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Archive for the month “June, 2013”

IndyCar and television: a dysfunctional relationship

Iowa Speedway put on a great show with its Iowa Corn 250 this past weekend.  Even though Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe dominated the race, there was passing throughout the field.  Ryan Hunter-Reay came back through the field to finish second while Tony Kanaan held off Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal for the last podium spot.  And the ABC/ESPN broadcast of the race did a pretty good job of making sure the viewers knew those things were happening.  After all the commentary bashing the ABC/ESPN coverage, that was good news.

But the fact is watching a small oval like Iowa Speedway in person cannot be simulated on television.  The tight shots seen on television rob the viewer of the perspective from the stands.  Following multiple battles on the track at the same time is what makes Iowa exciting.  You can see the passes being set up laps in advance.  As you wait for one pass to be set up, you can watch another pass being made.  From any seat in the house, you can see the whole track and every bit of action on it.  Television, for all the bowing and scraping we do to the ratings, just doesn’t do justice to a track like Iowa.

Televising racing isn’t easy.  An 18 second lap at Iowa often had five cuts.  That required the director in the trailer to do many things at once: watch multiple feeds to decide which battle to follow, determine when to cut from one camera to another, decide which replay to show, and inform the announcers exactly what was happening and what was getting ready to happen.  Easy it’s not.

Even though I’m usually rough on the ABC booth, Marty Reid is actually getting better.  At least he’s amping up the enthusiasm.  The funereal presence of Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear still don’t do it for me, though.  The boys do get emotional during close racing, emitting the occasional “ooh” and “wow” to let us know how tight the racing is.  They do understand what’s going on.  As vapid as their presentation is, they get the facts right.  It is obvious that this booth is not going to connect to the demographic that IndyCar is looking to attract.  And I don’t think that ABC/ESPN really cares.

ABC and its political master ESPN do not really need IndyCar to be a big deal.  All they need is to own the Indianapolis 500 and for it to continue to be a pretty big deal.  I’m going to go all conspiracy theory here, so bear with me.  ABC owns the network broadcast rights to IndyCar.  That means they are the only non-cable network that can put IndyCar on TV.  In other words, NBC gets the leftovers.  Without the Indy 500, NBC Sports inherited a racing series that, while offering the most versatile and exciting racing on the planet, does not offer the most famous race on the planet.  Yikes.

ABC was allowed to cherry-pick any races they chose, and in addition to the Indy 500, they picked Detroit, Texas, Iowa, and Pocono.  Shrewd move.  If IndyCar had any success with the fans before the 500, ABC benefited.  Any subsequent interest would be to ABC’s benefit, too, since they had four of the next five races on the schedule.  In case any of the races after Indy were spectacular, ABC wins.  The cherry on the post Indy 500 sundae would be keeping NBC’s cable sports network, NBC Sports, from gaining any traction with viewers.  ABC/ESPN will brutally deny a start-up cable sports network ANY success with a partner, particularly if that cable network has a broadcast network connection.  Dividing IndyCar benefits ABC/ESPN.  IndyCar unified on NBC/NBC Sports can potentially hurt ABC/ESPN.  What happens to IndyCar beyond the 500 is unimportant to ABC/ESPN as long as it doesn’t help the competition.  ABC/ESPN does not want to see NBC/NBC Sports have the success with IndyCar that they had with the recently completed NHL Stanley Cup Final.  The hockey games bounced between the two NBC networks and prospered.  The IZOD IndyCar Series could help NBC’s fledgling sports network, but this will not be allowed to happen.  With both networks locked into contracts with IndyCar, the intentional dysfunctional relationship of the series and its television partners will continue.

To prosper, the IZOD IndyCar Series eventually needs to be on one family of networks, preferably one that does not have a NASCAR contract.  That severely limits the players, doesn’t it?  IndyCar is the awkward sibling.  Because of the success of the Indy 500, it can’t be disowned, but the networks don’t really wants to spend much time with it.  So IndyCar continues its lonely existence away from kith and kin, dreaming that one day a network family will adopt this poor, orphaned series.

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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.

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