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Fast Five Worthless Opinions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Yes, it’s true.  The rarely beloved and often reviled “Ten Worthless Opinions” feature is no more.  Why, you may ask?  “Well, it seems that due to the vagaries of the production parameters of this fragmenting of the audience to the cable television, carnivals, water parks,”¹, the 1000-1300 word length of the feature is much more relevant and readable when it is nearer the 500-750 word limit.  Plus, it’s so much easier to come up with five opinions than it is ten.  So there’s that, too.  In any case, here you go.

1.  Penske Domination: What can be said?  Will Power was the class of the field until a very slight pit delay allowed Juan Pablo Montoya to take the lead during pit stops.  After that, it was all Montoya.  The Penske posse dominated the time charts all week and did the same in the race.  This leads to the real question of how Penske does it.  They have the same Chevy engine and aero kit as the other Chevy teams, so that is not the only reason.  While the team does have more driver depth and talent than any other organization, it cannot be just the pilot.  And yes, the pursuit of perfection by the whole organization certainly leads one to believe that Team Penske could dominate by sheer attention to detail.  But after the parity of the last two years, what does this group have that other teams don’t?  Hmm.  I wonder how the Team Penske cars support all that downforce?  Remember what other area is open to development, and you might have your answer.

2.  Honda vs. Chevy: It is way to early to tell which will be dominant throughout the year.  Chevy (read: Team Penske) certainly seems to have the upper hand on the street.  We will see if the same holds true for natural terrain road courses at NOLA Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park.  The ovals are still a tossup between Honda and Chevy, particularly with the removal of so much downforce.  What the series does not need is for Chevy for run away with everything, particularly after the last two years of parity and multiple winners from both large and small teams.  When you hang you marketing hat on the series being competitive and it’s not, then you have a problem.  Follow the leader (read: Team Penske) is not good for the series.  Let’s hope Honda and the other Chevy teams get it figured out.

3.  Wingapallooza:  At least in St. Pete, the worst fears of many came true: Wingapallooza.  In a clear demonstration of aerodynamics, a broken wing proved it can fly, sailing over the grandstands in Turn 10 and seriously injuring a spectator.  It is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. If injuries to fans isn’t enough of an issue, wing related issues affected the racing, also. No race needs 20% of the laps run under full course yellow conditions, particularly if most of those laps were a direct or indirect result of the less-than-robust wing assemblies being unable to take the punishment of the old Dallara wing.  And it could have been worse!  Race Control was very judicious in not throwing the yellow for every piece of carbon fiber that found its way onto the track.  They even had a track worker pick up a piece on the main straight during green flag conditions.  Let’s hope that this is a simple learning curve, and the drivers adapt to the new fragility of the front wing pieces.  In any case, I can see an old Italian man sitting in a big office in Varano tapping his fingers together saying, “Eccelente.”

4.  Tears for Graham: Let me go on record by saying that IndyCar needs Graham Rahal, an American driver with a superb racing lineage, to be successful.  He is great with sponsors and supports charities.  I pull for him.  Really.  But he makes it so hard sometimes.  Even though I have a scanner, I really like the Verizon IndyCar 15 app.  It offers drivers’ radio communication, the IMS Radio Network, and great visual information.  And it’s free!  This week, Graham Rahal was one of the featured drivers, and all I can say is that he is the poster child for the over-indulged generation.  Nothing is his fault.  He biffed Charlie Kimball, an aero kit casualty, and blamed him for basically being in front of him.  When he was penalized with a drive-through, he radioed his dad and said, “They’ll find anything they can to screw me!”  C’mon.  Of course, this all may be sour grapes on my part since he also loves to tweet how much he loves flying with his new partner Wheels Up in their new Cessna King Air private plane.  Just rub it in, Graham.

