Thursday, September 29, 2011

Little Al, Little Al (Shaking Head in Dismay)

As the Indy Star reported today, Al Unser Jr. was picked up early this morning on DUI and reckless driving charges after allegedly street racing his Suburban at upwards of 100 mph. It's just another issue in a string of post-retirement problems for Little Al, who seemed to have figured things out after facing similar charges several years ago.

IndyCar has responded to the charges by suspending Unser, who had been serving the series as part of Race Control, indefinitely as the charges are being investigated. No doubt this was a painful decision on the part of the series, but it was the necessary one as someone facing possible jail time as a repeat offender cannot be among the public faces of IndyCar. Hopefully, however, they are giving him the help he needs behind the scenes, which I don't doubt is happening.

It's just so sad. I've been a fan of his since he entered IndyCar racing, and I feel like at his peak there wasn't a finer all-around driver in the world. He could go fast in anything, and his duel with Emerson Fittipaldi in the 1989 Indy 500 might still be one of the most thrilling moments I've ever experienced as a race fan.

Who knew when this photo was taken Al was at the absolute peak of his career
Five years later, he won his second 500 and championship, and at age 32 seemed like he was on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. But then so many things began going wrong -- like missing the 1995 race, the CART/IRL split and a five-year winless streak -- and it makes you wonder if those things contributed to some of the things that have happened over the years.

When I see that Little Al has again fallen on hard times, it is just a representation of what might have been, and how no matter how much desire, ability and talent you have, if you have enough personal demons they will bring you down and leave a ton of collateral damage behind you. Unfortunately some people leave a lot in their wake, and Al seems to be one of those people.

More than anything, I'm sympathetic. As the son of a man that won a daily battle against alcoholism every day of the last 28 years of his life (something I am proud of him for even all these years later), I know how hard it is to fight back against something that never, ever relents. You put your guard down, even for a minute, and it jumps you from behind and doesn't let go.

It sounds like Al had been winning that battle for the last couple of years, and between his personal life and his work with IndyCar it looked like he was a pretty happy person. Let's hope that he can get himself back in order and continue on the path of finding what he is looking for and to continue providing a positive contribution to the IndyCar series.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fuel Mileage...Is It the New Attrition?

Fuel mileage has been a hot topic almost all season in both IndyCar and NASCAR, and for some reason it has taken a more front-and-center stage over the last couple of weeks. In IndyCar circles, it was much-discussed on the TV broadcast from Japan, especially when several teams admitted going into conservation mode almost from the time the green flag dropped. In Cup, Tony Stewart winning on fumes two straight weeks while others ran out and sending the Chase standings into disarray has made a lot of people angry.

I was reading an article by Ed Hinton recently (read it here) and he said something interesting:

"Actually, I kind of like fuel-mileage finishes. They are suspenseful. When front-runners are close on gas, there's always the chance that what would otherwise be a runaway could be snuffed.

And my recollections of yore in NASCAR, say the 1970s and '80s, are that virtually every finish was suspenseful. Even if one driver was way out front, you never knew he had the race locked up until he crossed the finish line.

That was because engine reliability was poorer, and fuel calculations were far less precise. So there was always a chance a dominant car would blow an engine or run out of gas.

Now, as then, the most boring element in any race is predictability."

Ed has a point. With attrition now at a total minimum and the gap between the haves and have nots a lot closer, races coming down to who has the most fuel left in their tanks is about the only unpredictable element we have any more.

He's right on one point: For those of us who have been following racing for a couple of decades, attrition was so random and so completely out of the driver's control that nothing was certain until the checkered flag dropped. So many races were decided by a guy dropping out because of the infamous "five dollar part" (heck, the total cost of the mechanical gremlins that befell the Andrettis at Indy probably didn't add up to more than $100), or a driver would run out of fuel because the calculations themselves were so imprecise.

A case in point is that in a 40-year span between 1960-99, close to a dozen drivers led the 500 with less than 50 miles to go only to drop out of the race with a mechanical issue. Since mechanical issues no longer happen, fuel mileage admittedly does add to the race. After all, what would the 500 have been the last two years without several drivers who were on the point late peeling off late for a splash of fuel only to hand the lead to another? In the end it is almost the same thing, but since we see fuel mileage in such a bad light we see that as a negative instead.

In the end, unless several fundamental aspects of the sport change, races won on fuel are here to stay. Here are a few reasons why.

*Technology. When a car is at speed, it almost becomes a real person in terms of its ability to provide information and feedback. The telemetry in the car tells the crew how much fuel is left, and while compared to the rest of the techology involved in the sport it is still primative, calculations are a lot closer than the days of figuring out how much fuel was left in the fuel tank or cans in the pits and how much that meant was left in the car.

