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2015 Indy 500: postcards from the NE Vista

Another Indianapolis 500 has come and gone, and besides torched Port-O-Lets and the general detritus left by a sunburned and slightly inebriated humanity, the race was what we all have come to expect.  In other words, the inexplicable combined with the sublime.  I took the time to pen a few thoughts on post cards that have just arrived from the NE Vista.  They tell a story.

  • Greetings from the North 40, the parking lot that last year had no rules.  I know I gigged IMS last year regarding the total lack of parking acumen and the inability to honor a paid parking pass.  All is forgiven.  We rolled from the corner of Moller and 30th to our parking spot in the North 40 in less than five minutes, and that included taking a few moments to gawk at the sights of the Coke Lot on our way past.  It was reassuring to see all the Yellow Shirts in their natural habitat, performing their May rites of being petty tyrants and martinets.  They scowled and whistled and pointed and screamed.  I was home.  I might suggest that the planners in their cubicles not route traffic directly past the doors of the Port-O-Lets. You are supposed to use the lavatory when you go in, not on your way out as a car hurtles past, missing you by inches.

 

  • Hello again.  I have entered the track alone, unaccompanied by friends or family.  For some reason, they prefer to stand in a grassy parking lot with others, drinking Bloody Marys and slurping Jell-O shots while listening to loud music.  The radio should be tuned to a station reporting on the goings-on inside the track.  I am bereft and rent a chair back to make myself feel better.  I sit moodily in the early morning sun, watching celebrities and 500 Princesses drive past on the track, pretending they are waving at me.  I long for new family and friends.

 

  • Aloha from sunny Indianapolis.  The pace quickens as the pre-race activities roll on.  Terrifying skydivers buzz the Snake Pit and land on the golf course.  The PA announcer tells us to look to the sky minutes after their landing.  The new video boards work as advertised.  Florence Henderson warbles “God Bless America.”  Judging by the looks of all those under 50, The Brady Bunch has been forgotten.  Two A-10 Warthogs do the flyover.  I hope they strafe my family and friends with their depleted uranium cannons.  They deserve it for abandoning me.  Straight No Chaser sings “Back Home Again in Indiana.”  I weep and shake my fist in the direction of Kentucky.  Our song is better, even when sung acapella by someone other than Jim Nabors.  The balloons are released as an awkward struggle ensues on the video screen during “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines.”  The inexplicable has arrived.

 

  • Salutations from the top of the NE Vista.  The race starts, stops, almost starts, and continues under yellow.  Finally, the race begins.  Passing is constant.  It soon becomes apparent that the winning car will be owned by a man named either Penske or Ganassi.  All is right with the world of the top dogs.  The small teams scramble for a top ten finish as God intended.  Parity is no more.  At the next yellow, I hurry to grab a tenderloin, but the lines are enormous.  The reason is simple: two remodeled concessions stands are closed.  We are outliers in the NE Vista, forgotten and despised by our political masters.  I do not get a tenderloin.  Scenes from Lord of the Flies run through my brain.  We are a true Turn 3 dystopia.

 

  • Howdy friends.  All is saved by the tremendous passing we see lap after lap entering Turn 3.  Plus we have craft beer in addition to salt and vinegar potato chips.  The Verizon IndyCar 15 app not only works, but works well.  I have phone, text, and Twitter for the whole race.  Maybe the NE Vista is not completely forgotten.  Hope springs eternal in the human breast.  We stand the last 30 laps, grabbing strangers, pointing at cars, adding our own body English to help these steely-eyed missile men at the front of the pack maneuver through the turn.  Juan Pablo Montoya wins, proving once again that he is a wheelman extraordinaire.  We are sated and slowly exit the NE Vista.  As we leave, we see Rick Mears as he leaves his Turn 3 spotters’ platform.  He waves a greeting, and we do likewise.  A smile curls my lips.  He is one of us.

