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Five worthless opinions: Fontana MAVTV 500 edition

Surprise, anger, frustration, elation, bitterness…sounds like IndyCar to me.  Fontana, with nobody watching, put on one of the best races in recent memory.  Unless you think good racing is not racing at all.  More on that below.  Here they are, the best worthless opinions about the Verizon IndyCar Series you will find in the shrinking corner of the Internet that still cares about the endangered species known as oval racing.

1. Graham Rahal won a race.  In a Honda.  For a one car team.  What’s better than those three items is how he won it.  He bullied the status quo.  He chopped, shoved, bumped, and squeezed his way to the front while dragging fueling equipment with him.  This was no rainy street course where a fueling or tire strategy bumped him to the front.  He did it on his own.  And it seems that the black hat the series so desperately needs someone to wear fits him well.  It will be interesting to see if someone decides to knock it off his head.

2.  Honda won a race that was not decided by weather and/or strategy.  With Honda playing coy about a long-term contract to supply motors to the series, this is cause for corks to be popped.  After the Indy 500 debacle of punishing Honda for the sins of Chevy, Honda and the series needed this to happen.  Honda has leverage over the series, and everyone knows it.  The best part of this story is how Honda won.  They rolled up their sleeves and made the aero better.  Of course, social media was abuzz with conspiracy theories about how the series jiggered the finish to ensure a Honda win.  Right.  It is just hard for me to imagine IndyCar race control, you know, controlling anything.

3.  It appears that the easy collegiality of the paddock is a little frayed right now.  That’s what close racing does to people.  Was it pack racing?  Sure, why not.  Was is simply close racing?  Sure, why not.  It was crazy racing, that’s for sure.  It was dangerous, risky, scary, no holds barred, fish or cut bait, white knuckle stuff.  It was edge of your seat drama that had people, fans and drivers both, taking sides.  Will Power, Tony Kanaan, and Juan Pablo Montoya quite clearly though it was stupid and needlessly risky.  Ryan Hunter-Reay thought it was worthless to do it in front of an almost non-existent crowd.  Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti just consider it racing.  High flying Ryan Briscoe did not condemn the style of racing even though he went airborne at the end of the race.  The most pointed comment was from Ed Carpenter, who tweeted that people should shut up or retire.  Wow.  Since there are no more tracks like this on the schedule, the dissent should go from a boil to a simmer.  For now.

4.  As an oval fan, I hate to see a track like Fontana fade away.  When no one attends an event that is refused not only date equity but a date that works for the promoter, the writing is on the wall.  You will find no answers to this conundrum here.  Oval fans want Fontana, Milwaukee, and Texas on the schedule, but if no one attends the races, there  will be no races.  Promoters have to eat.  Whether you like it or not, the MAVTV 500 was the most exciting must-see racing of the year.  A recent report by Brant James in USA Today indicate that the series is open to being “flexible with sanctioning fees and fees and offering a modest co-op fund to help promoters market.”  It took the series this long to realize that these options are necessary? IndyCar has a problem on its hands.  I think the series needs to print “Save the Ovals” bumper stickers.  It worked for the whales.

5.  IndyCar fans are nuts.  I could just stop right there and most readers would just nod their heads in agreement.  Social media absolutely blew up with every possible opinion on the racing at Fontana.  One side loved it.  The other abhorred it.  Some fans thought the celebration of Graham Rahal’s win should be muted because the racing was dangerous.  How does that work?  I have written before that the future of the Verizon IndyCar Series does not rest on the passionate nutjobs that currently follow the series.  The future of the series is completely about people who are not currently fans.  This kind of racing, as crazy and dangerous as it is, is one portal to draw in these new fans.  This is not a promoter’s problem; it is a series problem.  If the problem is not fixed, losing ovals will be the least of the series’ problems.

There you go.  Completely worthless and totally uniformed opinions that you only find here.  It was my pleasure to make them up.

Five worthless opinions: The Chevrolet Dual in Detroit

The Verizon IndyCar Series floated onto Belle Isle in Detroit and, with promoter Roger Penske’s help, managed to put on two races that once again highlighted the yin and yang of IndyCar as we know it.  Here are some waterlogged WO’s (worthless opinions) to bring some sunshine to your day.

