New Track Record

Indy Car Blog

Adios, ovals. It’s been good to know you.

History is replete with species that didn’t make it:  the passenger pigeon, the dodo, Dragon Racing.  You can add ovals other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series to the list of auto racing endangered species.  And like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Dragon Racing, the reasons for the potential demise are human .

Automobile oval racing is inherently an American product.  The county and state fairgrounds’ horse tracks allowed racing to be brought to the masses.  Indianapolis may have received the publicity, but oval racing came of age on dirt all across the country.  As for-profit board tracks and dirt ovals started popping up, fans had accessible and entertaining racing.  Life was good for many years.

But dirt gave way to pavement.  It was faster, cleaner, and modern.  Fans flocked to see the stars of their day drive in circles in open-wheel race cars.  The modern rear-engined IndyCar has its roots in F1 and road courses, but they were also designed for ovals.  The specs of the two series diverged.

The current DW12 is a robust beast that handles road and street courses well and is extremely competitive on ovals if the series gets the aerodynamic rules right for a particular track.  Let’s face it; it was designed for Indianapolis.  Even de-tuned, it is close enough to as fast as anyone wants to go there.  Recent Indy 500’s have had edge-of-your-seat racing and piss-your-pants passing.  That’s good, right?

Well, with that kind of action, why are ovals drying up like autumn leaves in October?  We can rehash the old reasons like the stubbornness of CART, the willfulness of Tony George, the ascendancy of NASCAR, and the ineptness of IndyCar management.  All are true, to one degree or another, and have led us to this point.  This point being one where no one wants to host and promote an oval and, apparently, no one wants to watch a race on one either.

People want to be entertained.  IndyCar may have the best on-track product of any major racing series, but they do not put on much of a show at an oval.  A road or street course will have on-track action throughout a weekend with the likes of three Mazda Road to Indy series, the Pirelli World Challenge, the Tudor Series, and Robbie Gordon’s Stadium Trucks as well as a circus-like atmosphere at street courses.  Indianapolis gets away with race day because of the tradition, pageantry, and debauchery, but even Indy has lost the shine on qualification weekend.

The Indy 500 is moving in the right direction, though.  Concerts and glamping helped this year.  Other venues need to follow suit, and the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to help.  Promoters are treating ovals like the toxic money-loss that they are.  IndyCar needs to pack up its own circus, support series, and musical performances and take them on the road.  Once an oval is popular and profitable, the series can wring more money for its services or allow the promoter to do his or her own thing.

If the series really wants ovals on the schedule, it has to do something.  If a business has a supply that no one want, they need to manufacture the demand.  That’s promotion.  IndyCar has made a big splash with its recent hires and series sponsorship. Now it needs to perform.

William Shakespeare wrote that “What’s past is prologue.”¹  If you don’t mind a moment of existentialism², we are always in THIS moment.  There is no other.  It doesn’t matter what brought ovals here, it only matters what the series does now to save a vanishing breed.  Let’s hope they find them worth saving.

 

1.  The quote is from The Tempest.  In the play, it helps justify murder.  That seems excessive.  I’m just looking for a little promotional help from the series.

2.   existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.  I think IndyCar fans should have a strong vocabulary.  It makes it easier to insult NASCAR fans and run away before they figure it out.

 

 

 

The Long Goodbye of IndyCar

In Raymond Chandler’s famous detective novel The Long Goodbye, the hero Philip Marlowe must navigate a labyrinth of events, accusations, murders, lies, and betrayals to somehow arrive at a truth that both surprises and stuns.  I can only think that Hulman Motorsports potentate Mark Miles must feel like Philip Marlowe as he tries to make sense of and explain what happens now as the IndyCar season goes dark for a few months.

Or maybe it’s the fans who are channeling Philip Marlowe.  They also have a few questions that need to be answered.  Is the first race really in St. Petersburg on March 29, or will the series pop up in Dubai or Brazil before then?  Will there be a race in Canada next year or not?  Will the empty grandstands in Fontana still bask in the heat of late summer?  Will we soon find out who is going to direct the races now that Beaux Barfield has found greener pastures.  Let’s take look at a few clues.

Clue #1: Mark Miles has been public regarding both Dubai and Brazil.  Let’s hope he doesn’t fall into the trap of his predecessor by being too public and suddenly losing a race like Randy Bernard and China.  Miles seems much too savvy to have that happen.  We hope.  A series with good news regarding ratings increases and sponsors climbing on board needs to continue saying good things.  Every day a race is not announced in those locations is worrisome.  The series needs TV time and sanctioning fees.

