“More of the same” is INDYCAR’s worst habit

by Tony Johns

Let’s get this bit of truth out there early: in nearly every respect, 2012 was the best year for IndyCar racing in terms of the on-track product in almost a decade.

Let’s get a second bit of truth out there equally quickly: the bar wasn’t set awfully high, not nearly as high as it is set in 2013.

IndyCar racing has a lot of speed. A lot of speed. Once you get over 200 miles per hour, the actual numbers aren’t all that important – it’s just damned fast.

Speed, though, isn’t enough to sell these days, especially when there is the explicit understanding that there is such a thing as too fast. Back in IndyCar racing’s so-called “glory days,” the action was always tense and thrilling because the drivers and teams were pushing the envelope of safety. Today, with cars and engines that, left unrestricted, would be closer to 300mph than 200mph, the envelope’s flap is licked, pressed, and sealed.

But still, we’re talking about a fast sport. So fast, in fact, that minute differences in reaction times and reflexes, tiny disparities in aerodynamics, and distance from an ideal setup all multiply factorially the width of gaps between cars.

The only way to counteract that is to make the race cars as equal as possible and then make the aerodynamics such that physics forces the cars together into packs. That, of course, is a giant turdbowl full of artificiality, not to mention a recipe for danger.

That’s why 2012 was such a welcome change from previous years. The cars were still equalized – hard not to be when they’re all built by one company and teams aren’t allowed to fabricate custom parts (*coughganassicoughpenskecough*), but enough downforce was taken off the cars that an elusive and mystical element called “driver skill” managed to weasel its way back into the equation.

The other thing that made 2012 more enjoyable was that, with new cars and engines, there was an element of uncertainty that had been wiped out in years past by developmental inertia. The dominating philosophy from 2003 until 2012 was “more of the same”; thus, even the incremental changes wrought by the ICONIC Committee for 2012 felt like a massive sea-change. After years of sticking to a script, it felt like there was a touch of improv back in IndyCar racing… and boy was it ever welcome.

But here’s the thing about 2012 – the marked improvement in on-track product quality was almost exclusively noticed by people who were already paying attention to the sport. The new cars, the engines, the competitive uncertainty, the freshened storylines… all of it seemed like a Punch and Judy play staged for an existing audience. That’s the conclusion, at any rate, that can be extrapolated by the microscopic footprint IndyCar racing makes in the zeitgeist.

Thinking positively, of course, you can argue that by continuing to put the improved on-track product on the track in 2013, INDYCAR could make some progress in wooing new fans. “See,” the thinking goes, “our racing is just as good as it was last year!”

The problem with that is that even though you bring the same cars and engines back that you used in 2012, the teams don’t bring back the same empty notebooks they had at the start of last season. While there may be a comforting stasis in the technical area, there certainly isn’t any in the teams’. So there is no guarantee that the same level of uncertainty and “anything could happen” improv feel will return with the 2012-spec machinery.

In other words, if you were hoping that 2013 would be a reliable plank in your missionary outreach to proselyte for new IndyCar fans based on what happened in 2012, you may be in for a bit of a letdown.

This is the reason why many observers – including myself – have been beating what many fans feel is a dead horse about making sure INDYCAR is pursuing a dynamic, innovative direction for the sport’s future. Because teams are ever-evolving even if their equipment is not, it behooves the sport to counter the solutions of so many brilliantly-minded and powerfully-driven people with new challenges in order to keep things fresh and interesting.

“Fresh and interesting,” by the way, is what today’s society is buying, not warm familiarity and tradition. The instant something seems stale, the people who exist in the demographics INDYCAR and other sports lust over will discard and ignore it.

This isn’t doom-and-gloom, though. It’s just the way the world works these days. For better or for worse, INDYCAR is trying to put on a command performance in the Short Attention Span Theater. Last year’s great is this year’s passé. There was a time when that wasn’t a problem for IndyCar racing, because the sport was all about the newest tech that would surpass the next milestone. Now, though, milestones are purposefully created instead of appearing organically of their own accord.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that what was better last year is only good enough this year… and good enough doesn’t sell in this marketplace. It’s something the new powers-that-be who are pulling INDYCAR’s strings would do well to remember.