Monthly Archives: March 2014

Another Wake Up Call

 

 

 

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The recently published April 2014 issue of National Speed Sport News (NSSN) features the annual fan poll of favorite tracks. For the third year in a row Eldora Speedway was the favorite of the readers. This well deserved honor is good news for short tracks everywhere. The poll, however, included some ominous news.

In the polls for the two prior years the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ranked second. This year it slipped to sixth behind not only Eldora, but also; Knoxville (IA), Oswego, Road America, and Salina (OK). No other IndyCar venue appeared in the top 15 tracks listed in NSSN. They poll also indicated that 71% of the respondents preferred dirt tacks over paved tracks. This is more bad news for IndyCar and all major forms of auto racing in North America. The clear implication is that the fans and their money are headed back to the short tracks.

It would be easy to blow this off as an unscientific poll and say that it is not truly indicative of the current situation. If you look at the demographics I believe you would find that the readers of NSSN are the core race fans. These fans are knowledgeable about the sport and are the people who buy the tickets and spend money at the tracks. They are the regular viewers of the TV broadcasts. They are not the casual, “one-race-a-year” attendees who are being courted by the major series, particularly IndyCar.

Is anyone listening a 16th and Georgetown Rd.?

©William L. Rottner 2014

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The Yellow Submarine

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The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were good and bad for Indy Car racing. The formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) ) was the first step on the rocky road which brought about the eventual split into two separate series. We are still seeing the effects of the split and inevitable reunification in the current mediocrity of IndyCar. The upside of this period was the open rule book and a group of risk taking owners and designers who were building radical race cars.

One such owner was  Jim Hall who successfully raced his own Chaparral sports cars nationally and internationally. These sports racers were known for innovative aero design featuring large overhead moveable wings and “sucker” fans to optimize ground effects. Hall enlisted British designer John Barnard to design the ultimate ground effects Indy Car. The result was the Chaparral 2K, affectionately known as the Yellow Submarine because of its unusual appearance and its bright yellow Pennzoil livery. It looked like no other Indy Car in the paddock when it debuted in 1979 with Al Unser at the wheel. The design included wide ducted side pods which allowed air flow through the aero tunnels from the front wheels all the way to the rear wing and under tray skirts to control air traveling beneath the car. It was powered by the reliable Cosworth 2.65 litre engine. Hall and Unser had only moderate success in 79 including an outside front row start at Indy and a win at Phoenix.

Hall and Unser parted ways after the 79 season and Hall hired fellow Texan Johnny Rutherford in 1980. Rutherford and the Yellow Submarine dominated the season with 3 poles and 5 wins including the pole and the win in the Indianapolis 500 (his 3rd and final 500 win) capping off the season with the CART Championship.

1981 proved to be a disappointing year for Hall and Rutherford as other designers copied and improved on the aero innovations utilized in the 2K. By 1982 the Yellow Submarine was obsolete and well on its way to the museum.

The Chaparral 2K won 6 races in just 27 starts. Its cutting edge design became a dinosaur in less than 4 years and it really was only dominant for 1 season. Interestingly, only 3 of the 2K chassis were built. There were no customer cars sold. One is on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, a second is part of Hall’s personal collection and resides in the Chaparral Museum in Texas.  A third car was heavily damaged in a crash at Phoenix and apparently destroyed. As a result of owners like Hall the breed kept improving through innovation and an open rule book. There were many success stories like the Chaparral 2K but there were many more failures; still owners, designers and mechanics continued to look for breakthroughs.

Among the 1980 Indy 500 starting field there were 11 different chassis (13 if you include different iterations of the Penske) powered by 4 different engines. Compare that with the 2013 box score – 1 spec chassis and 2 sealed spec engines. The rule book has destroyed innovation, creativity and interest which results in empty grandstands and minuscule TV ratings. In trying to compete with NASCAR and the “ball sports” IndyCar leadership crushed the very life out of the sport.
©2014 William L. Rottner

