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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.

 

 

 

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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.”

 

 

IndyCar weathers the storm at NOLA

The inaugural Indy Grand Prix of New Orleans has come and gone…and hopefully comes again next year.  While not everyone liked the weather, or the Verizon IndyCar Series reaction to the weather, it seems as if NOLA Motorsports Park will be in the line-up in the future.

The public needs to remember that this is a new track attempting to move up to the major leagues with IndyCar.  The facility made the safety and fan upgrades that IndyCar required and had to expect some issues.   A weekend of horrendous weather can neither be predicted in the long term nor changed in the short.  The track and the series had to deal with it.  And that was problematic.

The series and promoter were in no-win positions with decisions this weekend.  During qualifying on Saturday, approaching lightning forced the series to evacuate the grandstands and ask the fans to seek shelter.  With one lawsuit looming over flying debris at St. Pete, the series could in no way delay action on this call.  Legal counsel always errs on the side of safety with lightning.  If it is on the way, get out.  All major sports do this now without delay.  On Saturday, NOLA sent fans to every inside shelter on the facility, including buses.  Great call.  And the lightning certainly came in.  It doesn’t matter if the weather is deemed severe or if a warning exists.  Lightning equals evacuation.

The more noticeable issue, and the one that brought the most criticism, was making the race on Sunday a timed event with so much TV window still open.  The series and promoter made the call to start the race early.  This is fan friendly.  This likely would not have been as doable on ABC.  NBCSN had a little more wiggle room with programming.  This gave the series a chance to have rain delays and still get a race completed.

So the windows, both TV and weather, looked good on Sunday.  The teams handled the wet track pretty well at the beginning of the race, but as the track dried and the slicks replaced the wets, so too did yellow flags replace green.  By the race’s end, 26 of the 47 laps were run under yellow conditions.  Why?  Slick track, slick tires, aggressive drivers.  But not to worry, there was plenty of time to get all 75 laps in.  Or not.

Weather was coming in.  It could be seen on the radar.  Predictions said it was going to rain.  Simulations were done that predicted both the time and place of the storm’s arrival.  People saw it on their phones.  Here it comes.  Such was the dilemma on Sunday.  While not a full house, the crowd was robust for the race, the weather, and the facility.  It must be assumed that most had checked weather and brought umbrellas and raincoats.  Even so, if lightning rolled in, there was no place to put all the people.

The people.  The ones that had to park offsite because there was no onsite parking.  This is not a criticism of the venue.  Many major golf events move 30,00-40,000 people from parking lots to courses via shuttles daily.  NOLA Motorsports Park does the same thing.  But as with any new event, the wait times for the shuttles after the race were going to be very long.  It would not do to have thousands of people waiting for shuttles in a storm with no place to harbor them if lightning showed up.

So the decision was made to shorten the event.  The expectation had to be to have great green flag racing, finish the race, and get the people to their cars and safety.  The call was the right one except for the fact the expected weather did not roll in.  Poor IndyCar.  They made the right choices and still managed to provoke every troll on Twitter and every critic with an ax to grind.  Everyone wanted a full race and lots of green flag racing on a sporty, fast circuit, but fan safety trumped all.  IndyCar made the only choice it could make for the circumstances.

IndyCar will weather this storm, and hopefully NOLA Motorsports Park will, too.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to be the premier race at this track as it grows in the coming years.   A spot on the calendar needs to be found in the early spring where this event will blossom.  Until other road courses starting knocking on the series’ door, IndyCar needs to party in New Orleans, rain or shine.

 

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part I – the good

The new month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is behind us, and as the sunburn, hangovers, tenderloins, and poor choices recede into our memories, it is best that we all reflect on the events before they fade away completely.  So as not to break any new ground with creative thought, I would like to look at recent events through the conceit of the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  This three part series will look at one aspect each day.  Today, we look at the good.

The Good

1.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is absolutely going to be a good Indy 500 champion.  I have always been rather lukewarm towards RHR.  He seems to say the right things and avoids controversy.  Fair enough.  His two passes of Helio Castroneves for the lead in the closing laps of the 500 were gutsy and aggressive and belied his rather vanilla persona.  When Castroneves throws his samba blocking moves on, he’s more than tough to get around.  Hunter-Reay’s quotes in Victory Lane showed an emotion previously kept hidden and that, along with his refreshing honesty, resonated with me.  He truly gets the 500.

