David J. Neal: IndyCar needs new shot in South Florida

Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 fell only two final green flag laps from being the best of the 97 Indy 500s. Three South Florida residents, led by winner Tony Kanaan, occupied the podium positions.

And IndyCar and Homestead-Miami Speedway can’t iron out differences to get an IndyCar event back at Homestead and make it work?

Granted, the last visual of IndyCar at Homestead couldn’t have been more depressing: about 5,000 fans at a 65,000-seat track despite Penske Racing’s Will Power and that year’s Indy 500 winner, Dario Franchitti, dueling for the 2010 series title. The funereal atmosphere — everybody knew IndyCar wouldn’t be back for at least a few years — that hung over the weekend didn’t help. Franchitti won in a rolling stroll when Power’s lousy night ended with a wall smack.

IndyCar said it would have to raise its sanctioning fees 30 percent to make coming to Homestead worthwhile because attendance shrunk over the 15 years at Homestead by CART and/or IndyCar. Homestead responded it couldn’t afford that jack up. So, the two entities stopped doing business.

Things change, however. There’s new IndyCar leadership (again). Some changes have occurred in the speedway’s staff. Also, as far as the product, IndyCar racing got improved last season by a new, slipstream-friendly chassis.

The previous Dallara chassis used by the series from 2003 to 2011 provided parades on some tracks, but raced well at Homestead. This Dallara chassis, introduced last season, passes like AFX cars on the midsize ovals (like Homestead) and superspeedways.

(Driver Sebastian Saavedra has a theory that the Penske and Ganassi teams have not had the time to turn their financial advantage into a research advantage.)

Last year at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., there were 29 lead changes in 250 laps. That was the Indy 500’s record for lead changes until 2012’s 34, a record that got doubled by this year’s 68.

Sunday was the 23rd Indy 500 I have attended. I have watched countless others on TV. The rest I’ve watched film of and read voraciously about. I had a front row seat for the one voted best ever in a poll of auto racing writers, the 1982 Indy 500. Literally, “front row” — only air and fencing atop the Turn 1 outer wall separated me from winner Gordon Johncock slamming the door on Rick Mears at the start of the final lap.

Sunday surpassed that race before the anticlimax, when Franchitti’s crash back in the pack aborted the closing shootout among Kanaan (Miami), Carlos Munoz (Key Biscayne) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Fort Lauderdale). Helio Castroneves (Fort Lauderdale) would have jumped into the fray from sixth.

Nobody dominated. Nobody even grabbed control in a way that made you think, “Ah, his race to lose…”

Fast, clean and ultra-competitive, 2013 bettered 1960, the consensus pre-1982 choice for best ever (and still ranked thusly by some early Baby Boomers and their parents). That race featured those 29 lead changes, most between Jim Rathmann and Roger Ward in the second half of the race. Ward spotted serious tire wear with four laps left. Choosing safe valor over a possibly fatal thrust at victory, Ward eased off and fans got a similar phenomenal finish Sunday provided.

If any racing reaches across South Florida’s cultural lines, it should be a form of open wheel racing with several locally based prominent drivers and drivers from countries well-represented in our diverse population. That will have to be IndyCar. Formula 1’s not coming.

Also, Homestead-Miami Speedway needs events. Right now, it’s a one-event pony. That doesn’t work for any track, even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I grew up as one of many Indianapolis locals grumbling that nothing happened on track at 16th and Georgetown outside of May. Now, IMS hosts the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Brickyard 400 (ill-fitting as those cars are for that track) and motorcycle racing on the infield road course originally designed for Formula 1.

Homestead has a road course the Grand-Am cars use (or, rather, did when the Grand-Am series ran there). Twin races, oval course and road course? Hey, if you’re trying to get people to schlep all the way down to Homestead, something extra wouldn’t hurt.

IndyCar needs, at base, exciting racing and could use another midsize oval, where these cars work best. It’s time for the track and the series to work out the dollars, work together and bring what was annually a good show back to South Florida.

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