 

 

The English Premiere League Indy 500 qualifying

One of the greatest advancements in televised sports in recent years is cable broadcasters falling in love with European sports.  All year, a fan of live sports can crawl out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, and without putting on pants, watch F1 racing, Wimbledon tennis, British Open golf, Tour de France cycling, and English Premiere League soccer.  Truly, my sports cup runneth over.

The Premiere League is particularly interesting since competition is vital at both the top and bottom of the standings, or table, as they say on the broadcasts.  Suddenly, there it was.  The Premiere League soccer season is almost identical to the new Indianapolis 500 qualifying format.  Let me explain.

To rebuild the waning interest in the month of May at Indy, the Speedway in recent years changed from a two weekend window for qualifying to a one weekend format.  Great choice.  The only problem was the car count was so small that the idea of Bump Day and its inherent drama of dreams granted or crushed was really not worth following on national television.  Audiences need action and drama, and hopefully, the new format supplies both.

In the Premiere League, there is no tourney.  Teams play all year to determine a pecking order for entry into other tourneys such as the Champions League and the Europa League.  At the bottom of the table, the three worst teams in the league are relegated, or bumped, into a a lower league while the champions of lower leagues are moved up.  It is just like the new format for the Indy 500.  Once you become acquainted with its esoteric nature (and qualifying at Indy has always been esoteric) you discover why it will work so well.

All day on the Saturday of qualification, the drivers will try to put themselves into the Fast Nine Shootout.  Just like the top teams in the Premiere League, you guarantee yourself a spot in those three rows.  And just like soccer teams playing games all season to put themselves into the Champions League tourney the next year, the drivers have multiple attempts to qualify to put themselves in those top nine spots.  In other words, the teams have great reasons to attempt multiple qualifying runs.  Good for fans in attendance and on TV.

One of the reasons the bottom of the Premiere League table is compelling is because teams are guaranteed a huge payday if they stay in the league.  The final games played by those teams determine if they stay in the league.  The pressure is huge.   Likewise, the bottom three of the Saturday qualifiers at Indy are not assured a spot in the show.  They have to come back on Sunday and go through possible bumping.  With 34 cars this year, that ramps up the pressure.

For the teams in the middle, the real urgency is Saturday, as they try to stay away from the bottom three or get into the top nine.  After that, the pressure on Sunday is not to make a mistake and take a position in row four or five and parlay it into a position in row nine or ten.  It is much easier to pass cars in qualifying at Indy instead of passing them in the race.  Again, Sunday is also a compelling day.  Add to all of this the ability to make multiple attempts without withdrawing your time, and you have the recipe for some sweet qualifying activity.

Still confused?  Check out this infographic courtesy of IMS that explains the whole process.  My only disappointment is that I can no longer compare the old Snake Pit denizens to the crazy fans in the Premiere League.  I miss those Indy hooligans.

 

 

Sibling rivalry: the plight of the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis

People with older siblings understand the story. If your older brother or sister is anything you are not – smart, good-looking, athletic, popular, criminally insane – then you are constantly in the position of being compared, normally unfavorably. You hear the disappointment in every back-handed compliment and outright criticism:

“Those grades are okay.  Not as good as your brother’s, though.”

“Why can’t you take more pride in your appearance and dress like your sister?”

“You know that your brother averaged double figures when he played basketball.”

“Even though he went to prison, your brother was a real genius when it came organizing a distribution network and cooking meth in the barn.”

We have all heard it.  And it hurts.  So welcome to the family Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis!  Your little road race is cute, but look what your big brother built.

That really is the story.  The GP of Indianapolis will always be in the shadow of its older, more successful, and more popular sibling.  And truthfully, not much can be done about it.

I’m a fan of the road race at IMS.  Turn 1 (Turn 4 area on the oval) is exciting as hell.  Unless you are Juan Pablo Montoya, of course.  His quote after this year’s race dealt with a long, fast straight leading into a first gear corner and the expected carnage at the beginning of the race.  Point taken, JPM, although as a counterpoint I would mention that every driver knows that the aforementioned first gear corner is there.  Act accordingly.

