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IndyCar is “Almost Famous”

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMS: museum or racing facility?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth in advertising: how to market IndyCar

The (your name here) IndyCar Series, by whatever name you want to call it, has a checkered past when it comes to marketing acumen.  In recent years the Indy Racing League and its scion, the (your name here) IndyCar Series, have been second-rate at best in the selling of the series.  The folding of the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sales and marketing departments into a single entity called Hulman Racing will hopefully end years of internecine battles for sponsorship and sales.  Mark Miles smartly hired C.J. O’Donnell as chief marketing officer and Jay Frye as chief revenue officer to work not only for Hulman Racing but for him.  Their marching orders are simple: make us visible and make us money.

Of course the marketing bar for both the series and the Indianapolis 500 have never been set very high.  If not for marketing partners Firestone, Honda, and IZOD, the series would have had no advertising of note in the last few years.  And the Indianapolis 500 has always sold itself in odd ways.  The Gene Simmons “I am Indy” experiment should never have been let out of the laboratory, and last year’s #Indy500orBust Twitter campaign, while trendy, probably did not increase attendance to any great degree.  As a long-time sell out, the 500 never really had to market extensively.  When attendance waned after the split, the 500 found itself having to market a race that was once a guaranteed full house.  I just want to let C.J. O’Donnell knows that New Track Record is here to help.  Allow me to offer some new marketing slogans that highlight the truth about IndyCar racing.

IndyCar – No title sponsor needed.  Just embrace the reality.  This series can stand on its own.  Let people know that pride and history are all that are needed.

The IndyCar Series – Now condensed into a shorter season.  Don’t hide from the fact that the series is afraid to go head-to-head with NASCAR, college football, and the NFL.  Sell that decision as somehow benefiting the race fan by freeing them up to watch other programming.  IndyCar is the series that cares about all of your teams.

The IndyCar Series – You don’t have to worry about what to wear after Labor Day.  IndyCar can position itself as a cutting edge pop culture icon by appealing to the female fan’s interest in fashion.  No longer will someone have to decide if white is acceptable at a race after Labor Day.  The IndyCar Series will make that decision for you.

IndyCar – Quite possibly an international series.  Remember, you can sell not only what is, but the possibility of what may be.  IndyCar wants to be international.  We can just leave it at that.

The IndyCar Series – Family owned and operated.  Markets often use the “plain folks” sales technique.  This appeals to the small town person inside us all.  A family owned and operated business always means folksy advice and values.  We just won’t mention provincialism, shortsightedness, family squabbles, and soap opera stars masquerading as celebrities at the 500.

The IndyCar Series – It’s all about the month of May.  Don’t hide the fact that the series takes a back seat to the Indianapolis 500; embrace it.  I’m sure the glitter of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will sprinkle the pixie dust of success on the series.

IndyCar – What we lack in innovation, we make up for in dysfunction.  If you can’t sell what you want to have, then sell what you do have.  The series has a car that allows little team innovation.  Every garage has the same car and looks the same.  If you can’t sell the tech, sell the screwed-up relationships among the owners, drivers, officials, and the series.  And go ahead and add the fans in the mix.  They’re crazy, too.

IndyCar – Where innovation and technology don’t exactly go hand-in-hand but kind of walk together, not like friends but more like acquaintances or people you know at work.  OK, this one needs a little work.  There’s a kernel of truth in that sentence somewhere, but it might need a little editing.

There you go.  I want C.J. O’Donnell to know he can use any of these.  Consider them my gift to the (your name here) IndyCar Series.  Of course, my marketing slogans may be a little too truthful.  The marketing team at Hulman Racing may have another direction in mind.  At least I hope they do.

In IndyCar, “The Song Remains the Same”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Worthless Opinions: Thanksgiving Edition

One of the problems of being a “columnist”¹ is coming to grips with the fact that your opinions are all you have.  I have no Rolodex full of IndyCar movers and shakers, no behind-the-scenes intrigue and gossip, and no discernible credentials to support anything I say.  It is that lack of valuable information that makes writing during the off-season so difficult; I have to just make things up as I go.  Many of my regular readers would say that is no different than in-season.  So what does an opinionaire like me do?  One simply attaches a few hundred words to whatever event is handy.  So here it is, New Track Record’s “Ten Worthless Opinions: Thanksgiving Edition.”  These are ten things about IndyCar for which I’m thankful, or at least they don’t make me want to bang my head on the wall.  Thankfully.

