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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.

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*  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.

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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.

Will Power: Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published a novella called the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  While quite obviously an allegory on the inherent good and evil in people, it can rightly be seen as a symbolic representation of whatever it is that Team Penske’s Will Power is now doing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Before and after races he is just like Dr. Henry Jekyll: mild-mannered and prone to bouts of wonderment.  In a TV interview at Toronto in 2011, Power responded to Dario Franchitti spinning him by saying, “I always race him clean, and he always races me dirty.”  That sounds like the mystified Jekyll trying to come to terms with his own inner demons.  Could Will Power actually be struggling to control, in his own Australian sobriquet, his inner “wanker?”

Wanker is a term that Power applies liberally to those with whom he disagrees.  In a recent interview, he hoped that the aero package at Texas allows some separation of good drivers like him from the “wankers…at the back.”  Good on ya, mate.  It seems Power is beginning to relish the Mr. Hyde black hat.

Need more?  How about at St. Pete when he slowed the field coming to the green flag and helped cause an accordion accident behind him.  His Dr. Jekyll self denied any culpability.  He blamed his teammate Helio Castroneves for trying to jump the start.  He blamed the early green flag.  If you watch him in post-race interviews, you often see a certain shifty-eyed schoolboy behavior.  And just like a schoolboy, Power often seems to follow the mantra of caught-in-the-act kids everywhere.  Deny, deny, deny.

After bumping Simon Pagenaud into the tires at Long Beach, Power accepted blame with a caveat: he thought Pagenaud slowed because of a flat tire.  C’mon, Will, isn’t it time you embraced your darker side?  Stop offering excuses for your Mr. Hyde and embrace him.  In the novella, Dr. Jekyll secretly revels in the freedom from conscience that Hyde offers.  It is the same here.

To make matters worse, in the first race at Detroit, Power had a run-in at with Pagenaud again.  According to Pagenaud, Power ran into him.  According to Power, he didn’t see him.  Once again, embrace the wanker, Will.  Winning dirty is still winning.

In the second race at Detroit, Power ruined the races of Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal by trying to force a pass where the opportunity did not exist.  Was it optimistic?  Nope.  It was the black-hearted Mr. Hyde pushing lesser mortals out of the way.  No apology necessary, Will.  Drive on!

Sadly, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego Mr. Hyde does not end well.  By the end of the story, Dr. Jekyll can no longer control his transformation into Mr. Hyde and it leads to his untimely end.  My advice to Will Power is not to fight the transformation.  Do not go back to the wide-eyed and apologetic Will Power/Dr. Henry Jekyll.  That way lies madness.  The next time the change occurs, gleefully rub your hands together, cackle softly, and allow your inner Will Power/wanker/Mr Hyde to become your permanent personality.  You already wear a black firesuit.  You might as well wear a black hat, too.

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part III – the ugly

Let me preface this by saying the good of race day 2014 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway far outweighed the bad.  It was no contest.  In fact, I was nit-picking to come up with ideas.  Don’t get me wrong, the bad existed, but we tend to gloss over the minor financial and culinary inconveniences.  My hat is off to IMS for another world class event attended by an estimated 230,000 fans (still ticked about the purchased parking pass issue, though).  Huey Lewis and the News sang “Bad is Bad” and that pretty much sums it up.  Bad exists.  But, as the old saying goes, ugly is to the bone. And IMS has some ugliness on its hands, too.

Ugly

1.  Let’s take a look at the cosmetically ugly first.  I cannot imagine the man hours it takes to keep a facility like IMS functioning.  It’s basically a small city with small city problems.  Pipes break.  Weeds grow.  Paint peels.  Concrete buckles.  Metal rusts.  Employees come and go.  Accepted without qualification.  But like a small city, when issues that crop up daily are neglected, they grow, sometimes exponentially.  The issue I notice the most is graffiti in the restrooms.  Small potatoes right?  Of all the social and economic ills in the world, I pick this one?  Go ahead and purse you lips and shake your head.  I get it.  Graffiti is ubiquitous in urban areas.  It can’t be stopped.  Plus, it can be extremely entertaining and enlightening.  A black address book of phone numbers can be gleaned from the restroom walls of IMS.  The years and hometowns of guests are always interesting to read.  Out in the hinterlands of the the NE Vista, it may be difficult to prevent, but it’s not difficult to conceal after the fact.  Paint and rollers will do the trick.

