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DiZinno: Phoenix return highlights battle over IndyCar expectations

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ race return to Phoenix International Raceway Saturday night for the first time in 11 years was memorable more so for “this is typical IndyCar” type reasons, rather than the race itself.

It featured a lot of hype – and a lot of hope – as the diehards heralded another return of a one-mile oval.

It saw the series’ leading – and most experienced – drivers rise to the fore over the younger generation of drivers. The top six on the grid included three drivers over 40, the series’ lone owner/driver and arguably the most well rounded driver on the grid in four-time and defending series champion.

The last of those, Scott Dixon, parlayed a typically excellent effort from his Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew, into the race win on Saturday night.

It saw our return on the broadcast side; Phoenix marked the first NBCSN broadcast after the year following the opener on another network.

And yet, at the end of the evening, the immediate reaction was not one of a triumphant return to Phoenix, but more a question of “How can we nitpick IndyCar’s latest race?”

Indeed Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix was – much like its last West Coast oval race at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, Calif. last June – an exercise in managing expectations and figuring out how the good of the event and the weekend can outweigh the negatives.

Nearly every positive reaction with IndyCar seems to have a negative, equal counter-reaction that you wish could be alleviated.

Consider the weekend, point-by-point:

The oval crowd dilemma

The dilemma for IndyCar on ovals regardless of product is in a single word: optics.

I’ve written this before, but if there’s close to 20,000 people in a 50,000-plus or more seating capacity, it looks close to empty. And sadly, some of the camera angles did Phoenix’s IndyCar return no favors on Saturday night (of course, neither did the fact the race was up against the NCAA Final Four semifinal matchups).

From the ground, the two grandstands which were open Saturday night – the Bryan grandstand on the front straight and the Allison grandstand in Turns 1 and 2 – were each 60 to perhaps 75 percent full. The Petty and Foyt grandstands, which were closest to Turn 4 exit and Turn 1 entry, were closed.

If you take those two grandstands at say, 7 or 8,000 people per, then add an additional 2,000 in the infield, there’s your close-to-20,000 estimate. Is it a great number? No. Is it a better number than what was hoped for by track president Bryan Sperber? According to both the Arizona Republic’s Michael Knight and veteran reporter Bruce Martin, the answer is yes.

And does it look worse because ovals have the bigger grandstand seating capacity and look less than half full, while street courses in particular can get away with having just two or three grandstands open and packing those up? Or NOLA Motorsports Park with its one grandstand and awful rain? Absolutely.

The perception of IndyCar looking minor league on ovals by comparison to NASCAR – from a crowd standpoint – is what has to change. As time has progressed and the IndyCar oval fan base has dwindled, you can’t go into races expecting 30,000-plus on ovals anymore. You have to accept that 15,000 to 20,000 is the new normal – and if there’s additional revenue and packed corporate suites, that’s a much healthier prospect for the series longer-term.

The bigger concern I had for fans rather than the crowd number itself – it was healthy enough from those I saw on the infield – was the Saturday schedule that somehow had the Indy Lights race at 1:30, an IndyCar systems check at 2:30 and then no on-track action again until 6:15 for green flag. The fans managed to keep themselves occupied with a number of fan-focused events and checking out the cars in the paddock, and good on the promoter for that, but in today’s short-paced attention span world having that big a gap in the schedule is something that can’t be repeated at future oval events.

The bigger issue: the product dilemma

Dixon, who speaks softly and generally hates being lauded as one of the all-time greats (Scott, you are, and it’s OK to admit that), arguably had the most measured and reasoned take on how IndyCar at Phoenix needs to look and how IndyCar at Phoenix was approached for the series’ return.

“Can we make it better? Yeah. It’s our first time back here. I don’t know what you can expect out of this,” he said post-race. “I think everybody did an amazing job. Yes, there were some accidents and some cautions and things like that, but it’s tough coming back to tracks with packages that you don’t really know what to do with.

“It’s easy to drive from the backseat, man, and everybody has their two cents, but it needs to be looked at, and everybody is going to comment on it. But you know, you can’t go to a middle ground. You can’t go halfway. You’re going to have to go a big way. All of us are talking about it. It is a topic.

“So yes, I can see some changes maybe in the future, but we’ll have to do it as a group and we’ll have to do lots of testing to make sure it’s a better product when we come back and it works.”

