Friday, June 22, 2012

At day's end, I still have the need for speed

Sonoma, California – The pole speed set today by Marcos Ambrose for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 here was 95.262 miles per hour.

That’s about right for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race on a twisting road course.

There will be no complaints about high speeds here this weekend, which will be a change of late.  Because, ironically, in the world of major American auto racing, high speed is under attack.

NASCAR officials wore deer-in-the-headlights looks last week, when a small army of Sprint Cup drivers put up 200 mph-plus laps at the high-banked Michigan International Speedway oval.  Omigod!  They’re going so fast!  What to do?!

NASCAR’s solution was to approve alterations of the left-side tires to slow the cars down.  There was a brief mention that NASCAR machines were hitting 200 mph a quarter century ago, but it seemed drowned out in the rush to get the current cars back under the 200 mph-per-lap threshold.

I understand the concern.  Tires were being eaten up at those speeds.  NASCAR veterans also recalled crashes of a generation ago, with 200 mph speeds absorbing big portions of blame.  Yet you’d think that 25 years of aero engineering evolution would have come up with a solution that allows for higher speeds on ovals, while also maintaining safety.

I can’t argue too much with NASCAR’s call.  After all, the series thrives on comparatively heavy cars dicing and bumping in close quarters.  These cars were never meant to be missiles.

However, I am demoralized at what’s going on in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

IndyCar announced this week that it will allow a maximum rear flap angle of 37 degrees and not allow a wicker for Saturday’s Iowa Corn 250 on the .875-mile Iowa Speedway oval.  This will reduce downforce, and if things turn out anything like they did at the recent race on the high-speed oval in Texas, negate close pack racing – the kind of racing that used to bring Texas crowds to their feet.

“Like Texas, we want to make sure the challenge is in the drivers’ hands and make them work each lap,” said Will Phillips, INDYCAR’s vice president of technology.  “It will be more of a challenge for drivers once their tires start to go off during the 250-lap race.”


So, based on that, fans will be treated to spread-out racing in comparatively unstable cars, which will become increasingly unstable as their tires go off.  That’s opposed to, say, high-speed, wheel-to-wheel racing for prolonged periods of time under the green.

Forgive me, but my love of IndyCar racing has long been based on the latter.

I understood last fall that the storm was coming.  The death of two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon during a horrific crash on a tight, high-banked Las Vegas oval made everyone rethink what was going on out there.

I’m not advocating more speed over safety.  Not a chance. But for my money, what happened in Vegas was fostered by too many cars on a narrow track.  I’d start by cutting the field off at, say, 20 cars.  And sadly, what happened to poor Dan was just bad, awful luck – his car ripping into the catch fence cockpit side.  Frankly, I hate current catch fence technology and wonder if it’s possible to develop a super-strong, clear composite to replace the dangerous weave of wires, cables and poles.

It’s been said that you know you’re getting old when you start complaining about the very things that have stirred your lifelong passions.  And I suppose I’m sounding very much like that now.  But I’ve always considered Indy cars to be the edge, the envelope, the Blue Angels amid a series of biplane races.

Too fast?  That complaint has been registered since the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.  I remember when some 200,000 would show up at Indianapolis on pole day in the 1960s, tingling with excitement at the prospect of the 150 mph barrier being broken.  In 1968, turbine-powered racers blazed through 170 mph for a lap, and some people thought that was the outer extreme of the ragged edge.

A mere four years later, cars were lapping near 200 mph.  And let’s face it, 200 isn’t even a decent warm-up lap at Indy today.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want to see a return to the deadly days of the 1950s and 1960s, when it was not uncommon for three, four or more name Indy car drivers to die in a season.  Safety advances won’t let that happen today.  And for me, nothing compares with watching an Indy car driver wheel a car at high speed in close quarters, and then come strolling into the pits like it was the most natural thing in the world … That’s what turned me on as a kid.  No wonder I considered these drivers to be gods.

Somewhere along the way, years after the heartbreaking/fan-crushing CART/IRL split, I think INDYCAR lost sight of what made it so thrilling to fans of all ages.  Thankfully, this year’s Indianapolis 500 was the best of all worlds – seriously high speeds and aero packages that allowed liberal passing.  It was great to see.

Hopefully, the powers that be will continue to develop INDYCAR’s aero packages, prompting a return to more high-speed, wheel-to-wheel oval racing action.  I might be in the minority on that.  Probably am.  But after 50 years of watching the evolution of Indy cars, I can only hope.

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