Standing Starts - Are They Right for CART?

 by Mark Cipolloni
October 10, 1999

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For any race fan who has been to a F-1 race, you will know exactly what I am talking about.  There is nothing more exciting than watching a F-1 standing start.  Nothing.  To a classical music fan it is analogous to Mozart, Beethoven, Gershwin and Tchaikovsky all rolled into one. It is a race fan's concerto and it all happens right there in front of the main grandstand, full of paying customers.

It starts slowly as one by one, the drivers take their spot on the grid at the end of their warm-up lap.  When all the cars have grided, the Flag Marshall signals the drivers are ready.  The starting tree goes bright red and the pace quickens.  The cars rev to full song, the drivers left leg twitches in anticipation of the start, not knowing exactly when the light will turn.  A lot of questions go through the drivers' minds. Do I have the right amount of RPMs?  Is the track dirty?  Which of the drivers in front of me will get the better start?  Will I get too much wheel spin, or worse yet, will I stall it?  For the drivers, it is a pressure packed few moments. For the fans, it is pure delight.  When the light turns, the drivers engage the clutch.  Engines scream, tires squeal, and if they get it right, they rocket away down to the first turn.  Get it wrong and you pay dearly.

Rolling starts have been a part of American motorsports for what seems like eternity.  So why, you ask, should we change now?  In a previous article I wrote "CART has made their mark by being the premier road racing series in North America (they present a great oval show as well, but their non-ovals dwarf the ovals in popularity).  That's right, the premier road racing series, and NASCAR is the premier oval track series in North America".  In that same article, I also stated "it is evident that CART has an identity problem.  It thinks maybe it has to be a NASCAR because NASCAR is so successful.  It thinks maybe it has to be an IRL, because the IRL has the Indy 500.  It thinks. it thinks, it thinks.  What CART really needs to be (they just haven't figured it out yet) is unique.  And to stop trying to be what it is not".

If CART is the premier road racing series in the USA, and if they REALLY want to be unique, then I propose CART give serious consideration to standing starts on all street and road circuits.  I am not the first one to propose this, but I do think maybe its an idea whose time has come.  As I stood in the pits at the US 500 for qualifying I watched as each driver pulled forward in line when it was time for their run.  Almost to a man, they engaged 1st gear, raised the engine RPM's to what sounded like a screaming (and I do mean screaming) 12,000 or more revs, and dropped the clutch.  They burned rubber for some 50 to 100 feet and blasted out onto the track like a cannonball.  The purpose - to get help get heat in their rear tires quickly.

I stood there and wondered, now why can't all CART races be started that way, or at least the road races.  Rolling starts are an American tradition, as traditional as apple pie.  But then, so too is oval track racing an American tradition.  Oval tracks...rolling starts, get it?  Oval tracks...rolling starts. Road racing...standing starts.  I have long maintained that road racing requires a whole different skill set than oval racing.  I feel road courses are far more difficult to master, by their very nature.  And standing starts make them that much more difficult.  In effect, when F-1 drivers "drag race" into the first turn, they are using the skill of a Kenny Bernstein or a John Force, only they don't stop at the end of the 1/4 mile.  It adds another dimension to the race, a dimension CART is missing.

What did Mario Andretti do to hone his skills in preparation for his assault on the F-1 title in the 60's and 70's after racing for years on America's ovals?  He went to some of America's drag strips and got some lessons from guys like Dean Gregson and Bob Tasca.  And ask anyone who followed Mario's career, he was one of the best standing starters in his F-1 days, which probably surprised a lot of Europeans who thought of Americans as rolling starters.

When CART eliminated standing starts from the Toyota Atlantic series this past year, we received numerous complaints of disappointment.  We are sure CART had its reasons, but once again, did they bother to ask the fans what they want?  No, they went ahead and did it for what they thought were good reasons, primarily to save burnt out clutches and start line crashes.  Hey guys...a little common sense please!

We don't hear too many F-1 clutches burning out.  The quality of clutches today are such that, unless a driver totally blows the start, it should be a non-issue with a little tweaking of the technology.  Turbo lag, at some point in time, may have been a problem but not anymore.  Not from what I see.  And crashes?  We have them on rolling starts too.

In the past the team would get behind a Champ car when their pitstop was about complete and give the car a healthy push to get it going.  Today they hardly push the car at all.  Instead the driver is hard on the accelerator, clutch depressed.  When that car comes off the jacks, the driver lifts the clutch and they burn rubber from here to kingdom come, with bits and pieces of rubber flying everywhere.  It is an awesome experience, just ask anyone who routinely stands in the pits on race day.

Standing starts also eliminate the numerous false starts we have seen in CART this season, whereby the starter does not throw the green flag because all the rows are not properly aligned.  The fans are anticipating a start, only to be let down, not once, but sometimes two and three times.  Also, CART's international audience can better identify with standing starts from growing up with F-1 all these years.

So I ask, if the drivers can do it during pitstops, and if they can do it at the start of an oval track qualifying run, why can't they do it at the start of a road race?  Don't tell me those Europeans are better drivers.  Don't tell me too many guys are going to crash.  Don't tell me too many guys are going to stall their car on the grid (too bad if they do, they can get a start once the cars are away).  I don't want to hear all the excuses.  What I think the fans want to hear is YES, we can do it, YES, we will make our races more exciting, and most of all, YES, CART will try to be unique, at least here in America.  Standing starts--their time has come!

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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