Race control enhancements, standing starts announced at IndyCar media day

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Nineteen drivers and one key IndyCar Series official passed through the turnstiles at Tuesday’s IndyCar media day, held at Amway Center in Orlando. The quotes offered from the drivers can be fleshed out over the next couple weeks in the completion of winter testing and the run-up to the season opener in St. Petersburg.

What was the biggest news today though, came from IndyCar’s president of competition and operations, Derrick Walker. The Scot, an open-wheel veteran who begins his first full season on the job after taking over the post last June 1, announced plans to modernize and enhance IndyCar race control, which was occasionally in the cross hairs in 2013.

Walker hinted to MotorSportsTalk at the United States Grand Prix in Austin last November that changes would be coming to race control, although not personnel-related. He said in the races he saw from race control post-the Indianapolis 500, a couple things “seemed pretty obvious” in needing to be changed.

“We couldn’t always see what we needed to do for race control to be effective.  It looked pretty obvious we needed to upgrade our equipment and needed to have more eyes on the job,” Walker told assembled reporters Tuesday.

And then came the c-word – consistency. It was a subject that caused controversy last year in the back-to-back races at Sonoma and Baltimore eventual series champion Scott Dixon retired due to contact with Will Power.

“In addition to that we needed more procedures and probably guidelines is the best way to describe it so that we were as consistent as often as possible.  That was one of the shortcomings of race control,” said Walker.

“So for this year we’ve invested a tremendous amount in equipment so we have a lot more views and better-quality views, better replay, trying to capture all the views that are possible.”

This year will see equipment investment to better help race control see the race, and he also said he hopes by this time in 2015, a mobile race control unit will be established for transport to each race. Right now, INDYCAR is beholden to a certain location on each track where it sets up race control; it is not in one centralized unit.

Walker expanded on what equipment would be added for 2014.

“We’re talking a lot more flat screens, HD,” he said. “The reason for more of them is because we don’t always get all the views that the cameras around the track gets.  We haven’t always got that.  We’ve been caught out many times where we made a call and afterwards saw a different view that would make us think twice.”

Walker confirmed aero kits, the much-discussed, officially planned but not-yet-officially implemented add-ons made by manufacturers, are being worked on. But he didn’t anticipate seeing them until right before they’re officially launched.

Of this year’s Indianapolis 500 qualifying, the format and procedure is “very close” but not formal, yet.

He also took a subtle dig at NASCAR, when asked about giving Juan Pablo Montoya extra days of testing and if any NASCAR drivers (re: Kurt Busch) were going to be able to do an Indianapolis 500-Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day double.

“We have to help those little taxicab boys come out and race real cars,” Walker deadpanned.

The other major bit of news announced was standing starts, confirmed for Long Beach (April 13, NBCSN) and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis (May 10). Long Beach was interested in one for 2013, but the technology hadn’t been proven yet. Successful standing starts were executed at Toronto’s second race, and Houston’s first race.

“Part of the problem with Long Beach, is getting the field coming round, getting all the field on the front straight, letting it loose,” Walker said. “It never works very well.  If you do a standing start, I think it will be a much better start.”

Added Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach: “This is fantastic news for our fans. They will love hearing the sounds of the IndyCar engines revving up and then the cars roaring down Shoreline Drive. Thanks to IndyCar and especially to Derrick Walker for granting our request. This is a great addition to all of the other activities we have planned as we celebrate 40 years of racing in the streets of Long Beach.”

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.