2.  Hunter-Reay said in his post race interview that he was “a happy American boy.”  Although it may seem jingoistic, an American winning the 500 is important to a series that currently runs all but one race on American soil.  The lifeblood of the Verizon IndyCar Series is the red, white, and blue flag waving fans that were in abundance on Memorial Day in Indianapolis.  We can only hope that the series is able to capitalize on this American winner of the 500 more than they did the same winner of the series in 2012.  Wait, did I snarkily offer a “bad” in here?  Sorry.  I will try to stick with the script.

3.  As expected, the racing was great.  What more do the fans want?  There were multiple passes for the lead, including those by RHR and Castroneves in the closing laps that required more than a little sand.  The cars once again protected drivers like Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell in HARD hits.  Give me safety over aesthetics any time.  Fie on the fans who decry this ugly beauty.¹  The DW12 is a great race car, no matter how it looks.  And it is ugly.

3.  The red flag at the end of the race, while unexpected and without precedent, was good for the fans in attendance and the TV audience.  As a traditionalist in general, I initially thought that one more IMS accepted protocol was going down the drain.   But after seeing the debris from Townsend Bell’s crash and watching the SAFER barrier being repaired, I realized it made the race better.  Change is sometimes good, even if it causes apoplexy in the hard-core constituency.  Who knew?

4.  The crowd was not just good at the race, it was great.  The Coke Lot was full at 7:30 AM as we arrived at the Speedway.  I have not seen that in 25 years.  Of course the downside of that is the Coke Lot was full of Coke Lot type denizens at 7:30 AM.  Estimates  of the crowd were up to 230,000.  Don’t let those empty seats fool you.  The place was full.  The lines to get into the facility that made life miserable last year were not issues.  The purchased parking credentials in the North 40/Lot 7 were another story, though.  Dang.  There I go again with the snark about one of the “bad” issues.  An official for the Speedway told me that ticket sales were up 25% this year.  Indy is back, baby.

5.  Although the commercials on ABC seemed interminable after I got a chance to watch, the pre-race portion is still the best around.  The network wove in Memorial Day, human interest, and race goodies in just the right proportion.  Watching the race in HD, particularly the in-car shots, is absolutely thrilling.  Although not “bad” by definition, I do find the constant video and interviews of the WAGS a little cloying.  Nobody ever yells “Show us the wives and girlfriends for god’s sake!” as a race winds down.  Nobody.  Ever.

6.  The pre-race ceremonies at IMS for the 500 are nonpareil.  If you have never witnessed it in person, put it on your list.  The fact of the meaning of Memorial Day is always there, as it should be.  I hope that IMS, in its quest for more profit, never turns the pre-race into a sponsored circus to make a quick buck.  It is already the gold standard.  Keep it that way.  With that said, I really will miss Jim Nabors, a B-List singer and actor who found a home in Speedway, Indiana on Memorial Day weekend.  He sang “Back Home Again” the right way.  Please IMS, don’t bring in an oddball assortment of record label sponsored train wrecks to audition.  Find another baritone who gets Indy and can make it each May for the next 30 years or so.  The name is not as important as the song.  Do NOT mess this up.

7.  The month of May is back as an event in Indy.  After years of condensing the month due to lack of fan interest, the gang in the blue glass edifice on 16th and Georgetown finally packed in enough activities to interest new fans.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the new Time Trials weekend, Carb Day, the Jason Aldean concert, glamping, and the electronic dance music in the Snake Pit on race day all added fans through the turnstiles.  The numbers for the month could be pushing 350,000 fans.  Do the math.  More fans = $$$.  $$$ = more racing.  More racing = happy fans.  Repeat.

That’s the good, great, and just okay as well as some sub-textual bad that just keeps popping up.  Sorry about that.  Tomorrow brings the defined “bad” of the race.  And possibly a little more snark.

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¹  In my continuing effort to bring culture to racing, I used the oxymoron “ugly beauty” to describe the Dallara DW12.  An oxymoron is when two opposite terms are used together for effect.  Old Billy Shakespeare used them often when describing bear-baiting and cock fights, so there is some tradition of sporting usage.

Indianapolis 500 qualifications: It’s a new track tradition

What to take from the 2014 Indianapolis 500 qualification weekend.  The best perspective might be to ask what did IMS want to achieve with the new format.  The lack of cars on track due to available motors had clearly made the recent truncation of qualifications from four days to two even less compelling than they had been.  Bump Day had devolved into a glorified practice day with little, if any, drama.  The leadership at IMS and IndyCar knew they had to do something to bring back drama and package it into a neat little TV frame for ABC if they wanted more exposure and more live attendance.  I’m not sure if they succeeded on either of those counts this year, but at least they created a package that contains that potential.