Clue #2: The old saying “You can’t fight city hall” is nowhere more evident than in Toronto.  Someone wanted the Pan-Am Games and got them.  It is a feather in the city’s cap and anything in the way had to get out of the way.  Will the series go to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport) for a year before returning? Both Honda of Canada and Target have strong financial reasons to stay.  Hopefully, that’s enough to keep a race on the calendar somewhere next year before moving back to Toronto.  The old adage “Out of sight, out of mind” is a little worrisome, though.

Clue #3: The series is making money!  Granted, adding a race and a concert at Indy helped, but they MADE MONEY.  Complain as we will, the short season helped make the series solvent for the first time in a long time.  With all the talk about making the fans happy, the series better make sure the board at Hulman & Co. is happy first.  Expect very similar things next year.  We will be saying adios in September once again.  The changes will be incremental.  The sponsors want consistency and sustainability.

Clue #4:  The TV ratings are up!  Whatever that means.  The ritual bloodletting at the end of the IndyCar season always has one camp intoning that the ratings prove that the road to hell is paved with TV’s not tuned to IndyCar while the other camp sees salvation through increases in some statistic.  I’m not a statistician;  I have no idea what is proven one way or the other.  What I do know is that CBS CEO Les Moonves was recently quoted as saying, “Overnight ratings are virtually irrelevant now.”  Whatever that means.  Statistics are designed to tell people what they want to know.  I trust smart people both design and interpret these ratings.  It is not just eyeballs, but whose eyeballs that matter.  It is not important what I think of the ratings or what any other peon thinks of the ratings.  They are above our pay grade.

Clue #5:  The Verizon IndyCar Series has a new survey up seeking to determine the type of fans that watch IndyCar and how they perceive it as compared to other sports.  At least the series is actively gathering information.  The only deep sigh I had was when lacrosse was mentioned as one of the competing sports.  Please tell me this was misdirection.  Please.  You can take the survey here: IndyCar Survey.  Do it right now.  There’s even a section where you can leave comments.  It is a hater’s dream.

The series will survive.  Post-season negativity and criticism is endemic to IndyCar, and while irritating, it doesn’t really affect anything. As always, haters will hate.  It is their right, no matter how misdirected.  In any case, at least someone is talking about IndyCar. Even though we don’t know exactly how many races will be run or where they will be racing, rest assured that the checkered flag will fall.  After much cogitation, the solution to the mystery of the offseason is obvious: it is Mark Miles at 16th and Georgetown with a fistful of money.

 

Ten Worthless Opinions: Auto Club Speedway MAVTV 500 Edition

What better way to end the Verizon IndyCar Series than with a season-ending Ten WO’s (worthless opinions).  Some might think the better way to end the season was watching the actual race, but what do the fans know?  Don’t waste your time forming your own opinions.  In the truly modern American way, let an uniformed, totally biased, on-line media blogger masquerading as a mainstream journalist do it for you.  Here you go:

1.  How about a slow clap for Will Power?  He outdistanced his own racing demons to finally win a Verizon IndyCar Series championship.  No drive-through penalties, no overly optimistic passes, no gestures, no shoulder shrugs, just flat out badassery.  His passes on the late restart should become legend.  He only eased back on the throttle when teammate Helio Castroneves  took himself out of contention with an ill-timed penalty.  His post race interview as he exited his car really showed the pressure he was under to finally get it done.  He had nothing left.  Good on ya’, Will.

2.  Speaking of Will Power, his brother Damien, a comedian in Australia, live tweeted during the race.  Not sure how much was planned or how much was spontaneous, but it certainly was entertaining.  You can check it out at @DamienPower01 on Twitter.  He may or may not have been drunk.  The jury is still out.

3.   Yin requires Yang.  You can’t speak of the tortured artist Will Power without mentioning the effervescent Helio Castroneves, a gracious and positive championship loser once again.  It seems Power’s late season luck has been passed on to Helio.  His adventure above the pit-in blend line that resulted in a penalty took him out of the championship picture.  A word of advice: remember Lloyd Braun from the Seinfeld series.  His mantra was “Serenity now.”  That’s Helio, but he needs to know it’s okay to vent.  Lloyd Braun changed his motto to “Serenity now, insanity later” when he realized holding all that bad juju in was not a good idea.  Let it out, Helio!

4.  If you didn’t see it coming, Penske Racing is back with a vengeance.  Even though the teams are still making some in-race mistakes such as putting more front wing in for Power instead of taking it out, the triumvirate of Power, Castroneves, and a strangely upbeat and personable Juan Pablo Montoya may be set up to dominate next year.  Scary.

