Race Weekend Central

IndyCar Needs a Better Product for Short Ovals – Milwaukee Included

The last oval for the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season was good, but not great.

It was part entertainment and part I-465-construction-traffic-procession. 

That will happen, sometimes, and IndyCar shouldn’t include artificial sweeteners to spice up the racing like stage breaks, double file restarts or overtime. IndyCar’s events run to their advertised distance and a dominant car and driver who stretches the lead with a team that nails the pit stops usually walk away with the victory. That effort in staying old-school is the series’ identity.

However there is some concern about IndyCar’s current flat track package. Since the switch to the Dallara Universal Aero Kit in 2018, the ability to follow in traffic has seen an increase in difficulty. At World Wide Technology Raceway the races have seen stagnant running for various lengths. On Sunday, (Aug. 27), it was no different. 

During the first stint, after the restart that followed Benjamin Pedersen‘s lap one crash, to Takuma Sato‘s pit stop on lap 49 that started the cycle, there were 21 overtakes for position. However, 18 of them occurred during the first five laps after the restart, when conditions were best.

Without the benefit of a green flag waving, the second stint was worse. Only three positions changed hands after the first pit cycle concluded when Scott Dixon came in on lap 68 and before Romain Grosjean stopped on lap 95. Three. The next pit window lasted until 121 when the yellow came out for Sato’s crash. When the race resumed, the next green flag run went from lap 135 to 163 and featured 23 overtakes (minus Agustin Canapino who pitted from seventh two laps in), with 19 in the first five laps after the restart.

StintTotal OvertakesOvertakes Within
5 Laps Of Restart
Lap 10 – 492118
Lap 68 – 9530
Lap 135-1632319
Note: Does not account for overtakes for cars pitting off cycle.

The rest of the race was more mangled, as different strategies led to a wide pit window, so it’s challenging to count up all the on-track passes that weren’t due to pitting. But the point of this data is to show that the on-track product shouldn’t be seen as a keeper. Whether because of tire wear, aero wash and turbulence from the UAK18 kit, or lack of downforce, IndyCar didn’t have a great show.

This isn’t a Gateway concern either. The quality of racing at the Indianapolis 500 has greatly differed between the spec Dallara DW12 kit or the manufacturer kits used later and the current car. Using one stint as an example from this year’s Memorial Day race, after the first round of pit stops finished on lap 36, only 10 positions changed hands before the next stops began on lap 56. At Pocono, where the series ran for two years with this car before the track fell off the schedule, the racing was not as close or competitive as it was prior to 2018. 

See also
Scott Dixon Doubles Down on Fuel Strategy to Win at Gateway

No way does this take away from Dixon’s great result. If there is something to remember about the race it’s that Dixon is legendary at fuel saving. But he didn’t race his way to the front from his nine-place grid penalty for an engine change. In fact the difficulty in overtaking may have been the impetus the team needed to choose the different, but ultimately winning, strategy. 

The series isn’t in a bad spot with the current package, evidence by the over a million viewers that watched Sunday. However, they should prioritize a solution to find the competitive balance so drivers can actually race at Gateway and certainly at Indianapolis. Don’t let the finish of this year’s Indy 500 fool you. Yes, there was a memorable finish with Josef Newgarden’s pass for the lead on the last lap to win, but the battle mid-pack is nonexistent. Cars that get buried there are trapped. That’s not great racing. 

Besides the two current flat tracks at Indy and Gateway, improving the show will enable future events to put on good races to entice fans to return. Know what could be around the corner for the series? A return to Milwaukee.

If the rumors of Milwaukee’s rightful place back on the schedule become fact, that track will use the same package as Gateway. Before a car hits the asphalt at the Wisconsin Fairgrounds, the series has to emphasize putting a good product out there. Fans – who better attend – will want to see something that reminds them of the races Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy put on at the Milwaukee Mile. They don’t want a procession. Good cars should be able to race to the front and leaders should be able to work the traffic.

What are some possibilities that IndyCar could pursue for the future? First, there is no one factor, as motorsports and fast cars can be effected by various items. There’s also no engineer behind this keyboard, so the ideas aren’t technically sound or based on experience.

But lets take a glance at what options are out there.

Tires

Firestone tires are fantastic. They don’t fail and drivers never complain. Last weekend the series tried an alternate tire similar to street and road courses. But the effect on the racing wasn’t noticeable. With limited track time and the challenging overtaking opportunities, it didn’t seem to matter whether a driver was on reds or the primaries. Good try by IndyCar, though, as it’s clear they did this with every intention of improving the product. 

Drivers also didn’t seem to think the high line session to rubber in the second lane was useful. It possibly gave them confidence to race up there at the start but after that the marbles from the tires built up too much. This isn’t a new problem at Gateway either. After the first race back in 2017, race control has taken every yellow to clean off the turns to ensure the marbles are brushed away. But they will still build up on short notice, it’s just a racing thing. 

