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Horses for courses at the Indy 500

Tribalism runs deep in motor racing, with the disregard and mockery of rival series a cottage industry among fans and journalists alike.  The decision of F1 champion Fernando Alonso to skip the Grand Prix of Monaco to race in this year’s Indianapolis 500 is a case in point.

After the announcement, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton said Alonso would be the best driver there.  Former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said he would have worked to stop it.  Red Bull’s Christian Horner said Zak Brown of McLaren was “barking mad” to do it.  I assume Honda just wanted to prove they had a competitive engine in a top series somewhere.

Is it important to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 to have Alonso in town for the 500?  Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles was effusive in his praise of Alonso and McLaren coming to Indy in May, as was Zak Brown of McLaren.  AP writer Jenna Fryer’s recent article indicated that Alonso to Indy is just not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.  Andretti Autosport certainly likes it since it brings cash and notoriety to the team.  Twitter, of course, is Twitter.  Whatever opinion you have is vindicated there if you need that sort of approbation.

Here’s the truth: everyone is right.  Perspective is what perspective is, and we can’t really change the lens.  F1 finds it a mockery.  IndyCar considers it a huge get.  Andretti considers it a gift.  NASCAR fans are asking, “Who dat, bubba?”

The winner here is the Indy 500 and IndyCar for the simple reason that people are talking.  Mark Miles did not say that Alonso coming to Indy was a game-changer.  He basically said it was pretty cool.  Which it is.  Everyone else wants to analyze it from where they sit.  Where will that kind of thinking lead us?

Is every decision made by IMS and IndyCar expected to be the most important decision ever, subject to dissection and discussion?  Horses for courses is an old British adage meaning the right people in the right situation.  Alonso certainly seems to be the right F1 driver at the right time for the Indy 500.  Is every decision at IMS expected to do more than  generate publicity?  Must these decisions appeal to a certain demographic’s ticket buying proclivities to be acceptable?  Are there really courses for all horses?

With Fernando Alonso, is IMS going after not only current F1 fans but expatriate Spaniards with a fondness for former Ferrari drivers, too?  One can only assume that the announcement of Chicago Blackhawks “National Anthem” singer Jim Cornelison to perform “Back Home Again in Indiana” was IMS vying for the elusive hockey fan who has not seen the 500.  Or maybe it was to find the even rarer opera aficionado with a taste for speed, baritones, and Jim Nabors.  Singer Keith Urban was obviously selected to inspire Midwestern Aussie’s with a taste for country music to make the trek to Indy.  Where does this demographic rabbit hole end!  Not every decision is vetted through marketing to ascertain its value before being made.

Without discounting them, maybe it’s not all about marketing and ticket sales.  Maybe IMS was not doing a “deep dive” into demographics.  Maybe they weren’t trying to “move the needle.”  Maybe the Speedway and Andretti Autosport simply saw the opportunity to bring one of the greatest racers of his generation to Indianapolis to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  After that, of course, fire up the hype machine and flog away.  There has to be an unexploited demographic somewhere.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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 needs a Sugar Daddy

Something was missing at the Milwaukee IndyFest this past weekend.  It wasn’t the racing; that was excellent.  There were passes throughout the field, and drivers were dirt-tracking the corners.  It wasn’t the strategy.  Pit strategy put A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato in front of the pack and allowed Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to take advantage of a late yellow flag to move to the lead and victory.  It wasn’t the show.  The promoters (Andretti-Green Productions) made both Friday and Saturday a festival of, well, festivals.  Bands played, amusement rides whirled, and the fans got close to the drivers.  Still, one glaring omission cast a dark shadow over this otherwise sunny race.  Sponsorship.

I know what you are going to say: there were RC Cola and Sun Drop banners everywhere!  Agreed, but those are not the deep-pocketed sugar daddies that all events and series need.  The name Milwaukee IndyFest say it all.  The event had no title sponsor.  A title sponsor buys the rights to the event, and the promoter uses the cash to do two things: promote the event and put cash in his pocket.  Everybody has to eat, or the show will not go on.

