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The third time was not the charm in Baltimore

I probably should not be making a pun about the Charm City since the organizers of the Baltimore Grand Prix unceremoniously dumped the IndyCar series last week.  No title sponsor and the loss of Labor Day weekend pushed this well-attended street circuit off the IndyCar schedule.  Once more, the lack of sponsorship money continues to marginalize a series that desperately want to swim in the mainstream.  It was another telling body shot to an already fragile series.

Frankly, all hard-core fans are half nuts, myself included.  We long for the way it was or the way it should be.  We debate on Twitter, in coffee shops, and at the tracks about what the IndyCar Series needs to do to be relevant.  More ovals!  More natural terrain!  More street circuits!  More international races!  Better promotion!  A better TV contract!  None of those alone will solve the problem.  Only money will.  Mark Twain said, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.”  As far as IndyCar is concerned, they are living in very evil times.

I don’t care how many races are on ovals, road courses, or street circuits.  The percentage on each means nothing.  Other than the family subsidized race(s) at IMS, all the other circuits need to have a promoter who turns a profit.  To do that, a race needs a title sponsor to feed the bulldog.  That title sponsor needs a return on investment.  Sadly, great racing and entertaining personalities are not the return they need.  Sponsors need eyeballs at the race, on TV, and in print.  To make all that happen, a promoter needs a series with a strong TV contract and a willingness to help as a partner.  And the promoter needs a little cash-in-hand to get people to attend the race as well as pay off any necessary graft.  I may have been joking about the graft, but a promoter spends money on the front end expecting to make his profit on the back-end.  It is always a gamble.  And Baltimore just rolled snake-eyes.

The IZOD IndyCar Series needs races like Baltimore.  The race was on the East Coast, was well attended, and had exciting wheel to wheel action.  It should have become one of the “can’t miss” events on the schedule instead of a fading memory.  IndyCar needs strong community allies.  The politicos of the city pushed through the necessary funding on their end.  They quelled any uprising about a failing city supporting such a massive money and personnel drain.  They ignored the angry citizens who did not appreciate losing mobility on a holiday weekend.  The city was a perfect partner.  The promoter just needed a Mr. S. Daddy to step up to the plate to keep the wheels turning around Camden Yards.  But just like Casey in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s famous poem, the powers that be have struck out.

All is not lost, though.  Even though Baltimore is off the schedule, rumors of interest from Providence, Rhode Island persist.  It ticks all the same boxes as Baltimore.  Unfortunately, the lack of a title sponsor would probably sink that race, too.  Mark Miles, the big Kahuna at Hulman & Co., continues to say all the right things.  He knows that the promoters need help, either with promotion or sanctioning fees.  He also knows that hiring the right commercial director to work with promoters and help them be successful is the key to the long-term success of the series.  In other words, when your promoters and tracks are on the run, your first priority needs to be keeping the ones you have happy and successful.

The Charm City will be missed on the IZOD IndyCar schedule.  Let’s hope it’s not the first domino to fall.

The Go Beaux Grand Prix of Sonoma

Nothing new to add to the real work done by IndyCar reporters Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star and Marshall Pruett and Robin Miller of Racer.com.  Their interviews with Derrick Walker and Beaux Barfield have given fans the perspective of the IZOD IndyCar Series.   The rules makers and enforcers were in agreement: if you hit a crewman, you get a penalty.  How does this not seem reasonable?

Well, if you are Scott Dixon, you try to sell the story that your hitting a tire-changer for Penske Racing’s Will Power was not just an accident, but an intentional move by Travis Law, the tire-changer who took flight after Dixon bounced his car off the tire Law was carrying.  I have a hard time buying that Law was playing a game of chicken with Dixon’s car while using a tire as a matador uses his cape.  Olé, indeed.

Was it an accident?  Certainly.  Did Dixon hit Law intentionally?  Of course not.  Did Law use the area allotted to him to do his job?  Absolutely.  Here is where the arguments get specious.

