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.

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Detroit: Chase Sexton narrowly leads Cooper Webb


For the fifth time in 10 rounds of the 2023 Monster Energy Supercross season, the three riders at the top of the championship standings shared a podium and while those points tell one story, the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Detroit tell a slightly different tale.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Detroit
Cooper Webb is peaking at the right time. – Feld Motor Sports

Chase Sexton has been all but perfect during the past 45 days with podium finishes in each of his heats and Triple Crown features. His only stumble during this period was a 10th-place finish in the Indianapolis Main. Last week, Sexton was perfect with wins in both his heat and the feature, although he needed a little help from an Aaron Plessinger mistake to take the top spot on the podium at the end of the night.

Cooper Webb finished fifth at Houston and was beginning to worry ever so slightly about his position in the points. Prior to the race in Tampa, he told NBC Sports that it was time to win and like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield fence, Webb went out and captured it. Following that race, Webb has swept the podium and earned the red plate two weeks ago in Indianapolis. At Detroit, he added two more points on Eli Tomac as the season begins to wind down.

Tomac struggled with a stiff neck at Indianapolis and after a modest third-place showing in Detroit, he revealed he was still suffering a little. Webb and Sexton have been able to close the gap on Tomac in the past 45 days, but one of the main reasons he is so close in the points was a pair of wins that started the year. Seattle is going to be important for the defending champion because Tomac cannot afford to lose any more momentum with seven rounds remaining.

MORE: Chase Sexton inherits the win in Detroit

It appeared Jason Anderson was turning things around. He earned his fifth heat win at Detroit, which was also his sixth consecutive race (including features) in which he scored a top-five. A fall in the Detroit Main dropped him a lap off the pace and sent him home with a season-worst finish of ninth, causing a ripple effect in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings.

Justin Barcia was a huge part of the show last week in Detroit. He swapped positions with both Webb and Tomac in the middle stage of the race, which allowed Sexton to close the gap. Barcia finished fourth in that race to earn his third consecutive top-five. He’s been outside the top 10 only once in the first 10 rounds.

Adam Cianciarulo had a great start to the Main. He led a couple of laps before losing a lap and slipping back to eighth in the final rundown. That run was strong enough to elevate him three positions in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Detroit.

450 Rankings

Driver Percentage
1. Chase Sexton
[2 Main, 6 Heat wins]
87.00 1 0
2. Cooper Webb
[2 Main, 1 Heat win]
86.71 2 0
3. Eli Tomac
[5 Main, 6 Heat wins]
84.57 3 0
4. Jason Anderson
[5 Heat wins]
80.71 4 0
5. Ken Roczen
[1 Main, 1 Heat win]
80.50 5 0
6. Justin Barcia
[1 Heat win]
79.07 7 1
7. Aaron Plessinger 77.14 6 -1
8. Adam Cianciarulo 69.75 11 3
9. Christian Craig 68.86 10 1
10. Justin Cooper 63.90 9 -1
11. Justin Hill 58.57 15 4
12. Dean Wilson 51.50 12 0
13. Colt Nichols 51.25 13 0
14. Shane McElrath 46.86 17 3
15. Josh Hill 46.79 16 1
16. Benny Bloss 45.31 18 2
17. Jared Lesher 39.00 NA
18. Joey Savatgy 38.63 14 -4
19. Cade Clason 37.50 21 2
20. Grant Harlan 35.54 23 3

Supercross 450 Points

The NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings look at the past 90 days in the 250 class in order to have a balanced comparison between the East and West divisions and Hunter Lawrence has been all but perfect this year. At Detroit, he earned his fifth win of the season and kept alive a streak of podium finishes in six rounds. He tied his brother Jett Lawrence with 10 250 wins one week before the West riders take to the track for back-to-back races at Seattle, Washington and Glendale, Arizona.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Detroit
Nate Thrasher is settling into a comfortable role as ‘best in class’. – Feld Motor Sports

The Lawrence brothers are dominating the points in each of their respective divisions, which means the remainder of the field is battling to be best in class.

In the East, that rider is Nate Thrasher, who beat Hunter in a head-to-head matchup in their heat only to finish second in the main when the majority of points were awarded. Thrasher seems to have accepted his position in the championship standings, but that doesn’t mean he won’t keep trying for wins.

Haiden Deegan showed a lot of aggression in his heat last week. He threw a couple of block passes at his teammate Jordon Smith and set up a series of events that kept Smith from making the big show while Deegan settled into second in the preliminary. Deegan was unconcerned about how he raced his teammate and would not let a little controversy keep him from celebrating his second career podium in Detroit.

Supercross 250 Points

Jeremy Martin just keeps clicking off solid results. He won his heat last week by making a pass on Deegan and Smith while they were in the heat of their battle. Martin finished fourth in the Main, which means he continues to have only one finish worse than sixth in any of the features or mains.

Smith fell one position in the points standings, but the damage was even worse in SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Detroit. Crash damage in his heat contributed to a last-place finish in that race, for which he earned minimal points. He was not able to advance from the Last Chance Qualifier after stalling his bike in heavy traffic.

250 Rankings

Rider Power
1. Hunter Lawrence – E
[5 Main, 5 Heat wins]
90.43 1 0
2. Jett Lawrence – W
[3 Main, 3 Heat wins]
90.30 2 0
3. Nate Thrasher – E
[1 Main, 3 Heat wins]
84.00 5 2
4. Cameron McAdoo – W
[1 Heat win]
79.80 9 5
5. Haiden Deegan – E
[1 Heat win]
78.21 7 2
6. Jeremy Martin – E
[2 Heat wins]
78.00 8 2
7. Jordon Smith – E
[3 Heat Wins]
76.77 4 -3
8. Levi Kitchen – W
[1 Main]
75.30 3 -5
9. Mitchell Oldenburg – W 75.20 11 2
10. RJ Hampshire – W
[4 Heat wins]
74.50 17 7
11. Max Anstie – E 74.43 6 -5
12. Tom Vialle – E 72.07 12 0
13. Max Vohland – W 71.56 10 -3
14. Stilez Robertson – W
[1 Heat win]
69.22 14 0
15. Chris Blose – E 67.43 18 3
16. Chance Hymas – E 67.10 15 -1
17. Enzo Lopes – W 66.00 20 3
18. Michael Mosiman – E 65.80 16 -2
19. Pierce Brown – W 65.78 13 -6
20. Phil Nicoletti – W 59.25 21 1

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days for the 450 class and last 90 days for 250s (because of the split nature of their season).

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 8 AT DAYTONA: Chase Sexton unseats Eli Tomac
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 7 AT ARLINGTON: Jason Anderson narrowly trails Tomac
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 6 AT OAKLAND: Perfect night keeps Tomac first
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 5 AT TAMPA: Sexton, Cooper Webb close in
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 4 AT HOUSTON: Tomac rebounds from A2 crash, retakes lead
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 3 AT ANAHEIM 2: Consistency makes Ken Roczen king
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Roczen moves up, Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM 1: Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage