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Archive for the month “March, 2015”

Fast Five Worthless Opinions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Yes, it’s true.  The rarely beloved and often reviled “Ten Worthless Opinions” feature is no more.  Why, you may ask?  “Well, it seems that due to the vagaries of the production parameters of this fragmenting of the audience to the cable television, carnivals, water parks,”¹, the 1000-1300 word length of the feature is much more relevant and readable when it is nearer the 500-750 word limit.  Plus, it’s so much easier to come up with five opinions than it is ten.  So there’s that, too.  In any case, here you go.

1.  Penske Domination: What can be said?  Will Power was the class of the field until a very slight pit delay allowed Juan Pablo Montoya to take the lead during pit stops.  After that, it was all Montoya.  The Penske posse dominated the time charts all week and did the same in the race.  This leads to the real question of how Penske does it.  They have the same Chevy engine and aero kit as the other Chevy teams, so that is not the only reason.  While the team does have more driver depth and talent than any other organization, it cannot be just the pilot.  And yes, the pursuit of perfection by the whole organization certainly leads one to believe that Team Penske could dominate by sheer attention to detail.  But after the parity of the last two years, what does this group have that other teams don’t?  Hmm.  I wonder how the Team Penske cars support all that downforce?  Remember what other area is open to development, and you might have your answer.

2.  Honda vs. Chevy: It is way to early to tell which will be dominant throughout the year.  Chevy (read: Team Penske) certainly seems to have the upper hand on the street.  We will see if the same holds true for natural terrain road courses at NOLA Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park.  The ovals are still a tossup between Honda and Chevy, particularly with the removal of so much downforce.  What the series does not need is for Chevy for run away with everything, particularly after the last two years of parity and multiple winners from both large and small teams.  When you hang you marketing hat on the series being competitive and it’s not, then you have a problem.  Follow the leader (read: Team Penske) is not good for the series.  Let’s hope Honda and the other Chevy teams get it figured out.

3.  Wingapallooza:  At least in St. Pete, the worst fears of many came true: Wingapallooza.  In a clear demonstration of aerodynamics, a broken wing proved it can fly, sailing over the grandstands in Turn 10 and seriously injuring a spectator.  It is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. If injuries to fans isn’t enough of an issue, wing related issues affected the racing, also. No race needs 20% of the laps run under full course yellow conditions, particularly if most of those laps were a direct or indirect result of the less-than-robust wing assemblies being unable to take the punishment of the old Dallara wing.  And it could have been worse!  Race Control was very judicious in not throwing the yellow for every piece of carbon fiber that found its way onto the track.  They even had a track worker pick up a piece on the main straight during green flag conditions.  Let’s hope that this is a simple learning curve, and the drivers adapt to the new fragility of the front wing pieces.  In any case, I can see an old Italian man sitting in a big office in Varano tapping his fingers together saying, “Eccelente.”

4.  Tears for Graham: Let me go on record by saying that IndyCar needs Graham Rahal, an American driver with a superb racing lineage, to be successful.  He is great with sponsors and supports charities.  I pull for him.  Really.  But he makes it so hard sometimes.  Even though I have a scanner, I really like the Verizon IndyCar 15 app.  It offers drivers’ radio communication, the IMS Radio Network, and great visual information.  And it’s free!  This week, Graham Rahal was one of the featured drivers, and all I can say is that he is the poster child for the over-indulged generation.  Nothing is his fault.  He biffed Charlie Kimball, an aero kit casualty, and blamed him for basically being in front of him.  When he was penalized with a drive-through, he radioed his dad and said, “They’ll find anything they can to screw me!”  C’mon.  Of course, this all may be sour grapes on my part since he also loves to tweet how much he loves flying with his new partner Wheels Up in their new Cessna King Air private plane.  Just rub it in, Graham.

5. Chip’s Chatter: According to an interview at TrackSide Online, a subscription IndyCar news service, Chip Ganassi may be less-than-enthused about how Mark Miles is going about building a new schedule.  His concern is that a short calendar season makes it hard to find sponsorship, and that the series should have extended the front of the series in February before axing the schedule after Labor Day.  As much as I enjoy pointing out Chip’s foibles, I tend to agree here.  Even though Chip Ganassi Racing is one of the big boys in the Verizon IndyCar Series, he does not have the budget and personal fortune of someone like Roger Penske.  He must have the sponsorship to compete, and sponsors do not like the short season.  Maybe it all gets sorted out with next year’s schedule, but for now, Chip is not happy and he is not afraid to make himself heard.  As if there was ever any doubt of that.

That the five fast WO’s for this week.  Let’s hope we have fewer flying wings and more passing at NOLA Motorsports Park.