5. Chip’s Chatter: According to an interview at TrackSide Online, a subscription IndyCar news service, Chip Ganassi may be less-than-enthused about how Mark Miles is going about building a new schedule.  His concern is that a short calendar season makes it hard to find sponsorship, and that the series should have extended the front of the series in February before axing the schedule after Labor Day.  As much as I enjoy pointing out Chip’s foibles, I tend to agree here.  Even though Chip Ganassi Racing is one of the big boys in the Verizon IndyCar Series, he does not have the budget and personal fortune of someone like Roger Penske.  He must have the sponsorship to compete, and sponsors do not like the short season.  Maybe it all gets sorted out with next year’s schedule, but for now, Chip is not happy and he is not afraid to make himself heard.  As if there was ever any doubt of that.

That the five fast WO’s for this week.  Let’s hope we have fewer flying wings and more passing at NOLA Motorsports Park.

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¹ This is Kramer’s explanation to Raquel Welch in a Seinfeld episode as he fires her from the production of The Scarsdale Surprise for not swinging her arms when she dances.  Seemed apropos here.

Worshiping at the aero kit altar in IndyCar

For such a small fan base, the Verizon IndyCar Series certainly has its share of pulpit-pounding proselytizers.  The problem is that for such a tiny number of acolytes, there are far too many congregations.  The responses to the aero kits of both Chevy and Honda are prime examples of these particular worshipers.

The first worshipers at the altar of IndyCar are the ones who take everything on faith.  They accept that the series pontiffs are, if not infallible, at least to be given the benefit of the doubt.  They believe the variations of the aero kits for both Chevy and Honda will not only differentiate a chassis that is otherwise identical, but it will also pique the interest of the fans to see which is faster.  If there is a difference in the two, then the slower manufacturer should go back to the shop and develop theirs.  The fans want development and competition, right?  They know that the millions spent by both engine manufacturers will push the series to new heights.  These fans not only believe, they want to believe, they need to believe.  These trusting souls happily tithe their hard-earned dollars over to the series in the absolute faith that their spiritual need for racing is in good hands.  Just imagine IndyCar high priest Mark Miles holding a staff with a miter sitting on top of his head, blessing this congregation.  If these fans’ faith wavers, they can always silently repeat “Hail Hulman, full of speed.”

In another house of worship, we have the the agnostic IndyCar fans.  Not burdened by the absolutism of the faithful, these fans look at the aero kits of Chevy and Honda, shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, and smile.  They know deep down that a difference in how the cars look is important, but they really cannot give themselves over to the fact that the new aero kits will make a difference.  They hope they will, but they have taken things on faith before this and been disillusioned.  If they can see the difference in the cars and the racing then they might be inclined to come over to the faithful, but they need proof.  These folks need to see a miracle, not just hear about one.

The third type of IndyCar fan really doesn’t have a church because they no longer believe that the organized religion of IndyCar is deserving of their faith.  These are the IndyCar heretics.  They may come to the cathedral to worship speed, but they refuse to go to the rail for the body and blood.  The aero kits to them are evil incarnate, a false idol for the easily fooled.  Their apostasy demands that all development of cars be completely open with teams spending each other into receivership as we have seen in F1.  Even if the aero kits are successful, they will still be evil because they do conform to their own heretical orthodoxy.  To them, the only way to racing heaven is through a reformation of the series itself.  And if a little burning at the stake of series leaders is needed, they are down with that, too.  The heretics spend time damning the series, its leaders, and its followers on Twitter and in internet forums, the modern equivalent of a jackleg preacher standing atop a soapbox on the street corner.

IndyCar’s small holy war among its flock is cause for both celebration and concern.  On one hand, the fact that some people still care enough to have opinions is a reason for hosannas to be heard at the corner of 16th and Georgetown.  The downside is that the series needs converts to the faith and some cash in the collection plate to continue to spread the faith.  If this does not happen, then everyone will be in need of a mea culpa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who cares about IndyCar’s race director?

The announcement of Brian Barnhart as the Verizon IndyCar Series race director came as no real surprise.  Really.  Although it is easy to see the appointment as another example of a tone deaf series leadership actively trying to alienate its dwindling number of hard-core fans, the fact is that it does not really matter.