1.  Everyone realizes that the entity known as Hulman Racing now controls both IMS and the IndyCar Series, right?  Mark Miles being in charge of all things IndyCar is something for which to be thankful.  He does not seem to have someone looking over his shoulder, and he has quietly consolidated his power by putting his people into key positions.  In the struggle among IMS, the IndyCar Series, and the Hulman family, previous bosses were never seen as totally in control.  No more.  For better or worse, Miles is calling the shots and all the parts report to him.  It may take time, but at least he has a long term plan.

2.  The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis made the news and will most likely add some life to a moribund month of May in Indy.  The crowd will likely be local, but who cares?  The locals and the out-of-state visitors were not coming out early in the month anyway, so changes were in order.  Look at it this way.  I had a favorite pair of jeans that I wore so long that they fit me perfectly.  I loved them.  Unfortunately, they wore out.  At some point I needed to break in a new pair.  That’s the month of May in Indy.  It’s worn out.  And it’s going to take some time to break in a new schedule.  Just look at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis as a new pair of skinny jeans.  Sometimes fashions change, and it takes time to get used to the new styles…and the chafing.

3.  NBCSN (NBC Sports Network) has made IndyCar a priority.  The pre-race interviews and features were tightened up.  It looks like the interns were finally told they could no longer produce this segment of the broadcast, other than Robin Miller’s grid run, which still has the monkey/football aspect to it.  The booth of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. works.  They are intelligent, excitable, witty, and fun.

4.  ABC Sports and its overlord ESPN finally decided to do something about the broadcast booth at IMS and in the IndyCar Series.  I’m not sure Marty Reid was the only problem, but at least it appears the network has turned its eye to improving the product.  I assume ABC knows that Dario Franchitti is available.

5.  Speaking of Dario Franchitti, every fan of open wheel racing needs to thank Dallara for building a solid car.  The car did its job at Houston.  It may be ugly, but it’s racy and saves lives.  If there is a problem with the racing, it is not the car’s fault.  It works.

6.  IndyCar fans should be thankful Juan Pablo Montoya is coming back to the series.  He is a real wheelman who has the ability to run up front, win races, and piss off owners, racers, and fans.  The series needs villains, and JPM can certainly fill the role.  Truth be told, he has done more globally than Franchitti and has more world-wide fans, as evidenced by his 777,000 Twitter followers as compared to Franchitti’s 115,000.  He is NOT over-the-hill.

7.  Quite frankly, I’m thankful for the nuts who follow IndyCar racing.  Disturbed?  Take a stroll through TrackForum sometime.  These people are opinionated, argumentative, angry, and necessary.  The series absolutely needs to find a new demographic to assure the future of open wheel racing,  but the hard-core traditionalists will need to be brought kicking and screaming to whatever new paradigm is developed.  And listening to those crazy bastards always makes me smile.  Rage on!

8.  Although it seems like a death wish for the series, I’m thankful for the right-sized schedule…for now.  The series has contracted the number of dates and shortened the calendar to avoid football.  Now the series can build the schedule slowly and methodically, adding races, venues, and dates that fit with the strategy that Mark Miles and Hulman Racing have developed.  Smart businesses have both long-term and short-term goals that fit with a strategic vision.  Right or wrong, Hulman Racing now has a plan.

9.  A special thanks to past, current, and future sponsors of teams, venues, and races.  I will buy your vodka, wear your underwear, and ride on your tires.  There is value in the series, but the businessmen at 16th and Georgetown need to sell it.  So go sell it.  I really hated to see IZOD leave, though, because I really liked their pocket t-shirts and socks.  They were my fashion statement.

10.  Finally, a thanks to the drivers and teams in the series for putting on the best show in racing.

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¹ I realize I’m not really a columnist.  I write a blog about a niche sport.  It’s fun to pretend, though.