The GP of Indy had some great stories.  Graham Rahal’s second place run once again proved that something is different on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.  It must be engineering since having his dad Bobby off the box couldn’t have that big of an effect, right?  A one car team with local sponsor Steak and Shake could add up to a tasty story line for the 500.

Will Power is stamping his dominance on the Verizon IndyCar Series.  He simply put on a show that stated he is all grown up and focused.  Finally.  He is the most dominant road racer in the series.  The oval at IMS remains his white whale, though.  He needs Ahab focus in the next two weeks.  Without the insanity, of course.

Even with these storylines, the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis is still the little brother tagging along for the ride because the parent company Hulman Motorsports said so.  The lengthy shadow cast by its much older brother simply cannot be overcome.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has done a masterful job of taking a month of May that had dwindled to the 500 and a convoluted qualifying weekend with barely enough cars to fill the 33 car field and expanded it to a three weekend month with two IndyCar races on two different courses at IMS sandwiching a convoluted qualifying weekend with barely enough cars to to fill the 33 car field.  Regardless of the attendance, a race with a title sponsor should be making money for the series/facility.

The problem is not the racing at the GP of Indy, nor is it the fact that it is a road race.  The problem is that it is not the Indy 500 and never will be.  Simply put, the big brother is just more popular than the little brother in everyone’s eyes.  Any racing event absolutely depends on local attendance.  While the Indianapolis 500 brings in fans from around the country, the majority of its fans are local.  These locals plan for the event.  They order tickets in advance, host parties, shop for food and beer like its Black Friday, and spend money like drunken sailors on leave.  They do it because the event is the thing.  It’s the Indy 500.  It’s a Midwestern Mardi Gras.  At the end of the month, they sober up and go back to sleep for another year.  They don’t have the love or the money for another event.  Going to a race at IMS is a massive undertaking.

All this leaves the GP of Indy waving its arms in the air and shouting, “Look at me!  Look at me!” to a populace that smiles and pats it on the head telling it how cute it is and then turns its attention to the fair-haired older sibling who always gets the accolades.  Fair it is not, but who said life was fair?  Even though the general admission tickets are an absolute bargain, and the spectator mounds offer sight lines to the best passing zones, the Indy area fans will always love the 500 more.

What does all this mean for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis?  Just keep trying to get everyone’s attention.  There is no need to cause trouble, act out, or start hanging out with unsavory characters.  A younger sibling in this situation has two choices: quit trying or get busy pleasing yourself instead of trying to compete with big brother.  My advice for the GP of Indy is simple.  Be yourself.  Or else spend years of therapy trying to come to grips with your feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.  Your choice.

Spending at the Speedway

The band ’63 Burnout has a song called “Trouble at the Speedway,” a very Dick Dale-ish surf guitar instrumental.  Good stuff.  The title made me ponder some of the current troubles at the Speedway.  Money was one that came to mind immediately.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am all for free enterprise and charging whatever the traffic will bear.  The object of business is, and always has been, profit.  I applaud IMS for finally monetizing everything in sight.  It’s the American way.

For years, IMS was the best value of any major sporting event in the world.  They could afford to be.  The track made money every year by having massive crowds for both Pole Day and Race Day.  Limited and very reasonably priced concession offerings sold well.  The corporation did not own a money-hemorrhaging racing series and simply mowed, painted, and repaired the facility until the next May.  Life was good.  All of the Hulman family had some folding money in their pockets and seats in a convertible for the parade as well as being Midwestern royalty reigning over a rather provincial outpost.  Who could ask for more?

