Too close for comfort on 1.5-mile ovals
The most controversial element of the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series schedule is the demise of a trio of high-speed 1.5-mile ovals.
Since the debut of the Indy Racing League's engine and chassis formula in 1997, spellbinding wheel-to-wheel action and photo finishes were the norm on that type of track. But many observers -- including most drivers -- have long felt that kind of ultra-close racing is incredibly dangerous in open-wheel cars.
And now that the IRL moniker is being laid to rest, there are those who are happy to see tracks like Kansas Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway disappear from the IndyCar scene. Kansas and Chicago are being replaced by 1-mile bullring ovals (specifically, the Milwaukee Mile and New Hampshire Motor Speedway) in 2011, and Homestead's spot as the season finale is likely to be a straight-up 1.5-mile swap for Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
I vividly can recall watching some of the early IndyCar races on mile-and-a-halfs and thinking that the action was simply insane. Yes, it looks better on TV to have the cars running in close proximity, and it's captivating for the fans in the stands to see 20 or more cars running around in a tight pack.
But I couldn't help thinking that someday the league was destined to put a car into the grandstands. In fact, that actually has happened; large portions of Kenny Brack's car pierced the catch fencing and ended up in an empty spectator area at Texas Motor Speedway after a violent October 2003 accident.
The safety issue during the IRL era stems from the fact that the league grew to favor side-by-side racing over actual passing. By definition, cars running side by side for extended periods really aren't passing each other.
In comparison to the formula used in CART-sanctioned Indy car racing that featured turbocharged engines and ground effect aerodynamics, the IRL formula introduced in 1997 featured less engine power from normally aspirated engines and bigger wings, creating much greater downforce. That resulted in a situation in which it was relatively easy for just about anyone to drive around high-banked 1.5-mile tracks flat out.
So pretty much by accident, the IRL created open-wheel racing similar to NASCAR restrictor-plate racing. By reducing power in the so-called interest of safety, a different type of danger was created, and the IRL-sanctioned IndyCar Series somehow managed to mostly dodge bullets over the past 13 years despite plenty of evidence to indicate that a disaster was often just inches away.
Drivers are generally reticent to criticize the series or their fellow competitors, but after the recent IndyCar Series race at Chicagoland, several current drivers spoke up and did an unusual amount of finger-pointing.
"I'm upset with the way some guys drove," remarked Ryan Hunter-Reay. "It was crazy out there. When you put 15 fast cars in a group that you could throw a king-sized blanket over, you're going to have people who are pissed off. You can't do everything right."
"The cars at the back of the field were moving around quite a bit and it was difficult to find racing room," added Helio Castroneves.
If anything, the situation has grown worse in recent years because IndyCar has devolved into a spec formula in which every car is a Honda-powered Dallara. Prior to 2006, there were two different chassis, up to three different engines, and (through 1999) two tire manufacturers. Those variations created some natural separation, some of which was obviously reduced by differences in the quality of the teams and the drivers.
It's great for the fans, but it's hard to enjoy it as a driver. For most of the night, you're in survival mode. ... People do crazy things out there and it's a bit upsetting.” -- Tony Kanaan
Now everybody is trucking around in the exact same cars, and the teams have up to eight years of experience working with the Dallara-Honda-Firestone combination. Identical cars are going to produce identical lap times, corresponding to side-by-side racing with little or no passing.
When new drivers come into the series, it's a learning experience to figure out how to race in a trustworthy fashion in such close quarters. After the Chicagoland race, several competitors called out IndyCar Series championship leader Will Power, a brilliant road racer who has contested barely a dozen oval races in his career.
"There were a lot of unpredictable people, and it was difficult to drive with Will," acknowledged oval-meister Dan Wheldon. "He was not giving me any room at all. You don't want people to give you a ton of room. You can virtually touch wheels, but it's stepping over the line and being unpredictable, which is not good.
"I'm not going to hold back," Wheldon added. "I think Ryan Hunter-Reay and [Mario] Moraes were unprofessional, and they could have hurt somebody, to tell you the truth."
The bottom line is that races on 1.5-mile speedways using the IRL formula are exciting spectacles that are fun and exciting for everyone except the drivers. It's not an unfair analogy to compare those events to warfare. There's always a chance a driver won't return from combat, and there is also the unacceptable possibility of collateral spectator injury or death.
"It's great for the fans, but it's hard to enjoy it as a driver," noted Tony Kanaan. "For most of the night, you're in survival mode. Everybody is going to get mad at each other at one point or another in a race like this because there is nowhere to hide. People do crazy things out there and it's a bit upsetting."
Fans sometimes complained about races at tracks like Milwaukee being processional, and there is certainly not the amount of close competition at the front of the field that there is on high-banked speedways. But it can be every bit as exciting to watch the leaders thread their way through traffic, or to watch a driver who qualified poorly work his way to the front of the field.
The drivers are certainly hopeful that the new IndyCar chassis and engine formula being created for 2012 will strike a better balance between passing and side-by-side racing. Including the final two races of the 2010 season (at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan and Homestead), they will only have to make it through seven more races on 1.5-mile tracks using the current car.
"I don't think there's any bad tracks, it's just our cars are not suited to some tracks," said two-time series champion Dario Franchitti. "It's just an unfortunate fact of life. The cars are maybe too quick, and the tracks weren't designed with our cars in mind.
"The fans, I think, really love it," he added. "I guess I'd just like a bit more control to be in the driver's hands."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.