The past 20 years has seen just about every major sanctioning body add something to the rule book or make technical changes in the hope of making the show more competitive, more exciting, and to make more people want to watch.
Formula 1 introduced its DRS system in hopes of restoring overtaking, while NASCAR pulled out green-white-checker, stage racing, competition cautions, traction compound and pick your lane on restarts. IMSA lives by the BoP (Balance of Performance) creed that doesn’t seem to make anyone particularly happy, and IndyCar’s long-running gimmick to spice things up has been push-to-pass on road and street courses.
I’m not sure of the success rate of these enhancements, but I do know that other than qualifying being changed back in the IRL days, the Indianapolis 500 has remained pretty true to its roots. Yeah, they started more than 33 cars in 1997, there was a red flag thrown back in 2014 to give the fans a green-flag finish and they add boost for qualifying, but for the most part it’s been void of non-stop Barnum & Bailey tactics.
And that’s why it doesn’t need push-to-pass in 2023 – or ever.
I understand Jay Frye and his staff are just exploring their options to try and make things a little racier at 16th & Georgetown, and last Friday’s test (main image) was just that – a test – among four of the best drivers and teams to get some feedback on P2P or KERS at sustained speeds. IndyCar has loosened up the regs for May to give teams more options, and it’s having a special test this week at Texas to see if a change in the underbody and new tire helps the racing.
“IndyCar has done a good job of trying to find the right package and it’s not easy,” said two-time IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden following Friday’s test. “You don’t want something that’s too easy or too hard when everyone gets all strung out.”
Added 2016 Indy victor Alexander Rossi: “Obviously you want to make the show as good as possible, and the past couple years at Indianapolis have been a little bit hit and miss, but not far off. But I don’t think you need push-to-pass to make this race better.”
Rossi knows of which he speaks, since his charge from 32nd to fourth in 2018 remains one of the best YouTube videos ever as he parlayed his bravado with car control and passed people in places where nobody usually even thought about it. It was hard, ballsy driving and he was rewarded, just like the fans were.
But it seems to me we’ve lost our compass on what constitutes a good race at Indy. Do you favor two cars on the lead lap, like in 1991 or 1994? Third place being six laps down in 1989? Rick Mears winning by two laps in 1984? Or A.J. doing the same in 1967? Two-thirds of the field crashed or broken down in 1992?
I realize we don’t have the thrill of track records, or creative minds turned loose in Gasoline Alley, or 50 drivers going for 33 spots anymore. And spec racing is likely here to stay. But I’m not really sure we appreciate what’s transpired in the past decade.
Takuma Sato tried to pass Dario Franchitti for the victory on the last lap and crashed in 2012, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves traded the lead four times in the closing laps in 2014, Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power swapped the top spot three times in the final 10 laps in 2015, Sato beat Castroneves to the checkered flag by a couple car lengths in 2017 and Simon Pagenaud and Rossi staged a mad drafting party the last 10 laps before Simon’s 0.2096s triumph in 2019.
Simon Pagenaud’s blood pressure readings at the end of the 2019 race would likely have said something about the 500’s ability to create tension without the need for gimmicks. LePage/Motorsport Images
Sure everyone tries to save fuel and not lead until the end, and restarts provide the best action of the day, but aren’t two drivers fighting for the win after 500 miles a pretty good show?
Not every race can be a classic with non-stop passing from start to finish, but Dallara, Honda and Chevy have leveled the playing field, so Ed Carpenter was one pit stop away from winning Indy in 2018, and Sato and RLL can beat the Big 3, and Arrow McLaren SP is pushing to join that club. Spec racing should make for closer competition, and the road racing has been superb as ovals continue to evaporate from the schedule. But Indianapolis seems to bring out the best in racers.
Rossi’s resolve and reflexes haven’t been mimicked lately, but what he did was work his way to the front by tuning his chassis and taking chances – the essence of racing.
“Indianapolis is not meant to be easy,” said Scott Dixon, the 2008 winner and six-time IndyCar champion. “It should be the most difficult race in the world to win. If we start applying more downforce for everyone or adding push-to-pass and make it easy to drive so you can place it wherever you want, that’s not what Indy should be about. I think it’s dangerous to have a pack race here, and it should be more about figuring out your car and improving your setup as the race goes on.
“Can we make it better? I think so, and there are definitely some fundamental things we can change, but I’m not a big fan of push-to-pass on superspeedways.”
Frye and IndyCar have been very receptive in listening to their drivers over the past few years so here’s hoping they don’t turn a deaf ear to this unneeded power play.