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Archive for the month “June, 2014”

The paradigm has shifted: IndyCar is a street course series

Hoosier humorist Kin Hubbard once wrote, “T’aint what a man don’t know that hurts him. It’s what he knows that just ain’t so.”  I have no authority or research to show that he was a fan of racing, but the blindness to reality of many IndyCar fans is summed up in that aphorism.  IndyCar has changed…forever.  The time has come to accept that truth.

That’s not to say that change is bad, but it is certainly inevitable.  The fact is that IndyCar, in its current incarnation, is a street course series, and that is not going to change anytime soon.  On the current 18 race Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, eight of the races are street courses.  This number is likely to increase domestically in coming years.  And it’s a simple reality why this is true: it’s more value for everyone.

Before any of my tens of readers respond with Tony George, IRL, IMS, or spec racing rants, let me offer a piece of advice: shut up.  The war is over.  You lost.  And keep in mind that I am a true aficionado of all things oval.  As an oval fan, my choices were to quit caring about IndyCar, which will never happen, or embrace the great racing going on in front of me.  I choose to embrace.

We are a festival society.  We love to go to metropolitan downtown areas and party.  Cities have Irish, Italian, and German fests.  Giant art fairs take place around the country.  We celebrate beer, brats, and ribs.  Music festivals draw huge crowds.  Racing and speed are just other things to celebrate.  Most cities have vast experience hosting these spring, summer, and fall festivals.  They bring people downtown after business hours.  Cities want in.  And it is in IndyCar’s best interest to get in.

The fans that IndyCar needs to court do not care about CART or the IRL.  They do not care about spec cars or Tony George.  They do not care about horsepower or aerodynamics.  They care about getting entertainment value for their dollar.  Currently, the Verizon IndyCar Series is the ONLY racing series making a concerted effort to bring racing to where the people are, in revitalized or revitalizing downtowns.  The series OWNS this.  No one does it better, or for less investment, than IndyCar.  The suggested F1 foray into Long Beach will fail simply because of the vast infrastructure investment required.  IndyCar will race on the course that is there.  That’s value.

Street courses have proven to be good business.  Look at what Roger Penske has done in Detroit, a failing city with a successful race.  Penske made it successful by courting business as his primary way of generating revenue.  The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit actually removed seating to add the much more valuable chalets for business customers.  This business-to-business model works very well in city centers with easy access to hotels, dining, bars, and the racing itself.

Street courses offer the regular fans something not offered on most ovals: on-track action throughout the day(s).  The entire Road to Indy support series can be put in front of spectators, not to mention their sponsors.  Add in the Pirelli World Challenge sports cars and Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks and you have action and value for the fans and the sponsors.  THIS builds the series, not the constant rehashing of past politics and the self-scourging by fans longing for an oval or CART based salvation.

Accept it.  The future of IndyCar is going to include a majority of street courses because that is where the money and the people are.  And by happy chance, the racing is great.  William Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue,” and he’s right.  All the history, politics, bravery, greed, and stupidity have brought us here to this moment.  Embrace the street race!

 

 

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Texas Motor Speedway in My Rearview Mirror

Mac Davis, a Texas singer/songwriter had a hit called “Texas in My Rear View Mirror” which had Davis eager to leave his hometown, and after seeing what life was like in the big city, just as eager to return home when things did not work out.   As IndyCar fans look back on the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, the dichotomy that is IndyCar in Texas rears its head once again.

After some acrimony between promoter Eddie Gossage and the IndyCar drivers in past seasons, it was good not to see the sub-tweeting¹ that was evident in recent years as the drivers lobbied for an end to pack racing and a safer fencing system, and Gossage lobbed suggestions that the drivers lacked the courage necessary to drive at Texas.  In interviews this year, Gossage was all smiles and support for the race and the Verizon IndyCar Series.  Somehow, this is worrisome.

In any case, the race played out somewhere in the middle between the “Oh my god, did you see that!” race of 2012 and the rejiggered snooze-fest that was 2013.  For whatever reason, the technical brain-trust at IndyCar decided to change the aero specs after the great race of 2012.  It was swing and a miss resulting in the 2013 follow-the-leader contest.  This year, at least for the IndyCar aficionado, strategy with tire wear became the only strategy that mattered.  Cool if you dig that sort of thing but not likely to engage the much sought after millennial fans out there.  I was engaged because I was able to follow the tire degradation through lap times and to anticipate pit stops.  Then again, I had TV, my laptop, and the Verizon IndyCar 14 app (which works in my house as opposed to at the track) to follow the action.  Most fans do not want to do this.  They simply want to be entertained.

