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IndyCar goes down a brave new road

No one should  be surprised at the recent announcement that INDYCAR has entered into an agreement with USA Today Sports Media Group as a preferred marketing partner.  It seems that the bosses at INDYCAR and Hulman Motorsports have decided to control a little more of the message leaving the confines of 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.  The hard core fans wanted action, right?  Here is is.

Since Mark Miles took over at Human & Company, change has been the reality for INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The board of the company has changed, leaving the family with decidedly less power to act on whim, misinformation, or provincial politics.  The entire structure of racing has been reformed as Hulman Motorsports, putting both INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway under the authority of Mark Miles, as well as consolidating many of the duplicate jobs of both the series and the Speedway.  C. J. O’Donnell was brought in as the Chief Marketing Officer of Hulman Motorsports and Jay Fry was brought on board as the Chief Revenue Officer.  In other words, the series and the Speedway are essentially one entity now being run by motorsport professionals.  Derrick Walker brought a racing background to the series as the Director of Competition.  Allison Melangton, the leader of the Indiana Sports Corp team that brought Indy the Super Bowl, is now Senior VP of Events.  Even though this is all old news, it is mentioned to note that the leadership team is now in place.

Now the new game has started.  In recent years the series and its leadership have been ignored and bullied in the media.  The Indy 500 aside, news organizations have not followed the Verizon IndyCar Series on a national level.  Other than as a sidebar or in agate type, news about the series and its races was difficult to find and impossible to promote.  What made it worse was, other than the Indianapolis Star, only online sources followed the series on a regular basis.  Every fault was magnified and every mistake dissected in a quest for clicks.  All the series could do was grin and bear it.  At least until they were ready to act.

The announcement last week was the act.  By teaming with USA Today Sports Media Group, INDYCAR just swung for the fences.  Yes, it is going to cost INDYCAR some folding money to do this, but the possible return on investment is enormous.  Cogitate on these numbers.  Gannett Company, Inc., the parent group of USA Today, has 81 publishing groups with both print and digital coverage.  They own 46 TV stations.  Gannett’s domestic internet audience is 65 million unique visitors a month.  USA Today has 6.6 million readers daily across its platforms.  The team at INDYCAR finally has the audience to market the series.  The ball is rolling.

The team at Hulman Racing is built with some pretty smart boys and girls.  They knew a quick-fix was not an option.  It seems they turned down the volume on the digital naysayers and opted to have a plan and stick with it.  It is agreed that the schedule is a thorn in their side.  They have to know that, and Mark Miles’ recent comments that he did not make himself clear on how the series wants 20 races with a late winter start certainly seems to be an acknowledgement of the fact that sponsors, partners, and teams want a longer season to market themselves.  Smart people learn from their mistakes.

The series will not forget its hard core followers.  These fans will most certainly appreciate a growing series with more media visibility.  And they will always have the digital websites, message boards, and social media to vent their anger and discuss the minutia of the series they love to hate and hate to love.  They just won’t be as loud.

Will this work to build the series?  Who knows?  It certainly is INDYCAR flexing its muscles and finding a media partner who will help to promote it, not constantly castigate it.  IndyCar fans have certainly been conditioned to hope for the best but expect the worst.  Hopefully, this new partnership is the beginning of the momentum the series needs.

 

 

The Chevy aero kit: flicks, kicks, and wedges

Chevrolet revealed its aero kit at the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series media day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week.  Finally.  Even with a sharp video and a detailed picture with all the bits and bobs highlighted and named the result was, well, about what was expected.  This is not meant as disparagement.  Really, what did the racing public expect?  Winged Furies?  What they got was a compromise, one that was settled upon during the tenure of Randy Bernard and was so far down the road that there was no going back.  What they got was differentiation without crippling development costs for the teams.  Goal accomplished.

Chevy and Honda, whose own aero kit will have the sheet pulled off on March 15, were both toiling under the restriction of the Dallara DW12 spec chassis the pieces had to fit.  Did people really expect the aero design to radically change the looks of the car?  It is different, but only the most aware of the IndyCar cognoscenti will really notice or care.  And that is acceptable.  As long as the aero kit capped Dallara DW12 looks like a proper race car – and it does – then everything is copacetic.

Making the assumption that the Honda kit is not radically different, does it really matter how they look?  Of course it doesn’t.  What matters is how they race.  Hopefully, neither manufacturer misses the target and creates a disparity between the two.  A situation like that doesn’t help the series, the teams, or the fans.  The racing the past two years has been superb, and anything that changes the balance of power too drastically can hurt the series.  Chevy and Honda need to be different, and both want to win.  Great.  But neither needs to embarrass the other.  The series needs competition, not dominance.  The series, teams, and fans need the engine builders to be happy and stay in the series.  What is really needed is another deep-pocketed engine manufacturer with a willingness to design an aero package.