5.  I am sure that the schadenfreude fans of all sports who live in the Pacific Time Zone feel in the angst of the Eastern Time Zone fans who had to stay up until 1:30 AM to see the post race on NBCSN was sweet.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Now go back to watching the NFL at 10:00 AM on Sundays.  And enjoy F1 and the Premier League at 4:00 AM.  Seriously, did the late time really hurt viewership?  Since only hard-core fans watch on TV anyway, the numbers might surprise.

6.  Should IndyCar continue at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana?  Only if you like good racing.  Not many cars but there was passing, tire performance falling off, and enough OMG moments to keep it interesting.  Although the prerace activities on the concrete and asphalt were beyond hot, the race was run with the sun down.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to be here.  Big ovals are a dying breed in the series.  This one in the California racing market is worth saving.

7.  A negative for the series on big ovals is car count.  Twenty-one cars on a big track looks like ten.  Indy will never be a problem, but Pocono and Fontana need more cars and more on track action.  It may not look empty on TV, but it sure does in person.  And for the big ovals like Pocono and Fontana to survive, they need people in the stands and suites to make a profit for the promoters.  Fontana is lucky to have MAVTV signed for a few more years.  If they didn’t, this race would be gone.  Pocono needs that sort of sponsor security, too.

8.  The Dallara DW12 is a beast.  Not only is it a great race car generally, it’s a great race car specifically.  In both road/street and oval configurations it is racy.  If that is not enough, it protects the drivers.  Mikhail Aleshin’s wreck was as nasty as they come, a fence-ripping, chassis-shearing shunt that proved once again that form follows function.  Build it to be safe then build it to be fast.  Dallara has my respect as does, in retrospect, the ICONIC committee that chose it.

9.  Enough cannot be said about the Holmatro Safety Team in the Verizon IndyCar Series.  They were at the Aleshin accident before the cars stopped moving.  They are the best in the racing business, the gold standard.  No one else comes close.  Additionally, a hat must be tipped to Hulman Motorsports and the Verizon IndyCar Series for continuing to fund this vital piece of each race.  In a time when corporate cost-cutting is the number one way to increase the bottom line, they put safety over profit.  My utmost respect to both the Holmatro Safety Team and Hulman Motorsports for a dedication to doing what is right.

10.  With all its shortcomings regarding a short season, TV ratings, large oval problems, street race comings and goings, and road course disinterest, the Verizon IndyCar Series, week in and week out, puts on the best show in auto racing on the planet.  The product is there.  It’s up to the suits in corporate to have the vision and to execute the plan to sell it.  Everyone else is getting the job done.  Even though the off-season for the series is lengthy, it is an important one for the future of the series.  Your move, bosses.

 

 

 

Strategy, fine wine, and the Go-Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma

The 6.0 Napa Valley earthquake Sunday morning stole the headlines from the exciting Verizon IndyCar Series Go-Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma.  Okay, that may have been sarcastic.  Other than in the San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star, the race, earthquake or not, likely garnered only sidebar status.  Even though the race had no earth-shaking outcome, it was an example of all that’s right with the current iteration of the series.

That’s right, it was a great race – another example of how the caliber of drivers, the equivalency of the equipment, and the diversity of venues makes the Verizon IndyCar Series the most compelling racing in the world right now.  The 2014 vintage of the race will be remembered as a very tasty one.

It’s agreed that the lack of team development of chassis and motors means that the rock star teams of Ganassi, Penske, and Andretti can’t just out-engineer everyone else.  Graham Rahal and Mike Conway, both driving for one-car teams, managed to find their way to the lead, not through aerodynamic artistry or detailed engineering skills, but through strategy and driving skill.  Isn’t that what the series and fans want?

Even strategy savant Mike Hull of Chip Ganassi Racing noted that there were so many teams on so many strategies that it was difficult to keep track.  The days of racing a stock-block engine until it blows are over forever.  These motors last, and everyone has one.  While not to everyone’s taste, strategy in racing is so much more compelling than watching the big teams win every race just because they can.  And yes, there’s a certain irony that Will Power and Helio Castroneves of Team Penske are battling for the championship, seemingly negating the anyone-can-win concept.  Anyone-can-win-any-race may be the more appropriate interpretation.  The championship rewards consistently high performance over time.  You can buy that with personnel.

