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Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Let’s all go to the Snake Pit

I remember the Snake Pit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the race, the way they used to be – unsanitized.  The race was a little disreputable, and the Snake Pit was the center of the cesspool.

It was a formative experience when I initially meandered through the First Turn[1] at Indy.  We were walking from our vehicle in the Second Turn to our seats in the bleachers in the First Turn.  The tickets were a concession to both myself and a younger friend.  The determination had been made that we were too young to hang around the power drinkers and hell-raisers with whom we rode to the race, so we should have seats to protect our gentle souls.  Obviously, this theory was not well thought out since the route to our seats took us through the Snake Pit.

As we hiked to our seats, we saw bikers and their women, the effects of hours of heavy drinking, and a hint of the ugliness of the human soul.  We saw a fight (my first).  We saw people covered in mud. We heard people laughing, but it was a different kind of laughter.  It was the laughter of humanity unchained, the laughter of people released from the confines of expectation and society.  And like a magnet to another magnet, I was both attracted and repelled.  I still am.

Years later, while in college, my friends I attended qualifications and, for the first time, ventured into the Snake Pit without back-up.  I was watching the cars while standing on the rim of a 55 gallon drum being used as a trash can.  This was an active trash can; it was not turned over.  I balanced above a trashy abyss.  My friends kicked the trash can all afternoon, trying to make me tumble off.  And then, without any assistance (except for Little Kings[2]), I lost my balance and fell.  Behind us, in the trees that used to be in Turn One, a cheer erupted from a number of bikers who had been watching me balance on the can all day.  They motioned me over, poured me a beer from their keg, and explained they had been rooting for me to fall from my perch all afternoon.  Schadenfreude indeed.  These boys were happy as hell to see me bust my ass.  As I stood and talked to them, I was again attracted and repelled.  These were not nice guys; the patches on the backs of their vests told me all I needed to know.  But at that moment, I was okay by them.  I drank the beer and walked back to my friends, realizing that we were in over our heads in Turn One.  We could not hang with the hard-core.

But I am not just telling a story, I am illustrating a point.  The Snake Pit doesn’t exist anymore.  The construction of the museum and the new entrance off 16th Street was the death knell.  More bleachers were added.  The Snake Pit shrunk and then moved to Turn 4.  IMS didn’t move it; the organic nature of humanity did.  And the change began.  Turn 4 disappeared with the construction of the road course.  In recent years, IMS has tried to capitalize on the essence of bad.  The Miller Lite Party Deck came into existence in the North Chute.  I do not blame IMS.  Somebody saw a chance to make money on a concept.  That’s just good business.  And now they have stolen the Snake Pit.  The party has an agenda.  It’s choreographed.  The corporate Snake Pit[3] even has a VIP area in case you need to feel “special.”  The real Snake Pit has passed into history.  I miss it.

IndyCar needs the vitality of the Snake Pit in the crowd.  IndyCar needs the essence of the Snake Pit in its racing.  It needs its drivers to be colorful, mean, aggressive, and hungry, just like the old Snake Pit in Turn 1.  We need to be both repelled and attracted.  What we have is corporate.  Why is Tony Stewart such a popular champion in NASCAR?  The answer is simple.  He’s real.  He’s earthy.  He has some Snake Pit in him.  A.J. Foyt was popular with the crowd in Turn 1 for the same reason.  They loved him.  His humanity resonated with people.  It still does.  Our current drivers eat well, exercise, and mostly toe the company line.  And when Helio Castroneves goes off after a penalty, and Will Power exercises his fingers, we wonder if they will be fined, suspended, or fired.  All this for being real.  All this for just having some Snake Pit in them.  We should celebrate this humanity, not punish it.

As long as IndyCar goes begging for sponsors, the teams will still want sanitized drivers.  I want some delinquents.  IndyCar has always been edgy.  Those are its roots.  IndyCar is fun, fast, and dangerous, just like it has always been.  Just like the Snake Pit of my youth.  We need to tap into that violent, raucous, raw humanity and reconnect to the past of Indy.  As Robert Earl Keen sang, “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.”[4]

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1.  As a general rule, I choose to capitalize the turns at Indy, as well as the names of other physical features.  My blog, my grammar.

