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A Tale of Two Detroit Cities

With sincerest apologies to the memory of Charles Dickens,  “It was the best of races, it was the worst of races…” at Detroit this past weekend.  What, you don’t recognize the mangling of the opening line from Tale of Two Cities?  What were you doing in high school?  It was required reading!  You can always count on New Track Record to bring up arcane connections to help you understand the value of a liberal arts education.  Let’s look at the best and worst of the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit.

Best of Times

  • Roger Penske has created one of the best street courses in IndyCar racing.  He took a broken track in a broken city and made it racy.  From a track where passing was nonexistent and asphalt patches attacked the racers, Penkse revealed a new layout that not only held together but allowed actual passing.
  • Besides making a racy layout, Roger Penske is building one of the crown jewels of the IndyCar season on Belle Isle.  Yes, the racing is good, but so is the event.  Roger Penske is a businessman and promoter nonpareil.  At a time when most venues see no value in hosting the IZOD IndyCar Series, he saw an opportunity.  Instead of banking on ticket sales for his profit, Penske worked the business-to-business angle and made his money on corporate sales.  Having Chevy as a title sponsor helps, too.  According to Doug Guthrie of The Detroit News, grandstands across from pit row will become double-decker corporate chalets next year.  And we all know that a “chalet” is much tonier than a suite.  Great event, great people, great organization.
  • One of the best things about the year is the parity between the big and small teams.  Fill-in driver Mike Conway won the first race for Dale Coyne Racing and landed on the podium for the second while Simon Pagenaud won the second race for Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports.  You know that has to chafe Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, and Michael Andretti like sand in the swimsuit.  Expect changes to the formula that allow the teams with the most money to buy success.  It’s the American way.
  • Mike Conway’s win was the best thing of the weekend.  A journeyman winner is always welcome, particularly one who suffered such serious injuries in a horrific crash at Indy.
  • Honda had a pretty good weekend in the heartland of Chevy.  After failing on the national stage of Indianapolis, the Japanese marque showed their twin-turbo street course savvy at Detroit by winning both races and sweeping seven of the top ten spots on Sunday.
  • Personalities once again shine.  In the first race, Sebastian Saavedra waved the double middle finger salute to Marco Andretti while Will Power, known for a similar obeisance to race control two years ago, hurled his gloves at Sebastien Bourdais after a safety worker restrained him from an actual physical attack in the second race.   Anything that makes me laugh out loud is the “best of times.”
  • Beaux Barfield, whose honeymoon is over with the drivers and teams, made a great call with a local yellow for Ryan Briscoe’s shunt into the tires at the end of the first race, allowing the race to end under green and silence the groundswell of moronic insistence for a green-white-checkered rule to prevent yellow flag finishes.  Kudos, Beaux.
  • Call it what you will, the doubleheader format worked.  The ratings were up, and the crowds were good.  The drivers, and especially the crews, suffered from lack of turn-around time, but tin-top drivers and dirt track racers have been doing it for years.  It was a good show.  Do it again.

Worst of Times

  • After the first race had only three yellow flags, there were high hopes for plenty of green flag racing for the second contest.  Not so fast.  Whether it was fatigue, as suggested by the television crew, or an abundance of optimism and idiocy, as suggested by me, the drivers could not seem to get out of each other’s way.  Ed Carpenter nerfed Alex Tagliani. Sebastien Bourdais biffed Will Power, starting a six car scrum.  Simona De Silvestro and Ryan Hunter-Reay both found the same wall.  Not quite the smooth event from the day before.  The big question about the two race format is simple: what if these wrecks happened during the first race?  Would safety be compromised because of crew fatigue and time constraints?  If the format is continued, we will find out.
  • The worst luck of the weekend happened to A.J. Allmendinger.  The Penske Racing driver did not complete a lap either race.  The cherry on his bad luck sundae was that both wrecks can be chalked up to driver error.  The pathos of his sincere sorrow and completely defeated demeanor touched me.  It truly was “the worst of times” for A.J.
  • Could the timing of IndyCar’s press conference regarding aero kits be any worse?  Since Mark Miles, the new chief plumber at Hulman & Co., has not yet been able to plug the press leaks that have plagued IndyCar, the series was forced to go public with their plan to increase speeds, provide more team development opportunities, and allow manufacturer designed body parts before they were ready.  Way to steal a promoter’s thunder, IndyCar.  We wouldn’t want the media talking about the race happening on the track, would we?  The politics and drama of the series continues to provide fodder for low-life bloggers like me to mock the dysfunction.  And I thank you.
  • Social media once again provided entertainment.  The Twitter dust-up between Randy Bernard (@RBINDYCAR) and Panther Racing (@PantherRacing) made me smile.  Gig ’em, Randy!  I actually debated which category this fit.  For entertainment, it’s the best; for the IZOD IndyCar Series, it’s the worst.  Call it a coin flip.  If you are not on Twitter, you are missing people talking first and thinking later.
  • The gimmick of double-file restarts causes wrecks on narrow street courses.  No debate.  Proponents can justify them by arguing TV ratings and NASCAR, but they create pack racing and lead to FUBAR’s like the six car melee that ended Will Power’s day Sunday.  Unlike the 40+ cars in NASCAR, the IndyCar Series has a diminishing number of contestants and open cockpits.  Exciting?  You bet.  Dangerous?  Absolutely.  Necessary?  That’s the real question, isn’t it?
  • Listening to the radio feed of an IndyCar race is exciting.  The announcers scream about the action in front of them.  It sounds like something is happening.  Listening to the ABC broadcast is mind-numbing.  The vapid and insipid delivery of the boys in the booth truly harshes the buzz of the great racing we are seeing on the screen.  I wonder if Lunesta, a sleep aid advertising on the race broadcast, complained about ABC/ESPN competing with them with its choice of broadcasters?

