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Sparse Kansas crowd illustrates need to improve "The Show"

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I hear a lot of criticism in IndyCar circles of NASCAR and their deference to "The Show."

Lucky Dogs, green-white-checker finishes, "phantom" debris cautions... you know the litany. If you're an IndyCar fan, chances are you have your own laundry list of things that allow you to snicker derisively at stock car racing - "professional wrestling on wheels," as it were.

We covet the idea that IZOD IndyCar Series racing is "more real" than stock car racing - that our discipline is a truer test of man and machine, and that our sport doesn't need all that fakery and frou-frou crap that often gets ladled on top of motorsports like a sickly-sweet glaze to whet the hoi polloi's appetites.

That kind of thinking really boosts the ego... but as we learned in Kansas this weekend, it doesn't do squat to boost the gate.

Kansas represented everything that IndyCar was supposed to be good at. After weeks of road and street racing, IndyCar was back where many believe it belongs - high-speed oval racing in America's heartland. Add to that the biggest field of the season, the first day of May and the final prep before the Indy 500... hell, Danica was even there. That should have been a recipe for success.

It wasn't.

You can (and many people already did) blame the less-than-sunny weather or the possibility that folks might have been staying home to watch the Kentucky Derby (A.J. Foyt even missed the race to vacuum up a few mint juleps at Churchill Downs, after all) for the fact that the Kansas Speedway crowd could have been bested by the audience of a kazoo-based Lawrence Welk Tribute Band.

But whatever the excuse, it seems pretty clear that steps need to be taken to improve The Show.

IndyCar can start by solving two persistent, aggravating issues:

  1. Shorten the caution flag periods after wrecks. Look, we all know that IndyCars are made of carbon fiber and that when one of them wrecks those little splinters can go everywhere. Further, I appreciate the hard work of the Holmatro Safety Team in making sure that everyone is okay after a hard shunt. But seriously - I can't be the only one who has noticed that yellow flag periods at oval tracks take FOREVER, even when the incident in question seems innocuous. When your average non-Indy IndyCar oval race is between 300 and 400 miles, you want to have as many green flag laps as possible. Much as I love the spirited banter between the guys in the booth, it's no replacement for on-track action. And if you're watching at the track, if you can fit a bathroom break and a snack run in and still have time to hit souvenir row before the lights go out on the pace car... that's just a bit too long.
  2. Adopt a new restart procedure. I get it. Folks don't want to sacrifice the race for the sake of The Show. But when you have a late-race restart with fifteen lapped cars between the leader and second-place, both the race and The Show suffer. I complained last week about IndyCar restart procedure, and this race did me a huge favor by showing exactly what I was talking about. Simply put, we're at a point now when it's time to make a concession to The Show. Modern-day racing is a spectator sport, not an engineering contest where spectators are simply grudgingly-tolerated fringe elements. The "accelerate to race speed on the backstretch" crap needs to stop. The idea of a baker's dozen or more lapped cars between drivers racing for position on a restart is ludicrous. Sure, in an ideal world, navigating through obstacles like Milka Duno to get to the leader would be a fine test of a driver - but in an ideal world, we also would have more than one car builder and engine manufacturer and a series that pays more than lip service to the principle of being the greatest show on a racetrack. So move the restart line up to the frontstretch in front of the fans, and then put lapped cars on the outside line to get them out of the way of faster cars.

There are more issues with IndyCar oval racing that need to be dealt with, but many of them won't be addressable until a new chassis and engine spec is selected. So until the tech side gets the attention that it is (over)due, the fixes need to come in other areas.

Or IndyCar can just continue doing what it has done in the past - blame the track, blame the promoter, pull up the stakes and move to another venue. But all that does is slap a Band-Aid on the injury, not treat it the way it needs to be treated.

It's not necessary to manufacture entertainment; but it is also not necessary to force boredom on people in a misguided nod to keeping the sport unsullied by artifice.