If aero kits keep the hard-core fans happy, or at least in a reasonable facsimile of happiness, and keep the engine builders interested, then by all means keep building them.  Of course, the series might want to make sure the parameters of the chassis will support the engineering of the kits.  Both Honda and Chevy were a little put out to be informed that the downforce generated by the new designs went beyond the expected tolerance of the Dallara suspension pieces.  This was discovered, of course, after the fact and required significant change by the manufacturers.  Great aero engineering.  Great downforce.  Not so great communication.  In any case, both Honda and Chevy have invested time, effort, and wads of cash.  They each expect to win.

Aero kits having any effect on fan development is highly unlikely.  Fans pull for drivers – not aero kits, not sponsors, not engines, not chassis.   In today’s world, the fans that IndyCar wants to find most likely do not care about aero parts called upper flicks, main flicks, top flicks, side floor kicks, wheel wedges, and inboard fences.  They never will.  They need to be entertained by the racing and engaged by the drivers.  Those are the entrées.  Everything else, including aero kits, are side dishes.  If the main storyline in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year is how one aero kit is better than the other, then the series will once again fail to highlight what it has in abundance: great drivers and great racing.

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

The paradigm has shifted: IndyCar is a street course series

Hoosier humorist Kin Hubbard once wrote, “T’aint what a man don’t know that hurts him. It’s what he knows that just ain’t so.”  I have no authority or research to show that he was a fan of racing, but the blindness to reality of many IndyCar fans is summed up in that aphorism.  IndyCar has changed…forever.  The time has come to accept that truth.

That’s not to say that change is bad, but it is certainly inevitable.  The fact is that IndyCar, in its current incarnation, is a street course series, and that is not going to change anytime soon.  On the current 18 race Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, eight of the races are street courses.  This number is likely to increase domestically in coming years.  And it’s a simple reality why this is true: it’s more value for everyone.

Before any of my tens of readers respond with Tony George, IRL, IMS, or spec racing rants, let me offer a piece of advice: shut up.  The war is over.  You lost.  And keep in mind that I am a true aficionado of all things oval.  As an oval fan, my choices were to quit caring about IndyCar, which will never happen, or embrace the great racing going on in front of me.  I choose to embrace.

We are a festival society.  We love to go to metropolitan downtown areas and party.  Cities have Irish, Italian, and German fests.  Giant art fairs take place around the country.  We celebrate beer, brats, and ribs.  Music festivals draw huge crowds.  Racing and speed are just other things to celebrate.  Most cities have vast experience hosting these spring, summer, and fall festivals.  They bring people downtown after business hours.  Cities want in.  And it is in IndyCar’s best interest to get in.

The fans that IndyCar needs to court do not care about CART or the IRL.  They do not care about spec cars or Tony George.  They do not care about horsepower or aerodynamics.  They care about getting entertainment value for their dollar.  Currently, the Verizon IndyCar Series is the ONLY racing series making a concerted effort to bring racing to where the people are, in revitalized or revitalizing downtowns.  The series OWNS this.  No one does it better, or for less investment, than IndyCar.  The suggested F1 foray into Long Beach will fail simply because of the vast infrastructure investment required.  IndyCar will race on the course that is there.  That’s value.

Street courses have proven to be good business.  Look at what Roger Penske has done in Detroit, a failing city with a successful race.  Penske made it successful by courting business as his primary way of generating revenue.  The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit actually removed seating to add the much more valuable chalets for business customers.  This business-to-business model works very well in city centers with easy access to hotels, dining, bars, and the racing itself.

Street courses offer the regular fans something not offered on most ovals: on-track action throughout the day(s).  The entire Road to Indy support series can be put in front of spectators, not to mention their sponsors.  Add in the Pirelli World Challenge sports cars and Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks and you have action and value for the fans and the sponsors.  THIS builds the series, not the constant rehashing of past politics and the self-scourging by fans longing for an oval or CART based salvation.

Accept it.  The future of IndyCar is going to include a majority of street courses because that is where the money and the people are.  And by happy chance, the racing is great.  William Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue,” and he’s right.  All the history, politics, bravery, greed, and stupidity have brought us here to this moment.  Embrace the street race!

 

 

Texas Motor Speedway in My Rearview Mirror

Mac Davis, a Texas singer/songwriter had a hit called “Texas in My Rear View Mirror” which had Davis eager to leave his hometown, and after seeing what life was like in the big city, just as eager to return home when things did not work out.   As IndyCar fans look back on the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, the dichotomy that is IndyCar in Texas rears its head once again.

