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Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Fast Times in Noblesville

(Editor’s note:  This article was written for The Polk Street Review, Noblesville’s only literary review, after interviewing Noblesville, Indiana racer Bryan Clauson at Kokomo Speedway this summer.  The editor is stoked since someone actually printed a piece of his writing in a real publication.  This piece was part of a series on influential/interesting citizens, both past and present and was written assuming the readers were not necessarily racing fans.  If you are interested in supporting The Polk Street Review, click here to check out the website and to order your copy.  Whether it’s grassroots racing or grassroots writing, your support is invaluable.)

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Bryan Clauson could be the guy that Hoosier musician John Mellencamp was singing about in his hit song “Small Town.”  Clauson, the 23 year-old championship auto racer from Noblesville, is fully grounded with his sense of place. “Noblesville has grown into a big town, but it still has that small town feel.  That sense of community is part of what keeps me planted in Noblesville.  It would be hard to ever uproot me.”

Bryan has been a USAC (United States Auto Club) champion in both the midget and sprint car series, driven in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and piloted an Indy car in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.  The nomadic life of a racer parallels life in a tight-knit community. “(Racing is) something I grew up with, something I love.  It’s definitely one of the places I’m at home.  Everybody’s here to beat each other, but it’s one big family.”  Competing over 100 times a year in the high stress environment of auto racing creates a bond.  Bryan understands that the racing community is like any other family.  “We’re like siblings.  We can pick on each other, but if someone else does it, it’s not OK.”  That’s just the kind of relationship you might see in any home in Noblesville.

It’s that sense of community, in both Noblesville and racing, that helps Bryan handle the traveling that is inherent in big time auto racing. “There’s times you go a month, two months, without seeing your bed.”  While Bryan and his racing team often stay in motels, they also stay with friends and family throughout the country, using both their homes and garages.  He knows how lucky he is.  “I travel the country doing what I love.  It’s hard to beat that.”  In many ways, Bryan is doing what so many people long to do: he is following his dream.

Bryan began racing quarter midgets in California before moving to Noblesville.  His new central Indiana home landed him in the middle of one of the hotbeds of auto racing.  As he progressed through the ranks of USAC sprint and midget racing, he caught the eye of Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR.  His short career in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, which most would consider successful, was cut short by the money woes that plague auto racing at all levels.  He returned to his roots on the short dirt ovals of the Midwest and California and returned to his championship ways.  In 2010, Bryan won the USAC National Driver Championship, earning a scholarship from IndyCar’s CEO Randy Bernard to compete in the 2011 Indy Lights Series with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.  He parlayed that opportunity into a ride with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for the 2012 Indianapolis 500.  Even though Bryan was fast in practice for the 500, a hard crash in qualifying ended his chance of a good starting position.  A spin early in the race left him with handling problems that led to his early exit and a 30th place finish.  Bryan takes away good memories, though.  “It’s the Mecca of motorsports.  The experience is something I’ll hang onto forever.”

What is it like to do what Bryan does?  He struggled to describe it.  “You take a 1000 pound, 900 horsepower car, and you’re slinging it sideways on a turn at a little over 120 miles-per-hour around a quarter-mile dirt track in a little over 13 seconds.  I don’t think there’s a feeling like it.  You drive it by the seat of your pants.  It’s basically a rocket ship you’re trying to sling around a quarter-mile dirt track.”  It doesn’t quite sound like a trip to town in the family sedan.

When asked about his favorite track while waiting to race at Kokomo Speedway, Bryan smiled and looked around him.  “My favorite Indiana track?  We’re standing in it. Kokomo Speedway.  It’s as good as it gets right here.  It’s the baddest bullring in the country.”  Whether it is the summer racing throughout the United States or his winter racing tour of New Zealand, Bryan’s roots always seem to bring him back to his home tracks in central Indiana and his hometown of Noblesville.  And that is quite all right with him.