  1. Law wanted to get hit.  Can anyone really make this argument?  Don’t even try to say that a guy is willing to get hit by a rapidly accelerating race car.  This is not a Quentin Tarantino movie.
  2. Law should have been carrying the tire in a more “narrow” fashion.  Do people actually think a tire-changer is going to think about carrying a tire in a “narrow” fashion?  You carry the tire, period.  While not overly heavy, an IndyCar wheel and tire is most certainly awkward.  The object is to get around the car quickly and safely.  The rear tire-changer is not under the time pressure of the front tire changer.  That guy HAS to get out of way fast.
  3. Scott Dixon was turning the steering wheel left, thereby causing the accident.  Well, this is technically true, but it was good driving.  Any dirt track racer knows you turn into a skid.  When Dixon turned his steering wheel right to exit his pit, the spinning rear wheels moved his rear end to the left.  To correct this, he turned his wheel left to straighten the car.  Good driving.
  4. The pit boxes were not clearly marked, leading to confusion.  I agree that the pit boxes were not clearly marked for the fans and, apparently, the TV announcers.  While this is true, they are most definitely clearly marked for the teams and drivers.  They know.  The fact that the fans don’t is insignificant.  Unless you are a fan, of course.
  5. Since the race lead and the series championship were on the line, race director Beaux Barfield should let the drivers decide it “on the track.”  This way lies madness.  If a rule is worth writing, then at one time someone must have thought it was worth enforcing.  What’s interesting here is that if Dixon had run over his own air hose, everyone would have agreed that a penalty was in order.  But hitting an opposing crew member while he was doing his job in his pit should be a gray area.  Can you imagine a rules meeting where someone proposed that hitting a crew member should NOT be a penalty?  The next thing you know there would be a bounty on them.
  6. Race Control is inconsistent.  Other infractions took place that were not called.  Boo hoo.  Big deal.  So what.  Calls are made or not made in every sport.  That’s the way it goes.  Buck up.

Beaux Barfield made the correct call.  I say Go Beaux!  And always remember, illegitimi non carborundum.  Don’t let the bastards wear you down.

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.

The tale of the turbo in IndyCar: let’s all just get along

Derrick Walker, the IZOD IndyCar Series president of competition and operations, recently announced that both Chevrolet and Honda have agreed to move to a twin turbo engine for the 2014 IndyCar season. The press release says in part, “In an effort for parity throughout the turbocharger range, mandating only a twin turbo system simplifies our efforts to ensure even closer competition.” What a sound political statement. Allow me to translate: “Because Chip Ganassi won’t shut up about performance, Honda has decided to scrap their single turbo to make life easier.” Or something like that.

Look, I’m not a gearhead. I have a general understanding of how things work, and I’m a pretty good listener if you explain something to me. Concepts might have to be dumbed down a little (OK, a lot) to help me truly grasp the intricacies of an exotic racing motor, but even I get what a turbo does: it increases horsepower by using exhaust gases to spin a turbine injecting more air into the cylinders. More oxygen into the cylinders equals a bigger explosion when fuel and compression are introduced. The bigger explosion equals more horsepower. Simple enough. But why all the fuss?

Basically, the IZOD IndyCar Series is tired of refereeing the pissing contest between Honda and Chevrolet and the teams using the two engines. In 2012, when Honda was allowed to upgrade its single turbo, Chevrolet issued tersely worded press releases with veiled threats of doing something about it. In 2013, Chip Ganassi publicly questioned whether Honda was working hard enough to be competitive. All this is about regulating how much turbo boost (the amount of air) to allow the different turbos. It’s like two garden hoses with different nozzles and two neighbors complaining about which one creates more pressure to wash their cars. Both neighbors want the pressure to be equal as long as their nozzle works better. Anything else is unfair. And yes, I understand that does not make sense. But then again, we are dealing with the IndyCar rule book.

So there we have it. In a series that has identical cars and identical tires, the rules now stipulate that one of the differences in the two motors used in the series must be changed to make them more identical. Not only has team innovation been stifled in every area other than shocks and dampers, one of the areas of engine development that was significantly different has died a quiet death. Our sensitivity to political correctness and creating an even playing field for everyone has led to another decision to just keep everyone happy.

In the end, I’m torn. The competition with the DW12 has been superb. If you want exciting racing with passing for the lead, the IZOD IndyCar Series is the nonpareil. If you want a series that lacks innovation and legislates conformity, then this is the series for you. Somehow the slogan “IndyCar: the series that simplifies its efforts to ensure even closer competition” just doesn’t seem to send the right message.

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.

