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IndyCar edgy at Long Beach

The Verizon IndyCar Series has taken on a country club feel in recent years.  The drivers are all buddies. Before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, James Hinchliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay even joked on camera about flipping a coin to see who was going to lead the first lap.  I wonder if those two still had their senses of humor after the race.

Humor is nothing new in IndyCar.  Eddie Sachs was known as “the clown prince of racing” in the 60′s.  Bobby Unser was not only shockingly honest as a racer and an announcer, he was also a born storyteller.  Still is.  A.J. Foyt’s humor was always sharp and biting.  Still is.  So it is nothing new that today’s racers are funny.  What’s different is the politically correct way they interact.  The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach certainly changed all that.

To spice up the broadcast, NBCSN brought in Paul Tracy, four-time Long Beach winner and notorious truth-teller.  Everyone just knew he would stir the pot a little bit.  Sadly, PT was just another talking head, saying nothing controversial.  Sigh.  I am sure he will get the message to go find the real Paul Tracy.

This all leads us to how a pretty good race became an entertaining one.  Bad moves led to bad feelings, sheepish honesty, and a few apologies that may or may not have been accepted.  Hopefully, it will lead to a little ill will.  Then maybe Paul Tracy can get on board and put the hammer down on some people.

One of the best products of the close racing in IndyCar is the fact that anyone can win.  The spec chassis and similar power plants mean the shoestring budgets can hold their own with the deep-pocketed teams.  You just know this small budget competition chafes the big dogs.  The best part of the close racing is that Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson can call out Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon; SFHR’s Josef Newgarden can place the blame on Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay; and SPHM’s Simon Pagenaud can mock the apology of Penske Racing’s Will Power.  Now THAT’S parity.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to have this kind of close racing though the pack every week..  TV does not do it justice.

The irony in the series is delicious right now.  The top dogs were forced to act like contrite backmarkers. Scott Dixon apologized for pushing Justin Wilson into the wall and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Will Power apologized for punting Simon Pagenaud with his usual it’s-my-fault-that-it’s-your-fault line and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Ryan Hunter-Reay apologized by saying a real racer goes for it when he sees the chance at exactly the wrong spot and his apology was UNACCEPTED.  I just love to see the shifty-eyed apologies of schoolboys caught in the act without a plausible story to tell.  Not ironically, Graham Rahal was his usual self and refused to accept any blame for anything.  Never change, Graham.  Both Michael Andretti and James Hinchcliffe were less than pleased with Hunter-Reay’s antics.

Simmering feuds, unaccepted apologies, and possibly a little bit of hate await us at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.  Barber is narrow, twisty, and just not conducive to the type of racing that the IndyCars are capable of right now.  The boys in back are not going to move over for reputation alone any longer.  In fact, when push comes to shove – and it will – the little guys are going to flex their muscles and push and shove back.  And consider this: Juan Pablo Montoya has not had a problem with anyone in two races.  Wait until that happens!  It’s good to see some of the politically correct veneer come off the series.  This is the racing and these are the racers people want to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The confusion of being an IndyCar fan

The Verizon IndyCar Series put on a pretty good show at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.  There was a great pass for the lead that viewers saw on TV, and many passes for position that fans only knew if they listened to the IMS Radio Network or read post-race media releases.  Even if you were in attendance at the race, you only knew about in-pack action if you actually saw the pass or listened to a scanner or radio.  And since the series is hoping that the TV audience will eventually supersede the spectators at the race, it’s incumbent on both the series and television to, you know, kind of get things right for the viewers.  That was not the case at St. Pete.

Television, whether it is ABC or NBC Sports, simply cannot show everything on a street course; there is just too much going on in too many places.  Both networks do as well as they can under the circumstances, I guess.  It would be a Herculean effort to pick out the most interesting battles and find time to show them.  All the fans really ask is for the broadcast to be accurate.  Therein lies my issue with the ABC booth at St. Pete.

Up to Will Power’s restart kerfuffle/gamesmanship/screw-up, the booth of Allen Bestwick, Eddie Cheever, and Scott Goodyear had been acceptable.  Bestwick brought enthusiasm and certainly seemed prepared.  The scenario should go like this: Bestwick tells the audience what just happened and Cheever and Goodyear explain why it happened and the consequences of it happening.  The fans only ask that they be given accurate information and commentary.  This did not happen on the lap 82 restart after Charlie Kimball’s spin.