CAR COUNTS AND UNDERDOGS

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A serious concern this year in IndyCar is car count. Recently, IndyCar announced that there were 21 entrants in its Leader Circle Program. These are essentially the cars you will see at every event. This is down from 22 in 2013 and would actually be down 2 but for the inclusion of the Penske #2 car (Montoya) as a result of a “partnership with Dragon Racing” – whatever that means. There has been much speculation about how many cars will make up the regular fields but it appears we should see between 23 and 25 cars per event (except Indy 500), about the same as last year. What about the Indy 500? Needless to say, not having a full field of 33 would be a major blow. I don’t think we’ll see that happen. There will always be a backup car or 2 to fill the field, essentially “start and park” cars that can’t maintain minimum speed and are there to collect last place money. In its heyday Indy could boast 90 plus entries. I really don’t understand all the manipulation of qualifying procedure if everyone in the garage is going to make the race and starting position is almost irrelevant. Actually this new procedure will ratchet things down a notch. On Saturday all the top teams are going to put in solid, safe times early in the day. Since the pole won’t be settled until Sunday they will sit around until late on Saturday and anybody who thinks they have a chance for the pole on Sunday will go out late to see if they can get in the fast group. The only teams pushing the envelope will be those who are marginal, that is assuming there are more than 33 cars. If you’re not racing for the pole, starting position is irrelevant considering the current yellow flag and restart rules. Nobody is going to risk missing the show by crashing on Saturday to just start closer to the front. The fact that the race awards double points is only going to make teams even more cautious.

Consider the 1980 500, the late Gary Bettenhausen had been all but written off as an Indy car driver. A horrible sprint car accident in 1974 at Syracuse left him with almost no use of his left arm. In the ensuing years he regained some strength and found success in sprints and dirt cars. In 1980 Sherman Armstrong gave him an opportunity in the form of a 4 year old Wildcat chassis powered by a DGS Offy. Both the engine and chassis were genuine dinosaurs. Gary had to assemble his own crew and made the race in 32nd position by sheer luck since last 3 hours of bump day were rained out. On race day he advised his wife and kids to be ready to leave as soon as this “shitbox” blows up to beat the traffic home. Gary had to use velcro to attach his left hand to the steering wheel to maintain his grip. When the race was over he was third and might very well have been second if he were not low on fuel as a result of the team’s lack of radios causing pit stop confusion. It remains possibly the greatest drive in the history of the 500. I had the privilege of witnessing this and many other unique and heroic efforts at the 500. If you want to read about this race in Gary’s own words I strongly recommend an article by John B. Heimann which appeared in the MAR/APR 2009 issue of Vintage Motorsport Magazine.

What does Gary Bettenhausen’s 1980 race have to do with car counts in 2014. This race effort only happened because the were many more than 33 cars entered in the 1980 Indy 500. There were new ground effects cars and old crapwagons; there were multiple chassis and engine manufacturers. Most of all there were people like Sherman Armstrong and Gary Bettenhausen who believed that it took more than a box of spec parts and a wheelbarrow full of money to succeed. That dream is over. What else does this have to do with IndyCar in 2014? Experiences like this were the reason the Speedway drew 100,000 plus on Pole Day and filled every seat year after year on race day. Indy was about cars and engines and drivers and dreams. Those dreams are also over.

So what can be done in the short term to regenerate the enthusiasm. Here is my proposal. For the “Triple Crown” (Indy, Pocono and California) events open up eligibility to the older Dallara IR-05 chassis with an engine formula which would allow less expensive racing and stock block engines. We might see a Ford ECO Boost or a Mazda Sky Activ diesel, who knows. According to reports the Speedway is considering a “Garage 34” (similar to the LeMans Garage 56) allowing an innovative experimental non-spec car into the field. Allowing existing, available non-spec cars with updates and innovative power plants makes much more sense. There are plenty of old IR-05s around gathering dust and plenty of tuners who would love to have a crack at Indy. What would this accomplish? If nothing else it would keep the back-markers honest by forcing them to up their game. Further, it would inject the life blood of new, eager, innovative minds into the IndyCar series. It would give young unfunded drivers seat time and exposure. But most of all it would put people back in the seats. Would any of these cars make the races? Could they be competitive? Who knows, but lots of people would be there to find out.
©2014 William L. Rottner

 