The very well maintained men’s restroom in Pagoda Plaza is a case in point.  The walls are white which makes it bright and welcoming, but some of the graffiti, if the writers are to be believed, comes from four or five years ago.  While it certainly contains joking references to Danica Patrick (she’s a popular topic), it also has a much darker side.  The offers of sex with phone numbers may be clichéd, but some have been in there for years.  The giant anatomical renditions of both male and female naughty bits seem a bit over the top, too.  How can these last year after year?  And I know Latin Kings gang symbols when I see them.  Can Gangster Disciples tags be far behind?  I realize there is a cost in manpower and paint to fix this, but if IMS is going to host multiple world-class races and concerts, it’s time to do so.  Hire some college kids to paint.  They have signs posted on telephone poles all over town.

2.  IMS, under the direction of Tony George, made the concerted effort to rid the facility of the riff-raff that inhabited the old Snake Pit in Turn 1.  In fact, the infield denizens have all been herded to Turn 3 and seem content to bask in the sun, quaff ale, and enjoy the day.  The Coke Lot, though, is another story.  Once a parking lot with a few hardy campers, it has become an all-night Bacchanalia replete with knives, guns, and death.  IMS is at a crossroads for the reputation of the Indianapolis 500.  Do they gamble on the future by standing pat with the cards they have now or draw to a new hand?  The Coke Lot is a massive, rarely mowed piece of property bordered by 30th St. to the north, Georgetown Rd. to the east, Moller Rd. to the west and the Coca-Cola plant to the south.  It’s gigantic.  With a few gravel drives and some field paint it becomes a parking lot on race day.  Without lights, roads, or close supervision, it becomes the Badlands at night.

Speedway has changed.  Urban crime is finding its way into the little pocket of small houses and well-maintained yards.  The thousands of campers, many coming for years, have now become targets of opportunity for theft, robbery, and homicide.  Something needs to change.  I’m not a prude.  I enjoy a good time as much as anyone, and regular readers know my stories of the night before the race on 16th St.  The threat of violence has always been there, but the threat of death is new.  In the Coke Lot this year, one man was shot to death in an argument and another was shot in a robbery.  It will not get better, only worse.

The Coke Lot needs to be lighted with many more graveled roads running through it.  Camping areas need to be clearly marked.  Security needs to be prevalent throughout the night.  Glamping it’s not, but the hoi polloi should be just as safe outside the track in the Coke Lot as the elite are inside the facility.  IMS could do what they did with food service: contract it out.  Let someone else run it.  The cost would go up for the consumer, but the experience should improve.  In any case, robbery, murder, and drug overdoses on IMS property are probably not the stories the boys in corporate on the corner of 16th and Georgetown want told.  Will IMS try to spin it or fix it?  Their reaction will tell us who they are and what they value.  Will the Coke Lot be Super Bad or Lord of the Flies?  The choice is comedy or tragedy.

No one really wants to talk about the ugliness, but sometimes it can’t be ignored.  One issue is purely cosmetic and the other is a choice about values.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part II – the bad

It always comes down to this.  For every yin, there’s a yang; for every oversteer, there’s an understeer; for every drunken race fan there’s a smug glare of self-righteousness.  Part I of this series was the “good” of the title; the events, people, and actions that make Indy what it is.  For the sake of fairness and snark, there must be a “bad.”  Presented here are the ones that made the cut.

Bad

1.  The bad on the track was easy.  The contretemps among Ed Carpenter, James Hinchcliffe, and Townsend Bell took out two cars that had a chance to win with Bell wrecking later with what may have been problems stemming from this incident.  It was nice to see the bad side of Ed Carpenter, though.  His dirt track days just jumped out of him.  Not only did he physically loom over Hinchcliffe while Hinch was sitting in his car, he was quoted on ABC saying that it’s lucky Hinch had a concussion two weeks ago.  The indication being, I think, that if Hinch wasn’t already concussed then Ed would have been more than happy to oblige.  Dirt track meets championship wrestling with Ed Carpenter flipping from face to heel.  Bad boys.  Hinchcliffe did accept the blame, though.  Stand up guy.  Of course when video shows clearly that you made it three wide, there’s not much else to say.

