Before Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, word got out that INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard was looking to secure a new deal with track promoter ZOOM Motorsports that would ensure the continuation of the event.
However, while enthusiastic about the race’s future, he also mentioned something that’s surely been brought up many times in its young history: The need for more passing zones on the well-kept but narrow 2.38-mile road course.
After Sunday, one wonders if Bernard now thinks that Barber should stay as it is.
In previous races at the track, starts/restarts and the Turn 5-6 complex known as ‘Charlotte’s Web’ had been the only real places to pass barring someone making a mistake. But on Sunday, there were battles for position throughout the grid and in places not normally considered passing zones, like the chicane at Turn 8-9 and even the final corner at Turn 17 coming out of the horseshoe turn.
For those of us who had maligned Barber as simply a beautiful facility and nothing else, this was shocking. And if it was shocking for those that just watched the race, you can imagine how the man who won the race felt.
“I can't believe we won from ninth -- I thought that was impossible at this place,” said Will Power, who shook off a quiet seventh place finish in the season opener at St. Petersburg and earned his second straight triumph in the Heart of Dixie.
“The strategy was perfect. The stops were perfect. We were quick when we needed to be, put ourselves in a position to win, which I did not think was possible [Sunday] morning.”
So what was different about this race at Barber compared to the previous two? Let’s start with the obvious – the new Dallara DW12, which looked more nimble going through the track’s elevation changes than the previous car did and, more importantly, featured a smaller fuel cell that kept teams from saving fuel in order to pull off a two-stop strategy in the 90-lap race.
Amongst the drivers, there also seemed to be a bigger sense of pushing the envelope this time around as opposed to St. Pete, which was the first race for the DW12 and the new turbo engines. There were certainly more chances taken at Barber, with lots of entertaining, close-quarters combat in the turns as a result.
But the most critical element that went into the increased passing on Sunday appeared to come from Firestone. For its first event with the DW12 at Barber, the makers of the “Magic Rings” decided to utilize a softer, less durable compound that was tested at the track last November on both its primary ‘blacks’ and option ‘reds.’
In Power’s mind, while having clean air for his No. 12 Verizon-Team Penske Chevrolet was important to his victory, the tires also played a key part in it – as well as why there was so much passing in general.
“I really thought, as green as the race was, you put it down to the tires really -- the fact that the tires had a discrepancy from brand-new to old of up to two seconds, three seconds,” Power figured. “That allowed for good passing. It really eradicated fuel saving because often we go in, we start lifting, fuel saving.
“Doing that with the tires eradicated that. It was just hard racing. I ran hard the whole day and never saved fuel.”
For fans that want to see races settled on the track and not in the pits, that is music to their ears. Afterwards, Firestone Racing executive director Al Speyer felt that his company was simply heeding the drivers’ wishes.
“The primary tires were more durable, and the alternates were faster for almost everyone,” he said in a statement. “That's what INDYCAR and the drivers asked us for. We're chasing the elusive perfect gap between the primary and alternate tires, and I think we were as close to hitting it just right this weekend as we've ever been."
Time will tell if Firestone can hit on that perfect gap, but the rest of the road/street course schedule this season certainly looks more promising following Sunday’s race.
As for Barber Motorsports Park’s reputation for producing good racing, that appears to look much better as well.
Chris Estrada maintains IndyRacingRevolution.com and has covered sports at all levels for multiple print and digital outlets. He has written for INDYCAR Nation since 2011 and can be reached via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and on Twitter (@estradawriting).