Even with all his time away, Bryan always knows where home is.  “Noblesville is home, the place that I love, the place that I’ll probably always call home.”  No matter how fast or how far Bryan Clauson drives, he will always know the road back home to Noblesville.

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INDYCAR: a big time series with small town issues

For years, my ring tone was John Mellencamp’s song “Small Town.”  I always felt it painted a picture of something with which I was familiar.  When I was growing up in Shirley, Indiana, neighbors knew each other, doors remained unlocked, and everybody looked out for the kids in town.  The distorted lens of the past allows us to focus on what is remembered as an idyllic childhood; it’s always summer in my memory.  The past is a lie, though.  We only remember the good things that passed by our young eyes.  The problem with the memory of youth is that it’s only youth we remember.  Life was grand.  As kids we were not aware of gossip, poverty, alcoholism, spousal abuse, politics, and other small town problems of adults.  The current issues in INDYCAR are a microcosm of the realities of small town life.

INDYCAR and its parent company Hulman & Co. are like the mom-and-pop store down the street in any small town across America.  The people you deal with are down-to-earth and friendly with a definite small town Midwestern dialect.  I am not being critical.  They sound just like me.  Due to the demolition of some grandstands this year at IMS, a portion of my Indy 500 tickets had to be moved.  I was assigned a ticket representative to call.  She was patient, informative, and friendly – just the kind of clerk you expect to find in any small town business.  When I met her in person to iron out some wrinkles, she was exactly who I imagined her to be.  I can guarantee you she has worked there for most of her adult life.  She knew everything about my situation.  I felt like she was on my side and understood my concerns.  As a patron, I appreciated being a person, not just an account.  IMS truly cared about me.  At the level of dealing with guests, IMS has it covered.  With recent events, that’s not the message being sent regarding the INDYCAR series by the Hulman & Co. board of directors.

Even the much maligned Safety Patrol in their yellow shirts are similar to the folks in a small town.  When a carnival came around in my small town, you could expect to see the local Lions Club members in their yellow vests volunteering to do the grunt work to make the event a success.  Even though I called some of the Safety Patrol “petty tyrants and martinets” in a previous post, they work the month of May for low wages to help stage one of the premier sporting events in the world.  IMS has never hired an outside vendor to provide the service that the local men and women of Indiana provide.  Just like small town law enforcement, you accept that authority sometimes goes to people’s heads.  There’s always a give and take.  A small town takes care of its own.  Again, this is a good thing.

Something as simple as the concessions at the Speedway reflect the ethos of the Midwest.  IMS make a profit on the sandwiches and drinks, but you don’t feel like you are being gouged.  It’s no more expensive to buy a burger or a tenderloin at IMS than it is to buy a sandwich at a local restaurant or bar.  If you have attended a concert or a professional football or baseball game recently, then you know how it feels to pay $9 or more for a beer.  IMS treats its fans better than that.  And do you know what’s really great about buying a sandwich or beer at IMS?  You get to consume it at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Think about that for a moment.

But all is not sweetness and light in a small town, though.  There is darkness, too.  The politics of a small town are full of back room deals and backstabbing.  Often, the leaders of these political factions are not, shall we say, the beneficiaries of a worldly perspective.  They are often rather short-sighted, insular, and provincial.  These “qualities” may work in the narrow confines of a small town, but they don’t work as well in the global business of auto racing.  The recent firing of Randy Bernard had all the characteristics of what happens on a small town school board.  The parents of students who have issues demand redress from the principal.  The principal, a professional at what he does, refuses to accede to their demands.  All teachers and principals in small communities know what happens next.  The parents go to their friends on the school board to leverage the principal to get their way.  And it works.  Randy Bernard was the principal, the owners were the parents, and Jeff Belklus and the Hulman & Co. board of directors were the school board.  The owners went around Bernard, and it cost him his job.  It’s ugly in a small town when this happens, but only the people in the small town know about it.  When Hulman & Co. and its board do it, it is still ugly, but because it’s being played out on a world stage, it is also unprofessional and amateurish.  The time has come for IMS and INDYCAR to leave the small town life and start living in the big city if they want to have a series that is respected around the world.