2.  The luck of Chip Gaanassi racing was most definitely bad at Indy this year.  Not only did the boys have trouble qualifying, but Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Ryan Briscoe placed 29th, 26th, 31st, and 24th respectively.  Ouch.  Now that’s a “Bad Moon Rising.”  It’s time for someone there to say “Got my Mojo Working.”  Just a couple of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Muddy Waters references for you.  Again, it’s all about racing and popular culture here.

3.  As someone who paid $75 to IMS for parking passes to the North 40 (Lot 7), I was more than a little miffed when the parking attendants told me at 7:30 AM that there were no spots available for me to park.  My explanation that having a reserved spot to park is precisely the reason that IMS sold the parking passes and why I decided to buy them left the dead-eyed, yellow shirted parking attendant unmoved, and I was forced to park at the back of the North 40.  Imagine my surprise when I checked the front of the lot where I was supposed to park and found almost no cars with parking credentials.  It was just a smaller version of last year’s line fiasco being played out on a grassy stage.  Normally, commerce is conducted in such as way as to give a guest or client what they paid to get.  When you pay a year in advance for something you don’t get, it’s called chiseling. To put it another way, imagine how you would feel if you stood in an enormous line behind the NE Vista to purchase a $9 tenderloin and were told AFTER you paid for it, that it was given to an earlier patron for free.  “Thank you, and please come again.”  Bad business, that.

4.  Let’s talk about those bad concession lines.  In the NE Vista, which was packed, the new food service professionals at Levy Restaurants decided it was better to have fewer open concession stands to serve more people.  The lines were endless and slow.  I’m just glad IMS contracted the food service out to those that do it for a living.  I’m sure there’s an explanation for how this is better for the guests on site.  Spin it!

5.  With the last “bad” in mind, let’s consider that the marks customers are now paying more for every item on the concession list.  Again, I’m just a plebeian, untutored in the art of separating acquiring money from rubes guests.  I am sure a computer wonk in accounting can show how much better all this is for IMS.  And that is what counts.  I am sorry for being so selfish here and thinking only of my experience.  Mea culpa.

6.  I am sure I am no the only one who has noticed the decline in the interest, enthusiasm, and competence of the fabled Yellow Shirts at IMS.  Even though I have called some “petty tyrants and martinets,” it was obvious that they took their jobs seriously.  Many of the workers now seem unhappy and disinterested in improving the guest experience. For all the world, it seems like most have little or no training.  Many out in the hinterlands of the facility seem to have the dead, vacant stares of those who have the seen the world at its worst: fast food workers.  It’s not pretty.

7.  Finally, what saddens me the most is the passing of an era, the loss of innocence.  IMS has finally gone over to the dark side of corporate America.  No longer do I have the sense that the series, the race, and the facility are some Mom and Pop organization run on whims and greyhound rescues.  No, it has become the antithesis of that. It is now a business run on the American virtues of greed and profit.  And I’m really okay with that.  Money is good for the drivers, the owners, the promoters, the tracks and the networks.  It’s just not good for the soul.  I miss my old friend, the one who let you get falling down drunk on reasonably priced beer, the one who sold you a greasy frozen fritter of pork without acting like it wouldn’t give you heartburn, the one who allowed you to torch couches and old cars in the infield for the sheer joy of socially accepted arson.  Today, Simon and Garfunkel would sing, “Where have you gone, Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Our nation turns its bloodshot eyes to you.”  Woo, woo, woo, indeed.

Don’t get me wrong, the good far outweighs the bad in regards to my race day experience.  The Verizon IndyCar Series still offers the best racing on the planet.  I’ll be coming back with more cash in my wallet and lower expectations of what that cash will buy me but higher expectations for the action on the track.  And that is really the bottom line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part I – the good

The new month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is behind us, and as the sunburn, hangovers, tenderloins, and poor choices recede into our memories, it is best that we all reflect on the events before they fade away completely.  So as not to break any new ground with creative thought, I would like to look at recent events through the conceit of the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  This three part series will look at one aspect each day.  Today, we look at the good.

The Good

1.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is absolutely going to be a good Indy 500 champion.  I have always been rather lukewarm towards RHR.  He seems to say the right things and avoids controversy.  Fair enough.  His two passes of Helio Castroneves for the lead in the closing laps of the 500 were gutsy and aggressive and belied his rather vanilla persona.  When Castroneves throws his samba blocking moves on, he’s more than tough to get around.  Hunter-Reay’s quotes in Victory Lane showed an emotion previously kept hidden and that, along with his refreshing honesty, resonated with me.  He truly gets the 500.

