Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Wednesday: Botched Restarts, Pit Road Changes and This Year’s Storylines

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/NHRA Pace Laps)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer / NASCAR’s Four Burning Questions)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer / Happiness Is)

Welcome to the 2014 season! Let’s get right down to it: the botched restart at St. Petersburg. It’s the topic of conversation, of course, so let’s jump right on with our thoughts.

Matt: Just absolutely ridiculous. I wrote about it in this week’s edition of Pace Laps. Basically, it doesn’t matter whether Power was telling the truth or if the other drivers were. There is clearly a massive gray area in the rules that allows a driver to essentially brake check the field on a restart. To me, that is a big problem.
Toni: Other than going from two-wide to single file, did we change the restart rules beyond that? That’s my question. Was it up to the leader to pace them and were there cones last year? Because if the only difference is single file versus double file, what was the confusion?

Our IndyCar experts return to debate what really happened on the first restart in St. Petersburg to cause the crash that took out Marco Andretti and Jack Hawksworth.
Our IndyCar experts return to debate what really happened on the first restart in St. Petersburg to cause the crash that took out Marco Andretti and Jack Hawksworth.

Huston: Matt, I love your adamant stance. However, and I feel like this response is terrible, I think it’s much ado about nothing. Botched restarts seem to be common in all forms of racing. Was it a problem, yeah, but it happens.
Matt: I’ve never seen a driver just brake check the field like that though and be able to get away with it. It is
sooooooo dangerous in IndyCar. If this was a stock car race it wouldn’t be a big deal at all, but my gosh, you can’t have drivers tripping over each other like that on a restart with open cockpits.
Huston: I’ll give you that on the danger front… not good. Power states he didn’t touch the brake pedal and said people can check his telemetry. Whether or not that plays true, well…
Matt: Whether Power meant do to it or not, it is a problem. Either IndyCar needs to get a specific restart zone like NASCARhas that the drivers start from, regardless of the flag man, or IndyCar needs to police drivers who bring the field to the green at an unsafe pace. It absolutely needs to be addressed.
Toni: Everyone is debating did he or didn’t he as far as Power goes or why did he not get black-flagged, but why are we not discussing whether race officials screwed up? If, as he says, and TV seemed to back this up, they weren’t to the cones, if you are Power, do you go with the flag and ignore the cones and risk getting black-flagged for jumping it or do you hold until you get to the cones? And what if, while you are deciding this, everyone behind you just sees the flag and goes?
Matt: Also, I don’t necessarily think Power brake checked the field per se (although it did look like it). His speed was highly questionable.
Huston: With you on that one. Power made it seem like there was confusion about the restart zone. OK, possible. But the whole thing just seemed wonky.
Matt: Like I said, someone screwed up. It was either Power or IndyCar, and it needs to be looked at so it doesn’t happen again. You could just hear the disgust in the announcer’s voices as the accident was happening. It was a totally unnecessary wreck.
Toni: And that’s why I am asking — do we go with the flag or the cones? And is there a different procedure than in past years?
Matt: I think the drivers should go on the cones since it’s obviously more consistent.
Huston: I don’t know if there’s a different procedure. But the cones have to be the spot — which then brings the question: is a flagman necessary then?
Toni: I agree. And if that’s what we’re going with, they weren’t to the cones yet.
Matt: At the least, it should be one or the other. There shouldn’t be two conflicting start signals.
Toni: Power says that’s what confused him. He wasn’t to the cones but they threw the flag. TV replay backed up that he wasn’t to the cones yet.
Matt: Frankly, I’m sick of all of these restart snafus in IndyCar. Restarts have been a huge issue for this series for wayyyyyy too long now. IndyCar needs to get the restart rules ironed out, and the rules need to be concrete and objective.
Toni: I agree because if they are, there is no debate. Half the people are saying he should have gone because the flag was out and half saying he was in the right because he wasn’t to the cones.
Huston: Maybe Sunday’s incident will force them to do just that. Why they haven’t already been addressed is amazing.
Matt: And Toni, that’s why I don’t discount Power’s explanation, because if there are two start signals, that is understandably confusing.
Toni: It needs to be set — flag or cones. And that’s why I don’t necessarily think it was an intentional brake check.
Huston: Maybe the flag person was jumpy because he or she had sat there for so long without doing anything… that was a long green-flag run to get the season going.
Toni: I think Power’s speed was questionable but I think it was because it was a hesitation out of confusion. Power had a moment when he didn’t know what he was supposed to do because of the conflicting signals.
Huston: It didn’t kill the race, but is a subject that needs more scrutiny.
Matt: I agree to that point, Huston.
Toni: It didn’t kill the race, unless you were Marco Andretti or Hawksworth, and it didn’t change the podium, but it was kind of a shame to see it be the big topic of discussion. I hate starting out with a controversy.
Matt: Certainly didn’t “ruin” the race, but it didn’t help the sanctioning body’s image from an officiating standpoint.

