Friday, December 8, 2017

IndyCar Ideas: Oval Qualifying, Pit Lane Closures, Alternate Tires and Weeknight Races

There are 93 days until the next IndyCar race and it has been 82 days since the last time IndyCar was on track. With all that said, especially since it is Friday, let's have some fun. We got a lot of time until the IndyCar season and IndyCar is looking at changes that could be made to the series and the on-track action. Why don't we throw some ideas at the wall? And to quote the legendary philosopher known as 2 Chainz, this comes from "a mind full idea of ideas/some of this shit may sound weird."

Not all of this is going to fall inside the box. Some of this you may have never considered. You may think some of it is the stupidest thing you ever read and some of it you may think is a genius idea and wonder why it has never been considered before. The goal is to get your mind thinking and consider new ways of how we go about things in racing and IndyCar in particular.

Oval Qualifying
This topic came up in the early part of the offseason. The 2017 season was one of the more predictable years for oval qualifying and it seemed the starting order was due to be set based on when a car went out for its qualifying run. The cars that went out toward the end of qualifying ended up at the front of the grid and the cars that went out early were at the back.

Josef Newgarden and Will Power came out and said the procedure has to improve. Newgarden suggested using practice speeds to decide the qualifying order with the fastest in practice being the final qualifier and the slowest in practice going out first. He even suggested using the championship standings as a fairer way to decide the qualifying order than drawing numbers out of a hat. Power even said oval points should be used that way it wouldn't be a disadvantage to Ed Carpenter, which is a very sportsmanlike thing of the Australian to consider a fellow competitor even if it could be less of a benefit to him.

The practice speed idea makes sense. Plus, it would add some intrigue to practice. However, let's think about a race for a second. We like seeing passing and if a few cars end up at the back but those cars are top cars it could lead to a better race. In some ways a random grid has its perk. Obviously, passing was very difficult at Phoenix and Gateway and it would not good if someone was stuck at the back. Hopefully the universal aero kit will solve that problem.

I could live with setting qualifying order by inverting the practice results but I had two other ideas. The first is use practice results to set the qualifying order but not inverting meaning the fastest car in practice goes out first and the slowest car goes out last. It would be fair from the sense that all the top cars would be paired together but instead of being at the back of the order they would be at the front. It could allow for the grid to be mixed up a bit. I doubt the slowest car in practice would jump to pole position just by being the final car to qualify but it could mix up the top ten.

An issue with this idea is sandbagging and teams doing it in hopes to be toward the back of the qualifying order. That is a risk and I am not against sandbagging. You can't legislate it out. If someone does it and it works then good for them but there is the reverse situation where a team sandbags and overestimate the strength of the car and ends up in the back.

The second idea is have qualifying order still determined by a random draw. Everyone makes their first attempt and then everyone makes a second attempt in reverse order of the draw. Either two things could happen: The grid could be set by an aggregate of the qualifying times or the grid could be set by the best attempt from each car.

The second idea is a littler more complicated than the first but it would mean more on-track action as each car would have to make two qualifying runs.

Pit Lane Closures
Another thing IndyCar is looking into is closing the pit lane. The most notable shake up during the 2017 season was at Toronto where Josef Newgarden jumped from running in seventh to leading the race because he was on the pit lane when a caution came out. Newgarden cycled to the lead and he ran away with the victory while the front runners of Hélio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon were shuffled to the back, lost any shot of a podium finish and most had to settle for finishes in the back half of the top ten.

I am in the party that believes the pit lane should never close unless there is an extraordinary circumstance such as an incident on pit lane or an incident blocking either pit entrance or pit exit.

But what if we did something different with the pit lane? We currently have a situation where the pit lane closes but the truth is the pit lane doesn't close. Pit entrance closes. If you are on pit lane, like Newgarden was, you're good. You can change tires, get fuel, you can even get out of the car and have a cigarette if you wanted and not only can you do all that but you can also leave the pit lane without any objection. The pit lane exit never closes.

What if closing the pit lane meant closing the pit lane? If you are on the pit lane when a caution comes out you can't leave. You are stuck. You are trapped. That would change how you would strategize a race. Instead of wanting to time a pit stop to occurring simultaneously with a full-course caution a team will want to get a pit stop out of the way as quick as possible and get the car back on the racetrack. However, that could take competitive cars out of the battle for the victory and that would piss off many people from drivers to fans to crew members.

Or what if closing the pit lane meant the pit lane was only opened during green flag racing? That would shake things up. If you think about it, pit stops under caution are a reset. It allows everyone to run the same strategy and stay grouped together but banning pit stops under cautions would force teams to run a race completely differently. You don't want to run too long because if you are one of the final cars to stop and a caution comes out you could be forced to stop immediately after the race goes green and fall behind everybody. However, what if it encouraged teams to run short stints and a team could stop early and hope to have a caution come out in the middle of a stint and force teams to consider making pit stops immediately after the green flag run. All of a sudden you could have a car shuffle to the front of the field on half a tank of full and be able to open a decent gap to the rest of the field.

