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A Good Race is Hard to Find.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Five Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Edition

At times, my WO’s (worthless opinions) can run to sarcasm.  Surprising, I know.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series  always seems to offer snark fodder in abundance.  At previous races this year, the fragile front wings, racing in the rain, and rules interpretations have made it easy for one so inclined.  The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park changed most of that.  While not snark free, most of these WO’s celebrate a great race.

1.  All-American Finish: Josef Newgarden winning is a big deal for many reasons.  A compelling storyline to recent Verizon IndyCar Series seasons is the lack of a marketable American drivers for a North American series.  F1, noted for drivers from around the world, is a truly international series with venues around the world.  The IndyCar series is not.  The international drivers in IndyCar are outstanding, but without sounding all jingoistic about it, having a young, well-spoken, and telegenic American cannot hurt the marketability of the series.  If the series chooses to market him, of course.  They had American Ryan Hunter-Reay as both series champ and Indy 500 winner, and it would be hard to say they capitalized on that.

2.  The Racing: Newgarden and his Chevy were racy from the start, passing Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power to grab the lead from a fifth place start.  It was the kind of start that had fans using body English to help the drivers maneuver through traffic.  Graham Rahal’s run in his Honda to second after a late fuel stop had fans watching two strategies at once: Newgarden’s slow-paced fuel saving in his Chevy versus Rahal’s hanging-it-out after stopping for fuel near the end.  Fans could actually see the interval decreasing by seconds per lap.  And while Newgarden’s early passes were scintillating, Rahal’s outside passes throughout the race were equally spectacular.  Great stuff.

3.  Lack of Idiocy/Penalties/Yellows:  It was almost life affirming to not see carbon fiber flotsam and jetsam strewn around the track on the first lap.  The racing was tight and, for the most part, clean.  For the second race in a row, yellow flag racing was at a minimum.  Of course, the last two races simply balanced out the first two in the green/yellow ratio.  We’ll see where it goes from here.  It goes without saying that no Verizon IndyCar Series race is complete without grousing and complaining from drivers and teams about the officiating.  Both Sebastien Bourdais and Stefano Colleti took exception to yellow flags causing them personal hardship.  Juan Pablo Montoya took umbrage at Rodolfo Gonzalez slowing him down.  James Hinchcliffe was upset with Rahal’s line through the turns.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is still upset about NOLA and sees inconsistency everywhere. And of course, everyone complained about Francesco Dracone’s pace.  The reality was that Race Control penalized some, drivers, warned others, and called nothing in other situations.  It’s like calling holding in the NFL.  An official can do it every play.  You can’t call it all in racing, either, no matter how much the drivers whine and complain.

4.  Success of CFH Racing and RLL Racing: Back at the top of the podium, the success of Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing over Penske and Ganassi bodes well for the sport and the team.  The same holds true for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, too.  The smaller teams in the series need success to bolster their bottom lines when it comes to sponsorship.  While Ed Carpenter has Fuzzy’s Vodka for he and Luca Filippi in their ride share, a win can go a long way to help Sarah Fisher land a season-long sponsorship for Josef Newgarden.  Graham Rahal’s second place finish sure put sponsor Steak and Shake in the spotlight.  And Rahal, ever the shill for his sponsors, tweeted after the race that he might stop in for a shake on his way home.

5.  Big Mo Heading to Indy: There must be something to momentum in sports.  Every announcer, coach, and player in every sport talks about its value.  If that’s true, then the month of May in Indy could be interesting.  Chevy certainly has engine and aero kit momentum.  They are the class of the field.  Penske has some, too.  The team has every driver in the top nine in the standings with Montoya and Castroneves running first and second.  The Ganassi boys are coming on, particularly after Long Beach.  With Newgarden and Rahal riding their Barber success, this might be the year for an underdog winner at the 500.  And don’t forget about the invisible man, Ed Carpenter.  He knows Indy.  The greatest beneficiary of momentum has to be the Verizon IndyCar Series.  After the aero growing pains of St. Pete and the weather woes of NOLA, the series seems to be finding its groove.