If only this writing was “a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”  Get it?  That’s the last line from Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities.  You Philistines simply must read the classics.  It is always high art here at New Track Record.

The Mods and Rockers: what IndyCar can learn from British pop culture

The IZOD IndyCar Series needs fewer Mods on scooters and a few more Rockers on motorcycles

In the recent NASCAR Nationwide race at Richmond, a typically long and relatively boring race was spiced up by a post race contretemps between Brian Scott and Nelson Piquet, Jr.  It was the kick felt around the racing world as Piquet, Jr. took rather low aim as he connected with Scott below the belt.  The juxtaposition of Scott, your typical American stock car racer, and Piquet, Jr., a Brazilian scion of F1 champion Nelson Piquet seemed oddly familiar.  Suddenly, an image from popular culture came flashing back.  The fight between Piquet, Jr. and Scott was a modern version of the British conflict between the Mods and the Rockers in the early 1960’s.  It certainly ramped up the media interest in the Richmond Nationwide race, just as the events in the ’60’s exploded in the British media.  And truth be told, it is exactly what IndyCar needs in 2013.

To make my point, a little history lesson is in order.  If you are not familiar with the Mods and Rockers, I did some time-consuming and exhaustive research on the subject (I went to Wikipedia and watched the TV show Cafe Racer on Velocity).   The Rockers were rock and rollers who wore leather and rode British motorcycles like BSA’s, Triumphs, Nortons, and Vincents.  In other words, tough guys.  The Mods were clean-cut, suit-wearing, jazz and R & B aficionados who drove scooters.  We would probably call them preppies today. The two groups had some near riots that sent the British press into paroxysms of angst and conjured images of youth run amok.  All of this brings us to what the IZOD IndyCar Series needs right now.

IndyCar is all Mods and no Rockers.  Proof?  Check the scooters in the garages and pits at any IndyCar race.  What message does this send?  It screams effete hipster snob! Even the Penske stable uses matching scooters that are always lined up perfectly in front of their motor homes.  These latter-day Mods need to have a counter-point.  Where are the Rockers, IndyCar?  Where is the leather?  IndyCar may not need the post-race fisticuffs of NASCAR, but it certainly needs a little antipathy among the racers.  Robin Miller of Speed and NBC Sports always says that hate is good.  I’ll settle for a little hostility.

Fans like to know that competitors really want to beat the other guy, not just win the race.  Even though IndyCar has marketable young Mods like James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Marco Andretti, and Graham Rahal, these young guys don’t have a Rocker nemesis cast as an antithesis to their Mod coolness.  The closest IndyCar comes to a Rocker is IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield, who drives a two-wheeler that is decidedly not a scooter.  At least we can still have bad blood between the Mod racers and the Rocker race director.  It’s something.

Beaux Barfield's Rocker ride. (photo: Mark Wilkinson)

Beaux Barfield’s Rocker ride. (photo: Mark Wilkinson)

It’s time for IndyCar to develop some real rivalries.  The frat house that is the IndyCar paddock needs a little dive bar biker atmosphere to spice it up.  Could it be oval specialist Ed Carpenter in a leather jacket?  Maybe J.R. Hildebrand and A.J. Allmendinger could bring a little of their California Rocker ethos to the paddock.  I’m afraid it may be a lost cause.  The boys and girls in the paddock are just too nice.  And that’s just too bad.

