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2016 Indy 500 Turn 3 Diary

5:10 AM

As we roll out into the darkness, the family is restive¹.  There are murmurs of discontent from the younger element about arising at 4:00 AM.  My explanation about heeding IMS president J. Douglas Boles warnings about traffic and long lines at the gates fall on increasingly militant ears regarding my tenure as high potentate of our annual pilgrimage.  I will keep an eye on the more vocal of the group.  My anxiety increases as we are already 10 minutes behind the scheduled time of departure.

5:37 AM

We arrive at our first rendezvous in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood of Indianapolis.  After the perfunctory comfort stops, we pose for pre-dawn pictures.  I stay in the shadows, worried once again about lines, parking, and recalcitrant Yellow Shirts waiting at IMS.  Our caravan grows to three vehicles, again increasing my anxiety as images of stop lights and blissfully unaware family members causes digestive discomfort.

6:05 AM

We arrive on 30th Street via Moller Road and move briskly past the Coke Lot towards our parking in the North 40.  Parking tagless drivers are denied entry to the Coke Lot, resulting in hooting and jeering from the line of cars waiting to park.  Schadenfreude is strong in a race day crowd.  Better you than us, bub.  The traffic stops.  We wait moodily.

6:29 AM

We enter the North 40 parking lot, our lead car deftly maneuvering past a slow line and cutting in at the gate, both perplexing and irritating a yellow shirted whistle blower standing guard.  Score one for the proletariat.  We arrive at our parking spot.

6:56 AM

The mood darkens.  It seems that the celery salt for early morning Bloody Marys has been left behind.  Like true pioneers, we persevere.

7:00-9:00 AM

Breakfast, camaraderie, lies, and insults follow in succession.  A small contingent breaks from the alcohol induced early morning lethargy and enters the track for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.  I go along, acting as our all-knowing leader.  I imagine myself as Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans and mention this to the group.  My nephew says, “Last of the pains in the asses, more like it.” I take it as a compliment.

9:30-11:30 AM

I enter the NE Vista alone as my “family” eats tenderloins and ascend to Row NN Seat 1 in Section 27.  This is always a soothing moment.  I watch the parade of dignitaries and was truly impressed by the 33 museum cars that rolled by in review.  I imagined what the track looked like when it was full of those cars.  Pretty cool.

Pre-Race

One issue with the NE Vista is the disconnect with the action on the main straight.  While most fans see what is getting ready to happen, we mostly guess.  The upgrade in the sound system was noticed and appreciated.  The absence of the Florence Henderson’s warble was much appreciated.  Darrius Rucker’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was completely acceptable and the fast movers in the flyover were on point.   “Back Home Again in Indiana” by Josh Kaufman and The Indianapolis Children’s Choir was as good as Jim Nabor’s ever was.  There, I said it.  Let that Indiana boy do it forever.  The Hulman family’s multi-generational “Start your engines!” command was a nice touch, covering up an increasingly awkward moment.  And balloons!

Race

As expected, the Hondas were wicked fast and passing was nonstop.  If we have to have spec racing, this is the spec racing to have.  A radio or scanner was needed to help keep the leaders straight.  The beautiful video screen is wonderful, as long as the information presented there is big enough to be seen.  It’s not.  The scroll at the top of the screen is impossible to see without binoculars.  Either increase the size of the scroll or find a new style.  This was very frustrating to everyone in our section without exception.  I suggest the leadership sit in my seat and try to see the screen.  If they do, they will make changes.  The win by a fuel-saving Alexander Rossi was met by a collective shrug of the shoulders, not because he was a rookie without IndyCar pedigree, but because his ascension to the top spot caught everyone by surprise, announcers and fans alike.  I memory serves, fan favorite Dario Franchitti won in similar fashion.  This was expert strategy, plain and simple.  If an earlier pit road incident had not taken out Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell, things may have been different.  Rossi is an American driver in an American series who won the crown jewel as a rookie.  That’s a good story.  He never put a wheel wrong all month. An 82 year old Florence Henderson, denied an opportunity to sing, found her way into Victory Lane to kiss the winner.  This is a rather dubious new tradition, but I can guarantee no other race has it.

