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Open Wheel Wednesday: Season Opener Round Table

Welcome to our first IZOD IndyCar Series Round Table of the year. From time to time, the Frontstretch panel of open-wheel writers will get together and discuss some of the big topics affecting INDYCAR. In this opening edition, we talk about new rules, new driver/team pairings, IndyCar television coverage, and leadership within the sport.

New season, fresh start! What are your thoughts on some of the rule changes for this season that give the teams more leeway on strategy and try to take mileage runs off the table? (starting on any amount of fuel, making it anything goes with tires during qualifying, changing race distances)

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor: I like it but I wonder how it’s going to play out. Are teams going to go on their own strategies or do you go with the herd?
Huston Ladner, Senior Writer: Anything that encourages more in-race strategizing is welcomed. It gives teams all kinds of opportunities to give different ideas a chance.
Matt Stallknecht, Senior Writer: Tire strategy makes for fantastic racing. Fuel strategy makes for snorefests. Putting the focus on tire strategy is a good thing.

Is there anything INDYCAR can do to minimize fuel mileage racing and keep the competition exciting to the end? Credit: INDYCAR LAT USA

Huston: The problem that can arise is one of conservatism and too many teams doing the same thing.
Toni: That’s what I mean—is it going to play out that taking those chances works or are they all just going to end up doing the same thing anyway?
Huston: What’d be great to see is for a mid-level team to discover something that works and steal a couple wins.
Toni: Matt, I think fuel strategy is a snorefest when it comes down to stretching it but that’s what they are trying to discourage. Starting with light fuel tanks is obviously not going to lead to an economy run. And changing distances was meant for the same—put it too far out of reach to try or shorten it so that economy runs won’t work because they can all make it on a certain number of stops without having to stretch.
Matt: Well, on road and street circuits, there will always be someone deviating from the conventional race strategy due to how spread out the field gets. But in oval races this type of strategy is rarely effective, and the field spread is such that pulling that kind of strategy really only serves to hurt you.
Huston: Yeah, I’ll agree there. not sure that these changes will have much impact on the ovals — though maybe tire strategy could become a part of them.
Matt: Like I said, anything that can be done to eliminate economy runs is a positive change.
Huston: Yeah, it got old hearing engineers tell drivers to run the mix light. That’s no fun — you want the drivers pushing for as much as they can get.
Toni: I agree they are less effective for the ovals—that’s why NASCAR can’t get rid of fuel mileage racing either.
Matt: Well, there are ways you could mess with tire strategy that could completely take fuel mileage out of the equation. If you have a fast-wearing tire that necessitates more frequent pit stops for tires, it makes economy runs impossible. F1 does it now and most of the fans over there love the fast wearing Pirellis.
Huston: Agreed. That first race in F1 really showcased the tire drop off. The whole concept, however, shows that INDYCAR is willing to take chances to improve their product. Innovation is good.
Toni: Does anyone besides me think that INDYCAR does this in a way that is so much better than what NASCAR does? It seems they tweak things that are more natural and NASCAR runs right to the contrived.
Huston: I’ve always felt that NASCAR is awfully conservative.
Toni: I’ve figured it out—at least in this case. INDYCAR is merely putting options on the table using what they already have instead of doling out special parts or track specific this or that.
Matt: Push to pass seems awfully contrived to me though.
Huston: Push to pass needs to be changed into the DRS that F1 uses.
Toni: Ugh on Push to pass. I’ve never liked it. That is a huge exception. I agree. I just hadn’t been thinking about it in this round because it’s not new. But I hate that they brought it back last year. I liked it better when it was gone.
Matt: Plus, the only reason I think INDYCAR hasn’t implemented some of the things NASCAR has in terms of strategy (i.e. double-file restarts on ovals, green white checkereds, etc.) is simply because they would be too dangerous for open wheel racing. If it was safe I’m fairly sure INDYCAR would have implemented all of those things for good.
Huston: I’m happy they’ve avoided the GWC — not a fan.
Toni: They’ve toyed with ways to finish under green but I agree that GWC would be playing with fire for them.
Matt: I’m fine with GWCs in NASCAR but they would not be feasible in IndyCar. IndyCar is not a contact sport; NASCAR is. We have to always remember that.
Huston: Keep coming up with ideas, INDYCAR — everything should be in play.
Matt: INDYCAR is taking a nice approach to switching things up with strategy this season. I’d just like to see a faster-wearing tire on the road and street courses.

Lots of new team / driver pairings for this season. What do you think is the best match and which do you think is the worst?

