Pocono Postscript: Needless self-implosion
And the person you have to credit for establishing what would become something of a theme throughout the weekend, would be none other than Pocono Raceway CEO Raceway CEO Brandon Igdalsky.
It is with Igdalsky where AutoRacing1 will start its Pocono Postscript.
If you can excuse the lack of sophistication, "Really, dude?" was my reaction last Thursday afternoon, after reading Igdalsky's comments about the upcoming weekend. To briefly review, Igdalsky said he was disappointed by ticket sales, which he called "scary" bad to the point he was reconsidering the relationship between the track and series.
Clearly, that statement did not exactly scream, "come on out to Pocono this weekend, everyone's going to be here." However, what was particularly unfortunate about Igdalsky's quote was he brought the paying customer into the discussion, when saying "It's kind of a shame if it does go away because of the fans." And I can assure you that message was justifiably not well-received by those who did happen to support the event.
Now, I'll say this: it's probably fair to interpret Igdalsky's comments as not attacking the paying customers per se rather as "there aren't enough paying customers to sustain the event." In other words, in trying to say "ticket sales suck," Igdalsky's diarrhea-of-the-mouth was interpreted as "the fans suck."
Why would Igdalsky do such a thing?
Maybe, he was trying to get IndyCar's attention although a simple phone call might have worked better for both parties. I suppose conspiracy theorists might offer that Igdalsky was, ham-fisted as his tactics may have been, trying to sabotage the event in order extricate himself from the original three-year deal that runs through next year. But I'm not willing to go there, in the absence of any evidence.
What we do know is that with an outstanding weather forecast, and a lot of vacationers in the Poconos, the hope of a good walkup from a strong last-minute push was still very real three days before the race. Rather, Igdalsky opted to declare the weekend a loser before it even began.
This, in great contrast to…
Last year, after a 24-year absence, the Verizon IndyCar Series made what many deemed a successful return to The Tricky Triangle. Sure, it wasn't the most exciting race of all-time, and the crowd went home disappointed that hometown son Marco Andretti, who started on pole and dominated the early part of the race, did not score the win.
However, it was considered a more than successful start. The drivers loved the unique layout. Plus, the operating stuff led by the likable energetic brothers Igdalsky embraced the event, and seemed keen to put past differences between the sport of Indy car racing aside. Of course, the less-than-favorable terms that Indy car left Pocono after 1989 have been well-documented. Yet, the Igdalsky brothers made clear the past friction between the sport of Indy car racing and their track-founding grandfather Doc Mattioli was water under the bridge. This was a new time, one in which Pocono and IndyCar could mutually benefit.
And the two still might.
After all, judging from the eyeball test, Sunday's crowd, although nothing to brag about, was not the disaster Igdalsky forecast. Also, Igdalsky did manage some damage control Sunday, noting that he had a meeting with Hulman and Co. CEO Mark Miles, in which was progress made on continuing the relationship.
Still, if this relationship continues…
For one, 21 cars at a track as big as Pocono Raceway are nowhere near enough. Second, INDYCAR and Pocono are both delusional if they expect a Saturday of two practice sessions, single-car qualifying and an 8-car Indy Lights race on a 2.5-MILE TRACK will draw anything but the diehards. AutoRacing1 discussed the possibility of additional racing content with INDYCAR president of competition and operations Derrick Walker Saturday. Walker said that from an operations standpoint, it would be possible to have support series races using part of the Pocono road course in the same weekend as an oval race. This question was asked under the assumption that that Pro Mazda and U.S. F2000 would not run the oval.
Speaking of accompanying activity, when it comes to the downtime at the track, they're really isn't a whole lot going on. This, in contrast to some IndyCar street races, in which the accompanying sensory overload of concerts and such can result in some sort of mental disorientation that I can't entirely describe.
There was nothing of the sort at Pocono - I'm not blaming anyone specifically, merely noting - that might draw a casual fan to the race track. Rather, the approach seemed to be open the gates and hope people would flock in. That might need to be reconsidered.
As for a relationship that does seem to be going well…
Fully aware of how dominant Juan Pablo Montoya was in CART, I didn't see the wisdom of Team Penske forging a union (granted, Mr. Penske did not consult me) with a 37-year old, who had spent the last seven seasons in stock cars. Of course, a year ago at the time, Montoya had seemingly become quite disenfranchised with NASCAR. He had visibly put on weight, and seemed to be in the proverbial hamster wheel, with the clock ticking quickly towards 40 years of age. Nonetheless, The Captain believed there was more than enough gas in the tank.
Still, it has taken JPM some time to readjust to open-wheelers. By his own admission, he is still struggling with road and street course qualifying.
However, we also noted after the Houston weekend that Montoya seemed very at ease, very confident, with the bravado we saw in the CART days now tempered with the wisdom of a seasoned vet.