All in all, it was a most excellent race.  Let’s hope it sets the tone for a most excellent month of May in Indy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figures lie: IndyCar, golf, and sponsorship

The week when the Verizon IndyCar Series races at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is the chance for writers to channel their inner Herbert Warren Wind¹ and wax poetic about the verdant greenways, majestic views, and oddball sculptures of the facility  Some even say it is the Augusta National of the racing world.  High praise, indeed.  Of course, in the racing world, any green grass seems like Augusta National when compared to the asphalt and concrete of a city street course or the dead brown of Sonoma.  Kudos to Iowa for the corn, though.  Not quite Augusta-like but it does have a certain waving-in-the-wind grandeur.

In any case, a compelling storyline exists with the relationship of televised golf and its sponsors and what IndyCar may be trying to do to milk value from what, by any definition, is a small television audience.  Golf succeeds for more reasons than just television advertisers.  The sport has deep-pocketed event sponsors who pay millions to host a single event.  According to an article by Patrick Rishe in Forbes, all 42 PGA Tour events are sponsored for between $6 million to $12 million annually with sponsor FedEx re-upping for $35 million annually to sponsor the FedEx Cup.  Nice numbers, huh?  And that doesn’t include TV money.  The PGA does have the advantage of being on four days in a row each week, but, other than the majors, it does not routinely knock the ball out of the park.  The recent Texas Open final round had a 1.6 U.S. rating the week before the Masters on NBC.  Why does the PGA tour continue to rake in dough from well-heeled advertisers?  In a word, demographics.

The sponsors of the PGA tour read like a who’s who of high end living: BMW, Cadillac, Audi, Bridgestone, CDW, Charles Schwab, Citi, MetLife, Rolex, Mercedes, etc.  Why do these companies pay so much to advertise and sponsor a sport that gets relatively low ratings?  Why don’t they go to NASCAR and the WWE, two properties that regularly ring up much higher numbers?  Simple.  The 1% does not ordinarily watch those shows.  They watch golf.  Numbers may not lie, but they can certainly mislead.  High end advertisers want to go to where the viewers have the most money, not necessarily to the event with the most eyeballs.

What does this mean for IndyCar?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  If you are promoting a niche sport, which IndyCar racing is right now, you need to appeal to an audience that spends the most money.  Glamping at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway anyone?  Want to listen to Hardwell in the corporate Snake Pit with VIP access?  All you need is disposable income.  IndyCar can grow as a property without beating NASCAR’s numbers as long as the right kind of viewers are attracted.  Can IndyCar attract those fans to the races and the television?  The devil is in the details, they say.  City street courses are certainly closer to the high end consumer, which is a great reason to keep them on the schedule.  It would seem to make sense that people who invest money to attend races are the same people who become invested as viewers of the series.  IndyCar and its easy access paddock and personable drivers are a great way to capture the interest, and the hearts, of its fans.

If the answer to creating a successful and financially viable series was simple, it would have been done by now.  The current brain trust at IndyCar/IMS is taking a measured approach to building the series, as it should.  Have they identified their target demographic?  I hope so.  If not, then maybe the PGA tour is interested in coming back to a Pete Dye designed course at 16th and Georgetown in Speedway.  There will be plenty of room for parking.

1.  Herbert Warren Wind was a golf writer who coined the phrase Amen Corner for holes 11, 12, and 13 at Augusta National, home of the Masters.

The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama: Untimely Edition

I understand this post is a little late and not in my usual WO (worthless opinions) format.  There are reasons.  Good reasons.  I could blame it on the fact that I was on vacation last week, and it took a few days to sober up get back in the swing of things.  Certainly, there was yard work to attend to that just could not wait.  Of course, there were the usual family obligations, not to mention the day job that provides the money to pursue my writing and racing habit.  These are all valid.  Those that know me understand my deeply rooted love of procrastination.  Add to that the fact that I am the editor-in-chief and sole unpaid employee of this joint, and you could assume that I can post whenever I damn well please since nobody reads this stuff anyway.  All true, but not the truth in this case.  I am late posting because I had a creative idea.

