A race in name only

Jerry Bonkowski

INDIANAPOLIS – While NASCAR and Goodyear point fingers of blame at each other over the debacle that was Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, many fans that left disappointed gave both of them just one finger – the middle one.

Instead of being a memorable 15th anniversary edition of the Brickyard – and celebrating Jimmie Johnson's second triumph at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway – NASCAR's second biggest event of the year devolved into sheer embarrassment, a "race" in name only.

Even the ill-fated Formula One race here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005 – when all but six teams refused to compete due to safety concerns over tires – was not as much of a joke as Sunday's race was.

NASCAR, worried that blown tires would prove to be a danger to the driver's safety, didn't want teams driving on tires for too long. So, like clockwork, the race was run 11 or 12 laps at a time, interspersed with competition cautions to change tires that were mysteriously self-destructing in a manner never before seen in NASCAR, let alone motorsports history.

"Nobody likes to race like this," said Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of race tire sales. "I think the teams are going to be upset, probably rightly so."

Over and over, we saw cars get up to speed, do some passing and side-by-side racing, and just as they began to hit their stride, it was back into the pits for the next set of rubber.

Ironically, even though there were nine competition cautions to replace and inspect worn tires, only four drivers suffered tire failure.

So who do you blame? Or applaud?

You can blame NASCAR for failing to have a full tire test here knowing all too well of Indy's abrasive surface since the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was last resurfaced in 2004.

It's no secret that tire wear has been an issue at IMS in each subsequent Brickyard since, but nothing compared to what we saw Sunday.

"This isn't the first time we've raced here with the surface the way it is and we've been able to accomplish what we need to accomplish," said NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. "To pick on the surface wouldn't be fair.

"We'll just try to learn from this and come back here and try it again next year."

At the same time, NASCAR should be applauded for putting safety first by giving us bite-sized portions of racing wrapped around safety-based competition cautions to keep as much of a handle on the dissolving rubber problem as possible.

Criticism of the stop-and-go racing would pale by comparison to the criticism if a driver had been severely injured due to NASCAR's failure to monitor the situation and do what had to be done.

Then there's Goodyear.

It came here in April with three cars – the No. 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), 2 (Kurt Busch) and 84 (AJ Allmendinger) – for a tire test. But it doesn't take a chemical engineer to realize that track conditions, let alone atmospheric conditions, are completely different then than at the end of July.

Can anyone tell me the logic of not running a full test at one of the longest tracks on the circuit, and with one of the most abrasive surfaces? How can a company that has been producing tires for over 100 years have been so far off in its selection of rubber compound for this race?

"We had full-scale testing as far as we were concerned," Stucker said. "We didn't have an open test like we did last year, so certainly we didn't have as many cars on the race track as we did last year. Certainly, that's a difference, but you try to use all that into your decisions."

Goodyear realized it had a problem during practice Saturday when tires started quickly eroding down to their cords during 10-lap bursts around the 2.5-mile Speedway. Because it was too late to produce a whole new batch of radically different tires, Goodyear went to an unscheduled Plan B.

Company officials trucked in six sets of tires per team designated for next week's race at Pocono as a back-up strategy of sorts, figuring that if the Indy tires continued to inexplicably wear down in Sunday's race, they could always go to the supplementary supply earmarked for Pocono.

But as the race went on, it played out like a poker game: Goodyear decided to play with the hand it was dealt rather than introduce the Pocono tires.

"It was pretty obvious if it was improving, it was improving only minutely," Stucker said. "So, they just had to make sure that everybody had a chance to get fresh tires on as often as possible.

"The Pocono tires were brought here just to make sure there were enough tires to get to the end of the race, not that there was going to be a change or improvement."

So what does Goodyear have to say for itself, particularly to the fans and teams?

"It's nobody's fault," Stucker insisted. "It's the package (combination of tire and the new Cup car), and that's what we need to understand.

"We came up with the best tire we had for the conditions and we fell short of that. So, we're going to turn around and try to do everything we can to make sure we get it right."

While fans might hope this was a once-in-a-lifetime issue, guess again. When asked if he could assure fans that this will never happen again, Stucker's reply was a terse, one-word reply: "No."

Sprint Cup teams typically are allocated 10 sets of tires for a track like Indianapolis, at a price tag of $1,700 per set.

You can bet they'll be asking Goodyear for a refund come Monday.

"We'll figure that out," Stucker said when asked if there will be any refund. "That'll be private, between us and them."

It's too bad the 200,000-plus fans that showed up Sunday won't be able to get a refund, too, because they're the ones that deserve it the most.