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Archive for the month “September, 2012”

As the Firestone turns: why this and why now?

It’s an understatement to say that I was surprised when Gordon Kirby of MotorSport quoted  Bridgestone/Firestone Racing’s Al Speyer discussing the rumor that INDYCAR had already reached an agreement with another tire company to supply the racing rubber for INDYCAR when Firestone’s contract expires after the 2014 season (see here).  The silly season always seems to spawn crazy rumors, but to have them voiced by Al Speyer caught me off guard.  Whether it’s real or not is secondary to the fact that Al Speyer thinks it’s real.  That’s news.

Robin Miller at Speed.com got a response (sort of ) from INDYCAR (see here) that did nothing to quell the rumor.  INDYCAR issued a statement from Randy Bernard that was standard business-speak.  Basically, it said the contract is up in 2014, and Firestone is one of the suppliers to whom they will talk.  It should be noted that Randy Bernard is almost always willing to go on the record with Robin Miller and other journalists.  That press release was done to prevent any off-message comment.  It was cold and calculated.  Something’s up.

Al Speyer and Bridgestone/Firestone played a very public game of hardball in 2011.  They wanted more money to keep supplying the series.  I have no problem with that.  The R.O.I. (return on investment) of being the sole supplier of IndyCar had most certainly suffered as IndyCar’s TV ratings lagged.  In other words, Bridgestone/Firestone had leverage and used it.  That’s business.  The fact is that IndyCar as a series is secondary in value to the Indianapolis 500.  Firestone gets more mileage (sorry) from the iconic “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” than they do from all the other races in the series.  And they got a little fat and sassy.  Working leverage can do that to you.  Once you win, you assume you will always win.

And Firestone still has leverage, which Al Speyer has already started to use to bend INDYCAR to its will.  We are going to hear a few things in the near future:

  • Firestone is safe.  That’s true.  They have not had a catastrophic failure at a superspeedway.  NOTHING should trump the safety of the drivers.
  • The teams are happy with the tires.  They are not real happy with IndyCar or Firestone in regards to the cost of the tires, though.  The teams accepted the cost because the tire is great.
  • The drivers are happy with the tires.  They don’t fail at speed.  If you were a driver what tire would you want?
  • Firestone has a 100 year history with the Indy 500.  They are a good corporate partner and a brand that is as iconic as the Indianapolis 500.   The 500 is a very valuable asset.

I can guarantee your that the blogs, forums, and Twitter will absolutely BLOW UP over this.  Randy Bernard will be crucified and excoriated over something that hasn’t happened yet.  In other words, it will be business as usual.  But it does beg the question: why would Randy Bernard and INDYCAR consider dumping Firestone as the tire supplier for the IZOD IndyCar Series?  Randy Bernard reminds me of coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers when the character of Opal Fleener tells him, “Sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass everyday, but mister, you ain’t seen a ray of light since you got here.”  That’s Randy Bernard.  He didn’t have the right pedigree in racing.  He personally promoted a race that ended in tragedy.  He has endured a rebellion of owners that would cause most people to get the hell out of town.  A tweet of his started a firestorm.  His schedule fell apart in mid-season, as did the track in Detroit.  Is this another gaffe?  I think we are going to meet a different Randy Bernard here.  Just like Norman Dale in Hoosiers, nobody is going to “hide-strap (his) ass to a pine rail and send (him) up the Monon Line!”

I can see no benefit to playing hard ball with Firestone to get a better deal, particularly playing hard ball in public.  Firestone, with Al Speyer, knows something is afoot.  Losing the Indy 500 would be losing face for a Japanese company.  They want Indy.  They want iconic.  That’s why they went on the PR offensive.  So what’s up?  It just doesn’t make sense for INDYCAR to dump Firestone to save the owners some money.  The bad PR on that is not worth it, nor is the safety risk.  Here’s my take: Randy Bernard has a BIG ace up his sleeve, just like a cowboy sitting in some Western saloon.  I think Randy Bernard and INDYCAR have a tire supplier who wants to make a big splash.  IZOD wants out of IndyCar and is stuck with a contract to sponsor the IZOD IndyCar Series.  My completely uninformed conjecture is that a tire manufacturer is waiting to not only provide the series with racing tires, but to become the title sponsor of the IndyCar Series.  The ancillary benefit to this manufacturer is that little race at 16th and Georgetown and the history and credibility that comes with it.  Maybe Randy Bernard is preparing to screw the pooch on this.  Maybe he is looking for an exit strategy where the board at IMS has no choice but to fire him.  I don’t think so.  I think he is ready to go all-in on his biggest bet as the CEO of INDYCAR.  Would INDYCAR dump the safety, reliability, and history of Firestone to secure the long-term viability of the series?  Would they be willing to weather the firestorm of criticism that would surely follow such a decision?  In the culture of corporate America, does money trump everything else?  We know the answers, don’t we.