IndyCar needs a Sugar Daddy

Something was missing at the Milwaukee IndyFest this past weekend.  It wasn’t the racing; that was excellent.  There were passes throughout the field, and drivers were dirt-tracking the corners.  It wasn’t the strategy.  Pit strategy put A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato in front of the pack and allowed Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to take advantage of a late yellow flag to move to the lead and victory.  It wasn’t the show.  The promoters (Andretti-Green Productions) made both Friday and Saturday a festival of, well, festivals.  Bands played, amusement rides whirled, and the fans got close to the drivers.  Still, one glaring omission cast a dark shadow over this otherwise sunny race.  Sponsorship.

I know what you are going to say: there were RC Cola and Sun Drop banners everywhere!  Agreed, but those are not the deep-pocketed sugar daddies that all events and series need.  The name Milwaukee IndyFest say it all.  The event had no title sponsor.  A title sponsor buys the rights to the event, and the promoter uses the cash to do two things: promote the event and put cash in his pocket.  Everybody has to eat, or the show will not go on.

The problem facing every promoter and venue in motorsports is that the big-time sugar daddies just aren’t very hungry right now.  If you don’t count longtime series supporters Honda and Firestone and Roger Penske’s connections to Chevrolet, Shell, and Firestone, then the 19 race IndyCar schedule has four title sponsors for its races: Toyota, Iowa Corn, Go Pro, and Mav TV.  Other than the Daytona 500, its crown jewel, NASCAR’s February to November schedule has exactly ONE race without a title sponsor: the New Hampshire 300.  And with the TV money that flows to the promoters, that race will most certainly make money, just not as much as every other sponsored race.  And since most of the tracks are owned by either Speedway Motorports, Inc. (SMI) or International Speedway Corporation (ISC), the competition for sponsorship dollars is decreased.  One reason the IZOD IndyCar Series loves the street and road courses is because they are not owned by these two entities.  The street courses in particular offer great opportunities for sponsorship.

What makes Subway, Bank of America, Sylvania, Geico, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, and other decidedly non-automotive sponsors plunk down millions of dollars to attach themselves to the mind-numbingly similar races put on by the stock cars?  If you will pardon the vernacular, the answer is asses and eyes.  Those races have people in the seats at the track and viewers sitting at home in front of the TV.  Currently, IndyCar has neither.

The IZOD IndyCar Series does have a title sponsor in IZOD that not only wants out but also refuses to activate that sponsorship in any meaningful way from week to week.  Does IndyCar need a new series sponsor?  Absolutely it does.  Are there any open wallets out there?  The cellular giant Verizon is a name that keeps coming up, but who knows?  It has to make sense from a business perspective.  The value for Verizon is quite likely a business-to-business relationship.  The people who inhabit those corporate chalets and suites are business partners for the sponsors.  In other words, the sponsors make money off of these people.  And while the corporate kingpins certainly want the hoi polloi in the stands and watching on TV to use their products, this sell is often secondary to the business-to-business connection.

IndyCar is at a crossroads.  The product is scintillating.  The venues are diverse.  The drivers are engaging.  But people are not attending the races or watching the broadcasts.  You often hear about racing teams struggling to find the right set-up.  They start down the wrong path and can never get back to normal.  Every choice they make takes them farther from where they want to be, and they start flailing about, taking bigger risks in the hope that something will be right.  That is the IZOD IndyCar Series right now.  The races struggle to find sponsorship to stay afloat.  The series struggles to create interest and fans.  And the flailing begins.  Double headers are offered as a way to save/make money and boost ratings.  Green-white-checkered finishes are discussed as a way to entertain a jaded fan base.  And so it begins.

The solutions are obvious, though.  The series needs increased sponsorship, higher ratings, and bigger gates.  The road map to get there is the problem.  It is sad to watch a once-proud series lose its way like a race team that just can’t find the right set-up.  The hope is that the series does not lose its way so badly that it can’t find its way home.

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.

A Tale of Two Detroit Cities

With sincerest apologies to the memory of Charles Dickens,  “It was the best of races, it was the worst of races…” at Detroit this past weekend.  What, you don’t recognize the mangling of the opening line from Tale of Two Cities?  What were you doing in high school?  It was required reading!  You can always count on New Track Record to bring up arcane connections to help you understand the value of a liberal arts education.  Let’s look at the best and worst of the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit.

