Love NASCAR? Of course you do, that’s probably why you’re reading a NASCAR column! But this week, I’m going to switch it up and talk another type of racing..Indy cars. Yeah, that’s right, those funny-looking pointy cars that sound more like mosquitoes than monsters..and go really, really fast. The bottom line is, if you love racing but aren’t watching IndyCar, you’re missing a whole lot. As NASCAR revs up its championship Chase this weekend, IndyCar will be deciding theirs once and for all. You say you need some good reasons to try out the season-ending, championship-deciding IZOD IndyCar Series race this weekend? Well, then, try these on for size:
*1. There’s no Chase* That’s right, there’s no points reset, no gimmickry, and yet the title contenders are separated by just 17 points. The championship will—yet again—come down to the last race of the season. It often comes down to the last lap of the last race.
Why? It’s simple, really: INDYCAR has created a points system that makes sense. It rewards excellence while still keeping the spread close enough for the season title hunt to be close and exciting, often to be decided in the final laps of the season. The winner of an event receives 50 points. Second place gets 40, third 35, fourth 32. Points are meted out in decreasing two-marker increments from fourth to tenth place (tenth is good for 20 points) and then in one-point margin down to the 12 points awarded for 18th position. Everyone who finishes 18th-24th gets 12 points, and everyone from 25th place on back gets 10.
The points system evens the playing field while rewarding winning with a substantial advantage. Nobody is guaranteed a start, though it’s rare for teams to go home. A bad week doesn’t spell total disaster, but mediocrity isn’t rewarded and the only way to get an advantage in the championship is to win races. And best of all, fans are treated to an exciting, down-to-the-wire championship battle without the sanctioning body having to interfere.
INDYCAR also has one other cool element to their championship. In addition to the overall points champion, both an oval and a road course champion are crowned, giving a nod to drivers’ performances on the two major track types, and rewarding the best on each. It’s a nice touch for a series that keeps versatility in the mix with its track selections.
*2. Teams have some leeway with the cars* In NASCAR, one subject of consternation is the lack of freedom teams have to work on their cars within the rules. INDYCAR also has fairly tight guidelines, but there are more areas where teams can work, meaning that a team has the chance to hit on a setup that will give them an advantage—within the rules. On an Indy car, for example, both the front and rear wing are adjustable. While teams do have to work within a specified range determined for each track by INDYCAR, they are allowed some freedom to change the angles throughout a race. This allows teams to add downforce or reduce drag. At some tracks, there are also optional wicker strips that teams can elect to use (or not) on the wing. Traction control is allowed, which takes away the possibility of a team using it illegally, such as exists in NASCAR (despite actual stock cars having traction control these days).
The other competitive tool that IndyCar teams have that NASCAR teams do not is use of telemetry, during both practice sessions and races. NASCAR teams are only allowed to use telemetry in test sessions. If, for example, an Indy car driver suffers a tire problem, the team and driver know which tire is the problem. Teams don’t have to guess at how much fuel is in an Indy car; they know. They know how the engine is running and how the brakes are working. That lets them make decisions for on-track adjustments.
I’m not advocating that NASCAR make the jump to the use of telemetry during races, but the difference that having it makes in the racing is interesting, and the amount of technology on the cars is sure to please technophiles while keeping the gearheads interested…it’s something unique to open wheel racing that makes it different…and exciting.
*3. Tires that force teams to use strategy* Tire strategy was once a much bigger part of NASCAR than it is today, where at many tracks, the tires last for a fuel run or even longer. IndyCar teams, though, have to make critical decisions about the rubber that hits the road at every track…and they have to be able to change that strategy on the fly.
Unlike NASCAR, which uses a single tire compound at each track, IndyCar racing has two types of tire at every race. One type, the “black” (tires are marked with a colored stripe on the side wall, making it easy for fans and officials to tell at a glance which type a car is currently running), are designed to last longer, but have less grip. The “red” tires, on the other hand, have better grip but give up sooner. Teams have to use each type at least once in every race, and must build their pit strategies around using each type. And that’s if it doesn’t rain. Indy cars do race in the rain on road or street courses, but not on ovals, and making the switch to rain tires is another choice teams make. Treaded rain tires produce slower speeds, so put them on too early or leave them on too long and a team risks slowing down or tearing up the tires, but hold off too long and they risk spinning on slicks.
All of this adds up to excitement on the track in the form of passing, or of a team trying to stretch a red tire or coax speed out of a black. Tire strategy played a big role in the closeness of the championship battle as Will Power’s team elected to put rain tires on the car in Baltimore, but the rains never really came, and Power’s team was forced to give up track position to pit a second time to put slicks back on the car. Should Ryan Hunter-Reay squeeze past Power to take the title this weekend, one thing he can thank is a missed tire strategy…something that has all but disappeared from NASCAR today.