1.  Andretti Autosport went 1-2 in Saturday’s race with Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti.  Strategy of any kind makes a race more compelling.  The decision to stay on slicks and stretch fuel as the rain was coming in was flawless, as was Marco’s aggressiveness in staying out longer than the team wanted so he could build his lead.  Munoz’s later fuel stop allowed him to pass Marco for the win, but it was gutsy racing from both Andretti drivers.  Take a chance, win a race.

2.  What was great about Sunday’s race?  The obvious was the small teams up on the podium.  Sebastien Bourdais, a beast in the wet for KVSH Racing, held off Takuma Sato, another beast in the wet for A.J. Foyt Racing, for the win.  The final podium spot was Graham Rahal, a beast in general this year for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.  Something less obvious was the fact that it was a Chevy and two Hondas vying for the win and nobody really noticed.  It should be the drivers competing for the win, not the motors.  I am sure that Honda is proud of sweeping eight out of the top nine spots on Sunday, but Will Power taking out Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya running out of fuel, and Scott Dixon getting wrecked by teammate Charlie Kimball had a little something to do with Chevy’s bad day.

3.  Wet socks were the order of the day for both Saturday and Sunday, as was the cold.  Rain and temperature are a strategist’s nightmares.  Will the race go the distance?  Will it be timed?  When do we go from rains to slicks and slicks to rains?  Do we stay out for position or get fuel?  A hard-core fan is following all of these possibilities.  A casual fan is wallowing in them.  One thing that is extremely difficult to follow at a street race is strategy.  If you have a radio or scanner, it helps tremendously. At home, viewers depend on the broadcasters, who are at the mercy of their monitors and their directors.  Truthfully, radio does a much better job of explaining strategy.  In any case, being able to follow team strategy just makes the racing better.  Not shilling here, but if you have a Verizon phone, download the IndyCar 15 app.  Radio broadcast, team radio communications, and other goodies…all free.

4.  Speaking of strategies, Jon Beekhuis (@JonBeekhuis) conducted a Twitter Q and A after the race that was illuminating.  He explained timed races, discussed tire selection, and interpreted rules and penalties.  My question is this: Why is this only taking place on Twitter after the race?  All these are topics that fans and viewers want and need to understand.  Much of the consternation of being an IndyCar fan comes the esoteric nature of rules, penalties, and strategy.  A new fan to the series needs a primer on these topics.  If not, then rain shortened races like Saturday and Sunday confuse fans instead of excite them.  Beekhuis takes these topics, and without dumbing them down or using props, clearly and cleanly explains them.  Use and promote this man on pre-race, YouTube, and Twitter!  Engage the fans!  We are not stupid, just uneducated.

5.  The rules and race control are in the news, as always.  I will give race control this, they are NOT making calls that affect the outcome of races.  Whether this leads to issues on the track or not remains to be seen.  Graham Rahal moved all the way over on the track to block Takuma Sato on Sunday and defended this by saying blocking is legal as long as you don’t move in response to another driver.  Fair enough.  Still called for blocking, though.  He was required to give up his position to Sato.  That’s a penalty I can live with.  His race was not ruined, just his spot on the podium.  Juan Pablo Montoya complained loudly that Sato jumped the start.  If he did, there was no penalty.  I am not sure that probation and points penalties handed out on Wednesdays will deter rule breaking, but so far a light hand has seemed to work.  I do wonder if the rolled-up-newspaper threat to drivers will be ignored by the drivers like it is ignored by dogs everywhere, though.

In honor of the doubleheader weekend, I considered a doubleheader set of WO’s (worthless opinions) but decided against it.  The two days of bad weather in Detroit this weekend was punishment enough.

2015 Indy 500: postcards from the NE Vista

Another Indianapolis 500 has come and gone, and besides torched Port-O-Lets and the general detritus left by a sunburned and slightly inebriated humanity, the race was what we all have come to expect.  In other words, the inexplicable combined with the sublime.  I took the time to pen a few thoughts on post cards that have just arrived from the NE Vista.  They tell a story.

  • Greetings from the North 40, the parking lot that last year had no rules.  I know I gigged IMS last year regarding the total lack of parking acumen and the inability to honor a paid parking pass.  All is forgiven.  We rolled from the corner of Moller and 30th to our parking spot in the North 40 in less than five minutes, and that included taking a few moments to gawk at the sights of the Coke Lot on our way past.  It was reassuring to see all the Yellow Shirts in their natural habitat, performing their May rites of being petty tyrants and martinets.  They scowled and whistled and pointed and screamed.  I was home.  I might suggest that the planners in their cubicles not route traffic directly past the doors of the Port-O-Lets. You are supposed to use the lavatory when you go in, not on your way out as a car hurtles past, missing you by inches.