Qualification Saturday at Indy has gone from pole day to BUMP DAY ALL DAY SATURDAY.  The TV audience on ABC was given two hours of almost non-stop qualifying action as drivers continued to make multiple attempts to get their cars into the Fast Nine round on Sunday.  Alexander Pope, an 18th century British poet, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”¹  Nowhere is that more evident than in auto racing.  Every driver thinks that the next run will be the one that gets the job done.  With the equipment and speeds so close in the Verizon IndyCar Series, any driver in the top 20 had a legitimate shot to bump his way into the Fast Nine.  Over and over the drivers gave it a shot.  The most compelling moment did not come to pass as Kurt Busch had to head to Charlotte to drive in NASCAR’s All-Star race.  How excited would the fans, both live and on TV, have been for Busch to make multiple attempts to make the Fast Nine for Sunday?

Not only was there multiple bumping, but just think of all the decisions that had to be made in the heat of battle.  At first, I thought the idea of an “express lane” for qualifying was too gimmicky, but after watching teams make the choice to pull their times at the risk of an accident that might put them in “relegation row” with no qualifying time, it was apparent that teams were willing to take risks to have the chance to start up front.  The teams could have simply got in the slow lane, which allowed teams to keep their earlier times if their new times were slower.  But as time counted down to 5:50 PM (thanks to the TV window, 6:00 PM is gone forever), the teams that were willing to take a gamble for the Fast Nine had to actually roll the dice.  Compelling.

The teams in the middle were, as 20th century American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.” ²  They had no reason to re-qualify unless they had a chance to get into the Fast Nine.  Most of those teams decided to stand pat.  That made a lot of sense.  Why risk an accident when the real race for the grid was not going to be until Sunday?

The issue to the slowest teams was if more than 33 cars were entered.  If so, then the bottom of the grid would have been much more nervous and willing to go again.  As it was, some of the teams at the bottom went again on the rumor that Katherine Legge might be added as a driver before the 7:00 PM deadline.  Why is that an issue?  If only 33 cars present themselves to qualify, then the cars at the bottom of the grid have nothing to worry about.  They are in the race and have a chance to re-qualify to better their positions.  The Legge rumor, if it had been true, would have added a 34th car and changed everything for the bottom of the grid.  If more than 33 cars attempt to qualify, then the bottom of the grid would be like the bottom of the table for Premier League soccer.  In that league, the bottom three teams are relegated, or removed from the league, and teams from other leagues move up. You can call  the slowest three on Saturday “relegation row.”  Imagine a scenario where the last three teams on Saturday continue to try to bump out of the final three while teams not in the race try to bump in, and teams near the bottom three try to improve their positions to keep from being put in the last three.  All this will take place at the same time as the Fast Nine teams are bumping and being bumped. Confusing and exciting.

Sunday was more anticlimactic as teams outside the Fast Nine re-qualified and jockeyed  for position on the grid.  They got one shot.  It was a couple of hours and then it was done.  The Fast Nine was a made-for-TV moment.  That’s it.  Nine drivers re-qualified and Ed Carpenter snagged the pole with a run of 231.067, edging out James Hinchcliffe’s 230.649.  It’s clear that Sunday is designed for TV.  Saturday was made for the fans.

Is the new procedure better than the old one?  I guess that would be determined by which old procedure you mean.  The new format is action-filled, exciting, and creates compelling drama on Saturday, particularly if more than 33 cars are entered.  The Fast Nine on Sunday just goes by too quickly.  The Fast Nine drivers having multiple attempts would certainly spice up the day.  Will it make qualification better than what they were years ago?  Probably not.  But they will make them what they need to be today.  And that’s the real goal.

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¹  Name another auto racing writer that quotes Alexander Pope.  That’s what we offer here: racing and literature.  Just another service.

²  That’s right, I just slapped down another literary reference.  How about a quote from a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner who spoke at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.  I have a Robert Frost tattoo on my bicep. *not true*

Ten worthless opinions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg edition

Sometimes having ten worthless opinions is the only way to discuss an IndyCar race.  The story of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is really the story of Will Power and Penske Racing.  That’s it.  He moved to the front, dominated, screwed up, and won.  Luckily, I combed the race and the broadcasts for the nuggets that often slip by the mainstream media and racing cognoscenti.  Don’t expect in-depth analysis or breaking news here.  In other words, lower your expectations.  All I have are ten worthless opinions.

1.  I listened to qualifying and part of the race on the IMS Radio Network to see how the iconic voice of Paul Page has aged.  Radio is unforgiving.  An announcer can be wrong about what is going on if no one is watching the broadcast, but he must be smooth whether he is right or wrong.  The timbre of Page’s voice is no longer what it once was, nor is his delivery as smooth as it was when he was the voice of the 500 on both radio and ABC.  But it’s early.  Page gets a pass simply because he’s Paul Page.  And let’s face it.  Other than the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400, only the most dedicated of fans listen to the radio.