Potpourri  

It seems the denizens of the NE Vista were remembered by their overlords this year.  Food tents and trucks were everywhere.  Potent potables were all around, including a very tasty Fuzzy’s lemonade.  It felt good to be part of the race again.  Of course, the NE Vista was denied its opportunity  to toast the winner with commemorative plastic bottles of milk.  So we cheered, milkless, but not altogether bereft like past races.  The Yellow Shirts were not in evidence as much as in the past.  In fact, there were very few along the walkway in the Vista, which allowed a veritable throng to stand next to the fence and revel in the speed, noise, and proximity of the cars.  Our exit down the back stairs, closed for the duration of the race, was fine until we stumbled across the carcasses of quite possibly two or three pigeons that were left on the landings of the stairs by a nameless predator.  Ugh.

5:23 Post Race

I once again lost the race pool to a mocking relative.  After food and more alcohol induced frivolity, we packed up our empty coolers and our sunburns and headed home.  Many kudos to the soul who somehow managed to part the cable that kept the inhabitants of the North 40 from cutting unassisted onto Hulman Boulevard.  It saved us at least an hour in line.  Muchos gracias, my unknown hermano borracho.

7:38

Arrived home, spent but happy, and settled onto the back porch to begin planning next year’s foray.  Maybe an earlier start is in order.

______________________________

¹ restive – unable to keep still or silent and becoming increasingly difficult to control, especially because of impatience, dissatisfaction, or boredom.

 

 

 

 

 

The Indy 500 – Meet the new boss

I was 11 years old when I went to my first Indianapolis 500 in the late 1960’s.  As a kid from small town Indiana, the race and the track were mythic entities.  Only the special few got to attend it in person.  In lieu of going, you listened to Sid Collins on the radio.  That was special, too.  The race was a big moment.

I would like to say that I knew everything about the race, the track, and the drivers.  I didn’t.  I knew the names that rolled out of the radio because I read the Indianapolis News, an evening paper, every day.  I knew nothing of a series or other events.  Day dawned on May 1st and the sun set on May 30th.  Everything in between was the race.  It was enough for any kid.

The month consumed us.  Every newspaper wrote reams of copy and every local television station reported on the events of the day.  Radio stations had track reporters on site every day all month.  It was national news.

Attending the race for the first time, spending the night before on 16th Street, and witnessing my first bacchanalia opened my eyes to the fact that this was more than a race.  Today’s Carb Day is a pale imitation of the activities that happened overnight and in the Turn 1 Snakepit back then.  Even the party was better.

This is not a screed on how great the month of May was back then, even if it was.  This is to note that IMS and the Indianapolis 500 have their mojo back.  The old lady’s new party dress, topped off with the revamped upper deck in the front stretch is just the right touch for a new beginning.

After years of searching for a way to bring three weekends worth of action to the track, IMS finally found what they were looking for: the Angie’s List Grand Prix, a Saturday and Sunday of drama in qualifications, a sanctioned day of drunkenness with Carb Day, one of the biggest parades in America, a big concert on Saturday before the race, and a completely sold out Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.  This is as good of a show as there ever was.  When did Indy ever have this much action?

The hope, of course, is that the revival of the Indianapolis 500 will be a rising tide that will lift the listing ship of the Verizon IndyCar Series.  It has been written that the series as we know it would dissolve without the  race on Memorial Day weekend.  Agreed.  You could also say that life on earth as we know it would end without the sun.  The race, the family breadwinner in the IndyCar Series, will continue to be the sugar daddy.  The sun will continue to shine on the series.

The British rock band The Who sang, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” in their song “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”  Well, meet the new Indianapolis 500, same as the old Indianapolis 500, and ready to once again take its place on the Mt. Rushmore of sporting events.  Where it belongs.