2.  Little Kings Cream Ale was a Midwestern beer of my youth.  Here’s a link to their website.  Be sure to click on “Proclamations.”  http://www.littlekingsbeer.com/main.html

3.  This is the “corporate” Snake Pit with adult supervision.  *weeping*   http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/indy500/eventinfo/35202-Party-Scene/

4.  Here’s a YouTube link to Robert Earl Keen’s song.  Enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tMDXgf2cH4&feature=related

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DeltaWing and “Delta Dawn”…a comparison

Photo courtesy of DeltaWing Racing Cars LLC

DeltaWing
(Sung to the tune of “Delta Dawn”[1] by Tanya Tucker)

DeltaWing, what’s that funny front end thing?
Could it be a sprint car style from days gone by?
And did I hear you say
You’ll be at LeMans some day,
Racing at that circuit in the sky

Yes, I understand that most of you have never heard the song “Delta Dawn”, and even if you have, you may not think there’s a connection to the DeltaWing other than a similar name.  And you may have noticed that I have NO skill as a songwriter.  One connection goes back to the early 70’s when Jack Stone, a Shirley, Indiana guy like myself, sang a boozy version of the song to a modified 1953 GMC panel truck that had carried a crew to the race for years and was on the verge of being retired (substitute GMC for Delta Dawn).  I don’t remember all of his lyrics, but they were both touching and funny.  The truck is pictured in the header of my blog.

But this is about the DeltaWing and the missed opportunity to change IndyCar from just another racing series.  Like the beautiful and jilted belle in the song, the DeltaWing thought she was being courted by IndyCar.  She thought she had a chance to move into the future with her beau.  But she was kicked to the curb and left to fend for herself after her suitor went back to his former girlfriend Dallara, a rich and sexy Italian.  And we will never know what could have been if only IndyCar was willing to take a risk.

Indy purists knee-jerk whenever true innovation happens.  When the roadsters ran the drive shaft down the side of the car and lowered the driver and center of gravity, it was a sea change.  Racing was different.  Years later, underpowered rear engine cars poked their noses in and racing changed.  We continue to wait for the NEXT BIG THING.  And it was right there in front of us.  Ben Bowlby, the technical director at Chip Ganassi Racing, had a genius moment.  He designed a car that created less turbulence for following cars, used the underbody to create downforce instead of wings, and employed a low horsepower motor to generate high speeds.[2]  That’s called innovation, folks.

We complain about passing and turbulence.  The DeltaWing addressed that.  We worry about cars getting airborne.  The DeltaWing moved most of the weight to the rear of the car and made it more difficult for the car to fly.  And the car would have been perfect for the four cylinder Global Racing Engine[3] if we really wanted to see multiple manufacturers.  But we don’t because Honda prefers a six cylinder.  The purists want things to stay the same.  That way they can continue to complain about the lack of innovation.  The team owners don’t really want change.  The top teams might lose their edges since development would have to be open or because Ganassi has Bowlby.  The politics of money and power ran DeltaWing out of town.  Her kind isn’t welcome around here.

And the fans are a strange brew, indeed.  We hate the look of the partially covered wheels, yet covering the wheels can make the racing safer.  Anybody notice the rear bumper on the Dallara?  We do want to prevent cars flying, don’t we?  We complain that the front wheels look funny.  We wonder if they will turn.  I think the engineers might have figured that out, don’t you?  Form follows function, yes?  And the front wheels could have been changed!  We cry about the lack of marques in the series, but we don’t want the four cylinder Global Racing Motor because it doesn’t have enough horsepower, even though adopting it would likely bring in a number of manufacturers.  We acknowledge that the cost of going racing could doom the series, and a car that BRINGS DOWN COSTS is disliked because it’s different.  We say we want innovation, but we really don’t like change.  The fans kept coming to Indy after the roadster disappeared, didn’t they?  We are Jekyll and Hyde.  We can’t even trust ourselves.

The vision of 33 DeltaWings rolling down for the start of the Indy 500 would be front page news all over the world.  How is that bad for IndyCar racing?  IndyCar would be the only series with a truly innovative design.  How is that not a positive?  IndyCar has taken the lead in safety for years.  Why not adopt a safer car?  The DeltaWing is exactly what we need.  But like a whiny child crying about his Christmas gifts, it’s not what we want.

Delta Dawn kept walking downtown, waiting for her mysterious dark haired man to come back.  At least DeltaWing found a new suitor.  She’s heading to the 24 Hours of LeMans this year with Ganassi Racing’s Ben Bowlby and Dan Gurney’s All American Racers.  Laissez les bon temps rouler, belle.

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1 Here’s a link to a YouTube version of the song with lyrics provided. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmSZINm3GKc

2 All of this can be found at www.deltawingracing.com 

3 A little insight into the GRE from Speed and Marshall Pruett. http://auto-racing.speedtv.com/article/indycar-inside-the-global-racing-engine/

Who’s Driving This Car, Anyway?