Think about it.  To whom does it really matter?  The most important constituents are the drivers, who, while not really gushing over the appointment, are not lining up to hide-strap Barnhart to a pine rail and run him up the Monon Line.¹  Of course, he has not yet fumbled a call or made an egregious decision to race in the rain, either.  Give him time.  Truthfully, Barnhart is a known quantity who was in race control last year.  He never really went away, continuing to do some of the weekly heavy lifting of the series.  The drivers know him.  While familiarity may breed contempt, it also breeds comfort.  The promise from Derrick Walker is that a triumvirate of stewards will assure decisions are discussed and, hopefully, fair.  It appears the drivers have bought into that narrative.

Another important constituent is the series itself.  Again, Barnhart is a known quantity who has been very competent at his recent job.  He kept his mouth shut when he was exiled from his race control fiefdom and accepted another position without public complaint.  Basically, he has been a good soldier, and this is his reward.  When Derrick Walker became president of competition and operations, the position of race director now had someone with a racing background to ride herd on the race director.  In other words, former race director Beaux Barfield had a boss who knew racing and the same holds true for Brian Barnhart.  Just like Barfield, he no longer has sole authority over competition.  The series investing in modern technology also gives Barnhart and his staff of stewards a much better handle on the race.  Welcome to the 21st Century, IndyCar!  Nice to have Verizon on board, isn’t it?

While it rankles and burns, the least important constituents are the hard-core fans who follow the series.  The Peter Principle states that people in an organization eventually are promoted to their level of incompetence.  From the hard-core fans’ view, Brian Barnhart is the poster boy for this belief.  More than that, the hard-core fans feel marginalized.  As the few who are devoted to the series, they believe that their opinions matter.  The powers that be at INDYCAR have clearly demonstrated that they don’t.  And they have good reason to discount those beliefs.  An organization that makes all of its decisions based on public opinion will fail.  Just look at Congress.

The Verizon IndyCar Series cannot prosper by just placating the rabble.  They must draw in new fans to survive, and those new fans do not care who the race director is.  Nor should they.  Who serves in race control should not matter.  Even though Brian Barnhart is in the house, the stewards should be faceless.  It is a guarantee, though, that many fans will have their pitchforks and torches ready just in case this all falls apart.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  The IndyCar hard-core are a pessimistic lot. And they have history to support that pessimism.

Will this work?  I call it 50/50.  If the three stewards are truly independent and honestly voice their opinions, then the vote on violations and penalties should be accurate.  But if Barnhart has a minion in race control with him weekly, then watch out.  That would be the recipe for a return to the autocratic choices of the previous Barnhart regime.  If just one steward owes Barnhart a favor, wants to advance his own career, or just wants to be liked by the boss, then it will be a return to the past with one difference – Barnhart will be completely protected behind the human shield of a three person race control.

The drivers, series, and fans are all hoping that this choice works and the name Brian Barnhart remains unspoken for the rest of the short IndyCar season.  If not, well, that’s what Twitter, blogs, and fan forums are for, isn’t it?

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1.  This is a paraphrase of one of my favorite lines from the movie Hoosiers.  A parent tells Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) that this will be the consequence if he screws up the season.  Seems apropos here.

 

 

 

B-listers, YouTube, and tradition at IMS

Who says there is no news coming out of the Verizon IndyCar Series?  A decision that could affect the Indianapolis 500 for years to come was a front page headline in a recent Indianapolis Star: “New track tradition – Straight No Chaser replaces Nabors on iconic song.”  Yep, the choice of a new voice, or voices in this case, to take the place of Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” pushed important news to another page.  What this says about our society is another discussion, but what it says about the tradition of the Indy 500 is loud and clear.  It matters.

Oh, there will be haters on multiple issues.  Some IndyCar fans get all frothy over the fact that one race holds so much sway over the public’s perception of the series.  Their stance is that the 500 is just one more race on the schedule, and the PR it gets for things like who belts out a traditional song actually hurts the series and other venues and races.  I’m on the side of the cash cow splashing down in the ocean creating a rising tide that lifts all ships on this one.  I’m not quite sure how you make other races and venues more popular by making arguably the most well-known race in the world less popular.

