty to me.
Matt: Bourdais and Pageanud would be the two best bets to fill a void on a big team.
Toni: Bourdais has been spotty more because of the teams he has been with than because he’s Bourdais. Interesting that Pagenaud is looking like the hot commodity. He’s definitely earned it but I just think it’s interesting because he seemingly came out of nowhere this year.
Matt: Bourdais is a 4x ChampCar title winner and a proven winner. It’s really quite a shame that he ISN’T in a top ride. 2013 may be his best shot at one.
Huston: Not to pooh pooh Bourdais, but crossing series doesn’t always equate to success. Having great car control in one doesn’t mean that it still exists in another. Franchitti’s foray into NASCAR serves as a pretty good example. I still wonder what Takuma Sato could do in a top ride, but that will probably not come to pass.
Toni: Sato just tears up too much stuff. None of the top teams are looking for that.
Huston: Yeah, that’s the rub. Maybe he needs his father to start a team so it won’t matter so much. I’m looking at you, Marco Andretti.
Matt: Marco is an oval guy at heart. The current schedule really puts him at a disadvantage.
Toni: So what about Briscoe? Is he done?
Huston: As for being a championship contender? Yes. He could catch lightning in a bottle and regain something with another team, but I doubt it.
Toni: And Sato for that matter–I have actually been surprised to see him continue to land rides with the same effect to each team owner’s bottom line.
Huston: Amazing isn’t it?
Toni: It is, but I don’t see it happening again.
Matt: I’m not sure what Briscoe’s deal is. I think he just needs a change in scenery. Of course, he’s already driven for AA and CGR in the past so the only step from where he’s at now is down.
Huston: I thought the change of scenery thing too, but maybe he just doesn’t have it anymore.
Matt: I’d love to see Briscoe give NASCAR a go. He’s at a point in his career where it would make sense to branch out a bit and try something new.
Huston: Sure, why not — go truck racing for a year and see what happens. It doesn’t seem like this silly season will be as active as others have been. Might even be somewhat quiet. Not too many names, and not too many rides. Pagenaud is the big name for right now.
Matt: Look for Pagenaud to land a ride at Penske or Ganassi and look for Graham Rahal to be piloting a car for his daddy. Bourdais is something of a dark horse in all of this and could end up a silly season winner himself.