If you are a regular reader here (thank you both), you know I have an unhealthy attachment to the odd and the quirky.  I have connected IndyCar and its denizens to the following over the past year:

  • The movies The Shawshank Redemption, Sunset Boulevard, Fever Pitch, Animal House, and Christmas Vacation
  • The Warner Brothers cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, and Porky Pig
  • Championship wrestling
  • The Mayan apocalypse (twice)
  • The Rolling Stones song “Paint It Black”
  • The songs of the Beach Boys
  • Texas singer/songwriters and their music
  • The Delta Wing and the Tanya Tucker song “Delta Dawn”
  • The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and his novel Stranger in a Strange Land.
  • Tony Dungy, Bob Knight, and Jesus Christ

I’m proud of the eclectic collection I’ve put together.  I feel I have carved out a niche within a niche sport.  It suits me.  The question, of course, is what does all this have to do with this week’s post being late?  Let me explain.

My idea was to use the Master’s golf tournament as the comparison to the Grand Prix of Alabama since so many people gush over the beautiful and verdant scenery of Barber Motorsports Park by comparing it to Augusta National Golf Club, the site of the Masters.  Augusta National is pretentious.  How pretentious?  They name each hole after a tree found on the grounds.  They have names like Tea Olive, Juniper, Magnolia, Azalea and the list goes on.  My idea was to name each one of my ten WO’s (worthless opinions) after one of the 30 or so pieces of art on the grounds at Barber.  All I needed was a picture of ten of the pieces and I would be good to go.  In fact, I spent a couple of hours finding pictures of the art works and making up names for them like “Naked Guys on Wheels” and “Guy Pushing a Rock.”  Classy stuff, right?  But being an English teacher at heart, I wanted to be honest and correct.  I needed permission from the photographers to publish their work.  This, I found, is simple if you are not writing a piece that is time sensitive (I was) and if you have your idea well ahead of time (I didn’t).  So here I sit in the middle of the week after a race has concluded waiting for permission to use photos that may never come, so I can use a cool idea (in my own mind) to make an oddball comparison of a golf course and a race track just so I can offer my rather pedestrian opinions on a race.  So…let me now offer my untimely opinions on the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, late because I had a great idea.

  • The prerace lap with Townsend Bell behind the wheel and Wally Dallenbach in the passenger seat was comic gold.  I loved the Tums going sideways as they missed Wally’s mouth.  That’s nuance.  The vomit bag might have been low-hanging fruit but it was funny.  It’s OK to have flavors other than vanilla.  More of this, please.
  • NBC Sports seems to have an idea on how they want to present IndyCar.  The booth was great, and the camera work stellar.  I am not a fan of shit-stirring, though.  The pit reporters are still trying to bring up a Will Power-Scott Dixon feud from last year and tried to create drama with a Will Power-James Hinchcliffe qualification episode from Saturday.  Just stop it.  The feuds will either happen or not.  It’s organic.  Like pro wrestling, the fans will determine who the heels and faces are.  Less of this, please.
  • I REALLY like Jon Beekhuis in the pits and look forward to more Professor B episodes.  I like it when they teach me something.  More of this, please.
  • You would think I would tire of mocking Robin Miller’s grid wobble.  You would be wrong.  It is unintentional comedy at its best.  He has no idea when he’s going, where he’s going, or to whom he’s going to talk.  Speaking of Robin Miller, did anyone else notice he absolutely disappeared during the broadcast?  More of Robin Miller, please.
  • The start was a little sloppy but VERY edgy.  How you can not sit up on the edge of your seat?  IndyCar is GREAT racing.  Someone is going to get punted on the start at Long Beach.  Then the shit will stir itself.  More of the attacking starts, please.
  • Other than an accordion of cars playing polka music on the first lap causing Hinchcliffe to drop a wheel, the race was green, green, green.  We had tire strategy, fuel strategy, and passes for the lead.  That’s road course racing.  More passes for the lead, please.
  • Hinch was hilarious in defeat.  Ryan Hunter-Reay was aggressive in victory.  Charlie Kimball was an eye-opener.  Scottt Dixon was stalking.  Josef Newgarden was finally in the top ten.  And Helio Castroneves was back on top of the standings.  More of everything like this, please.

Even though I thought I had an entertaining idea to build my column around, the great thing about the race was that I didn’t need it.  Sometimes events just speak for themselves.  More races like the Grand Prix of Alabama, please.

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