SPARTA, KY - OCTOBER 02: A restart during the IZOD IndyCar Series Kentucky Indy 300 on October 2, 2011 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
So, those double-file restarts.
New INDYCAR race control czar Beaux Barfield has decided that, at least on the bigger ovals, double-file restarts are not prudent, and the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers have nearly unanimously breathed a sigh of relief about it.
Some fans are naturally upset about this, because double-file restarts certainly ratchet up the suspense and unpredictability level - and considering how crushingly predictable IndyCar racing has been for the better part of a decade, the new restart procedure was a breath of fresh air for the spectators.
Those fans who supported double-file restarts are disappointed and incredulous. How, they ask, can NASCAR put 43 cars on the track double-file on every single damn restart and get through it without the dire warnings of chaos that we hear from INDYCAR drivers coming true?
As for me, I think if you're going to tout your drivers as the best in a particular category, you need to challenge them with things like double-file restarts and trust them to make the kinds of correct decisions behind the wheel that will keep the worst-case scenarios that the racers always posit from happening.
But I'll let you in on a secret - while I may love watching double-file restarts, I hate doing them.
Everyone who has read my columns for any length of time knows that I put a lot of stock into multiplayer simulated racing. Part of this has to do with the lack of opportunity that I have had to do real-world auto racing on my own; sim racing offers an affordable and generally realistic approximation of real-world competition.
Sim racing does not take the physical toll that real-world racing does. Even if you put a brace of hair dryers set to full blast in front of your face and hire someone to punch you in the ribs every time you take a corner, no simulated race will ever fully recreate what it is to drive an actual race car in anger.
But simulated racing - particularly multiplayer simulated racing such as iRacing and Simraceway - does do a fantastic job of simulating the emotional and psychological stress that real-world racing causes. In some cases, I think it may even go beyond real-world racing because of the constraints of technology - sim racers often have much less of a window into their surroundings because of a lack of visual and tactile stimuli (single-monitor setups remove peripheral vision; a lack of G-forces and seat-of-the-pants feel make it significantly harder to compensate for over- and understeer; etc.).
The best thing about sim racing is that it gives someone who has only watched racing the chance to try their hand at doing it. And doing something that you have only watched previously has a way of shaking up your perspective.
As someone who has sampled every race car and racetrack that iRacing offers, there is a universal truth that I have realized about myself, and that is that I despise double-file rolling starts when I'm driving. It's a difficult thing to describe the knot that forms in my stomach when I'm watching the flagstand for the green flag, knowing that the odds of getting through the first couple of laps after the start or restart without getting involved in an accident are distressingly low.
What could go wrong? What couldn't go wrong, you mean. If the laundry list of your own responsibilities isn't long enough - don't spin the tires, hold your line, be aware of the car in front of you, the car behind you, the cars kitty-cornered both ahead and in back of you, and so forth - you have to deal with a bunch of drivers around you and hope to whatever deity you worship that they are also doing due diligence in maintaining situational awareness.
Even in my private league races, where I race with people I have known and competed against for the better part of twenty years now, I never fail to approach panic mode when starting or restarting a race in a crowd. My default plan of attack is to be calm, forgiving, and patient in these situations - indeed, our in-race radio is usually flooded with drivers trying to reassure each other that there's "no pressure on you here," which is almost always a well-intentioned lie. Circumstances, however, rarely allow me that luxury.
Maybe my setup in a stock car is loose on cold tires to compensate for a later-run tight condition, so when we restart my tires spin, I lose the back end for a second, and while I'm trying to get all four tires pointed in the same direction half the field is blowing past me in a balls-out rush to turn one. Or maybe I'm flat out in my Dallara in traffic at Indianapolis, unable to lift to give the guy in front of me a break when he is trying not to drive up the tailpipe of the driver in front of him because I have someone inches from my own rear wing who doesn't see this enormous wad of terror building up ahead of him.
The worst part is that reaction times become so compressed - particularly in a high-speed car like an IndyCar - that whether you make it through an incident on a start or restart usually comes down to pure, dumb luck. You can prepare all you want - hell, you could probably even do vision therapy to improve hand-eye coordination and reflexes - but when something goes wrong you could do everything right and still get caught up in it. It's bad enough on road and street courses, but when you're accelerating through 150mph in close quarters... fuggedaboutit.
No, it doesn't matter the track or the car - I do not start breathing and my muscles do not unknot until the field has strung out after a lap or two at speed. And I am not even in any physical danger, unless you count the possibility of suffering a stress coronary.
So yeah, the couch potato fan in me looks at the elimination of double-file restarts in INDYCAR askance - SHALL I NOT BE ENTERTAINED? But my faux-realistic experience behind the wheel of my simulated race car does not allow me to criticize the bravery of these drivers who actually strap themselves into their machines and sling themselves at over 200mph around these tracks.
There is acceptable risk, and then there is needless risk. Acceptable risk is the danger that drivers can deal with and work around when that aspect of their job cannot be circumvented by any other means. Needless risk is putting drivers in danger for something that is not essential to competition. The truth is that double-file restarts are not essential to INDYCAR racing; they are, instead, a perk for the fans.
I would encourage anyone who might impugn the nerve of IndyCar drivers with regards to double-file restarts to do the following: fire up iRacing, find a group of twenty other drivers, hop in your digital Dallara, and try it yourself. Maybe then you won't begrudge the real drivers their relief that they won't have to deal with them on the high-speed ovals after all.