Overtaking talk is taking over

Posted by Iannucci | 5/29/2009 | 17 comments »
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In the week following the Indy 500 there has been no shortage of negativity aimed towards ESPN. Whether it be towards the announcers, the failure to show cars not leading, or the incessant "checking in with Danica", race fans who have been getting super-sized coverage by VERSUS this season have decided that the WorldWide Leader is just not up to snuff.

VERSUS owns the rights to ALL practice and qualifying this year, so ESPN was never able to get involved with televising Pole Day or Bump Day. However, the promotional effort compared to what VERSUS was noticeably less than, as I can attest from seeing more print and hearing more radio ads for the St Pete and Long Beach races than Indy. Given all of that it's easy to see why folks are saying ESPN/ABC is largely to blame for the ratings decline of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

But there's another thing that's contributing race fans ire, something on which commentators as disparate as Robin Miller and Chris Estrada both agree. That is, the dearth of green-flag passing during the most important race of the year.

This lack of overtaking is perplexing, because there wasn't a time long ago where green flag passing was not only prominent, it was the hallmark of the IndyCar series. I often refer people who have never seen and IndyCar race to watch the closing laps of the 2003 Chicagoland race to see how exciting the racing can be. Granted, that footage features a different course than Indy, but the fact remains that for some reason this kind of racing seems to be less and less existent, regardless of the track.

Now, there are folks that may say this is because we have a spec series where all entries in the IndyCar series are running the same chassis, engine, and tires. There may be benefits to having multiple manufactures of various parts of the car, but I'd like to point out there is another spec series that doesn't have today's lock-step problem: the Firestone Indy Lights.

WARNING - The following contains footage of actual passing. Viewer discretion is advised.

On his Trackside show the intrepid Curt Cavin mentioned that he had asked about this very issue with Brian Barnhart, who responded by saying that even though there was little passing at the front there was plenty of position changes towards the back.

I'm presuming the IHJ demurred from expressing any concern because he's been all about safety the last few years, and to that effect not having cars going two-wide around the speedway is obviously safer. Ensuring the safety of competitors makes not only moral sense, but has financial benefits as well. Not only do teams incur less expenses related to broken equipment, but the series benefits from having healthy, long-term careers of prominent drivers. Hey, who's not down with that, right?

But there is such a thing as too much of an emphasis on safety, as hopefully Mr Barnhart understands. I mean, this IS racing and it IS going to be dangerous, and although IMS could just sell tickets to watch a bunch of cars parked on pit road I suspect the ratings would be monumentally low. Even with the cars still running we may have crossed the threshold of over-officiousness that's deteriorating the racing product.

Consider for moment that compared to the early days of the IRL we now have lower speeds, more street/road courses, and green flag starts where drivers are instructed to fall behind the pole sitter. Throw in extended caution periods for pit stops and you've got yourself a high-speed parade, which under the best case scenario for excitement ends with Helio climbing the fence.

(And don't even get me started on whatever reason Security Chief Charles was instructed to try to prevent that moment - that's a whole 'nother post).

Anyhow, I don't want to belabor the point any further and I'm certainly not going so far as to call for anyone's resignation, but the fact is the last couple of years the actual racing part of the race has been obviously lacking. The good news is something is already working for the racing in the Lights series with cars that are very similar in size to the parent series, so if Brian Barnhart could please look into transferring that areo package or gearing or whatever it would be greatly appreciated.

These are challenging times for the series, but this seems like a total no-brainer. Do what you have to and put more racing back in the races, because even if the television coverage is horrendous it won't really matter much so long as the cameras are running.


  1. The American Mutt // May 29, 2009 4:32 PM  

    For once I agree with Miller. The Soft Velvet Glove of Justice needs to go.

  2. redd // May 29, 2009 4:36 PM  

    If Barnhart is as controlling as Miller lets on, I also agree.

    Real good point about the Lights cars, much better racing. Why is that?

  3. Leigh O'Gorman // May 29, 2009 4:54 PM  

    Odd you should bring this up, because one of the keys to GP2's (the main feeder series to F1) rising popularity amongst race weekend fans, is that they seem to be able to pass much more easily than in the Grand Prix itself.

    But yes, you're right with regards to the aero, but not totally about the road courses.
    I seriously believe they need to ditch the current package to help enable passing; however I don't think most of current road circuits help passing.
    This might make me seem CART-nostalgic, but there is a need for circuits like Elkhart Lake and Laguna on the calendar, because I just don't think tracks like the Glen or Infineon cut it at all with regards to passing or testing the drivers.

    As for ovals, I'm not that up to speed; but if I remember correctly, the aero wings that CART used in around '98 were somewhat successful for passing??

    Could the racing quality of the IndyLights also be a case of young hunger??

  4. The American Mutt // May 29, 2009 4:57 PM  


    Last year at Watkins Glen Dixon passed TWO cars before he was allowed to pass anyone. Race control saw this and made him give back ONE spot. Point being, since then Barnhartt has needed to go. If he was consistent in his rulings Helios block of Wilson at Belle Isle wouldn't have happened in the first place.

  5. Iannucci // May 29, 2009 5:04 PM  

    I can see "young hunger" playing a factor early in the race, but if there was any way Danica could have gotten around Wheldon after lap 190 this year I'm sure she would have.

  6. Leigh O'Gorman // May 29, 2009 5:17 PM  

    @ Iannucci

    You're probably right

  7. Anonymous // May 29, 2009 5:25 PM  

    There is one easy way to have a race where passing is guaranteed, and you don't even have to change the aero package. Return to Michigan!

