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Ten Worthless Opinions: Auto Club Speedway MAVTV 500 Edition

What better way to end the Verizon IndyCar Series than with a season-ending Ten WO’s (worthless opinions).  Some might think the better way to end the season was watching the actual race, but what do the fans know?  Don’t waste your time forming your own opinions.  In the truly modern American way, let an uniformed, totally biased, on-line media blogger masquerading as a mainstream journalist do it for you.  Here you go:

1.  How about a slow clap for Will Power?  He outdistanced his own racing demons to finally win a Verizon IndyCar Series championship.  No drive-through penalties, no overly optimistic passes, no gestures, no shoulder shrugs, just flat out badassery.  His passes on the late restart should become legend.  He only eased back on the throttle when teammate Helio Castroneves  took himself out of contention with an ill-timed penalty.  His post race interview as he exited his car really showed the pressure he was under to finally get it done.  He had nothing left.  Good on ya’, Will.

2.  Speaking of Will Power, his brother Damien, a comedian in Australia, live tweeted during the race.  Not sure how much was planned or how much was spontaneous, but it certainly was entertaining.  You can check it out at @DamienPower01 on Twitter.  He may or may not have been drunk.  The jury is still out.

3.   Yin requires Yang.  You can’t speak of the tortured artist Will Power without mentioning the effervescent Helio Castroneves, a gracious and positive championship loser once again.  It seems Power’s late season luck has been passed on to Helio.  His adventure above the pit-in blend line that resulted in a penalty took him out of the championship picture.  A word of advice: remember Lloyd Braun from the Seinfeld series.  His mantra was “Serenity now.”  That’s Helio, but he needs to know it’s okay to vent.  Lloyd Braun changed his motto to “Serenity now, insanity later” when he realized holding all that bad juju in was not a good idea.  Let it out, Helio!

4.  If you didn’t see it coming, Penske Racing is back with a vengeance.  Even though the teams are still making some in-race mistakes such as putting more front wing in for Power instead of taking it out, the triumvirate of Power, Castroneves, and a strangely upbeat and personable Juan Pablo Montoya may be set up to dominate next year.  Scary.

5.  I am sure that the schadenfreude fans of all sports who live in the Pacific Time Zone feel in the angst of the Eastern Time Zone fans who had to stay up until 1:30 AM to see the post race on NBCSN was sweet.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Now go back to watching the NFL at 10:00 AM on Sundays.  And enjoy F1 and the Premier League at 4:00 AM.  Seriously, did the late time really hurt viewership?  Since only hard-core fans watch on TV anyway, the numbers might surprise.

6.  Should IndyCar continue at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana?  Only if you like good racing.  Not many cars but there was passing, tire performance falling off, and enough OMG moments to keep it interesting.  Although the prerace activities on the concrete and asphalt were beyond hot, the race was run with the sun down.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to be here.  Big ovals are a dying breed in the series.  This one in the California racing market is worth saving.

7.  A negative for the series on big ovals is car count.  Twenty-one cars on a big track looks like ten.  Indy will never be a problem, but Pocono and Fontana need more cars and more on track action.  It may not look empty on TV, but it sure does in person.  And for the big ovals like Pocono and Fontana to survive, they need people in the stands and suites to make a profit for the promoters.  Fontana is lucky to have MAVTV signed for a few more years.  If they didn’t, this race would be gone.  Pocono needs that sort of sponsor security, too.

8.  The Dallara DW12 is a beast.  Not only is it a great race car generally, it’s a great race car specifically.  In both road/street and oval configurations it is racy.  If that is not enough, it protects the drivers.  Mikhail Aleshin’s wreck was as nasty as they come, a fence-ripping, chassis-shearing shunt that proved once again that form follows function.  Build it to be safe then build it to be fast.  Dallara has my respect as does, in retrospect, the ICONIC committee that chose it.