Then there are the loyalists who recommended using a video of  Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” in perpetuity, presumably because they thought the idea that a perennial B-list actor and singer was as good as it was ever going to get in Indianapolis.  Truthfully, Jim Nabors’ baritone and his second tier stature worked very well for the race.  There was no way he was ever going to be more important than the song or the tradition itself.  In fact, he had become a hipster’s ironic ideal.  Nabors was just schmaltzy enough to be cool.  He had a good run.

There were some interesting suggestions for the replacements  One was the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, who are top notch.  I just had this sinking feeling about some 10-year-old asking his or her choir director some very difficult questions about aberrant human behavior.  I even endorsed Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, a trained opera singer.  He fit the Jim Nabors B-list criteria of not now or ever being bigger than the song or the moment.  And he was a baritone, too!

Which brings us to the new choice, the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.  They were formed at Indiana University and became famous for a version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that went viral on YouTube.  Now that’s mixing traditional with modern.  They are an inspired choice.  They went to IU.  They understand the importance of the song to the predominantly Hoosier crowd.  They get the tradition.  They are young.  They are cool.  I want to be churlish and find something to dislike, but they are really, really, good.  Take a look at them singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at this YouTube link.

The fans watching on ABC will absolutely love them.  Let’s hope the video and audio upgrades work well out in the hinterlands of Turn 3 and the writhing humanity of the Snake Pit, too.  Of minor consideration is the fact that an a cappella group not only sings the songs, but they also make their own music with their voices.  This might leave the Purdue band, the accompaniment on this song for years, out of the picture.  I’m sure the Indiana University grads of the group will get some pleasure out of that.

So here’s to a long tenure and the beginning of new tradition.  Cars, drivers, fans, and facilities change.  The inevitability of time demands it.  Traditions like singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” are the sinews that keep us connected to the past and the future.  Thanks for the good news, IMS.  It was worth the wait.

 

 

 

IndyCar starts and stops

Let’s have a quick cringeworthy headline contest about standing starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series being suspended.

Starts stopped in IndyCar series

IndyCar puts the brakes on standing starts

Standing starts never took off in the IndyCar series

Lack of technology stops IndyCar series in its tracks

Most versatile drivers in world can’t handle standing starts

Most versatile cars in the world can’t handle standing starts

IndyCar series dumps fan favorite standing starts

Even though imaginary, these are the type of snarky headlines the series doesn’t need.  And in today’s media, what other kind of headlines are there?  It is obvious that the tone of these headlines is less than complimentary, and the Verizon IndyCar Series needs positive vibes.

The standing starts did ramp up the excitement at the beginning of street and road course races.  The lights, the expectation, the unknown – these all create a mystique, an aura.  For all these reasons, the series needs the option of standing starts.  But better reasons exist for dropping them.

The Verizon IndyCar Series is at a crossroads and in the cross-hairs.  The series desperately needs good press and PR.  The standing starts provided neither.

When a standing start results in cars left on the grid or stuffed into a wall or each other, that is the indelible image that viewers take away.  That’s the news.  And when so few media outlets cover the series, any news needs to be good news, especially in a sport where tragic news is always a possibility.

Also, in a sport that advertises the most versatile drivers in the world, it is a little unseemly to have them left sitting on the grid.  The problem with standing starts is not human, it is technical.  These cars were not designed for standing starts.  That is not what the average fans sees, though.  The average fans sees a driver who cannot use a clutch and accelerator correctly.  If IndyCar wants to control the narrative that these are the most versatile drivers in the world, then they have to create the plot that moves it along.  That plot no longer needs the situational irony of standing starts.

The facts are today’s IndyCar drivers and the Dallara chassis are both the most versatile in the world.  The car was a robust design for protection on high-speed ovals, yet was racy enough for road courses.  In other words, it was a compromise and needed to be so.  Standing starts were not on the radar when it was built and apparently do not fit this car well.  That is one of the hazards with fly-by-wire design: you can’t just bolt on a new part and expect it to work.  It needs to be designed that way.  You know, like anti-stall.