Pole Day at Indy – Saturday should have been Sunday

The Saturday qualifications for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 were fantastic, fabulous, superb, scintillating, tense, and whatever other words can be found in a thesaurus.  It’s just too bad they didn’t count.  Let’s just pretend they didn’t happen and do it all over for television.  What did Sunday bring? The wind made it edgy for spots 10-33, but the drama of making the race was missing, as were all of those great adjectives.  Sunday qualification was perfunctory with a little bit of mystery.  They had to take a risk for no other reason than TV.  James Hinchcliffe, coming back from life-threatening injuries here last year, edged Josef Newgarden for the pole in the feel good story of the month, but the day could have been even better.

ABC wanted a show that fit neatly into its Sunday afternoon time slot and got what it wanted: nice images of cars going fast without the drama of making the race.  Real risk without only one real reward.

For a while on Saturday, it seemed that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had its mojo back.  Cars were on the edge and drivers were hanging it out.  Teams had to make the risky choice to get in the “Fast Lane” to qualify and withdraw their times or sit tight with their times.  Real drama in real time was finally happening again at Indy in May.  But other than for the Fast Nine, it was meaningless.

IMS has spent the last decade tinkering with the qualification format, confusing fans, media, and teams in the process.  The current format would be so much more dramatic if there were more than 33 cars available to qualify.  Truthfully, IndyCar fans should be thankful that 33 cars even entered the race.  When the series struggles to have 21 or 22 cars at every other venue, it is unrealistic to expect teams, cars, and engines to magically appear in May.  How much better would the day one show have been with the bottom of the grid trying to make the show while the top of the grid was trying to make the Fast Nine?

If there were more cars than spots, it would be like the English Premier League soccer table.  The teams at the top try to qualify for the Champions League while the ones at the bottom try to avoid being relegated to a lower league.  The concept works because of the drama at both ends of the table.  With only 33 cars, the only drama is at the top.  Other than the top 15 or so cars, there is no incentive to have another go at it if you are at the bottom.  The pathos is the heartbreak of missing the race, not missing the top nine.  Somehow, it is difficult to feel too sorry for a Marco Andretti or an Alexander Rossi missing out on the Fast Nine Shootout.  Exciting, yes.  Entertaining, yes.  Heartbreaking, no.

All props should go to Honda, though.  With five of the first six spots, Honda teams can smile and not worry about strakes and domed skids.  The sandbagger sobriquet for Chevy can be forgotten.  Honda is back.

So on Sunday, cars moved up or down on the grid, motors expired, gearboxes proved recalcitrant, trash bags blew out of cars, and Alex Tagliani found the end of the pit wall.  And for what?  To move up a couple of spots after surviving the four toughest laps in motor sports the day before.  The Fast Nine went by quickly, with SPM’s James Hinchcliffe holding off ECR’s Josef Newgarden for pole position for the 2016 Indianapolis 500.  Getting the pole is a big deal.  It is emotional.  The Fast Nine was exciting, no doubt about that. The cars were on the edge, and the drivers were hanging it out…again.  But let us see everybody hang it out with the clock ticking down to 6:00 PM, not just counting down the cars left to go.  Let decisions be made and hearts be broken.  Saturday should have been Sunday.

 

 

 

A Good Race is Hard to Find.

Flannery O’Conn0r wrote the Southern Gothic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” about an old woman whose manipulative behavior and selfishness led to her family’s destruction.  Luckily, there was very little destruction at Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.  Sometimes though, fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series think that in 2016, a good race is hard to find.

Quite obviously, I sometimes reach for my comparisons.  This may be one of those times since Flannery O’Connor and her stories are not exactly household names.  Of course, neither is the Verizon IndyCar Series.  While many race fans love the verdant vistas of Barber Motorsports Park, they sometimes miss the fact that the racing is very good at this facility.  On site at any road or street course, a fan only sees what is in front of them.  Video boards help keep track of the action, but the view is most certainly limited.  On television, the viewer is often left wondering what happened with any driver beyond the top five.  That’s the nature of the beast.  A good race is hard to find.

If you sat on one of the grassy viewing areas at Barber Motorsports Park, you would have witnessed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon coming from last to 10th after an early lap dust-up with  KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais left him at the back of the pack.  Lap after lap you would have seen him weave though traffic, passing his way back to an acceptable placing.  Afterwards, Mike Hull, Dixon’s strategist, said that was how championships were won.  True that.  Those same in-person fans would have seen Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya shred the field going from last to 5th.  Both of these drivers put on a show that was seen by the patrons.  Truly, it was edge of the lawn chair racing.  Since these passes were not at the front, television didn’t show them.  A good race is hard to find.

