Thursday, June 1, 2023

About Last Sunday...

Welcome to June!

It's a little crazy to think that the Month of May has ended for another year. Speaking of crazy, I had a month. I was in Indy every weekend, spent seven nights in four different hotels, and was in the stands for my 25th Indianapolis 500.

Oh yeah, I also found time to run the Indy Mini Marathon for the first time in seven years.

It was a wild month, which culminated with one of the wildest finishes we've ever seen.

I've had a few days to think about what transpired over the race's final 50 miles, and here's where I am at with it.

I hated the way the race finished, but I'm happy with the guy who won.

Let's start with the latter. There is no question that Josef Newgarden both earned and deserved that win. He drove a brilliant race from the 17th starting position and when he found himself in a spot where he could go after the win, he took it.

That's what champions do. It took him 12 tries to get there, but Newgarden finally found his way to Victory Lane, and sent his career into a whole new stratosphere.

As I said in an article I wrote for Frontstretch: this win adds more significance to his wins and championships, and is a good place to start thinking about the fact he is already an all-time great, and where he will be on various lists when his career ends. He's still only 32 and has a 500 win, two championships, and is tied for 14th all-time in wins, leaving him five victories away from cracking the top 10 wins list.

For context, here's who he passes to get there: Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Helio Castroneves, Paul Tracy, and Dario Franchitti. Pretty heady stuff.

So the coronation of Newgarden is complete, so let's talk about the end of the race. Simply put: the last red flag should never have happened. I know, I know, that changes the race winner, and would've made Marcus Ericsson a back-to-back champion.

But the idea that race control decided to put the Greatest Race in The World on the line for a one-lap shootout was misguided, not to mention, dangerous. When the decision was made, I really feared for the driver's safety.

That's not being dramatic, either. The shorter you make a race, the more drivers are going to risk in order to win. Just look at the Cup Series on a weekly basis, and the crazy decisions that drivers make during overtime periods. 

On that side it's different. Cup cars are almost bulletproof, and if drivers want to bang each other around, it doesn't scare me all that much. Except on plate tracks...yeah, that's a little too insane.

I get the idea of a green flag finish. But if you aren't going past the race distance, sometimes that's not always going to happen. And, for the record, I have no interest in overtime periods or going past the race distance in IndyCar. Given the number of times races end under yellow, it's unnecessary.

Not to mention it can get expensive, and given IndyCar doesn't have a money-printing machine, tearing up cars just to finish under green isn't what is in the series' best interests.

I had no problem with the first two reds. They were in windows that gave race control the ability to restart the race under the rules and protocols. The last one didn't, and therein lies the problem.

I get that there is risk, and I know that the drivers accept them. But to put 21 drivers, 21 human beings, might I add, at additional risk to satisfy a small percentage of people is just not right. As I've said before, I've met or interviewed almost all of the drivers in the paddock. They are people to me, and I care about them. 

I get it: race control is made up of human beings too. I know they had their reasons for the final red, and that the decision had to be made quickly. I just think standards need to be put into place so that it doesn't happen again.

There were 350,000 people at the race. Most of us have traditions that started long before this year, and finishing under a yellow wouldn't change those. Would people have gone home a bit disappointed? Sure. Would they have walked away saying "screw this, we aren't coming back next year"? I highly doubt it.

The decision to end the race would've left people disappointed. There's no doubt in that. But the number of people at the race and watching on television or listening to the radio who would've kicked IndyCar to the curb over a yellow flag finish would've been miniscule. Those people aren't fans and probably never would be, if that's what it took to push them away from one of the most competitive and exciting racing series on the planet.

In terms of media, social media, and all media in between, a hit was going to come with whichever decision race control made. If you aren't going to make everyone happy -- which never happens -- why not make the decision that 1) stays true to the concept of competition and 2) what is best for all of the participants involved?

It's a competition. I went to a Cubs game against the Mets last week. The Cubs fell behind early and eventually lost by a score of 10-1. Was I disappointed? Absolutely, and do not get me started about the disappointment that has been this entire season.

(Editor's note: I take the Chicago Cubs very seriously.)

Still, it's how the game is sometimes. And the fact is, you can't make everyone happy. I'm still a Cubs fan, and I'm still going to watch games on TV and go to more games this season. My Cubs fandom isn't based on one random game on a Thursday night. If it were, I would've chucked them into Lake Michigan long ago.

Racing's the same way to me. Take Alex Palou's win at the Indy GP. Palou won by more than 15 seconds, and there were gripes that the race was "boring" because it didn't have an exciting finish. That's a problem, because we've kind of reached the mode in racing where the quality of the race is defined by its finish.

What got lost in thinking the race was boring was not appreciating a driver who was so on top of his game that he dominated a field of very good racers in what amounts to a spec car. That's the story! That kind of drive is to be appreciated because it takes a special kind of circumstance for someone to pull that off. 

Races are races, just like baseball games are baseball games. The NBA Finals start tonight, if Denver leads by 30 after three quarters and the fourth quarter is just 12 minutes of glorified garbage time, that's just what it is, just like a hotly-contested and very exciting race that featured 52 lead changes among almost half of the drivers in the field finishing five miles short of completion is what it would've been as well.

If the race had ended under yellow with Ericsson the winner, he would've earned it just the way Newgarden did. The body of the race as a whole was exciting in its own right, it didn't need a Game Seven moment to make it memorable As a fan, and a media member, that would've been an acceptable outcome as well. 

There is a level of integrity to competition. If you want to argue that if that is the case the red should never fall under any circumstances, I can see your point, and it's valid. I think there is still integrity in taking steps to try to finish under green, but there has to be a point reached where everyone agrees that for the sake of the competition and the competitors involved, a green finish can't happen.

To the drivers' credit, I think the final lap went as best as it could've. Everyone took care of each other and came home in one piece, which is what we expect out of IndyCar drivers. 

In the future, it shouldn't come down to that. I think going forward that strict, transparent protocols need to be put into place as to what circumstances lead to a red flag, and at what point that should be abandoned.

That needs to happen now, because for a lot of reasons, it matters.