The problem facing every promoter and venue in motorsports is that the big-time sugar daddies just aren’t very hungry right now.  If you don’t count longtime series supporters Honda and Firestone and Roger Penske’s connections to Chevrolet, Shell, and Firestone, then the 19 race IndyCar schedule has four title sponsors for its races: Toyota, Iowa Corn, Go Pro, and Mav TV.  Other than the Daytona 500, its crown jewel, NASCAR’s February to November schedule has exactly ONE race without a title sponsor: the New Hampshire 300.  And with the TV money that flows to the promoters, that race will most certainly make money, just not as much as every other sponsored race.  And since most of the tracks are owned by either Speedway Motorports, Inc. (SMI) or International Speedway Corporation (ISC), the competition for sponsorship dollars is decreased.  One reason the IZOD IndyCar Series loves the street and road courses is because they are not owned by these two entities.  The street courses in particular offer great opportunities for sponsorship.

What makes Subway, Bank of America, Sylvania, Geico, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, and other decidedly non-automotive sponsors plunk down millions of dollars to attach themselves to the mind-numbingly similar races put on by the stock cars?  If you will pardon the vernacular, the answer is asses and eyes.  Those races have people in the seats at the track and viewers sitting at home in front of the TV.  Currently, IndyCar has neither.

The IZOD IndyCar Series does have a title sponsor in IZOD that not only wants out but also refuses to activate that sponsorship in any meaningful way from week to week.  Does IndyCar need a new series sponsor?  Absolutely it does.  Are there any open wallets out there?  The cellular giant Verizon is a name that keeps coming up, but who knows?  It has to make sense from a business perspective.  The value for Verizon is quite likely a business-to-business relationship.  The people who inhabit those corporate chalets and suites are business partners for the sponsors.  In other words, the sponsors make money off of these people.  And while the corporate kingpins certainly want the hoi polloi in the stands and watching on TV to use their products, this sell is often secondary to the business-to-business connection.

IndyCar is at a crossroads.  The product is scintillating.  The venues are diverse.  The drivers are engaging.  But people are not attending the races or watching the broadcasts.  You often hear about racing teams struggling to find the right set-up.  They start down the wrong path and can never get back to normal.  Every choice they make takes them farther from where they want to be, and they start flailing about, taking bigger risks in the hope that something will be right.  That is the IZOD IndyCar Series right now.  The races struggle to find sponsorship to stay afloat.  The series struggles to create interest and fans.  And the flailing begins.  Double headers are offered as a way to save/make money and boost ratings.  Green-white-checkered finishes are discussed as a way to entertain a jaded fan base.  And so it begins.

The solutions are obvious, though.  The series needs increased sponsorship, higher ratings, and bigger gates.  The road map to get there is the problem.  It is sad to watch a once-proud series lose its way like a race team that just can’t find the right set-up.  The hope is that the series does not lose its way so badly that it can’t find its way home.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Sao Paulo Indy 300 Samba Edition

Dancing is life in Brazil.  The main straight for the Sao Paulo Indy 300 is the Sambadrome, the 30,000 seat home to the carnival parade put on by the samba schools in Sao Paulo.  The samba schools are year-round organizations that are the social hub of the city.  Think the Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans or the 500 Festival for the Indianapolis 500.  You can always count on New Track Record to sprinkle a little culture in with the racing.  With that in mind, here are this week’s WO’s (worthless opinions) on the IndyCar dance soiree in the streets of Sao Paulo.

1.  Of course, you have to get to the dance first.  Penske Racing may have outsmarted itself by waiting to put down a hot lap in the first round of knock-out qualifying.  Both Helio Castroneves and Will Power were unable to get a time since Tristan Vautier and James Jakes both had problems on track and the clock kept on ticking.  The line to the dance starts in the back, boys.  The Andretti Autosport strategy of banking a lap early paid off for pole sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Will this become the strategy in future rounds of road and street course qualifying?

2.  Like a dance, a race needs a great first step.  The long straight of the Sambadrome allowed a stellar start and great restarts all day.  It is a matter of fairness.  Backmarker or not, no driver should be at a disadvantage at the beginning of a race other than that of his qualifying position.  The hairpins at St. Pete and Long Beach are unfair on starts and restarts to any driver from the middle of the pack back.  If you cannot get all the cars lined up in a fair way, then standing starts are in order.

