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Ingram: Smith Leads Another Blast Out of Doldrums

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 9 2011

The Furniture Row Racing team celebrates like it was the first time – which it was – at Darlington. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:

Sometimes you wonder how motor racing series maintain their traditions despite the onslaught of time and technology.

At Darlington, where they now race the Southern 500 on a Saturday night in the springtime instead of on a late summer afternoon, stock car racing tradition has been  maintained, somewhat miraculously. Tempers flared amid more contact than in a crowded beer hall and a surprise first-time winner emerged from a great battle before the fighting recommenced on the pit road and in the pits. Next thing you know, they’ll have to bring back the old jail in the infield.

In victory, Regan Smith and the Furniture Row team epitomized the NASCAR ethic of work and talent paying off for the “little guys,” which is where everyone starts, including mega team owners Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske. (Once again, it was Roush’s Carl Edwards playing the role of the Goliath team in second place just as when he trailed this season’s first upset winner Trevor Bayne home in the Daytona 500.)

I do believe that without the economic woes that have been painfully experienced since 2008, we might not be seeing such exciting renditions of what made NASCAR racing so attractive in the first place. NASCAR listened to the fans when it came to the “Have at it” strategy and listened to the racers and fans when it came to making adjustments to the Car of Tomorrow. There’s more to come with a

Regan Smith knocked off the big boys on a Saturday night race in Darlington. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

continued effort to bring the COT better in line with current cars and technology.

There’s nothing like sinking revenues from ticket sales, TV ratings and sponsors (including manufacturers) to put leadership in a listening mode. The opinion here remains that prior to the downturn, NASCAR’s leadership was tripping over itself in an effort to move the sport closer to, say, National Football League traditions and away from its own heritage.

I think this “listening” phenomenon is a universal movement in the business of motor racing, which is proving the sport in general can not only weather major downturns in the economy and the automotive business but can thrive in the process.

A short while after the Darlington race, on the other side of the world in Istanbul Park a similar phenomenon was on display. In the Turkish Grand Prix, Formula 1 sustained its tradition of technical excellence and variety, as usual, in the world championship. But once again there was enough overtaking to satisfy any F1 gearhead who remembers the days of yore. The F1 leadership – an always uneasy combination of team owners, the FIA and marketing supremo Bernie Ecclestone – has finally figured out how to bring more overtaking into the equation.

No refueling, two mandatory tire compounds from Pirelli and a moveable rear wing are the leading reasons behind more overtaking in F1. Even if Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel led from start to finish, there was plenty of passing and re-passing over a series of corners from second place on back. Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher had more contact than Kyle Busch at Darlington due to the tight competition.

Again, more cooperation among the people responsible as the stewards of the sport is the over-arching reason for better and more satisfying racing. The fact that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is now looking at a takeover of the commercial rights to F1 in cahoots with the teams confirms the sport’s value is on the rise again.

Prior to the Darlington event, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup event took the green on Saturday at

The American Le Mans Series is adjusting to the times. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Spa in Belgium for a 1,000-kilometer event. It was a satisfying back-and-forth as Peugeot Sport took top honors in the first race meeting of its new 908 with Audi’s trio of R18 TDI’s. Originally, the Le Mans organizers had tried to force manufacturers to create prototypes that looked more like road-going cars in a major rules change scheduled for 2010. Thank goodness they listened to the manufacturers and postponed the new era a full year and let the constructors concentrate on building real race cars – in line with Le Mans tradition.

Unlike years past, however, the Le Mans organizers are now fiddling with the rules via the engine air restrictors in an effort to ensure a tightly competitive Le Mans 24-hour next month. Is this a break with the tradition of one rulebook unchanged for one year? Well, the tradition is rooted in one race per year. In effect, before the ILMC series was started, the rules changed each time the 24-hour at Le Mans was run annually.

Ultimately, the Le Mans organizers have listened to participants and profited by better racing as a result without giving up the power to keep the racing close.  The organizers have even created a special class for “gentlemen drivers,” which codifies the history of sports car racing, where the rich guys, needed now more than ever, have made up the numbers as the factories pursue Titanic battles.

This makes me wonder what the IZOD IndyCar team owners are currently thinking? They recently elected to try push back the introduction of the new era of Indy cars that will feature different cars and engines. If the sport is built on the tradition and popularity of the Indy 500, then jettisoning spec cars will be an important step in re-establishing the sagging popularity of Indy car racing, where competition is excellent but the fan response doesn’t match up.

A well qualified committee dubbed the ICONIC by its creator Randy Bernard came up with the idea of

INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard is trying to keep his series relevant. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

reinvigorating a tradition of different approaches to cars and engines, which is what fans want to see. Team owner Penske says it’s much ado about not much, because even the new cars are all going to be similar anyway.

Elsewhere, NASCAR. Formula 1 and Le Mans are currently profiting from having listened to legitimate concerns of the fans and participants. Granted, the cooperation stems from the economic downturn. Under the threat of declining revenues, all participants have a vested interest in cooperating to sustain and improve their business models.

But IndyCar team owners are pleading the economy to avoid a change in the business plan and billionaire Penske is supporting the movement by reinforcing the status quo. Perhaps the IndyCar CEO Bernard will be better off to listen to his participants, just as the Le Mans organizers did when it came to its new generation of prototypes.

But the opinion here regarding in one of the world’s most important series built around one of its biggest races: team owners don’t seem to have gotten the message outside of the more visionary types like Chip Ganassi. The IndyCar team owners in the backlash are not against the new cars, but want to postpone another year on the basis of cost. What are they waiting for? It’s a reminder of the constant

Regan Smith is cheered by his team after winning Darlington on Saturday night. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

bickering and prevaricating between team owners and the hierarchy in Indianapolis that took Indy car racing from the pinnacle of world appreciation in the early 1990’s into the current muddle.

It’s the same old boring American single seater mentality. Nobody can tell us what to do. Well, maybe some of those downtrodden team owners ought to take a look at the Wood Brothers winning the Daytona 500 and Furniture Row winning the Southern 500 – or Ron Hemelgarn’s team and Buddy Lazier winning the Indy 500 in 1996 when the IRL first started.

Sometimes, changes create new opportunities for the underdogs – as established NASCAR team owners like Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs and Penske can now confirm.

It’s a lock that if next year’s Indy 500 pole qualifying session includes the new cars, the anticipation will be a lot higher than this year’s soon to begin spec-car fest. No other major series seems to be suffering from the push to provide fans with reinvigorated traditions.

Quote of the Week: “I said, ‘Man, I think this thing would be good with clean air.’ That’s all (crew chief Pete Rondeau) needed to hear to make the call to stay out. That won the race for us right there.” – Regan Smith on how he scored the first victory of his Sprint Cup career in the Southern 500

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 9 2011
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