Will Power, as everyone watching the race knows, brought the single-file field around for the restart very slowly and waited until the acceleration zone to, you know, accelerate.  Even though this was, according to Verizon IndyCar Series president of operations and competition Derrick Walker, exactly how the drivers were instructed to restart, ABC’s Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear vilified Will Power, comparing the start to something you see in go-carts and placing the blame for drivers in the rear of the field laying back and accelerating to pass on the lead driver doing what he was instructed to do.

It was the new play-by-play guy Bestwick who knew that Power had not reached the acceleration zone.  This begs the question of the preparation of both Cheever and Goodyear.  The viewers want to know both facts and opinions on those facts.  The color guys need to know what the play-by-play guy knows.  Shouldn’t both Cheever and Goodyear know what the drivers have been told?  Fans don’t need to be confused; they need to be enlightened.  Uninformed knee-jerk commentary does not help achieve that goal.

To top it off, on the next restart Power accelerated much earlier, and Cheever lauded him by saying, “That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”  Really?  Derrick Walker later said that Power received a warning on the second restart for accelerating too early.  Confusing, huh?

Gamesmanship will always a subject of debate on restarts.  Power did admit to lifting on the first restart to keep his teammate Helio Castroneves in line.  But according to the IndyCar rulebook as explained by Derrick Walker, no rules were broken.  I liked the enthusiasm of both Cheever and Goodyear, but do the fans a favor announcers: know the rules and tell us when they are broken or when they are followed.  Maybe Cheever and Goodyear visited the Dali museum inside the track at St. Pete and were inspired by Salvador Dali himself, who said, “What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it.”  If that’s the case, then carry on.

IndyCar is “Almost Famous”

My mind runs to comparisons.  You name the topic and I can probably list how it is similar to something else.  In fact, this ability to compare unlike things is one of the marks of an agile brain.  We learn new things by seeing them through the lens of what we already know.  So I wasn’t surprised recently when the movie I was watching conjured up images of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  What movie?  I was watching the fictional rock and roll period piece Almost Famous.  Besides being a soundtrack of my misspent youth, it was also telling the story of the current state of the IndyCar Series.

Just ponder the title for a moment.  With all the exciting racing and interesting personalities, it seems the series is on the cusp of a breakthrough.  IndyCar is Almost Famous. The big question is how to move past the “almost.”  Many seem to have the philosophy of the character of rock critic Lester Bangs as he describes Stillwater, the rock band being profiled by William Miller in the movie.  He describes the article being written as “…a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with its own limitations.”  That’s been the IndyCar Series for the past few years.  It has absolutely struggled with its economic limitations and its decreasing popularity.  What is there to do?

The lead singer of Stillwater, Jeff Bebe, asks the heavens this simple question, “Is it that hard to make us look cool?”  In the case of IndyCar and the Indy 500, it has been rather hard to look cool.  The series has not had a title sponsor in recent history that has activated its brand.  IZOD rolled out the same tired commercial for a couple of years and then just quit.  The drivers swimming and riding on watercraft looked pretty cool, but it not engage the public.  There was an idea, but no follow-through.  The Firestone commercials connected to a time long past, but did not really connect to what is cool now.  Maybe new title sponsor Verizon will finally make the series cool again by connecting a very real and current technology to both business partners and the public.

Maybe the series can take a lead from the new corporate Snake Pit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  In Almost Famous, William Miller’s professor mother Elaine tells her college psychology class that, “Rock stars have kidnapped my son.”  It looks like the Snake Pit at IMS is making a concerted effort to kidnap a demographic that has been eluding IndyCar for years: the hipsters. Mark Miles has gone on record saying that IndyCar is not trying to capture the NASCAR demographic.  Maybe the demographic he is after wears fedoras and listens to dance music spun by DJ’s in clubs.  The Snake Pit has managed to grow that demographic by bringing in DJ’s like Benny Benassi, Krewella, Afrojack, Diplo, NERVO, and Hardwell.  Names don’t ring a bell?  Who cares as long as they ring a bell in the head of deep-pocketed hipsters willing to return year after year until they finally decide to watch the race.  What?  You thought all those drunks who came back to the organic Turn One Snake Pit of yore year after year were there to watch the race?  They came for the party.  The party’s just moved to the other end of the track.

Want more rock star vibe?  The Snake Pit is now selling “glamping” inside IMS.  If you are willing to shell out the dough, you can spend four nights luxury camping in the infield.  That’s only the coolest thing EVER.  If you have the money, that is.  And somebody does.  You can go to the Snake Pit and channel Almost Famous character Russell Hammond as he shouts from the top of a house, “I am a golden god!”  Well, you can as long as you can pay the freight, anyway.  And let’s face it, we all want to be a golden god.