Well, it seems the Speedway tired of being a once a year monument to speed, so they spent money like the lottery winners they were to make IMS a world class venue for other racing.  They erected the Tower Terrace Suites, made a goat ranch into a world class Pete Dye golf course, built a new Pagoda and garages, and added a road course in the middle of the once sacrosanct oval.  With all this building came NASCAR, F1, and the PGA.  The money train was on the tracks and rolling.  At least it was until F1, as it always does, found a better offer, until the golfers moved on, until the blush was off the NASCAR rose and the crowds dwindled, and until the formation of the IRL killed the popularity and profitability of the series and, to some degree, the Indianapolis 500.

There are a couple of different ways to deal with the loss of profitability.  The easiest way is to cut costs as IMS did.  Defer maintenance.  Sell your private jet.  Hire a skeleton crew to run your money-sucking series.  Deny requests to add much needed personnel.  Another way is to apply modern sports business knowledge to the idea of making more money.  Promote the product.  Hire the right people and let them work.  Add events.  Start charging for everything that has value.  This is Indy today.

Want to glamp? It will cost you.  Need preferred parking?  Pay up.  Need video boards?  The tickets cost more.  Hungry for a new cuisine or thirsty for a craft beer?  Pull out your wallet.  Want to watch practice?  Peel off a fin and a sawbuck ($15) for the privilege.  IMS should have marked everything up years ago but held onto the outdated notion of Tony Hulman that the facility and the race were public trusts.  While it is true that the track is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is still a business that needs to profit.  Do you really want to see the patrons howl?  Wait until the Speedway decrees that coolers are no longer welcome as a safety decision.  Talk about a new revenue stream!  And it is right for both safety and profit.  Nothing makes a capitalist happier than being able to justify profit in the name of Homeland Security.  The customers cannot argue.  I’m holding out hope that IMS uses a sponsor to offer a spectacular beer and cooler deal to the fans when the time comes, though.

Get used to it.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to get deep into your pocket for all the right reasons: profit and sustainability.  The old FRAM Oil Filter commercial used to have a mechanic saying, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”  For fans of the Indianapolis 500, later is now.  Pay up.

 

 

Why Indy is more than a race

After winning the Indy 500 in 1992, Al Unser, Jr. said, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”  He was right.  Somehow, words cannot always convey the emotional connection that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has on its fans.

Growing up in central Indiana, it was easy to fall in love with the month of May.  The peonies and lilacs bloomed, the weather warmed, checkered flags appeared in all the newspaper ads, and the Indy 500 took place on Memorial Day.  The topics of conversation were how the rain was affecting the farmers and who was going fast at the track.  And it was always “the track.”  No more needed to be said.

The Indy 500 was the only race that registered on the national consciousness. Sorry, Daytona.  You are a more recent icon.  Some of the long-time Indy 500 fans’ bitterness toward stock car nation is how it has eclipsed not IndyCar racing, but the Indy 500 itself.  No one wants to see his idol tarnished.  And after the IRL split from CART, the Indy 500 lost some of its luster and has been trying to burnish its image ever since.

Of course, to those of us locals, the image never lost its shine.  The edifice always stood at 16th and Georgetown, and we could visit it anytime.  It dominated the sports scene in Indy.  Much of the world woke up to Indianapolis on Memorial Day, but the true believers celebrated the entire month.  Students skipped school to watch practice.  You always went to at least one of the four days of qualifications even if you did not go to the race.  It was headline news in both local Indianapolis papers all month, and all of the local TV stations devoted coverage to the race.  It seemed that every business had a promotion connected to racing and checkered flags.  Simply put, May in Indy was the 500.  There was no escaping.

The result was that you became a fan of something that was yours in some indefinable way.  Central Indiana, for all of its Chamber of Commerce PR, really had nothing else of note to brag about.  It was always a little stunning to realize that this world class racing event was just down the street.  To be honest, most Indy 500 fans in Indiana cannot tell you the history of IndyCar, the IRL, or CART.  Those are just names.  But ask them about Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, or Helio Castroneves and they will tell you all about where they were and what they were doing while they watched or listened to the race.  The 500 is part of the fabric of Hoosier existence, the warp and the weft of our lives.

