Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Disappointing Day at the Races

Indy Car at Richmond, Photo Credit: Outdoor Action Photo

It has gotten so bad on the IndyCar series, the drivers are apologizing:

Scott Dixon described the IndyCar Series race at Richmond International Raceway as "a bit of a procession, unfortunately," and said the 300-lap event was frustrating because the lack of passing made it more closely resemble a parade.

And he made those comments Saturday night after ending up in Victory Lane.

Teammate and runner-up Dario Franchitti apologized to fans for an "awful, awful race," while Graham Rahal said he only passed two cars all night while finishing third.

One year after a 26-car field produced what Danica Patrick described as a "carnagefest" on the shortest track on the series, with 103 laps of caution and a dozen accidents, the latest visit was quite the opposite. Twenty cars spent the night speeding single file around the D-shaped oval, with none of the drama fans are accustomed to seeing in NASCAR country.

On Tuesday, IndyCar Series officials and those of International Speedway Corp., which owns RIR, will meet to continue discussions about whether the series will return in 2010.

Track president Doug Fritz declined to speculate Sunday on how those talks will go, but did nothing to mask his disappointment with a race that was missing what fans come to see.

"I wish we had seen more passing and more lead changes and more side by side racing," he said in a telephone interview. "We'd love to see better shows and from our perspective as it relates to the fans, we're as disappointed as the fans are and as the drivers are, as well."

Dixon suggested the cars in the series are part of the problem, and he and others spoke all weekend about how having them all engineered so similarly can stymie the competition.

It sounds like they're afraid to race, and who can blame them? It even sounds to me like the drivers are terrified of the press--hence, the need to complain over the phone to a journalist. How bad it has gotten in the IndyCar series, I do not know. Right now, those miniature pickup trucks are looking like a better bet.

The open-wheel style race car isn't designed for confrontational racing. We've tried giving the drivers guns--sorry, it just doesn't work. We've already seen what happens when you let them adorn their axle caps with spikes and medieval weaponry--it just makes for poorly-considered drama. The open-wheel car is a throwback. It's designed for speed racing only, and the reality of auto racing is that the only way to adequately win a race is to hit your opponent in the rear quarterpanel and send him into the wall or into the air. NASCAR understands this--taking an opponent out for a little doorbanging and a little wall scraping and a little paint trading makes the people in the stands jump up and down and howl, creating a bloodthirsty, rabid fanbase that will buy beer and knickknacks. NASCAR has a better business model, by far.

Auto racing held a certain allure for me as a young man, sort of like beer and loose women once did. Were it not for the rules, I probably would have chosen auto racing over football in college, even though Princeton did not subsidize or organize auto racing as a college sport.

I've never understood that--auto racing is entirely an American sport, since we invented the combustion-engine equipped eauto (or did we? I have no idea). Why is there college baseball, college golf, college swimming, college basketball and no college auto racing? It makes no sense. The Ivy League and two of the major conferences--the SEC and the ACC--could have a thriving college auto racing sport right now if they had any sense.

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