The most famous line in the movie is probably said by the groupie/Band-Aid Penny Lane.  She cryptically tells William Miller that, “It’s all happening” in reference to the tour of Stillwater.  IndyCar is finally able to say the same thing.  New hires have been made.  A title sponsor has been announced.  Infrastructure construction has been planned.  Social media has been embraced.  New events like the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the vintage car races have been scheduled.  Big time performers have been slated for concerts.  The Snake Pit is grabbing a new demographic. Take a real good look at everything bubbling up in the series.  IndyCar is looking at us just like Penny Lane looked at William Miller and saying, “It’s all happening.”  All a fan can say is it’s about time.

IMS: museum or racing facility?

As I was digging out of another Midwestern winter storm, I encountered the bane of the driveway: a solid layer of old ice that had adhered to the concrete with a tenacity that shovels, salt, and swearing could not surmount.  As I walked away, defeated, the ice became a symbol of the hard-core IndyCar fans that are still left.  They have held on to their beliefs, no matter how outdated, through the long winter of IndyCar’s discontent.  And just like a warming southern breeze will do to the ice what I could not, so to will a modern approach to the racing business of IndyCar and IMS melt away what is left of the hard-core fans’ deeply held belief that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should be a shrine to a once-a-year event and then close down for the rest of the year.  They want a return to Kurt Vonnegut’s famous definition of Indianapolis: “…the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race again.”

The days of opening once a year are gone.  IMS must be more than an edifice to the history of open-wheel racing.  Don’t get me wrong, if economics allowed IMS to only be open for the month of May, I would be ecstatic.  But the economic reality is that the Speedway and its grounds are the financial engine to the IndyCar Series.  As IMS goes, so goes the series.

The argument against IMS hosting a variety of events always comes down to the history of the Speedway.  It is a specious argument.  Carl Fisher, the founder of both the Speedway and the Indy 500, was more than willing to run multiple events.  He decided to run only the 500 for solely economic reasons.  One big race could make more money than many races, especially if the races all had the same cars and drivers.  That is an important distinction.  IMS is offering multiple series, cars, and drivers.

The question remains: Will opening IMS up to two IndyCar races, the IndyCar support series, sports cars, stock cars, motorcycles, vintage cars, stadium trucks, and concerts make less money for the owners?  Isn’t the answer self-evident?  The track, through tickets, suites, TV, concessions, and apparel makes a profit.  And it needs to do so.  Those profits, one way or another, support the series that WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT THEM. How tone-deaf do fans have to be to not realize this simple fact?

Can an iconic track with a famous race coexist with other events?  Look south.  Daytona International Speedway hosts the Daytona 500, The Great American Race, every February.  Does hosting the Rolex 24, ARCA, Whelen Modifieds, K & N Pro Series, Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Duel, Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series, Daytona 200 AMA Pro Racing motorcycles, Daytona Supercross, and the Coke Zero 400 tarnish the luster of the ugliest trophy in motorsports?  Hardly.  And all of those are sponsored races, meaning more coins in the coffers.  The Daytona 500 is the race that put NASCAR on the map.  All the other races put money in its pocket.  NASCAR parlayed a facility and its history and status into the most popular racing series in North America.  Maybe there is a lesson to be learned.

I have often compared the IndyCar Series to a starving artist.  He wants to be true to his art, but he needs to eat, too.  At some point, an artist needs to sell his work to pay the bills.  And if that work finds its way into a famous museum, that can only expose the artist and his work to a wider audience where a deep-pocketed patron of the arts may be willing to support him.  The IndyCar Series has just the museum needed to do this at 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.  All forms of racing are art.  The next exhibition at IMS starts in May and runs all summer.  It’s either that or 364 days of miniature golf.

Dr. Strangerace or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New IndyCar Schedule

The new, shortened schedule of the IndyCar Series has provoked a visceral response from the remaining engaged and invested fans of American open-wheel racing: the vast majority see it as an insult to those who follow the series and a capitulation to the popularity of NASCAR and football.  Pondering the fact of the schedule one night, I was pulled into watching the Stanley Kubric black comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Something seemed eerily familiar, and then it hit me.  The plot of Dr. Strangelove was paralleling the perceived issues of the IndyCar schedule.

I do love black comedies.  In the movie, a rogue Air Force general launches a nuclear attack on Russia that climaxes with a cowboy pilot played by Slim Pickens waving his hat while riding a bomb to earth like  a rodeo cowboy.  And no, the connection to Randy Bernard is not lost on me.  He lost his job before I could use the idea.  But the theme of following a flawed protocol to an inevitable bad end was not lost on me.  It reminded me of the debate on the current IndyCar schedule.