9.  Enough cannot be said about the Holmatro Safety Team in the Verizon IndyCar Series.  They were at the Aleshin accident before the cars stopped moving.  They are the best in the racing business, the gold standard.  No one else comes close.  Additionally, a hat must be tipped to Hulman Motorsports and the Verizon IndyCar Series for continuing to fund this vital piece of each race.  In a time when corporate cost-cutting is the number one way to increase the bottom line, they put safety over profit.  My utmost respect to both the Holmatro Safety Team and Hulman Motorsports for a dedication to doing what is right.

10.  With all its shortcomings regarding a short season, TV ratings, large oval problems, street race comings and goings, and road course disinterest, the Verizon IndyCar Series, week in and week out, puts on the best show in auto racing on the planet.  The product is there.  It’s up to the suits in corporate to have the vision and to execute the plan to sell it.  Everyone else is getting the job done.  Even though the off-season for the series is lengthy, it is an important one for the future of the series.  Your move, bosses.

 

 

 

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.

IndyCar edgy at Long Beach

The Verizon IndyCar Series has taken on a country club feel in recent years.  The drivers are all buddies. Before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, James Hinchliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay even joked on camera about flipping a coin to see who was going to lead the first lap.  I wonder if those two still had their senses of humor after the race.

Humor is nothing new in IndyCar.  Eddie Sachs was known as “the clown prince of racing” in the 60’s.  Bobby Unser was not only shockingly honest as a racer and an announcer, he was also a born storyteller.  Still is.  A.J. Foyt’s humor was always sharp and biting.  Still is.  So it is nothing new that today’s racers are funny.  What’s different is the politically correct way they interact.  The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach certainly changed all that.

To spice up the broadcast, NBCSN brought in Paul Tracy, four-time Long Beach winner and notorious truth-teller.  Everyone just knew he would stir the pot a little bit.  Sadly, PT was just another talking head, saying nothing controversial.  Sigh.  I am sure he will get the message to go find the real Paul Tracy.

This all leads us to how a pretty good race became an entertaining one.  Bad moves led to bad feelings, sheepish honesty, and a few apologies that may or may not have been accepted.  Hopefully, it will lead to a little ill will.  Then maybe Paul Tracy can get on board and put the hammer down on some people.

One of the best products of the close racing in IndyCar is the fact that anyone can win.  The spec chassis and similar power plants mean the shoestring budgets can hold their own with the deep-pocketed teams.  You just know this small budget competition chafes the big dogs.  The best part of the close racing is that Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson can call out Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon; SFHR’s Josef Newgarden can place the blame on Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay; and SPHM’s Simon Pagenaud can mock the apology of Penske Racing’s Will Power.  Now THAT’S parity.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to have this kind of close racing though the pack every week..  TV does not do it justice.

The irony in the series is delicious right now.  The top dogs were forced to act like contrite backmarkers. Scott Dixon apologized for pushing Justin Wilson into the wall and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Will Power apologized for punting Simon Pagenaud with his usual it’s-my-fault-that-it’s-your-fault line and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Ryan Hunter-Reay apologized by saying a real racer goes for it when he sees the chance at exactly the wrong spot and his apology was UNACCEPTED.  I just love to see the shifty-eyed apologies of schoolboys caught in the act without a plausible story to tell.  Not ironically, Graham Rahal was his usual self and refused to accept any blame for anything.  Never change, Graham.  Both Michael Andretti and James Hinchcliffe were less than pleased with Hunter-Reay’s antics.

Simmering feuds, unaccepted apologies, and possibly a little bit of hate await us at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.  Barber is narrow, twisty, and just not conducive to the type of racing that the IndyCars are capable of right now.  The boys in back are not going to move over for reputation alone any longer.  In fact, when push comes to shove – and it will – the little guys are going to flex their muscles and push and shove back.  And consider this: Juan Pablo Montoya has not had a problem with anyone in two races.  Wait until that happens!  It’s good to see some of the politically correct veneer come off the series.  This is the racing and these are the racers people want to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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