That’s the essence of the title reference.  Sometimes the actual racing is hard to find during the broadcast.  The limitation of live television is so clear on road and street courses.  There is just too much to see.  If you want constant excitement, follow the race on the IMS Radio Network.  You may not hear every pass, but you are always hearing one somewhere.  Sometimes telling is better than showing.

What was shown was certainly worth seeing, though.  Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal carried the tattered Honda flag to a runner-up finish while driving most of the race with a damaged front wing and the end of the race without half of it.  Plain and simple, Rahal can wheel a race car.  His stalking and passing of Penke Racing’s Simon Pagenaud was epic, and I am not using the word loosely.  This is what the current iteration of IndyCar racing is all about.  A single car team challenges the big multi-car team for the top of the podium with skill and guts.  And Pagenaud got him right back .  It was worth waiting for.  Even after Rahal lost his wing after bumping Jack Hawksworth, his manhandling the car to second place was legendary.  And again, that word is not used loosely.

Every form of viewing a race has limitations.  At the track you can’t see everything, on radio you can’t see anything, and television, well, let’s just say that we don’t see everything, even though we could certainly see much more than we do.  The truth is in the Verizon IndyCar Series a good race is easy to find if you know where to look.  The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama proved that at Barber Motorsports Park.

 

IndyCar’s Sunday drive in Long Beach

Officiating anything is a thankless job.  Someone is always on the wrong side of a call and many will hold a grudge forever.  I know this.  I was a high school football referee for many years.  At one stadium a fan screamed, “You &$%#@*% zebras!” at us as we entered the field 45 minutes before game time. At another, an athletic director at a perennial powerhouse let us know before the game that if the coach liked us, he would be happy to have us back again, offering the subtle suggestion that we were their officials.  We had police escorts off the field, and at one stadium, we had a police escort onto the field.  We were castigated for flags we threw and for flags we did not throw.  But at the end of the night, we left the field knowing we had done the best we could, mistakes and all.  And even though the triumvirate in INDYCAR race control does the best they can do, they find themselves in the news once again for their decisions.

At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, race control’s call for a warning on Simon Pagenaud’s violation of pit exit rules in the closing laps was controversial.  As with most official decisions, there was a winner and a loser.  Pagenaud benefited from race control waving a rolled up newspaper at him while saying, “Bad dog.”  Runner-up Scott Dixon was the one who had his slippers chewed up when Pagenaud’s clear violation of the pit exit blend lines allowed him to maintain his lead on Dixon.  Not sure the “no harm, no foul” concept applies here.

Unlike other sports where violations have one penalty, INDYCAR race control once again put itself in the situation of having to make a judgement on the severity of the violation and went with the rolled up newspaper warning.  In football, a flag means a penalty with clear consequences: offsides is 5 yards, offensive holding is 10 yards, a personal foul is 15 yards.   The judgement is whether the foul occurred or not.  Once that judgement is made, the penalty is clear.  In baseball you are safe or out.  A call is made and the consequence is absolute.  Maybe INDYCAR can finally decide it is time to make consequences crystal clear.  Remember, the calling of the violation is not controversial.  Race control made the correct call.  The penalty is what is furrowing brows.

Of course, the real problem at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is that the penalty was the only thing that seemed worth remembering.  Yes, the end of the race battle for the lead between Pagenaud and Dixon was great, even without a pass.  But the rest of the race?  Put it this way.  What we saw was less racing and more driving down the street trying not to make a mistake, albeit at 170 MPH.  People tune in to and attend events to see racing.  It’s called racing instead of driving for a reason.  Passes are what people pay money to see.

The drivers complained post race about fuel saving making the race boring.  Their suggestion was making the race longer to require three stops and allow racing throughout.  That’s an easy fix.  Drivers also complained about aero issues making following and passing difficult.  No new news there, but the fix, while simple in concept, is not so simple in application.  There is no magic wand to make the racing better.  Aero kits changed all of that.