But the true example of the limitations of a small town world view reside with the board of directors for Hulman & Co.  Even though the board has been expanded to include members with a much broader vision of the world, they are still very much on the board in an advisory capacity.  They can offer their perspectives but cannot force any change.  The power resides in the family members on the board who, even with their money and the opportunities that money brings, seem to be no more worldly than the small town school board mentioned above.  On the west side of Indianapolis in the small town enclave that is Speedway, they represent power, authority, and wealth.  They have confused this small town power with the wisdom that comes from engagement with the greater world.  Just because you have the power to affect change does not mean you have the wisdom to affect positive change.  The recent events at 16th and Georgetown bear this out.

Some things do not need to change.  The small town culture that is the guiding philosophy of the Indianapolis 500 and the Speedway itself is perfect as is.  It works for the 500 and the venue.  The pre-race activities with the Gordon Pipers, the Speedway High School marching band, the Boy Scouts, and the motorcycle police are part of what makes the 500 iconic.  The lyrics of “Back Home Again in Indiana” are as small town as you can get.  The Safety Patrol with their yellow shirts and the 500 Festival Parade are part of the fabric of the event and what it means to live in Indianapolis.  All these things reflect all that is good about the small town ethos and must remain.

The issue is not with the Indianapolis 500 or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.  It is with the vision of the board of directors as it relates to the series.  The real question is whether the board can examine the situation and, in a rare moment of self-awareness, see that the real problem with the series is not with the INDYCAR CEO, the owners, or the fans but with themselves.  If they reach this conclusion, then the real change needed in the series can be made.  And what is the most needed change?  The INDYCAR series needs to be divorced from IMS and the Hulman & Co. board of directors as much as possible.  It is clear that board does not plan to sell the series.  To do so would be to put the IMS cash cow in jeopardy of being leveraged by an outside entity.  That happened once, and IMS and the board will not allow it to happen again.  Until the series and its CEO can make their own decisions without the small town interference of the board, INDYCAR will continue in its downward spiral until it finally augers in and leaves nothing but a smoking crater where the series used to be.  What remains will be a diminished Indianapolis 500 and a shell of a series that the racing world, and that means fans and sponsors, only notice in the month of May.

Walt Kelly’s iconic comic strip Pogo had the title character, surveying the detritus of humans in his beloved swamp, state: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Until the Hulman & Co. board of directors has this epiphany regarding their own impact on the INDYCAR series, then nothing will change.  And not changing is about as small town as you can get.

The INDYCAR Fraternity: Welcome to Animal House

The recent events at 16th and Georgetown have shown the disconnect between the fans and the core constituencies of INDYCAR, as defined by new INDYCAR Grand Potentate Jeff Belklus.  INDYCAR’s core constituencies,as defined by Belklus, are the owners, drivers, vendors, and business partners.  He did manage to publish an open letter to fans, quite likely ghosted by a PR wonk, hoping that this one missive posted online would let the fans know how important they were.  This cavalier, high-handed attitude toward the fans reminded me of someone:  Dean Wormer in Animal House.  It’s time for New Track Record to head back to the movies, comparing the principals in the current INDYCAR morass to characters in the movie Animal House. “Toga! Toga!”

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Dean Vernon Wormer: Greg, what is the worst fraternity on this campus?
Greg Marmalard: Well that would be hard to say, sir. They’re each outstanding in their own way.
Dean Vernon Wormer: Cut the horseshit, son. I’ve got their disciplinary files right here. Who dropped a whole truckload of fizzies into the varsity swim meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets explode.
Greg Marmalard: You’re talking about Delta, sir.
Dean Vernon Wormer: Of course I’m talking about Delta, you TWERP!