The conservation of energy in IndyCar

It’s good to see IndyCar teams working so hard on being green.  After all, it’s important that all racing series commit to conservation, recycling, renewal, and whatever else puts a smiley face on the critics of auto racing who decry motorsports as models of conspicuous consumption¹.  At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the employees picking up litter and emptying trash cans wear green (!) bibs that proudly proclaim “Ecology” as their department.  I’m sure that title makes picking up the detritus of race fans so much more appealing.  IndyCar has even added laps to races in an effort to conserve energy.

In 2013, IndyCar added laps at St. Pete, Milwaukee, and Mid-Ohio to discourage the use of fuel conservation from the beginning of the race.  It seems fans actually prefer to watch cars pass each other for position on-track.  Since a race like the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio normally calls for three pit stops to get to the finish, basic high school math proved to teams that if you slowed down and used less fuel, then you could finish the race on two stops.  That seems like a sure-fire way to win a race, so why don’t all the teams do it?  If going slower not only saves energy, thus making a series greener, but also enables a car to make fewer stops, it would seem to be the only choice for a politically correct and ecologically sustainable series.

Apparently, a high school math story problem, pit stop deltas, and yellow flags are the monkey wrenches that get tossed into the works here.  A team conserving energy (saving fuel) to limit the number of pit stops by going slower allows teams who are not conserving energy (saving fuel) to go like hell, thus increasing the lead for these energy wasting, planet hating drivers and teams.  Here is where the term “pit stop delta” gets thrown around by really smart guys like Jon Beekhuis.  The pit stop delta is simply the time it takes to enter the pits, stop, and re-enter the track.

It is the fervent hope of our green, planet loving drivers and teams saving fuel that they do not fall so far behind the energy wasting, planet hating teams and drivers that the time behind the leaders plus the delta for them to make two pit stops is more than the delta for the energy wasters to make three stops.  The problem is how far behind the energy savers fall while they are trying to save fuel.  That time behind the go-like-hell leaders is the all-important variable in our high school story problem.  If an energy saving car goes too slow, it falls so far behind the leaders that two pit stops cannot make up the difference.  That is what happened at Mid Ohio.

Both Penkse Racing’s Will Power and Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti played the environmental card and went slow to save energy.  They hoped for one wild card to be played during the race: a yellow flag.  That is the other variable in the strategy to save the earth and win races.  When yellow flags happen, it not only bunches up the field, it allows the noble energy conservers to save even more energy.  The result is to let them drive like hell later because they saved even more fuel.  Unless, of course, a race is run with no yellow flags, which is what happened at Mid Ohio for the second year in a row.  The perfect scenario is for a yellow to fall after the savers have taken their second pit stop and before the users have taken their third pit stop.  The result of that is a fuel saver becoming the leader.  Power and Franchitti could not save enough fuel to race hard at the end.  And part of that is because the IZOD IndyCar Series added five extra laps to the race.  The result of those added laps was the fuel savers had to go even slower during the race to save fuel to use a two stop strategy while the three stoppers could continue to go like hell.  The earth hating Charlie Kimball decided to go like hell and waste our precious resources to win the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio.  Shame on you, Charlie!

So hats off to the earth loving fuel savers!  Like tree hugging conservationists everywhere, you fought the good fight only to become the victims of the rampant and thoughtless exploitation of our precious fossil fuels.  We can only hope that in the future, IndyCar will lengthen the distances of all races while limiting the number of pit stops.  Then we will have a series that can proudly claim to be the best at using the least.

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1.  The term “conspicuous consumption” was coined by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class.  I footnoted it for two reasons.  One is to use the name Thorstein Veblen.  I considered it as a Twitter handle, but it was already taken.  The second is because his theories of leisure class, consumption, and technocrats are still viable today.  Don’t read the book.  Just check out this Wikipedia page.

Made-for-TV Drama: IndyCar and the NBC Sports Network

The recent announcement that the NBC Sports Network won the rights to the second half of the NASCAR season from ESPN starting in 2015 has set IndyCar fans all aquiver with either angst or ecstasy about what it means to the future of the IZOD IndyCar Series.  It certainly means something. The meaning of that something is open to debate/argument/conjecture/fabrication, and at least one of those is right in my wheelhouse.  Since my ability as a seer is somewhat limited, I’ll just offer the possible yin and the yang of the deal as it relates to IndyCar.