Bad blood is good copy and good televison.  Will Power (who may be the Rocker the series needs) made news with his double finger salute to Brian Barnhart at New Hampshire as well as the same gesture to E.J. Viso at Iowa last year.  Sadly, Power has not taken his Rocker role to heart.  He is back in the frat house with the rest of the Mods.  A.J. Foyt, the true IndyCar tough guy who may have never listened to rock and roll in his life, had his Rocker moment at Texas when he threw Arie Luyendyk to the ground in Victory Circle.  Those were the days before politically correct sponsor concerns trumped human emotion.  You were still allowed to publicly dislike someone.

Even though the IndyCar drivers have the occasional fit of pique over on-track indiscretions, don’t expect them to start kicking and swinging anytime soon.  Unfortunately, you just don’t see much Mod on Mod violence anymore.  And IndyCar is a little less fun because of it.  The Vespas are winning.

AJ Allmendinger: a casualty of corporate hypocrisy

Penske Racing has announced that AJ Allmendinger is going to drive the IZOD sponsored No. 2 Team Penske car at the IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Huzzah for him!  Also, a huzzah is order for IZOD for doing something to promote the series that is branded with their corporate name.  Way to step up, corporate-partner-looking-for-a-way-out.  But I digress.  This is about AJ Allmendinger being the whipping boy for our politically correct sports/corporate/media world.

Allmendinger has an impressive curriculum vitae: he won 5 races and had 14 podiums in 40 Champ Car races and racked up 29 top tens and 2 poles in 174 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events.  Add to that his Atlantics Championship and his Rolex 24 win and you have criteria for a racer.  But he has a couple of other stats, too.  In 2009 he was arrested for drunk driving and in 2013 he tested positive for Adderall.  In today’s rush-to-judgement society, he had become a pariah.  The corporate masters at NASCAR, a series founded on bootleggers racing their hopped up liquor delivery vehicles, could not stomach a young driver making such mistakes.

And Allmendinger did make mistakes.  He got behind the wheel drunk and was punished for it.  As far as we know, he did not get behind the wheel under the influence of amphetamines. He served a punishment for that, too.  Fair enough.

What bothers me is how modern society conveniently ignores that our athletic heroes have always pushed the envelope when it comes to enhancing something, whether it’s performance or partying.  The media, mainstream or social, absolutely delights in making these activities public.  We revel in it.  And the hypocrisy makes me shake my head.  From Babe Ruth’s epic appetites to Mickey Mantle’s hang-over home runs to Brad Keselowski’s giant championship beer, we cheer the victors’ substance abuse when they win, but wait in the weeds to pounce on them when they fall off the championship pedestal.  And the entire episode will be sponsored by Miller Lite, Budweiser, Florida Lottery, Five Hour Energy, Amp Energy, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Cheez-It’s.  NASCAR endorses drinking, gambling, liquid energy, and gluttony as long as they pay for the props.  That’s just business as usual in America.  The hypocrites rule, as they always have.

At least IndyCar and Roger Penske are willing to overlook Allmendinger’s poor choices.  The history of open wheel racing is just as wild and wooly as its tin-top brethren.  The 1950’s and 60’s are chock full of stories of drinking and carousing.  Back then this behavior was “colorful,” not anti-social.  IndyCar has said very little about Allmendinger and for good reason.  He is a driver, not a morality play.  A corporation that advertises the party in the Snake Pit at its biggest event needs to be careful about seeming too pious.

Our values have not really changed.  What has changed is corporate America’s perception of its public image.  They have cleaned and bleached the drivers so much that they are merely shills for the nervous sponsors.  Even Tony Stewart has matured now that he owes his living to his sponsors.  Most recently, NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $25,000 for simply stating the truth about the Gen 6 car.  Remember, it’s always rainbows and unicorns unless we decide to let you wreck each other for entertainment and ratings.

IndyCar still allows its drivers to be themselves.  Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliff, and Tony Kanaan still entertain us on a human level as well as on the track.  My fear is that once IndyCar has the success it deserves, the suits will suck the life out of it with policy and purview.

So welcome to the party, AJ.  The IndyCar circus is going to be a perfect fit for you.  We don’t care if you raise a little hell and have a personality.  I just hope Big Brother doesn’t start watching this series, too.

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