Passing for position on track happened all race.  The first lap kerfuffle involving Helio Castroneves completely changed strategy for many teams.  In auto racing today, the term “strategy” is shorthand for “saving fuel” which usually means the track becoming a no-passing zone.  With so many teams on so many strategies at Sonoma, some were holding station and some were on the move.  Mike Conway’s outside pass of Tony Kanaan up the hill in Turn 2 was scintillating, as was Scott Dixon’s pass of Mike Conway at the same place for the lead and the win.  Conway and Graham Rahal were victims of their own fuel strategies when a hoped for late caution never materialized.  As so often happens, Scott Dixon managed his fuel until it was time to race.

Fuel saving has become the antithesis to great racing for many.  Bulletin: ALL racing requires fuel saving to some degree or another.  Those that use this strategy the best win; those that don’t lose.  Rahal and Conway took a chance and lost.  Next time it may work out for them.  The cognoscenti of auto racing appreciate whatever strategy is employed, whether it is fuel, tires, passing, or the timing of a pit stop.  What is great about IndyCar racing is that ovals, street courses, and natural terrain road courses all have their own strategic quirks.  Discerning fans notice these nuances and appreciate them; many casual fans just yell for pack racing and wrecks.

Do casual fans need to be educated about strategy on television and at the track?  Sure, and that is on the series and the broadcasters.  Appreciating the fine wine bottled in the Sonoma Valley takes a little time, knowledge, and effort from the consumers.  It takes the same things for the fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series to appreciate what they have.  So pull out a cork, pour a glass, and start tasting the Verizon IndyCar Series.  You will notice hints of ethanol, rubber, and suntan lotion on your palate.  It is delicious.

In defense of IndyCar Race Control

In recent days, IndyCar race control has been low-hanging fruit as far as finding something to disparage about the Verizon IndyCar Series.  In Toronto, the main criticism really wasn’t whether to run in the rain or not, it was the apparent waffling on the subject. The cars were on the track.  They were off.  The race started.  No, it didn’t.  You guys can start in your regular positions.  No, you have to go to the back.  You guys cannot work on your car, but you guys can.  Yikes.  Perception does become reality to many people.  The problem is that perception is often not reality.

I don’t pretend to have any special insight into IndyCar race control, but I do know a little something about officiating.  Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time race control gores your particular ox.

1.  You can’t call it all.  In the NFL, officials can call holding on every play.  They don’t do it because they know better.  If they did, then new officials would be hired.  Like water, the game finds its own level where the players and officials understand what is acceptable.  Racing is the same.  You can’t call everything because every pass, every defensive move, every decision could be seen as violating some rule.  You officiate the spirit of the rule. No harm, no foul.

2.  Owners and team managers, like coaches, don’t really know the rules very well.  Exceptions like Dale Coyne notwithstanding, owners and team managers think they know the rules.  Ask any official in any sport if most coaches get deep in the rulebook.  They don’t.  And that’s too bad, since knowledge of the rules can benefit you like working under red flag conditions truly benefited Sarah Fisher at Toronto.  Never assume the owners know what they are talking about.

3.  Don’t trust the announcers.  The only ones who know less about the rules than the owners are talking heads and ex-drivers.  The ex-drivers knew some of the rules when they drove, but I can guarantee that they only quote the rulebook when someone points out the rule to them.

4.  Let’s talk ox goring again, shall we.  Any official’s worst nightmare is the coach or player who wants every violation called on every play.  They never shut up.  Of course, they never want the same thing called on them.  Not mentioning any names, but IndyCar is full of drivers who see the world as against them all the time.  According to them, they are always innocent and everyone else is always guilty.  Be honest, how many drivers and owners came to mind?  More than one, right?

5.  No official sees it all.  Instant replay and slow motion have ruined the integrity of officiating in all sports.  We no longer trust the officials to get it right.  Actions take place at full speed in any sport, and that full speed in IndyCar renders real-time calls almost impossible.  I don’t care how many cameras IndyCar has, the crew in race control will never see everything.  Never.  A basic rule in officiating is to call it, you must first see it.  Guessing is not allowed.  When you add the idea of intent, then you have opened yourself up to second guessing from people who neither know the rules or are capable of interpreting them.

6.  One problem in racing is that decisions are often reached by committee.  Beaux Barfield may make the call, but he has input from the other stewards.  This is not a criticism of the decision makers; it’s an acknowledgement of the difficulty of reaching a consensus decision.  Having multiple voices in race control is endemic to auto racing, so there’s no changing it.  It also offers a little protection for the derriere.  And that’s important.  Officials need to believe they can call them like they see them.