3.  The Penske boys just didn’t seem to have the rhythm at Sao Paulo.  It’s low-hanging fruit, but Dancing with the Stars champion Helio Castroneves and his dance partner Will Power stepped on each other’s toes going into the newly designed first turn.  Come on guys, figure out who’s leading.

4.  After moving quickly through the field, Power’s day ended with what seems to be the new IndyCar problem du jour: a header fire.  Will there be more flames at Indy?  Castroneves, always the entertainer, even did a nifty pirouette in the first turn to show the crowd that he still has some sick dance moves, but the judges weren’t impressed with his cha-cha as he headed to the back of the pack.

5.  There didn’t seem to be any wallflowers at this ball, though.  Everyone wanted to dance.  Passing was happening throughout the field.  The problem with a television broadcast is the inability to follow action throughout the field.  A street course, live or on television, only allows you to see what happens in front of you.  Ovals allow you to see action building.  At the risk of sounding like a shill, that’s why you should attend an IndyCar oval race.

6.  The boys in the booth back in Indianapolis did what they could with the Brazilian television feed.  Jon Beekhuis added intelligent technical commentary without speaking down to the ordinary fan, and Robin Miller apparently had nothing better to do, so he showed up in the studio.  Miller is the most underutilized asset of the NBC Sports broadcasts.  He has value.  Find him something to do, or don’t invite him to the dance.

7.  Spec racing or not, the IZOD IndyCar Series is fun to watch.  Whoever choreographed this big dance number deserves an award.  Edginess permeated the day.  Multiple, and interminable, cautions ruled.  Takuma Sato took the lead late and fought off Josef Newgarden before finally succumbing to James Hinchcliffe on the last turn of the last lap.  The newly patient Marco Andretti quietly finished third.  NASCAR had the “Big One” at Talledega and made the news.  IndyCar just continues to have the best racing on the planet and is ignored.  I guess the dance marathon at Talledega was more exciting than the IndyCars doing the lambada at Sao Paulo.  America still like its dancing and racing the old-fashioned way: boring.

8.  The judging of this particular dance contest was called into question on both the broadcast and social media.  As the laps wound  down, Takuma Sato made some highly questionable moves to keep James Hinchcliffe behind him.  Beaux Barfield gets the benefit of the doubt if only for being so transparent on the fact that something is being investigated.  The secrecy and favoritism that typified race control in the past has disappeared.  Of course, that does not mean that every call is correct.  If those moves had happened between cars fighting for 4th and 5th, would the call have been the same?  One would hope so, but no one likes to see the winner decided on a call on the last laps.  Blocking?  Yes.  Right call?  Yes.  As Townsend Bell said on the broadcast, “It’s good, hard, knife fighting racing.”

9.  Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing are fast becoming the stories of the year.  These single car entries are tap dancing at the front of the pack and challenging for wins.  The spec formula for the Dallara DW12 was designed to do just this – give smaller teams a chance to win.  It’s working.  Of course, since it benefits the smaller teams, Chip Ganassi will have a problem with it.  Don’t those teams know they are the chorus, not the headliners?

10.  The belle of the ball was James Hinchcliffe, though.  He pressured Sato after Newgarden fell back and took advantage of Sato’s last corner slide to duck under him for the victory.  The bigger story is Andretti Motorsport.  After years of being the best dancer in the chorus, the Andretti team is auditioning to be the prima ballerina in the IndyCar company.  The aging grande dames of Penske and Ganassi are just not quite as robust and hungry as Michael Andretti’s team.  It is interesting to note that Andretti Autosport does not split its resources and time with a NASCAR team but has instead invested in the IndyCar ladder series.  It takes focus to be a champion.

All in all, the IndyCar samba in Sao Paulo was a great performance.  While the ratings may not be as high as Dancing with the Stars, I’ll take Dancing with the Dallara anytime.  It’s time to quick step to Indy.

Sun Tzu and the Art of IndyCar

Faced with an off-week for IndyCar this past weekend, I decided to tune in for the Chinese Grand Prix from Shanghai. I am open-wheel to the bone, and even though the drivers of F1 often make the word “entitled” seem an understatement, they certainly put on a good show. There must be something IndyCar can learn from the Chinese Grand Prix, some Zen or Tao that will offer sudden enlightenment to a series in desperate need of it. Then I had my own vision, my own flash of understanding. IndyCar must have some connection to Sun Tzu and The Art of War. This Chinese general from 2500 years ago is credited with writing a treatise that explained the intricacies of warfare and has been used in military academies, boardrooms and athletic fields to help guide leaders to victory. It is pretty clear that some of Sun Tzu’s philosophies could apply to IndyCar. Allow me to offer my interpretation and commentary on a few of the general’s quotes.