Here is where my argument takes an ironic turn.  I don’t think the new schedule is flawed.  The old one was. While attendance at events is vital to allow promoters to make a profit, it is more important in the long run to increase television viewership to attract sponsorship and provide a means for the teams to make a profit.  Mark Miles, the series’ Dr. Strangelove, is moving in the right direction.

Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, is the President’s scientific advisor and counsels the POTUS on how to deal with the reality of mutually assured destruction.  Similarly, Mark Miles is navigating the politics of making a marginalized niche series, one possibly headed to financial destruction, into a viable money-making proposition.  To do this, he has made, and will make, decisions unpopular with the core constituency of the small but rabid IndyCar fan base.

His first decision was to shorten the window of the North American schedule to avoid the Chase in NASCAR and both college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays.  Again, Miles wants to improve viewership on television to bring in presenting sponsors for both the promoter and the networks.  Everyone needs to eat.  The networks need to sell advertising; the promoters need to sell presenting sponsorship; the series needs to receive sanctioning fees; the teams need to make money…somehow.  The series’ window provides the best opportunity for the networks to generate viewership.  The series’ on-air competition with other sports during the new IndyCar schedule is not quite as stout.  The new series’ window provides the best opportunity for promoters to find presenting sponsors.  Again, the competition is less robust.  And if ratings improve, sponsorship opportunities will improve, also.  The series has some wiggle room with sanctioning fees, but it must have a long-term commitment from promoters and networks to make deals.  Again, the television ratings for the new, shortened schedule will dictate everything.

But what about the teams?  The unfortunate truth is that they seem to come last in the pecking order of who needs to make money.  The history of IndyCar shows that tire and engine makers subsidized the teams while sponsorship made up most of the difference.  No more.  The teams are spending more on equipment and making less on sponsorship while purses at all races except the Indy 500 are too pitifully small to make a difference.  How will Dr. Strangemiles manage to fatten the purses of the teams?  Easy answer: international races.

International races are coming.  Period.  Miles has floated the idea and has vast international sports’ experience from his time running the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals).  His membership played tournaments where they could make the most money.  That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?  A short South American series in the spring and another set of rounds in Europe, Asia, India, and/or the Middle East would make sense.  To host these races, the promoters will need to have solid sponsorship and financial backing that will pay the teams’ expenses and put some money in the pockets of the owners.  As much as I want to say it is all about the fans, that is not true.  The fans are an important constituency, but they are not the only one.  As I said before, everyone has to eat.

Before the schedule detractors start jerking their knees, let’s look at the old schedule.  There were massive gaps between events that stopped any momentum the series developed, and everyone complained about it!  That problem has been solved.  The same unhappy fans will say that foreign events are in different time zones.  South America is pretty close in terms of time.  And Europe and the Middle East will occupy the same early Saturday or Sunday time that F1 and Premier League soccer occupy now.  That is still watchable, right?  And if one or two races find themselves in Australia or Asia, then I guess the DVR will be put to good use.  The American sports public records events all the time.  It is not an issue.

The same people will complain about the championship.  How can we care about races that don’t count?  My guess is that any South American races will be run before the series opens at St. Pete and may eventually be points-paying races.  The championship still needs to end on Labor Day, and it needs to conclude in North America to satisfy the fans, sponsors, and television partners.  The fall rounds could be an exhibition series, but I can envision a set of races with a sponsor’s trophy at the end.  Call it the Dr. Strangleove Cup, if you will.

At the end of the day, the fans will be happy because the series will survive and maybe even thrive.  Embrace the changes.  If economic history has taught us anything, it is that a business has to be nimble and able to adapt if it wants to survive.  In Dr. Strangelove, the title character advises the POTUS to move people underground to survive the Doomsday weapon of the USSR.  Likewise, Mark Miles and his new schedule are reacting to the reality of the sporting and economic landscapes.  In the end, the series will survive because someone made hard and unpopular decisions.  Then again, maybe it will be like Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong, riding the nuclear bomb to the ground yelling, “Yahoo!”  In IndyCar’s case, I hope it is not an example of art imitating life.

The long dark winter of IndyCar

Ah, IndyCar.  You had a great season last year: multiple winners, a great come-from-behind champion, an Indy 500 for the ages, and fantastic racing at every kind of circuit.  The only thing left to do was capitalize on the energy and momentum.  Sure, the TV ratings were stagnant, but good things happened.  Now all that was left was to use that on-track success to build up to the new, compressed season on the horizon.  Ready, set, wait a minute.  Where did that energy go?

