Tomas Tales September 2, 2015

Hinch headshotJustin Wilson head shot
Dark Cloud Year for IndyCar…With Some Silver Linings.

2015 will go down as one of the toughest years in the history of IndyCar racing.
If you understand their main event, The Indianapolis 500 is still the biggest and best known automobile race in the world, the situation deserves critical analysis.

It seemed as if each week of the schedule generated new headlines, and often not of the good news variety. It seemed every time we turned around, IndyCar had some dark cloud over its head.

Even before the season began, the series was forced to cancel the opening round in Brazil due to promoter difficulties. The race was not replaced, but it didn’t make the already heavily criticized compressed schedule any less arduous.

IndyCar management had consultants tell them they shouldn’t compete with Major League Baseball playoffs and the start of the NFL Football season, so to end the schedule in late August, it meant many race weekends went back-to-back-to-back. At one stretch, the drivers and teams toiled under a marathon of 11 consecutive active weeks with no time off.

Not only was this killing the crews, it meant IndyCar disappeared off the racing radar before September, while NASCAR and Formula One kept rolling through November. If IndyCar wants to re-gain lost stature, dropping out of sight for 6 months doesn’t make sense.

The actual season in March got off on the wrong foot when debris flew over the catch fence at St.Petersburg Florida, injuring a spectator resulting in a law suit. It’s alleged the debris was body parts broken off of the new-fangled aero-kits, designed to improve the way the cars moved through the air to promote more passing.

The same aero-kits came under fire again in May at The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when cars suddenly started to flip over when they got sideways in spins or crashes. To counter, IndyCar cut the turbo charger boost and changed wing configuration rules to reduce speeds for qualifying for the famed 500.

But the bad stuff at The Brickyard reached critical mass during practice, when Oakville Ontario’s James Hinchcliffe came horrifyingly close to being killed in a crash into the turn 4 wall when a suspension part broke.

Suspension pieces pierced his legs and pelvis, resulting in massive blood loss. Quick action by IndyCar’s crack Holmatro Safety team and surgeons at hospital saved his life, and as of this writing, James wants to get back in his IndyCar for testing.

Healing quickly, Hinchcliffe was able to serve as the grand marshal for his home-town race, the Toronto Indy, but even this long-running waterfront street race had some adjusting to do, as the Ontario government mandated Pan-Am Games forced promoters to run the race a month early in June.

With persistent rain most of the weekend, not unusual for June, it looked like the 2015 Toronto Indy would go down as a forgettable, until the rain miraculously stopped right before race time, and the fans who braved the elements and watched on TV saw a thrilling contest that will go down as the best Toronto Indy ever staged.

At least those rain clouds had silver linings.

As The IndyCars worked closer to their season wind up, concerns about dangerous pack racing at Fontana and large ovals in general, a new but very wet Grand Prix of New Orleans that ended in another court battle, and controversial NASCAR-style rules to muzzle competitors making negative public statements about the series, all seemed to be the last straw for the man who runs the show.

Derrick Walker, a life-long champion of IndyCar racing, announced he was resigning as President of Competition and Racing Operations at season’s end. He said he only had a two year deal with the series, and wanted to devote more time to his SportsCar team.

But in short, not everybody in the paddock bought into what Walker and IndyCar was trying to do this season. That made it basically impossible for Walker to do his job, so Walker walks.

Those most critical of Walker’s management pointed to the aero kits. The kits have added an exciting new level of aero-adjustment, and made it easier to identify Honda and Chevrolet powered cars.

But many didn’t like the look of the cars. Honda teams complained all year the expensive kits slowed them down up against the superior Chevy kits. They were also delivered late to the teams who complained they needed more pre-season testing. A.J Foyt went as far to say the kits were “out to lunch”.

The officiating under Walker also drew fire. Derrick wanted a stewards’ panel much like Formula One, where former drivers, guys who have been out there, making the calls. IndyCar told Walker they didn’t have the budget for a proper panel, and they were under constant criticism for inconsistent officiating as a result.

Out from under those dark clouds, at the end of the day, Honda driver Graham Rahal came close to catching the Chevrolet powered front-runners in the aero-kit war, so the kit controversy showed signs of equalizing itself.

But of course, the 2015 IndyCar season, and Scott Dixon’s eventual championship will be forever over shadowed by the darkest cloud of 2015, the loss of driver Justin Wilson.

The very likeable British pilot was killed in that fluke accident at Pocono the second-last race of the season, when stuck in the helmet by flying debris from an earlier accident.
Circling back to that debris problem at the season opener in Florida, IndyCar and other forms of single-seater, open-cockpit racing, Formula One included, are now stepping up dialogue on some kind of partial or complete canopy cover for added driver safety.

2015 might not be remembered as a stellar year for IndyCar racing as a whole, and there have been many positive developments, but one thing has remained constant, even improved this year, and the only reason the series doesn’t implode on itself.

The actual racing on the tracks this year was thrilling and spectacular, especially on the ovals with lap after lap of lead changes and inches-apart combat.

Yes, at times it was nerve-racking and hard to watch, but as long as the main sellable product of this form of racing, the competition, remains top-flight, IndyCar racing has a chance to fix itself for the future.

Tail Pipes: Fellow DIRT Modified fans lament the loss of The SuperDirt Week championship at the NY State Fairgrounds in Syracuse after this October’s classic. The State wants to develop the fairgrounds in other ways, but vow to help promoters relocate the event to another facility. It’s the end of an era and that’s always tinged with sadness. We will miss running “The Moody Mile”.