2.  In deference to Paul Page, I attempted to listen to both the radio broadcast and ABC telecast.  When I added all those voices to the ones already in my head, it just got too crowded.  But before I gave up the attempt, I was incredibly impressed by the insights and delivery of IndyCar driver Pippa Mann.  Already a fan favorite for her humor, social media prowess, and unflagging determination to put together a ride for the Indy 500, she can now add broadcasting maven to her resume.  Even though she has done both radio and television for Indy Lights, it was her first foray into broadcasting the Verizon IndyCar Series.  She’s smart, observant, and smooth in the booth.  Auto racing is still one of those sports that does not have a female voice in the booth calling races.  This is the voice that needs to be there.

3.  ABC’s putting Allen Bestwick in the booth with Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear was a great choice.  He was prepared and professional.  ABC just got better.  Cheever and Goodyear are acceptable but bland.  Even when Cheever gets irritated, like when he compared Will Power’s slow restart to something you see in go-carts, he comes off as churlish and haughty.  At least I think that was Cheever.  I can’t tell him and Goodyear apart sometimes.  The booth needs some fireworks.  Get on that, ABC.

4.  Is Rick DeBruhl letting his inner Jack Arute come out to play?  His prerace chemistry bit that culminated in the assessment that Ed Carpenter was “bonding” with Mike Conway was only missing an Arute style prop to be perfect.  And let’s face it, the “bonding” thing just might have gone over the head of some viewers.

5.  A.J. Foyt just kills me.  He is the most honest voice in a traditionally guarded industry.  ABC tried to highlight the Odd Couple relationship between him and Takuma Sato.  A.J. summed it up by saying, “He’s not a smart-ass.  If I like him, I like him.”  There you go.

6.  Verizon has already engaged!  Almost every driver interviewed referenced the arrival of Verizon as the title sponsor of the series.  They know what they have: a motivated, committed, engaged sponsor with boatloads of money and a desire to partner with the series.  Their first commercial said, “A title sponsor has a certain responsibility to push the sport.”  Yeah, not quite sure IZOD saw it that way.  The Verizon ad referenced the cars, fans, and the technology.  Consider the game changed.

7.  TV often misses back of the pack moves on a street course.  It’s the nature of the medium.  Graham Rahal made a mad dash at the start to pick up multiple spots at the start.  From that beginning, he moved to mid-pack and stayed there.  The more impressive feat was Josef Newgarden moving from the last spot on the grid to finish ninth.  It wasn’t a series of youthful banzai moves but instead a series of passes that were of the stalk and pass variety.  The boy is growing up. If TV didn’t show it, then how do I know about it?  The IMS Radio Network.  They make everything exciting.  Take a cue, ABC.  Enthusiasm is a good thing.

8.  One storyline of the race was Tony Kanaan’s move to Chip Ganassi Racing.  The sparks didn’t fly, though.  He moved to the top ten and just stayed there.  At the end of the race, he said his fuel-saver knob fell off at the beginning of the race.  The knob FELL OFF!  Some Gorilla Glue will take care of that, guys.  And make sure to put some on all the trophies this year, too.

9.  I guess Tim Cindric doesn’t have to eat his rivalry comment about Chip Ganassi Racing just yet.  Will Power dominated the second half of the race as Chevrolet put three motors in the top five and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second with Honda power.  Jack Hawksworth for Bryan Herta Racing is pretty salty for a rookie, and you can expect Simon Pagenaud for Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Justin Wilson for  Dale Coyne Racing to find victory circle this year.  One of the strengths of the series is that so many teams can win any race.

10.  Will Power’s game of here-I-go-no-I-don’t on a restart ruined the days of Jack Hawksworth and Marco Andretti and certainly seemed to be aimed at teammate Helio Castroneves’ proclivity to jump restarts.  In other words, it was just another bit of auto racing gamesmanship.  Power tried to rationalize that he did not apply the brakes but did lift only because he was confused by the green flag being displayed before the restart zone.  Really, Will?  You slowed down because you saw the green flag?  You looked liked a shifty-eyed school boy caught cribbing for a test in the post-race interview.  The highlight was Power’s teammate Castroneves jokingly calling Power a “wanker.”  Don’t you love it when meaning gets lost in translation?  Helio may want to have that translated into Portuguese before he uses it again.  Or just call him a “tosser” next time.

There you go.  “Ten worthless opinions” is the only place you’ll find Aussie slang, Gorilla Glue, Jack Arute, and the Verizon IndyCar Series all in one convenient location.