Toni: I think Simona de Silvestro is going to back up the hype and excitement about her new opportunity, although a little pause about yesterday, she has finished better at that track in lesser stuff.
Matt: I love the Graham Rahal/Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing combo. Graham and his dad are very close and both parties are starting to come into their own in terms of what they do. RLL is a team on the upswing and Graham is developing into a fine young driver. I’m keeping my eye on that pairing this season.
Toni: I’m still pretty sure A.J. Foyt is going to kill Takuma Sato before the year is over. Maybe before we get to Indy.
Huston: I think that the best and worst is the pairing of the Rahals together. It could be a great match, and it could also go into the kitty litter. The Sato – Foyt pairing might just be fantastic entertainment.
Toni: I think the time apart did the Rahals some good—let Graham develop somewhat elsewhere. And to me it does seem like it could be a good thing now.
Matt: As for the worst, E.J. Viso and Andretti Autosport just doesn’t gel for me. E.J. has pace, but he does nothing but tear up equipment. He is just going to be a drain on resources for that team. I get that he brings a ton of money to the team but all of that will be negated by how much he tears up his cars this year.
Toni: I found that pairing odd too—I had the same thoughts. What were they thinking? Was it really worth the sponsor dollars given how much Viso tears up? Viso and Sato are very much alike in that sense. Fast fast fast. But not smart smart smart.
Huston: That’s a good question, as Viso seems to destroy as much stuff as Sato. You need hefty insurance policies for either.
Matt: I have no issue with pay drivers at all whatsoever, but I really think Viso needs to be somewhere where the team can put all of their focus on him and ensure his head is screwed on straight. E.J. is clearly the 4th man at Andretti and as such is essentially on an island.
Toni: I’m not sure any team would want to make Viso their only driver…they might want to finish a race or two.
Matt: Toni, it wouldn’t be a very good situation for the team, but that’s what Viso himself needs I think. At Andretti, all of his inevitable screw-ups will be overlooked in favor of his star teammates and no one on the team is going to really be concerned with helping E.J. improve his racecraft.
Toni: Schmidt was a big surprise with Pagenaud last year and now they look like they are going to do it all over again with Vautier.
Huston: Vautier was impressive yesterday. His interview after he retired was fun — reminded me of Ricky Bobby early in Talladega Nights. But he looks promising.
Matt: Vautier is a special driver. I mostly overlooked him when he was in Indy Lights and attributed most of his success there to superior equipment. But alas, he seems to be the real deal.
Huston: Is it Saavedra who dropped to Lights last year and bounced back up this year? I kind of like that move and hope it will bring some rewards.
Toni: Saavedra was in over his head the first time he came up so I think the step back was a really smart move.
Matt: I haven’t really seen enough out of Saavedra to make a clear judgment on him. Just need to see a wider body of work from him to get an idea of what he’s capable of.
Huston: He’s kind of a reclamation project at this point, and it’s always interesting to see how those turn out. He was driving rather well for the first half of the race — and then came the gremlins.
Toni: With Saavedra what we need to do I think is clear our slates. I was not impressed with him the first time he tried the big series, but he took the step back and I think we need to remember that and give him a chance. And if I’m honest, Saavedra took over Katherine Legge’s car—were we expecting much out of that second Dragon car anyway?
Matt: When he came into the series the first time around, there was a complete dearth of talent and he was really just one of many field fillers. Now he has kind of “earned” his way back to the top, so in my mind this is like his rookie year. Saavedra is a massive step up over Legge.
Toni: Actually for me, the first impression I had of Saavedra was the guy who nearly killed himself trying to make the 500 because he was sooooo not ready.
Huston: I’m keeping an interested and skeptical eye on the Rahals. Putting business and family together makes for its own drama. Vautier and Saavedra are the names I’ll be keeping in mind as things progress.

One of the biggest issues for INDYCAR is the hit and miss nature of publicizing the sport. Let’s talk about the television package. When it was Versus, many people felt like it got buried on an off network. Now it’s NBC Sports Network, Speed Channel is going away, meaning F1 is now there as well, and a portion of the schedule is on ABC, so is this an opportunity for a big push for the on-air product?