American auto racing is precariously hanging on for its very existence.  Crowds are down in IndyCar, NASCAR, and, I assume, on Saturday nights at the dirt and pavement ovals where people see racing every week.  The economy has tanked, and with the corruption that is rampant in Washington, no dawning of an economic miracle is poking over the horizon.  People are hanging onto their money.  Pricey ducats to big time events are a luxury, whether it’s pro sports, concerts, or racing.  No worries exist for the big events; Indy, Daytona, the Super Bowl, and the BCS Championship have nothing to worry about.  Although not recession proof, these are “bucket list” events; a crowd will always show up.   But with money becoming tight, who pays the freight for auto racing in America?

The answer, of course, is sponsorship.  Whether it’s the ads on TV, the livery on the cars, or the beautiful people in the suites, business pays so that we can play.  And they are beginning to swing a pretty big stick.  Kyle Busch is the current poster boy for NASCAR kowtowing to the sponsorship dollar.  Ten years ago, would a sponsor have taken its livery off his Cup car for the last two races of the season after his bad behavior in the truck series?  Ten years ago, would NASCAR have reacted so quickly to public pressure?  The answer is no on both counts.  But now is not then.

Ten years ago, Facebook was not a marketing tool, Twitter was not even a dream, and bloggers were in the shadows.  Corporations gave their money to racing teams, entertained their clients, and figured some back-end metrics to justify writing the checks.  The relationship had to make sense from a marketing standpoint, but the product on the track was not necessarily a reflection of the corporate ethos.  No more.  We have changed all that.  Life is immediate.  The world can track our every thought and movement.  Going to Starbucks?  Tweet it.  Sampling a new restaurant?  Check in on Facebook.  Don’t like the decision of a race steward?  Crucify him in a blog.  And it all adds up.  Mars, a maker of candy bars, reacted immediately to Kyle Busch’s race rage incident and took its name off his car for the last two races.  Social media, as well as print and TV, jumped in and jumped on.  And Mars listened.  Do you think a little tremor went through all of auto racing?  Daddy Warbucks just cleared his throat and the room got quiet.

NASCAR sanitized its product for its sponsors and paid a price.  Ratings and attendance fell.  Then “boys have at it” came along to spice things up again.  And the characters were back.  The aggression was back.  But NASCAR forgot about the sugar daddy who has an expectation of a return on investment.  You can play on his dime, but he gets what he wants when he wants it.  If Mars said they couldn’t live with Kyle Busch, do you think JGR sticks with its boy or sticks with its money?

And poor IndyCar.  In the racing family, IndyCar is like the brother who decides to follow his dream of being an artist while his younger brother NASCAR goes into business and makes a pile of loot.  IndyCar has a certain level of historical and cultural respect, but he has trouble paying the bills, while his brother NASCAR lives in a McMansion and looks down his nose at his poor sibling.  Starving artists have always longed for a patron to support them.  And IndyCar is starving right now.  The sponsors need more than a Memorial Day blow out.  And it’s too bad.  IndyCar has a lot to offer.

IndyCar is a great series with compelling personalities, great street venues, exciting ovals, and TV ratings that are abysmal.  Sponsors can’t sell when an audience isn’t available to be sold to, and sell they must.  And lurking in the shadows is what compelled Mars to jerk the chain on Kyle Busch: the possibility of their product being associated with tragedy.  Sponsors want ratings.  They want excitement without danger.  Society wants excitement without danger.  And IndyCar is a very dangerous proposition right now.  Pollyanna, disguised as a dollar bill this time, is out to sanitize auto racing.  And we don’t want that.  My advice?  Buy IZOD clothing, drink Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka, and figure out what ABC Supply sells.  As Pogo said in the comics years ago: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

My First Time

No, I don’t kiss and tell.  I do, however, race and tell.  I was introduced to my first love by my brother.  It’s like a romance novel.  He was in love with her first, but after introducing the two of us, he left Indiana to travel the world.  I was young.  She was older and much more experienced.  She was patient and knew I had a lot to learn.  Her name was Indy.  For this and many other things, I am forever in my brother’s debt.[1].

We flirted one year at qualifications.  I listened to her throaty Novi and was smitten.  But the first time I went all the way was two years later.  In 1966 my brother was compelled to take me to the race to accompany his good friend’s son.  We rode to the race in a 1953 GMC panel truck that had been customized by a tavern owner in my hometown of Shirley, Indiana.  The outside was hand-painted a robin’s egg blue with scores of automotive decals: STP, Bardahl, Champion, Moon Eyes, and Hurst were just a few.  A wooden platform was attached to the top and extended over the hood with supports welded to the front bumper.  A tent with a sign that read “Ben’s 500 Lounge” was erected on top.  The panels were cut out on each side with roll up canvas window covers.  On the inside, bus seats were added along one side with an aisle down the other.  The seats had built-in coolers under them; you just had to lift the seat pad up. The truck had the latest in sound systems: an eight-track tape player.[2]  It also came with a collection of hell-raisers.

