Fontana IndyCar postscript
Dull, drama-free, and completely ordinary.
That's all Will Power had to be Saturday evening's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. That's exactly what he was.
And I'll be honest: I wasn't sure he had it in him.
That's not to say I didn't think Power could capture his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Quite the opposite, actually.
If you recall, I actually picked Power to win the championship at the beginning of the year and Chevrolet to win the manufacturer's title due to what I believed to be the superior quality of the Bowtie Brigade stable. This, of course, was in contrast to AR1 President Mark Cipolloni, who picked Ryan Hunter-Reay and Honda respectively. But I digress.
What I didn't see entering Saturday evening's MAVTV 500 was Power winning the championship in the manner, in which he did. Essentially, I thought that one of two things were going to happen: either the talented Aussie was going to be firing on all cylinders and close out his first title with a flourish a la his Milwaukee win earlier this year or Fontana last October; or Power was going to have an epic meltdown a la Fontana 2012 when he needlessly got into the wall after aggressively and needlessly racing eventual champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Triumphant victory or epic train wreck! I saw no in between. And in fairness Power had never shown us an in between. Until Saturday.
After a lackluster 21st qualifying effort Friday, when his teammates qualified 1st and 2nd, Power managed to score a pedestrian, if professional ninth-place finish. But in a sense the ordinariness is exactly what made it brilliant.
On an evening Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud didn't have the horses to beat him, Power read the tea leaves. Rather than forcing needlessly forcing himself on the changing battlefield, he adjusted to it. For the first time in Power showed the capacity to salvage the necessary result, even if that meant foregoing the brilliant one.
And the great irony is that an incredibly ordinary and average drive has now provided the prism by which we can look at what has thus far been a brilliant career.
A look at the numbers
Prior to Saturday evening, the narrative on Power largely centered on what he had not done: win a championship. Further, Power's numerous close calls created the notion that the Aussie was somewhat fragile between the ears.
Power put that notion to bed once and for all Saturday evening. With that out of the way, the narrative has altered to what he has accomplished. And when you take a hard look, it's pretty impressive.
I won't bore you too much with stats but Power has 24 wins and 36 pole positions in 139 starts, for a 17.2% win total. For comparison sakes let's look at a few of the all-time Indy car greats:
While it's difficult to compare eras, let the record show Power's win percentage to date is better than all the above drivers except Foyt. Power also compares favorably in terms of other metrics such as wins by age (he's 33), and the prospect of championships that lie ahead (Dario Franchitti won the first of his 4 titles at 34).
In short, you can take the numbers however, you so choose. And we don't know exactly where Power will go from here.
But when it comes to numbers in the context of Indy car's all-time greats, Power more than belongs in the discussion.
Will Power wasn't the only driver to get off the schnide so to speak at Fontana.
As predicted on AutoRacing1, Tony Kanaan took the checkered flag Saturday. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver had shown a significant uptick in form over the second-half (in my opinion, he was the best driver in the series from Pocono forward), but had yet to validate his strong form with victory. With a year now under his belt at Ganassi, and the Brazilian displaying every bit the form of teammate Scott Dixon during the second half of 2014, Kanaan enters 2015 as a not-so-dark horse for the series championship.
On the other end of the spectrum Saturday evening was Power's teammate and Kanaan's longtime countryman and good friend Helio Castroneves.
The Brazilian entered the weekend with a fighter's chance of scoring his first championship, and seemed to have a spring in his step after earning pole Friday, while Power faltered. Castroneves also spent more than a few laps out in front midway through the race.
Still, one never got the sense that a serious challenge was coming from Castroneves and his chances rested more in Power faltering. And as Power consistently displayed the unique steadiness outlined above, it seemed the wind left Castroneves' sails. Then, a late race pit-entry drive-thru penalty ended all hopes of a championship.
But when it's all said and done, I doubt Castroneves will look back on Fontana as his big disappointment. Rather, after finishing second in Race 1 at Toronto, Castroneves failed to crack the top-10 in any of the 5 remaining races. If anything, it was probably amazing he still had a chance entering Saturday.
Simon Pagenaud entered Saturday evening with a chance to win the championship (albeit, a really long one) also. However, the Frenchman immediately started slipping back at the start, and was never a factor during the race finishing 20th, 7 laps down.
My immediate thought as Pagenaud was forced to pit at lap 20 with handling issues, and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team faltered to get him away was this: if Pagenaud hadn't decided to seek greener pastures before Saturday evening, the diabolical car he was given on a night he had a chance to win a championship, probably iced the decision.