In the age of social media with its immediacy of opinions, fans of the 500 often find themselves at odds with out-of-state or series-first fans who object to the hagiography that builds up around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  These fans often allude to to fact that it is just another race.  It is most assuredly not.  It is a time marker, a cultural touchstone, and a crown jewel to its Indiana fans.  All good race fans have their favorite stories about the month, the track, and the race.  Even its detractors have their stories about why they don’t like it.

Hoosiers, despite recent adverse political publicity, are a friendly and accepting lot, and completely understand why people wish, if only for one month, that they could be one of us.  While we cannot always wax poetic about it, we know that Indy is more than a race.  Just ask us.

 

Five Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Edition

At times, my WO’s (worthless opinions) can run to sarcasm.  Surprising, I know.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series  always seems to offer snark fodder in abundance.  At previous races this year, the fragile front wings, racing in the rain, and rules interpretations have made it easy for one so inclined.  The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park changed most of that.  While not snark free, most of these WO’s celebrate a great race.

1.  All-American Finish: Josef Newgarden winning is a big deal for many reasons.  A compelling storyline to recent Verizon IndyCar Series seasons is the lack of a marketable American drivers for a North American series.  F1, noted for drivers from around the world, is a truly international series with venues around the world.  The IndyCar series is not.  The international drivers in IndyCar are outstanding, but without sounding all jingoistic about it, having a young, well-spoken, and telegenic American cannot hurt the marketability of the series.  If the series chooses to market him, of course.  They had American Ryan Hunter-Reay as both series champ and Indy 500 winner, and it would be hard to say they capitalized on that.

2.  The Racing: Newgarden and his Chevy were racy from the start, passing Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power to grab the lead from a fifth place start.  It was the kind of start that had fans using body English to help the drivers maneuver through traffic.  Graham Rahal’s run in his Honda to second after a late fuel stop had fans watching two strategies at once: Newgarden’s slow-paced fuel saving in his Chevy versus Rahal’s hanging-it-out after stopping for fuel near the end.  Fans could actually see the interval decreasing by seconds per lap.  And while Newgarden’s early passes were scintillating, Rahal’s outside passes throughout the race were equally spectacular.  Great stuff.

3.  Lack of Idiocy/Penalties/Yellows:  It was almost life affirming to not see carbon fiber flotsam and jetsam strewn around the track on the first lap.  The racing was tight and, for the most part, clean.  For the second race in a row, yellow flag racing was at a minimum.  Of course, the last two races simply balanced out the first two in the green/yellow ratio.  We’ll see where it goes from here.  It goes without saying that no Verizon IndyCar Series race is complete without grousing and complaining from drivers and teams about the officiating.  Both Sebastien Bourdais and Stefano Colleti took exception to yellow flags causing them personal hardship.  Juan Pablo Montoya took umbrage at Rodolfo Gonzalez slowing him down.  James Hinchcliffe was upset with Rahal’s line through the turns.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is still upset about NOLA and sees inconsistency everywhere. And of course, everyone complained about Francesco Dracone’s pace.  The reality was that Race Control penalized some, drivers, warned others, and called nothing in other situations.  It’s like calling holding in the NFL.  An official can do it every play.  You can’t call it all in racing, either, no matter how much the drivers whine and complain.

4.  Success of CFH Racing and RLL Racing: Back at the top of the podium, the success of Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing over Penske and Ganassi bodes well for the sport and the team.  The same holds true for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, too.  The smaller teams in the series need success to bolster their bottom lines when it comes to sponsorship.  While Ed Carpenter has Fuzzy’s Vodka for he and Luca Filippi in their ride share, a win can go a long way to help Sarah Fisher land a season-long sponsorship for Josef Newgarden.  Graham Rahal’s second place finish sure put sponsor Steak and Shake in the spotlight.  And Rahal, ever the shill for his sponsors, tweeted after the race that he might stop in for a shake on his way home.

