Saturday, March 3, 2012

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

It seems like when a couple of things go well in the IndyCar series, something comes up that at times makes me wonder if we are really as far along as we think we are.

Today's announcement that the open Texas test had been moved to May 7 seemed pretty benign. The move makes sense so that the cars don't have to switch from road to oval mode in the midst of a four-race run on road courses, and Dallara can make more parts in case demand is warranted. This also ensures they get a good test in after gathering some real-race data as they get ready to move to the oval part of the schedule.

You would think that kind of move would pass with little or no comment on any side. Somehow, it just isn't always that easy with IndyCar. TMS president Eddie Gossage returned fire with a few snide comments and though the sides always seem to put up a good front for everyone, maybe it isn't as happy of a relationship as some might think.

In a RacinToday article, Gossage took a few shots at the series and in particular the drivers, who were none too pleased that Texas declined to make some of the safety upgrades they suggested. And I'm sure he is also slightly pissed about the rumors (true or not) that a driver boycott of Texas might be in the mix. Truthfully, I don't blame him. Gossage and TMS have stood behind IndyCar and gone to bat for them a number of times over the years, and have been a good partner. No doubt he feels a little betrayed.

From the article:

“I’m really disappointed and don’t know why IndyCar drivers feel the need to constantly damage the sport,” Gossage said at a NASCAR promotion this week in Dallas. “You know, engineers have told us over and over that the current fence design is the best that technology provides us today. But if you were a sponsor, if you were a fan, if you were a TV network – why would you get involved with IndyCar racing if they can’t tell you today where they’re going to race tomorrow? And the drivers – the spokespersons for the sport – are tearing it down?

“So, it’s absolutely irresponsible of those drivers, and they deserve – because of the way they conduct themselves sometimes – they deserve where they stand now in the food chain of motorsports.”
Gossage, a key ally of INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard, said he will continue to deal with the sanctioning body on a year-by-year basis. “They just keep shooting themselves in the foot and I don’t understand it,” Gossage said.”Great show. Unbelievable skills. But just lacking common sense.”

Honestly, I see both sides. I understand the drivers' point of view that in the aftermath of the death of Dan Wheldon changes had to be made so that it doesn't happen again.

And here is another thing: it can't, but that goes against everything that racing is about. Those of us who have been racing for a long time know that the sport is dangerous. I learned that very early on as I was at the Speedway in 1982 the day Gordon Smiley was killed in one of the most gruesome crashes in racing history. Once the wreckage was cleaned up, qualifying went on. We all understood, because that was racing.

But you know what? That's not the world we live in any more. Formula 1 has not had a fatality since Ayrton Senna in 1994, and NASCAR last lost a driver when Dale Eanrhardt was killed in 2001. NASCAR has since built a near-bulletproof car that can take the most vicious of impacts and have the driver climb out of the car and start posting stuff on Twitter. Casual fans -- which make up much of the fan base these days -- seem to think it should be that way with everybody.

Like it or not, that's were we are in racing -- fatalities are not acceptable any longer. The problem IndyCar has is that with the speed and car configurations, and the fact that the cars race fairly close together, that danger still exists in a world that believes it shouldn't.

Forget the fact that the old Dallara had an excellent safety record, forget that 14 of the 15 drivers involved in the incident at Las Vegas all but walked away from the crash, and forget that reportedly Dan Wheldon's only injury was the head injury that killed him...let me repeat that, according to my understanding of the accident report Wheldon, despite flying more than the length of two football fields and tearing into the fence at 168 mph, had no other serious injuries. It doesn't make his death any easier to accept, but at the same time it proves that IndyCars are not death machines, either.

Forget all that, Indy cars have the perception of being unsafe, and that is unacceptable in today's racing environment.

Sure, true racing fans know that is total BS. With speed comes force, and sometimes the force happens as such that a human being cannot withstand it. Someone, someday will die in a stock car, just like someone will lose their life in an F1 machine. Don't get me wrong, I am not wishing ill will on ANYONE, nor do I want to see it happen as some sort of equalizer for IndyCar. But it is the nature of the beast, and that beast will come calling someday, no matter what is done to stop it.

I see it from a driver's standpoint, too. No doubt they absolutely hate facing their mortality, and that is what is happening right now. All of the sudden, after driving for years without having to face that fear, it hit them again: holy shit, I really CAN die in a race car. I think a lot of drivers across many racing series have been lulled into a false sense of security that it couldn't.

The series knows this, and knows that another fatality would all but destroy IndyCar. All of these factors have resulted in everyone walking on eggshells and wondering how much action and how much more praying will need to be involved for this to pass over them.

On the other side, you have everyone else, who say that as drivers, their job is to stare those fears in the face and keep driving. All of this "whining" (as some may call it) makes the drivers look like lesser competitors as compared to the rest.

Looking at it objectively, and thinking about it as a non-racing or casual racing fan might, they are. They are supposed to be professionals, the best of the best, yet don't want to race on 1.5-mile ovals, they don't want to do double-file restarts, and they don't want to race side-by-side. All of which the fans want. Seeing it from an objective point of view, it looks bad, and makes you wonder...if they don't want to do that, what do they want to do?

As I said, I can see it from all IndyCar glasses are not that rose-colored. I understand the driver's concerns, but there are no surprises, the series is exactly what it was when they all signed up. At the same time, I think in the end all they are trying to do is protect themselves and each other. But as we all know in racing, you can only do that to a certain point.

Perhaps the media is blowing this up into more than what it is. After all, no one has expressed any worries about racing at Indy, where the prospect of serious injury or death is probably still greater than any other track in the world. And when pressed, the drivers say no one has asked for anything out of the ordinary, and the "boycott" is a figment of Robin Miller's imagination.

It doesn't matter. Perception is reality. Want an example? In the hands of any other series, the Daytona 500 would have been considered an absolute fiasco. IndyCar would have been crucified had a driver plowed into a jet dryer and another started posting on Twitter. But because it is NASCAR it was brilliant. And yeah, it kind of was. Just another day in NASCAR, a circus on wheels.

I'm not saying that as sour grapes. They are the big kid on the block and to the victors go the spoils. Still, IndyCar has itself an image problem and they need to get it fixed, or else all of the great things that have happened recently will go for naught.

I posted last week that I was sick of the drama, but I guess some of it can't be avoided. In the end, though, it is time to put up, shut up and race. It's time for the series -- and especially the drivers -- to go out and compete and prove that they are among the best in the world. I think they are, but I'm not one of the people whose minds they need to change.

Eddie Gossage is right, stop shooting yourselves in the foot. Put it to the floor instead.

1 comment:

  1. good article, Mike, on a difficult subject.