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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.

 

 

 

IndyCar’s open-cockpit conundrum

Historically speaking, it can be said that IndyCar, in all its various names and acronyms through the years, is the oldest continuous open-wheel and open-cockpit racing in the world.  To a great extent, the concept of open-wheel and open-cockpit is what defines the genre.  In fact, no race other than the Indy 500 can say that they have been been racing the same basic concept of cars for 100 years.  That is why it is so surprising that an echo of support for some type of canopy is rolling into the rules makers of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Political correctness, with all of its attending hypocrisy, is hard at work changing the looks and history of a true American original.  The arguments against open-cockpits cannot easily be refuted.  The moral high ground has already been staked out.  If you support open-cockpits you are against safety, family, and life.  Open-cockpit fans are dinosaurs who only come out to see wrecks and death.  Open-cockpit fans are ghouls who revel in carnage.  What hypocrisy.  Everyone is thrilled by the risk.  Everyone.

Fans come out to see racing for many reasons, but one reason is a powerful trump to the others.  Fans like the thrill.  To have thrills, there must be an element of danger, and in IndyCar that element of danger has always been the open-cockpit.  And make no mistake, it is dangerous.  The chance of intrusion by debris or fencing exists; that is truth.  And debris and fencing will always be there.  It is part and parcel of the racing that the drivers understand from the first time they sit in a real race car.  Racing is dangerous.  That danger is part of what draws fans and contestants to the track.

No doubt about it, the danger in racing should be mitigated.  The real question is how much.  Rear bumpers were a design feature on the current Dallara to keep cars from climbing on one another and getting airborne.  The Dallara chassis was updated to help prevent yaw events and keep the cars grounded during side-impact accidents.  The new aero kits will have debris fin options in front of the driver.  Barriers against intrusion are being added to protect the drivers’ lower bodies.  Even though many of the factors of risk have been lessened, the element of risk must still be there, or it is not really racing.  No new fans are going to come to the track because someone says, “Let’s go watch IndyCar.  It’s really safe!”  We fool ourselves if we don’t think danger sells.

Open-cockpits in IndyCar are no less a tradition than 33 on the starting grid at Indy and a bottle of milk for the winner afterwards.  They make the series unique and dangerous.  And IndyCar needs those qualities as it builds the momentum and the fan base for 2015 and beyond.  A canopy on an IndyCar is a regression to a sports car prototype.  The series needs to sell what it has, speed and danger.  In fact, speed and danger are what IndyCar racing has always had, and the open-cockpit is one of the reasons why.  This is one time the fans need to say to IndyCar, “Please don’t change.  We love you just the way you are.”

 

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.

 

 

 

The end of the IndyCar Mom and Pop

I grew up in a small Indiana town.  Not only did I know all the business people and citizens of the place, I knew every dog in town by name.  If you were a quarter short on your bill, the local grocery, drugstore, and gas station would let you have it on the cuff.  They knew where you lived.  It was a good way to grow up.  Sadly, the small town experience has fallen victim to Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Amazon.  Personal service is a thing of the past.  I miss it.

Sometimes, though, the loss of the small town Mom and Pop store needs to happen.  Wal-Mart, for all its heavy-handed insistence on driving competition out of business, saves consumers money, and Amazon allows people the convenience of shopping for everything from home.  Hulman & Company, the corporation that owns both Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series, has finally moved away from its Terre Haute roots and is searching for success in the 21st century.  They understand that they have to grow or atrophy.  There is no in-between.

Exit Jeff Belskus.  The Hulman & Company president and CEO announced his (cough) retirement from the business last week.  Mark Miles has systematically  cleaned house reorganized the business to consolidate his power.  If he, and IndyCar fans, want the series to succeed, this had to happen.  Poor Randy Bernard, brought in by the board to affect change, was hamstrung and marginalized from the beginning of his tenure by the tentacles of the Terre Haute mafia that allowed anyone with a grievance to do an end-around to the offices of his superiors.  Additionally, Bernard was never given the budget to hire the pros in marketing, sales, event management, and finance that Miles has brought on board.  Whether fans like it or not, the face of IndyCar racing is changing forever.