2.  Hunter-Reay said in his post race interview that he was “a happy American boy.”  Although it may seem jingoistic, an American winning the 500 is important to a series that currently runs all but one race on American soil.  The lifeblood of the Verizon IndyCar Series is the red, white, and blue flag waving fans that were in abundance on Memorial Day in Indianapolis.  We can only hope that the series is able to capitalize on this American winner of the 500 more than they did the same winner of the series in 2012.  Wait, did I snarkily offer a “bad” in here?  Sorry.  I will try to stick with the script.

3.  As expected, the racing was great.  What more do the fans want?  There were multiple passes for the lead, including those by RHR and Castroneves in the closing laps that required more than a little sand.  The cars once again protected drivers like Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell in HARD hits.  Give me safety over aesthetics any time.  Fie on the fans who decry this ugly beauty.¹  The DW12 is a great race car, no matter how it looks.  And it is ugly.

3.  The red flag at the end of the race, while unexpected and without precedent, was good for the fans in attendance and the TV audience.  As a traditionalist in general, I initially thought that one more IMS accepted protocol was going down the drain.   But after seeing the debris from Townsend Bell’s crash and watching the SAFER barrier being repaired, I realized it made the race better.  Change is sometimes good, even if it causes apoplexy in the hard-core constituency.  Who knew?

4.  The crowd was not just good at the race, it was great.  The Coke Lot was full at 7:30 AM as we arrived at the Speedway.  I have not seen that in 25 years.  Of course the downside of that is the Coke Lot was full of Coke Lot type denizens at 7:30 AM.  Estimates  of the crowd were up to 230,000.  Don’t let those empty seats fool you.  The place was full.  The lines to get into the facility that made life miserable last year were not issues.  The purchased parking credentials in the North 40/Lot 7 were another story, though.  Dang.  There I go again with the snark about one of the “bad” issues.  An official for the Speedway told me that ticket sales were up 25% this year.  Indy is back, baby.

5.  Although the commercials on ABC seemed interminable after I got a chance to watch, the pre-race portion is still the best around.  The network wove in Memorial Day, human interest, and race goodies in just the right proportion.  Watching the race in HD, particularly the in-car shots, is absolutely thrilling.  Although not “bad” by definition, I do find the constant video and interviews of the WAGS a little cloying.  Nobody ever yells “Show us the wives and girlfriends for god’s sake!” as a race winds down.  Nobody.  Ever.

6.  The pre-race ceremonies at IMS for the 500 are nonpareil.  If you have never witnessed it in person, put it on your list.  The fact of the meaning of Memorial Day is always there, as it should be.  I hope that IMS, in its quest for more profit, never turns the pre-race into a sponsored circus to make a quick buck.  It is already the gold standard.  Keep it that way.  With that said, I really will miss Jim Nabors, a B-List singer and actor who found a home in Speedway, Indiana on Memorial Day weekend.  He sang “Back Home Again” the right way.  Please IMS, don’t bring in an oddball assortment of record label sponsored train wrecks to audition.  Find another baritone who gets Indy and can make it each May for the next 30 years or so.  The name is not as important as the song.  Do NOT mess this up.

7.  The month of May is back as an event in Indy.  After years of condensing the month due to lack of fan interest, the gang in the blue glass edifice on 16th and Georgetown finally packed in enough activities to interest new fans.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the new Time Trials weekend, Carb Day, the Jason Aldean concert, glamping, and the electronic dance music in the Snake Pit on race day all added fans through the turnstiles.  The numbers for the month could be pushing 350,000 fans.  Do the math.  More fans = $$$.  $$$ = more racing.  More racing = happy fans.  Repeat.

That’s the good, great, and just okay as well as some sub-textual bad that just keeps popping up.  Sorry about that.  Tomorrow brings the defined “bad” of the race.  And possibly a little more snark.

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¹  In my continuing effort to bring culture to racing, I used the oxymoron “ugly beauty” to describe the Dallara DW12.  An oxymoron is when two opposite terms are used together for effect.  Old Billy Shakespeare used them often when describing bear-baiting and cock fights, so there is some tradition of sporting usage.