*4. A lot is in the driver’s hands* INDYCAR has been more proactive than NASCAR about making cars more difficult to drive (when drivers complained about pack racing at tracks like Texas, for instance, the sanctioning body made changes to the aerodynamic package that made the cars more difficult to drive, effectively putting the race more in the hands of the drivers and breaking up the packs). Drivers can also make several adjustments within the car. Like a NASCAR driver, an IndyCar racer can adjust brakes, but he (or she) can also change the fuel mixture to increase either power or fuel mileage. The driver can also shift the car’s weight from one tire to another on oval track.
One thing that has actually been taken out of the drivers hands is pit road speed. Indy cars are fitted with a limiter that drivers engage when they hit pit road and turn off when they leave. This eliminates speeding penalties, and the danger to crews, who, unlike NASCAR crews, go over the wall before the car enters the pits. If nothing else, this assures that the race will be settled through strategy and on-track prowess, not a speeding penalty.
*5. Speaking of drivers—there’s something for everyone* This isn’t different from NASCAR. The drivers in IndyCar are a diverse group both in nationality and personality, so any race fan should find someone to feel comfortable cheering for every week. From the outgoing and charming Helio Castroneves to the humorous Tony Kanaan, to the more reserved Scott Dixon. There are drivers from around the world who all bring unique qualities to the sport. Bottom line, if you can’t find someone to root for, you aren’t trying hard enough. Though IndyCar sometimes gets the reputation of being more for and about the “wine and cheese” crowd, in the series today, that is simply not true…there is a driver for every fan, and the fun part is getting to know them all.
*6. Rules and consequences for breaking them are clear and consistent* The big key here is that while many penalties are still up to the discretion of the sanctioning body (and in many cases they should be), INDYCAR doesn’t keep its rules under lock and key the way NASCAR does. In fact, the rule book is available on INDYCAR’s media site as a download, and any media member can download it and share the information with fans. That transparency is a good thing. One thing NASCAR has been oft criticized for is not making the rule book available, and from there it’s not a long jump for fans to wonder if there are different rules, or at least different interpretations of rules, for different teams. Having the rules out in the open eliminates that question.
Many penalties (or at least the minimum penalties) are listed in the rule book as well. For example, a car that doesn’t meet the minimum weight will receive at least a fine of $100,000. Drivers caught blocking (altering one’s racing line or using the racing groove to impede another driver is forbidden in IndyCar racing because of the danger it poses; open-wheel cars can’t use the chrome horn without causing major problems) will be black flagged for a pass-through penalty. Team orders, loathed by many NASCAR fans, are also forbidden by INDYCAR. Team orders result in a black flag for the offender.
Having the rules published and penalties consistent (though they do leave room for an increase for say, a repeat offender) is good for any sport. INDYCAR clearly recognizes that, while NASCAR fails to grasp the need for transparency.
*7. It’s affordable for fans* While the cost of attending a NASCAR race has skyrocketed, IndyCar remains a more affordable option. This weekend’s finale at Fontana offers tickets ranging from $30 to $65. Hotel rooms in Fontana can be had for under $100 a night. Contrast that with the Cup finale, where tickets start at $50 and run up to $135 each. And a hotel in Miami? Some of the same hotel chains that can be had in Fontana for the regular rate will run fans double the normal price, per their website. So, an Econo lodge for the IndyCar finale, in Fontana, will cost $101 per night—and that’s one of the more expensive hotels available. In Homestead, on the other hand the Econo Lodge runs at $235 per night. No, that’s not something NASCAR can control, but if race fans want to treat the family to a race weekend, overall, the IndyCar event gives the most bang for the fewest bucks.
*8. It’s racing* Finally, the cars look different and they surely sound different, but the engines still throb in time with the hearts of drivers and fans alike. It’s racing…and if you’re a race fan, you’re cheating yourself out of a thriller if you aren’t watching. More racing…what race fan wouldn’t want more racing?
The IZOD IndyCar Series heads to Fontana this weekend to decide the championship in what promises to be an exciting race where cars can pass each other and drivers will battle for 500 miles before anything is decided. (That’s right. I said exciting racing. With passing. _At Fontana!_That’s something you don’t see every day.) IndyCar racing isn’t NASCAR racing, nor does it have to be in order to be an exciting, interesting form of racing in its own right. It’s not a case of either, or here…it’s two different series with two vastly different types of racecars and styles…but it’s all racing. It’s not a case of choosing one over the other…why do that when you can watch both? In any case, race fans should be tuning in to the IndyCar finale this weekend…it’s going to be quite a show. And did I mention there’s no Chase?
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