Toni: Did you notice the nice cross-promotion by showing the normal human hour F1 replay right after the IndyCar race? And of course the lead in of the Indy Lights? I think there is an interesting opportunity here for NBC with Speed going away. And I rather like having one stop shopping for IndyCar and F1.
Huston: Thought that the race on Sunday was a big step up. Keeping Indy and F1 tied together is an important strategy — not so much that loads of F1 fans are going to suddenly jump into Indy as so much that it keeps Indy in people’s attention spans.
Matt: INDYCAR actually may have stumbled into something great almost totally inadvertently. IndyCar was essentially grandfathered in to the NBC Sports Network package with the Versus rebranding. I see NBCSN as a channel on the rise, and one that is rapidly gaining clout in the sports business world. Through the sheer upward mobility of the NBC Sports Network and cross promotional opportunities with channel-mate F1, IndyCar could see some decent growth.

What do INDYCAR and the networks need to do to capitalize on the sport’s great personalities and exciting racing? Credit: INDYCAR LAT USA

Huston: Not only that, aside from Robin Miller, who seemed lost yesterday, the production of the race seemed half decent (though I did hear there was more action that could have been shown).
Toni: Oh come on, I love seeing pudgy old Robin do the grid run. It’s one of the highlights for me. Someone remarked to me how superior the IndyCar broadcast is over NASCAR too and I have to agree—you cannot fault the job they do of really putting a great race on TV.
Matt: NBCSN and IndyCar are perfect for each other. They are both right on the fringes of the mainstream, and both are looking to reestablish themselves in the sports world.
Huston: In a way, NBCSN could become a de facto Speed channel. If they can get part of the next NASCAR package, they’d keep motorsports fans’ eyes. I’d also like to point out that NBCSN is a fan of replaying the F1 races numerous times which Speed seemed reluctant to do for some reason. I’m also happy that NBCSN hasn’t started any stupid reality shows.
Toni: That’s what I was thinking Huston. There are a lot of unhappy motorsports fans about the Speed thing. NBCSN might have a great opportunity to step in there.
Matt: NBCSN wants to be ESPN. NBCSN brings in more casual viewers than Speed Channel did, so that hopefully will translate to some new eyes on IndyCar.
Huston: Speed had been devolving for the past couple years, which certainly makes the opportunity for NBCSN that much better.
Matt: I’m honestly glad to see Speed Channel die. All of the meaningful programming that was left on the channel is being redistributed to Fox Sports One and NBCSN. The other 90% of what was left on Speed was complete and utter crap that had no place on a motorsports channel.
Toni: You hit on it Huston—those stupid reality shows. Those are the death of Speed Channel.
Huston:: Totally. Bye bye Speed. At this point, it won’t even be seriously missed.
Matt: All that being said, INDYCAR must make sure that the ABC races are promoted correctly. Those races are still the bread and butter of this series and the ticket to meaningful growth.
Huston: Agreed, ABC barely cared when they showed Indy races last year.
Toni: The 500 is the only ABC race that really gets a push. They need to push the others much more. Why don’t they do that at Indy? They’ve got the attention on them then.
Matt: I don’t know what races are on ABC off the top of my head, but aside from Indy which is obvious, Pocono and Fontana are both huge races which need to be on a major network (ABC), If INDYCAR wants this Triple Crown thing to work, the other two legs of the Triple Crown need to get a boost in clout, and the only people who can really make that happen are the networks.
Huston: Good call Matt. For the Triple Crown to mean anything, it’s got to have cross-network hype.
Toni: Indy, Detroit, Texas, Iowa, Pocono are on ABC. Fontana is on NBCSN.
Matt: Fontana needed to be an ABC race. Detroit has no business being on a major network. Texas and Iowa are certainly welcome additions to the ABC lineup though. Texas is arguably the fourth biggest race on the calendar.
Huston: The problem with ABC and Fontana is that its during college football, and ABC loves their college football.
Matt: That’s very true, I didn’t even think of that. In that case, why not have NBC (yes, the main network) take that race for a special one-off? INDYCAR needs to put more pressure on the networks to make this stuff happen.
Huston: It will be interesting to see how the next television deal works out
Matt: Sadly, INDYCAR doesn’t bring a whole lot to the negotiating table at the moment other than a guaranteed 4.0+ rating for the Indy 500. And that’s not even a total guarantee anymore.
Huston: Right now, I’m pretty happy with the NBCSN arrangement. They seem like they are invested and bringing a good show (though that’s with just one race). The trick will be as the season progresses and how jumping networks goes.
Toni: I so wish Detroit were not the race after Indy. They get so much momentum after a good 500 and then it dies the next race in Detroit. But that’s a topic for another day. Don’t worry-we will discuss the schedule in a future round table.

Right now, there is not a strong guiding presence at the helm for INDYCAR (sorry, Jeff Belskus, interim CEO, just calling it like we see it) so in spite of moves and changes being made and new ideas being carried out, there is a perception that the sport lacks direction. Obvious solution is to find that new CEO but in the interim, what can INDYCAR do to minimize damages?