This is Dean Wormer talking to his co-conspirator Greg Marmalard of the Omegas about the boys at Delta house.  This is a perfect fit.  Just assume that the Deltas are the fans and Dean Wormer is Jeff Belskus or any of the owners who are bothered by the pesky people who continue to show up at races to have a good time.  The boys at the top are exasperated over the fact that the FANS have certain expectations of treatment and have had the unmitigated gall to actually like Randy Bernard.  The next thing you know, the great unwashed will want everyone to communicate with them.  The audacity.

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Bluto: Hey! What’s all this laying around stuff? Why are you all still laying around here for?
Stork: What the hell are we supposed to do, ya moron? We’re all expelled. There’s nothing to fight for anymore.
D-Day: [to Bluto] Let it go. War’s over, man. Wormer dropped the big one.
Bluto: What? Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
Otter: [to Boon] Germans?
Boon: Forget it, he’s rolling.
Bluto: And it ain’t over now. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets tough…
[thinks hard of something to say]
Bluto: The tough get goin’! Who’s with me? Let’s go!
[Bluto runs out, alone; then returns]
Bluto: What the f- – – happened to the Delta I used to know? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts, huh? This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you’re gonna let it be the worst. “Ooh, we’re afraid to go with you Bluto, we might get in trouble.” Well just kiss my ass from now on! Not me! I’m not gonna take this. Wormer, he’s a dead man! Marmalard, dead! Niedermeyer…
Otter: Dead! Bluto’s right. Psychotic… but absolutely right. We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!
Bluto: We’re just the guys to do it.
D-Day: [stands up] Yeah, I agree. Let’s go get ’em.
Boon: Let’s do it.
Bluto: [shouting] “Let’s do it”!
[all of the Deltas stand up and run out with Bluto]
What really surprised the suits at IMS and the lynch mob of owners was the vitriol directed towards them after IMS gave Randy Bernard his walking papers.  As seen above, the Deltas never gave up after their frat house was closed.  In fact, the fans are very much like Bluto giving his impassioned speech about not giving up “when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” – we may not know what really went on or what we are really talking about, but we damn sure know that something is not right.  IMS and the owners are discovering that IndyCar fans are passionate, and passion causes emotional responses.  Even stupid ones.
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[the Deltas have been expelled]
Bluto: Christ. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the          f – – – ing Peace Corps.
Not only is Bluto a powerful speaker (when he finally speaks), he seems pretty self-aware.  In fact, he sounds like the many fans on Twitter, Speed.com, and the message boards washing their hands of IndyCar racing because of Randy Bernard’s dismissal, which long time fans see as just another example of what ails the sport.  The fans may come back, but the hard-core, long-time followers of the sport are tired of having their hearts broken.  They are emotionally spent.  Instead of the Peace Corps, they might as well just start following NASCAR or (gulp) F1.
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Otter: Point of parliamentary procedure!
Hoover: Don’t screw around, they’re serious this time!
Otter: Take it easy, I’m pre-law.
Boon: I thought you were pre-med.
Otter: What’s the difference?
[Addressing the room]
Otter: Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be brief. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with our female party guests – we did.
[winks at Dean Wormer]
Otter: But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!
[Leads the Deltas out of the hearing, all humming the Star-Spangled Banner]
I can never get through one of these movie comparisons without a connection to Robin Miller.  I really like the fact that he cares so deeply about the series.  I really like the fact that he uses his bully pulpit to shine a light on the prevarications and outright lies that the fans are expected to take as gospel.  I really like the fact that he will name names and demand accountability.  And I really like the fact that he sounds just like the IndyCar peeps I have coffee with on Saturday mornings.  His spelling, grammar, and syntax may not be perfect, but just like Otter in his speech defending the Deltas, his epistles are heartfelt, even if you don’t agree with his perspectives.  We need more bombastic speeches!
