INDYCAR: What We Learned (Season Wrap-Up Edition)

What We Learned Header

January

Something new can create a real buzz: One of the biggest topics of discussion during January was the advent of a mysterious new car called the "Delta Wing." Nobody knew what it was or what it looked like - all they knew was that Chip Ganassi and a bunch of other owners were behind it. Basically, the only thing everyone knew at this point was that the Delta Wing was a new IndyCar, and after a decade of Dallaras everyone was starving for something fresh.

Gone, baby, gone: "Abrupt" doesn't quite convey how sudden Tony George's total withdrawal from the Indy Racing League and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was. Coming as it did during a round of job cuts at IMS, it signified that there were big changes in the air at 16th and Georgetown. Some celebrated, some didn't, but everyone was shocked at how quickly it happened.

February

Saddle up, IndyCar fans: Randy Bernard, former CEO of Professional Bull Riders (PBR), was approached by the Hulman-George family to take over the reins of the IndyCar Series. Those who didn't know the guy were skeptical - he was anything but a smooth talker and his face had a somewhat confused look on it most of the time. Those who did know him, though, knew that IndyCar would be in capable hands. An outsider and an often-underestimated businessman, Bernard was a risky pick but would prove to be a very smart one for the series.

What the hell is THAT?: For years, the new IndyCar had been delayed and hemmed-and-hawed about by the Brian Barnhart-led IndyCar powers-that-be. Fans welcomed the advent of the Delta Wing because the proposal basically forced IndyCar to move on a 2012 tech revolution. At least, they welcomed it until the wraps were taken off of the rolling clay model. When faced with a giant gray phallic symbol, most of the early enthusiasts abandoned ship faster than a rat off of the Titanic.

March

New car by committee: Randy Bernard, realizing how much he had to learn about IndyCar racing, came up with a solution to his dilemma on how to pick the new 2012 IndyCar - he formed a team of advisors to do much of the thinking for him. Named the ICONIC Committee (an acronym whose meaning nobody really cares about anymore), the panel was made up of smart and savvy folks from all areas of the sport, from teams to promoters to owners to tech guys, and chaired by a retired Air Force general who had no dog in the political fight between the varied special interests. A smart, smart decision which, naturally, would be second-guessed to kingdom come by wags and pundits.

Penske proves prescient with Power pick: At the start of the season, fans knew that Roger Penske had a diamond in the rough with Will Power, but few knew just how smart a decision Penske had made in risking a full-season deal on the young Aussie. They started realizing it when Power won the season opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil and then followed it up the next race by winning from the pole at St. Petersburg.

April

Ryan Hunter-Reay was worth a full-season ride: The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is one of the IZOD IndyCar Series' crown jewels and every team in the paddock wants to win it. But nobody saw it coming when Ryan Hunter-Reay, driving a limited schedule for Andretti Autosport as part of his personal-services deal with series sponsor IZOD, ended up winning it. It was a surprise - a welcome one in a season where only two drivers would break the Penske-Ganassi monopoly on race victories. It also earned Hunter-Reay a drive for the rest of the 2010 season, which resulted in Hunter-Reay finishing 7th in the overall standings.

May

If IndyCar has a good idea, they need to take credit for it: Bruton Smith came up with an idea that had the North American racing world buzzing - a $20 million payout for any driver who could win both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. Except it wasn't Bruton's idea. It was actually Randy Bernard's, and Smith simply pulled the promotional rug out from under him because he could. Ironic, considering that Bernard and Smith would end up becoming bedfellows as the 2011 IndyCar schedule took shape.

Fuel-mileage racing at Indy can be both dull and catastrophic: What could be more pitiful than the sight of the leader at Indianapolis driving as slow as the pace car because he wants to win on fuel strategy? In the "glory days," the big risk was pushing your car too hard or too fast - but, of course, in the days of spec racing and "bulletproof" engines, soft-pedaling a race car has to suffice instead. It would have been an embarrassing finish to the Month of May, except that the fuel strategy game resulted in Mike Conway providing the SportsCenter and YouTube generation with a viral video (and provided Conway with an excuse to sit out the rest of the season) with a truly frightening accident in the north chute. Nobody really noticed Dario Franchitti puttering across the Yard of Bricks because they were so intent on seeing whether Conway was okay.

June

The ICONIC "letdown": Randy Bernard's panel of experts revealed their direction for the 2012 IndyCar's powerplant to a fanfare of... meh? Actually, "meh" was an example of positive reaction to the engine specs unveiled by the ICONIC panel. Everyone else was hella pizzed (as the kids sometimes say). Most folks realized that the ICONIC decision was a massive concession to Honda by tailoring the rules to accommodate the automaker's desired V6 twin turbo motor. A vocal minority of gearheads was incensed that ICONIC and IndyCar would not be supporting the fledgling Global Racing Engine spec that was supported by several major engine builders. The news that there was significant interest in Europe in IndyCar's bespoke V6 turbo engine spec fell on deaf ears.

Iowa's not just for farming anymore: How many people would have guessed that pairing IndyCars with a short track out in the middle of Newton, Iowa would result in one of the best races of the season, not to mention one of the best-attended oval races of the past several years? Not many. But Iowa Speedway proved to be a wonderful venue for IndyCar racing, and the packed grandstands showed that the track's promoters were excellent partners. In a season full of disappointing gate totals at circle tracks, Iowa stood out as a shining exception.

