Rain Ruins IndyCar’s Louisiana Debut
For its second race of the 2015 season, IndyCar debuted in the Big Easy, running the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at Nola Motorsports Park on Sunday, April 12.
The weekend was plagued by rain. Qualifying had to be cancelled because of lightning strikes around the course, IndyCar had to move up the race start and shorten the length to try to squeeze the event in between thundershowers.
Because qualifying was cancelled, cars lined up on the grid according to entrant points, which meant Team Penske owned the front of the grid.
Everyone started on rain tires. Teams started switching to slicks on lap 13 and by lap 15 the whole field was on Firestone Reds, but there were streams running across the track in a couple places, which almost guaranteed that cars would go off—one or two of the two dozen drivers would misjudge and end up spinning. With the grass alongside the track soaking wet (or submerged) it was equally guaranteed someone would get stuck.
On lap 16 Gabby Chavez went off and got stuck. A track worker managed to push him back on track, but he stalled, bringing on a full-course caution.
With overenthusiastic driving and the pressure to get ahead before the next yellow flag, each restart was a brief sprint followed by a swift disaster.
The race went green on lap 20, but there was a huge puddle across the track at the last corner, Turn 13. James Jakes hit this while accelerating and spun, pushing Jack Hawksworth off into the tires.
At the head of the field Helio Castroneves tried to dive inside Francesco Dracone into Turn One, sending Dracone off the track with a flat right rear; Castroneves lost half his left front wing. Full-course caution number two.
Race leader Pablo Montoya radioed top his pits that IndyCar needed to clear the water off the back straight before there was a big shunt there. IndyCar should have listened.
Pit lane was wet as well, as Francesco Dracone proved when he slid sideways and flung his pit crew Todd Phillips, into the pit wall. Phillips escaped with a few severe gashes, an incredible bit of luck.
This collection off messes took seven laps to clean up. The race went green on lap 27—and immediately back to yellow as Stefano Coletti hit some standing water and shot completely across the track at full speed, miraculously missing everybody. He slammed the restraining wall hard backwards, it was a hard hit, but he was able to drive away—leaving a trail of debris behind him. Full-course caution number three.
Helio Castroneves came in to top up his fuel tank on lap 29, figuring he had nothing to lose—he was already at the back of the track after needing to get his wing replaced.
After another four laps of yellow, the race went green on lap 31—and immediately yellow. This time Sage Karam spun and stalled. The field lined up to take the green on lap 36, but Carlos Huertas went off before the flag waved, extending the caution period.
During this caution period, many of the front-runners decided to gamble and stop for fuel. The race was timed; many crew chiefs calculated the maximum number of green-flag laps they could run in the time remaining, and pitted as soon as their cars could hit that number on one tank of fuel.
Here James Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt-Peterson team made a brave decision. Figuring that there would be more yellow, they kept Hinch out, which moved him to the front of the field. Carlos Huertas inherited third, and Helio Castroneves moved up the third.
The race restarted on lap 40 and this time the field actually completed a lap before going back to yellow as Sage Karam spun and stalled again, while Marco Andretti and Charlie Kimball collided and drove on, but left debris on the front straight. FCY number four.
This time cleanup didn’t take long at all; the race went green again on lap 43—and didn’t get waved yellow until lap 44. The fifth caution came for a three-car wreck: Simon Pagenaud, realizing that he might not get another chance to make up position with the constant yellows and time running out, tried to go around the outside of both Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais through Turn Three.
Hunter-Reay didn’t give Pagenaud any room (which earned him a very controversial penalty;) Pagenaud went onto the grass, half spun, and jetted back across the course, slamming into Hunter Reay and Bourdais.
This finished the race. By the time all the cars were hauled out and the debris swept up, time had run out. The race ended with James Hinchcliffe in the lead, followed by Helio Castroneves And James Jakes, both of whom were at the front because they had had to pit for earlier accidents.
Hinchcliffe actually ran out of gas on the way to Victory Lane—one more green lap and he would have finished last. That’s racing.
Dealing Badly With a Bad Hand
IndyCar is trying hard to regain the popularity (and sponsorship dollars) it lost when the sport split in half in the mid 1990s. The two halves rejoined in 2008, but struggled for the next few years with an old car and less-than-exciting racing.
With dull racing and shrinking attendance, more and more traditional IndyCar tracks decided not to sign up with the series
Starting with the introduction of the Dallara DW12 and Chevrolet and Honda (and briefly and disastrously, Lotus) as engine partners in 2012, IndyCar started its real revival. The new car was very racy; fans who saw the show loved it, and for the first time in a long time, IndyCar really did have good news to report.