Ten Worthless Opinions: IndyCar Preseason Edition

In lieu of having a solid premise, argument, or idea to present, I once again fall back upon the widely popular, and much easier to write, “Ten Worthless Opinions” model.  It allows me to write a few hundred words without the messy necessity of coherent thought or the thesis/evidence/conclusion paradigm so popular with critics.  My audience does not need all that; they just need the broad strokes that allow them to reach totally unsubstantiated conclusions.  So in typical fashion, here are a few totally unrelated thoughts about the upcoming Verizon IndyCar season starting this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

1.  What forms will Verizon engagement take?  Will we just see commercials on TV and a presence in the Fan Zone?  What we need to see is Verizon using their technological wizardry to update timing & scoring and improve the entity know as race control.  Verizon says they want to be known as a technology company.  Here is their chance to have an immediate and noticeable effect on the series.  Or maybe we’ll just see ads where drivers use mobile devices in a really cool setting like we have before.

2.  With ABC’s network reach, and hopefully ESPN’s support, the TV ratings for the series should climb as the season progresses.  The vortex of negativity that often surrounds the series will become a small eddy if it does.  Of course, the vortex will become a raging maelstrom if the ratings do not peak right away because THE SERIES WILL DIE IF THIS IS NOT CORRECTED IMMEDIATELY. Or so they say.  Give the ratings a year and evaluate.  Patience.

3.  It will be interesting to see how the Andretti Autosport and Honda Performance Development shotgun wedding works out.  The divorce between Chip Ganasssi Racing and HPD was rife with public comments from Chip.  Somehow, I doubt if Michael Andretti will air dirty laundry about a partner like that.  Hope it works out for the kids.

4.  Can Chip Ganassi ever find happiness with an engine partner?  Will he take pot shots at Chevrolet if another Chevy team beats him?  Will the Verizon IndyCar Series somehow not live up to his lofty standards.  Will backmarkers who are running ahead of him refuse to yield the right of way to the rightful champion?  Will Chip start using the royal “we” in interviews and conversations?  A better than average chance exists for all of these to happen.

5.  The question is not IF Juan Pablo Montoya does an incredibly brave/stupid/dangerous/irritating thing, it’s when he does it.  The under is St. Pete and the over is Barber.  I’ve got the under.  And you just know a Chip Ganassi car is going to be involved.  A just universe would not let it happen any other way.

6.  The (Your Name Here) Grand Prix of Indianapolis is on the clock.  Is it the start of a new tradition (because new traditions DO start), or is it taking tradition out behind the barn and shooting it?  Will the hidebound traditionalists stay home or will the sound of the turbos lure them to the Speedway?  It may be an average road course, but it is still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  See you there.

7.  In a series founded on ovals, will we see NASCAR, the owner of Iowa Speedway, try to push the Verizon IndyCar Series out of a popular and profitable partnership?  Let’s see now, should the owner of a series sponsored by a mobile technology company promote a series sponsored by a competitor of its own sponsor at a track that it-the series- owns?  Did anyone even understand that?  In other words, so long Iowa Speedway.  We’ll always have Des Moines.

8.  How important are the ovals going to be now with the relatively complicated scoring system that basically doubles the value of Indy, Pocono, and Fontana, the three 500 mile events on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar?  The answer of course is very.  What happens if Chip Ganassi loses the championship precisely because these events are worth more points?  It makes you smile to think about it, doesn’t it?  Gentlemen, start your hype!

9.  What delicious rumors will start this year?  Brazil is already in the picture for a race.  What about Providence and Fort Lauderdale?  How about F1 at Long Beach?  Is a new Canadian venue in the offing?  Will the international races be in Australia, Italy, or the Middle East?  Who will be buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the Hulman-George family?  Gossip and rumormongering are IndyCar traditions that will never die.

10.  Will the dysfunction caused by antiquated equipment in race control be resolved?  Derrick Walker has promised improvement.  Will Verizon be a part of the solution?  Hopefully.  Will Chip Ganassi and/or Scott Dixon call for the head of Beaux Barfield on a pike to be displayed from the battlements of their pit box?  Likely.  Will the suave and ultra-cool Beaux Barfield survive his third season?  He has to.  If the Verizon IndyCar Series is going to market itself as THE place to be, then Beaux belongs…just for the cool factor.  Smoke ’em if you got ’em, Beaux.

There you have some of the more compelling and/or nonsensical issues facing the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.  The series has iconic tracks, competitive races, robust car and engine combinations, and engaging personalities.  The series is moving from an analog past into a digital future.  This will be a great year to tune in.

 

 

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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