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¹ This is Kramer’s explanation to Raquel Welch in a Seinfeld episode as he fires her from the production of The Scarsdale Surprise for not swinging her arms when she dances.  Seemed apropos here.

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IndyCar, Boston, and Labor Day

The Verizon IndyCar Series has a recent history of races that almost happened.  Brazil, China, Ft. Lauderdale, and Providence come to mind.  All were well-intentioned, of course, but somehow the organizers could not quite pull it all together.  The most recent name to be mentioned is Boston.  They do know a little something about hosting big races.

Boston is a big event city, with the Boston Marathon and its 35,000 participants serving as a benchmark.  When you add in the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots, it is easy to say Boston is the biggest of big league cities.  IndyCar connecting to this vibe is a huge benefit.

According to a recent article in the Boston Herald, the race would be run in the Seaport District, presumably using the Boston Convention and Exposition Center as a hub.  The revitalized area in South Boston is a happening place, home to museums, hotels, and restaurants.  Basically, this is the only place in town with the necessary infrastructure to host the race and not screw up the notoriously bad traffic of the city to the point where the natives would rebel.

The article mentions a Labor Day date.  That date would satisfy Hulman & Co. chief Mark Miles’ dream of a season ending race where the champion is crowned on Labor Day in front a big crowd.  If the season is going to end on Labor Day, this is the place to do it.  Boston checks all the boxes for the season finale.

There would be a big crowd.  If there wasn’t, at least the television viewers wouldn’t be able to tell.  Certainly, the VIP chalets around the track would be sold out.  The empty seats at the season-ending oval race at Fontana don’t really paint a picture of a thriving series celebrating a championship.  Boston is big time.  Crowning the champion there makes sense because it would not be just another race.  Miles is on record saying he wants to own Memorial Day and Labor Day.  This is where you own Labor Day.

The time zone is right.  Ending the season with an evening race in California is brutal, and not just because the setting sun is in the drivers’ eyes. No one on the East Coast watches, and the East Coast, whether the fans like it or not, is the center of the sports broadcasting universe.  There is a reason that crazy Bill Walton gets away with his stream-of-consciousness ranting on ESPN’s Pac 12 basketball broadcasts: no one watches it.  Yes, the East Coast sports elite look down on the flyover country of the Midwest.  Yes, the East Coast sports elite marginalize the Verizon IndyCar Series.  But the series still needs to curry favor and get on their radar.  If that means ending the season on Labor Day so you are the biggest show in town before the NFL starts, then IndyCar needs to grit its teeth, smile, and put on a great show.  The product will sell itself once people see it.

If the Verizon IndyCar Series is going end its season on Labor Day, then they have to own it.  The teams and drivers need to be on board and pretend to be excited about the Labor Day event as the season-ender.  It is worth noting that Mark Miles went out of his way to make the point that he may have been unclear about wanting to have multiple races in the late winter season after the Super Bowl, and that he certainly wants to build the schedule on the front end.  Right.  You can also read that as the team owners and sponsors letting Miles know that the season has to be longer in terms of duration to justify spending marketing money.  Miles is no dummy.  He knows that the push-back to a Labor Day end of the season is real and must be dealt with by an earlier start to the season.  Miles has drawn his line in the sand.  The season ends on Labor Day.

In a perfect racing world, the Verizon IndyCar Series would start in February and end in October.  Everyone would be sated with the best open-wheel racing on the planet.  In our imperfect world, though, the series needs to do what it can with what it has.  They need to be successful on the stage they control and build from there.  Boston is center stage and the series needs to be on it.  Hopefully, the Hub won’t be another city given the hook and pulled offstage before IndyCar can get its show on the road.

 

 

Millennials and the future of auto racing

Imagine a future where the whole concept of a car culture shifts.  A future where the youth of America are not overly concerned about muscle cars like the 60’s and 70’s or the rolling status symbols of the 80’s and 90’s.  A future where youth culture is concerned about environmental issues like CO² emissions, climate change, and the depletion of fossil fuels.  And don’t forget about a future where technology rules and everything is “on demand.”  Now imagine how that all gets rolled into the auto racing fans of the future.  Those fans, better known as Millennials¹, are here now.

Crusty old Bernie Ecclestone at F1 has made it clear that he, and by extension F1, are not interested in creating new fans since young people do not have any money.  Bernie has always used himself as F1’s target audience; he’s only interested in other rich guys.  So while he is waiting for all those types to spring into existence, he has alienated his European promoters and allowed his teams to sink under the weight of enormous costs.  Over at NASCAR, the one-time American racing bully and its partners have been pulling seats from all of their tracks to make tickets more elite.  Well-managed but sometimes tone-deaf, the series is slowly moving away from the mainstream and back to its guns, camouflage, and beer Southern roots.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  They know their core audience and go after it hard.

