Things Get a Little Heated in the IZOD IndyCar Series
After two recent stops in Canada, maybe INDYCAR President and CEO Randy Bernard ought to seriously consider adding more dates north of the 49th parallel if he wants more controversy, hot-tempered drivers and chaotic racing.
The races in Toronto and Edmonton had enough of all three to last for the remainder of the season.
Bernard and his management team should be hoping for a spillover effect because the mayhem on track at those two races accomplished two very important things. First, the TV ratings on both sides of the border were up significantly for both, and secondly, those events created some drama, something the Series has had precious little of in recent years.
The old axiom that there is no such thing as bad publicity definitely applies to the IndyCar racing – even in year four post-unification, the sport is struggling to break back into the mainstream on the North American sports landscape.
Its TV audiences remain stubbornly small (particularly in the U.S. where some races have attracted cable audiences of around 300,000) and attendance at many of its oval events isn’t where it needs to be. The return to The Milwaukee Mile in June after a year away was a flop, with a tiny race-day crowd (estimates put it at about 15,000 in a facility that can seat 40,000) turning out to watch an entertaining race won by Dario Franchitti.
Things rebounded the next weekend at Iowa Speedway, where a healthy crowd (30,000 plus) watched Marco Andretti finally earn his second career victory with a brilliant drive that showcased the kind of skill that’s only appeared in flashes during his five plus years driving for his father Michael’s team.
After a week off, the Series resumed in Toronto on a hot and muggy July weekend with a 26-car field, one of the biggest the 11-turn, 2.824 kilometre circuit at Exhibition Place has seen since the heyday of the Molson Indy in the mid-late 1990s.
With temperatures in the mid-thirties (Celsius) throughout the weekend, drivers were already feeling a little hot in their race cars, and many became even more steamed during the race.
Coming into this year, Toronto had not yet played host to the Series’ new double-file restarts, which have already caused its fair share of mayhem, particularly on street circuits in St. Petersburg and Long Beach.
Toronto, like most street circuits, is fairly narrow and tends to produce a lot of contact as a result. With the exception of turns one and three, passing isn’t advisable and cars can’t safely run two-wide anywhere for long. It also has an assortment of surfaces that have gotten progressively bumpier over the years. The variety of surfaces causes grip levels to vary widely and teams often struggle to find the right compromise with car setup.
With double-file restarts being added to this volatile mix, many figured chaos would be the result.
And how right they were!
In fact, the reasonably uneventful start to the race lasted until lap three when Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan bumped wheels in turn three, sending the latter into the wall, which ended his day early.
And it was only the beginning. Soon there were cars coming together all over the place, the most notable of which involved the top two championship contenders, Franchitti and Power.
With Power running in fifth place on lap 56, Franchitti attempted to squeeze past him in turn three, but his left front wheel caught Power’s right rear, spinning him at the exit of the corner.
By the time Power got going, he was 16th and his race was effectively over. Contact with Alex Tagliani in turn five on lap 66 sent him into the tires, which put an end to his day. He finished 24th, his second straight DNF.
Power, not normally a driver known for going off on a rant, was seeing red after the incidents and let loose with a fury of rage for the assembled TV cameras on pit lane.
“I think Tag hit me. Pretty typical for him, he’s always been a bit of a wanker. [I’m] disappointed in Dario. The guy that mouths off about everyone, whinges about everyone and he’s the guy who races the most dirty and he never gets a penalty from INDYCAR. It’s just not right,” he said.
For his part, Franchitti viewed it as a racing incident. He accepted some of the blame, but not all of it.
“Will started to crowd me there, and unfortunately at that point as he was crowding, the wall comes out, and so I couldn’t go any further to the right. So I was trying to get out of it, and I couldn’t and I’d say that was my part in the accident. I think Will has equal blame in that in the fact that he came down across like I wasn’t there,” he said.
By the time the checkered flag fell, and Franchitti had captured his fourth win of the season, six cars had retired and only 13 completed all 85 laps.
And just about everybody was angry at someone.