 

  • Hello again.  I have entered the track alone, unaccompanied by friends or family.  For some reason, they prefer to stand in a grassy parking lot with others, drinking Bloody Marys and slurping Jell-O shots while listening to loud music.  The radio should be tuned to a station reporting on the goings-on inside the track.  I am bereft and rent a chair back to make myself feel better.  I sit moodily in the early morning sun, watching celebrities and 500 Princesses drive past on the track, pretending they are waving at me.  I long for new family and friends.

 

  • Aloha from sunny Indianapolis.  The pace quickens as the pre-race activities roll on.  Terrifying skydivers buzz the Snake Pit and land on the golf course.  The PA announcer tells us to look to the sky minutes after their landing.  The new video boards work as advertised.  Florence Henderson warbles “God Bless America.”  Judging by the looks of all those under 50, The Brady Bunch has been forgotten.  Two A-10 Warthogs do the flyover.  I hope they strafe my family and friends with their depleted uranium cannons.  They deserve it for abandoning me.  Straight No Chaser sings “Back Home Again in Indiana.”  I weep and shake my fist in the direction of Kentucky.  Our song is better, even when sung acapella by someone other than Jim Nabors.  The balloons are released as an awkward struggle ensues on the video screen during “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines.”  The inexplicable has arrived.

 

  • Salutations from the top of the NE Vista.  The race starts, stops, almost starts, and continues under yellow.  Finally, the race begins.  Passing is constant.  It soon becomes apparent that the winning car will be owned by a man named either Penske or Ganassi.  All is right with the world of the top dogs.  The small teams scramble for a top ten finish as God intended.  Parity is no more.  At the next yellow, I hurry to grab a tenderloin, but the lines are enormous.  The reason is simple: two remodeled concessions stands are closed.  We are outliers in the NE Vista, forgotten and despised by our political masters.  I do not get a tenderloin.  Scenes from Lord of the Flies run through my brain.  We are a true Turn 3 dystopia.

 

  • Howdy friends.  All is saved by the tremendous passing we see lap after lap entering Turn 3.  Plus we have craft beer in addition to salt and vinegar potato chips.  The Verizon IndyCar 15 app not only works, but works well.  I have phone, text, and Twitter for the whole race.  Maybe the NE Vista is not completely forgotten.  Hope springs eternal in the human breast.  We stand the last 30 laps, grabbing strangers, pointing at cars, adding our own body English to help these steely-eyed missile men at the front of the pack maneuver through the turn.  Juan Pablo Montoya wins, proving once again that he is a wheelman extraordinaire.  We are sated and slowly exit the NE Vista.  As we leave, we see Rick Mears as he leaves his Turn 3 spotters’ platform.  He waves a greeting, and we do likewise.  A smile curls my lips.  He is one of us.

 

 

Five worthless opinions: 2015 Indy 500 Qualifications

The Verizon IndyCar Series makes me happy.  Normally, that happiness comes from the racing itself.  Other times, it comes from a series that continually makes news for all the wrong reasons.  In other words, the WO’s (worthless opinions) often write themselves.  Let me offer my thanks to IndyCar for once again making my job easier.

1.  The flying cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are absolutely a cause for concern.  The DW12 Dallara chassis has had an unfortunate tendency to have the wheels lift off the ground when contacting walls at high speed.  When first introduced, the chassis had an issue with yaw, which is defined as “to twist or oscillate around a vertical axis,” when making contact with walls at high speed.  The current iteration of the Chevy aero kit has shown a ugly tendency to have the rear wheels lift off the ground on contact, particularly with a half spin, putting the tail of the car into the wind.  At that point, the car becomes a kite, having the necessary elements of air speed and a large surface area to deflect the air downward as it speeds by.  Yikes.  Physics has laws that must be followed, even by aerodynamicists.

2. One of the terms being thrown around at Indy this week has been “computational fluid dynamics” or CFD.  This usage implies that really smart people are using really smart tools to make really smart decisions so there is nothing to worry about.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along.  We have the CFD unit in here to take care of things. With the lack of real-world testing, the series and teams have come to rely on algorithms to solve their aerodynamic problems.  How is that working out?

3.  Speaking of testing, the superspeedway aero kits did not really get much in the real world.  Airplanes are designed on computers and tested with software.  They are then given a rigorous series of real world flight tests, at tremendous risk to the test pilots, to ensure that they act as expected.  If not, then it is back to the drawing board.  As a cost-cutting measure and a way to provide parity in the series, the Verizon IndyCar Series severely limited testing, even with the new aero kits coming on-line.  As an additional monkey wrench, the series mandated holes be cut in the spec Dallara floor to decrease downforce.  In other words, the teams arrived knowing very little about the aero kits and have been allowed to try an insane number of aero combinations.  It has a little Wright Brothers feel to it. “Hey, Orville.  Let’s try this and see what happens!”  Just like airplanes, real testing is a vital component of development and safety.  More testing, please.

4.  The Verizon IndyCar Series certainly made an unpopular but arguably correct decision about qualifications at Indy.  Due to the rainout on Saturday and the continued flight of Chevy cars, teams were required to use their race aero set-ups for qualifying and the extra boost that was to provide a speed kick was taken away. Additionally, teams were only allowed one attempt to qualify.  Basically, the teams were told to take the cars off the knife edge that is the essence of Indy qualifying and make them stable and slower.  And if that didn’t work, then be reminded that you might not make the race if you wreck.  Point taken.  The runs were ho-hum, but the field got filled without incident. Poor Honda, though.  They did nothing wrong and were penalized for it.  And after the series played the safety card, any protest by Honda would be met by accusations that were against safety, freedom, apple pie, and the American way.  They cannot be happy.

5.  Do you need proof that there is power in social media?  After the rain washed out qualifications on Saturday, the IMS Twitter feed was letting patrons know that rain checks for Saturday would not be honored on Sunday, the explanation being that cars were on the track early and practiced.  Of course, the tickets said “Qualifications” in big letters and that did not happen.  Before Twitter, this would have been a non-starter as an issue.  People would have found out as they arrived on Sunday and been disappointed.  It may have made the paper on Monday, but not likely.  Immediately after IMS announced that people had to fork over more money for Sunday, you could feel the anger building on Twitter as more and more people started responding.  IMS felt the love fading and quickly changed its decision.  Power to the people

 

The English Premiere League Indy 500 qualifying

One of the greatest advancements in televised sports in recent years is cable broadcasters falling in love with European sports.  All year, a fan of live sports can crawl out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, and without putting on pants, watch F1 racing, Wimbledon tennis, British Open golf, Tour de France cycling, and English Premiere League soccer.  Truly, my sports cup runneth over.

The Premiere League is particularly interesting since competition is vital at both the top and bottom of the standings, or table, as they say on the broadcasts.  Suddenly, there it was.  The Premiere League soccer season is almost identical to the new Indianapolis 500 qualifying format.  Let me explain.

To rebuild the waning interest in the month of May at Indy, the Speedway in recent years changed from a two weekend window for qualifying to a one weekend format.  Great choice.  The only problem was the car count was so small that the idea of Bump Day and its inherent drama of dreams granted or crushed was really not worth following on national television.  Audiences need action and drama, and hopefully, the new format supplies both.

In the Premiere League, there is no tourney.  Teams play all year to determine a pecking order for entry into other tourneys such as the Champions League and the Europa League.  At the bottom of the table, the three worst teams in the league are relegated, or bumped, into a a lower league while the champions of lower leagues are moved up.  It is just like the new format for the Indy 500.  Once you become acquainted with its esoteric nature (and qualifying at Indy has always been esoteric) you discover why it will work so well.

All day on the Saturday of qualification, the drivers will try to put themselves into the Fast Nine Shootout.  Just like the top teams in the Premiere League, you guarantee yourself a spot in those three rows.  And just like soccer teams playing games all season to put themselves into the Champions League tourney the next year, the drivers have multiple attempts to qualify to put themselves in those top nine spots.  In other words, the teams have great reasons to attempt multiple qualifying runs.  Good for fans in attendance and on TV.

One of the reasons the bottom of the Premiere League table is compelling is because teams are guaranteed a huge payday if they stay in the league.  The final games played by those teams determine if they stay in the league.  The pressure is huge.   Likewise, the bottom three of the Saturday qualifiers at Indy are not assured a spot in the show.  They have to come back on Sunday and go through possible bumping.  With 34 cars this year, that ramps up the pressure.

For the teams in the middle, the real urgency is Saturday, as they try to stay away from the bottom three or get into the top nine.  After that, the pressure on Sunday is not to make a mistake and take a position in row four or five and parlay it into a position in row nine or ten.  It is much easier to pass cars in qualifying at Indy instead of passing them in the race.  Again, Sunday is also a compelling day.  Add to all of this the ability to make multiple attempts without withdrawing your time, and you have the recipe for some sweet qualifying activity.

Still confused?  Check out this infographic courtesy of IMS that explains the whole process.  My only disappointment is that I can no longer compare the old Snake Pit denizens to the crazy fans in the Premiere League.  I miss those Indy hooligans.

 

 

Sibling rivalry: the plight of the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis

People with older siblings understand the story. If your older brother or sister is anything you are not – smart, good-looking, athletic, popular, criminally insane – then you are constantly in the position of being compared, normally unfavorably. You hear the disappointment in every back-handed compliment and outright criticism:

“Those grades are okay.  Not as good as your brother’s, though.”

“Why can’t you take more pride in your appearance and dress like your sister?”

“You know that your brother averaged double figures when he played basketball.”

“Even though he went to prison, your brother was a real genius when it came organizing a distribution network and cooking meth in the barn.”

We have all heard it.  And it hurts.  So welcome to the family Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis!  Your little road race is cute, but look what your big brother built.

That really is the story.  The GP of Indianapolis will always be in the shadow of its older, more successful, and more popular sibling.  And truthfully, not much can be done about it.

I’m a fan of the road race at IMS.  Turn 1 (Turn 4 area on the oval) is exciting as hell.  Unless you are Juan Pablo Montoya, of course.  His quote after this year’s race dealt with a long, fast straight leading into a first gear corner and the expected carnage at the beginning of the race.  Point taken, JPM, although as a counterpoint I would mention that every driver knows that the aforementioned first gear corner is there.  Act accordingly.

The GP of Indy had some great stories.  Graham Rahal’s second place run once again proved that something is different on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.  It must be engineering since having his dad Bobby off the box couldn’t have that big of an effect, right?  A one car team with local sponsor Steak and Shake could add up to a tasty story line for the 500.

Will Power is stamping his dominance on the Verizon IndyCar Series.  He simply put on a show that stated he is all grown up and focused.  Finally.  He is the most dominant road racer in the series.  The oval at IMS remains his white whale, though.  He needs Ahab focus in the next two weeks.  Without the insanity, of course.

Even with these storylines, the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis is still the little brother tagging along for the ride because the parent company Hulman Motorsports said so.  The lengthy shadow cast by its much older brother simply cannot be overcome.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has done a masterful job of taking a month of May that had dwindled to the 500 and a convoluted qualifying weekend with barely enough cars to fill the 33 car field and expanded it to a three weekend month with two IndyCar races on two different courses at IMS sandwiching a convoluted qualifying weekend with barely enough cars to to fill the 33 car field.  Regardless of the attendance, a race with a title sponsor should be making money for the series/facility.

The problem is not the racing at the GP of Indy, nor is it the fact that it is a road race.  The problem is that it is not the Indy 500 and never will be.  Simply put, the big brother is just more popular than the little brother in everyone’s eyes.  Any racing event absolutely depends on local attendance.  While the Indianapolis 500 brings in fans from around the country, the majority of its fans are local.  These locals plan for the event.  They order tickets in advance, host parties, shop for food and beer like its Black Friday, and spend money like drunken sailors on leave.  They do it because the event is the thing.  It’s the Indy 500.  It’s a Midwestern Mardi Gras.  At the end of the month, they sober up and go back to sleep for another year.  They don’t have the love or the money for another event.  Going to a race at IMS is a massive undertaking.

All this leaves the GP of Indy waving its arms in the air and shouting, “Look at me!  Look at me!” to a populace that smiles and pats it on the head telling it how cute it is and then turns its attention to the fair-haired older sibling who always gets the accolades.  Fair it is not, but who said life was fair?  Even though the general admission tickets are an absolute bargain, and the spectator mounds offer sight lines to the best passing zones, the Indy area fans will always love the 500 more.

What does all this mean for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis?  Just keep trying to get everyone’s attention.  There is no need to cause trouble, act out, or start hanging out with unsavory characters.  A younger sibling in this situation has two choices: quit trying or get busy pleasing yourself instead of trying to compete with big brother.  My advice for the GP of Indy is simple.  Be yourself.  Or else spend years of therapy trying to come to grips with your feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.  Your choice.

Spending at the Speedway

The band ’63 Burnout has a song called “Trouble at the Speedway,” a very Dick Dale-ish surf guitar instrumental.  Good stuff.  The title made me ponder some of the current troubles at the Speedway.  Money was one that came to mind immediately.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am all for free enterprise and charging whatever the traffic will bear.  The object of business is, and always has been, profit.  I applaud IMS for finally monetizing everything in sight.  It’s the American way.

For years, IMS was the best value of any major sporting event in the world.  They could afford to be.  The track made money every year by having massive crowds for both Pole Day and Race Day.  Limited and very reasonably priced concession offerings sold well.  The corporation did not own a money-hemorrhaging racing series and simply mowed, painted, and repaired the facility until the next May.  Life was good.  All of the Hulman family had some folding money in their pockets and seats in a convertible for the parade as well as being Midwestern royalty reigning over a rather provincial outpost.  Who could ask for more?

Well, it seems the Speedway tired of being a once a year monument to speed, so they spent money like the lottery winners they were to make IMS a world class venue for other racing.  They erected the Tower Terrace Suites, made a goat ranch into a world class Pete Dye golf course, built a new Pagoda and garages, and added a road course in the middle of the once sacrosanct oval.  With all this building came NASCAR, F1, and the PGA.  The money train was on the tracks and rolling.  At least it was until F1, as it always does, found a better offer, until the golfers moved on, until the blush was off the NASCAR rose and the crowds dwindled, and until the formation of the IRL killed the popularity and profitability of the series and, to some degree, the Indianapolis 500.

There are a couple of different ways to deal with the loss of profitability.  The easiest way is to cut costs as IMS did.  Defer maintenance.  Sell your private jet.  Hire a skeleton crew to run your money-sucking series.  Deny requests to add much needed personnel.  Another way is to apply modern sports business knowledge to the idea of making more money.  Promote the product.  Hire the right people and let them work.  Add events.  Start charging for everything that has value.  This is Indy today.

Want to glamp? It will cost you.  Need preferred parking?  Pay up.  Need video boards?  The tickets cost more.  Hungry for a new cuisine or thirsty for a craft beer?  Pull out your wallet.  Want to watch practice?  Peel off a fin and a sawbuck ($15) for the privilege.  IMS should have marked everything up years ago but held onto the outdated notion of Tony Hulman that the facility and the race were public trusts.  While it is true that the track is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is still a business that needs to profit.  Do you really want to see the patrons howl?  Wait until the Speedway decrees that coolers are no longer welcome as a safety decision.  Talk about a new revenue stream!  And it is right for both safety and profit.  Nothing makes a capitalist happier than being able to justify profit in the name of Homeland Security.  The customers cannot argue.  I’m holding out hope that IMS uses a sponsor to offer a spectacular beer and cooler deal to the fans when the time comes, though.

Get used to it.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to get deep into your pocket for all the right reasons: profit and sustainability.  The old FRAM Oil Filter commercial used to have a mechanic saying, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”  For fans of the Indianapolis 500, later is now.  Pay up.

 

 

Why Indy is more than a race

After winning the Indy 500 in 1992, Al Unser, Jr. said, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”  He was right.  Somehow, words cannot always convey the emotional connection that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has on its fans.

Growing up in central Indiana, it was easy to fall in love with the month of May.  The peonies and lilacs bloomed, the weather warmed, checkered flags appeared in all the newspaper ads, and the Indy 500 took place on Memorial Day.  The topics of conversation were how the rain was affecting the farmers and who was going fast at the track.  And it was always “the track.”  No more needed to be said.

The Indy 500 was the only race that registered on the national consciousness. Sorry, Daytona.  You are a more recent icon.  Some of the long-time Indy 500 fans’ bitterness toward stock car nation is how it has eclipsed not IndyCar racing, but the Indy 500 itself.  No one wants to see his idol tarnished.  And after the IRL split from CART, the Indy 500 lost some of its luster and has been trying to burnish its image ever since.

Of course, to those of us locals, the image never lost its shine.  The edifice always stood at 16th and Georgetown, and we could visit it anytime.  It dominated the sports scene in Indy.  Much of the world woke up to Indianapolis on Memorial Day, but the true believers celebrated the entire month.  Students skipped school to watch practice.  You always went to at least one of the four days of qualifications even if you did not go to the race.  It was headline news in both local Indianapolis papers all month, and all of the local TV stations devoted coverage to the race.  It seemed that every business had a promotion connected to racing and checkered flags.  Simply put, May in Indy was the 500.  There was no escaping.

The result was that you became a fan of something that was yours in some indefinable way.  Central Indiana, for all of its Chamber of Commerce PR, really had nothing else of note to brag about.  It was always a little stunning to realize that this world class racing event was just down the street.  To be honest, most Indy 500 fans in Indiana cannot tell you the history of IndyCar, the IRL, or CART.  Those are just names.  But ask them about Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, or Helio Castroneves and they will tell you all about where they were and what they were doing while they watched or listened to the race.  The 500 is part of the fabric of Hoosier existence, the warp and the weft of our lives.

In the age of social media with its immediacy of opinions, fans of the 500 often find themselves at odds with out-of-state or series-first fans who object to the hagiography that builds up around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  These fans often allude to to fact that it is just another race.  It is most assuredly not.  It is a time marker, a cultural touchstone, and a crown jewel to its Indiana fans.  All good race fans have their favorite stories about the month, the track, and the race.  Even its detractors have their stories about why they don’t like it.

Hoosiers, despite recent adverse political publicity, are a friendly and accepting lot, and completely understand why people wish, if only for one month, that they could be one of us.  While we cannot always wax poetic about it, we know that Indy is more than a race.  Just ask us.

 

Five Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Edition

At times, my WO’s (worthless opinions) can run to sarcasm.  Surprising, I know.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series  always seems to offer snark fodder in abundance.  At previous races this year, the fragile front wings, racing in the rain, and rules interpretations have made it easy for one so inclined.  The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park changed most of that.  While not snark free, most of these WO’s celebrate a great race.

1.  All-American Finish: Josef Newgarden winning is a big deal for many reasons.  A compelling storyline to recent Verizon IndyCar Series seasons is the lack of a marketable American drivers for a North American series.  F1, noted for drivers from around the world, is a truly international series with venues around the world.  The IndyCar series is not.  The international drivers in IndyCar are outstanding, but without sounding all jingoistic about it, having a young, well-spoken, and telegenic American cannot hurt the marketability of the series.  If the series chooses to market him, of course.  They had American Ryan Hunter-Reay as both series champ and Indy 500 winner, and it would be hard to say they capitalized on that.

2.  The Racing: Newgarden and his Chevy were racy from the start, passing Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power to grab the lead from a fifth place start.  It was the kind of start that had fans using body English to help the drivers maneuver through traffic.  Graham Rahal’s run in his Honda to second after a late fuel stop had fans watching two strategies at once: Newgarden’s slow-paced fuel saving in his Chevy versus Rahal’s hanging-it-out after stopping for fuel near the end.  Fans could actually see the interval decreasing by seconds per lap.  And while Newgarden’s early passes were scintillating, Rahal’s outside passes throughout the race were equally spectacular.  Great stuff.

3.  Lack of Idiocy/Penalties/Yellows:  It was almost life affirming to not see carbon fiber flotsam and jetsam strewn around the track on the first lap.  The racing was tight and, for the most part, clean.  For the second race in a row, yellow flag racing was at a minimum.  Of course, the last two races simply balanced out the first two in the green/yellow ratio.  We’ll see where it goes from here.  It goes without saying that no Verizon IndyCar Series race is complete without grousing and complaining from drivers and teams about the officiating.  Both Sebastien Bourdais and Stefano Colleti took exception to yellow flags causing them personal hardship.  Juan Pablo Montoya took umbrage at Rodolfo Gonzalez slowing him down.  James Hinchcliffe was upset with Rahal’s line through the turns.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is still upset about NOLA and sees inconsistency everywhere. And of course, everyone complained about Francesco Dracone’s pace.  The reality was that Race Control penalized some, drivers, warned others, and called nothing in other situations.  It’s like calling holding in the NFL.  An official can do it every play.  You can’t call it all in racing, either, no matter how much the drivers whine and complain.

4.  Success of CFH Racing and RLL Racing: Back at the top of the podium, the success of Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing over Penske and Ganassi bodes well for the sport and the team.  The same holds true for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, too.  The smaller teams in the series need success to bolster their bottom lines when it comes to sponsorship.  While Ed Carpenter has Fuzzy’s Vodka for he and Luca Filippi in their ride share, a win can go a long way to help Sarah Fisher land a season-long sponsorship for Josef Newgarden.  Graham Rahal’s second place finish sure put sponsor Steak and Shake in the spotlight.  And Rahal, ever the shill for his sponsors, tweeted after the race that he might stop in for a shake on his way home.

5.  Big Mo Heading to Indy: There must be something to momentum in sports.  Every announcer, coach, and player in every sport talks about its value.  If that’s true, then the month of May in Indy could be interesting.  Chevy certainly has engine and aero kit momentum.  They are the class of the field.  Penske has some, too.  The team has every driver in the top nine in the standings with Montoya and Castroneves running first and second.  The Ganassi boys are coming on, particularly after Long Beach.  With Newgarden and Rahal riding their Barber success, this might be the year for an underdog winner at the 500.  And don’t forget about the invisible man, Ed Carpenter.  He knows Indy.  The greatest beneficiary of momentum has to be the Verizon IndyCar Series.  After the aero growing pains of St. Pete and the weather woes of NOLA, the series seems to be finding its groove.

All in all, it was a most excellent race.  Let’s hope it sets the tone for a most excellent month of May in Indy.

Five Worthless Opinions: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Edition

What more could the Verizon IndyCar Series ask of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach?  They had beautiful weather, tremendous crowds all weekend, and almost non-stop track action throughout the three days.  After the debris debacle in St. Pete and the weather worries in NOLA, the series had everything they needed…except an exciting race.  I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but woof.  This was an ugly race in a totally different way than the the first two.  Here are five totally worthless opinions about why that is true.

1.  The Start: The new sheriffs (plural) in race control decided that since all the cars were on the track at the same time, it was close enough to perfect for a green flag start.  That’s one way to keep poor driver decision making at bay.  Long Beach has always been a difficult start for the series with the hairpin at the beginning of the front stretch and antsy leaders like Helio Castroneves refusing to wait for the pack to form up.  Helio simply decided that since he was ready to go, everyone should be ready to go.  Race control appeared to take the public employees’ mantra of “Close enough for government work” to heart and turned a blind eye to prevent mayhem.  Maybe it was a good choice.  Maybe not.  Two words: standing start.  That shouldn’t be hard for the most versatile drivers in the world, should it?

2.  Debris Free: The drivers did behave themselves, though.  There was only one yellow for four laps.  Deep down in my heart, I want that to be because of their innate respect for each other and superior driving skills.  The more likely scenario is that they don’t have enough spare parts to replace the glass-like front wings and box kite-like rear bumpers.  The lack of yellows for wing debris is an absolute positive.  Drivers being unable or unwilling to force an issue or dive bomb a pass due to the fragility of the wings is not.

3.  No Passing:  A big part of the no-passing issue at Long Beach was the tenderness of the wings.  The drivers know that damage to a wing, winglet, flick, or kick can ruin an otherwise great day.  Another part of the problem was all the dirty air that the Honda and Chevy aero kits produced.  The end of the race had the four cars of Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, and Sebatien Bourdais nose-to-tail for positions three through six.  Not one attempt to pass was made.  Maybe I’m reading too much into this.  Maybe the drivers, hard chargers all, simply decided to points race since race winner Scott Dixon was long gone for the victory.  Maybe.  Last year there would would have been a tussle, a nudge, a bomb, and some harsh words after the race.  Some passing attempts would be nice, though.

4.  Strategy: This was a strategy race.  Drivers needed good in-laps, out-laps, and pit decisions.  Helio Castroneves lost the lead to Scott Dixon, and likely the race, when his left front tire changer wisely held him up as Tony Kanaan was pulling into his pit stall directly in front of Castroneves.  The human factor of pit road service and decisions is and should be part of a driver winning or losing a race.  I’m not sure I want it to be the only reason a race is won or lost.  That may have been the case at Long Beach.

5.  Dominance: Must be nice to have a Chevy engine so you can have a Chevy aero kit.  There’s a chance that the oval configuration may be different for Honda, but the road and street circuits are Chevy’s playground, the fuel strategy win of James Hinchcliffe in a Honda at NOLA notwithstanding.  Will the fans, and the Honda teams, be longing for the halcyon days of parity that the DW12 spec aero kit provided?  The first seven positions were Chevy and the first five were Ganassi and Penske.  As The Who sang many years ago, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

The negatives did not exactly outweigh the positives at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.  In fact, some might say that the esoteric nature of strategy and aero made a race like Long Beach sublime.  Tell those esoterics that IndyCar isn’t soccer.  I hope.

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