Popularity is a two-edged sword, though. If IndyCar attracts new fans, it has to deliver. Word mouth is the most powerful form of advertising—IndyCar novices who see a dull race, or almost no race, will spread that word the same as they would spread their appreciation after a good race.
The season opener at St. Pete was yellow for most of the first half of the race—statistically not more than usual for St. pete, where the tight course and concrete walls make every mistake a major one, but still, people tuning in on TV to watch the race might well have tuned out before the good stuff started.
Nola was a flat disaster. A switched start time which meant some people probably tuned in late, and more laps under yellow than green, plus the length of the yellow flag periods, meant that the TV audience was almost certainly disgusted and gone long before the race ended. Fans at the track had to sit through a day of rainstorms, and for that were granted about ten minutes of good racing.
Make no mistake, there was some excellent racing; unfortunately all of it added up to about ten minutes.
How many of the fans who spent all day drenched, sitting on metal bleachers, only to see a series of aborted restarts, are going to be back next year? How many are going to suggest their friends attend?
To be fair to IndyCar, it cannot control the weather. However, this is a series which (supposedly) runs in the rain. The real problems started when the track dried too much for rain tires and wasn’t drained enough for slicks.
Part of the problem is that Nola Motorsports Park is a club track moving up towards being a top-tier facility—and it has a way to go yet. A few more cranes and a few jet dryers could have made the difference. Making sue the worst parts of the track get some extra drainage attention, even if they need to be ripped up and repaved.
Part of the problem is that some IndyCar drivers need to know when not to race. After the first few spins, everyone knew where the streams were. Granted, they shouldn’t have been there, but since they were …
Also (and this should have been addressed after St. Pete) IndyCar needs to handle caution periods more quickly. Whatever the series has to invest, whether in more cleanup crews, more cranes, whatever … everything invested so far will be wasted for want of a few dollars more. No one is going to become a fan of a racing series if half the race isn’t a race, but a parade.
IndyCar also needs to caution period procedures of closing the pits, sending out a safety car, and then, when everything is ready to go, giving a “One more lap” signal.
The World Endurance Championship ran a six-hour race at Silverstone earlier on that Sunday, and had a total of four laps under caution—in Six Hours. Further, WEC used the “virtual safety car,” which is its name for Code 60, where every car slows to 60 kph (about 37 mph, or pit lane speed) and continues to circle the track.
This gives track workers time to safely extricate cars and clean up debris without bunching up the field which causes the kind of restart mayhem which plagues IndyCar.
Sometimes a yellow flag and a safety car might be needed, say if a crash is so bad or the cars so positioned that safety vehicles need to stay on the track. In many cases, probably not.
The current procedure, where the pits close as soon as the yellow flag waves, the safety car picks up the field, the cars are allowed to pit, and the “One to go” signal goes out, means that it almost always takes four laps for a yellow no matter what.
IndyCar might want to consider a different pit procedure for when there has recently been a yellow flag. If there has been a caution period with say, 15 minutes (a figure Tudor Sportscar Championship uses with some success) IndyCar could use an “expedited yellow” procedure where the pits never closed, because probably there wouldn’t be a mad rush to the pits (most cars would already have pitted under the previous caution) which is what closing the pits is supposed to avoid.
Whatever IndyCar Race Control chooses to do, it needs to decide to do it Now, and make it work, or try something else and make that work.
A Second—and Final—Chance at Success
The series is poised on the cusp of a new era of popularity. TV ratings are rising, sponsorship is increasing, the series is generating more positive news.
If IndyCar cannot translate the growing interest into long-term interest, the series might just go down the tubes—or rather fade into obscurity. IndyCar has the Indianapolis 500—but as past events have proven, even that race can lose its luster if a bunch of nobodies are competing.
IndyCar has the potential to put on some amazing races. Most of the drivers are incredibly talented. The car works well on a variety of tracks and drivers can overtake without Formula One-style gimmicks like the designated passing zones of the Drag Reduction System.
IndyCar, on a good day, is easily the best open-wheel racing on the planet. Even on a bad day there is usually more action in an IndyCar race than in F1.
IndyCar could get big again—but it cannot hope to sell itself as a top-level professional sports series while continuing to be plagued by amateur-level mistakes.
Someone at 16th and Georgetown needs to take IndyCar a little more seriously, or all the hundreds of millions the Hulman-George family have invested will be flushed away.
IndyCar will be at Long Beach on April 19th. Hopefully that race will go smoothly so fans can forget the rather forgetable first two. But IndyCar management cannot forget. Mark Miles and Derrick Walker and maybe Brian Barnhart need to makes some upgrades immediately.
IndyCar has earned itself a second chance at success—but it is just a chance. Don’t blow it, guys.