If IndyCar commissioned a TV commercial to sell tickets to the April 7 Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway, it might look something like this:
Legendary past champions Mario Andretti (who will be celebrated on the 25th anniversary of his last victory), A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford would be joined by current stars Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and others. One-by-one, they’d talk into the camera and proclaim: “Phoenix race fans! We heard you! We’ve built a cool new car that the drivers love! We’ll make daring passes like you’ve never seen before! Don’t miss what is sure to be one of the most exciting races ever!”
The director would cut to fast-moving images of the series’ sleek and more aesthetically-pleasing car – which actually is newly designed bodywork mounted to the existing chassis – tested on an oval by the full field for the first time Friday and Saturday at ISMR. An announcer would promise “a speedy wheel-to-wheel showcase of the often breath-taking heritage that once made open-wheel racing more popular than NASCAR!”
Wait. Hit the pause button. It’s legitimate to ask: Why should Valley fans accept hype after the last two events at the former Phoenix International Raceway were more parade than race?
After all, Dixon led the final 155 of 250 laps in winning IndyCar’s return to Avondale in 2016 after a decade-long absence. There were only two lead changes. Simon Pagenaud was in front the concluding 114 laps last year in a race that had but four lead swaps and two yellow flags. Fans yawned, with only a few thousand in grandstands that typically seat 50,000 for NASCAR.
Foyt, the iconic tough Texan and first four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who owns the ABC Supply Chevrolets driven by Tony Kanaan and rookie Matheus Leist, might return to the screen to answer: “You know A.J. don’t BS nobody. I’ll be there. You better be, too.”
While IndyCar CEO Mark Miles disputes the notion the series is counting on a successful season from the bodies on the cars more than the bodies in the cars, there’s no doubt he has a lot riding on what is officially known as the “universal kit,” meaning it will be used by Honda and Chevy-powered teams alike. Verizon will depart as series sponsor at season’s end while negotiations for new TV contracts are nearing a conclusion.
“We think it is a key story,” Miles told azcentral sports. “We think it’s great looking and the racing will be even better. We have to translate that into ticket sales for Bryan (Sperber, track president).”
The kit is the product of more than two years planning and development. IndyCar says it was reverse-designed to start with a sleeker look, somewhat reminiscent of those popular with fans in the 1980s and 1990s.
The most important detail, however, is improved airflow under the car and significantly smaller front and rear wings. Turbulence off the old larger wings, which drivers call “dirty air,” made setting-up passes more difficult. These bodies generate 20 percent less aerodynamic downforce than last year’s 5,000 pounds. Downforce uses air to push the car into the track and the reduction means cornering speeds are down and, in theory, puts a premium on a driver’s skill to control the car.
Jay Frye, IndyCar’s competition president, said the previous body caused “a tremendous wake off the back. That stunted some of the passing opportunities. This car has very little coming off of it.
“They’re certainly going to be pulling up on one another more efficiently. Once you get to that point, it’s up to the driver in front and the driver in back. Somebody messes up or somebody is better. It certainly will create more passing opportunities.”
Drivers avoided running in packs during the 12 hours of test time. That was partly being cautious while adapting and a general shortage of spare body parts. Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato was fastest by late Saturday afternoon at just under 190 mph, almost five mph slower than last year’s pole.
“It’s definitely changed a fair amount,” said Dixon, debuting his just-announced PNC Bank Honda colors. “Before, you were flat (full throttle) the whole way around. Now, you’re downshifting and lifting (off throttle entering Turns 1 and 3.) You have to think about it a lot more.”
Pagenaud, in general, liked what he found in his Menards Chevy.
“Less downforce is great,” he said. “The car is sliding around and a lot more sensitive. It’s hard to follow … (but) I don’t think any of us have found the right balance yet to run in traffic.”
Rahal described the car as “a whole different animal to drive,” perhaps an appropriate analogy after announcing his Honda will be sponsored by One Cure, an initiative of Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University.
“I love it.”
Will Valley fans?