Wrecks And Ratings Go Up For IndyCar Series

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 29 2011

The start of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar season started with a field-depleting first-turn crash and morale-boosting TV numbers for the St. Petersburg race Sunday. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

One day after the unintended consequences of double-file restarts dominated post-race discussion on the Streets of St. Pete, the IZOD IndyCar Series celebrated its highest overnight TV ratings in four years.

And therein lies the rub – or in this case, the bump-and-shove – between the balancing act matching the integrity of INDYCAR’s on-track product and the sanctioning body’s need to market and grow the brand.

ABC’s 2-hour, 30-minute broadcast of the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday delivered the IndyCar Series its highest overnight rating in metered markets since 2007. The 1.4 rating for 56 markets was surpassed only by ABC’s telecast of the July 2007 race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Final ratings for the broadcast are expected to be posted on Thursday. But Randy Bernard, CEO of INDYCAR, already was “very encouraged” by the numbers.

“First of all, it was stand-alone,” said Bernard, who is in his second season at the helm of the open-wheel series. “It wasn’t in the late time slot, during which there typically is more household viewership. Second, it’s our highest-rated non-Indianapolis show since 2007, but even that show had a great lead-in with the British Open (in which Padraig Harrington defeated Sergio Garcia in a four-hole playoff).

“We’re ecstatic with our ratings and with the double-digit percentage of growth with the live attendance at the event, and we believe INDYCAR is going to continue to make substantial progress in the next couple of years.”

After soliciting input from team-owners and fans, double-file restarts were added to the INDYCAR

Track workers turn the car of Marco Andretti back to its correct position – tires down – after early wreck in St. Pete.

rulebook earlier this month in a bid to spike the entertainment value on the series’ various road/street courses and ovals.

On cue, Sunday’s race began with a pile-up heading into Turn 1 of the 14-turn, 1.8-mile layout – a crash that left Marco Andretti’s Dallara/Honda upside down-and-out seconds into the season. Six cars were damaged, including those of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Team Penske and two-time series champion Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

And while eventual race-winner Dario Franchitti noted that such incidents are not that unusual during the flying start on a street or road-course, there was plenty of subsequent carnage to debate following five total cautions.

“Most of the cars were taken out on the original start, right? It was a start,” said Franchitti, the three-time/reigning series champion from Target Chip Ganassi Racing who qualified second. “I just think, as drivers, I think we have to take some of the blame there for what happened. We are ultimately in control of these cars, but again I wasn’t back there so I can’t comment. But, it was a start.”

Team Penske’s Power, who started on-pole and finished second by 7.1612-seconds, agreed to disagree. “It was a start, a NASCAR-style (start). And we are not NASCAR,” said Power, who won this event en route to the inaugural Mario Andretti Road Course Championship Award in 2010. “That was the problem. We can’t hit each other. We can’t bump each other. And you know, when you start cars nose-to-tail that late, there’s so many cars in a short space.

“I wouldn’t call it successful restarts. The problem is they have so many cars bunched in such a tight space. There’s zero room for error, and we can’t bump like NASCAR. I don’t know. I think this is just going to continue every race. There’s going to be people getting knocked out every single restart. I

Will Power, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan mounted the podium after the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

really do. I think that’s what it’s going to be. Maybe they should do it in single-file but start late. Then you would see more passing.

“But as it is, there’s no passing. It’s just everyone in the road, and if you are going to get by someone, someone is going to get knocked out. That’s what happens. So, I was actually glad there was no restarts at the end with the marbles.  But no, I wasn’t satisfied with that.”

Tony Kanaan, who finished third in his debut for KV Racing Technology-Lotus, said if side-by-side restarts are what the fans want he can deal with it.

“But like Will said, I think we are maybe trying to copy something that the other guys (NASCAR) do,” said Kanaan, the 2004 series champion. “We don’t have bumpers and we can’t bump each other. We have 15 cars on the same section; you are not going to tell me we are not going to try to pass on the restarts. And the double-file, you saw it the first 15 laps of the race – every three laps, something was going to happen.

“And this (St. Pete), it’s a place that you have a lot of room. Go to a tighter place, like Long Beach, and Toronto; think about it. I think we need to listen to the fans, but I also… we need to make the show good. And I don’t think it’s good for the show to have the first 15 laps under the yellow. It’s crazy. So I’m not going to say yes or no, but we definitely need to reconsider. Personally, I agree with Will. I don’t like it, and I think it’s taking a lot of people out. It’s just, if you’re lucky, you make it, and if you’re not, then you’re done.”

Power recalled a restart in which his car was broadsided by that of eventual fourth-place finisher Simona de Silvestro, who survived the hit and moved into second behind Franchitti. “When I got hit, it hit me so hard, it bumped the car into neutral,” said Power, who dropped to seventh as a result. “With not going first, I was trying to go into emergency mode, and was like, three-wide and getting hit. I was like, ‘Unbelievable!’^”

Franchitti, who led a staggering 94 of 100 laps, said restarts didn’t really play into his first win at St. Pete.