Toni:Maybe more than a perception. My sense is we’ve got all these ideas Bernard put out there and started in motion and we’re continuing and carrying those out. But then what? There doesn’t seem to be a “then what.”
Matt: This is the toughest question in the sport right now. You almost get this dreadful feeling that no one wants to be the CEO of this sport.
Toni: Maybe because no matter what his other issues, Bernard did do a great job of plotting a course for this sport. And no one quite knows how to pick that up and keep it going. And no one wants to try.
Huston: Yeah, this job seems thankless. The guys in charge right now don’t seem to be too bad. But the CEO position seems like it has been in flux way too frequently the past few years.
Toni: I don’t think the people in charge are bad, it’s more like I feel like they don’t quite know what to do or where to go beyond what’s been clearly mapped. What is the next move?
Matt: If the sanctioning body could get a big time infusion of cash flow somehow, the CEO position would have a lot more power and it would overall be a more attractive job. But until the financial situation cools off, the CEO is nothing but a puppet for the Board of Directors.
Huston: Yeah, the big problem currently is the lack of power. Not only does the board have such a sway, but owners like Penske and Ganassi also have their pull.
Toni: I said this last year—open-wheel racing has always suffered from not having that strong leader at the helm—something NASCAR really got right.
Matt: There are so many issues at hand right now that there is no next move. They need to freeze out the crazy sway of the owners, they need to find one CEO and stick with him, and they absolutely MUST get this sport at least somewhat profitable again before they can even attempt to start fixing any other issues.
Toni: My fear is without a definite plan—a “then what” for what happens beyond what’s already playing out, the sport just falls apart.
Huston: A plan A? I was under the impression that Indy just let things happen and didn’t understand the concept of a plan.
Matt: Notice how there is no Board of Directors that act like svengalis over NASCAR? Brian France answers to no one, whether you agree with him or not. INDYCAR needs to take a lesson.
Toni: Because NASCAR has always been a dictatorship run by the France family. And no owner ever in NASCAR has thought they were above that. By no means do all the NASCAR owners always like all the things NASCAR does. But it’s been made clear since the start of NASCAR that there are other places you can race and NASCAR will go on with out you if you don’t like what the game is. And they go right along with it.
Huston: Same pattern works in F1 too. Ecclestone does what Ecclestone wants.
Matt: I’m not even sure that kind of a pseudo-coup-d’etat is even logically possible. How does one usurp authority if no one believes that person deserves authority?
Huston: Ah, getting philosophical, eh Matt?
Matt: Sadly, there are a great many philosophical issues that plague IndyCar. Their whole philosophy on everything is just completely out of whack. Randy Bernard had some cool ideas, but he had no real power when it came down to it. Whoever is elected CEO needs to be given total autonomy.
Huston: Correct. There has to be some power in the power structure for the CEO.
Toni: Because no one really backed Bernard. The owners still didn’t think they needed to really follow anyone else’s leadership, the board backed down and left Bernard hanging because the owners complained. The owners in NASCAR understand the sport has been successful because they leave the running of the sport up to NASCAR—no one questions a France, even Brian. I wish they could be the same within INDYCAR.
Matt: Hence the reason why NASCAR is and has been successful.
Toni: The crazy part is some of these same owners are in NASCAR and they don’t even think about complaining and fighting Brian France.
Matt: That’s just it Toni, if anyone in INDYCAR wants things to work out, they need to simply agree to submit to the new CEO and let him call the shots. There are too many hands in the pie right now.
Huston: Holy crap! We’re actually wanting something in Indy to be more like NASCAR? Egads!
Matt:Matt: We all rag on NASCAR for this and that, but at the end of the day that sport is run extremely well.
Toni: Yeah but that’s the only thing. So there it is—if you could mash INDYCAR and NASCAR together you’d have the perfect motorsports property.
Huston: I just enjoyed the irony. Thought a chuckle would be good.
Matt: Whoever the CEO is will likely just be a puppet for the Hulmans, and the vicious cycle will likely continue.
Toni: It’s one thing NASCAR does so much better, but it’s one big thing. I hope you are wrong Matt but I also am afraid you aren’t.
Huston: I want to be hopeful that Indy is going to make a smart move here but the past offers an indication of the future — so it’s hard to get too optimistic.

Connect with Toni!

Contact Toni Montgomery

Connect with Huston!

Contact Huston Ladner

Connect with Matt!

Contact Matt Stallknecht

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