INDYCAR also instituted a new pit road procedure, closing the pits when a caution comes out and opening them to all competitors at once. Thoughts on how this situation went?

Huston: To give a middle school answer: Went fine.
Toni: Doing things NASCAR-style, essentially. And it seemed to go off without a hitch.
Matt: Yeah. No problems there. Seemed to go off without a hitch. Ha! Jinx!
Huston: One of the problems with judging this kind of thing is that there weren’t enough cautions to see how this change may or may not affect the race. Anyone else surprised at the lack of cautions for St. Pete?
Toni: No, I agree. And I’m wondering, does it take some strategy out of the hands of the teams? Maybe some that made a difference on a podium or two? I was also surprised by the lack of cautions though. Particularly on the first lap. Every time they race on this kind of course they pile into the first turn eight wide and crash.
Matt: I honesty wasn’t, Huston. The street races have been generally clean and green for the most part in the DW12 era. Toronto is usually a mess every year and then one or two other street races tend to have a lot of cautions, but for the most part, IndyCar road course events tend to be pretty darn clean. I don’t have the stats on hand at the moment, but I believe there have been two caution-free road/street events in the DW12 era.
Toni: They did note that the first four cars, I believe, used push to pass going into that first turn to get out of the fray. And oddly, that may have been enough for them all to make it through clean. So, there you have it. An actual good use for push to pass.
Huston: Whoa… we’re advocating for push to pass? It IS a new season…
Toni: No, let’s not get crazy here. I said AN actual good use. I still don’t like push to pass though. Other than as a tool not to wreck on lap 1.
Huston: Ok, whew.
Toni: Let’s not get carried away here!
Matt: Overall, I’m happy and satisfied with the aforementioned pit road rule changes.
Huston: Need more evidence to see how the new pit road/caution rule works, but seemed good so far.

Television. Several things here. Allen Bestwick moves over from NASCAR to head up the booth. What did you think of the coverage? And also, the dismal TV ratings — 0.6. That’s awful. It bears discussion, too.

Toni: First, Bestwick. I have always liked Allen Bestwick and I thought it was a great addition to the booth. And, you know, I particularly liked the fact that he admitted he’s new to IndyCar, doesn’t quite know all the nuances just yet, and he leaned on his boothmates to ask questions and learn things on the go. I liked that.
Huston: First, felt the coverage was decent — nothing special, nothing terrible. But the ratings, egads. Not good. Sure, going against the Cup race was an issue. And then there was that sport with the brackets that ten million people were watching, but ouch. For being on the major network, that kind of return has to have ABCbaffled, and possibly concerned.
Matt: Allen Bestwick is a consummate professional and is without question the best play-by-play racing announcer in the business. He was a fantastic addition to the IndyCar lineup. As for the TV ratings, well…there’s a few things to keep in mind here. First off, there was a TON of competition from the mainstream sports world. You had two March Madness Elite 8 games that drew massive audiences, a NASCAR race, PGATour golf, and a smattering of NBA and NHL games. So all that considered, I’m not overly shocked at the low rating. The sad part, of course is that at this point, the ratings can’t get much lower. You could put a middle school chess match on network TV on a Sunday afternoon and get an 0.6 rating.
Toni: Yeah, but I am going to throw something else out there. I was covering this race and covering NHRA simultaneously. I was accomplishing this stuff in part through social media. I was on Tweetdeck. I had multiple feeds going on. I had my home feed, which is loaded with NASCAR, I had #NHRAVegas, I had #FirestoneGP, and I had #IndyCar going. The two IndyCar feeds were moving at like 100 mph. The whole race, I could barely keep up with them. At least two things trended into the top 10. So I don’t get it. How can a Twitter feed seem to be blowing up when there is no one watching?
Huston: So are you insinuating the IndyCar gets better coverage through the new media platforms or that followers of the sport prefer that method?
Toni: I don’t know. I just don’t get it. They seemed to be watching the race. But I also know they weren’t all American.
Matt: Here’s another thing to keep in mind: TV ratings tend to naturally decrease for pretty much every major sport that isn’t the NFL every year simply because of the ever-increasing number of cable channels and the rise of alternative methods to watch sports, such as internet streaming.
Huston: There’s an interesting aspect — what were the global numbers?
Toni: I don’t know what the broadcast package is in other countries, but there were certainly a lot of British fans on the feed. Because when Cheever remarked that Hawksworth sounded like Nigel Mansell, the thing blew up with offended Brits.
Matt: The best way to track a sport’s popularity these days is to do a Google Trends search of the sport in question. TV Ratings have become a bit of an outdated method of measuring raw popularity. Of course, that’s a story for another day. So if IndyCar is seeing increases or healthy numbers in terms of internet keyword traffic, that is an excellent sign.
Toni: All the Brits piped up at the wanker incident too. That may have been when the race feed trended. Matt, you raise a good point. Are we too alarmed at the TV ratings? Are they an accurate way to truly gauge the sport’s popularity?
Huston: Thought the wanker thing was funny, as it was a Brit who introduced me to the term in college. He never seemed to have too much trouble with it.
Toni: I learned an interesting bit on that. Apparently, it’s massively offensive — think 7 words you can’t use on TV — in Britain. But most Americans don’t know what it means, and it’s still derogatory but not as offensive — it’s used in media — in Australia.
Matt: Yeah, wanker is not cool to say in Britain.
Toni: Well, if he learned that term from Will, he probably didn’t see any reason he couldn’t say it on TV, but the Brits on Twitter almost passed out! I should also note there were also a lot of feeds popping up in Spanish and Portuguese, too.
Huston: TV is still the big machine and the basis for so much of the decision-making, so it’s tough to discount them.
Matt: I think the TV ratings are important to keep an eye on, but they are no longer the only metric that matters. Search traffic is a far better way to measure popularity these days.