So for fans who enjoy the big Chevy teams lining up in their single file parade in the front while the Honda have-nots and smaller Chevy teams duke it out in back for best-of-the-rest honors, the Verizon IndyCar Series has you covered.  Welcome to the new F1.  For me, bring back the racing.  Bring back anything that keeps a line at pit exit from being the big story of a Sunday drive.  Excuse me, I mean a Sunday race.

 

 

The IndyCar Revenant

It’s movie time for the Verizon IndyCar Series once again.  This time, the movie connection is The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Academy Award winning vehicle.  Of course the plot of the entire movie doesn’t reflect the current state of IndyCar, but one scene certainly does.  The scene in question is THE scene in the movie.  DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his compatriots.  Violent, bloody stuff it is.  Which leads us to the current state of IndyCar.

The DiCaprio character of Hugh Glass is Honda Performance Development and the grizzly, of course, is Chevy.  Currently, Chevy is having its way with Honda, both with engine power and aero kit performance.  And it’s bloody.  In the movie, the DiCaprio character vows revenge.  We can only hope that Honda Performance Development has the sand that the movie character displays.

And that’s the question, isn’t it?  After years as the only engine supplier, using dependable, de-tuned motors, Honda welcomed Chevy to help with the heavy lifting and to provide much needed competition in a stagnating series.  So far, so good.  The competition was scintillating, particularly at Indy.  Then the decision to implement aero kits for each manufacturer was made.  Hello, Mr. Grizzly Bear.

Each manufacturer teamed with a different engineering firm for aero kits: Chevy with Pratt & Miller Engineering and Honda with Wirth Research.  Chevy ended up with an aero kit that teams understood and developed while Honda ended up with a work of modern art that offered too many solutions to the problems of aerodynamics.  After the perceived favoritism afforded Chevy last last year in Indy with airborne cars and changed qualifying rules, Honda has found itself falling further and further behind.  And that leads us to this moment in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Other than by using pit strategy, Honda has not been able to move to the front of pack this year at either St. Pete or Phoenix.  As expected, the Honda teams are complaining, particularly about the coming use at Indy of domed skids, devices designed to increase downforce in a spin to prevent flying cars.  After testing, the Honda teams have vociferously protested the domed skids as both unsafe for high speed racing and a detriment to competition, particularly at Indy.  Chevy, on the other hand, is just fine with it.  How about that irony?

At Indy last year, INDYCAR used safety as the absolute reason for revamping the qualification rules after cars became airborne.  Even though Honda aero kits had not suffered the same fate, it was hard for Honda to argue with safety, right?  Now, Honda is using safety as the same argument this year to remove or modify the domed skids.  Will the series succumb to the same argument this year?  Sorry, Honda.  The grizzly bear is holding all the cards.

Did Honda Performance Development hitch their wagon to a falling star in Wirth Research for its aero kit?  In hindsight, the answer is probably yes.  Truthfully, that is simply the way it goes.  Racing, as in all competition, has winners and losers.  The problem with this in the Verizon IndyCar Series is that there are only two engine and aero kit providers, and it is imperative that both remain in the series.  The series is always walking a very thin line to keep everyone happy.  Would fans like to see racing where everyone is in competition?  Sure, they would.  Do aero kits really help differentiate the cars for the fans?  No, they don’t.

For Honda, this is all about Indy.  They need to be competitive in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”  For manufacturers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, this is an absolute truth.  The politics are vicious because the only thing worth winning is the Indy 500. These small stakes are huge for owners, drivers, and employees in the series, too.   Sponsorship depends on success.  Expect politicking from Honda and its affiliated teams to continue until the month of May to remove or modify the domed skids.  It would be the safest thing to do on many levels.

 

 

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: IndyCar meets expectations

Yeah, the title is kind of damning with faint praise, but it is not totally true.  The race had much to like, and quite honestly, for the Verizon IndyCar Series meeting expectations is kind of a big deal.  Expectations, meet IndyCar.