  8. Anonymous // May 29, 2009 6:02 PM  

    couple things...

    The Indianapolis 500 start was one of the worst I've seen since 1973.

    Robin Miller needs to find something else to occupy his time... knitting, model trains, woodworking, or covering N-word. He's part of the problem. He has zero credibility in my house.

    If Barnhart really did try to script Helio out of climbing the fence, as Miller suggests, maybe he needs to go too.

    In the final analysis, my only interest is doing what's best for the Indianapolis 500, the speedway, open-wheel and trusting the Hulman-George family to carry out their custodianship of racing's holy ground.

  9. pressdog // May 29, 2009 7:18 PM  

    The problem is the product. I've been saying this for-ever. Nobody is watching because a street oval (what the Indy 500 was) is boring. I'm not so convinced the IHJ plays that big of a role in creating boring racing. I think the aero/mechanical grip/tires package just makes it tough to run close. I'm not sure what the problem is, but I am the IRL needs to fix the product before NOBODY is watching. When an F1 race has more overtaking than an IRL oval, that's a baaaaaaad sign.

  10. Anonymous // May 29, 2009 7:21 PM  

    I agree, Pressedog... all the more reason the spec-series idea has failed.

    oh, and bring back turbochargers. let's see some real speed again: 236+mph ...

  11. Mike // May 30, 2009 3:58 AM  

    Spec cars just can't create enough disparity in quality after maxed-out development to promote competitive racing in terms of excitment... aka passing. Competitive in terms of equality, ya.
    Spec cars help contain costs (in theory). Spec cars do bring about a supposed "driver's series" where talent will shine, but frankly...and we can argue til the cows come home about this...there isn't all that much to choose from in terms of level of talent among the top 10 or 12 drivers in (and the good ones NOT in) the series today.

    It boils down to a team's capability to extract every ounce of development potential from a spec car.

    In the "glory days", a lot of drivers ran off and hid over the course of 500 miles, and were absolutely dominating the race. Think Parnelli Jones in 1967...Joe Leonard in '68...Bobby Unser in '72...but none of them won since none finished. Mario in - what was it, 1986? (Newman-Haas' Beatrice Lola)- was just gone...but didn't finish. But racing fans didn't mind. The premium was not just on "how much passing did we see", but on a superior performance by a team and driver. There was lots of competition (as passing) going on behind them...if you were there, you saw it. If you watched the tube, you likely didn't see it. TV has never been great at conveying the excitement of racing, and seldom has there been a producer or director who would air the great wheel-to-wheel stuff back in the pack.

    With few exceptions, there just weren't all that many 'everyone on their feet' finishes. 1982, 1989, 1991, 1992, 2006. There are moments within the race, but the constant "feed-me excitement" mindset of the current viewing audience is perhaps not very realistic (the video game generation?). We gripe about spec-cars (me, especially) which are meant to run side by side...we gripe if someone's untouchable for a bunch of races or a whole season and legislate their advantage away.

    Look at that period of late 80's/early 90's racing. Pretty big tunnels/ground-effects, much higher horsepower, and different chassis and engine combinations. That works, but costs are an issue. If they want to avoid that, and make the racing more action-packed, then they need to either get rid of wings altogether or make them so small that they're of no major effect on the car, in which case they should be dumped. Robin Miller isn't wrong about this.

    If you build 33 cars that can run flat all the way around the Speedway, have all the same engines, exactly the same aero packages on all 33, then you're going to get a parade, period. No two-ways about it. Put in enough horsepower to make the car faster on the straight than they can run through the turns, and now we've got a good race, 'cause now it's back in the driver's hands.

    (Now that my blogsite has disappeared, I have to take up all Jeff's comment space to air my views)

  12. Megan K. Bickel // May 30, 2009 4:13 AM  

    I totally agree. I watched Indy Lights for the first time ever at Indianapolis this year and was astounded with how much was going on! It was so exciting. It really made me wonder about how little passing was going on in the 500...

  13. redd // May 30, 2009 5:56 AM  

    maybe less is more when it comes to budgets that allow for more competition and more overtaking on all the race tracks.

  14. The American Mutt // May 30, 2009 6:10 AM  


    This series isn't exactly spec by design though, is it? I'd say it's more by default since Toyota and Chevy pulled out. Although they really should let someone other than Dallara make a chasis. I don't think everyone having the same engine was responsible for the inability to pass either. It had to do with the fact that for whatever reason, any car not in the lead turned to shit when it got near another car, and as Townsend Bell pointed out on the radio show (great interview btw in which he calls Sam Hornish the king of the Subtle Block in so many words)...I digress...around the time the tires would fall off (think he said around their 20th lap) is when the real opportunity to pass happens but every time they'd get to that point someone would lose it, and then yellow flag stops.

  15. Anonymous // May 30, 2009 6:20 AM  

    I heard someone say the change in the wheel base was the culprit (done to promote racing, not for safety) and, as it turned out, this change will require another change in the tires to allow the cars to grip in the turns. I missed the dives in turn three this year. Agree/disagree?

  16. Oilpressure // May 30, 2009 6:22 AM  

    All excellent points. I'm really starting to believe that Brian Barnhart is the devil. He is legislating the racing out of racing. With the wheel base all standardized at 122" that's just another tricj they've taken away from the engineers. There are many reasons why IROC went away.

  17. jdh417 // June 02, 2009 9:43 PM  


    Great blog Jeff. Strangely, your post ties into some of my thoughts on NASCAR. Or maybe it's just me that's strange for doing tying them together.