Editorial

Push-to-Pass means no more parades for CART

 

 by Mark Cipolloni
July 15, 2003

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Over the years, CART has suffered much ridicule for its lack of passing, and I'll be the first to admit I had joined that chorus as well.  I'm happy to report it looks as though CART is once again willing to listen to criticism and take action to correct a problem.  In 2004 it looks pretty certain that CART will re-implement a HP enhancing push-to-pass button, but this time one that really works. 

Everyone predicted getting rid of traction control would fix the problem of no-passing. It hasn't. Time for Plan B

The push-to-pass button is an overtake button.  Because CART races on so many tight urban venues, overtaking is not as easy as on a superspeedway where a driver can draft past his opponent.  While a push-to-pass button may initially sound like an artificial way to pass, you must get past the initial idea of it being artificial, and understand just how it will work and how it will add to the excitement of the races. The drivers don't think it will be artificial, so why should you?  If anything, it's less artificial than the passes we see using the draft on superspeedways. What talent does that require?

The proposal to CART last year was to give the drivers a little extra power for short bursts to mix things up a bit, and, according to CART Vice President of Race Operations John Lopes at Tuesday night's Columbus, Ohio Town Meeting, it almost assuredly will be implemented in 2004. 

Testing will begin this coming winter and starting in 2004 the push-to-pass button will work something like this (note: the exact details have yet to be worked out, but here is one scenario I discussed with CART and Cosworth) - each driver will get 10 steering wheel mounted button pushes per race. When the button is pressed, the driver will get about 50 HP extra for a duration of about 5 to 6 seconds for a total of 50 to 60 seconds of extra power per race. Overtake buttons in the past just gave the driver 10 to 20 additional HP by richening the fuel mix and adding a few degrees of timing spark, and that wasn't enough to really overtake in most cases.  Another way to implement the button would be to give a driver 60 seconds per race and let them use it as many times, and for as long as they want, until they run out of their 60 second allotment.  I believe CART is leaning toward the later scenario.

Even with 50 HP, it's no guarantee a driver will pull off the pass. The driver will have to strategically decide when to use his allotment of pushes or seconds. Strategy is very key to this whole concept, because once you use up your allotment, you become a sitting duck unless you have built a big enough lead that it doesn't matter - like Paul Tracy did in Toronto last weekend. 

Pretend you are a driver. Do you use a push or two at the start to grab a position? Do you use them just before or after a pit stop? Do you use a push to defend against an overtake attempt? Do you pass someone back who just passed you, or do you let them go and get them back later. Do you use it halfway down the straight, or as you exit the corner? How many do you save for the end? If you fall too far behind, saving all 10 pushes or your 60 seconds for the end may be fruitless. If you run out of revs the driver will have to grab the next gear. Did they leave an extra gear (another top gear) just in case?

When and where you use a push, be it offensively, or defensively, counts as one of your ten pushes. Think about this, the Long Beach straight is rather long, more than 5 seconds long. Say, a driver pushes his button coming out of the hairpin while banging through the gears, after 5 seconds of 50 extra HP he gets alongside the driver in front, and perhaps even slightly ahead. He thinks he has the corner at the end of the straight, but wait. The driver being passed waits, and then pushes his button half way down the straight and gets back ahead. It's all part of the strategy....but every push used is just that much less for later.

The combinations and permutations of when and where you use a push will make each race a real crapshoot, not only the race for the lead, but the race for every position in the field.

Imagine the number of possible position changes each race. This will put an end once and for all to CART's parades and get the fans in the grandstands on their feet cheering. All the drivers I talked to are in favor of the idea, because they are frustrated that they can't pass now because the cars are all so equal and most of the tight street circuits just don't provide enough room.

I talked to Cosworth about how this will be implemented. While I originally proposed it be done with turbo boost, my thought now is to do it through electronics, RPM, and fuel management so the concept can also be used when CART moves to normally aspirated V10s in 2005.  Exactly how it gets implemented will be up to CART and Cosworth.

The "button" won't guarantee a pass, you must first be good enough to get close, and then good enough to stay ahead. It's an aid to help fix CART's boring follow-the-leader parades. To give a driver that little extra to make a pass that would otherwise be impossible on some of CART's Mickey Mouse street circuits.

When CART opens the series back up to multiple manufacturers in 2005, it's likely the electronics on the engines will be supplied by CART (i.e. the ECM) to ensure no one uses traction control and so that competition improving concepts such as this can be implemented.  At the end of the day, the racing product must be good and the paying customer must see a good show and get their monies worth.

Again, this is no more artificial than drafting on ovals, call it street and road racing drafting if you like. Road and street racing tends to be follow-the-leader. If there was no competition from oval racing perhaps it would be OK, but CART can't continue to produce parades while the competition produces exciting races with lots of passes.

This concept will work and has been used in the Formula Palmer Audi series in Europe with 40 extra HP on a much lighter car. Not the same exact implementation, but the same concept.

If CART can put on an exciting show week in and week out, it's much easier to get people hooked and following the series on a regular basis. CART has BIG events, but the fans who go to those BIG events don't become fans of the sport, but of the event. Hence, they don't tune in on TV from home the following weeks and TV ratings remain lackluster at best.

CART must build fans of the entire series. To do that, you must have a sport that grabs their interest enough to want to tune in again tomorrow. That takes drivers who are heroes (Like Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt were, and like the NASCAR drivers are today) and races that are entertaining. NASCAR fans follow every race throughout the year - they cheer for their heroes (every successful sport has heroes) and they enjoy the race not knowing what the outcome will be until the very end. They stand and cheer for every pass and they cheer loudest when the passes happen on the final lap.

They have passes, CART currently doesn't. It's hard to sell a parade as a sport.

Having said that if CART didn't do something to make their races interesting and exciting to the masses, the current and potential new fans, my friends there will come a day when we won't have our beloved CART to discuss.

It's my opinion that the push-to-pass button, after refinement, is the perfect answer to a number of problems. I believe it can only increase the strength and longevity of CART.  In this world of diversion people want to get excited for their dollar, not bored. When they go to a race, they want to see racing, not follow the leader for two hours.

Finally, I feel this is some of the most incredible and positive news for CART and auto race fans in a long while. The sooner the better.  It should be awesome.  Let's hope it happens.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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