Whatever drama did happen to play out Saturday evening with Power finally winning the title, a popular driver scoring the win, and another instance of coming up short for Castroneves, a message that was if not apparent before, should be loud and clear now: other than diehards such as the 6000 (that's what I counted, and I did actually count) in attendance, and 270,000 watching on television, NO ONE CARES!
Of course, the cheerleading gasbags in the I-465 media, a portion of the delusional fan base, and the IMS/INDYCAR spin doctors will talk about giving new things a try, their strategy to get away from competing with football, the gaps in the schedule that were eliminated, how they're building a solid foundation and goodness knows what else. And I suppose there may be merit in some or even all of that. I will simply offer that building a solid foundation for a sport is an interesting approach to adopt, seven or so decades into your company's involvement. But I guess that's personal opinion.
However, I can say with certainty the following is very much NOT personal opinion.
Anyone who had done the least bit of due diligence regarding a potential race Saturday evening Labor Day Weekend at Auto Club Speedway (always a tough draw under ideal circumstances) could have predicted the disaster that was Saturday's crowd. Anyone, who had done the least bit of due diligence, or has the ability to read a thermometer, knew of the temperature issues in that part of California this time of year. Anyone, who had done the least bit of due diligence would have known that the sun issues this time of year prevent starting anything earlier than 10:20 p.m. Eastern Time. Anyone, proficient in basic arithmetic could have easily done the math and known that such a starting time would mean the series champion would be crowned at 1:30 a.m. in the country's largest population region.
Except, apparently INDYCAR.
To be clear, in calling attention to the above, I am not engaging in some sort of Monday Morning Quarterback criticize-after-the-fact slam-job. If you want before-the-fact forecasts of what happened Saturday evening, they are voluminous and easily accessible with a $30 AR1 subscription. Yes, no seven-figure consulting fee necessary.
And to reiterate, the above criteria are not this writer's jaded, warped, or agenda-driven viewpoint. They are FACTS. As are these:
By having the race when they did, INDYCAR ignored the fact a willing ally and energetic promotion group at Auto Club Speedway led by Gillian Zucker and her staff were going to struggle mightily to have a successful event. By having the race when they did INDYCAR insured it's series champion, his team and his sponsor, who as it turned out was the series title sponsor, were sure to get incredibly limited coverage. INDYCAR likewise went ahead absent any consideration for the numerous others who make a living in the sport, and depend on the sport's health for their livelihoods with a championship event before near empty grandstands that showcased the product in a manner that would make any investor run for the hills. And even if rumors I've heard that Fontana has a clause guaranteeing its spot as the season finale are true, INDYCAR did not work around that issue effectively, and from all indications seemed to simply follow the Boston Consulting Group report blindly.
Yes, whether rooted in arrogance, ignorance, lack of diligence, blithe indifference, or all of the above, INDYCAR insured there was zero chance Saturday's race at Auto Club Speedway was going to be a success, and 100% chance it would be a failure. INDYCAR willingly allowed its sport to be portrayed as an abject loser to the entire world; or the dozens that were watching.
Now, keep in mind INDYCAR adopted great measures for the sole purpose of ending Saturday, in the hopes to improve TV ratings and showcase the product better. During 2014 INDYCAR has run off Shell and Pennzoil, who wanted a fall race in one of the nation's largest markets. They also ignored pleas by fans and the track management group, who have indicated a willingness to have a September race at Road America. And the fans who did happen to buy tickets Saturday, left ACS with no idea when the next INDYCAR race would be, only the assurance INDYCAR would have no race during the football season.
In short, INDYCAR consciously walked away from other opportunities with Saturday specifically in mind. And they gave their fans, sponsors, drivers, teams, and other partners a finale with less than 10,000 people in the stands? Only the most irrational of series cheerleaders could rationally defend such an outcome.
To conclude, I don't know what changes will come after Saturday. I will say the lessons of Saturday should be painfully obvious. INDYCAR's problems are not simply bad TV ratings, a poorly designed schedule, lack of promotion, etc. INDYCAR's problems will not be solved by rearranging the furniture in a tactical manner.
INDYCAR's problems exist on a fundamental level, something that has been outlined in detail on AR1. Those problems require solutions from strategic thinkers, not tactically-minded bean counters, mindlessly following the advice of tactically-minded groups paid large sums to give tactically-minded advice. And if that isn't obvious after Saturday night, I'm not sure it will ever be.
Brian Carroccio is a columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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