Dixon was polite and measured; however, the stats did little to back things up.

From Laps 1 to 39, there was only one pass – total – in the top 10, when Juan Pablo Montoya passed Tony Kanaan for second place on Lap 23. And in the final 25 laps, there were only two total – when Sebastien Bourdais and Montoya passed an ailing Ryan Hunter-Reay in successive laps for eighth and ninth, respectively.

Kanaan and Hunter-Reay drove like animals on restarts and were the stars of the show themselves; that being said, they made moves they felt they were lucky to get away with knowing they were bold.

As Hunter-Reay told me post-race, “I knew I needed to go early, and go often. I made some moves you probably wont get away with. But we need to come back here next time, and we need better racing. I think we need to make this place to where it is a bit more opened up. Mechanical balance comes out in the car, where the mechanical handling comes out, where you have tire degradation, and where you have guys moving around.”

A number of luminaries – Roger Penske and Rick Mears among them – spoke out with the usual less downforce, more power calls pre-race and their words proved prescient. Dario Franchitti was probably closer to the mark on Phoenix suggestions than NASCAR champions Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, who also chimed in during the race. JR Hildebrand also had a number of interesting tweets.

Talk has arisen lately about whether aero kits will continue past this year. It’s a questionable thing to suggest though when one of the two manufacturers has clearly nailed its kit/engine package, and only improved it for year two, and the other is a bit further behind.

After all, this is what competition is supposed to be, right? In sports car world, the three most dreaded letters in the alphabet are “BoP” (Balance of Performance for the uninitiated), and if IndyCar adopted that moniker, we’d have hell to pay.

The single biggest change I think that could improve the racing here, to be honest, is a Firestone tire that falls off a bit quicker and could create a bit more separation, in addition to removing some downforce. Firestone’s unparalleled track record of safety and praise in the paddock is unquestioned – and sometimes, it doesn’t hurt when a compound is a bit softer and goes off a bit quicker.

Bottom line is we had no “comers and goers” this race – where you were on track was where you were, unless your team either gained or lost you some spots on pit lane. Knowing that once cars were stuck, they were stuck, is what curbed my enthusiasm for this race.

The end-of-race yellow dilemma

IndyCar Race Control has the most thankless job in motorsports, period, full stop. So no matter if they would have thrown the yellow when debris was first spotted in the final 10 laps or waited to throw it until they did, with just 3 to go, there would have been whinging either way.

Personally I think Race Control made the right call in this instance. The only other option would have been to throw a red with 8 or 9 to go – and that would have looked strange to see a red for debris to ensure a crack at finishing under green.

Even if the yellow were thrown say with 8 to go, there was no guarantee the race would resume before the scheduled 250-lap distance. The reasoning? Four of the five prior yellows were eight laps or more (caution length is another topic for another day), so it could have been a rushed period to try to get the race restarted.

For reference, IndyCar’s six cautions for 55 laps at Phoenix splits the difference almost perfectly between its two short oval races last year. Milwaukee had three for 36 laps (so 12 lap average per yellow) in 250 laps, and Iowa had six for 73 laps (also 12 per) in its 300-lapper. It’s not a direct apples-to-apples comparison but for the angst that Phoenix’s caution periods were too long, it is important to note the just over 9-lap average at Phoenix is three laps shorter, per period, than at both short oval races last year. Even before the final yellow, the five for 52 laps was just over 10 per.

The final verdict

Phoenix, 2016 for IndyCar has this report card: it’s the open-wheel equivalent of the college freshman who just finished his or her first test and got a C-plus or B-minus on it.

You’re happy you’ve made it, you’re pleased but not thrilled with how well you did, but you know you planted the seed for a better second go-around the next time.

Get the downforce/aero/tire package right, tweak the race day at-track schedule slightly so there’s less down time, and embrace the new normal in terms of attendance numbers and caution length, and Phoenix 2017 will be a better event (or, if you want this column summarized in tweet form, I refer you to IndyCar Radio’s Nick Yeoman, below:)

And unlike Milwaukee, which sadly had the year-to-year question of if it would be back the last decade or so, the best news out of the weekend for me is that for once, after a short oval return for IndyCar, the discussion was about when Phoenix will be next year.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.