July

The ICONIC "letdown" 2 - Electric Boogaloo: If the disappointment over the ICONIC committee's engine specs was troubling to the IndyCar powers-that-be, it paled in comparison to the outright vitriol that erupted after the hologram-infused announcement of the 2012 IndyCar chassis. Considered logically and dispassionately, the aero-kit/safety cell combination was making the best of a difficult situation; after all, only a few months ago nobody was even thinking of creating a new car in two years. But even though the ICONIC chassis spec combined some of the better aspects of the maligned Delta Wing with team cost savings, Indianapolis-area investment from Dallara, and wiggle room for innovation from aero-kit builders, the reaction was awe-inspiringly negative. Nobody seemed happy with the compromise, and many wondered how things in the series would change if the PTB kowtowed first to Honda, then to Dallara. The fact that IndyCar neophyte Randy Bernard had, in the space of less than half a year, had engineered a way to build a new car for 2012 that at once opened up avenues for innovation and new interest while safeguarding existing relationships with the few remaining investors in the series... well, a lot of people thought that Bernard just brought too much bullcrap over from PBR.

Never, EVER grab Security Chief Charles by the collar: Helio Castroneves was a little upset when he was penalized out of a victory at Edmonton. The decision from Race Control brought a firestorm of withering criticism onto the head of Brian Barnhart (even though Tony Cotman was the guy who made the call), but it turned out in the end that Castroneves had violated the blocking rule by choosing an improper line into the first turn. That didn't stop Castroneves from suffering a truly epic meltdown that ended with him yelling and cursing at the towering chief of IndyCar security Charles Burns. The amused grin on Burns' face was almost as entertaining as the flood of fluent Portuguese curses coming from the normally happy-go-lucky Brazilian fence-climber.

August

In Cotman we trust: For months, SPEED's Robin Miller had been telling anyone and everyone that the best guy to write the 2012 IndyCar rules would be New Zealander Tony Cotman, a former race director for Champ Car who served briefly as IndyCar's VP of competition before resigning in January. Miller had been stumping for Cotman for months, loudly enough that Cotman was made a member of the ICONIC Committee panel. Sure enough, when it came time to pick someone to write the rulebook for 2012, it was Cotman who got the nod. On the plus side, Cotman was the guy who pushed the late, lamented Panoz DP-01 Champ Car to completion. On the negative, the last guy that Miller stumped this hard for was Chris Pook, the guy who took over Champ Car and spectacularly ran it into the ground. Still, given the alternative - Brian Barnhart - many race fans were thrilled to see Cotman step up to the plate.

Old habits are hard to break: Toward the end of the month, Robin Miller revealed the gut-punch that some of the IndyCar owners were on the verge of a revolt over the 2012 IndyCar. It didn't really make sense - why would the owners be so upset about a car and spec that would end up being cheaper and more flexible than the current wallet-draining status quo... and why go public with it a full month after the new direction was announced? It smacked of greed, ego and control issues - all hallmarks of Split-era ideology. Randy Bernard moved quickly to address the situation and eventually things got smoothed over, but it was a distressing indication that the "brave new world" of the unified IZOD IndyCar Series still had unsavory elements of the old world.

September

The best way to get ahead is self-interest: You thought that loyalty and professionalism was the way to move up the motorsports ladder? Pfff. Colombian driver Sebastian Saavedra proved that to be sentimental balderdash by abandoning his Bryan Herta Autosport Firestone Indy Lights team in the 11th hour, the day before the FILS race at Kentucky Speedway. The reason? They were inhibiting his career. You'd think that would result in his being ostracized by the IndyCar community, but ha ha, the joke's on you! Saavedra actually gained an ally in veteran team owner Derrick Walker, who signed on to help manage the Colombian's career, and got himself an IndyCar ride for the season finale at Homestead with Conquest Racing.

ISC is not welcome in the clubhouse anymore: The France family, who owns both NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation, were some of the original backers of the Indy Racing League. Some have said that this was done with subtly malicious intent - divide and conquer, so to speak. But the main thing to remember is that ISC tracks have been part of IndyCar racing for over 15 years. No longer - the 2011 IndyCar schedule does not feature a single ISC track. Randy Bernard put it bluntly - IndyCar needs to make deals with promoters who are actively interested in partnering with the sanction. Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc. stepped up and filled the blanks left by the lost ISC tracks, and the races at ISC venues went out with a whimper with appallingly small crowds.

Not everyone agrees with the definition of "art": Ted Gall's IZOD IndyCar Series championship trophy was almost universally loathed - even champion Dario Franchitti, who will have it sitting on his mantle now, seemed perplexed by the "naked guy on the unicycle."

October

Sometimes, not even success is enough to succeed: On the heels of being the top two drivers in the points not driving for Penske Racing or Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport drivers Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay found themselves floundering without sponsorship at season's end. Never mind that Kanaan and Hunter-Reay were the only drivers to win races this year besides the "red cars" at Penske and Ganassi. Kanaan's sponsor, 7-Eleven, scaled back to an associate sponsorship with Danica Patrick, while Hunter-Reay's IZOD sponsorship (never meant to be more than a couple of races this year) ended as well. Still, Hunter-Reay is more likely to come back to Andretti Autosports next season - Kanaan's estimated $3 million/year salary might mean that he could be racing elsewhere in 2011.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper: The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was a thorough disappointment from start to finish. From the appallingly mediocre turnout (12,000 was the most generous estimate of the crowd size, and the few fans in attendance were shepherded into a fenced-off section of grandstands... leaving acres of empty seats around the track) to the anticlimactic battle for the championship to the malfunction-plagued post-race ceremony, it was as pathetic an advertisement as could possibly have been expected for a racing series that supposedly considers itself one of the top-level disciplines in the world. The total domination of Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing made even Formula 1's have-have not gulf look bridgeable by comparison. Some self-interested folks in IndyCar think that the status quo is fine and dandy, but nearly everyone else knows the truth - change cannot come soon enough for the IZOD IndyCar Series.

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