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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.

In defense of IndyCar Race Control

In recent days, IndyCar race control has been low-hanging fruit as far as finding something to disparage about the Verizon IndyCar Series.  In Toronto, the main criticism really wasn’t whether to run in the rain or not, it was the apparent waffling on the subject. The cars were on the track.  They were off.  The race started.  No, it didn’t.  You guys can start in your regular positions.  No, you have to go to the back.  You guys cannot work on your car, but you guys can.  Yikes.  Perception does become reality to many people.  The problem is that perception is often not reality.

I don’t pretend to have any special insight into IndyCar race control, but I do know a little something about officiating.  Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time race control gores your particular ox.

1.  You can’t call it all.  In the NFL, officials can call holding on every play.  They don’t do it because they know better.  If they did, then new officials would be hired.  Like water, the game finds its own level where the players and officials understand what is acceptable.  Racing is the same.  You can’t call everything because every pass, every defensive move, every decision could be seen as violating some rule.  You officiate the spirit of the rule. No harm, no foul.

2.  Owners and team managers, like coaches, don’t really know the rules very well.  Exceptions like Dale Coyne notwithstanding, owners and team managers think they know the rules.  Ask any official in any sport if most coaches get deep in the rulebook.  They don’t.  And that’s too bad, since knowledge of the rules can benefit you like working under red flag conditions truly benefited Sarah Fisher at Toronto.  Never assume the owners know what they are talking about.

3.  Don’t trust the announcers.  The only ones who know less about the rules than the owners are talking heads and ex-drivers.  The ex-drivers knew some of the rules when they drove, but I can guarantee that they only quote the rulebook when someone points out the rule to them.

4.  Let’s talk ox goring again, shall we.  Any official’s worst nightmare is the coach or player who wants every violation called on every play.  They never shut up.  Of course, they never want the same thing called on them.  Not mentioning any names, but IndyCar is full of drivers who see the world as against them all the time.  According to them, they are always innocent and everyone else is always guilty.  Be honest, how many drivers and owners came to mind?  More than one, right?

5.  No official sees it all.  Instant replay and slow motion have ruined the integrity of officiating in all sports.  We no longer trust the officials to get it right.  Actions take place at full speed in any sport, and that full speed in IndyCar renders real-time calls almost impossible.  I don’t care how many cameras IndyCar has, the crew in race control will never see everything.  Never.  A basic rule in officiating is to call it, you must first see it.  Guessing is not allowed.  When you add the idea of intent, then you have opened yourself up to second guessing from people who neither know the rules or are capable of interpreting them.

6.  One problem in racing is that decisions are often reached by committee.  Beaux Barfield may make the call, but he has input from the other stewards.  This is not a criticism of the decision makers; it’s an acknowledgement of the difficulty of reaching a consensus decision.  Having multiple voices in race control is endemic to auto racing, so there’s no changing it.  It also offers a little protection for the derriere.  And that’s important.  Officials need to believe they can call them like they see them.

7.  Officials can’t fight back.  Derrick Walker, other than an occasional ill-timed presser, has been solidly in race control’s corner.  His defense of the decisions made by Beaux and the boys goes a long way to silencing the critics.  Nothing is easier than sniping the decisions of an official.  The series needs to zip the lips of the teams in this regard.  You don’t see much official disparaging in the NCAA, NFL, NHL, or NASCAR because the league punishes this quickly and strongly.  Don’t allow the pot-stirring.

So cut the boys in race control some slack.  Whether you like the job they do or not, they are going to continue to call ‘em as they see ‘em.  As they should.

Ovalistas, where are you?

Yankee baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ‘em.” This convoluted philosophy is exactly what the Verizon IndyCar Series is fighting at all ovals on the schedule that are not the Indianapolis 500.  Ovals in the series are on life-support, and whether the fans or the series like it, the economic concept of supply and demand will have its way.

Other than Indianapolis and Iowa, the ovals suffer from woeful attendance issues.  The series, trying to appease what seems to be a very small but VERY vocal minority of fans, has worked diligently to add ovals to the menu.  For all I know, all of the oval fans may be going to the races.  It doesn’t seem that there are very many of us left.  In any case, it is not enough.

The ovals all have their own unique issues.  With Texas and Fontana, the heat is oppressive.  Unless you are absolutely hard-core, it’s easier to stay in the air-conditioning and watch on TV.  Milwaukee lost its prime schedule real estate when Roger Penske demanded and received the week after Indy slot and the accompanying momentum and ABC network broadcast.  Pocono, while being in driving distance of East Coast fans, soon discovered that there don’t seem to be many fans in those locations who want to venture into the mountains on an already crowded and expensive 4th of July weekend.  Iowa Speedway, even though the crowd has remained steady, is now owned by NASCAR, a series with a history of showing very little love to IndyCar.  Many of the venues suffer from lack of on-track activity before the race.  And with the economy often limiting fans to attending fewer events, even the Indianapolis 500 is in competition with Milwaukee and Pocono.