On the dark side, the fear exists that the NASCAR deal will marginalize a series that is already marginalized.  NBCSN is in the business of selling advertising to generate profit for its shareholders.  That’s it.  After committing BILLIONS of dollars to NASCAR, the network has effectively mortgaged its future with the France family holding the paper.  You had better believe the bean counters and programmers will show NASCAR drivers sleeping in their motorhomes if the ratings are high enough.

Any way you look at it, NASCAR is the king of the new television home of racing.  IndyCar, F1, and any other series will need to be quite flexible if they want a place at the broadcast table.  If not, they can fight over the scraps thrown by the masters of the house.  And the fact is F1, with its early broadcast times, is in the best position not to be threatened by NASCAR.  Keeping in mind that 13 of the 20 NASCAR races in the portfolio will broadcast on NBCSN, it’s easy to see why IndyCar and its race promoters will need to be flexible on both broadcast times and dates.

The idea of an earlier start and end to the IndyCar schedule is certainly going to be a topic of discussion.  If IndyCar can make NBCSN money, it will be promoted.  If it can’t, it will be tucked away with Aussie rules football and the other filler programming until a suitable replacement can be found.

In Taoist philosophy, the yin must have a yang, and there is certainly light to be seen in this new TV deal.  Since NBCSN has committed to auto racing, it would make sense that they develop all their racing properties.  They own rights to IndyCar through 2018, so cross-promoting IndyCar and F1 to NASCAR fans makes sense.  Race fans are race fans.

Getting viewers predisposed to like racing to tune in to another series is easier fruit to pick than creating new race fans.  Making IndyCar a viewer destination makes sense from a bean counting and programming perspective, too.  One of the problems with the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket NASCAR marketing strategy is that it limits your demographic.  No matter the ratings, NASCAR is a particular, though lucrative, demographic.  Fans of both IndyCar and F1 are likely a more diverse, educated, and wealthy slice of viewers.  It would pay for NBCSN to cultivate and grow the viewers of these series since it would diversify its demographic portfolio for potential advertisers.  If the fans of each of the series migrate to the other series, then everybody wins.  Ratings will go up and everyone pockets more cash.

The fact is, everything about how the new NASCAR deal with NBC/NBCSN will affect the IZOD IndyCar Series is wild conjecture.  And as always, wild conjecture is part and parcel of everything written here.  Make no mistake, the deal WILL affect the series in profound ways.  And in the true schizophrenic nature of the IndyCar fan, the sky will either be falling or raining baby Borg-Warner trophies.  As they say on television, stay tuned.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Toronto Poutine Edition

IndyCar had quite the time in Toronto.  Border security, rules interpretation, feuds, and Scott Dixon’s domination mixed together in a doubleheader race format to provide a highly entertaining  weekend.  In other words, the IZOD IndyCar Series is sometimes just a blogger’s dream.  So grab your poutine (fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds) and settle in for that other messy treat that is “Ten Worthless Opinions.”

1.  There are so many interesting/entertaining/puzzling storylines to the weekend, I truly don’t know where to start.  Let’s go ahead with what was the big interest going into the weekend: standing starts.  The IndyCar series has a knack for taking the big story and fumbling it like Sebastien Bourdais did his runner-up trophy after Saturday’s race.  Standing starts are a big deal only because IndyCar has for years been unable to have competent two-wide starts due to driver gamesmanship and officials unwillingness/inability to enforce a standard for rolling starts.  The only reason to use a standing start to spice up the beginning of the race is because the normal rolling starts are so brutally ugly.

2.  The standing start concept did, however, generate interest, which makes the fumbling on Saturday even more egregious.   I have no problems with IndyCar using standing starts.  My problem is the seemingly amateurish handling of the concept.  The drivers and team principals are allowed to publicly question/ridicule the choice of starts.  That’s the way to build a brand, if your brand is churlishness.  The fumbling occurred when the officials decided to abort the standing start when Josef Newgarden had an issue.  And I’m OK with that choice.  What leaves me rolling my eyes is how IndyCar did not make clear to its on-site and TV audience what the rules for using or not using the standing start were.  I’m pretty sure if IndyCar handed a list of the standing start rules to NBC Sports and said,”You might want to make a graphic of this for your booth and your audience,” they would have done it.  And NBC Sports is not off the hook.  How could they not request/demand the rules in a production meeting?  Picture the fans at the venue and the hundreds watching on television with their palms up saying, “What the hell’s going on?”  Be prepared to tell the story.