Kanaan was mad at Briscoe, Danica Patrick was mad at Takuma Sato for contact early in the race, James Hinchcliffe and Paul Tracy weren’t too happy with one another after their incident in turn five ended their chances for good results.
Even drivers racing for the same organization were mad at one another.
Scott Dixon, who ended up finishing second, was mad at fellow Chip Ganassi driver Graham Rahal, for chopping him on the back straight late in the race.
Rahal, in turn, didn’t appreciate Dixon’s comments, but he was more angry with third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay, whom he made contact with in turn three late in race, in the almost identical spot as the Franchitti/Power dustup. Like Power, Rahal spun out and was relegated to a 13th place result.
Despite posting a good result in what has been an especially trying season for the two-time champion, Dixon was still noticeably annoyed with Rahal at the post-race press conference. He was overheard telling a reporter that Rahal had ‘gotten what he deserved’ when he came together with Hunter-Reay.
In fact, the race attracted more than 1.2 million unique viewers to TSN’s broadcast in Canada, making it the highest rated IndyCar race ever shown on the network.
It was a similar story in the U.S., where Versus attracted it’s highest IndyCar rating ever in 56 metered markets.
Not that the good ratings did anything to dampen some of the sore feelings that were left over – the bad feelings seemed to linger for most of the two weeks leading into Edmonton, only now the barbs were flying online.
As is so often the case when there’s a difference of opinion these days, the aggrieved parties decamp to Twitter to continue their sniping.
Franchitti suggested that Power watch the race, then call him to discuss the incident. Power, still mad, declined suggesting Franchitti was a ‘princess’.
So would more things happen to amp up the drama during the next chapter Edmonton City Centre Airport?
After hosting Champ Car and IndyCar races on the same circuit since 2005, Octane Management, the new promoters of the Edmonton Indy, elected to go with a new, 13-turn, 3.579 kilometre layout that runs counter clockwise on the eastern runway of the City Centre Airport.
A new circuit often has the potential to mix up the field because of a lack of familiarity, and that certainly was the case in Edmonton.
Qualifying produced some interesting results with two KV Racing Technology-Lotus drivers, Sato and E.J. Viso, making into the Firestone Fast Six, and Sato capturing the pole.
It was sunny and pleasant for the race, which didn’t take long to become pretty interesting.
On lap one, Tagliani went aggressively into turn five, bumped into Rahal who suffered a cut tire, went off the track and then came back on and collected Tracy, an incident that ended both of their races.
Because he unexpectedly had so much time on his hands, Rahal spent part of the race in the Versus booth providing analysis.
A couple of notable incidents followed when Mike Conway made contact with Oriol Servia, and Viso overshot his braking zone and speared Dixon in turn five. All four cars would finish the race, albeit some laps down.
For the second straight race, Dixon was pretty steamed afterwards. The contact with Viso resulted in a damaged radiator that had to be replaced which ruined his race. He finished 23rd, six laps down.
“I’m not sure what Viso was doing but he took us out and almost took Dario out as well. It was one of those deals where I could see it happening in my mirror but couldn’t get out of his way. We just can’t buy a break I guess,” he said afterwards.
As for the Franchitti/Power soap opera, that seemed to take a turn for the better.
Power, who started from the second position, grabbed the lead from Sato on lap 19 and held it for the remainder of the race to collect his fourth win of the season. Franchitti started fourth, avoided the carnage early on and finished third.
After sitting next to one another in the post-qualifying press conference without making eye contact, they were seen chatting briefly in the Winner’s Circle which seemed to suggest that what happened in Toronto is water under the bridge.
Power said that he has a hard time staying mad at people, and smiled when he saw Franchitti.
As short-lived as the feud between the two may have been, it helped to push the TV ratings up for the second consecutive race – Edmonton was the third most watched race ever on Versus in 56 metered markets.
Although things may have cooled off between them, only 38 points separated Franchitti and Power in the title chase at this writing. There’s still plenty of time left for the rivalry to heat up again before the end of the season.
For Bernard and the Series stakeholders, some good old fashioned dislike amongst drivers would be just what the doctor ordered.