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Why Indy is more than a race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IndyCar weathers the storm at NOLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fast Five Worthless Opinions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Yes, it’s true.  The rarely beloved and often reviled “Ten Worthless Opinions” feature is no more.  Why, you may ask?  “Well, it seems that due to the vagaries of the production parameters of this fragmenting of the audience to the cable television, carnivals, water parks,”¹, the 1000-1300 word length of the feature is much more relevant and readable when it is nearer the 500-750 word limit.  Plus, it’s so much easier to come up with five opinions than it is ten.  So there’s that, too.  In any case, here you go.

1.  Penske Domination: What can be said?  Will Power was the class of the field until a very slight pit delay allowed Juan Pablo Montoya to take the lead during pit stops.  After that, it was all Montoya.  The Penske posse dominated the time charts all week and did the same in the race.  This leads to the real question of how Penske does it.  They have the same Chevy engine and aero kit as the other Chevy teams, so that is not the only reason.  While the team does have more driver depth and talent than any other organization, it cannot be just the pilot.  And yes, the pursuit of perfection by the whole organization certainly leads one to believe that Team Penske could dominate by sheer attention to detail.  But after the parity of the last two years, what does this group have that other teams don’t?  Hmm.  I wonder how the Team Penske cars support all that downforce?  Remember what other area is open to development, and you might have your answer.

2.  Honda vs. Chevy: It is way to early to tell which will be dominant throughout the year.  Chevy (read: Team Penske) certainly seems to have the upper hand on the street.  We will see if the same holds true for natural terrain road courses at NOLA Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park.  The ovals are still a tossup between Honda and Chevy, particularly with the removal of so much downforce.  What the series does not need is for Chevy for run away with everything, particularly after the last two years of parity and multiple winners from both large and small teams.  When you hang you marketing hat on the series being competitive and it’s not, then you have a problem.  Follow the leader (read: Team Penske) is not good for the series.  Let’s hope Honda and the other Chevy teams get it figured out.

3.  Wingapallooza:  At least in St. Pete, the worst fears of many came true: Wingapallooza.  In a clear demonstration of aerodynamics, a broken wing proved it can fly, sailing over the grandstands in Turn 10 and seriously injuring a spectator.  It is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. If injuries to fans isn’t enough of an issue, wing related issues affected the racing, also. No race needs 20% of the laps run under full course yellow conditions, particularly if most of those laps were a direct or indirect result of the less-than-robust wing assemblies being unable to take the punishment of the old Dallara wing.  And it could have been worse!  Race Control was very judicious in not throwing the yellow for every piece of carbon fiber that found its way onto the track.  They even had a track worker pick up a piece on the main straight during green flag conditions.  Let’s hope that this is a simple learning curve, and the drivers adapt to the new fragility of the front wing pieces.  In any case, I can see an old Italian man sitting in a big office in Varano tapping his fingers together saying, “Eccelente.”

4.  Tears for Graham: Let me go on record by saying that IndyCar needs Graham Rahal, an American driver with a superb racing lineage, to be successful.  He is great with sponsors and supports charities.  I pull for him.  Really.  But he makes it so hard sometimes.  Even though I have a scanner, I really like the Verizon IndyCar 15 app.  It offers drivers’ radio communication, the IMS Radio Network, and great visual information.  And it’s free!  This week, Graham Rahal was one of the featured drivers, and all I can say is that he is the poster child for the over-indulged generation.  Nothing is his fault.  He biffed Charlie Kimball, an aero kit casualty, and blamed him for basically being in front of him.  When he was penalized with a drive-through, he radioed his dad and said, “They’ll find anything they can to screw me!”  C’mon.  Of course, this all may be sour grapes on my part since he also loves to tweet how much he loves flying with his new partner Wheels Up in their new Cessna King Air private plane.  Just rub it in, Graham.