All of this begs the following question: Is auto racing too expensive and elite as in F1 or too rural and redneck as in NASCAR for the Millennials to follow?  Whatever series captures this demographic while simultaneously keeping their own core fans will be the one to assert their dominance.

It would seem Formula E would have an edge here.  This electronic series, described as having forklift motors and Formula Ford chassis with bad tires, certainly checks some boxes of the Millennials: it’s green, technologically relevant, and cool.  The racing, while slow and quiet, is really pretty competitive when you get past the lack of sound and speed.  The fact is that Millennials might not know the difference.  Plus, they have some big name sponsorship with BMW, DHL, Michelin, TAG Heuer, and Qualcomm.  What series wouldn’t want that?  What it does not have is an existing core fan base.  It’s starting from scratch.

Which brings us to the Verizon IndyCar Series.  This is the series best positioned to connect young fans to old fans and begin its ascent to greater popularity.  The series certainly brings a rabid, albeit small, fan base.  Unlike F1, it is not sinking under he weight of outrageous cost.  The argument can be made that it was sinking under the weight of less-than-stellar management.  No longer.  Technology giant Verizon markets the phones and data that Millennials desire.  That checks another box.  The racing is superb, which trumps the slo-mo action on the Formula E circuit.  The Verizon IndyCar Series’ willingness to race on any type of circuit gets it into places that F1 and NASCAR cannot go: city centers.  IndyCar can bridge the past to the future.

Need more?  The introduction of the new aero kits has been big news from the non-traditional media as well as the racing media.  Articles appeared in Wired, The Verve, DesignBoom.com, Fox News, USA Today, and Jalopnik.  Okay, Jalopnik is a car site but it’s not a racing site.  The article there is outstanding.  IndyCar has some buzz going on about things that are not the bad news of recent years or Indy 500-centric.  Just as yellow flags breed more yellow flags in a race, good coverage breeds more good coverage in the media.  At least IndyCar fans hope that is true.

IndyCar promoters should look to the Indy 500 and IMS for lessons on how to hook Millennials while keeping their core fans.  At the corporate Snake Pit in the infield at the 500 this year, Millennials will pulse to the beat of world-class EDM (electronic dance music) DJ Kaskade.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who this is.  The Millennials do.  And it matters if you want to hook them.  Can you imagine this at Daytona?  IMS caters to its other demographics with rock and roll on Carb Day and a top flight country show on Saturday.  This stuff matters!  If a race fan doesn’t care about it, great.  Just go to the race.  You are an important demographic, too.  Quit being so stuffy about it all.

The ascension of the Verizon IndyCar Series is under way.  Real business people are running the show, real research is being done, and they have a real product to sell.  As the character of Penny Lane explains so well in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous, “It’s all happening.”  Be there or be square.

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¹ Millennials are the demographic group following Generation X.  Birth years of this group range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.  These are the coveted money spenders of the future.

Worshiping at the aero kit altar in IndyCar

For such a small fan base, the Verizon IndyCar Series certainly has its share of pulpit-pounding proselytizers.  The problem is that for such a tiny number of acolytes, there are far too many congregations.  The responses to the aero kits of both Chevy and Honda are prime examples of these particular worshipers.

The first worshipers at the altar of IndyCar are the ones who take everything on faith.  They accept that the series pontiffs are, if not infallible, at least to be given the benefit of the doubt.  They believe the variations of the aero kits for both Chevy and Honda will not only differentiate a chassis that is otherwise identical, but it will also pique the interest of the fans to see which is faster.  If there is a difference in the two, then the slower manufacturer should go back to the shop and develop theirs.  The fans want development and competition, right?  They know that the millions spent by both engine manufacturers will push the series to new heights.  These fans not only believe, they want to believe, they need to believe.  These trusting souls happily tithe their hard-earned dollars over to the series in the absolute faith that their spiritual need for racing is in good hands.  Just imagine IndyCar high priest Mark Miles holding a staff with a miter sitting on top of his head, blessing this congregation.  If these fans’ faith wavers, they can always silently repeat “Hail Hulman, full of speed.”

In another house of worship, we have the the agnostic IndyCar fans.  Not burdened by the absolutism of the faithful, these fans look at the aero kits of Chevy and Honda, shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, and smile.  They know deep down that a difference in how the cars look is important, but they really cannot give themselves over to the fact that the new aero kits will make a difference.  They hope they will, but they have taken things on faith before this and been disillusioned.  If they can see the difference in the cars and the racing then they might be inclined to come over to the faithful, but they need proof.  These folks need to see a miracle, not just hear about one.