  • As expected, Team Penske dominated the day.  Was there ever any doubt?  The best shocks, a Chevy motor, and that 50 year Indy thing.  If this happens all year, well, just expect it.
  • Additionally, Juan Pablo Montoya defies expectations.  He is not too old, fat, or cautious.  He also seems not to care a whit about what anyone expects.  IndyCar can expect a new champion this year.
  • Chevy, once again, is preparing to eat Honda’s lunch.  Did you expect otherwise?  Honda has been playing catch-up since last year’s aero mistakes.  Even with this year’s obvious gains, Honda is still behind.  Can the new motor updates coming down the pipeline even things up?  Expect Honda Performance Development to add the power.
  • What’s a race without a victim?  At St. Pete, Graham Rahal was victimized by the the optimism of Carlos Munoz.  Nobody is a better victim than Graham Rahal.  You just know that gesticulations will follow every time he feels wronged.  And he feels wronged often.
  • What’s even more expected than the victimizing of Graham Rahal?  The expected self-immolation of Marco Andretti, of course.  It seems Marco is snake bitten.  And it appears he carries his own snake.  After working his way up the grid, Marco managed to spin and hurt what looked like a pretty good car.  If he can keep his foot-shooting pistol in his holster, Marco may surprise this year.
  • You can always expect the Verizon IndyCar Series to have at least one driver each year who cannot get out of his, or anyone else’s, way.  It appears Carlos Munoz is meeting that expectation.  After causing the multi-car kerfuffle in Turn 4, Munoz managed to also end Conor Daly’s bid for a podium.  While it would be nice to hang a black hat on Munoz, he’s just too darn nice.  He accepted blame for all his transgressions.  What kind of IndyCar driver does that?  Munoz needs to attend a seminar at the Graham Rahal School of Victimization.
  • If experience has taught us anything, it’s that Conor Daly can wheel a race car.  Every time he gets in an IndyCar that doesn’t catch on fire, he competes.  Thanks to some Dale Coyne strategy, Daly found himself with a chance for a podium finish, at least until Carlos Munoz found him.  Expect a podium for Daly this year, and maybe a chance to move to a better funded team in the future.
  • As always, viewers can expect ABC to miss passes and follow the wrong battles.  On the other hand, ABC’s pit work is great.  Speaking of ABC’s booth, could Eddie Cheever be a bigger shill for ABC’s broadcast of the Indianapolis 500.  I forgive him completely for that.  I feel the same way.
  • If you agree with IndyCar honcho Mark Miles’ belief that IndyCar is growing, then you had to be excited by the TV numbers.  A 1.09 might not open any floodgates of sponsorship money, but they don’t close any, either.  Of course, there were no NCAA tourney games and NASCAR didn’t start until later in Phoenix.  Good to have a TV partner willing to find a nice slot.  I sure hope we can expect more of this.

I certainly hope this met your expectations.  If not,  just remember the words of Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar: “If you expect nothing from somebody, you are never disappointed.”

 

 

Chasing the money in IndyCar

In a famous scene from The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone turns down a deal from rival Virgil Sollozzo by saying, ” I wish to congratulate you on your new business and I’m sure you’ll do very well and good luck with that. Especially since your interests don’t conflict with mine.”  As far as most people should be concerned, that is the correct attitude towards the Indianapolis Motor Speedway inking a presenting sponsor deal with PennGrade Motor Oil for $5 million over three years.  Turning down millions of dollars because of a perceived nobility does not make sense.  Take the money.

The parent company of PennGrade Motor Oil certainly sees value in this sponsorship.  They are attached to the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and will be able to provide tremendous business-to-business opportunities throughout the month of May.  I can just imagine the leadership of  D-A Lubricant, owners of PennGrade, sitting in an office saying, “We just bought the Indy 500 for $5 million.”  The amount, when compared to a marketing budget for the roll-out of a new product, is a sweet deal.

And it is a deal.  PennGrade Motor Oil just made a huge splash that will ripple for three years.  Who knew the Indianapolis 500 could be bought so cheaply?  Look, I’m no marketing expert who can tell you what the ROI (return on investment) will be for this purchase.  I will just assume for the sake of argument that D-A Lubricant plans to host a multitude of vendors and retailers connected to this product for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and two subsequent years.  Quite the soiree to help sell a product, wouldn’t you say?