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Ten Worthless Opinions – MavTV 500 IndyCar Championships Edition

I really don’t know if I can condense the action from the MavTV 500 IndyCar Championships to just ten WO’s (worthless opinions).  There were retirements, new contracts, an American series champion, awkwardness, and a race winner who was roundly ignored by everybody.  It’s IndyCar at its best.  Here we go.

1.  What a race.  If you watched it, then you don’t need me to explain it.  If you didn’t, then you need to read Curt Cavin’s Indy Star article here.  Or read John Oreovicz’s ESPN.com article here.  Or Jenna Fryer’s AP article here.  They have the quotes and insights.  I just make stuff up.  I was on the edge of my seat and sweating trying to do math in my head to figure out what Ryan Hunter-Reay needed to do to be the first American champion of this iconically American series since 2006.  Robin Miller will tell us that’s a good thing because of fan interest.  I will tell you it’s a good thing because of the racing.  After a desultory first 200 miles, all hell broke loose when Will Power, who only had to keep pace with Hunter-Reay to finally win the championship, spun into the wall and opened the door for Hunter-Reay to go from journeyman to champion.  The rest of the race was a story problem from 7th grade algebra.  “Solve for x, where x is the place a driver needs to finish to score enough points to beat his closest rival.”  The math made my head hurt, so I let NBC Sports do it for me.  Unfortunately, all NBC Sports wanted to talk about was the championship.  It was still a race, and the drivers competing to win it should have been recognized a little.  Just my opinion.  And it’s likely Ed Carpenter’s opinion, too.

2.  As reported by the AP’s Jenna Fryer on Twitter, Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske both have come to the startling conclusion that there may be something wrong with the owners’  perspectives.  There has to be a back story here.  Comments about the owners not seeing the “big picture” and worrying about the parts prices instead of “building the series” were mentioned.  There is a plot afoot.  Something is about to happen.  Stay tuned.  Roger and Chip never say anything that does not in some way point to their self-interest.

3.  I will miss Bob Jenkins in the booth.  NBC Sports, and I assume IMS productions, put together a stellar retrospective of his career as an announcer.  When I think about a race, I think about it in Bob Jenkins’ voice.  Here’s to you, Bob.  Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.

4.  Mike Conway stepped out of AJ Foyt’s car because he was spooked by oval racing.  What impressed me most is the support he received from the driving fraternity.  It’s a dangerous business and nobody understands it better than the drivers who risk their lives weekly in pursuit of winning.  IndyCar drivers are a special, and rare, breed, and I have immense respect for what they do.  I get spooked at 80 mph on the interstate.  I cannot imagine hanging on in a corner at 200 mph.

5.  Did anyone else notice the crowd behind Kevin Lee’s gear-like structure in the pre-race?  They were excited!  Of course, they were excited because someone was throwing free t-shirts to them for making noise.  Here’s a hint, NBC Sports.  Don’t throw them so high that the viewers can see them on TV.  You want us to believe that the crowd is cheering for IndyCar, Kevin Lee, and the guests, not their own self-interest.  Remember, the Wizard of Oz was successful only when he stayed behind the curtain.  As always, this advice is a free service from New Track Record.  I am available for consultation.

6.  Does NBC Sports talk in production meetings about how to make Robin Miller look like a clown?  Would he wear a red nose and floppy shoes if they paid him enough?  On the pre-race, the broadcast team sat perched high on their chairs.  All except Robin Miller.  His chair was at least a foot lower than all the others.  It was entertaining to watch him try to raise it.  He failed to do so.  The sad part of this is that RM is aces when it comes to series info and gossip.  His quick overview of the silly season possibilities of drivers and teams was spot on.  Viewers need that information.  The grid run, as always, was an afterthought.  Add Marty “The Shit Stirrer” Snider to it.  If NBC sports is going to show the segment, then they should at least plan the segment.  It’s embarrassing.

7.  I say this every week, but Jon Beekhuis adds tremendous value to the broadcasts.  He not only talks, he thinks.  His “Professor B” segments tell me things I don’t know.

8.  I am warming to Ryan Hunter-Reay.  His openness talking about chasing the championship was refreshing.  Yes, he mentions his sponsors and team, but he also has his emotions right there for us to see.  When he got out of the car at the end of the race, he did not have a speech prepared.  He was moved by the moment, and we saw an honest reaction.  He’s a little wooden and a little awkward.  And that’s OK.  I like my heroes to be human.  Plus, he remained loyal to Andretti Motorsport by signing a contract extension.  I think I like that.