What matters most about losing standing starts is that the fans lost something entertaining that was promised to them.  In a press release, IndyCar president of competition Derrick Walker said, “We know the fans enjoy it, and we love it, too.”  It might be a tad disingenuous to suggest that IndyCar loved it.  Drivers seemed to say that they did it because the fans liked it.  And the fans certainly seemed to enjoy it, if for no other reason than it was something new and different.  IndyCar needs to keep searching for new and different.

The timing and technology just wasn’t right in the Verizon IndyCar Series for standing starts.  Maybe next time they will plan it before they execute it.  In other words, no more starts and stops.

 

 

Does IndyCar get the joke?

Well, it seems that all the major racing series are chasing the same off season quarry right now.  By that I mean that seasons are over, and PR people and auto racing writers are scrambling for anything that has the remote scent of fresh copy.  The Verizon IndyCar Series may need a bloodhound to sniff out a compelling story.

F1 is always in the news with the richest teams refusing to share wealth with the struggling backmarkers, backmarkers going into receivership and auctioning off assets, and Bernie Ecclestone saying that F1 does not need social media or young fans.  Every one of those topics is comedy gold, baby.  Maybe the receivership thing is not quite as funny since it involves people losing their jobs, but Bernie is always able to find more suckers investors to replenish the back of the grid, so new opportunities may crop up.  And since Bernie will be dead by the time young fans become older fans, it makes complete sense that they mean nothing to him.  He won’t be able to profit from their future interest.  In any case, stories abound.

Of course NASCAR stories always exist since that series NEVER ENDS.  One season just rolls into the next while hidebound corporate elites masquerading as good old boys figure out changes to make the series more profitable compelling.  Really, it’s just Duck Dynasty on wheels.  Again, comedy gold.

And there is the TUSCC or is it Tudor or is it IMSA or is it ALMS sports car series with professional, gentlemen, Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze drivers. Yeah, none of that is confusing is any way.  And the series is sponsored by a watch, that as far as I know, no one wears or has even seen.  It sounds like something someone with a monocle would wear.  The series begs to mocked.

That brings us to the Verizon IndyCar Series off-season, where stories go to die.  Oh, for the dysfunctional days of yore when race directors were objects of scorn, season schedules were always almost complete, backstabbing the series boss was an off-season art form, and vendors were threatening to walk away from the series.  Those were the halcyon days of satire and mockery.  It was my season.

But those days are over, replaced by a much tighter-lipped corporate structure that has a plan and is sticking to it.  Sure, we have the new aero kits coming on line, but the manufacturers have gone all state secret on them.  Other than some grainy spy shots and the rumor of F1 style front wings, we have seen next to nothing.

Yes, we have A.J. Foyt on the mend from his life example that bacon and ice cream may have long term consequences and news from Russia that Mikhail Aleshin cannot get his hands on the sponsorship money to race this season due to Vladimir Putin’s friendly overtures to the Ukraine.  Those are stories to be sure, but they do not have series wide consequences to consider.  In a word, the Verizon IndyCar Series long off season has been boring.

And that is really the problem, isn’t it? A short season followed by very little real news about the races, the cars, and drivers is not enough to build interest.  And those three items ARE the series.  The Indianapolis 500 may the worldwide portal for entry, but the success of the series must rely on those other three.  As much as I love sarcasm and mockery, they are useless if racing fans do not have the facts so they can get the joke.  So step it up, IndyCar.  I’m not saying a return to dysfunction is needed, but can’t an owner or driver say something really stupid?  Can’t a corporate executive roll out an extremely idiotic plan?  Can’t someone post a completely ill-advised tweet?  Missing those, couldn’t IndyCar at least give us something newsworthy?  Otherwise, the joke may end up being on the series when no one cares enough to laugh.

 

 

 

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.

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