Sunday, June 28, 2009

On Indy cars, double file restarts, Ron Hornaday, and the Nationwide Series

It's been a few weeks since I've shared my thoughts on the goings-on in the world of American motorsports. I apologize for the absence. That said there was a lot going on over the course of the past two weeks...

- One thing that has bothered me about the state of Indy car racing over the past half decade is the IRL is going down the same path that the CART series did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The owners aren't hiring drivers based on their talent, they are taking drivers with a check they can cash. While it might help their bottom line, it certainly doesn't do anything to build the series. Now, just a year after "reunification" the car count is back down to where it was prior to CART/Champ Car's demise. There are bright spots on the horizon, but there is a long way to go before Indy Car is a picture of health. Events in Texas, Iowa, and Richmond draw impressive crowds, but even long-time venues like Milwaukee are finding it hard to pay the sanction fee.

Indy cars are impressive to watch. They buzz around even the 1.5-mile ovals well over 200 miles per hour. At 3/4-mile Richmond, speeds were over 165 miles per hour meaning lap times were about 17 seconds. That's insane. But the Indy Cars have the same problem that faces NASCAR now: it's glorified spec racing with drivers no one has heard of or cares about. There is talk of more engine manufacturers ready to join whenever the IRL makes a change to their engine regulations (maybe in 2011) but they will all be bolted into the same Dallara chassis. Whatever happened to Indy being the hotbed of automotive engineering and development?

-Speaking of Indy cars, whats with the number of foreign born drivers driving cars sponsored by the US military? I think it's great that the branches of the service think motorsports is a good recruitment tool, and I also think it's great that drivers from all around the globe want to come to America and compete. But shouldn't American drivers represent American servicemen? I like Dan Wheldon, but honestly, is he getting any 18-year-old American kids to join the National Guard? And Raphael Matos surely doesn't represent the target audience for Air Force and Marine recruits. You mean to tell me that John Barnes, owner of Panther Racing, and Jay Penske, owner of Luczo Dragon Racing, couldn't find a young American hotshoe to fill those seats? I can think of a dozen guys driving USAC open wheel cars right now that would fit the bill and would also generate a lot more excitement, sales at the front gate, and television ratings if they were in an Indy car.

- The double file restarts are coming to all of NASCAR's national touring series. I continue to say that it is just a patch to fix a much bigger problem. Did they enhance the competition dramatically at Pocono? Not really, except for a couple of laps following each restart. And at Sonoma, I thought the single file restart would have actually made for a better race up front because Marcos Ambrose wouldn't have had to race for third over and over again, and he could have worked on racing to the leaders instead of repeatedly retaking his rightful position on the track. The fact remains that the new generation car simply isn't racey. The history books will show that when NASCAR instituted it's socialist-like "aero matching" bodies in 2002 is when competition started to decline and fans started to find other ways to spend their Sunday afternoons. If NASCAR suddenly decided to race cars that looked like something you could find on your local dealer's lot, I think you'd find a lot of the attendance and television declines start to reverse.

- Can anyone stop Ron Hornaday? After dominating at Milwaukee, he followed up with another dominant run at Memphis to score back-to-back wins. As tough as Hornaday is, I still think there are going to be a couple of times where his aggressive nature sends him to the garage for repairs (such as what happened last fall at Phoenix). The battle for the championship could turn out to be a classic hare vs. tortise match-up. The hare doesn't always win either: case in point, Travis Kvapil's unlikely run to the title in 2003. Matt Crafton has been impressively consistent so far in 2009 and could find himself in position to challenge for the title if Hornaday does have a speed bump or two in the second half of the season.

- So Kyle Busch's streak of misfortune in the Nationwide Series ended, giving him his first win since the guitar-bashing celebration in Nashville. That sound you may have heard, after all the boo-birds were done of course, was a huge yawn. Busch is the best in the business these days, no question about it. But the fans are tired of Cup guys dipping into the minor leagues and stealing the glory on Saturdays. The Cup owners that have moved into the Nationwide Series are to blame. And one day, when someone like Richard Childress or Jack Roush needs to fill a hole in the Cup Series with a qualified driver, there won't be any because they have chosen not to use their developmental series teams to develop drivers! Sure, Roush runs Erik Darnell and Ricky Stenhouse in partial schedules, but getting to run 15 races a year doesn't help hone the skills needed to race on Sundays at the level needed.

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