Indianapolis 500 qualifications: It’s a new track tradition

What to take from the 2014 Indianapolis 500 qualification weekend.  The best perspective might be to ask what did IMS want to achieve with the new format.  The lack of cars on track due to available motors had clearly made the recent truncation of qualifications from four days to two even less compelling than they had been.  Bump Day had devolved into a glorified practice day with little, if any, drama.  The leadership at IMS and IndyCar knew they had to do something to bring back drama and package it into a neat little TV frame for ABC if they wanted more exposure and more live attendance.  I’m not sure if they succeeded on either of those counts this year, but at least they created a package that contains that potential.

Qualification Saturday at Indy has gone from pole day to BUMP DAY ALL DAY SATURDAY.  The TV audience on ABC was given two hours of almost non-stop qualifying action as drivers continued to make multiple attempts to get their cars into the Fast Nine round on Sunday.  Alexander Pope, an 18th century British poet, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”¹  Nowhere is that more evident than in auto racing.  Every driver thinks that the next run will be the one that gets the job done.  With the equipment and speeds so close in the Verizon IndyCar Series, any driver in the top 20 had a legitimate shot to bump his way into the Fast Nine.  Over and over the drivers gave it a shot.  The most compelling moment did not come to pass as Kurt Busch had to head to Charlotte to drive in NASCAR’s All-Star race.  How excited would the fans, both live and on TV, have been for Busch to make multiple attempts to make the Fast Nine for Sunday?

Not only was there multiple bumping, but just think of all the decisions that had to be made in the heat of battle.  At first, I thought the idea of an “express lane” for qualifying was too gimmicky, but after watching teams make the choice to pull their times at the risk of an accident that might put them in “relegation row” with no qualifying time, it was apparent that teams were willing to take risks to have the chance to start up front.  The teams could have simply got in the slow lane, which allowed teams to keep their earlier times if their new times were slower.  But as time counted down to 5:50 PM (thanks to the TV window, 6:00 PM is gone forever), the teams that were willing to take a gamble for the Fast Nine had to actually roll the dice.  Compelling.

The teams in the middle were, as 20th century American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.” ²  They had no reason to re-qualify unless they had a chance to get into the Fast Nine.  Most of those teams decided to stand pat.  That made a lot of sense.  Why risk an accident when the real race for the grid was not going to be until Sunday?

The issue to the slowest teams was if more than 33 cars were entered.  If so, then the bottom of the grid would have been much more nervous and willing to go again.  As it was, some of the teams at the bottom went again on the rumor that Katherine Legge might be added as a driver before the 7:00 PM deadline.  Why is that an issue?  If only 33 cars present themselves to qualify, then the cars at the bottom of the grid have nothing to worry about.  They are in the race and have a chance to re-qualify to better their positions.  The Legge rumor, if it had been true, would have added a 34th car and changed everything for the bottom of the grid.  If more than 33 cars attempt to qualify, then the bottom of the grid would be like the bottom of the table for Premier League soccer.  In that league, the bottom three teams are relegated, or removed from the league, and teams from other leagues move up. You can call  the slowest three on Saturday “relegation row.”  Imagine a scenario where the last three teams on Saturday continue to try to bump out of the final three while teams not in the race try to bump in, and teams near the bottom three try to improve their positions to keep from being put in the last three.  All this will take place at the same time as the Fast Nine teams are bumping and being bumped. Confusing and exciting.

Sunday was more anticlimactic as teams outside the Fast Nine re-qualified and jockeyed  for position on the grid.  They got one shot.  It was a couple of hours and then it was done.  The Fast Nine was a made-for-TV moment.  That’s it.  Nine drivers re-qualified and Ed Carpenter snagged the pole with a run of 231.067, edging out James Hinchcliffe’s 230.649.  It’s clear that Sunday is designed for TV.  Saturday was made for the fans.

Is the new procedure better than the old one?  I guess that would be determined by which old procedure you mean.  The new format is action-filled, exciting, and creates compelling drama on Saturday, particularly if more than 33 cars are entered.  The Fast Nine on Sunday just goes by too quickly.  The Fast Nine drivers having multiple attempts would certainly spice up the day.  Will it make qualification better than what they were years ago?  Probably not.  But they will make them what they need to be today.  And that’s the real goal.

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¹  Name another auto racing writer that quotes Alexander Pope.  That’s what we offer here: racing and literature.  Just another service.

²  That’s right, I just slapped down another literary reference.  How about a quote from a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner who spoke at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.  I have a Robert Frost tattoo on my bicep. *not true*

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