Frenetic Stretch Hasn’t Dulled On-Track Excitement

Newgarden leads other cars at Iowa

There was a time last year when the only new element the NTT IndyCar Series had to contend with in 2020 besides swapping Pocono Raceway for Richmond Raceway was the addition of the Aeroscreen. Five races in, the safety device’s contribution has been strongly felt after it performed as expected at Iowa Speedway yet many of the storylines coming out of the series have less to do with cockpit protection and more to do with the toll the pace of the 2020 season has had following its delayed start in June.

A survey of the transcript from last week’s pre-race press conference attended by Penske Entertainment President and CEO Mark Miles, Iowa INDYCAR 250s President Michael Montri and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing co-owner Bobby Rahal revealed 10 instances of “doubleheader” and just three for “Aeroscreen,” clearly demonstrating the mindset of both the featured guests and the media in attendance as IndyCar embarked on its second consecutive two-race weekend. More than using the word, however, the responses from Miles, Montri and Rahal provided key insights into doubleheader events and how they’re viewed by the series and its teams.

This year’s approach to running two races in one weekend may be novel, but the concept, its benefits and potential pitfalls aren’t new to IndyCar with the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix continuing to enjoy doubleheader status long after the others — Toronto and Houston — have fallen off the schedule. As noted by Rahal and elaborated on by Miles before the Iowa races, one of primary strengths is increased efficiency across many aspects of putting on a successful event.

Travel costs for teams and series officials are demonstrably less when what were previously two disparate events combine at a single venue, and the savings doesn’t just impact first-party participants. Hospitality, media and other ancillary aspects of a modern race weekend also benefit from the condensed nature of doubleheaders. Production costs from the perspective of NBC Sports and INDYCAR Radio are also less, potentially allowing those outlets to divert funds from travel expenses to enhancing their broadcasts. Lastly, there’s a benefit to the promoter whose costs don’t increase much with two races instead of one, yet if two races can drive more ticket sales and more revenue in general, it could potentially turn a money loser into a breakeven or better situation.

With such a focus on efficiency, it’s easy to see why the business of IndyCar, led by Miles, might favor a more condensed doubleheader-heavy schedule over one that visits more venues over a longer stretch of time. After all, there’s a bottom line to consider. However, Miles was quick to dispel such thinking as the driving force behind scheduling decisions.

“I think it’s a mistake to think our objective is to see how many doubleheaders we can do,” said Miles. “It’s been a terrific way this year to fill in where we lost some races due to COVID, really didn’t have an opportunity to reschedule them.

“But we have a lot of really great venues, a lot of great promoters. Accordingly, I think we believe being in more markets where the races work is important to us.”

Thus, dual priorities appear to be at work: efficiency where it makes sense to host doubleheader weekends that will enhance the event and create win-win scenarios for the series and promoters alike, and geographic diversity in markets that are either receptive to IndyCar or underserved by the current iteration of the schedule.

Beyond efficiency in all its forms, the benefits of twin bills seem to dissipate. It’s difficult to find a driver that dislikes either Road America or Iowa’s 7/8-mile oval, yet the perks of doing two full-length races over two consecutive days at beloved tracks that produce fantastic racing quickly fall away when fatigue sets in.

Few athletes can compete with two-time series champion Josef Newgarden, who stormed to victory Saturday night in Iowa after a disappointing run the night before. Young, fit and seemingly always able to fight for wins in his Team Penske machine, even Newgarden couldn’t deny the impact of 500 laps around the short oval in the span of 26 hours.

“It was very tough,” said Newgarden after his 15th career victory. “Without a doubt, I was pretty fatigued towards the end of this race. I don’t know how to describe it, but like the last 50 laps I felt like I was just starting to feel it a little bit. I was really having to work to concentrate.

“These aren’t endurance events where you kind of backpedal a bit with the car, take it easy. You are flat out, knife to your throat for 250 laps. That’s how you drive these cars.”

Another word that Newgarden used was “grueling,” and he’s only speaking from the driver’s perspective. Keen observers surely noticed a marked increase in pit lane mishaps, whether it’s dropping a car off its jacks too early or experiencing refueling issues.

Will Power’s loose wheel pushed him up the track, causing contact with the SAFER Barrier before coming loose and rolling away. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Crew error came to the forefront in Race 1 at Iowa when the first caution flag waved on Lap 144. A loose wheel caused Will Power’s Team Penske Chevrolet to careen into the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier, damaging his race car and sending the wheel flying down the track after narrowly avoiding contact with the Aeroscreen. Power’s radio call after the incident indicated he thought “something broke” on his car, but replays of his most recent pit stop showed a front left wheel that wasn’t fully tightened. It’s the type of mistake that’s rare in IndyCar and even rarer for what is widely considered to be the series’ most professional and well-prepared team. Yet, under the stress of the third of four races in six days, it happened.

It’s hard not to attribute missteps and mistakes occurring more frequently to the frenzied pace of the past two race weekends, and busy times will continue for teams and drivers even though the next doubleheader isn’t until WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September. August will feature four consecutive weekends of activity beginning with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on Aug. 9 and ending with the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Aug. 30. Sandwiched in between will be four days of practice and two days of qualifying in advance of the Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23, making the month of August a Herculean effort in what may be sweltering midsummer heat in the Midwest.

The notion that lapses in the pits and brain fades on track — as three-time Iowa winner Ryan Hunter-Reay experienced in both Iowa races when he contacted the wall at pit out after routine stops — might very well continue into August and even impact the Indy 500 more than normal isn’t an off-the-wall concept. Yet luckily for IndyCar, the compressed season that has worked everyone hard over the last few weeks hasn’t failed to produce on track. Both Road America and Iowa provided entertaining races and, especially given its status as the second consecutive doubleheader and the first short track oval race with the Aeroscreen, Iowa held up to the expectation of “good racing” as far as position passes per mile are concerned.

Position passes per mile at Iowa Speedway have been consistent since 2017.
Position passes per mile at Iowa Speedway have been consistent since 2017.

While overall passes per mile have fluctuated wildly at Iowa, the position passes per mile metric — measuring those passes that actually benefit a driver in the race — has been startlingly consistent since 2017. Even with 250 laps instead of 300, both races were on par with previous universal aero kit-era races at Iowa. The average position passes per mile in 2020 across both races was identical to 2018 and down by just 9% from last year. In short, all the consternation about a hectic schedule and the changes to the cars resulting from the addition of the Aeroscreen had minimal impact on on-track action when considering passes for position.

Competing fatigued in front of a limited number of fans may be this year’s new normal for IndyCar, but thus far, the product delivered each weekend stands out as excellent, providing hope that the trend will continue into the busy month of August and the tail end of the season in September and October.