Just like in The Godfather though, there is a real sense of interests conflicting.  D-A Lubricant cannot be faulted for buying the exposure that made the most sense to them.  Their $5 million bought them a huge platform to sell their product.  But what about the racing teams searching for sponsorship?  I am not saying that D-A Lubricant, based in nearby Lebanon, Indiana, was in play as a sponsor for any IndyCar teams.  I am saying that they should have been.  A 2014 Bloomberg article suggests that a sponsorship buy for the sidepods for an IndyCar season is between $5-9 million.  If remotely true, this means that sponsoring the Indy 500 for three years is cheaper than sponsoring a car in the Verizon IndyCar Series for one.  ROI, indeed.

Sponsoring a car means setting up activities and hosting guests for the full season.  It’s travel and corporate chalets and all the minutiae of a season-long sponsorship.  Why do that when you can set up in your own backyard for two weeks?  Sponsorship, the acquisition of working capital, is the number one concern for teams.  It’s water in the desert, the oasis the teams need to survive their season-long trek.  Without it, the teams will simply dry up and blow away, as did the teams of Sarah Fisher and John Barnes.  Suddenly, it looks like IMS and the teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series are chasing the same money.

What does all this mean?  A positive spin might be that the Indy 500 is an undervalued asset, worth more than the price paid.  Or the truth may be that the pool of sponsorship dollars for American open wheel racing is so small and the value of both the Indy 500 and team sponsorships so low that the teams and IMS are chasing the same money.  If that is true, then someone should be worrying.

 

The 2015 IndyCar season in the rearview mirror

Horace Walpole wrote “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”  That pretty much sums up the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, doesn’t it?

The tragedy of Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono will cast a pall on this season for years to come.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will always be known for the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald in 1964 and Scott Brayton in 1996.  Las Vegas Motor Speedway will always be remembered for Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011.  These types of accidents leave indelible scars on facilities, series, and fans.  Indelible.

Accidents like these leave other lasting marks, too.  Smaller fuel loads, fuel cells, and methanol were mandated after 1964.  Soon after the basal skull fracture death of Scott Brayton, HANS devices were mandatory.  Catch fence research is still ongoing after Dan Wheldon’s accident in Las Vegas.  Now, after Justin Wilson’s death, discussion about how to protect drivers in open cockpit cars is taking place.  Lasting.

But pathos has two faces.  While we are heartbroken for the family and friends of Justin Wilson, other far less tragic situations in the 16 races of the season leave us smiling, pulling our hair, or just shaking our heads.

  • Scott Dixon’s come-from-behind pulling-a-rabbit-out-of-his-hat championship surprised everyone and no one.  A strong, consistent team with the steadiest of drivers is a pretty good recipe for success.
  • Graham Rahal and his one car team proved once again that relatively equal equipment in a series can be exciting.  Fans were pulling for him to finish in the top three in the championship.  Underdogs make for compelling drama, and the series had plenty of that.  Nice to see Rahal mature into the racer people always hoped he would be.  Plus, he is the absolute best shill among all the drivers. *sips Steak ‘n Shake milkshake while hooking my car to a Battery Tender*
  • The Indy 500 qualification debacle once again proved that perception is reality.  Series officials looked like knee-jerk reactionaries bent on placating Chevy while hanging Honda out to dry.  The truth is probably different, but who can tell?  This is how it looks so that must be how it is.  People believe what they want to believe.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series quite often makes it easy to believe anything.
  • The loss of Derrick Walker as IndyCar president of competition and operations is another example of perception being reality.  The perception is even the best qualified individual cannot stay in this position.  I’m not sure Mark Miles, who has appropriated the job, is best qualified to head the competition aspect of the position.  Did anyone else hear General Alexander Haig’s declaration, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House”¹ in Miles acceptance of the job?
  • The ascension of Josef Newgarden to star status has begun.  The series needs him as the face of the series.  Real recognize real.
  • The failure of Penske Racing in general and Juan Pablo Montoya in particular down the stretch is another reason to like equal equipment.  With spec racing, money will buy a pretty good driver, but it can no longer guarantee a championship.  Still comes pretty close, though.
  • With all the talk about “date equity” for races, the series really needs “race equity” instead.  Let’s have the same races each year.  The maybe-but-not-quite race in Brazil and the rain-soaked one year experiment in New Orleans aside, the loss of Fontana and the life support of Pocono and Milwaukee leaves fans wondering not just what the dates of next year’s races will be, but what next year’s races will be.  It’s understood that races and promoters come and go, but IndyCar seems to dispatch both with an easy regularity.
  • All is not doom and gloom, though.  The addition of Road America and the possible addition of Phoenix could be harbingers of better things to come.  Or not.  Paying customers are what the series needs.
  • The TV ratings are up.  What a wonderful thing to be able to say.  It could also be said that figures lie and liars figure.  The hope that springs eternal is that high ratings usher in commercial partners and open pocketbooks.  At least it’s something to watch during the interminable off-season.