The third type of IndyCar fan really doesn’t have a church because they no longer believe that the organized religion of IndyCar is deserving of their faith.  These are the IndyCar heretics.  They may come to the cathedral to worship speed, but they refuse to go to the rail for the body and blood.  The aero kits to them are evil incarnate, a false idol for the easily fooled.  Their apostasy demands that all development of cars be completely open with teams spending each other into receivership as we have seen in F1.  Even if the aero kits are successful, they will still be evil because they do conform to their own heretical orthodoxy.  To them, the only way to racing heaven is through a reformation of the series itself.  And if a little burning at the stake of series leaders is needed, they are down with that, too.  The heretics spend time damning the series, its leaders, and its followers on Twitter and in internet forums, the modern equivalent of a jackleg preacher standing atop a soapbox on the street corner.

IndyCar’s small holy war among its flock is cause for both celebration and concern.  On one hand, the fact that some people still care enough to have opinions is a reason for hosannas to be heard at the corner of 16th and Georgetown.  The downside is that the series needs converts to the faith and some cash in the collection plate to continue to spread the faith.  If this does not happen, then everyone will be in need of a mea culpa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IndyCar goes down a brave new road

No one should  be surprised at the recent announcement that INDYCAR has entered into an agreement with USA Today Sports Media Group as a preferred marketing partner.  It seems that the bosses at INDYCAR and Hulman Motorsports have decided to control a little more of the message leaving the confines of 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.  The hard core fans wanted action, right?  Here is is.

Since Mark Miles took over at Human & Company, change has been the reality for INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The board of the company has changed, leaving the family with decidedly less power to act on whim, misinformation, or provincial politics.  The entire structure of racing has been reformed as Hulman Motorsports, putting both INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway under the authority of Mark Miles, as well as consolidating many of the duplicate jobs of both the series and the Speedway.  C. J. O’Donnell was brought in as the Chief Marketing Officer of Hulman Motorsports and Jay Fry was brought on board as the Chief Revenue Officer.  In other words, the series and the Speedway are essentially one entity now being run by motorsport professionals.  Derrick Walker brought a racing background to the series as the Director of Competition.  Allison Melangton, the leader of the Indiana Sports Corp team that brought Indy the Super Bowl, is now Senior VP of Events.  Even though this is all old news, it is mentioned to note that the leadership team is now in place.

Now the new game has started.  In recent years the series and its leadership have been ignored and bullied in the media.  The Indy 500 aside, news organizations have not followed the Verizon IndyCar Series on a national level.  Other than as a sidebar or in agate type, news about the series and its races was difficult to find and impossible to promote.  What made it worse was, other than the Indianapolis Star, only online sources followed the series on a regular basis.  Every fault was magnified and every mistake dissected in a quest for clicks.  All the series could do was grin and bear it.  At least until they were ready to act.

The announcement last week was the act.  By teaming with USA Today Sports Media Group, INDYCAR just swung for the fences.  Yes, it is going to cost INDYCAR some folding money to do this, but the possible return on investment is enormous.  Cogitate on these numbers.  Gannett Company, Inc., the parent group of USA Today, has 81 publishing groups with both print and digital coverage.  They own 46 TV stations.  Gannett’s domestic internet audience is 65 million unique visitors a month.  USA Today has 6.6 million readers daily across its platforms.  The team at INDYCAR finally has the audience to market the series.  The ball is rolling.

The team at Hulman Racing is built with some pretty smart boys and girls.  They knew a quick-fix was not an option.  It seems they turned down the volume on the digital naysayers and opted to have a plan and stick with it.  It is agreed that the schedule is a thorn in their side.  They have to know that, and Mark Miles’ recent comments that he did not make himself clear on how the series wants 20 races with a late winter start certainly seems to be an acknowledgement of the fact that sponsors, partners, and teams want a longer season to market themselves.  Smart people learn from their mistakes.

The series will not forget its hard core followers.  These fans will most certainly appreciate a growing series with more media visibility.  And they will always have the digital websites, message boards, and social media to vent their anger and discuss the minutia of the series they love to hate and hate to love.  They just won’t be as loud.

Will this work to build the series?  Who knows?  It certainly is INDYCAR flexing its muscles and finding a media partner who will help to promote it, not constantly castigate it.  IndyCar fans have certainly been conditioned to hope for the best but expect the worst.  Hopefully, this new partnership is the beginning of the momentum the series needs.

 

 

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