Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Indianapolis 415

It was an ugly, ugly race.

I knew Indy had made some rules changes. For starters, the IRL is now running on 100% ethanol. They changed the fuel tank sizes, and eliminated the “dial-a-mixture” option that let a driver trade speed for fuel mileage when the situation called for it. But there must’ve been some other changes, because this was a totally different race than what I’ve seen in the last several years. Impressions:

  • Rain, rain, go away. Bad enough that we had to sit through a three-hour rain delay at lap 113, unsure if they’d get the track dry in time to restart. Worse, they only managed another 53 laps before the rain came back and ended the race for good. Poor Tony Kanaan, who led the pack into the delay, must be truly annoyed that they took away his victory when it was obvious to everyone that they still wouldn’t be able to make the full 500 miles before the rain returned.
  • Clean track, messy race. Speaking of rain, apparently, it had been raining on the track all day Saturday, too. That cleaned off all of the rubber that a full month of practice and qualifications had deposited, leaving the track clean, pristine…and very, very slick. There were seven separate one-car crashes that appeared to be at least partly caused by a car straying off the groove. Granted, they were also partly caused by less-experienced drivers coming up too fast on competitors, and having to dodge or slow down too fast – but that sort of thing doesn’t usually lead to this many cars hitting the wall
  • Nobody ever pulled away from the pack. Usually, there will be a “lead pack” of three or four cars, then another small group of cars that stay on the lead lap without ever really being competitive, then a whole bunch of cars that gradually slip farther and farther off the lead. I’m accustomed to seeing a few cars five or more laps behind by the halfway point, and as many as ten or fifteen laps down by the end, with several cars scattered out with lesser deficits. Not this time. Little Al did fall five laps back by the end, but the next-slowest driver still running was only three laps back, and there were 13 cars still on the lead lap. There would have been 17 if not for a major accident right before the rain. The huge number of cautions probably had something to do with that – 10 separate yellows for 55 laps, about 1/3 of the race. But mostly I think that no one had the speed to really pull away…almost like the cars had governors installed to restrict everyone to the same maximum speed. I’m sure that isn’t literally true, but I suspect the rules changes may have had much the same effect.
  • Cascading lead changes. There were nine different race leaders, and they swapped out positions 24 separate times – and that doesn’t count the times when someone would take the lead in the first turn, and then lose it again before they crossed the Yard of Bricks. Nobody had enough speed to hold on to the lead…they couldn’t overcome the speed advantage of the car drafting behind them. Besides, the pit stops got skewed during the various cautions, so every time the leader came in for a refuel, someone else could stay out and take over. It made for exciting racing, I suppose, but it also made things very hard to follow. There was just no way to tell who was doing well and who merely held the lead because the real leaders were making up ground from their last pit stop. Dario never really seemed to be challenging for the lead…but when the checkered flag came out, there he was in front.
  • Safety first. As if the seven single-car incidents weren’t enough, Marco Andretti made an ill-considered pass right at the end, and took out himself and three other cars. His car flipped, and it looked like he ran about a hundred yards with his helmet touching the track. Despite all that, there were apparently no serious injuries…Marco even gave an interview outside the clinic shortly after the race. I’m not sure that I like ALL the rules that control the cars’ setups…but you can’t fault the safety devices.

I still enjoyed the race, of course. The imminent rain added a sense of urgency to every lap, and every lead change. Seeing Marco and Danica in second and third when the first rain delay hit was very exciting – though disappointing when they finished 24th and 8th, respectively. And I sort of like Dario, so I’m pleased to see him win. All the same, I hope they tweak the rules a bit next year to give the mechanics a little more freedom to stand out…and I REALLY hope it stays dry next Memorial Day Weekend!

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