7.  Officials can’t fight back.  Derrick Walker, other than an occasional ill-timed presser, has been solidly in race control’s corner.  His defense of the decisions made by Beaux and the boys goes a long way to silencing the critics.  Nothing is easier than sniping the decisions of an official.  The series needs to zip the lips of the teams in this regard.  You don’t see much official disparaging in the NCAA, NFL, NHL, or NASCAR because the league punishes this quickly and strongly.  Don’t allow the pot-stirring.

So cut the boys in race control some slack.  Whether you like the job they do or not, they are going to continue to call ‘em as they see ‘em.  As they should.

The Honda Indy Toronto: Red Flag Edition

Who knew there would be so much angst over a piece of red fabric.  The red flag flew on Saturday and Sunday at the Honda Indy Toronto multiple times amidst accusations, confusions, rain, wrecks, and A.J. Foyt sarcasm.  It was the current incarnation of IndyCar at its finest.

Red Flag #1: The first attempt at a start on Saturday was simply cars taking a few laps to determine that there was too much spray.  The standing start was aborted and the red flag flew.  So far, so good, other than the fact the fans have been led to believe that the series really does race in the rain.  Keep in mind that it was not a deluge, just steady wetness.  Big question: Is the Firestone rain tire a true full rain tire or is it simply an intermediate tire masquerading as a full rain tire? Just asking.  Does it design create the spray seen at Toronto or does it mitigate it?  Again, just asking.

Red Flag #2: Another attempt is aborted when Ryan Briscoe sticks his nose into the tires.  The question arises again:  Are the Firestone rain tires really full rain tires?  You might even ask about the tires on the Honda Accord safety car* since Arie Luyendyk took it for a slow spin going into Turn 3 on the next lap.  Apparently, it had slicks for better grip.  Oops.  Finally, a start kind of took place with Will Power tagging the wall.  This led to many people seeing red.

The rules are clear: you cannot work on a car under red flag conditions.  After Will Power’s wreck, Team Penske took the car behind the wall and began repairs.  Other teams, according to Michael Andretti, were apparently prevented from working on their cars on pit lane.  What’s the rule?  According to Race Control, the race never started, so repairs could be made.  A.J. Foyt used sarcasm as opposed to profanity to question this by saying he’s not too old to learn new rules.  Classic stuff.

Red Flag #3:  This is a metaphorical red flag.  It was not waved but is there nonetheless.  Toronto exposed a communication issue between the teams and Race Control.  This is not to say that the race should have been run on Saturday, or that the teams should or should not have been able to work on their cars.  The truth is most fans don’t care.  The red flag here is that teams seemingly did not know what the hell was going on.  A paddock is a loose society of equals.  When one team is seen to be given a boon or an exception to rules, everyone else will be angry and loud.  That is when the nit-picking, accusations, and sarcasm finds its way onto the TV and into the paper.

Red Flag #4:  Once again, this is a metaphorical red flag.  Who is in charge of the message at the Verizon IndyCar Series?  Certainly Derrick Walker is in charge of the message to the teams (see above).  Beaux Barfield and his team are in charge of the in-race calls, but Walker is in charge of quelling any insurrections resulting from these calls.  The anger in the pits made good TV, but it did not make the series look like it had control of the situation.

Who is in charge of the message Derrick Walker sends when he gives an impromptu press conference explaining the red flags, the rain, and the reasons behind the decisions?  In his interview Saturday, it seemed like he was speaking in tongues; it sounded like it made sense, but it really didn’t.  At what point is someone from C.J. O’Donnell’s shop in charge of messages that emanate from the series?  Just wondering if the new regime at Hulman Motorsports/IndyCar is still staking out turf.

Red Flag #5:  Real red flag this time.  In race one on Sunday morning, a pile-up on the first lap brought the field to a stop.  Good call since the track was blocked and much clean-up was required.  Teams were not allowed to work on cars this time since the race had actually started, so the red flag rules were followed, but Dale Coyne, the master of the rulebook, found a loophole.  A team working on its car can be penalized a minimum of 20 seconds.  Robin Miller, pit lane reporter/activist/consultant/pot-stirrer, relayed Coyne’s info to Sara Fisher, who decided to take the penalty and use the time to repair Josef Newgarden’s car.  It was a great call as Newgarden advanced to challenge for a top ten finish until a burst of optimism put him off at Turn 3.  The official IndyCar box score shows a drive-through penalty for the 67 for “entering a closed pit,” so I’m not sure whether to believe my eyes or the box score.  In any case, a red flag win for SFHR.

