INDIANAPOLIS — Controversial new rules. Grumpy drivers. Back-room deals. Twitter feuds. Upstart outfits trying to make a name for themselves.
Is this IndyCar or NASCAR?
The lead-up to Sunday’s 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 has taken a page from NASCAR’s unique mix of soap opera and speed. When team owner Michael Andretti isn’t taking heat for buying Ryan Hunter-Reay’s way into the race, his son Marco is being attacked for taking to twitter to defend the old man.
Simona De Silvestro — arguably the best female driver in the series — is making fans say “Danica who?” for her cheek-biting toughness as she tries to drive with two badly burned hands. Unlikely pole-sitter Alex Tagliani is breathing much-needed life into a sometimes staid garage with his blunt and heavily French-accented honesty.
And then there’s double-file restarts, implemented this spring a year after it was introduced by its stock car brethren, the latest step in what some purists consider the “NASCAR-ification” of open-wheel racing.
The move was designed to create added drama as the 33-car field thunders down the front stretch to take the green flag. Whether it works on an oval remains to be seen, though the across-the-board blowback from the normally laid-back drivers has been considerable.
Tagliani calls it “a terrible idea.” Former 500 winner Dan Wheldon thinks it could lead to the race “being remembered for all the wrong reasons.” Defending race and series champion Dario Franchitti believes it’ll turn the 500 into a “lottery.”
Team owner Chip Ganassi understands the concerns. His advice? Get over it.
“I go back to when you watch an NFL game and then you watch a college football game, it’s the same game; they play by pretty much the same rules,” said Ganassi, a three-time 500 winner as an owner. “To a certain degree I think we need to appeal to all auto-racing fans. When you’re trying to appeal to all auto-racing fans it has got to look the same so they know what they’re looking at.”
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard defended the move, arguing several high-profile owners came to him with the idea, not the other way around.
“I’m talking to team owners and drivers who have won out there on that track many times, and they always say ‘We race to the rules and what they told us to race to,’” said Bernard, who recently completed his first year on the job. “The team owners wanted this, and some of the biggest racers ever, four-time Indy 500 winners, have told me that it’s a good change.”
Bernard disputes the series is turning into NASCAR-lite. There are no plans to amend the points policy the way NASCAR did in the offseason. The same goes for going to a “championship Chase” format.
Ganassi, who also runs a two-car NASCAR Sprint Cup operation, isn’t against any idea that could help make IndyCar relevant year-round, no matter where the idea comes from.
“The good thing about NASCAR is they’re not afraid to tweak and refine and really get to the core answer, it’s something the fans want to see,” said Ganassi. “We can’t do it overnight, but it’s something we need to work on.”
Bernard is concerned with viewership, but he’s more concerned about putting a compelling product on the track 17 times a year. Double-file restarts are part of a larger plan to develop a more level playing field in a series dominated by deep-pocketed teams such as Ganassi’s.
Not everyone is convinced it will work, at least not on the sport’s biggest day. There’s only room for one groove on the narrow 2.5-mile oval. If a driver ends up on the outside during a restart, avoiding the debris that marks the treacherous high line will be difficult.
“Our cars have wheels open, and they have wings,” Tagliani said. “NASCAR, they start and somebody has a bad start, he bumps, he pushes somebody in front, nothing happens. There’s two grooves, they go side-by-side and everything’s cool.”
The design of the IndyCars makes bumping to find room at 220 mph an undesirable option, though the drivers acknowledge they’re powerless at this point.
“I just drive the car,” said Paul Tracy. “I’m the monkey that they put in there.”
Still, he’s one of several drivers hoping to borrow a page from NASCAR’s signature event, the Daytona 500.
“The Great American Race” provided NASCAR with an unexpected jolt when longtime owners the Wood Brothers, a former power team relegated to part-time status in recent years, won their first race in a decade.
Tracy is among a handful of occasional IndyCar drivers and teams trying to do the same at the Brickyard. Wheldon and Townsend Bell also find themselves on the starting grid with a legitimate opportunity to break the stranglehold Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have had on the sport for the better part of a decade.
“I really do think you can see an upset this year,” said Wheldon, who won the 500 in 2005 and will start sixth on Sunday for owner Bryan Herta.
The drivers, even those from Ganassi and Penske, allow that having a fresh face to break up the traditional storylines isn’t a bad thing. And although the talk about parity and restarts won’t die down soon, 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon has a theory of what the race will look like if there’s a restart with 10 laps to go.
“All hell’s gonna break loose,” Dixon said.
Yep, sounds like NASCAR.