It seems every form of autosport is using the offseason to, at the very least, make some sort of news.  Good or bad, it is the responsibility of the series to put its face in front of the public.  Let’s review the news for some of the popular racing series:

  • F1: The new cars, which will once again be ugly as dirt, are soon to be revealed.  And although this was not a PR move by the series, Bernie Ecclestone’s travails with the German judicial system led to his resignation from the F1 board.  Even the change at the top of McLaren with Ron Dennis replacing Martin Whitmarsh is noteworthy for the series.
  • NASCAR: Stock cars even make the news when they have no news to report.  According to the Charlotte Observer, NASCAR is considering changing its points and Chase protocol to create a “game 7″ experience.  This decision has not been made, but social media BLEW UP at the possibility of the change.  The testing at Daytona with tweaks to the drafting rules was televised.
  • TUDOR United Sports Car Championship:  Even with the most unwieldy of names, this series has stayed in the news, albeit with questions about classifications, cars, and licensing.  The benefit to this series, like with NASCAR, is that they open their season in February with their biggest race.
  • IndyCar Series: *crickets*

Now, that is a completely unfair comparison.  News has happened in IndyCar.  Three time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced his retirement from racing.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a road course race at IMS was confirmed.  A significant change in qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 has been floated and will most likely be announced soon.  Do you notice any connections among those three items?  The focus of all of them was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Yes, Franchitti was a series champion but will forever be known as an Indianapolis 500 winner.  Yes, the series has another race, but it is inextricably linked to the 500 and IMS.  Yes, the change in qualifications at the 500 will put the action, and the series, on national television, but it is still the 500.  The big question is the value of the 500 vs the value of the sponsorless IndyCar Series.  The IndyCar Series is what has to worry about crickets.

Off-season promotion of the series has been relatively non-existent.  As was the case the previous year with Ryan Hunter-Reay, series champion Scott Dixon has been next to invisible.  Why is this the case?  When the 2014 season ends on Labor Day, will the series go dark for six months.  I don’t think hibernation is in the best interest of the series.

As always though, things are happening behind the scenes.  The new sheriff at 16th and Georgetown is C.J. O’Donnell, officially in charge of marketing, communication, and social media for both the IndyCar Series and IMS.  He accepted the job in November, and we can only assume that gears are grinding in the shiny blue headquarters in Speedway.  In O’Donnell’s defense, he has had only two months to evaluate employees, strategies, and programs in all three areas under his purview.  When that is finished, he will need to map out a strategic vision for both the series and IMS.  Even with all the grumbling about the direction of the series and the perceived lack of promotion during the off-season, it is still a little too much to ask for everything to happen at once.

Yes, IndyCar has been abysmal at promoting the series the past two years.  That is a reflection of leadership and vision at the highest levels.  At this point and at this time, the series should be given a pass on the lack of PR for the upcoming year.  Any change of leadership and philosophy brings with it an institutional inertia that cannot be avoided.  Change, and the difference it brings, takes time.  But the fact is IndyCar fans are getting just a little tired of waiting.  You are on the clock, Mr. O’Donnell.

In IndyCar, “The Song Remains the Same”

I was excited to note that Spotify, my music streaming program of choice, was finally allowed to offer the song catalog of Led Zeppelin, one of the bands that provided the soundtrack of my misspent youth.  In fact, the band’s music has played on an assortment of radios, 8-tracks, cassettes, CD’s, and MP3′s while I have attended the Indianapolis 500 over the past years.  Good times.  As always, you can count on New Track Record to reference the very best in pop culture as it relates to IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.  This is no different.

As I scrolled through the band’s progression from a blues-influenced group to the masters of heavy metal that they became, I smiled at the name of one of their cuts: “The Song Remains the Same.”  While quite likely referencing some drug-induced peek into an altered reality, it also offered a contemporary take on the new voice of IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.  It seems Hulman Racing has decided to go retro with the familiar pipes of Paul Page, the former radio and TV voice of IndyCar and the 500.  The song of the Indy 500 will remain the same.  And that’s not a bad thing.

The fans of IndyCar fall into two groups: the long time hard-core fans and all the people who do not listen to or watch the series or the 500.  That sums it up neatly, don’t you think.  While Page will not attract any new listeners to the IMS Radio Network, his hiring is a tasty bone tossed neatly to the small-but-noisy set of long time fans gnawing on the leg of Mark Miles demanding a return to roadsters, the Snake Pit, and the way things were in their memories.  One of those memories is Paul Page.  His voice connects us to IndyCar’s past, and I can only imagine the ways that IMS Productions is already planning to use him.

