Last week we went over the results of the 2011 season and now I can really get into the nuts and bolts of 2011. There were some very cool moments of last year as well as some very awful times; this will be my general thoughts of a few, admittedly random, aspects of the season that stood out to me. No theme in particular, just reactions and thoughts. The more thought I put into the events of 2011, the more it impresses me how crazy of a year it was on the whole. This was supposed to be a mail-it-in year. New cars on the horizon for 2012 meant we all just wanted to get 2011 over with as quickly as possible. It became, not only, one of the most engaging years we have had recently, but another closely contested championship that saw multiple race winners. Forever marred by the events of October 16th, I will remember the season for so much more than those tragic events.
Big participation – We had 49 different drivers strap themselves into a Dallara and make a run during green flag practice conditions. Compare with 42 from 2010 and 2009 and 50 during 2008, which is surprising considering this number included the ChampCar goodbye at Long Beach. The IRL has 38, 40 and 39 from 2007, 06 and 05. ChampCar had 29, 25 and 29 through the same period. I am aware the Indy 500 ballooned the IRL numbers each year, but we had seven more than the strongest field in recent years, 2008 notwithstanding. The drivers were all well qualified; showing strong momentum and draw for the series. Indianapolis journeymen were able to procure multiple race deals and many talented rookies saw track time. The surplus inventory of chassis surely added to this high number, but 2012 looks promising in terms of car count as well.
2011 was full contact – INDYCAR saw quite its fair share of cautions laps this year. The season started off in St. Petersburg with flying carbon fiber and about an hour of caution laps, broken up by short spurts of drag racing. I was absolutely embarrassed to call myself an indycar fan that afternoon. It dawned on me during the second race of the season at Barber that we have a full contact sport on our hands this year. The inability to make any headway through the field caused the majority of drivers to take the chrome-horn approach. Wheel banging became the norm and we went through nearly half the season before any real attempt to reel the drivers in were made; by that time it was almost too late. The precedent had already been set and we were given a full year of wrecked out Dallaras to prove it. I hope we see some separation with the new chassis so the drivers can return to a more gentleman style of driving.
Sao Paulo – This was, by far, the standout road event of the season for me. I think part of the golden glow of the memory is because it was run on Monday. I listened to it on IMS Radio at work, and I just love rain postponed races because of this. I can’t really put it into words but listening to a live sporting event at work is always awesome and a race is even better. Not to mention Takuma Sato, KV and Lotus are three of my favorite things, so listening to him dominate the rest of the field was very exciting. The wet tarmac plus the track layout made for a crazy mix of conditions and drivers piloted those racecars with the extreme professionalism we know the field is capable of. As we all know, Taku did not come up with the win due to some silly pit strategy but the race was great nonetheless.
Rules rules rules – The, already bloated and poorly written, rulebook saw a couple of positive additions. The double file restarts worked well. It took a few races watching these guys attempt to pull them off before the hilariously awful wreck-fests transitioned into something a bit more palpable. All in all I say they were a success, lets just hope they drivers don’t forget how to do them in the off season. (Ed: HA!) Pit selection rules were slightly altered as well with order determined by qualifying results of the previous type of track. I think this worked well also as we saw how being buried back on pit road can be very detrimental to your season. I am by no means advocating wrecks on pit road, but it was nice to see Tags, TK and Taku take the number one stall, it was…refreshing.
We also saw the dark side of the rules and race control. New Hampshire immediately comes to mind as the pinnacle of poor officiating and an even worse rulebook. Throughout the year I realized Barnhart, although mostly absent minded, was working from a broken foundation. Too much latitude and not enough detail fueled his behavior and had become the standard of the series. Thankfully I believe INDYCAR is taking a long, hard look at race control and the rulebook. We hope for changes.
The bluegrass duel and the Hildebrand – Ed Carpenters win, and JR Hildebrand’s loss are the highpoints of the season for me. During the month of May I was lucky enough to get a National Guard Panther Racing hat and used it as my headwear for the remainder of the month. The JR train picked me up and had me rooting him on during those last few laps. I had never been as invested in the leading driver as that afternoon; amazing what a free hat and a handshake can do! But Wheldon’s win capped off a perfect month in Indianapolis. Ironically, the first indycar race I would see outside of Indianapolis would be one for the ages. The 47 people and myself were treated to not only a phenomenal clinic of how you run wheel to wheel with respect, but also the emotional first win of both Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Racing.
I cannot think of a season with as many ups and downs as we saw this year. Tears of joy and sadness were juxtaposed with boiling anger and inconceivable excitement. In my eyes, even with the loss of Dan Wheldon, 2011 will be a tough season to top. I would have liked a different champion this year, but that battle is not my focus during the year. I thrive on the singular moments during the season and we had more than a few this year. I really enjoyed the ride that was the 2011 season and I hope we can see at least as much competition next year. There are always more questions than answers during this part of the season, and I will attempt to ask a few of them for next week’s final installment of my look back on the 2011 season.