I remember a race in the early 1990s when Eddie Cheever was driving for A.J. Foyt at Nazareth and ran out of gas with a half-lap to go. A.J. went out to the car and poked a stick into the fuel tank to see what was left. He doesn't need to do that any more, the computer in his pit box tells him instead.

*Reliability. Simpy put, the cars don't break. Honda has built a bulletproof engine that while it meets the need of cost containment, doesn't always make for stellar racing. Long gone are the days where the engines were cranking up 15,000 RPMs and even in the hands of the best drivers there was no guarantee of getting to the finish. Now that the engines are tuned for reliability as well as performance in hopes that each car uses just one per weekend, the motors aren't wound nearly as tight as the engines of yesteryear.

*Competition. Right now the series, from top to bottom, is as deep as it has ever been. Teams are going to always take the conservative route because points are way too precious and mistakes are very magnified. Look at Scott Dixon for example, he has two wins, two poles and 11 top-5s, but with two races to go has all but been eliminated from championship contention because of three finishes of 12th or worse. A driver is allowed one "mulligan" but unless you are the class of the field, a la Will Power, you can't recover from more than a couple of bad finishes. Fuel is a variable that can be managed, so they aren't going to risk a mully on something like that. There isn't a team in the field that feels comfortable enough to say "to hell with it, we are going to roll the dice". The cost, both in points and financially, is too great in an era when so many cars still end up on the lead lap. More than ever, track position is critical, and taking a risk just doesn't fit the strategy.

*CYA. Covering your hind-parts is just a way of the world any more. Anywhere in the sports world, players, coaches, teams, etc. choose to take the conservative route because anything else gets them raked over the coals in every sort of media imaginable. Just watch the NFL for crying out loud, as taking chances is akin to committing hari kari, and for many coaches if that risk doesn't pay off it's either that or they lose their jobs. In the racing world, bad choices and bad results leads to the potential of the money drying up, and while 20 years ago it didn't matter as the loss of a sponsor meant another was knocking on the door, poor finishes, even when taking a risk, is bad business. Going for it is no longer considered heroic, it's stupid.

As more and more technology has creeped into the sport, the amount of the race the driver can actually control with their driving lessens. It's very virtual, in that the computers, the engineers and the race strategists have more of a say in how the driver covers the race distance. It's only after the final stop and when the car has enough fuel to finish is the race completely turned over to the driver.

Drivers years ago just drove the car in relative peace and pitted for tires and fuel. Now they have people in their ears telling them what to do and how to do it, based on what the data is telling them. That doesn't take away the importance of a good driver, because what separates a good driver from a great one now is one that is smart enough to decipher the data and communicate with the crew to decide what is best, but in the end, how many drivers make the final decision? Very few. Racing has always been a team sport, but the "team" concept and the involvement beyond the driver is just a lot greater now than it was once before.

No one runs away with races any more, in fact, a 5-second win is considered a "boring" finish. With the tight competition, it's like a pitching matchup between Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. Nine times out of 10, the game isn't going to be won against one of those guys, both teams are going to try and keep the score tied or make it a one-run game until one team exploits the other's bullpen in the final two innings. Same concept, the shorter you can make a race, the better you can win by taking advantage of your strengths or others' mistakes.

But back to the "fuel as attrition" part". I'll be honest, when I put aside my negative feelings towards it, there is a sense of excitement. Watching the Cup race on Sunday there was a sense of tension as to whether Clint Bowyer was going to make it to the end of the race or run out of gas. The latter eventually happened and Stewart went on to win. Racing used to be a lot more like that in years past, as the unpredictable nature led to some excitement. It truly wasn't over until it was over.

And really, what is the difference between Bowyer running out of gas and having a mechanical issue? When I think objectively, I don't see one. So why does this whole thing bother us so much?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I Don't Want to Hammer on Brian Barnhart

But as poor of a perception as the drivers and IndyCar fanbase has about the guy, he is better off keeping his mouth shut or letting some PR wizard handle his stuff. In an e-mail to the Indy Star (see the story here) he defends his handling of the Dario Franchitti incident and believes the correct penalty was handed out.

"The basic concept of our penalty is we want the offending driver at the back of the field for his offense," Barnhart wrote in an email. A driver either gets there voluntarily or through the mandate of race control, he said. "Either way achieves basically the same thing," Barnhart said.

If it achieves the same thing, then why have so many other drivers been given a drive-through penalty as opposed to sending them to the back of the line? Why not do the same thing to them?

And, for the record, it is not the same thing. A drive-through penalty is steep (which all penalties should be), with in and out time to the pits it puts a driver 30 seconds or more behind the rest of the field. Putting Dario at the end of the line allowed him to easily drive back up through the field, and in the end he finished the race just a handful of positions down from where he was when he started the whole fiasco.

Really, there are a few things I don't like about this. One, after the debacle at New Hampshire it gave the series (another) black eye. Two, with the driver/team involved and the championship implications any penalty might have, it gave conspiracy theorists plenty of fodder in which to speculate that this was done with preferential treatment in mind. If you are a huge entity, such as NASCAR or even the NFL, for example, you can get away with doing things that might raise eyebrows...preferential treatment and conspiracies (real and imagined) are part of the fabric of those sports and the discussions that it spawns among the fan bases add to their excitement and popularity.

In a series like IndyCar, which is struggling for recognition and respect, it is a sign of incompetence and, even worse, a total lack of integrity. In order for the series to get the respect from race fans it needs to grow and prosper, everything needs to be done right, especially up in the booth. That's not happening now, and Randy Bernard needs to give a lot of thought as to why, and what he needs to do about it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

All About Japan and the Most Bizarre Race of the Year

I don't know if it was because it was midnight on a Saturday, but the race just had a weird vibe to it. While I'm glad they made the most of the situation and went to Motegi one final time, for some reason it just felt like a lot of people spent the weekend going through the motions. The racing seemed benign and conservative for the most part, and if it weren't for the hilarious, top-of-their-game performance by the Versus broadcast crew (and I am being sincere) I might have found something else to do.

But I hung in there, and here are a few thoughts I have:

Changes need to be made. Brian Barnhart and his Race Control crew once again embarrassed the series with some of their calls on Saturday. There is just no other way to say it. The start of the race itself was totally fractured, so much so it contributed to the bad racing through the event's first stint. Then of course, came the call to put Dario Franchitti at the end of the line as opposed to serving a drive-through penalty when he punted half of the top-10 in a mid-race restart. That was a bad move on Dario's part, and it was blatant. It deserved the same penalty several other drivers have served during the season, and is the picture definition of "avoidable contact". Barnhart has repeatedly made errors in judgement calls this year (and Dario has been the recipient of two very friendly calls himself, here and in Milwaukee) and that just can't happen. I am all for doing what is best for the fans, but racing is still a competition, and that competition has to be inforced with integrity. Barnhart is not doing that. While he might be doing a fantastic job in his day-to-day duties with IndyCar, he should not be a race day official in 2012.

I did regain a little respect for Dario...after he took full blame for his actions. Of course, it might have been the best thing to do since he took out two teammates and a rival, but turning his back for a moment against his usual whining ways was probably the best out possible. Then again, it was a bush-league move and there was no hiding from this one.

This was a familiar sight!
Wait, you mean there was an actual race? Yes there was, and Scott Dixon was your winner! Actually, Dixie had a fantastic weekend, so hats off to him for that. Taking the pole, leading all of the laps and winning the race...can't get much better than that. I wish Will Power had done a little more to challenge him, because Dixon would have raced him clean as always, but it's possible he was just that much better than everyone else. Don't count Dixon out in the championship, while he is still a long shot, he's driven a solid season as always and if he caught a couple of breaks could sneak his way past Power and Franchitti.

Once again, Graham Rahal deserved better. I don't know what else the guy can do, he has had some of the worst luck of any driver I have seen in a long, long time. All season long he has been solid, and sometimes spectacular, and stuff happens that shuffles him back in the field. It happens, but he is certainly due, and Ryan Briscoe isn't all that far behind.

The Versus guys...may have had the best performance of the weekend. Bar none. It is probably very difficult to do what they did in sitting in a studio thousands of miles from the venue and broadcasting someone else's feed, but I thought they were great. From all accounts they are all great guys with great personalities and I think letting that go a little bit was fun to listen to and appropriate given the late-night broadcast.

The points. Dario's self-inflicted wounds gave the points lead back to Will Power, whose incredible comeback over the last two months sends him into the penultimate race with an 11-point lead over Franchitti and a 59-point advantage over Dixon. So barring any catastrophies at Kentucky in two weeks, we will once again go into the final race of the season with the championship still in the balance.

There are a lot of great storylines heading into the last couple of races, and still a lot of excitement left. Many people went into this year thinking it would be a bit of a throwaway given the dominance of the red cars and the lame duck status of the equipment, but for the most part I think it has been anything but boring. Here is hoping the series finishes with a flourish and carries that into what should be a great 2012.