Trackside Tuesday: A Victim of History?

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In a weekend filled with intrigue, subtle sword play in the pre-race conference, and the heartbreak of not seeing Nicky Hayden start the race on Sunday, it was the venue itself that received the most attention, unfortunately of a mostly negative sort.

Without a doubt, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway received a spot on the MotoGP calendar in 2008 because of its iconic status in the world of motorsports. Sure, Laguna Seca has a great reputation as well, but you can ask pretty much anyone the world over if they have heard of Indianapolis, and the answer would be in the affirmative — and unlike Laguna, they don’t have to ride a motorcycle or own a Porsche to be familiar with the track.

And so, despite an uninspiring infield course purpose built for the ill-fated Formula One rounds, the famous Brickyard became part of the MotoGP calendar and has a contract to run through 2014.

In the last two visits to IMS, Casey Stoner has complained more and more vocally about his dislike of the circuit, primarily due to the surface makeup, which changes several times per lap. Dr. Martin Raines, the official statistician for MotoGP calls the section from T10 to T16 “a mickey mouse track” and certainly watching the bikes make their way slowly though there and through T2-T4 on the circuit, one can see what he means.

Even if the circuit were run the other direction (as originally designed – and impossible for motorcycles because there would be no runoff available in T1) the racing would still not be awe-inspiring, due to the tight corners, and almost total lack of elevation changes.

Until this year, however, no matter how processional the racing may have been, no matter how much complaining there may have been from the riders about the nature of the circuit, the general consensus between fans, teams, and media alike has been that it was an amazing event. Let’s face it, Indianapolis knows racing.

Indianapolis knows how to put on a show for race fans and for the traveling circus as well, and they did not disappoint this year either. The infield was packed, attendance was in the same ballpark (possibly higher) than last year, and the atmosphere downtown (especially along the meridian) was hard to describe to non-attendees.

And yet there came a point this weekend where the Indianapolis GP needs to receive criticism, and hopefully investigation, to fix or at least understand three serious points.

First off, the crashes of first Casey Stoner, then Ben Spies, and finally Nicky Hayden during QP need to be examined. For the Kentucky Kid to miss what he calls the “homiest of home rounds” was heartbreaking, but such is racing. But, when three extremely talented riders crash during the same session, and in basically the same exact location, it raises eyebrows.

As you can see in the photo above the track gets very dirty off the tracing line (and the surface type changes dramatically). In many cases this is unavoidable (I’ve seen similar buildup at Brno), but the marbles are just the start of the issue. What you don’t see in the photo is the lack of grip that riders reported once off the racing line. The bottom line is, the infield course simply does not get enough use and there’s never enough rubber laid down.

I am not sure how to fix this, but the “mickey mouse track” would make for an awesome autocross event…or ten. To be fair, of the five riders asked about grip during the post-qualifying conference, only the three MotoGP riders echoed concern about grip. Moto2’s Pol Espargaro and Moto3’s Sandro Cortese both said that not only do they like the track, they also did not feel the grip levels were a problem on or off the racing line.

This is almost certainly because the braking and acceleration forces produced by the Moto2 & Moto3 bikes don’t come close to the grip requirements needed by MotoGP, especially once they are off the racing line.

Last year, riders said the infield portion of the track was extremely abrasive, and even though Jorge Lorenzo’s soft tire gamble wasn’t a total failure, it would seem the abrasiveness is still there as his tire began suffering midway through the race (note: the track was “completely” repaved – meaning from T4-T16 – for 2012).

The second and third problems this weekend had to do with personnel, and these are more difficult to fathom given the history of the sport, and the usually exceptional professionalism of everyone involved with the event.

It’s simply impossible to not feel outrage over the handling of fallen rider Héctor Barberá in T16 during the red flagged FP1 session. After falling hard on his head and back, laying prone for some time in the run-off, Barberá was lifted under the armpits and knees and placed onto a stretcher before being taken to the ambulance.

This stunned almost everyone who saw it, as even most casual fans know, or have at least seen, the proper way a fallen rider is placed on a stretcher involves the neck/head being held and rotated with the body, while rider’s body is rotated sideways, the stretcher pushed underneath, and the body rotated back before being lifted and carried to the ambulance.

The medical staff on-hand failed to handle a situation they have been trained for correctly, and reminded us of the difficult to watch scenes of Tomizawa’s stricken body getting shuttled off the track at Misano and Simoncelli’s stretcher dropped at Sepang. Given the injuries Barberá suffered, this could have had tragic consequences that simply cannot be excused.

Finally during the MotoGP race a lapped rider, Steve Rapp, failed to move out of the way of a much faster Jorge Lorenzo, causing the latter to even flail out with his foot in frustration as he finally got past the CRT wildcard.  I have received a confirmation from Mike Webb, Race Director for the FIM, that well in advance of Lorenzo’s arrival behind Rapp, he requested and received confirmation from the Clerk of the Course that blue flags were displayed.

From where I was standing (about two-thirds of the way between T16 and T1, on the outside of the straight and immediately on the wall – and let me tell you – there’s nothing quite like the feeling of a 250hp
screaming MotoGP bike going by at full throttle just five feet from you), I did not see any blue flags at either end or along the 3-4 flag stations on the straight when Rapp came through followed by Lorenzo.

Rapp didn’t see any. Neither did Lorenzo. A Facebook user correctly quipped “don’t they have blue flags in Nascar???” They’re actually blue with a yellow stripe through it in NASCAR, but close enough.

There have been many many questions asked about the status of Indy for next year given the upcoming opening of the Circuit of America in Texas, and now after the race given the many issues that came to light during the 2012 MotoGP weekend. However race track contracts are not rider contracts, and the money involved is astronomical.

As a racing super-fan and friend of mine points out, Indianapolis is one of the only tracks on the MotoGP calendar that never even blinks an eye at the sanctioning fees Dorna imposes on each venue. Not to mention that the location is excellent for almost every American race fan not already covered by Laguna Seca.

I don’t expect the surface of the track to get much better for 2013 and certainly the layout of the track won’t be changing but let us hope that lessons are learned from the personnel mistakes made at this year’s Indy GP. In all other ways, this is still a place that buzzes with racing heritage, acceptance, and draws a good sized American crowd.

At the same time, due to the history of the venue perhaps some of the outrage is simply a product of extremely high expectations.

Jules Cisek is a race fan and photographer. He is also the producer and presenter of the MotoPod podcast. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, or on the MotoPod Facebook page.

Photo: © 2012 Jules Cisek / Popmonkey – All Rights Reserved