3.  Loved the NBC Sports booth of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Steve Matchett.  Matchett in particular brought enthusiasm and insight to his first foray into IndyCar.  He watched it like a well-informed fan.  Bell continues to be smooth, and his low-key delivery is a nice contrast to Diffey’s exuberance.  Jon Beekhuis excels at giving technical information, this week explaining how the clutch works in a standing start.  NBC Sports broadcast shames ABC, which seems to simply go through the motions.

4.  I did question how NBC Sports handled the Dario Franchitti/Will Power contretemps, though.  After Franchitti blocked/held his line against Power’s aggressive/optimistic/stupid move in turn three, there was a great opportunity to build a feud between members of the two dominant teams in the series.  How did NBC Sports handle it?  They had the two talk it out on the Sunday broadcast with Robin Miller, the same Robin Miller who says, “Hate is good.”  What a let-down.  Where’s the shit-stirring Marty Snyder when you need him?

5.  The racing was great.  And that’s not just shilling.  Other than Scott Dixon absolutely checking out on Sunday, cars were passing and being passed on both days.  Scott Dixon may be rather vanilla when it comes to personality, but what a racer.  He did not put a wheel wrong all weekend.  Speaking of Ganassi Racing, the in-race and post-race comments of Mike Hull are always informative, even when he is being sly about strategy.  Chip Ganassi was at his well-behaved best in the post-race interviews, even welcoming Dragon Racing’s Jay Penske to the rich guys’ club.  His feigned magnanimity chafes me since his normal demeanor is peevish and irascible.  Leopards and spots, you know.

6.  I wonder if we will ever hear the full story of IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield and his border bang-up?  Was he smuggling Cuban cigars into Canada?  I mean, who doesn’t like a good Cuban to smoke after dinner?  Was his passport not up-to-date?  That happens to the best of us.  The truth is probably mundane, but I would love to know.  Until then, I will just make it worse by offering conjecture and innuendo, as a reputable blogger should.  Of more concern is Derrick Walker’s seemingly less-than-enthusiastic support of Barfield in Jenna Fryer’s recent AP story.  Beaux had relatively free rein under former boss Randy Bernard.  My guess is life is different under the dominion of Walker.  Keep your eye on this relationship.

7.  Let’s talk about rules!  In race one, the rule was that two wheels had to be in contact with the racing surface at all times to keep the drivers from curb jumping.  IndyCar gave warnings for violations and then rescinded the rule during the race Saturday when the drivers continued to jump the curbs.  I imagine the conversation going something like this:

  • Race Control: “Stop jumping the curbs!”
  • Drivers: “No!”
  • Race Control: “Stop it!”
  • Drivers: “No!”
  • Race Control: “Never mind.”

8.  More rules interpretation.

  • Race Control: “Dario Franchitti, you blocked Will Power!”
  • Franchitti: “No, I didn’t!”
  • Race control: “Yes, you did!”
  • Franchitti:  “I’m getting my dad!”
  • Race control: “Never mind.”

9.  Even more rules interpretation.

  • Race Control:  “You will do standing starts/double-file restarts/two laps on red tires.”
  • Drivers: “No.”
  • Race Control: “OK.”

10.  OK, that last was a cheap shot.  The drivers and teams knew about the rules for aborting the standing start, the change from double-file to single-file restarts, and the codicil permitting a change of tires without using them for two laps.  The people who did not always know were the broadcasters and the fans.  And since IndyCar is trying to engage the fans, it might consider keeping them informed.  Just a suggestion.  One more: when announcing rules interpretations to the audience, IndyCar might want to include the phrase, “Pursuant to Rule #…”  That would certainly have helped the NBC Sports crew give the audience the facts instead leaving both the booth and the fans twisting in the wind.

There you go, my WO’s (worthless opinions) for Toronto.  Now if you will excuse me, I have to get these poutine stains out of my shorts.  The stuff really is messy.