A change in the radio booth was well past time.  Mike King, a decent announcer in a corner or in the pits, had become a joke as the anchor of the broadcasts to many of the fans listening to the radio.  Hulman Racing had a choice: replace him or continue to demonstrate that they did not care about their radio and on-line product.  King went out on his terms, resigning to prevent the ritual press release saying the company had decided “to go another direction.”

While not a big money maker from rights fees paid by radio stations across the country, the IMS Radio Network does make money on selling ads that are broadcast to the listeners on that network, particularly during the Indianapolis 500.  The network is a must-have if the series is going to expand beyond the hard-core fans it now has.  And it must have a recognizable voice to be attractive.  Enter Paul Page.  He brings instant recognition and gravitas.  He knows how to call a race.

The fact is that only the dedicated fans listen to the radio.  The myth of the whole family gathering around the picnic table to listen to the race has been replaced with the reality of hand-held video games and easy access to other forms of entertainment.  By this choice, the powers that be at 16th and Georgetown have tipped their hats to mythology, to history, and to the long suffering fans of a a formerly dysfunctional series that had no idea who their fans were.  This tells us that they now know who those hard-core fans are.  The real problem is figuring out who the future fans of the series are going to be.  And I don’t think Paul Page’s voice can tell us that.

Mark Miles cooks up a new tradition at IMS

In an interview on Inside Indiana Business with Gerry Dick, Hulman & Co. potentate Mark Miles threw the local media a bone by announcing possible changes to the qualifying procedures for the 2014 Indianapolis 500.  The few hard-core fans who actually remember the traditional 30 days in May practice, qualifying, and race formats had the expected paroxysms of angst at yet another attempt to make the events leading up the the 500 more compelling.  As a die-hard fan of the race, and by extension the series, I look forward to the possible changes.  It is time to shake things up.

Tony Hulman, the man that critics of change like to say spins in his grave when changes are made in the May format, moved the race to Sunday in 1974 for logical reasons.  Memorial Day had moved to Monday on the national calendar, and racing on the day before Memorial Day created a bigger crowd by allowing an extra day for travel and recuperation. Plus, it meant a larger television audience by being in a prime Sunday slot when almost all Americans were home.  In other words, it made financial sense.  At that time of course, the only thing that mattered was the 500.  The series was an afterthought.

Critics can decry the changes that brought the IndyCar Series under the umbrella of Hulman & Co. all they want.  It does not matter. The redheaded stepchild that is the currently unsponsored IndyCar Series is in the house and needs a seat at the table.  And presiding over the feast is the new head chef Mark Miles.  The cupboard may be relatively bare of sponsors, but dinner still has to be served.  Miles has to take the ingredients available and make them palatable to an unruly assortment of guests that include family, sponsors, teams, drivers, and fans.  He is currently whipping up a new recipe for the big dinner in May.

To begin with, Miles can now shop for better ingredients since he managed to get the local food bank, the State of Indiana, to pony up much needed cash for improvements.  The process of improving the facility for racing has already begun with changes to the road course.  I hope he doesn’t forget about some new dishes and silverware for the guests, though.  The old stuff is starting to lose its shine.

Next, Miles whipped up an appetizer never before seen at IMS.  He is using his main ingredient, the facility at 16th and Georgetown, to give the assembled guests a taste of racing on opening weekend.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis adds racing to the menu at the beginning of the two week period of on-track activity.  I am still waiting on a compelling reason on how more racing is a bad thing.  And simply saying “tradition” will not persuade anyone.  More racing is better.  Do you want one drumstick or two?

But it seems Mark Miles possible menu change struck a nerve with some.  To add more excitement and value, he has proposed all cars on the track for high stakes qualifying action on both Saturday and Sunday of qualification weekend.  Saturday qualifies the top 33 cars.  You are in or you are out.  On Sunday, all the cars that qualified on Saturday are back on the track.  Positions 12-33 will be determined by requalifying on Sunday.  The Fast Nine will go late in the day on Sunday.  Holy cow, how you not like this new attempt to create value for fans?  This will be much tastier than any value meal at Steak and Shake or White Castle.  Hopefully, multiple attempts will be allowed for each car on both days.  These changes would certainly add a little spice to the IndyCar gumbo.