Red Flag #6: Once again, this was a real red flag.  Race Control chose to throw the red flag on lap 51 of what was a timed race.  The red enabled the series to stop the clock.  Yes, I said stop the clock on a timed race.  No problem here with the decision, but teams who were on tire strategies that had them in the lead, such as Dale Coyne Racing with Justin Wilson, certainly had their strategies changed by IndyCar finessing the rulebook to ensure a chance at a green flag finish.  If red flags at the end of races are going to be used to create a green flag finish, then the rule needs to be codified and propagated.  When the series appears to make up rules as it goes, that perception becomes the de facto reality.

The two races at the Honda Indy Toronto once again had small teams on the podium with KV Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Mike Conway hoisting the champions’ trophies.  That’s green flag all the way in my book.  But I have to wave my own red flag at the Verizon IndyCar Series for “failure to communicate with the real race control.”  And all the fans who buy the tickets handle the TV remotes are the real race control.

___________________________________________________________

*  Okay, before people knee-jerk about whether it’s a “pace car” or a “safety car,” let me explain.  At the Indy 500, it’s an “official pace car.”  People pay to have their car called that.  It’s a big deal.  In the rule book, the term is “safety car.”  Technically, even at the Indy 500, it’s a “safety car.”  I don’t know.  I just write what seems correct at the time.

 

Ovalistas, where are you?

Yankee baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ‘em.” This convoluted philosophy is exactly what the Verizon IndyCar Series is fighting at all ovals on the schedule that are not the Indianapolis 500.  Ovals in the series are on life-support, and whether the fans or the series like it, the economic concept of supply and demand will have its way.

Other than Indianapolis and Iowa, the ovals suffer from woeful attendance issues.  The series, trying to appease what seems to be a very small but VERY vocal minority of fans, has worked diligently to add ovals to the menu.  For all I know, all of the oval fans may be going to the races.  It doesn’t seem that there are very many of us left.  In any case, it is not enough.

The ovals all have their own unique issues.  With Texas and Fontana, the heat is oppressive.  Unless you are absolutely hard-core, it’s easier to stay in the air-conditioning and watch on TV.  Milwaukee lost its prime schedule real estate when Roger Penske demanded and received the week after Indy slot and the accompanying momentum and ABC network broadcast.  Pocono, while being in driving distance of East Coast fans, soon discovered that there don’t seem to be many fans in those locations who want to venture into the mountains on an already crowded and expensive 4th of July weekend.  Iowa Speedway, even though the crowd has remained steady, is now owned by NASCAR, a series with a history of showing very little love to IndyCar.  Many of the venues suffer from lack of on-track activity before the race.  And with the economy often limiting fans to attending fewer events, even the Indianapolis 500 is in competition with Milwaukee and Pocono.

Another problem, reminiscent of being and F1 fan, is that watching ovals has become a somewhat esoteric activity.  You need to be an oval fan to understand and appreciate oval races.  Pocono, from my perspective, was a great oval race.  Strategies were in place to save fuel, leading to Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden being in front with the laps dwindling down.  Pit service had to be spot or you dropped back.  The low-banked and long corners created edge-of-your-seat racing that was incredibly fast and edgy in person but did not necessarily translate to television.  Fuel saving at Pocono, while a strategy, created a holding station situation for the drivers.  Saving fuel meant that there was very little racing for position until the end of the race.  The longer the race went without a yellow flag, the slower the cars went and the more they strung out.  Like it or not, these are the types of strategies that go with oval racing.  With just one yellow flag, the cars never had a chance to restart and race hard.  The one time they did led to an OMG moment as the pack hurtled toward the first turn with Will Power continuing his turn to a heel by blocking teammate Helio Castroneves.  It was a scintillating racing moment.  You just had to be a fan willing to wait over 400 miles for it.

Brandon Igdalsky rattled his saber the week before the race because of low ticket sales.  Unlike promoters such as Eddie Gossage at Texas, who enjoys taking public shots at the Verizon IndyCar Series and its drivers, Igdalsky called out the fans by pointing out that he added IndyCar because research showed that the fans wanted it.  Basically, he told the fans to put up or shut up.  And that’s where the oval fans in IndyCar are right now.  Hopefully, Iowa Speedway is packed for the Iowa Corn 300.  If not, then it may be time to shut up about how many ovals are on the schedule.  Of all the things that Yogi Berra misspoke, I certainly hope the following becomes true about IndyCar ovals: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

 

Spec racing in IndyCar: long live the spec!

Love it or hate it, spec racing is now part and parcel of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and that is a good thing.  This particular view will be met with pitchforks and torches from many segments of the IndyCar universe, but like street races, it’s here for the foreseeable future.

