Five thoughts after the IndyCar race in Long Beach and the NASCAR race in Richmond…
1. It’s an event
The Long Beach Grand Prix — at least the IndyCar part of it — was an uneventful race dominated by one driver who started from the pole and only lost the lead during cycles of green-flag pit stops. Alexander Rossi, the winner, won by more than 20 seconds (!!!) — the largest margin in more than two decades.
By most traditional measures, it was not a good race.
But I’m willing to guess the majority of the massive crowd at Long Beach didn’t care at all — and maybe didn’t even notice.
Street circuits like Long Beach aren’t about the racing so much as they are about the scene. And it was a glorious scene.
“This isn’t a slight at any other series, but this is an event,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “I go to races all the time; I love going to events. I wish there was an event every weekend.”
As mentioned here Friday, there’s a real joy about being in Long Beach for the three days of racing — and Sunday was no different. People stood on tiptoes along fences with cell phone cameras aloft and craned their necks for a better view on elevated walkways and bridges. They strolled along the perimeter of the track (a freaking harbor!) and soaked up the sunshine while seated in various grandstands around the course.
The attraction at the Long Beach Grand Prix really is the event itself, and it’s no wonder attendance set another modern day record this year (187,000 over the three day festival). There were six different racing series on track, plus concerts, DJs, a car expo, food and drink options galore and Instagram-worthy photo spots at literally every turn. It’s an absolute must-go if you ever get a chance.
But while there are certainly hardcore IndyCar or IMSA fans who attended, most people were just here to see cars and spend a fun day walking around with their families or friends.
So are those people going to get bent out of shape about a lack of passing in the IndyCar race? Uh, NO. But that’s what happens when the focus is on the event more than the race, which is almost always the case at street circuits.
Long Beach is a weekend that can certainly serve the devoted race fan and give them all the racing they could desire from dawn to dusk every day. And it’s also a place that can satisfy even the most casual of race fans — including those who might never see another race.
All of that adds up to make it the greatest racing event in America — not race, but event. When the event is the attraction, there’s no such thing as a bad day on the track, even if the main event was a snoozer.
Just when it looked like Graham Rahal had held off Scott Dixon for a podium finish at Long Beach, IndyCar stewards Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk ruled the spot should be taken away.
IndyCar said Rahal violated its blocking rule — which is reviewed in the drivers meeting — that says, “A driver must not alter his or her racing line to pursuing drivers.”
Essentially, officials decided Rahal made a movement in reaction to Dixon — though NBCSN analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy disagreed and said Rahal moved first. Nevertheless, Dixon was awarded third place and Rahal was dropped one spot, which IndyCar said was the lightest penalty option available.
The outspoken Rahal was calm in his postrace television interview, and later met with officials to discuss the incident. He then told reporters after seeing the replay, “I stand behind the move even more than I did before.”
“Hell yeah, I blocked,” he said. “Anybody would have blocked. The thing is you can do it legally.”
But the stewards, along with race director Kyle Novak, disagreed. Blocking — which IndyCar tells drivers is defined as “movement in reaction to (a) pursuing competitor” — is not allowed. There’s nothing that says a driver is allowed to make one move.
And that decision raises more questions, team owner Bob Rahal said, because similar cases happen all the time.
“Everybody is blocking all the time,” he said. “So to call that a block? What’s a block? … It opens up a can of worms.
“Now the issue is you’ve got to live up to that for every single race from now on in. You make this call, then what’s the difference with the next one?”
Bob Rahal said he hates it when positions aren’t settled on the track, and I have to agree. It’s not unlike a referee calling a borderline holding penalty that alters an NFL game on the final drive.
I get the blocking rule is in place for a reason: On a narrow street circuit with open-wheel cars, unregulated blocking could be disastrous from a safety standpoint. You don’t want drivers zig-zagging back and forth to defend position.
Still, this call…eh. It sure seemed close enough to let it slide as a racing incident — and on the last lap of a IndyCar’s second-biggest race while going for the podium, it would have been preferable to see the drivers’ battle determine the position instead of officials.
3. Stop the bickering
It’s an odd experience to cover IndyCar because for some reason, any positive comments about another series creates a lot of sensitivity and tension for NASCAR and its fans.
Many NASCAR supporters were quick to chime in this weekend when they saw something NASCAR does better — No blocking rule here! Our drivers never win by 20 seconds! — and IndyCar fans took shots at NASCAR when they could — The best driver wins our races! We don’t have cars failing inspection!
It’s almost as if people don’t realize one series can be praised and appreciated without taking it as a backhanded shot at the other. There are things IndyCar actually does better that NASCAR can learn from — but by the same token, there are also things NASCAR does better that IndyCar can learn from.
The fact the series are considering joining forces for a doubleheader in the future is a good thing, because they offer very different philosophies.
NASCAR emphasizes the show/entertainment in a desire to please its fans, with stages and overtime and playoffs. IndyCar emphasizes pure speed/pure racing, preferring to let the races play out in a traditional way.
Cup racing, Rossi noted, “is very different than what we do.”
There’s nothing wrong with liking both, or liking dirt or Supercross or sports cars or Formula One or whatever it may be. It’s all motor racing, right?
“More people are coming to the realization today is we shouldn’t be pitting one against the other,” Ganassi said. “We shouldn’t be in a circular firing squad. Should we all be shooting at each other? I don’t know what purpose that serves.”
4. Mercedes vs. Ferrari
Formula One gets ripped for having only two teams that dominate the sport — and rightfully so. It would be great to see other teams like Red Bull or even Haas F1 Team have a shot to win, but Mercedes or Ferrari have won 91 of the last 103 races. F1 has let things get out of hand with the spending of its powerhouse teams, so much so that F1 actually promotes the “midfield” battle (which is really just the race for “best non-Mercedes/Ferrari/Red Bull car.”)
But while NASCAR certainly has more competitive racing than F1, a two-headed team domination has formed in the Cup Series of late. And to be honest, that’s a bit worrisome.
Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have now combined to win 11 straight Cup races — the first nine of 2019 and the final two of last season.
Stewart-Haas Racing has had its chances, but everyone else — including Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing — seems behind right now.
NASCAR is at its best when a wide variety of teams and drivers are winning. It keeps the storylines fresher throughout a marathon season and in turn helps keeps fans more engaged (and less annoyed).
Let’s hope the other teams can step up to catch Gibbs and Penske sooner than later, or there’s danger of a predictable slog of a season that could make the “Big Three” look like child’s play.
5. Inspection wars
Taking a step back and being across the country from NASCAR this weekend made it hit home how bad it looks for cars to be failing inspection and crew members to be getting ejected on the day of a race.
Everyone understands NASCAR has a job to do with keeping these sneaky teams in line, but there has to be a better way on those two-day weekends where post-qualifying inspection takes place on the day of the race. Those inspection failures — the ones that come with stripping starting positions and throwing people out of the garage — is so self-defeating for NASCAR.
In the very moments when excitement should be building for the race, the string of updates about failed inspections only builds anger and frustration instead.
Just like with qualifying, this is a problem that can be solved. It might require some give-and-take and creative thinking, but NASCAR has to get out of the business of creating its own bad headlines so people can get back to focusing on what they like and enjoy about what is still by far the No. 1 form of auto racing in America.