There you have it.  The season as it fades over the horizon was one to both remember and forget.  2016 cannot get here soon enough.

 

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  1.  The history behind Alexander Haig’s quote for the youngsters out there. http://adst.org/2014/03/al-haig-and-the-reagan-assassination-attempt-im-in-charge-here/

 

Show me a hero

This is not a eulogy.  I did not know Justin Wilson, who lost his life after being hit by debris in the IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway, but he was friendly when I met him in passing.  I completely trust the comments of his friends and competitors as they exoll his virtues as a man, husband, father, brother, friend, and racer.  Communities grow close through tragedy and grieve by sharing stories and sadness.  Like many others, I am uncomfortable at funerals and memorials and do not share my grief well.  It is mine and I keep it close.

My Twitter feed after the announcement of Justin Wilson’s death was filled with tributes and remembrances, as one would expect.  It as also filled with people trying to come to grips with the moment.  Some said they could no longer be fans of a sport where people died.  Auto racing has always been deadly, yet somehow we are surprised by the ugly fact when it claims another victim.  Mortal risk cannot be legislated out of a grand prix or boxing or horse racing or any other event where such risk is part of the allure.  Football still seems to maintain a huge fan base despite its long-term tragic effects.  It’s just that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) kills you slowly instead of all at once.  And since the football players who die from this disease brought on by violent contact are old and retired, it does not diminish the popularity of the sport.  Out of sight, out of mind.

But Justin Wilson’s death was not out of sight.  We saw it.  And it is certainly not out of mind.  People ask what can be done.  Canopies and windscreens may make the cars safer, but they cannot eliminate the specter of death.  The truth is simple: some things are dangerous.  Can the danger be mitigated?  Certainly.  Can it be eliminated?  Absolutely not.  Open-wheel racing will continue to research how to make racing safer.  They will never make it safe.

IndyCar drivers live on the knife’s edge always.  If someone else is a few tenths faster, then they have to be faster, too.  I contend that most drivers see racing through a zero-sum mentality – for every winner there is a loser.  The harsh reality is that auto racing, whether at Pocono, Indianapolis, Daytona, Le Mans, or a local short track, is zero-sum, also.  You win or you lose.  You live or you die.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”  He could have been writing about Justin Wilson.  He could also have been writing about the 126 police officers who died in the line of duty last year.  Or the 64 firefighters who perished.  Or the 6717 service men and women who have given the “last full measure of devotion”¹ in our country’s war on terror.  Heroes are all about us.

I love auto racing deeply.  From my first races at Sun Valley Speedway in Anderson, Indiana; Mt. Lawn Speedway in New Castle, Indiana; and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I was compelled to be a fan.  The color, sound, speed, and danger pulled me into racing’s orbit, and here I am still.  Justin Wilson, like the soldiers, police officers, and firefighters who gave their lives in service to their country and communities, made a choice to get into a car to test his mettle against other racers, speed, and death.  And next week, racers everywhere will get in their cars to do the same.  I salute them all.

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¹Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”

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