What interests you about this race or the upcoming season?

Huston: One quick note… I watched the F1 and Cup races before IndyCar, and I thought that Indy looked great on TV. The cars looked fast, which, for some reason, is not always the case with racing. Not sure if it was because of the angles used or what, but that’s gotta be a positive.
Toni: An F1 note — a lot lot lot lot of the Twitter folks who were watching IndyCar commented on how much better it was than the F1 race. They weren’t impressed with F1. A number were flipping back and forth between Cup and IndyCar.
Matt: Hmm, how about we talk about the Penske/Ganassi trash talk?
Toni: Well on that note, I found it kind of funny that the guy who stuck up for Will Power on the restart thing was Scott Dixon. That was out of the bizarro universe. But yeah, the trash talk thing generates interest. I think it’s a good thing.
Huston: As for the trash-talking: more more more. Good call, Toni.
Matt: I think it’s funny that Ganassi’s people tried to paint the team as some sort of an underdog in comparison to Penske, which is obviously ridiculous as we all know each team is so far ahead of every other team in the paddock that it’s not even close.
Toni: I think a rivalry is never a bad thing. But you know, there is a certain perception of Penske as top dog. Yeah, Ganassi and Penske are obviously far ahead of everyone else, so Ganassi is not an underdog in that sense.
Huston: Right. Pretty sure Ganassi won that thing called the championship last year.
Matt: Exactly. Ganassi has no business calling anyone an underdog. Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti are all absolutely on the same level, financially and otherwise.
Toni: But between the two, you could almost make a case because Penske has such history, so many wins and Indy 500s. Ganassi is a Johnny Come Lately in comparison.
Matt: That’s a fair point Toni, but given Ganassi’s recent success in IndyCar, it’s pretty laughable to call them an underdog.
Toni: An underdog on the whole, no, they are certainly not. I agree. What about Hawksworth? He made quite a splash.
Huston: Indeed. Ran well until the restart incident. Great to have some new drivers in the series, let’s hope they last.
Matt: He was very solid in Indy Lights.
Toni: He made a splash both on and off the track actually. It was fun. But I have high hopes for a guy who’s not afraid to go out there, mix it up AND doesn’t do anything stupid all at the same time in his first race.
Matt: He’s just a good hard-nosed racer. Real hard worker, too. It’s taken him awhile to get here and you get a sense that he is not going to let this opportunity slip. I almost get a Keselowski-like vibe from him.
Matt: Overall, I think the trash talk is good fun and should be interesting to watch going forward.
Huston: Not a bad way to start the season. Had hoped JPM would be more of a factor, just for entertainment’s sake, but that may come later. Looking forward to Long Beach.
Toni: Give him a bit. He’s been out of open wheel for awhile and has never been in a DW12 before. He’ll get there. I’m looking forward to Long Beach, too.
Matt: Yup. Long Beach should be a lot of fun.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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