What I am NOT saying is that open development of chassis, motors, aero, and other parts is bad for racing.  It’s not.  The COST of this development is bad for the racing business in today’s economy.  Want proof that economic warfare in racing is bad news?  Look at F1.  IndyCar has a vested interest in keeping costs down and has done so in a way that benefits the most people.

The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston was a great example of what the parity in spec racing gives the fans.  Parity equals better racing.  Better racing SHOULD equal more fans at the race or viewers on television in the future.  The Jack Hawksworth/Juan Pablo Montoya battle was the scintillating example of big racing small and small coming out on top.  Fans should love this action.

The winners at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, Carlos Huertas of Dale Coyne Racing and Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports are the beneficiaries of this parity.  While it is hard to argue that SPH is small, it is certainly not of the size of the Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti operations.  They can compete precisely because the spec gives them parity of equipment.  Now the differences are drivers, pit deltas, and strategy, and none of those areas are affected by the car’s specifications.  In the Saturday race at NRG Park, Dale Coyne won with strategy, not money.  Toss in the Sunday podium of Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin from Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports and Jack Hawksworth from Bryan Herta Autosport, and you have the poster for what is right about the current formula in IndyCar: cost containment and development restrictions that lead to all the teams on the grid being competitive.

Of course, not everyone in the IndyCar universe is happy about spec racing.  Certainly many fans champion unlimited spending and unlimited regulation that allows the richest teams to dominate the sport with research and development.  That’s one way to look at it.  Bankrupt the small guys or force them to race for the mid-pack/backmarker trophy.  The bigger teams, who demanded cost containment, only wanted costs contained if their ability to develop/fabricate/source certain parts that gave them an advantage was unfettered.  With the old Dallara chassis, the shops of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti were able to use their expertise and money to shave tenths and hundredths from lap times, and in an age when the rest of the car was the same, that was enough to dominate.  Other than shocks, the teams can no longer develop parts to find an edge.  Parity on the track is the result.

In Houston, Mike Hull complained of a spec part failing on Scott Dixon’s car, and Will Power alluded to a spec shim for camber falling out.  These were parts that the bigger teams could identify as weak and fabricate themselves.  While not making a car faster, it could make it more dependable.  To teams with the resources to identify and fix this and other similar problems, spec racing chafes because they can’t use in-house R & D to make their cars faster and more dependable.  What’s the advantage of being big if it doesn’t help in putting cars on the podium?   Well, the larger teams can still hire the best people to help with preparation.  And better preparation is an advantage, just not one that necessarily makes the car faster.

Fans are a fickle bunch and identifying what will bring them through the gates and put them in front of televisions is a science and an art best left to the experts.  But if they would ever ask if I preferred great equipment or great racing, the racing would win.  And if the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston is the result of spec racing, then why change it?  For now, spec racing rules.  Long live the spec!

 

 

 

The paradigm has shifted: IndyCar is a street course series

Hoosier humorist Kin Hubbard once wrote, “T’aint what a man don’t know that hurts him. It’s what he knows that just ain’t so.”  I have no authority or research to show that he was a fan of racing, but the blindness to reality of many IndyCar fans is summed up in that aphorism.  IndyCar has changed…forever.  The time has come to accept that truth.

That’s not to say that change is bad, but it is certainly inevitable.  The fact is that IndyCar, in its current incarnation, is a street course series, and that is not going to change anytime soon.  On the current 18 race Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, eight of the races are street courses.  This number is likely to increase domestically in coming years.  And it’s a simple reality why this is true: it’s more value for everyone.

Before any of my tens of readers respond with Tony George, IRL, IMS, or spec racing rants, let me offer a piece of advice: shut up.  The war is over.  You lost.  And keep in mind that I am a true aficionado of all things oval.  As an oval fan, my choices were to quit caring about IndyCar, which will never happen, or embrace the great racing going on in front of me.  I choose to embrace.

We are a festival society.  We love to go to metropolitan downtown areas and party.  Cities have Irish, Italian, and German fests.  Giant art fairs take place around the country.  We celebrate beer, brats, and ribs.  Music festivals draw huge crowds.  Racing and speed are just other things to celebrate.  Most cities have vast experience hosting these spring, summer, and fall festivals.  They bring people downtown after business hours.  Cities want in.  And it is in IndyCar’s best interest to get in.