5.  Big Mo Heading to Indy: There must be something to momentum in sports.  Every announcer, coach, and player in every sport talks about its value.  If that’s true, then the month of May in Indy could be interesting.  Chevy certainly has engine and aero kit momentum.  They are the class of the field.  Penske has some, too.  The team has every driver in the top nine in the standings with Montoya and Castroneves running first and second.  The Ganassi boys are coming on, particularly after Long Beach.  With Newgarden and Rahal riding their Barber success, this might be the year for an underdog winner at the 500.  And don’t forget about the invisible man, Ed Carpenter.  He knows Indy.  The greatest beneficiary of momentum has to be the Verizon IndyCar Series.  After the aero growing pains of St. Pete and the weather woes of NOLA, the series seems to be finding its groove.

All in all, it was a most excellent race.  Let’s hope it sets the tone for a most excellent month of May in Indy.

IndyCar weathers the storm at NOLA

The inaugural Indy Grand Prix of New Orleans has come and gone…and hopefully comes again next year.  While not everyone liked the weather, or the Verizon IndyCar Series reaction to the weather, it seems as if NOLA Motorsports Park will be in the line-up in the future.

The public needs to remember that this is a new track attempting to move up to the major leagues with IndyCar.  The facility made the safety and fan upgrades that IndyCar required and had to expect some issues.   A weekend of horrendous weather can neither be predicted in the long term nor changed in the short.  The track and the series had to deal with it.  And that was problematic.

The series and promoter were in no-win positions with decisions this weekend.  During qualifying on Saturday, approaching lightning forced the series to evacuate the grandstands and ask the fans to seek shelter.  With one lawsuit looming over flying debris at St. Pete, the series could in no way delay action on this call.  Legal counsel always errs on the side of safety with lightning.  If it is on the way, get out.  All major sports do this now without delay.  On Saturday, NOLA sent fans to every inside shelter on the facility, including buses.  Great call.  And the lightning certainly came in.  It doesn’t matter if the weather is deemed severe or if a warning exists.  Lightning equals evacuation.

The more noticeable issue, and the one that brought the most criticism, was making the race on Sunday a timed event with so much TV window still open.  The series and promoter made the call to start the race early.  This is fan friendly.  This likely would not have been as doable on ABC.  NBCSN had a little more wiggle room with programming.  This gave the series a chance to have rain delays and still get a race completed.

So the windows, both TV and weather, looked good on Sunday.  The teams handled the wet track pretty well at the beginning of the race, but as the track dried and the slicks replaced the wets, so too did yellow flags replace green.  By the race’s end, 26 of the 47 laps were run under yellow conditions.  Why?  Slick track, slick tires, aggressive drivers.  But not to worry, there was plenty of time to get all 75 laps in.  Or not.

Weather was coming in.  It could be seen on the radar.  Predictions said it was going to rain.  Simulations were done that predicted both the time and place of the storm’s arrival.  People saw it on their phones.  Here it comes.  Such was the dilemma on Sunday.  While not a full house, the crowd was robust for the race, the weather, and the facility.  It must be assumed that most had checked weather and brought umbrellas and raincoats.  Even so, if lightning rolled in, there was no place to put all the people.

The people.  The ones that had to park offsite because there was no onsite parking.  This is not a criticism of the venue.  Many major golf events move 30,00-40,000 people from parking lots to courses via shuttles daily.  NOLA Motorsports Park does the same thing.  But as with any new event, the wait times for the shuttles after the race were going to be very long.  It would not do to have thousands of people waiting for shuttles in a storm with no place to harbor them if lightning showed up.

So the decision was made to shorten the event.  The expectation had to be to have great green flag racing, finish the race, and get the people to their cars and safety.  The call was the right one except for the fact the expected weather did not roll in.  Poor IndyCar.  They made the right choices and still managed to provoke every troll on Twitter and every critic with an ax to grind.  Everyone wanted a full race and lots of green flag racing on a sporty, fast circuit, but fan safety trumped all.  IndyCar made the only choice it could make for the circumstances.