Recently, Miles added Allison Melangton, former president of the Indiana Sports Corporation,  as VP of events, and Cindy Lucchese as chief financial officer and chief administrative officer.  In fact, Belskus was out on Thursday and Lucchese was in on Monday.  Different positions, yes, but both are financial people.  The years of IMS and the IndyCar Series being a sinecure for family and friends, no matter how well-connected and nice, are over.   Well, kind of over.  Just because you are connected doesn’t mean you are incompetent.  IMS and the series still employ family and friends, who, from all indications, are capable.  They just may no longer have as much access to the inner sanctum.  And that is important.

The Yellow Shirts and ticket and credentials offices at IMS continue to retain their folksy ways.  If you call or stop by for a visit, you will absolutely be introduced to true Hoosier hospitality.  That’s the veneer.  If you venture to where the new bosses reside, I am sure the vibe would be much more professional.  President Lyndon Johnson famously said, “I don’t want loyalty.  I want loyalty.  I want him to kiss my a– in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses.”  Miles has his loyal team and has gathered the power to him.  Now it’s time to take care of business.

 

 

 

 

A scary IndyCar Halloween

How about all the news out of IndyCar since the season ended in September?  You remember, right?  A race was announced for Brazil…and, uh….wait a minute…I know there’s something else.   Oh, James Hinchcliffe changed teams and has a beer named after him, and Simon Pagenaud is now driving for Roger Penske.  Did I miss anything?  The long off-season of the Verizon IndyCar Series has begun with what many predicted: a scary lack of anything resembling the buzz that IndyCar so desperately needs.  The fear that IndyCar will not build on its spectacular racing and personalities is only one of the tricks that the series may have played on it.  Here are a few more.

I sure would love to start planning my IndyCar travels for 2015.  To do that, of course, the series would have to release a 2015 schedule.  With all the talk about the importance of date equity, it seems that movement to new dates for Toronto, Milwaukee, Fontana, and Pocono may be in the offing.  Mark Miles and his team have suddenly gone quiet on when the schedule will come out after falling into the old IndyCar trap of talking about races before the checks have cleared.  Cue the sound of rattling skeletons in the closet.

Will one of the aero kits being designed (and clamored for by internet trolls everywhere) shift the balance of power between Honda and Chevy so much that the season will become class racing?  Could one aero kilt be dominant on ovals and another on road and street courses?  Sure.  The old Law of Unintended Consequences could be in full effect here.  Be careful what you ask for.  The racing last year was great, but that is no guarantee that next year will be.

Derrick Walker has stated that the series is closing on on having race control sorted out.  This recurring Nightmare on 16th Street could wreak havoc on the credibility the league has been so desperately pursuing if the decision is somehow mishandled.  With the track record of the series, this has the potential to be a flaming paper bag full of potential problems on the front porch of the series.  On one side, the hire needs to have the support of the owners and drivers form the beginning.  Beaux Barfield was an outlier and his support in the paddock was lukewarm, at best.  Brian Barnhart was a control freak that was liked in the paddock but had terrible PR with the public.  How about somewhere in the middle?  No tricks here, please.

One of the things I like about the holiday triumvirate of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas is the buzz.  You cannot escape the marketing might of corporate America from October to December.  Granted these marketing mavens have a lot of money to throw around, but they are out there selling every day.  Where’s the sell, IndyCar?  I know it is too early to have commercials on television, but where’s the buzz?  Did you know that John Green (3,296,107 Twitter followers), best-selling author of The Fault in Our Stars, was in the two-seater at IMS?  How about Deadmau5 (3,015,012 Twitter followers) being on track with James Hinchcliffe?  It should be noted that IMS did tweet about these appearances as they happened, but not much before or after.  Build the buzz.  Both of these artists have more followers than the total viewers of every IndyCar race the last two years combined.  Leverage that.  And if Deadmau5 plays at the Snake Pit this year, that is HUGE, even if you have no idea who he is.  He wears a mouse head as he DJ’s electronic dance music, for what it’s worth.  Costumes are big this time of year, right?

So Happy Halloween, IndyCar!  The fans are still waiting for their treats, but keeping their fickle interest may be the biggest trick of all.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

The Long Goodbye of IndyCar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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