I think the crew at NBCSN did a good job of entertaining the fans with pictures of passing back in the running order.  Tire strategy, since it was the only strategy at work, was highlighted in the broadcast and actually had me sitting forward as decisions were being made to pit or not to pit as speeds progressively slowed as tires wore out.  Again, cool for the enthusiast.

Would the race be better if there were more passing like at Indy?  Sure.  It’s a thin line that the rules tinkerers at IndyCar have to walk.  A small change in aero can have a profound effect on the racing.  Add the Firestone tire and how quickly it goes away and you can see how difficult it is to create the perfect recipe for racing.  The chefs at IndyCar are always going to be adding a pinch of aero or a dash of tire degradation to the racing everywhere, but the barbeque at Texas will always be the track where too many cooks can spoil the racing.

Anyone watching the race who understood the strategies in play sat up when the final caution happened.  What would everyone do?  Will Power, stuck in 5th from his speeding penalty, took on fresh tires and made eventual winner Ed Carpenter an algebra problem.  Math dictated that Power would pass Carpenter; the question was when.  That was compelling racing for a hard-core fan.

The Firestone 600 was a great race for the knowledgeable fan; it was the same thing over and over for the casual fan.  I guess the question that the Verizon IndyCar Series has to answer is this: Which fan is most important for the future?  The Firestone 600 and its willingness to promote its product may be the test kitchen for determining the tastes of the IndyCar fans of the future.  Bon appetit, IndyCar.

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¹ Sub-tweeting is posting a message about someone on Twitter where you don’t mention the person’s name but it is very clear to whom you are referring.  It is insulting someone with plausible deniability.

Will Power: Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published a novella called the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  While quite obviously an allegory on the inherent good and evil in people, it can rightly be seen as a symbolic representation of whatever it is that Team Penske’s Will Power is now doing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Before and after races he is just like Dr. Henry Jekyll: mild-mannered and prone to bouts of wonderment.  In a TV interview at Toronto in 2011, Power responded to Dario Franchitti spinning him by saying, “I always race him clean, and he always races me dirty.”  That sounds like the mystified Jekyll trying to come to terms with his own inner demons.  Could Will Power actually be struggling to control, in his own Australian sobriquet, his inner “wanker?”

Wanker is a term that Power applies liberally to those with whom he disagrees.  In a recent interview, he hoped that the aero package at Texas allows some separation of good drivers like him from the “wankers…at the back.”  Good on ya, mate.  It seems Power is beginning to relish the Mr. Hyde black hat.

Need more?  How about at St. Pete when he slowed the field coming to the green flag and helped cause an accordion accident behind him.  His Dr. Jekyll self denied any culpability.  He blamed his teammate Helio Castroneves for trying to jump the start.  He blamed the early green flag.  If you watch him in post-race interviews, you often see a certain shifty-eyed schoolboy behavior.  And just like a schoolboy, Power often seems to follow the mantra of caught-in-the-act kids everywhere.  Deny, deny, deny.

After bumping Simon Pagenaud into the tires at Long Beach, Power accepted blame with a caveat: he thought Pagenaud slowed because of a flat tire.  C’mon, Will, isn’t it time you embraced your darker side?  Stop offering excuses for your Mr. Hyde and embrace him.  In the novella, Dr. Jekyll secretly revels in the freedom from conscience that Hyde offers.  It is the same here.

To make matters worse, in the first race at Detroit, Power had a run-in at with Pagenaud again.  According to Pagenaud, Power ran into him.  According to Power, he didn’t see him.  Once again, embrace the wanker, Will.  Winning dirty is still winning.

In the second race at Detroit, Power ruined the races of Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal by trying to force a pass where the opportunity did not exist.  Was it optimistic?  Nope.  It was the black-hearted Mr. Hyde pushing lesser mortals out of the way.  No apology necessary, Will.  Drive on!

Sadly, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego Mr. Hyde does not end well.  By the end of the story, Dr. Jekyll can no longer control his transformation into Mr. Hyde and it leads to his untimely end.  My advice to Will Power is not to fight the transformation.  Do not go back to the wide-eyed and apologetic Will Power/Dr. Henry Jekyll.  That way lies madness.  The next time the change occurs, gleefully rub your hands together, cackle softly, and allow your inner Will Power/wanker/Mr Hyde to become your permanent personality.  You already wear a black firesuit.  You might as well wear a black hat, too.

 

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