IndyCar will weather this storm, and hopefully NOLA Motorsports Park will, too.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to be the premier race at this track as it grows in the coming years.   A spot on the calendar needs to be found in the early spring where this event will blossom.  Until other road courses starting knocking on the series’ door, IndyCar needs to party in New Orleans, rain or shine.

 

 

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.

IndyCar, Boston, and Labor Day

The Verizon IndyCar Series has a recent history of races that almost happened.  Brazil, China, Ft. Lauderdale, and Providence come to mind.  All were well-intentioned, of course, but somehow the organizers could not quite pull it all together.  The most recent name to be mentioned is Boston.  They do know a little something about hosting big races.

Boston is a big event city, with the Boston Marathon and its 35,000 participants serving as a benchmark.  When you add in the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots, it is easy to say Boston is the biggest of big league cities.  IndyCar connecting to this vibe is a huge benefit.

According to a recent article in the Boston Herald, the race would be run in the Seaport District, presumably using the Boston Convention and Exposition Center as a hub.  The revitalized area in South Boston is a happening place, home to museums, hotels, and restaurants.  Basically, this is the only place in town with the necessary infrastructure to host the race and not screw up the notoriously bad traffic of the city to the point where the natives would rebel.

The article mentions a Labor Day date.  That date would satisfy Hulman & Co. chief Mark Miles’ dream of a season ending race where the champion is crowned on Labor Day in front a big crowd.  If the season is going to end on Labor Day, this is the place to do it.  Boston checks all the boxes for the season finale.

There would be a big crowd.  If there wasn’t, at least the television viewers wouldn’t be able to tell.  Certainly, the VIP chalets around the track would be sold out.  The empty seats at the season-ending oval race at Fontana don’t really paint a picture of a thriving series celebrating a championship.  Boston is big time.  Crowning the champion there makes sense because it would not be just another race.  Miles is on record saying he wants to own Memorial Day and Labor Day.  This is where you own Labor Day.

The time zone is right.  Ending the season with an evening race in California is brutal, and not just because the setting sun is in the drivers’ eyes. No one on the East Coast watches, and the East Coast, whether the fans like it or not, is the center of the sports broadcasting universe.  There is a reason that crazy Bill Walton gets away with his stream-of-consciousness ranting on ESPN’s Pac 12 basketball broadcasts: no one watches it.  Yes, the East Coast sports elite look down on the flyover country of the Midwest.  Yes, the East Coast sports elite marginalize the Verizon IndyCar Series.  But the series still needs to curry favor and get on their radar.  If that means ending the season on Labor Day so you are the biggest show in town before the NFL starts, then IndyCar needs to grit its teeth, smile, and put on a great show.  The product will sell itself once people see it.

If the Verizon IndyCar Series is going end its season on Labor Day, then they have to own it.  The teams and drivers need to be on board and pretend to be excited about the Labor Day event as the season-ender.  It is worth noting that Mark Miles went out of his way to make the point that he may have been unclear about wanting to have multiple races in the late winter season after the Super Bowl, and that he certainly wants to build the schedule on the front end.  Right.  You can also read that as the team owners and sponsors letting Miles know that the season has to be longer in terms of duration to justify spending marketing money.  Miles is no dummy.  He knows that the push-back to a Labor Day end of the season is real and must be dealt with by an earlier start to the season.  Miles has drawn his line in the sand.  The season ends on Labor Day.

In a perfect racing world, the Verizon IndyCar Series would start in February and end in October.  Everyone would be sated with the best open-wheel racing on the planet.  In our imperfect world, though, the series needs to do what it can with what it has.  They need to be successful on the stage they control and build from there.  Boston is center stage and the series needs to be on it.  Hopefully, the Hub won’t be another city given the hook and pulled offstage before IndyCar can get its show on the road.