We left Shirley the afternoon before the race and parked along 16th St. in Speedway.  We waited in a liquor store parking lot until traffic began to line up some time after 3:00 AM and then raced to get in line.  The party continued.  At ten years old, there are some things you have not yet experienced, such as staying up all night, watching power drinkers practice their craft, listening to loud and creative swearing, watching adults fight, and sipping the foam off beer cans after being named the official opener.

When the bomb went off at 5:00 AM, we were in the truck and ready to go. The hoi polloi of Shirley, Indiana, riding their blue race chariot, entered the old main gate outside of Turn 2 and parked up against the fence on the inside of Turn 2.  Getting a spot next to the fence required a vanguard of runners entering the pedestrian gate and staking out a spot.  You had to be tough to stake out and hold a spot.  I graduated to this position by the time I was fifteen and continued doing it on and off until I was thirty.[3]

Nothing prepares you for your first time.  You think you know what it’s going to be like but there is just no way to be prepared.  The entourage was parked and breakfast was cooking by 6:00 AM.  The crowd was a marvel.  The truck was a wonder.  People stopped by to take pictures and chat.  And once you saw it, you never forgot it.  And my callow self was allowed total access.  I continued to act as official opener and was told many times to drink the foam off the beers.  After all, I was Gary’s little brother and was expected to act like it.  No whining, crying, or bellyaching was allowed.  Your first time makes you think you are a man.

We made our way to the first turn bleachers, at the time a small set at the beginning of Turn 1.  To get there we had to pass through the Snake Pit.  It was not the sanitized and corporate Snake Pit of today down by Turn 3, but the real deal.  It was filled with bikes, booze, mud, drunks, noise, and from my youthful perspective, all the fun in the universe.  But even at a young age I could sense the danger.  It was a place to pass through.

After watching the beginning of the race from the bleachers, we made our way back to Turn 2 and the GMC.  I sat in the truck and continued to open beers for the boys.  I might possibly have taken a nap.  It’s hard to say.  The race ended and Graham Hill, some foreigner, won the race.  A foreigner winning Indy was not well received by the boys in the GMC.  I remember throwing bottles over the fence during the post race activities.  It was the only time, then or since, that someone corrected my behavior at the track.  We eventually packed up and entered the traffic to head back to Shirley.  I was content.  And I might have been a little drunk and delirious from sipping the foam off the beers and lack of sleep.  The ride home was great.  Johnny Cash was singing about Folsom Prison and a burning ring of fire on the eight-track.  We were exhausted and happy.

The last thing I remember after getting home was crawling under the coffee table to take a nap.  The next thing I remember was waking up in my bed.  The stories indicate that I was quite entertaining in the time between.  According to my angry mother, I was told to wake up and take a shower.  I exited the bathroom, still unwashed and filthy, and loudly told the assembled family, “Don’t ask me anything.  I’m not saying a word.  Don’t ask me a question.  I’m not going to answer.”  I still wonder what that was all about.  I guess even then I knew you don’t kiss and tell.

You never forget the first time.  And some people say you never get over your first love.  All I know is that I get to hook up with my first love once a year.  We have our little tryst, share a drink, have a few laughs, and then it’s a bittersweet parting until next year.  Indy, I can’t wait to see you again.  Save me a seat, lover.


[1] My brother also allowed me to read “Little Annie Fanny” in his Playboy, as well as buying me a chemistry set and a BB gun.  I made the house smell like rotten eggs and shot out a screen door.  You can assume the result of the Playboy,

[2] As far as I remember, we had one tape: Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits, which was played on a continuous loop.  The tape lasted until we were on the way home the next day, when it caught on fire in the tape deck.  My brother, inebriated, pulled it out and burned his fingers.  The passengers had him hold his hand out the window and pour Calvert’s whiskey on it for the medicinal benefits.  We cheered the entire episode.

[3] At various times I was threatened with fists, ball bats, future harm when their friends arrived, and a golf club.  The golf club guy actually waggled the club in my direction until my buddy Marv, a former D1 defensive lineman, rolled his 6’4” 300 pound self out of the back seat of my VW Rabbit.  Golf club guy then told us we could keep our spot.  He also had the chutzpah to ask us to help him hold the other spots.  Some guys.