And it seems Miles has finally added the sous chefs he needs to round out his kitchen staff.  With the new entity called Hulman Racing on the marquee, Miles has added CJ O’Donnell as the chief marketing officer and Jay Frye as the chief revenue officer.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that these gentlemen report to Miles and are not under the purview of any other officers.  Suddenly, the racing business at Hulman and Co. is starting to look like a business, and it appears that Mark Miles is firmly in charge.  He knows that too many chefs spoil the broth.

Will the new changes for the month of May and the series be a sweet treat or will they spoil on the spit?  I don’t know the answer, but I look forward to a tasty new serving of racing at IMS in May.

California cruising at the MAVTV 500

The culture of cars and music in America started in Southern California, so it was fitting in a way that the IndyCar Series ended its season at this nexus of automobiles, sand, girls and song.  Just like the movie American Graffiti, one can follow the adventures of the cast of IndyCar through vignettes and a blaring soundtrack to try to recapture the time when open-wheel racing in America was king.  For this edition, just assume you are cruising down the road in your drop-top ’65 Impala listening to the dulcet tones of your favorite IndyCar DJ as he spins your favorite platters about the recent MAVTV 500.  So it’s time to buckle up, tune in, and head out to your favorite drive-in for a night of California cruising with your host with the most, New Track Record.  Here’s the playlist and patter for tonight’s show.

“California Dreamin’”  The Mamas and the Poppas  This song goes out to Helio Castroneves from Team Penske.  After two days of uncharacteristic Penske problems at Houston, Helio was looking for some magic at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.  Unfortunately, the Magic Kingdom is in Anaheim, not Fontana.  With the Captain Roger Penske at the helm to guide him, Helio fell short after leading the early part of the race.  It didn’t help that Penske pitted Helio into a closed pit, but the car went away in the latter stages of the race and Castroneves finished one lap down.  It looks like Helio’s California dream is on hold for another year.

“California Here I Come”  Al Jolsen  Do you know this is not the state song of California?  Something called “I Love You, California” is.  It’s awful.  In any case, you can listen to the scratchy original Al Jolsen version or the ultra cool Ray Charles one, but either way, the song is all about Scott Dixon from Target Chip Ganassi Racing.  After moving ahead of Helio Castoneves with a dominating performance at Houston, Dixon and the TCGR team were locked, loaded, and dialed in at Fontana.  On a night that saw Chevy dominate, Dixon wheeled his Honda to fifth place to seal his championship.  How dominant was the team?  On one pit stop, Dixon picked up SIX places.  How do you do that?  Dixon rolled.

Hotel California”  The Eagles  We’ll toss this one out to the NBC Sports Network crew for a stellar pre-race broadcast.  After the start of the race was moved back to keep the setting sun from blinding the drivers, the crew had some serious time to fill.  The segments have become much more professional with the boots-on-the-ground crew of Jon Beekhuis, Marty Snider, and Kevin Lee rotating to bring out the storylines for the race.  The length of the pre-race show did bring to mind the line “You can check out anytime you like / But you can never leave.”

“California Sun”  The Rivieras  This one is going out to the IndyCar Series for moving the start time back to keep the sun out of the drivers’ eyes.  To most people, this seems like a simple safety fix, but if the IndyCar Series has shown us anything over the years, it’s that nothing is simple.  Instead of consulting an almanac to see when the sun was going to set, the series waited until they could see it set with their own eyes before making a change.  The drivers certainly were not going to “…be out there a’havin’ fun / In that warm California sun.”  Many moving parts figure in a change like this.  The promoter and the broadcaster both need to agree to the change.  Being on NBC Sports Network really helped here.  The change would have been difficult on network TV where people were watching.  A rerun of Seinfeld after the race would have put the change in jeopardy.

Streets of Bakersfield”  Dwight Yoakum with Buck Owens  NBC Sports Network continues to let Robin Miller embarrass both the network and himself by doing the increasingly inept, unfunny, and uninformative grid run.  Unless they are looking for cringeworthy unintentional comedy.  In that case they have it nailed.  The viewers’ confusion results from not knowing which one it is.  Please tell us so we know how to react.  If you just change a few of the following lyrics, then you can imagine Robin Miller singing “The Pits of Fontana” to us.

I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
I’ve spent a thousand miles a-thumbin’
Yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield

Hey, you don’t know me, but you don’t like me
You say you care less how I feel
But how many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?

A little help from the producers would go along way to improve this segment.  At least put an intern on it.  The viewer gets a better grid run and the intern gets resume fodder.