 

 

Millennials and the future of auto racing

Imagine a future where the whole concept of a car culture shifts.  A future where the youth of America are not overly concerned about muscle cars like the 60’s and 70’s or the rolling status symbols of the 80’s and 90’s.  A future where youth culture is concerned about environmental issues like CO² emissions, climate change, and the depletion of fossil fuels.  And don’t forget about a future where technology rules and everything is “on demand.”  Now imagine how that all gets rolled into the auto racing fans of the future.  Those fans, better known as Millennials¹, are here now.

Crusty old Bernie Ecclestone at F1 has made it clear that he, and by extension F1, are not interested in creating new fans since young people do not have any money.  Bernie has always used himself as F1’s target audience; he’s only interested in other rich guys.  So while he is waiting for all those types to spring into existence, he has alienated his European promoters and allowed his teams to sink under the weight of enormous costs.  Over at NASCAR, the one-time American racing bully and its partners have been pulling seats from all of their tracks to make tickets more elite.  Well-managed but sometimes tone-deaf, the series is slowly moving away from the mainstream and back to its guns, camouflage, and beer Southern roots.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  They know their core audience and go after it hard.

All of this begs the following question: Is auto racing too expensive and elite as in F1 or too rural and redneck as in NASCAR for the Millennials to follow?  Whatever series captures this demographic while simultaneously keeping their own core fans will be the one to assert their dominance.

It would seem Formula E would have an edge here.  This electronic series, described as having forklift motors and Formula Ford chassis with bad tires, certainly checks some boxes of the Millennials: it’s green, technologically relevant, and cool.  The racing, while slow and quiet, is really pretty competitive when you get past the lack of sound and speed.  The fact is that Millennials might not know the difference.  Plus, they have some big name sponsorship with BMW, DHL, Michelin, TAG Heuer, and Qualcomm.  What series wouldn’t want that?  What it does not have is an existing core fan base.  It’s starting from scratch.

Which brings us to the Verizon IndyCar Series.  This is the series best positioned to connect young fans to old fans and begin its ascent to greater popularity.  The series certainly brings a rabid, albeit small, fan base.  Unlike F1, it is not sinking under he weight of outrageous cost.  The argument can be made that it was sinking under the weight of less-than-stellar management.  No longer.  Technology giant Verizon markets the phones and data that Millennials desire.  That checks another box.  The racing is superb, which trumps the slo-mo action on the Formula E circuit.  The Verizon IndyCar Series’ willingness to race on any type of circuit gets it into places that F1 and NASCAR cannot go: city centers.  IndyCar can bridge the past to the future.

Need more?  The introduction of the new aero kits has been big news from the non-traditional media as well as the racing media.  Articles appeared in Wired, The Verve, DesignBoom.com, Fox News, USA Today, and Jalopnik.  Okay, Jalopnik is a car site but it’s not a racing site.  The article there is outstanding.  IndyCar has some buzz going on about things that are not the bad news of recent years or Indy 500-centric.  Just as yellow flags breed more yellow flags in a race, good coverage breeds more good coverage in the media.  At least IndyCar fans hope that is true.

IndyCar promoters should look to the Indy 500 and IMS for lessons on how to hook Millennials while keeping their core fans.  At the corporate Snake Pit in the infield at the 500 this year, Millennials will pulse to the beat of world-class EDM (electronic dance music) DJ Kaskade.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who this is.  The Millennials do.  And it matters if you want to hook them.  Can you imagine this at Daytona?  IMS caters to its other demographics with rock and roll on Carb Day and a top flight country show on Saturday.  This stuff matters!  If a race fan doesn’t care about it, great.  Just go to the race.  You are an important demographic, too.  Quit being so stuffy about it all.

The ascension of the Verizon IndyCar Series is under way.  Real business people are running the show, real research is being done, and they have a real product to sell.  As the character of Penny Lane explains so well in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous, “It’s all happening.”  Be there or be square.

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¹ Millennials are the demographic group following Generation X.  Birth years of this group range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.  These are the coveted money spenders of the future.

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