9.  Sometime in the near future, Will Power will be as classy a champion as he is a runner-up.  His responses last night after losing the championship in a gut-wrenching fashion just oozed class.  He allowed the fans to see the rawness of the moment.  He shared his bitterest disappointment with the world.  I seem to remember rather churlish behavior from the tin top drivers in similar circumstances.  Will Power is just another reason to like IndyCar.

10.  I will end with a shout-out to Ed Carpenter for a great win last night (called by Robin Miller).  Ed’s an oval driver.  Period.  He’s a hometown Indy guy with an Indiana sponsor who deserved to be celebrated for his win at Fontana.  And he was an afterthought to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the post-race activities.  I hope ECR decides to team up with either another car or another driver (Hey, Mike Conway) to be competitive on all the circuits next year.  The new Dallara has opened the door for the small teams to win.  It’s another reason to like IndyCar.

New Track Record’s WO’s (worthless opinions) are in the bag for 2012.  Just like the new Dallara, they were designed to be quick, functional, and used in the IndyCar Series.  I will likely hold them in abeyance until the start of the 2013 season.  But, thanks to the relative dysfunction of owners, drivers, series officials, and fans, I will have plenty to write about until then.

Ten Worthless Opinions – Sonoma and Baltimore Combo Edition

You take one weekend to attend a sprint car race at Kokomo, Indiana to research a profile on Bryan Clauson because you assume the next two races are going to be road course/street course events with very little excitement and what happens?  Strategy! Weather! Passing! Thrills!  Who knew?  The plan was to combine the WO’s (worthless opinions) of Sonoma and Baltimore into one post then move on to the finale at Fontana (Finale at Fontana…has a little ring to it, huh?).  So here they are, your “Ten Worthless Opinions  –  Sonoma and Baltimore Combo Edition.”

1.  Sorry for the missed week.  I was at Kokomo Speedway in Kokomo, Indiana to interview Bryan Clauson for an upcoming profile in The Polk Street Review, Noblesville, Indiana’s finest literary review.  Well, it’s also Noblesville’s only literary review, but that doesn’t nullify the previous statement.  Be sure to pre-order your copy now.  How fun were the races at Kokomo?  I’ll let the picture do the talking.  That’s my pensive look.

2.  Just a quick comment on the TV pre-race at both Sonoma and Baltimore.  It was a smart move to put the odd gear-like structure on which Kevin Lee perches in the IndyCar Fan Village at Sonoma.  Suddenly, it seems that there are people at the race, and that really makes a difference to the viewers.  The spot at Baltimore did not have the same crowd.  It looked like ten people wandered by as they were going from bar to bar.  Come on, NBC Sports Network, at least make it seem that there is excitement in the crowd.  In a related comment, I have never liked the location of the gear-like structure at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The garage area there certainly has a cool vibe, but it always seems so empty compared to the plaza behind the Pagoda.  Just one more WO (Worthless Opinion) from your always helpful host here at New Track Record.

3.  Once again, Robin Miller gets his own WO (worthless opinion).  At Sonoma, he disappeared during the broadcast since so much of the race was run under green.  Even though he stumbles through his comments at times, he brings knowledge and insight to a sport that needs it.  He knows the drivers, owners, and WAGS of the series.  He is passionate about a sport that needs passionate fans.  But then we have Baltimore.  His cartoon icon trotted across the screen as he began his grid lurch.  Let’s face it, it’s hardly a grid run now, is it.  In truth, it was one of his better grid runs of the year.  He huffed and puffed his way to talking with a number of drivers.  I really like his “friendly frog” sobriquet for Simon Pagenaud, who mildly mocked him with a comment about his age.  I finally figured out who Miller sounds like, though.  He calls everyone “brother.”  It’s always “Hey, brother,” or “Thanks, brother.”  Robin Miller is channeling Hulk Hogan at his finest!  He just needs to lower his voice a little and have a slight rasp to it. I only hope he doesn’t steal Hogan’s move of ripping his shirt off.  Even New Track Record has its limits.

4.  Sonoma, now with GoPro sponsorship, did some work and created some passing zones.  Even so, this race was decided under yellow with cars slowing down Will Power as he tried to race back to the blend line while his teammate Ryan Briscoe slid out in front of him.  The TV announcers did a great job of pointing this out as it happened.  It was exciting.  Keep in mind that I am an oval guy to the core.  I like the speed and edginess.  I have warmed up to the strategy of the twisties.  All it takes is one overly optimistic choice (sorry, Tags) to change the whole complexion of the race or even the championship.  The same thing happens on the ovals.  And for those who don’t thinks danger lurks everywhere in racing, just watch the replay of the Sebastien Bourdais and Josef Newgarden crash.  That was hard.  Thanks, Dallara.