What IndyCar Fans Want

In the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays a womanizing advertising executive accidentally gifted with the ability to read women’s thoughts.  This allows him to tailor his advertising proposals to a core female demographic that had eluded him.  If only the elite at INDYCAR and IMS had the same gift.  The Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway certainly sparked debate on not only the core demographic, but also on the product itself.  The issue facing the IZOD IndyCar Series could be made into a movie: What IndyCar Fans Want.

In an interview with Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star published on June 10, Mark Miles, Hulman & Co. CEO, acknowledged that the Indianapolis 500 needs to provide more entertainment during the month of May than is currently offered.  Whether that means more on-track activity, concerts, or other entertainment options was not clear.  What was clear is that something needs to change to attract more fans to the venue.  The rub is determining exactly what those changes need to be.  It is also clear that the racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series suffers from a similar public perception issue.  What do IndyCar fans really want?

One type of IndyCar fan abhors the fact the series has spec cars.  This fan absolutely knows the solution is to open up development.  This open development would allow the teams with the most money to spend their way to victory.  In the good old days of packed venues, these rich teams dominated the podium race after race, often winning by wide margins with only two or three cars on the same lap.  In this fan’s mind, it makes perfect sense.  If the series goes back to the way it was, then the crowds will follow.  This post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) argument connects crowds to differentiation.  Of course, running all the small teams out of the series because they cannot afford to be competitive in the current economy may not be the best course of action.

Another category is the hard-core fan.  The mantra is always the same.  If everyone worshiped at the altar of history, and the series and IMS promoted how wonderful the roadsters were, then fans would flock to see the modern incarnations of Bill Vukovich and Wilbur Shaw.  I fit in this category, and as much as I love the timeline of auto innovation that the history of IndyCar racing gives us, it is not enough to interest a new generation of fans not weened on the car culture of my youth.  Cars may be cool to them, but the history of cars is not.  History is full of martyrs who were willing to sacrifice all to prove a point.  The hard-core fans need to open their eyes and see that neither history nor martyrdom will save the series.

Lets not forget the fan who says the series almost has it right.  We just need a few tweaks here and there.  If only aero kits were adopted, then it would create a difference, both aerodynamically and aesthetically, that the fans would love without breaking the bank for the teams.  The downside could be racing like we saw at Texas Motor Speedway recently when Helio Castroneves had a lead of half a lap with no competition.  Now that’s racing like it used to be: a few cars on the lead lap with very little passing for the lead.  Derrick Walker, the new president of competition for the IZOD IndyCar Series, just tweaked the aero rules a little bit at Texas and changed the racing completely.  These fans need to remember the law of unintended consequences.

Some fans and owners say that all the series needs is a better TV package with more enthusiastic announcers.  They believe the broadcast partners need to promote the venues, TV productions, and the series better.  Maybe the movie Turbo with its action figures and video games will be the catalyst that brings more viewers to the broadcasts and allows IndyCar to reach a new demographic.  Without a doubt, the TV ratings drive investment in the series.

A set of fans believe that races need carnival barkers, amusement rides, and the assorted freaks and geeks that go along with this.  Maybe it is the local promoters who need to succeed for the series to grow.  If the races make money for the promoter, then the series can worry more about the myriad of other issues that it faces.  Even though the racing in the series is as good as it has ever been, the consumer at the venue demands to be entertained at all times.

Another fan screams that it is all about the future.  This fan says find out what someone needs to become a new fan and do that thing, tradition be damned.  They use the quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”  IndyCar has certainly had plenty of that.

The movie What Women Want follows a typical romcom storyline.  Mel Gibson’s character acts selfishly, loses true love, repents, and gains the love of his life.  Like most movies of this genre, it has a predictable happy ending.  The saga of the IZOD IndyCar Series may not have the same story arc.  Mark Miles, who seems to understand that change is needed, has not been given the gift to know what all IndyCar fans, current and future, are thinking, yet he must decide the course of the series for years to come based on his perceptions.  After he is through with the fans, maybe he can figure out what the owners, drivers, sponsors, and TV partners want.  If he can do that, then the Academy Award is his.

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