Do Indycar and Firestone try to make a tire that doesn’t degrade then? Will that lessen the rubber build up? If tires don’t degrade then the series is stuck in a situation where cars are running consistent throughout a full stint. If there aren’t any cars that are not handling well on old tires, then the field is possibly strung out with little activity. This was the case at the return to Phoenix in 2016 when eventual winner Dixon was stuck behind back markers and never over took them as they ran slightly worse then him but not enough to take advantage. 

Downforce

To Rick Mears‘ dismay, adding additional downforce could be an answer. If the cars are able to run flat through the turns, at least the wider turns 3 and 4 section, would that increase overtaking opportunities? 

Without an aerodynamic engineering degree, it’s hard to answer. Looking at the last IndyCar race at Milwaukee in 2015, the cars ran competitively there. The first race back at Gateway in 2017 also appeared closer than this previous weekend, however it was under the lights (more on that later). This year’s Indy 500 included more downforce options for teams, but the challenge remained in overtaking deep in the field. Texas was the standout, as the additional pieces appeared to help cars race side by side and not get as loose in the second lane as seen there since 2018. Downforce helped the banked track product, but not this year’s Indy 500 on it’s flat surface, so it’s a mixed bag on if that is the answer. 

Return To Under The Lights

IndyCars look glorious under the bright glow of stadium lights. That in itself evens out any bland racing product. In a summer’s cool, night air, with a slight breeze wafting the smell of sweet ethanol fuel up into the stands, a fan is fully immersed in the racing experience.

That evening sky also improves the product as well. With the lower temperatures, cars handle better through turns as the track dips in heat. The Gateway race has switched back and forth from night to daytime running, and last year the race started in the afternoon, but due to a rain stoppage, finished under the lights.

Unfortunately, television viewership isn’t stellar for weekend prime time races. IndyCar has struggled to draw good numbers, and some of that is due to being forced to go on cable as network time slots are valuable then. With a good number for this past weekend’s race – over a million viewers – and improved viewership for this year’s twin Iowa races which once ran under the lights, seems the series is prioritizing that versus returning to a night time product. Honestly, that’s not a bad idea.

KERS

In 2024, IndyCar will be running a hybrid engine formula which it is currently testing. According to a recent Racer video, the kinetic energy system that is on the engine could produce upwards of 150 horsepower for drivers to use at their leisure. Maybe that additional horsepower, and how the series regulates it, will be a way to improve the product on flat ovals. 

Adding horsepower puts more in the driver’s hands when handling low speed corners. How deep a driver brakes and how they control their entry and exit could create more variables to assist in overtaking. A well-handling car at the hands of a great driver will rocket out of a turn, leveraging the additional horsepower at their finger tips to possibly increase overtaking. It’s a future option that is murky on details now, but could be the game changer. 

See also
The Pit Straight: When It Rains, It Pours

A New Car

This one doesn’t look likely at least for the next few seasons. The current car has transitioned through three different aero kits and will more than likely go through a fourth before a new tub design is invested in. But the series isn’t committed to that type of expenditure now, especially with new engines coming. However, a totally re-engineered aero kit might bring better car performance in the draft and dirty air, thus giving good cars the capability to move through traffic. It’s a distant wish, but one that hopefully is addressed sooner than later.

Even with the show this weekend, and possible options listed here, IndyCar has already shown an effort in trying to improve the product. Optional tires, a future energy system and the downforce pieces introduced at this year’s Texas and Indy 500 rounds are just some examples. They just haven’t been able to hit on the collection of fixes that will alleviate track position type races.

IndyCar is riding some positive momentum right now, and it’s behind some entertaining races this season. Meanwhile, there is an opportunity to finally focus on making the flat oval races produce a great show, because more viewers have tuned in this year than in the last 15 years according to NBC. If that’s the case, and the trend either maintains or grows there could be more markets out there that would be willing to host an IndyCar event. Milwaukee for example. If that happens, then it is paramount that a great show is put on, not just a good one.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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Christopher

Revise the headline to: “IndyCar Needs a Better Product”
The series has some really great drivers. But it’s a spec series and it shows. Races are won by tire and pit strategy far more than driver talent, and that is not very compelling in the long run.

WJW Motorsports

I suppose that explains why NASCAR is emulating it?

Jeremy

The alternative is that if you open up car development, then you run the risk of being like F1 where it’s all about the $ spent on the car and which driver is in the seat doesn’t matter as much. What happened the last couple years with Hamilton? Did he suddenly forget how to drive and win races after dominating for so long? I doubt it. The competition developed a superior car.

Finding the right balance is tough, and I think Indycar does a pretty good job of that. There are races that are flat out dominated by a team/car, and others where strategy comes into play. I don’t mind, it’s a nice change of pace and makes the races more interesting to watch because you never know exactly how it’s going to play out.

One change I would like to make, though, is to remove teams having access to other team data (like push to pass). The only person who should know how much push to pass has been used or is left should be the driver and maybe crew chief. I think that would make for more intriguing finishes – especially if the trailing car(s) are reasonably close.

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