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The Indy 500 – Meet the new boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

The magic Miles at IMS

Admit it. You saw it coming, didn’t you? When Mark Miles first broached the subject of IndyCar racing on the road course, it was a fait accompli, a done deal, money in the bank. There was NEVER any doubt that the cars in May were going to go the wrong way for the right reasons. And all those reasons come back to one thing: money.

Miles is not the first person to see that. The much maligned Randy Bernard knew from his first go-round in IndyCar that filling the coffers at 16th and Georgetown was his most important job. That he failed to wrangle the dollars needed to keep his job was not the only reason he was bucked off the boss’s chair at IndyCar. If he had managed to rope a few more promoters willing to pay sanctioning fees and a few more sponsors willing to invest in the series, he might have had a little more support in his battles with owners and drivers. Remember, he floated the ideas of double headers, IndyCars on the road course, and racing in Europe that people now see as coming on stone tablets from Moses Miles.

And I am not criticizing Mark Miles. His work with the ATP and the Super Bowl give him just a little more gravitas with the people who control all those purse strings that IndyCar so desperately needs to open. Bernard was seen as a hick and a huckster by the people that IndyCar needs to schmooze. Miles is seen as a smooth operator who speaks their language. And he does speak their language. The man is good at what he does.

The addition of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is an absolute no-brainer. Racing now bookends the month of May with both IndyCar races on ABC. I’m guessing that ABC might be doing a little more promotion of its racing properties, particularly with NBC/NBC Sports cornering the market with its multi-series platform. In just over two weeks in May, IMS will host six races, two days of qualifying, and the debauchery that is Carb Day. Rumor has it that IMS is looking at a concert on the Saturday before the race. All of this certainly promotes IndyCar, IMS, the Mazda Road to Indy, and public drunkenness, but what it aims to do is make more money for everyone involved. And I have no problem with that.

Miles has taken a measured approach to growing the series. There are no quick fixes. The new Grand Prix of Indianapolis is not an example of an itchy trigger finger; it is a measured response to improving the month of May for the fans and the track in the long term. Once again, money. The schedule for 2014 does not contain any great new venues or opportunities. That a schedule is not yet out shows that Miles is learning the same lesson Randy Bernard did: the dotted line has to signed before an announcement can be made. But the focus Miles has on the 2015 schedule is another example of his slow and steady approach. Want more? With all that tax money in hand to make a splash, IMS has chosen to improve the road course to make a better show for IndyCar and MotoGP. I would guess the unpronounceable acronym that is sports car racing in America will benefit, too. But why no lights? Instead of adding a benefit that would get headlines, Miles mentioned the words that are honey to marketers and sponsors; the lights did not give a good ROI or return on investment. I wish my broker was that thoughtful with my money.

While cowboy Randy Bernard was wrong from the day he started work in some people’s eyes, magic Mark Miles can do no wrong. Looking at it closely, the main difference is really style and expectations. And of course, money. Let’s hope that the future of IndyCar with Mark Miles is not just smoke and mirrors. IndyCar doesn’t need any more illusions. It needs real magic.

The Indianapolis 500: iconic is more than a word

An icon is someone of something regarded as a representative symbol of something.  It is fair to say that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 are icons of auto racing.  Oh, other tracks like Le Mans and Daytona can lay claim to this iconic status, but primarily as icons of types of racing like sports cars and stock cars.  Even though Indy is open wheel racing, it has always been the track and the race most associated with racing in general.  Other tracks and series will not agree, but it is a fact.

Certain names, dates, phrases, and activities become associated with anything that rises to iconic status, and IMS and the Indianapolis 500 are no different.  Allow me to present a short list of the iconography of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

  • The Brickyard: Go ahead, name another track whose nickname is as famous as its real name.  Can’t do it, can you?  Only the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a moniker with such a great backstory.  According to the Speedway, 3.2 million bricks were used to pave the track in 1909.  Iconic, indeed.
  • Speedway, Indiana:  There are many famous tracks named after the town where they are located.  IMS has a town named after the track.  Now THAT’S a return address to have on your mail.  Eat your heart out Talladega.
  • Memorial Day: How can you not love a holiday sporting event that NEVER forgets the holiday on which it races.  IMS honors the military with fly-overs and an always emotional rendition of “Taps.”  I’m crying as I write this and will cry again on Race Day.  Thank you for remembering our veterans, IMS.  And thank you to our veterans for serving.
  • Time Trials:  Any other race has “qualifications.”  At Indy we have Time Trials.  I can picture men in suits wearing fedoras and skimmers reading their hand-wound stop watches to figure lap speeds.  The name screams history.
  • Bump Day: Only at Indy do you have a name for another day of qualifying.  It’s agreed that Bump Day has lost some of its luster since there are no longer enough cars to bump anyone from the field, but the concept is still cool.  I will hate to see it go, but economics and the lack of action may doom it.
  • Carb Day:  Where else but at an iconic facility do you have a practice session named after a piece of technology that is no longer used in the race.  At least the deep thinkers at IMS were smart enough to move this day from Thursday to Friday to increase crowds and encourage heavier drinking.  And wasn’t Poison, this year’s Carb Day band, around when the cars were still running carburetors?
  • Snake Pit: The Indianapolis 500 has a LONG history of heavy drinking and bad behavior, and the Turn 1 infield area known as the Snake Pit was the epicenter for all of it.  It got so bad in the 70’s and 80’s that Tony George felt compelled to get rid of it to help make the 500 more family friendly.  Who needs an extra 20, 000 fans anyway?  I do admire IMS for resurrecting the concept with their own corporate version appealing to the twenty somethings that they already had on a yearly basis in Turn 1 before they cleaned it up.
  • 11 Rows of 3:  Some things never need to change and this is one of them.  Anyone who says 33 is just a number is either a casual fan or just doesn’t get it.  This is what makes Indy special.  If you have never seen 11 rows of 3 roll down the front straight at Indy into Turn 1 in person, then, as Al Unser Jr. said,  “You just don’t know what Indy means.”
  • The Pagoda: The scoring tower at IMS has always been called the Pagoda and has twice actually looked like one.  When you see the current version in film or in pictures, you do not have to ask where it is.  You know.  That’s iconic.
  • The Wing and Wheel:  Indy’s logo has been around as long as the bricks have.  You don’t change history.  The Wing and Wheel is a simple logo that suggests both speed and history.  I like the fact that speed has always been the calling card.
  • Gasoline Alley: The lane from the garage area to the pits is the original Gasoline Alley.  When you have the original, then you won history.
  • Back Home Again: The song has been sung since 1946.  It’s NOT the state song, but who cares?  It’s the 500 song.
    Back home again in Indiana,
    And it seems that I can see
    The gleaming candle light, still burning bright,
    Through the Sycamores for me.
    The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance
    Through the fields I used to roam.
    When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash
    Then I long for my Indiana home.
  • Gentlemen, start your engines!: Even though the provenance on this bit of Indy 500 history is a little suspect, let’s just say that Anton “Tony” Hulman owned it like a boss.  It was his, and no one will ever do it better.  I can’t wait to hear it again on Sunday.

Religious icons in history were often mosaics found in ancient churches.  I completely understand.  I hope you liked the little pieces of tile that help make up the picture of the racing shrine I will be visiting this Sunday.  Everyone is welcome.  The last time I checked, you only have to worship speed to step into this cathedral.

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