“California Sucks”  Screeching Weasel  Yes, there really is a band called Screeching Weasel, and no, they do not like California.  I bet the crews and drivers have a few reasons to think California sucks.  Sitting at the bottom of the Cajon Pass as the winds blow down sand from the high desert may not be an issue with the locals, but the drivers sure can’t like it.  Race winner Will Power had to have his tear-offs replaced.  The cars and helmets were pockmarked with 210 MPH sandblasting.  And the radiators were blocked by all the wind-blown detritus, resulting in overheating and engine failure.  While the lyrics “I can’t wait ’til your state erodes and you fall into the drink” might be a little severe, I’m sure the teams were glad to see Fontana in their rear-view mirrors.

“Going to California”  Led Zeppelin  In this song, Robert Plant sings of the risks of going to California and the wrath of the gods.  Once again the sturdiness of the DW12 chassis and the Dallara safety cell mitigated the risk of auto racing just a little, and like with Dario Franchitti in Houston, possibly saved the life of Justin Wilson.  Wilson had pulmonary bruising, which is a wicked, life-threatening injury common in auto accidents and explosions.  When you bruise your lungs due to blunt force trauma, you are in a world of hurt.  This one is dedicated to Dallara for making such a sturdy and safe machine.  Complain about the ugliness all you want, the car is beautiful on the inside.

Thanks for cruising with me tonight.  Let me sign off with the immortal words of racing philosopher Tom Carnegie:  Let every day of your life be “a new track record.”

 

IndyCar’s street cred

IndyCar’s credibility with sponsors, television, and the media is not, as most would agree, at an all time high.  Ovals are an endangered species; potential title sponsors for races are keeping their checkbooks in their pockets; television ratings are in need of resuscitation; and, if some people are to be believed, the mainstream sports media are cackling as they complete their nefarious conspiracy to relegate the IndyCar Series to the margins of sports entertainment.  What does IndyCar need to do right now?  It is obvious that the series needs some street cred.  It’s time for IndyCar to throw down.

After looking up words in the Urban Dictionary to give this post a “street” flavor, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only can I not use any of those words without sounding hopelessly like an aging hipster, I can’t even use them ironically without sounding like I’m trying too hard.  Sometimes it really stinks to be so Midwestern suburban, yo.  See what I mean.  That’s the last time I throw in any urban argot, I swear.  In any case, IndyCar is beset on all sides by critics and reality.  The only thing to do is fight back.

Mark Miles started the IndyCar response by announcing that IMS would be hosting a road course race, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.  He had on his Breaking Bad Heisenberg pork pie hat throwing up IMS and IndyCar gang signs to the audience saying, “If you ain’t down with a road course at Indy, then you ain’t down with IndyCar, yo.”  Sorry.  I said I wasn’t going to that again.  That’s wack.  Anyway, Miles is doing what he can with what he has. He HAS the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  To have an opportunity to use the facility, make a profit, and be on network television is money in the bank.  Hopefully that interest can be parlayed into more sponsorships and more races.  To many fans of the series, the down side to more races is that it may include more street courses.

While I’m still waiting to see how a hotter-than-the-hinges-of-hell Houston in June race plays out next year, the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston had two things going for it: the names of Shell and Pennzoil in the title.  Any race, no matter where it is run, will be on the schedule if it brings the Benjamins.  Was Benjamins too hipster?  Sometimes the line between hipster and doofus is a little blurry.  In any case, IndyCar can only race where it is wanted, and it is only wanted where there is a chance to make money.  Just like a great athlete trying to come back from an injury, IndyCar has to rehab and train if it wants to compete at the highest level again.  If racing in a parking lot around the Reliant Center in Houston gives the series the exposure it needs to garner interest from Road America and Watkins Glen, then do it.  For the series, money is the name of the game.  And IndyCar needs to get back in the game.  How about that?  Was a The Wire reference to the game street enough without sounding all I’m-trying-too-hard-to-be-hip?

IndyCar really is the most diverse series in the world with its ovals, street courses, and road courses.  This IS the point that IndyCar needs to hang its pork pie hat on.  The series will never again be an all oval or mostly oval series.  That ship has sailed, and the taste of the fans has changed.  IndyCar has a great product for which it needs to find an audience.  An engaged title sponsor for the series, relentless selling by the yet-to-be-hired commercial director for IndyCar, and creative marketing by the series and race promoters are first steps to show television and sponsors that the series is a viable platform for investment.  If more street cred means more street races, I say bring on Providence, Rhode Island in two years.  As Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really.  Get busy living or get busy dying.”  It seems IndyCar has started to make its choice.  And I’m down with that.

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