“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” Well, this seems simple enough. The leaders at IndyCar over the past few years have worked very hard at becoming their own worst enemies. I’m not sure that is what old Sun Tzu was talking about, though. The list of self-inflicted wounds in IndyCar is a litany of lost opportunity. The IRL was a spec series that hemorrhaged money. Sponsors ran for the hills. A TV contract was signed that relegated IndyCar to the backwoods of cable. The palace intrigue that cost Tony George his leadership role also resulted in a very messy and embarrassing parting of ways with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. Yep, I think IndyCar has practiced this particular stratagem.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In assessing how IndyCar has marketed itself in recent years, it is clear that Sun Tzu would have had a problem with the series. The vision of Kiss’s Gene Simmons with his “I am Indy” campaign that went nowhere is an example of strategy without tactics. It was a great overall concept that was never implemented as more than a slogan. Randy Bernard, on the other hand, was a master of the moment. He always had a good idea of what to do today, but it never seemed to reach the level of strategy or vision. Let’s see if the new IndyCar masters have the ability to put the two together.

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” Sun Tzu mentions leadership often. This comment seems like it was directed at Penske Racing and Roger Penske. I’m pretty sure Penske’s new driver AJ Allmendinger would follow Roger into the deepest valley. No other owner has more loyal employees or less turnover. When you have that kind of loyalty, you win the battle. I guess following that old Golden Rule bromide has some staying power. Chalk another one up for Sun Tzu.

“Opportunities multiply as they are achieved. Which team has made the most of its opportunities this year? Which team is on a roll? The answer is Andretti Autosport. First James Hinchcliffe wins in St. Pete, and then Ryan Hunter Reay finishes first at Barber. Our Chinese general understood momentum. And Andretti Autosport has it.

“Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.” Wow. It seems like Sun Tzu actually knows Chip Ganassi. How do you beat Chip? The general knows. Make him discount you. Nothing entertains me more than watching an in-race interview with Chip and hearing him complain about some backmarker getting in the way of his world domination. The nerve of those…people. Sooner or later, Ganassi’s arrogance will cost him a race. I just hope it is one of those backmarkers that beats his car to the line. How sweet will that karma be?

There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” Enough cannot be said about the raciness and safety of the Dallara DW 12. Even though the only thing different about the cars is the livery, they have provided quality competition on all three types of venues. Is a spec series and controlled costs the way to put spectators in the seats and eyeballs on the TV screens? No, good racing will do that, and that is what the IZOD IndyCar Series has right now. The cars are just the paint and brushes; the artists are sitting in the cockpits.

“Great results, can be achieved with small forces.” Even though fans and writers rail against the idea of a spec series, it does create a parity that would not exist if the wealthy owners were able to spend their way to Victory Lane. Whether it was Dan Wheldon winning the Indy 500 for Bryan Herta, Justin Wilson winning at Texas for Dale Coyne, or Ed Carpenter winning at Fontana driving for himself, the DW 12 creates a situation where anyone can win. Let’s hope for some more great results by the little guys. Sun Tzu would get a kick out of it. And it would really irritate Chip.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” This should be the mantra for the IZOD IndyCar Series this year. You have diverse venues, a competitive car, and a cast of fan-friendly characters both in and out of the car. Much of Sun Tzu’s philosophy can be distilled as “strike while the iron’s hot.” It is incumbent on the series to do something with this wealth of talent and entertainment. The leaders of the series need to lead. That seems simplistic, but much of what Sun Tzu says is common sense and simple. He advocates planning and strategy. Seize the day, IndyCar.

If Mark Miles cannot right the IndyCar ship, it may be time to bring in an Eastern philosopher/warrior/priest to instruct him. Maybe it is time for Mr. Miles to watch the old Kung Fu TV series and channel his inner Kwai Chang Kaine and meet Master Po for some instruction. Listen to Master Po, young grasshopper.

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