5.  Michael Andretti and his team of promoters did a yeoman’s job of providing CPR to a Grand Prix of Baltimore that was  drowning in debt and mismanagement.  It looked like the crowd was down, but it sure seemed big enough to have a go again next year.  IndyCar needs the East Coast and this race.  It had passing, strategy, rain, and chicanery.

6.  Ah, the chicane at Baltimore.  Once again, it seems that IndyCar has pissed on its trousers.  You know what I mean.  IndyCar dresses nicely, has all the right connections, and as it voids its bladder before a very public appearance, it leaves a tell-tale track across the pleat of its pants.  That’s the chicane.  I could rant rhapsodic on it, but Alex Lloyd already did in this piece from Jalopnik called “Why Einstein Should Have Designed Racetracks (And the Insanity of the Baltimore GP).”  Any driver that quotes Einstein is aces in my book.  Read it now and thank me later.

7.  The chicane at Baltimore notwithstanding, that was a hell of a race.  Simon Pagenaud’s pass on a re-start was world class.  If that didn’t make your heart race watching the replay, then go watch football.  The rain created strategy with the choice of slicks or rain tires allowing Ryan Hunter-Reay to move to the front of the field.  And even though not all corners allowed passing, the turn one re-starts were worth the price of admission.  The drivers were aggressive and willing to take chances.  That always makes good racing.

8.  The start of the race and the restarts were schizophrenic.  The start and the restarts were FUBAR in relationship to the full field being through the chicane.  The front half or so would be lined up and taking the green while the rest of the field was still single file coming through the chicane.  It looked bad.  With that said, the front of the pack sliced, diced, chopped, and bumped each other without serious damage.  The chicane has to go.  It ruined the start and restarts for the second half of the field.  They deserve a fair start, too.

9.  The big question is whether Ryan Briscoe got cheated or snookered on a restart that quite likely cost him the race.  Here’s the rule in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Rule Book:

7.11.1.3. When the Track is clear for racing, the Safety Car will assist the field in preparing for a restart. At the appropriate time, the flashing lights will be turned off, indicating intent to restart. The leader is required to maintain the pace lap speed until reaching a point designated by INDYCAR near the start/finish line when the leader shall accelerate smoothly back to racing speed and the green condition will then be declared. All Car(s) must maintain their respective Track position for the restart.

Hmm.  Briscoe says he did not have time to accelerate back to racing speed before the green condition was declared.  Hunter-Reay said he came along side of Briscoe and the green flag was shown, and that means start.  Watching the video, it is clear that Hunter-Reay was accelerating at a speed greater than Briscoe’s when the green flag fell.  Briscoe was quite obviously bringing the field up at a speed that he thought all other cars would be doing at the drop of the green.  As the leader, it was his field to pace to the restart, and it was the responsibility of all other drivers to be paced by Briscoe.  So who’s at fault?  The easy answer is everyone.  Hunter-Reay snookered Briscoe.  He said he just did what Pagenaud did earlier in the race, and everyone raved about that.  Briscoe has the responsibility to protect himself from being snookered.  And the flagman for IndyCar has the responsibility to call off the restart if he sees something amiss.  That restart was a comedy of errors, and the only one still smiling is Ryan Hunter-Reay.

10.  A big difference to a TV viewer between a natural terrain road course like Sonoma and a street circuit like Baltimore is recognition of course features.  After a while, a viewer can tell the difference among the corners at Sonoma.  They look different.  You can tell where you are.  Some of the corners at road courses have names like the Bus Stop or the Keyhole.  You can see where you are.  At a street circuit like Baltimore, you just don’t have the visual cues to differentiate the geography.  It all looks the same, hence the confusion a viewer has watching the race.  New Track Record is always ready to offer suggestions that make the viewing better for all fans.  Most street circuits have advertising posted on the fences in the corners.  Why not add the turn number in the advertising?  As a viewer, I would actually look at the ads to see the turn numbers.  Why can’t you have “Dr. Pepper Turn 5” or “DSL Turn 2?”  Selling advertising and making money for the series, the promoters, and the networks doesn’t bother me.  Just don’t forget making the experience at-track and on TV better for the fans.  We deserve it.

There you go.  The IZOD IndyCar Series had two exciting races that should create interest in the “Finale at Fontana.”  The championship is still undecided.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is stalking Will Power, who has yet to show he can close out a championship season.  IndyCar has 500 miles to go in another exciting and dysfunctional season.  IndyCar may not always make it right, but they certainly make it exciting.

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