After some acrimony between promoter Eddie Gossage and the IndyCar drivers in past seasons, it was good not to see the sub-tweeting¹ that was evident in recent years as the drivers lobbied for an end to pack racing and a safer fencing system, and Gossage lobbed suggestions that the drivers lacked the courage necessary to drive at Texas.  In interviews this year, Gossage was all smiles and support for the race and the Verizon IndyCar Series.  Somehow, this is worrisome.

In any case, the race played out somewhere in the middle between the “Oh my god, did you see that!” race of 2012 and the rejiggered snooze-fest that was 2013.  For whatever reason, the technical brain-trust at IndyCar decided to change the aero specs after the great race of 2012.  It was swing and a miss resulting in the 2013 follow-the-leader contest.  This year, at least for the IndyCar aficionado, strategy with tire wear became the only strategy that mattered.  Cool if you dig that sort of thing but not likely to engage the much sought after millennial fans out there.  I was engaged because I was able to follow the tire degradation through lap times and to anticipate pit stops.  Then again, I had TV, my laptop, and the Verizon IndyCar 14 app (which works in my house as opposed to at the track) to follow the action.  Most fans do not want to do this.  They simply want to be entertained.

I think the crew at NBCSN did a good job of entertaining the fans with pictures of passing back in the running order.  Tire strategy, since it was the only strategy at work, was highlighted in the broadcast and actually had me sitting forward as decisions were being made to pit or not to pit as speeds progressively slowed as tires wore out.  Again, cool for the enthusiast.

Would the race be better if there were more passing like at Indy?  Sure.  It’s a thin line that the rules tinkerers at IndyCar have to walk.  A small change in aero can have a profound effect on the racing.  Add the Firestone tire and how quickly it goes away and you can see how difficult it is to create the perfect recipe for racing.  The chefs at IndyCar are always going to be adding a pinch of aero or a dash of tire degradation to the racing everywhere, but the barbeque at Texas will always be the track where too many cooks can spoil the racing.

Anyone watching the race who understood the strategies in play sat up when the final caution happened.  What would everyone do?  Will Power, stuck in 5th from his speeding penalty, took on fresh tires and made eventual winner Ed Carpenter an algebra problem.  Math dictated that Power would pass Carpenter; the question was when.  That was compelling racing for a hard-core fan.

The Firestone 600 was a great race for the knowledgeable fan; it was the same thing over and over for the casual fan.  I guess the question that the Verizon IndyCar Series has to answer is this: Which fan is most important for the future?  The Firestone 600 and its willingness to promote its product may be the test kitchen for determining the tastes of the IndyCar fans of the future.  Bon appetit, IndyCar.

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¹ Sub-tweeting is posting a message about someone on Twitter where you don’t mention the person’s name but it is very clear to whom you are referring.  It is insulting someone with plausible deniability.

Indy 500 Time Trials: a new day is dawning

Sorry for the turgid prose of the title.  A kernal of truth is in there, but really, “a new day is dawning”?  And I have the gall to write that after a week of rain delayed practice.  I have no shame.  What I do have, though, is a good feeling about how the new Time Trials format at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to play out.  So what if it is hard to understand.  The old formats required a little thought, too.

First a word about Time Trials.  I’m going old-school here and calling this weekend’s activities Time Trials instead of qualifications.  It adds an aura of authenticity and tradition to a month that has recently been described as ignoring it altogether.  Maybe if IMS will dress up the weekend with this moniker, it will help disguise the disgust that some people feel about it.  My mom always told me to wear clean underwear in case I was in a wreck.  There may be a corollary here.  Or not.

In any case, some compelling storylines are attached to the weekend.  The biggest positive from this new format is that the drivers must hang their rear-ends out on both days to make the field.  Truthfully, this both excites and worries me as a fan.  The stories of drivers white-knuckling ill-handling cars around the circuit to make the race are legendary.  And we get to see it twice.  That’s good for the fans.  Having to do it twice, with the inherent risk to both driver and car, is bad for the teams and drivers.  It is simply the price the series is exacting from the teams and drivers to build excitement.  The balance between just enough and too much is mighty thin.  I just hope they never ask me to vote with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a qualifying run.  Too gladiatorial.

The points earned this weekend make Time Trials worth another race to the drivers.  A driver can win points equal to a race, and more, by simply driving fast.  No passing, no pit stops, no fuel mileage calls – just raw speed and iron balls.  That by definition is compelling on TV or at the track.  That is a reason to get after it.  I don’t think the regulars in the Verizon IndyCar Series are going to want any one-off teams to out-qualifying them.  Expect competition, not complacency.