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D-Day: Hey, quit your blubberin’. When I get through with this baby you won’t even recognize it.
Otter: Flounder, you can’t spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes! You  f – – – ed up. You trusted us! Hey, make the best of it! Maybe we can help.
Flounder: [crying] That’s easy for you to say! What am I going to tell Fred?
Otter: I’ll tell you what. We’ll tell Fred you were doing a great job taking care of his car, but you parked it out back last night and this morning… it was gone. We report it as stolen to the police. D-Day takes care of the wreck. Your brother’s insurance company buys him a new car.
Flounder: Will that work?
Otter: Hey, it’s gotta work better than the truth.
Bluto: [thrusting six-pack into Flounder’s hands] My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.
Otter: Better listen to him, Flounder, he’s in pre-med.
D-Day: [firing up blow-torch] There you go now, just leave everything to me.
Poor Randy Bernard.  He came into the IndyCar “family” assuming people were all pulling in the same direction.  I’m sure he thought if he had good ideas and a pure heart, then the paddock would get behind him for the betterment of the series.  At least he would have the support of his “friends” on the board if he met resistance.  Oops.  Just like Flounder, he made the mistake of trusting his “friends.”  Just like Flounder’s “friends” reporting his car stolen, Bernard’s friends will just put out a little press release that will take care of everything.  “It’s gotta work better than the truth.”  Live and learn, Randy.
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[Dean Wormer’s plotting to get rid of Delta House]
Greg Marmalard: But Delta’s already on probation.
Dean Vernon Wormer: They are? Well, as of this moment, they’re on DOUBLE SECRET PROBATION!
Once again, poor Randy Bernard.  I’ve had difficulty deciding which character best represents him.  Is he Flounder trusting his friends, or is he Hoover, the president of Delta house?  Maybe Hoover is a better connection.  It fits if you assume that Dean Wormer is Jeff Belklus and that Greg Marmalard represents the owners going around Bernard to hamstring him.  He was on double secret probation and never even knew it.  Henry Kissinger once said “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”  As IndyCar’s value plummets, the politics will only get more vicious.
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Mayor Carmine De Pasto: If you want this year’s homecoming parade in my town, you have to pay for it.
Dean Vernon Wormer: Carmine, I don’t think it’s right that you should extort money from the college.
Mayor Carmine De Pasto: Look, these parades you throw are very expensive. You using my police, my sanitation people, and my Oldsmobiles free of charge. So, if you mention extortion again, I’ll have your legs broken.
Even though I’ve pointedly put Jeff Belklus at the epicenter of all that was wrong with the removal of Randy Bernard, there’s a power above him at IMS.  The Hulman-George family had the power to support Bernard or not.  They didn’t.  In the movie, the only one who outranked Dean Wormer was Mayor Carmine DePasto.  When Wormer complained about being extorted, DePasto let him know where the real power was.  It’s guaranteed that Jeff Belklus was acting on orders from the board.  They might not have broken his legs, but they could sure take them out from under him.  Power may corrupt, but it’s still power.  There are no clean hands in this IndyCar saga.
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Chip: [being spanked as part of Omega’s initiation] Thank you, sir! May I have another?
Chip, one of the Omega pledges, has to continue to accept the degradation that goes with being a member of the Omegas.  He not only has to endure a beating, he has to ask for it to continue.  That is how INDYCAR, with its current and most likely future management, expects the fans to behave.  The fans will want to join the IndyCar frat.  The fans will want to accept whatever it offers.  The fans will ask the leaders to continue to punish them.  This misguided perspective on the fans’ loyalty is what has driven, and continues to drive, fans away from the series.  INDYCAR, just like the Omegas, think their club is so special that its important to keep people out of it.  They forget that the majority of the fans are GDI’s (God Damn Independents).
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The real difference between Animal House and the recent events at INDYCAR is simple.  Animal House was intended to be a comedy.  INDYCAR is a serious business that has become a joke.

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