Best of Times

  • Roger Penske has created one of the best street courses in IndyCar racing.  He took a broken track in a broken city and made it racy.  From a track where passing was nonexistent and asphalt patches attacked the racers, Penkse revealed a new layout that not only held together but allowed actual passing.
  • Besides making a racy layout, Roger Penske is building one of the crown jewels of the IndyCar season on Belle Isle.  Yes, the racing is good, but so is the event.  Roger Penske is a businessman and promoter nonpareil.  At a time when most venues see no value in hosting the IZOD IndyCar Series, he saw an opportunity.  Instead of banking on ticket sales for his profit, Penske worked the business-to-business angle and made his money on corporate sales.  Having Chevy as a title sponsor helps, too.  According to Doug Guthrie of The Detroit News, grandstands across from pit row will become double-decker corporate chalets next year.  And we all know that a “chalet” is much tonier than a suite.  Great event, great people, great organization.
  • One of the best things about the year is the parity between the big and small teams.  Fill-in driver Mike Conway won the first race for Dale Coyne Racing and landed on the podium for the second while Simon Pagenaud won the second race for Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports.  You know that has to chafe Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, and Michael Andretti like sand in the swimsuit.  Expect changes to the formula that allow the teams with the most money to buy success.  It’s the American way.
  • Mike Conway’s win was the best thing of the weekend.  A journeyman winner is always welcome, particularly one who suffered such serious injuries in a horrific crash at Indy.
  • Honda had a pretty good weekend in the heartland of Chevy.  After failing on the national stage of Indianapolis, the Japanese marque showed their twin-turbo street course savvy at Detroit by winning both races and sweeping seven of the top ten spots on Sunday.
  • Personalities once again shine.  In the first race, Sebastian Saavedra waved the double middle finger salute to Marco Andretti while Will Power, known for a similar obeisance to race control two years ago, hurled his gloves at Sebastien Bourdais after a safety worker restrained him from an actual physical attack in the second race.   Anything that makes me laugh out loud is the “best of times.”
  • Beaux Barfield, whose honeymoon is over with the drivers and teams, made a great call with a local yellow for Ryan Briscoe’s shunt into the tires at the end of the first race, allowing the race to end under green and silence the groundswell of moronic insistence for a green-white-checkered rule to prevent yellow flag finishes.  Kudos, Beaux.
  • Call it what you will, the doubleheader format worked.  The ratings were up, and the crowds were good.  The drivers, and especially the crews, suffered from lack of turn-around time, but tin-top drivers and dirt track racers have been doing it for years.  It was a good show.  Do it again.

Worst of Times

  • After the first race had only three yellow flags, there were high hopes for plenty of green flag racing for the second contest.  Not so fast.  Whether it was fatigue, as suggested by the television crew, or an abundance of optimism and idiocy, as suggested by me, the drivers could not seem to get out of each other’s way.  Ed Carpenter nerfed Alex Tagliani. Sebastien Bourdais biffed Will Power, starting a six car scrum.  Simona De Silvestro and Ryan Hunter-Reay both found the same wall.  Not quite the smooth event from the day before.  The big question about the two race format is simple: what if these wrecks happened during the first race?  Would safety be compromised because of crew fatigue and time constraints?  If the format is continued, we will find out.
  • The worst luck of the weekend happened to A.J. Allmendinger.  The Penske Racing driver did not complete a lap either race.  The cherry on his bad luck sundae was that both wrecks can be chalked up to driver error.  The pathos of his sincere sorrow and completely defeated demeanor touched me.  It truly was “the worst of times” for A.J.
  • Could the timing of IndyCar’s press conference regarding aero kits be any worse?  Since Mark Miles, the new chief plumber at Hulman & Co., has not yet been able to plug the press leaks that have plagued IndyCar, the series was forced to go public with their plan to increase speeds, provide more team development opportunities, and allow manufacturer designed body parts before they were ready.  Way to steal a promoter’s thunder, IndyCar.  We wouldn’t want the media talking about the race happening on the track, would we?  The politics and drama of the series continues to provide fodder for low-life bloggers like me to mock the dysfunction.  And I thank you.
  • Social media once again provided entertainment.  The Twitter dust-up between Randy Bernard (@RBINDYCAR) and Panther Racing (@PantherRacing) made me smile.  Gig ‘em, Randy!  I actually debated which category this fit.  For entertainment, it’s the best; for the IZOD IndyCar Series, it’s the worst.  Call it a coin flip.  If you are not on Twitter, you are missing people talking first and thinking later.
  • The gimmick of double-file restarts causes wrecks on narrow street courses.  No debate.  Proponents can justify them by arguing TV ratings and NASCAR, but they create pack racing and lead to FUBAR’s like the six car melee that ended Will Power’s day Sunday.  Unlike the 40+ cars in NASCAR, the IndyCar Series has a diminishing number of contestants and open cockpits.  Exciting?  You bet.  Dangerous?  Absolutely.  Necessary?  That’s the real question, isn’t it?
  • Listening to the radio feed of an IndyCar race is exciting.  The announcers scream about the action in front of them.  It sounds like something is happening.  Listening to the ABC broadcast is mind-numbing.  The vapid and insipid delivery of the boys in the booth truly harshes the buzz of the great racing we are seeing on the screen.  I wonder if Lunesta, a sleep aid advertising on the race broadcast, complained about ABC/ESPN competing with them with its choice of broadcasters?

