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Flat Spot On: On The Road To IndyCar Ovals

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 2 2012

Rubens Barrichello climbs a hill at Barber Motorsports Park during Sunday afternoon's IndyCar Series Race. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It’s not surprising to hear that IndyCar is angling to extend its current contract with the Barber Motorsports Park beyond the 2013 season. The combination of the Indycars, the Grand-Am series and springtime at the beautiful Alabama facility built by George Barber are clearly a winning

combination.

So which is most decisive: the racing or the facility itself? The latter is without question America’s most effective combination of a race track and the surrounding environment – one of the crucial differences being 80 feet of elevation changes from the start to finish amidst the greenery of the Appalachian foothills.

There are other facilities with similar characteristics found at Infineon Raceway, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, Road America and Road Atlanta. But they all lack the original intention to build a park as well as a racetrack, not to mention the absence of the impressive steel landscape sculptures. (Though there’s nothing parenthetical about it, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, which contains the world’s best collection of racing motorcycles and Lotus cars, tends to add a beautiful architectural anchor to Barber’s layout, to say nothing of what it adds to the fan experience.)

On the track, Randy Bernard, IndyCar’s CEO, has asked for more opportunities to pass as one of his opening gambits in discussions with ZOOM Motorsports, the event promoter at Barber. Indeed, one is most likely to see the lead change according to pitting and tire strategy – if at all – on Barber’s undulating 2.38 miles. On the other hand, one also gets the constant impression that Bernard’s standard negotiating position is “What can you do for me?”

On Sunday, Will Power won the IndyCar event by pitting early and the winning Corvette Prototype of Richard Westbrook and Antonio Garcia started and won from the pole in Saturday’s Rolex Series event.

The racing at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham is about curves and elevation changes. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

The most accessible and one of the most popular viewing areas high above Turns 2 and 3 overlooks a portion of the track that is entirely technical and with virtually no passing allowed.

Yet…

It’s not all about overtaking at Barber Park. Racing enthusiasts know it’s technically challenging, which means those who are quick earn their keep. Power, who had some misfortune in qualifying, was indeed the master of this exacting track. And, it’s not as if overtaking fails to take place. Among some other good dicing for position, Dario Franchitti’s final lap pass of Marco Andretti for 10th place resulted in the defending IndyCar champion gaining quite a few spots during the course of Sunday’s race after some closely contended position changes.

Those in the suites along the front straight could see almost as much action at Turn 5’s hairpin as took place at Martinsville’s Turn 1 in the NASCAR race. (Please note Max Angelelli’s bump-and-run slide job versus fellow Corvette driver Darren Law.)

If nothing else, Sunday’s slam-bang finish at Martinsville and the cannier outcome at Barber in favor of Penske Racing on Sunday formed a classic contrast between the visceral excitement of oval racing and the more esoteric allure of road racing. Both have their appeal.

Once again, it seems we’re back to the age-old perspective that only IndyCar can effectively exploit both forms of racing – including the all-important street race category. Given this fact, and the centerpiece of the schedule being the Greatest Spectacle in Racing on a rather well known oval in Indianapolis, couldn’t it be assumed that IndyCar should be the number one motorsport series in the U.S.?

I guess it’s a lot like some race car designs that look better on paper than they do once they take to the track. But given the history of CART, perhaps execution as well as strategy enters into the equation. (The biggest problem may have been CART becoming a way station for wanna-be F1 drivers and ex-F1 drivers due to so much emphasis on road racing – because that was the route to the championship.)

For the short term, it’s great to have major league open-wheel racing back in the Southeast on a regular basis at St. Petersburg and Barber, where in keeping with the park-like setting the ticketing is limited. Ticket sales were close to hitting the limit when it came to Sunday sales this weekend, plus there was a nice Saturday crown on hand for the Rolex race and IndyCar qualifying.

When it comes to combining road racing and ovals on the same schedule, it will be interesting to see just how the racing goes on the ovals that remain at IndyCar with the new generation DW12 IndyCar from Dallara and three different engine choices. At least the field has been full and sponsorship engagement appears to be on the rise thus far. (OK, OK, there may be a short term shortage of cars at Indy.)

Sadly, one wonders if IndyCar racing has received a bump in interest as a result of Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident in Las Vegas along the same lines as the post-accident response to the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt in their respective series.

The loose talk and rumors of boycotting the Texas Motor Speedway event are hardly the best result in the wake of the tragedy in Las Vegas, a problem that grew directly out of too many cars on the track and too much bonus money at stake – neither to be revisited again.

While it’s nice to have a day at the races in a park-like setting that demonstrates the power and beauty of racing machines, the big events on ovals remain the strongest draw in American automobile competition.

Right down the road from Barber sits a steel sports sculpture and monument to the allure of oval racing in the form of the huge grandstands at Talladega easily visible from Interstate 20. NASCAR finally succeeded in taking “the pack” and “the Big One” out of Daytona and Talladega with tandem racing , and the fans hated it. Guess what, the pack was back as well as TV ratings at Daytona.

The key element for the NASCAR drivers was at least feeling like they could control their own destiny when it came to passing, not necessarily the elimination of pack racing. The view of the fans, on the other, hand was quite clear. Oval racing is about cars in close quarters at high speed.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 2 2012
One Comment

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  • Ben says:

    There was passing all over the place this year. Turn 5 is the hot spot, but there was passing elsewhere as well. Probably undermines Randy Bernard’s negotiating position somewhat.

    A year or two ago Franchitti mentioned adding a short bypass section to create a long straight with a another good braking zone. That would seem the easiest thing to do, and would not alter the original layout, but simply create a new additional layout.

    I expect intransigence from Barber though.