“I think you have to ask the guys further back in the pack what it was like and what the problem was, because there was obviously a problem,” Franchitti said. “You have to work out the problem – is

Tony Kanaan says double-file restarts are what fans want.

the problem the double-file restart? Is it the late acceleration?  Or, is it just people not paying attention?  Not that they are not paying attention, but not respecting each other, just being crazy and going for gaps that aren’t there. Which one is it? We have to figure that out. And then we can change it.

“I do like – I think for passing – this later restart thing. It’s a good thing. Having that restart zone, I think that’s good for passing, but like in Indy, if you’re leading, you’re going to be a sitting duck. Third or second at Indy in the last restart would be good.

“So, I like the fact that the guys in the series (INDYCAR officials) are trying stuff. I really think it’s good that they are listening to the fans. They are modifying the show and some things are going to work and some things aren’t. You just have to figure it out. ‘Can we adjust this, or is it not workable?’ And that’s the conversations that I’m sure they are having right now, because nobody wants to see half the field taken out in some of these accidents.”

Franchitti reiterated that team-owners – including his forward-thinking boss, Chip Ganassi – generally gave their blessing to the double-file restart initiative.

“And the team owners, they wield a pretty big stick, and they said they wanted it,” Franchitti said. “So there’s probably a few of them sitting there scratching their heads now looking at bills for loads and loads of carbon fiber and going, ‘Why didn’t I ever think of that?’ As I say, there’s going to be some combination of what we are trying to do that can work. Again, it’s better to ask the guys that are sort of in the third row, I think.”

Kanaan said he wasn’t assigning blame to the owners or fans or series officials. “We are trying something different to be able to make the show better. It could be a success, and it couldn’t. The fans had a voice,” Kanaan said. “But like Dario said, it was the owners and some people; and we go out and we try it. It’s like a test day when you have a new bit in the car. You don’t know if it’s going to work.

“We had said in a driver’s meeting that we need to sit down after this race and talk about it. I think the fans want it, the owners want it. But do we really want to see six cars taken out on the first lap? And then you know, taking chances with people, maybe not. So maybe we have to fine-tune it. To make a rule and then have it work right away, it’s quite hard. Everybody needs to think about it really hard. And what we are doing is to make the show better.”

Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing suffered hand injuries during

Ana Beatriz suffers injury.

Sunday’s race.  Dr. Michael Olinger, INDYCAR’s director of medical services, said Beatriz will have surgery today on her fractured scaphoid bone (wrist). Beatriz started 20th, completed the distance and finished 14th. Wilson suffered a small fracture of a wrist bone and will be fitted with a special carbon fiber brace, Olinger said. Wilson started sixth and finished 10th.

Sebastien Bourdais’ return to domestic open-wheel racing with Dale Coyne Racing ended during the morning warm-up session, when the Frenchman’s Dallara/Honda clipped the inside of the Turn 11 wall and then made heavy contact with the concrete barrier in Turn 13. The four-time Champ Car title-holder and former Formula One regular led the first race lap at St. Pete in 2003.

Simultaneously, teammate James Jakes’ car stopped on-course in Turn 4 after the right-rear tire made contact with the wall. The crew swapped out parts to repair the chassis, allowing Jakes to start 22nd en route to a 15th-place finish.

Numbers worth crunching following the seventh edition of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:

0 _ Previous wins at St. Pete by either Dario Franchitti or Target Chip Ganassi Racing before Sunday.

1 _ Previous Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner that has gone on to win the IndyCar Series championship: Dan Wheldon, then of Andretti Green Racing, in 2005.

2 _ Drivers who finished in the top five for the first time in their IndyCar Series careers: Simona de Silvestro (fourth) of HVM Racing and Takuma Sato (fifth) of KV Racing Technology-Lotus.

6 _ Top five-finishes in seven St. Pete starts for Tony Kanaan of KV Racing Technology- Lotus.

9 _Teams represented in the top 10 of the series point standings.

13 _ Positions improved by Simona de Silvestro and rookie J.R. Hildebrand of Panther Racing, the most positions gained by any driver. Sebastian Saavedra of Conquest Racing gained 12 spots.

14 _ Consecutive top-five starts by Will Power of Team Penske.

20 _ Cars running at the finish, the most in event history.

27 _ Career IndyCar victories for Dario Franchitti, tying Johnny Rutherford for 10th on the all-time list.

81 _ Total IndyCar victories for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

94 _ Laps-led by Dario Franchitti, second-most by a race-winner. Helio Castroneves of Team Penske led 95 laps in 2007.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 29 2011
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