Indy 500 – Mt. Rushmore

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In the last few months I’ve seen several articles about the “Mt. Rushmore” of various sports and entertainment topics and I started to think about the “Mt. Rushmore” for Indy 500 drivers.  There are innumerable “Best of” driver lists and in 2011 The Indianapolis Motor Speedway published a list of the 33 best 500 drivers for the 100th Anniversary of the 500.  The latter list stirred up a good deal of discussion.  Since then the 3 races were won by Weldon, Franchitti and Kanaan. My picks will be based on Indy 500s alone with no weight added for accomplishments outside of Indianapolis.  I have further limited my review to drivers who participated in 500s since WWII (1946) for 2 reasons.  First I don’t feel I know enough about the racing prior to the WWII race hiatus and second the racing after the war was so much different than in prior years. I hope that my picks will cause much discussion so I stress that this is my opinion so please feel free to have your own opinion and disagree. For me the first 3 were really not difficult, number 4 however is where trouble begins.  My picks were not based on statistics alone even though stats were considered.  My own personal experiences and intangible factors also played into my picks, particularly number 4.

Driver number 1 on my list is A. J. Foyt. Statistically there is no comparison.  A.J. was the first 4 time winner; 3 wins as an owner-driver; 2 wins in roadsters and 2 in rear engine cars; 1 win in a car of his own design powered by an engine badged with his name. In addition he had 4 poles and led 13 races. He was the oldest driver to start a 500 (57 years) and has the most starts (35).  He also won a 500 as a car owner but we are only considering driving here.  As far as intangibles go he is clearly the driver most identified with Indianapolis and his escapades at Indianapolis are legend.

Second and third on my list are practically interchangeable so, since this a “Mt. Rushmore” collection, and since there are no numbers on Mt. Rushmore I won’t differentiate.  They are Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr.  Both are 4 time winners. Mears had 6 poles in his 15 Indy 500s.  Unser Sr. led 11 of his 27 starts.  Both were great ambassadors for the Speedway. If I had to choose position I would have Mears second and Unser Sr. third.

Now we reach the critical point.  Who gets that final spot?  In the era that I am considering there are 12 multi-race winners, 5 with 3 (including Mauri Rose whose first of 3 wins came in 1941 prior to this period) and 7 with 2.  In addition there are several single race winners and non-race winners who have made a significant mark at the Speedway.

I narrowed all of these down to 4 drivers, 2 with 2 wins and 2 with 3 wins.  I admit that this elimination process was not scientific.  I relied a great deal on my own experiences and gut feeling.  The 4 finalists are Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Bill Vukovich, and Dan Weldon  Many of you will say Bill who? So I will start this final analysis with him.

Vuky only raced in 5 Indy 500s. He won consecutive races in 1953 and 1954.  Now for the interesting statistics.  In 1952, his second race, he was leading on lap 192 when he DNF’d with a mechanical failure.  In 1955 he was leading by a remarkable 17 seconds when he was tragically killed in a multi-car accident on the back stretch. Here we had a potential 4 consecutive race winner.  I know; coulda, woulda, shoulda.  None-the-less he was clearly a Speedway standout.

Let’s look at 2 drivers, each with 3 wins and very similar careers Indy careers.  Dario Franchitti and Helio Castorneves each have had relatively short spans at the Speedway primarily as a result of the “Split” which had them in CART during the early part of their careers.  Each has 3 wins and Helio has 4 poles.  Both are deserving of their Indianapolis successes.

Finally another dark horse whose career, like that of Bill Vukovich, was tragically shortened by a racing accident.  In only 9 starts Dan Wheldon had 5 top 10s, including 2 wins and 2 seconds, and 3 front row starts.  His last win was accomplished with an underfunded team as a one-off race and was a tactical masterpiece which was aided by rookie J. R. Hildebrand’s brain fade on the final lap.  I really don’t think I ever saw more than a handful of drivers who simply understood how to get around the Speedway like Dan Wheldon did.

So how do I decide among these final 4.  I go with my gut and my heart and pick Dan Wheldon.  So there you have it my Indianapolis 500 “Mt. Rushmore” memorializing the best Indy has to offer – A. J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and Dan Wheldon.

Bill Rottner 3/1/14

©2014 William L. Rottner