We are so used to doing one thing when it comes to cautions and the pit lane. There is no way of knowing what is the best way to handle the pit lane under cautions unless you try these different scenarios. IndyCar can't be changing the rules every year until it finds the best procedure. I would like to see something experimented with for at least two seasons. IndyCar should commit to something different for two seasons and from the start say it will be a two-year experiment. After that it can decide what to use for the future. It could decide to continue to experiment for another two-year period or adopt the procedure permanently or revert to something more familiar.

Alternate Tires
Tires have been in the news lately and changes are coming for 2018.

In 2017, IndyCar allowed teams to use a set of alternate tires in one practice session, a change from previous seasons where alternate tires were not available until qualifying. The change had its pros and cons. Teams got more time with the alternate tire and could perfect the cars set up on the alternate tire. In turn, we didn't see many surprises in qualifying with a team that took a chance on the alternate tire in the first round of qualifying steal a spot in round two from a contender

I have championed this stance before and I will champion it once again. I believe alternate tires should not be marked and it should be mixed in with the rest of the tires. This way teams will have no clue what tire they are putting on the car. If the team ends up starting the race on alternate tires and then puts on alternate tires for its first pit stop and then puts on another set for its second pit stop so be it. We could see races all over the place. Some teams might have to make an additional pit stop because they can't do three stints on alternate tires. At the same time, if a team keeps putting on the primary tire and is losing too much time it might decide to make an additional pit stop in hopes of finally putting on the alternate compound and gaining speed.

Perhaps instead of mixing in three or four sets of alternate tires, IndyCar could give the teams three sets of tires for the race, two are the primary compound and the other is the alternate compound but there is no demarcation. The team chooses one set to start the car on then will have two sets in the pit area. A team would still use each compound during the race but the difference is the teams wouldn't know it is on the alternate compound until the car is running on track and the door remains open that a team could start on the alternate tire. To give the teams a taste of the alternate compound IndyCar and Firestone could give each team an alternate set to use during one of the practice sessions.

Teams would get an idea of what the alternate tire can do but it would force teams to adjust strategies on the fly. A team could end up starting on the alternate tire and be forced to stop earlier than it would like because the alternate doesn't suit the car or the team could put the alternate on during the second stint and find itself wanting to stop earlier because it is losing time or a team could end up putting the tires on during the final stop and a driver might have to be a little more conservative to make it to the end of the race.

Strategists might have a few more headaches but us fans could end up with more breath-taking races.

Why not make Iowa a weekend night race?
The other day I was scanning the IndyCar schedule because I had not heard if the television schedule had been released nor could I recall any of the start times besides Indianapolis and Gateway because Gateway had already announced the race would be an hour earlier in 2018.

The schedule on the IndyCar website has green flag times listed but no television times. Those might be green flag times from the 2017 races and haven't been changed yet but I saw that Iowa had a green flag time of 5:30 p.m. ET. If the definition of insanity is doing the same over and over again and expecting a different result then I would like to congratulate the folks at Iowa Speedway on officially being insane.

Two years of late Sunday afternoon start times have been bad for Iowa in terms of the crowd. If the track doesn't want to race on Saturday night, fine but the race should start no later than 1:00 p.m. local time if it hopes to get people from the Indianapolis-area to come out for the race.

Next year, Iowa falls on July 8th and because of the calendar it is the Sunday after the Fourth of July. NASCAR will race the night before at Daytona. Saturday night isn't an option this year but what if Iowa raced on the night of July 4th?

Next year would be the perfect time for IndyCar to try a weeknight race. First, July 4th is a Wednesday. It is always difficult when the Independence Day holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. You can't take four days off. You can probably get two days off but most likely don't get multiple days off. However, it would be a holiday and people are still going to travel despite the holiday falling on a Wednesday. Second, July 4th falls ten days after Road America so teams wouldn't be rushing from a track on Sunday to get to another race on Wednesday.

It could be a full day worth of on-track action with Indy Lights and IndyCar each having a practice session in the afternoon then qualify in the late afternoon with the Indy Lights race in the evening and the IndyCar race beginning right before sunset. The track could make it a full day of Independence Day festivities. Bring in a Ferris wheel and other rides, make enough barbecue and cotton candy to feed tens of thousands of people and after the IndyCar race have a fireworks shows.

NBCSN is not going to have anything that takes priority over an IndyCar race that night. It is a Wednesday night in July. The network will have already replayed that day's Tour de France stage four times before 6:00 p.m. ET.

While NBCSN might not be busy, I am not sure Fourth of July is a good night for television viewership. People are all over the place. People will be having their own barbecues. Towns across the country will be having firework shows.

It could be different next year because Independence Day falls on a Wednesday and towns might be having fireworks shows either the weekend before or the weekend after but I am not certain the television number would be any better than Iowa on a Sunday afternoon. I am hopeful that more people would come out to the racetrack especially if the track promoted it as a massive Fourth of July barbecue and wanted IndyCar fans and Iowans to come together for the holiday.

We have been talking about weeknight races for a decade now and no one has rolled the dice. Someone is going to have to take a chance and it should have been taken years ago. I would love to see IndyCar and Iowa Speedway take the chance and not be afraid to fail. It could be the next big thing.

So did you think? A handful of ideas over four topics, some made sense, others you are probably still processing. It wasn't that bad. And as the world turns we never know what creative idea will come to mind next.