IndyCar, NASCAR, and a Question

In recent weeks Randy Bernard, IndyCar CEO and promotional expert, has been crucified for doing his job.  He promoted a race.  He offered money to Dan Wheldon to win from the back of the pack.  He created a buzz; he generated interest.  He did what Saturday night short track owners/promoters have been doing for years.  He figured out a way to put people in the seats, either in person or at home.  How many times has the feature at some quarter mile dirt or pavement oval been inverted to create passing?  And hasn’t a by-product always been the element of danger?  The New York Times hasn’t done an article on that, has it?  Randy Bernard is a target because he doesn’t have a racing pedigree.

NASCAR president Mike Helton tells the taxicab drivers to “Have at it, boys” and the fans and media wink and rub their hands together.  Sounds just like quarter mile dirt or pavement owners/promoters trying to generate a little interest, doesn’t it?  It should.  Mike Helton is an expert.  He is one of the boys.  He is respected in the paddock and the media because of his expert status.  And one of his “boys” just tried to kill someone at Texas.

And the punishment amounts to a time-out.  It is no more than being told to sit in a corner.  And NASCAR did it all to promote its show.  To put more people in the seats, both in person and at home.  Its ratings were dropping and it did something to spice up the show.  And they are geniuses.  And Randy Bernard is vilified for doing exactly the same thing.  The difference is the racers themselves.

Kyle Busch deliberately put Ron Hornaday in the wall.  He committed assault with intent to kill.  IndyCar drivers wreck each other.  They did it week after week this year on road and street courses.  But they never did it on an oval.  And they did not do it intentionally.  They did it aggressively.  They did it stupidly.  They did it optimistically.  But they never  did it intentionally.  The “boys” in the taxicab series try to do it.  Tell me who should be blamed and who is blameless?  Kyle Busch is despicable, but he is also just a consequence of the decisions to let drivers try to kill each other.  Let the drivers fight after the race, not during.  How can you have respect for a series that promotes this mayhem?  You can’t.  And that’s why I love open wheel racing.  They are not perfect, but at least they don’t have homicidal rages behind the wheel.

Randy Bernard did not create a scenario where a driver died.  Mike Helton and his cronies have created a situation where a driver can.  And they should be held accountable.  The Roman poet Juvenal wrote: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”  Who will guard the guardians?

The Sad Reality

Juxtaposition is the placement of two unlike things near each other in a literary work.  The purpose is most often to create an unsettling effect.  I am currently unsettled.  The two unlike things in my Indy car world causing this feeling are Death and Ratings.

IndyCar, like any business, is a bottom line proposition; you should make more money than you spend if you want to keep the doors open and the lights on.  IndyCar’s profits are derived from a mixture of sanctioning fees, sponsorship money, TV deals, and advertising dollars as well as a subsidy from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard is trying to make the series a self-supporting proposition.  And one thing, and one thing only, is the goddess that determines the value for promoters, sponsors, networks, and advertisers:  television ratings.

And the ratings were up for Las Vegas.  Randy Bernard said he would resign if Vegas did not do a .8; it did a 1.6.  But AP writer Tim Dahlberg noted that the broadcast hit a high of 3.8 at the time Dan Wheldon’s death was announced.  Suddenly I am unsettled.

What caused the spike?  Certainly fans with phones, radios, and computers were calling, tweeting, and texting.  People tuned in to see the wreck and were greeted with the news that the reigning Indy 500 champion was dead.  They stayed tuned to see the emotional aftermath of tears, prayers, and interviews.  They watched the five lap tribute.  And the ratings were good.

Up to this point, everything is as expected.  A tragedy took place.  People tuned in to watch as they would any disaster.  They were moved.  They cared.  But they also watched the replays.  And the ratings were good.

Fans want danger.  ABC/ESPN and Versus both advertise Indy car races by showing highlights of flying and spinning cars.  They advertise side-by-side racing with cars touching wheels.  It takes our breath away.  They hope the action draws eyeballs because eyeballs equal money and ratings are religion.  What does this mean for IndyCar?  Sadly, it is simple.  A champion died in a fiery multi-car crash at the last race of the season, the same kind of crash the networks use to entice our viewing.  And although they won’t use the Las Vegas crash in their ads, you can expect other crashes to be shown as they ramp up for the opening race next year.  And the ratings will be up.  We will tune in.  IndyCar may well be in for a good year in the ratings business.  Danger sells.

And what nobody wants to say, and what people will condemn for being said, is that a champion’s death may lead to higher ratings and the success that comes with them.  As Kurt Vonnegut, himself a son of Indianapolis and a master of juxtaposition, so aptly put it: “So it goes.”

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