5. Chip’s Chatter: According to an interview at TrackSide Online, a subscription IndyCar news service, Chip Ganassi may be less-than-enthused about how Mark Miles is going about building a new schedule.  His concern is that a short calendar season makes it hard to find sponsorship, and that the series should have extended the front of the series in February before axing the schedule after Labor Day.  As much as I enjoy pointing out Chip’s foibles, I tend to agree here.  Even though Chip Ganassi Racing is one of the big boys in the Verizon IndyCar Series, he does not have the budget and personal fortune of someone like Roger Penske.  He must have the sponsorship to compete, and sponsors do not like the short season.  Maybe it all gets sorted out with next year’s schedule, but for now, Chip is not happy and he is not afraid to make himself heard.  As if there was ever any doubt of that.

That the five fast WO’s for this week.  Let’s hope we have fewer flying wings and more passing at NOLA Motorsports Park.

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¹ This is Kramer’s explanation to Raquel Welch in a Seinfeld episode as he fires her from the production of The Scarsdale Surprise for not swinging her arms when she dances.  Seemed apropos here.

Worshiping at the aero kit altar in IndyCar

For such a small fan base, the Verizon IndyCar Series certainly has its share of pulpit-pounding proselytizers.  The problem is that for such a tiny number of acolytes, there are far too many congregations.  The responses to the aero kits of both Chevy and Honda are prime examples of these particular worshipers.

The first worshipers at the altar of IndyCar are the ones who take everything on faith.  They accept that the series pontiffs are, if not infallible, at least to be given the benefit of the doubt.  They believe the variations of the aero kits for both Chevy and Honda will not only differentiate a chassis that is otherwise identical, but it will also pique the interest of the fans to see which is faster.  If there is a difference in the two, then the slower manufacturer should go back to the shop and develop theirs.  The fans want development and competition, right?  They know that the millions spent by both engine manufacturers will push the series to new heights.  These fans not only believe, they want to believe, they need to believe.  These trusting souls happily tithe their hard-earned dollars over to the series in the absolute faith that their spiritual need for racing is in good hands.  Just imagine IndyCar high priest Mark Miles holding a staff with a miter sitting on top of his head, blessing this congregation.  If these fans’ faith wavers, they can always silently repeat “Hail Hulman, full of speed.”

In another house of worship, we have the the agnostic IndyCar fans.  Not burdened by the absolutism of the faithful, these fans look at the aero kits of Chevy and Honda, shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, and smile.  They know deep down that a difference in how the cars look is important, but they really cannot give themselves over to the fact that the new aero kits will make a difference.  They hope they will, but they have taken things on faith before this and been disillusioned.  If they can see the difference in the cars and the racing then they might be inclined to come over to the faithful, but they need proof.  These folks need to see a miracle, not just hear about one.

The third type of IndyCar fan really doesn’t have a church because they no longer believe that the organized religion of IndyCar is deserving of their faith.  These are the IndyCar heretics.  They may come to the cathedral to worship speed, but they refuse to go to the rail for the body and blood.  The aero kits to them are evil incarnate, a false idol for the easily fooled.  Their apostasy demands that all development of cars be completely open with teams spending each other into receivership as we have seen in F1.  Even if the aero kits are successful, they will still be evil because they do conform to their own heretical orthodoxy.  To them, the only way to racing heaven is through a reformation of the series itself.  And if a little burning at the stake of series leaders is needed, they are down with that, too.  The heretics spend time damning the series, its leaders, and its followers on Twitter and in internet forums, the modern equivalent of a jackleg preacher standing atop a soapbox on the street corner.

IndyCar’s small holy war among its flock is cause for both celebration and concern.  On one hand, the fact that some people still care enough to have opinions is a reason for hosannas to be heard at the corner of 16th and Georgetown.  The downside is that the series needs converts to the faith and some cash in the collection plate to continue to spread the faith.  If this does not happen, then everyone will be in need of a mea culpa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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