The fans that IndyCar needs to court do not care about CART or the IRL.  They do not care about spec cars or Tony George.  They do not care about horsepower or aerodynamics.  They care about getting entertainment value for their dollar.  Currently, the Verizon IndyCar Series is the ONLY racing series making a concerted effort to bring racing to where the people are, in revitalized or revitalizing downtowns.  The series OWNS this.  No one does it better, or for less investment, than IndyCar.  The suggested F1 foray into Long Beach will fail simply because of the vast infrastructure investment required.  IndyCar will race on the course that is there.  That’s value.

Street courses have proven to be good business.  Look at what Roger Penske has done in Detroit, a failing city with a successful race.  Penske made it successful by courting business as his primary way of generating revenue.  The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit actually removed seating to add the much more valuable chalets for business customers.  This business-to-business model works very well in city centers with easy access to hotels, dining, bars, and the racing itself.

Street courses offer the regular fans something not offered on most ovals: on-track action throughout the day(s).  The entire Road to Indy support series can be put in front of spectators, not to mention their sponsors.  Add in the Pirelli World Challenge sports cars and Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks and you have action and value for the fans and the sponsors.  THIS builds the series, not the constant rehashing of past politics and the self-scourging by fans longing for an oval or CART based salvation.

Accept it.  The future of IndyCar is going to include a majority of street courses because that is where the money and the people are.  And by happy chance, the racing is great.  William Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue,” and he’s right.  All the history, politics, bravery, greed, and stupidity have brought us here to this moment.  Embrace the street race!

 

 

Texas Motor Speedway in My Rearview Mirror

Mac Davis, a Texas singer/songwriter had a hit called “Texas in My Rear View Mirror” which had Davis eager to leave his hometown, and after seeing what life was like in the big city, just as eager to return home when things did not work out.   As IndyCar fans look back on the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, the dichotomy that is IndyCar in Texas rears its head once again.

After some acrimony between promoter Eddie Gossage and the IndyCar drivers in past seasons, it was good not to see the sub-tweeting¹ that was evident in recent years as the drivers lobbied for an end to pack racing and a safer fencing system, and Gossage lobbed suggestions that the drivers lacked the courage necessary to drive at Texas.  In interviews this year, Gossage was all smiles and support for the race and the Verizon IndyCar Series.  Somehow, this is worrisome.

In any case, the race played out somewhere in the middle between the “Oh my god, did you see that!” race of 2012 and the rejiggered snooze-fest that was 2013.  For whatever reason, the technical brain-trust at IndyCar decided to change the aero specs after the great race of 2012.  It was swing and a miss resulting in the 2013 follow-the-leader contest.  This year, at least for the IndyCar aficionado, strategy with tire wear became the only strategy that mattered.  Cool if you dig that sort of thing but not likely to engage the much sought after millennial fans out there.  I was engaged because I was able to follow the tire degradation through lap times and to anticipate pit stops.  Then again, I had TV, my laptop, and the Verizon IndyCar 14 app (which works in my house as opposed to at the track) to follow the action.  Most fans do not want to do this.  They simply want to be entertained.

I think the crew at NBCSN did a good job of entertaining the fans with pictures of passing back in the running order.  Tire strategy, since it was the only strategy at work, was highlighted in the broadcast and actually had me sitting forward as decisions were being made to pit or not to pit as speeds progressively slowed as tires wore out.  Again, cool for the enthusiast.

Would the race be better if there were more passing like at Indy?  Sure.  It’s a thin line that the rules tinkerers at IndyCar have to walk.  A small change in aero can have a profound effect on the racing.  Add the Firestone tire and how quickly it goes away and you can see how difficult it is to create the perfect recipe for racing.  The chefs at IndyCar are always going to be adding a pinch of aero or a dash of tire degradation to the racing everywhere, but the barbeque at Texas will always be the track where too many cooks can spoil the racing.

Anyone watching the race who understood the strategies in play sat up when the final caution happened.  What would everyone do?  Will Power, stuck in 5th from his speeding penalty, took on fresh tires and made eventual winner Ed Carpenter an algebra problem.  Math dictated that Power would pass Carpenter; the question was when.  That was compelling racing for a hard-core fan.

The Firestone 600 was a great race for the knowledgeable fan; it was the same thing over and over for the casual fan.  I guess the question that the Verizon IndyCar Series has to answer is this: Which fan is most important for the future?  The Firestone 600 and its willingness to promote its product may be the test kitchen for determining the tastes of the IndyCar fans of the future.  Bon appetit, IndyCar.

____________________________________________________________________________

¹ Sub-tweeting is posting a message about someone on Twitter where you don’t mention the person’s name but it is very clear to whom you are referring.  It is insulting someone with plausible deniability.

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,275 other followers