Even though Time Trials have been condensed into one weekend, most of the available track time on Saturday and Sunday in recent years has been taken up by practice.  An aficionado of open wheel might not mind this, but the casual fan, and more importantly ABC, find it less than entertaining.  So IMS squeezed the qualifying times into neat little TV windows to interest the fans and appease the network.  And it is about time.  Now everyone knows exactly when the Fast Nine are going to be on TV.  Will more people watch?  A few.  Will more people know about it?  Definitely.  It’s just one more baby step on the 500’s march to greater relevance.  And as the 500 becomes more relevant, so to will the series.  Hopefully.

The fact is that Bump Day, for all the angst about its demise, just hasn’t been that good, except for the last 30 minutes or so, for a long time.  As fans, we always seem to want what we don’t have.  The last minute jumping into cars has been gone for over a decade.  The lines of cars waiting to take a last shot at making the field had dwindled to a mere handful.  We no longer have the cars or motors to ever bring it back.

Will the new format be the vehicle to drive the race to new viewers?  Who knows?  What I do know is that the 33 men and women who take the green flag in qualifying attempts this weekend will risk lives, equipment, and reputations for a chance to be one of the 33 on the grid for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 on May 25.  Isn’t that enough?

 

Figures lie: IndyCar, golf, and sponsorship

The week when the Verizon IndyCar Series races at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is the chance for writers to channel their inner Herbert Warren Wind¹ and wax poetic about the verdant greenways, majestic views, and oddball sculptures of the facility  Some even say it is the Augusta National of the racing world.  High praise, indeed.  Of course, in the racing world, any green grass seems like Augusta National when compared to the asphalt and concrete of a city street course or the dead brown of Sonoma.  Kudos to Iowa for the corn, though.  Not quite Augusta-like but it does have a certain waving-in-the-wind grandeur.

In any case, a compelling storyline exists with the relationship of televised golf and its sponsors and what IndyCar may be trying to do to milk value from what, by any definition, is a small television audience.  Golf succeeds for more reasons than just television advertisers.  The sport has deep-pocketed event sponsors who pay millions to host a single event.  According to an article by Patrick Rishe in Forbes, all 42 PGA Tour events are sponsored for between $6 million to $12 million annually with sponsor FedEx re-upping for $35 million annually to sponsor the FedEx Cup.  Nice numbers, huh?  And that doesn’t include TV money.  The PGA does have the advantage of being on four days in a row each week, but, other than the majors, it does not routinely knock the ball out of the park.  The recent Texas Open final round had a 1.6 U.S. rating the week before the Masters on NBC.  Why does the PGA tour continue to rake in dough from well-heeled advertisers?  In a word, demographics.

The sponsors of the PGA tour read like a who’s who of high end living: BMW, Cadillac, Audi, Bridgestone, CDW, Charles Schwab, Citi, MetLife, Rolex, Mercedes, etc.  Why do these companies pay so much to advertise and sponsor a sport that gets relatively low ratings?  Why don’t they go to NASCAR and the WWE, two properties that regularly ring up much higher numbers?  Simple.  The 1% does not ordinarily watch those shows.  They watch golf.  Numbers may not lie, but they can certainly mislead.  High end advertisers want to go to where the viewers have the most money, not necessarily to the event with the most eyeballs.

What does this mean for IndyCar?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  If you are promoting a niche sport, which IndyCar racing is right now, you need to appeal to an audience that spends the most money.  Glamping at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway anyone?  Want to listen to Hardwell in the corporate Snake Pit with VIP access?  All you need is disposable income.  IndyCar can grow as a property without beating NASCAR’s numbers as long as the right kind of viewers are attracted.  Can IndyCar attract those fans to the races and the television?  The devil is in the details, they say.  City street courses are certainly closer to the high end consumer, which is a great reason to keep them on the schedule.  It would seem to make sense that people who invest money to attend races are the same people who become invested as viewers of the series.  IndyCar and its easy access paddock and personable drivers are a great way to capture the interest, and the hearts, of its fans.

If the answer to creating a successful and financially viable series was simple, it would have been done by now.  The current brain trust at IndyCar/IMS is taking a measured approach to building the series, as it should.  Have they identified their target demographic?  I hope so.  If not, then maybe the PGA tour is interested in coming back to a Pete Dye designed course at 16th and Georgetown in Speedway.  There will be plenty of room for parking.

1.  Herbert Warren Wind was a golf writer who coined the phrase Amen Corner for holes 11, 12, and 13 at Augusta National, home of the Masters.

IndyCar is “Almost Famous”

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMS: museum or racing facility?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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