Another problem, reminiscent of being and F1 fan, is that watching ovals has become a somewhat esoteric activity.  You need to be an oval fan to understand and appreciate oval races.  Pocono, from my perspective, was a great oval race.  Strategies were in place to save fuel, leading to Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden being in front with the laps dwindling down.  Pit service had to be spot or you dropped back.  The low-banked and long corners created edge-of-your-seat racing that was incredibly fast and edgy in person but did not necessarily translate to television.  Fuel saving at Pocono, while a strategy, created a holding station situation for the drivers.  Saving fuel meant that there was very little racing for position until the end of the race.  The longer the race went without a yellow flag, the slower the cars went and the more they strung out.  Like it or not, these are the types of strategies that go with oval racing.  With just one yellow flag, the cars never had a chance to restart and race hard.  The one time they did led to an OMG moment as the pack hurtled toward the first turn with Will Power continuing his turn to a heel by blocking teammate Helio Castroneves.  It was a scintillating racing moment.  You just had to be a fan willing to wait over 400 miles for it.

Brandon Igdalsky rattled his saber the week before the race because of low ticket sales.  Unlike promoters such as Eddie Gossage at Texas, who enjoys taking public shots at the Verizon IndyCar Series and its drivers, Igdalsky called out the fans by pointing out that he added IndyCar because research showed that the fans wanted it.  Basically, he told the fans to put up or shut up.  And that’s where the oval fans in IndyCar are right now.  Hopefully, Iowa Speedway is packed for the Iowa Corn 300.  If not, then it may be time to shut up about how many ovals are on the schedule.  Of all the things that Yogi Berra misspoke, I certainly hope the following becomes true about IndyCar ovals: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

 

Spec racing in IndyCar: long live the spec!

Love it or hate it, spec racing is now part and parcel of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and that is a good thing.  This particular view will be met with pitchforks and torches from many segments of the IndyCar universe, but like street races, it’s here for the foreseeable future.

What I am NOT saying is that open development of chassis, motors, aero, and other parts is bad for racing.  It’s not.  The COST of this development is bad for the racing business in today’s economy.  Want proof that economic warfare in racing is bad news?  Look at F1.  IndyCar has a vested interest in keeping costs down and has done so in a way that benefits the most people.

The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston was a great example of what the parity in spec racing gives the fans.  Parity equals better racing.  Better racing SHOULD equal more fans at the race or viewers on television in the future.  The Jack Hawksworth/Juan Pablo Montoya battle was the scintillating example of big racing small and small coming out on top.  Fans should love this action.

The winners at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, Carlos Huertas of Dale Coyne Racing and Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports are the beneficiaries of this parity.  While it is hard to argue that SPH is small, it is certainly not of the size of the Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti operations.  They can compete precisely because the spec gives them parity of equipment.  Now the differences are drivers, pit deltas, and strategy, and none of those areas are affected by the car’s specifications.  In the Saturday race at NRG Park, Dale Coyne won with strategy, not money.  Toss in the Sunday podium of Simon Pagenaud and Mikhail Aleshin from Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports and Jack Hawksworth from Bryan Herta Autosport, and you have the poster for what is right about the current formula in IndyCar: cost containment and development restrictions that lead to all the teams on the grid being competitive.

Of course, not everyone in the IndyCar universe is happy about spec racing.  Certainly many fans champion unlimited spending and unlimited regulation that allows the richest teams to dominate the sport with research and development.  That’s one way to look at it.  Bankrupt the small guys or force them to race for the mid-pack/backmarker trophy.  The bigger teams, who demanded cost containment, only wanted costs contained if their ability to develop/fabricate/source certain parts that gave them an advantage was unfettered.  With the old Dallara chassis, the shops of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti were able to use their expertise and money to shave tenths and hundredths from lap times, and in an age when the rest of the car was the same, that was enough to dominate.  Other than shocks, the teams can no longer develop parts to find an edge.  Parity on the track is the result.

In Houston, Mike Hull complained of a spec part failing on Scott Dixon’s car, and Will Power alluded to a spec shim for camber falling out.  These were parts that the bigger teams could identify as weak and fabricate themselves.  While not making a car faster, it could make it more dependable.  To teams with the resources to identify and fix this and other similar problems, spec racing chafes because they can’t use in-house R & D to make their cars faster and more dependable.  What’s the advantage of being big if it doesn’t help in putting cars on the podium?   Well, the larger teams can still hire the best people to help with preparation.  And better preparation is an advantage, just not one that necessarily makes the car faster.

Fans are a fickle bunch and identifying what will bring them through the gates and put them in front of televisions is a science and an art best left to the experts.  But if they would ever ask if I preferred great equipment or great racing, the racing would win.  And if the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston is the result of spec racing, then why change it?  For now, spec racing rules.  Long live the spec!

 

 

 

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