If only this writing was “a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”  Get it?  That’s the last line from Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities.  You Philistines simply must read the classics.  It is always high art here at New Track Record.

The Time Trials at the Indianapolis 500

Even with all the changes to its format over the years and the possibility of more to come, the pathos of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 never gets old.  The Time Trials both test and reveal character every year.  The true cognoscenti of IndyCar racing understand and savor the power of these raw moments of human emotion.  John Mellencamp, a good Indiana boy, sang that we live “Between a Laugh and a Tear.” That describes the Time Trials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the drivers and the teams.

With a series and a venue on the cusp of change, both major and minor, decisions are in the offing regarding every element of the race.  The question is what to do with the Time Trials.

One suggestion, even with changes in format, is to keep the historical moniker of Time Trials.  In an era of homogenization, the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to find ways to get noticed.  As much as the current formats of the series and the race are going to change, anything that defines you as different, particularly historically different, needs to be accentuated.  As much as the name Brickyard or the slogan The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the term Time Trials shouts Indianapolis 500.  Recent comments by Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., suggest that both IMS and the series do not want to be wedded to a past that not only comes with some baggage, but often seems to stifle forward thinking.  Instead of being guided by its past, IMS needs to use its history to define its product to a modern audience.  The name Time Trials does that.

The most obvious element of Time Trials is the true humanity that is revealed every year.  The ticking of the clock down to 6:00 PM on Bump Day creates a tension that is absolutely not artificial.  A game is not on the line as time counts down; a chance to participate in one of the world’s most iconic events is.  It doesn’t get much more compelling than that.  The faces make for perfect TV drama.  The moments that bring tears, sighs of relief, and joy always do.  The pit scene with Ed Carpenter after he secured the pole for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a moment custom-made for television.  Those David and Goliath stories always are.

Lack of interest and the cost of opening the doors at IMS may doom even the current two-day Time Trials, which were pared down for those same reasons from the four-day Time Trials of the past.  Will the future bring a shortened week one with Fast Friday being the opening day followed by one or two days of qualifying?  The shortened attention span of the modern sports fan says it will.  The drawn out two weekends of track activity will most likely be packed into a much shorter time span.

Of much more concern is the viability of Time Trials on television.  NBC Sports was unfairly pilloried on Pole Day because they cut away from the Fast Nine shootout to show a Preakness post-race show.  It has to be assumed that contracts and paid advertising were in place for that live show.  IMS made the decision to extend the Fast Nine not only beyond 6:00 PM, but past the 6:30 PM coverage window of NBC Sports.  Doing so most likely created a fair and equal opportunity for all participants to have a chance to practice and qualify, but if social media outrage is any indicator, the switch infuriated fans who had invested hours of their Saturday in watching the lead-up to the Fast Nine drama and then were denied the pay-off.  IMS made the best decision for its drivers and teams; unfortunately, this decision put its television partner in a bind.  If a series or race is looking to expand its media reach, locking out viewers or telling them to go to live streaming may not be the best avenue to pursue.  With that said, in ten years switching from broadcast or cable networks to live streaming will simply be a button on the remote.  Maybe IMS is just way ahead of the times.

The nexus of television, live streaming, compelling drama and the modern fan’s attention span is changing how we interact with our sports.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests that organisms must evolve or diminish.  The Time Trials at Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been evolving over the past twenty years and must continue to do so.  If not, the concept of the Time Trials will be just another grainy newsreel of a diminishing past.

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