Monday, June 8, 2009

Lack of side-by-side racing mars Texas race

(by John Oreovicz 6-7-09)

Whether you watched it in person at Texas Motor Speedway or on television from anywhere else, the Bombardier Learjet 550 must have left you underwhelmed. You're probably also wondering where went the spectacular side-by-side speedway racing that the IndyCar Series used to be known for, because it was almost nonexistent at a track that is tailor-made for spine-tingling open-wheel action.

After a two-hour race that pretty much resembled a 172-mph parade, the most interesting part of the night was the postrace interviews.

Scott Dixon rightfully complained about the lack of excitement, and put the blame squarely on the fact that the IndyCar Series has degenerated into a spec-car series in which no one is able or allowed to gain enough of an advantage to push their maxed-out 7-year-old Dallara-Honda past the next guy's identical car.

Racing used to be all about trying to make cars faster. Then safety concerns correctly led to an effort to slow down the cars. Now, with advances like carbon fiber tubs, the HANS device and the SAFER barrier, racing is about as safe as it is going to be, and the current trend -- not just in the IndyCar Series -- is to make the cars as equal as possible.

It's not working.

Saturday night at Texas, Ryan Briscoe clearly had the fastest car, and he built an 11-second lead during a 140-lap stretch of green flag racing that included two rounds of pit stops. Then the caution flag flew, for some debris, we were told.

"I didn't see any debris. I don't know if you did," Briscoe deadpanned appraisal.

Artificially brought back to the pack, the Australian was unable to break free. During the final round of pit stops, under yellow on Lap 175, Helio Castroneves took advantage of having the last pit stall to snatch the lead from his Penske Racing teammate in the pits.

Advantage, Helio. Over the final 46 laps, Briscoe was never able to get close enough to think about trying to pass the identical No. 3 car, which won for the second time in three weeks.

"The last 20 laps were some of the most frustrating I've ever driven," Briscoe said on the telecast. "You lead the whole race and get done in pit lane after leading the whole race. It's not that we did a slow stop; the advantage that pit-out has gave the 3-car guys so much of an advantage.

"The cars are just so evenly matched and it's so hard to pass," he added. "I'd try to get a bit of a run and go on the high line, but I just couldn't get it done. It was very frustrating to know I was going to come second after dominating the race."

Two-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who finished third behind the two Penske cars, was -- by modern standards -- pretty outspoken in his immediate postrace comments.

"The racing needs to get better," Dixon observed on TV. "We used to be able to go around the outside and have side-by-side racing here, but at the moment, you just can't do it.

"I think the cars are too identical, and they need to open up the rules again to get a bit of difference between the cars."

A bit later in the top-three news conference, Dixon elaborated. "You used to be able to run a lot of different things, even down to mirrors," he said. "I think we need to open a few things up and see how it works. Maybe they need to trim the cars out a bit. When we first came here, we were running 223 mph and now we're at 210 in the race.

"The cars by all means aren't easy to drive," he added. "Your grandma couldn't get in and go out there. But it's too even, I think. I know it's a growing process with the series and the drivers. But at the moment it just doesn't put on the show it should, and has done before."

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