Don't look now, but after scoring a pole and win at Pocono, Montoya has finished three of the last four races on the podium, and now sits a mere 55 points behind teammate Will Power in the series championship.
Another thing on JPM
The win at Pocono was the Colombian's 12th Indy car win, and first in nearly 14 years. Now, 12 wins is an impressive number, but even more so when you consider Montoya has only 52 career Indy car starts.
For some reference, Gil de Ferran has 12 career wins, but his came in 160 starts. Ryan Hunter-Reay has 13 career victories in 162 starts. Yes, it's quite intriguing to think what Montoya could have done to the Indy car record book, had he not run Formula 1 and NASCAR in those intervening years.
Montoya's win was well-deserved. That said, no one would question that the best car Sunday at The Tricky Triangle was #10 Target Chevrolet of Tony Kanaan. The Brazilian led a race-high 78 laps, and was out front when a caution flag came out on lap 159 after a spin by Graham Rahal.
Now, it's easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback here and question a team's heat-of-the-moment decision from the comfort of hindsight. However, the fuel window for this race was about 30 laps. So theoretically TK's pit window would have opened for the final stint on lap 170. Kanaan would have more than comfortably made it to this point as he had pit on lap 148.
Still, for some unbeknownst reason, Target Chip Ganassi Racing brought Kanaan into the pits FROM THE LEAD on lap 161, then topped him off again on lap 164. The race went green again on lap 165, leaving Kanaan 35 laps to go on a tank of fuel.
Yes, think about this: Team Target took the FASTEST CAR ON THE TRACK OUT OF THE LEAD BEFORE THE PIT WINDOW OPENED AND PUT IT INTO FUEL CONSERVATION MODE. And it was a dubious fuel conservation mode at best, as Kanaan had to go 16% further than he had all day. Predictably, Kanaan didn't make it. He pit on lap 197 and ultimately finished 11th.
That, my friends, is AWFUL strategy.
What about Newgarden? Didn't he try the same strategy?
Yes, Josef Newgarden followed the same strategy as Kanaan, pitting on laps 161 and 164. He would make a final stop on lap 194, and ultimately came home 8th. But there is an important distinction here: Newgarden pitted from 10th place on lap 161, not THE LEAD.
See, Newgarden wasn't giving up much. Had there been lots of yellow over the final stint, there was a chance (albeit, a small one) Newgarden's strategy might work. Ultimately, he finished near where he probably would have anyway.
Contrarily, Team Target took the fastest car on track and put it on the same strategy as the tenth-place car. Ultimately, the team made 3 pit stops over the final 39 laps when only one was necessary.
For those who took exception to Kanaan storming off on his scooter in the aftermath, I suppose he could have handled it better. I'll just say that after his team basically gave away a chance for him to win, that was one Brazilian who had every right to be fuming.
I won't go through all of it. However, Power raced both Montoya and fellow Penske teammate Helio Castroneves very aggressively in the final stint, ultimately receiving a blocking penalty on Castroneves, for a vicious chop going into turn 1.
While the Aussie probably did not have the car to beat Montoya, he clearly had the car to complete a Penske 1-2-3 and secure a strong points-paying day. However, the stupid penalty, which he illogically questioned after the race, dropped him to 10th. The penalty cost him 30 points in this new ludicrous double-points format. Power is now tied on points with Castroneves in the season standings.
Of course, Power has been down this road before finishing second on three consecutive occasions in the championship. Earlier in the season, I genuinely believed he had exorcised some of those well-documented demons. However, after this weekend he appears senselessly wrapped up in his own head…again.
Bryan Herta Autosport received some criticism over the weekend for not fielding a replacement driver after Jack Hawksworth was injured in a practice crash. While I understand fans want to see certain drivers get an opportunity to race, there was little good that could have come out of BHA fielding a car.
Remember, there was no morning warm-up prior to the race. There were only two drivers on-site who had raced previously at Pocono, Tristan Vautier and Pippa Mann. J.R. Hildebrand, who ran at Sonoma and Fontana last year for the team was also on site. But plugging someone in the car at Pocono is not like plugging someone into the car at say Houston (for clarification I'll run this by Bryan Herta this weekend at Iowa).
Of course, a lot of people would have loved to see 2013 Indy Lights Champion Sage Karam run at his home race. However, a scenario in which Karam's first lap at The Tricky Triangle would have been lap one of the race, is not one in which the youngster would have had a reasonable chance to succeed. Additionally, such a scenario would not exactly be appealing to the team.
In short, throwing someone haphazardly into the car at Pocono, is a scenario where very little was to be gained, yet a lot could have been lost. With Hawksworth unable to go, an expensive crash bill on their books, and a quick turnaround for Iowa, this really wasn't much of a decision for BHA.
Brian Carroccio is a columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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