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The Go Beaux Grand Prix of Sonoma

Nothing new to add to the real work done by IndyCar reporters Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star and Marshall Pruett and Robin Miller of Racer.com.  Their interviews with Derrick Walker and Beaux Barfield have given fans the perspective of the IZOD IndyCar Series.   The rules makers and enforcers were in agreement: if you hit a crewman, you get a penalty.  How does this not seem reasonable?

Well, if you are Scott Dixon, you try to sell the story that your hitting a tire-changer for Penske Racing’s Will Power was not just an accident, but an intentional move by Travis Law, the tire-changer who took flight after Dixon bounced his car off the tire Law was carrying.  I have a hard time buying that Law was playing a game of chicken with Dixon’s car while using a tire as a matador uses his cape.  Olé, indeed.

Was it an accident?  Certainly.  Did Dixon hit Law intentionally?  Of course not.  Did Law use the area allotted to him to do his job?  Absolutely.  Here is where the arguments get specious.

  1. Law wanted to get hit.  Can anyone really make this argument?  Don’t even try to say that a guy is willing to get hit by a rapidly accelerating race car.  This is not a Quentin Tarantino movie.
  2. Law should have been carrying the tire in a more “narrow” fashion.  Do people actually think a tire-changer is going to think about carrying a tire in a “narrow” fashion?  You carry the tire, period.  While not overly heavy, an IndyCar wheel and tire is most certainly awkward.  The object is to get around the car quickly and safely.  The rear tire-changer is not under the time pressure of the front tire changer.  That guy HAS to get out of way fast.
  3. Scott Dixon was turning the steering wheel left, thereby causing the accident.  Well, this is technically true, but it was good driving.  Any dirt track racer knows you turn into a skid.  When Dixon turned his steering wheel right to exit his pit, the spinning rear wheels moved his rear end to the left.  To correct this, he turned his wheel left to straighten the car.  Good driving.
  4. The pit boxes were not clearly marked, leading to confusion.  I agree that the pit boxes were not clearly marked for the fans and, apparently, the TV announcers.  While this is true, they are most definitely clearly marked for the teams and drivers.  They know.  The fact that the fans don’t is insignificant.  Unless you are a fan, of course.
  5. Since the race lead and the series championship were on the line, race director Beaux Barfield should let the drivers decide it “on the track.”  This way lies madness.  If a rule is worth writing, then at one time someone must have thought it was worth enforcing.  What’s interesting here is that if Dixon had run over his own air hose, everyone would have agreed that a penalty was in order.  But hitting an opposing crew member while he was doing his job in his pit should be a gray area.  Can you imagine a rules meeting where someone proposed that hitting a crew member should NOT be a penalty?  The next thing you know there would be a bounty on them.
  6. Race Control is inconsistent.  Other infractions took place that were not called.  Boo hoo.  Big deal.  So what.  Calls are made or not made in every sport.  That’s the way it goes.  Buck up.

Beaux Barfield made the correct call.  I say Go Beaux!  And always remember, illegitimi non carborundum.  Don’t let the bastards wear you down.

What IndyCar Fans Want

In the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays a womanizing advertising executive accidentally gifted with the ability to read women’s thoughts.  This allows him to tailor his advertising proposals to a core female demographic that had eluded him.  If only the elite at INDYCAR and IMS had the same gift.  The Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway certainly sparked debate on not only the core demographic, but also on the product itself.  The issue facing the IZOD IndyCar Series could be made into a movie: What IndyCar Fans Want.

In an interview with Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star published on June 10, Mark Miles, Hulman & Co. CEO, acknowledged that the Indianapolis 500 needs to provide more entertainment during the month of May than is currently offered.  Whether that means more on-track activity, concerts, or other entertainment options was not clear.  What was clear is that something needs to change to attract more fans to the venue.  The rub is determining exactly what those changes need to be.  It is also clear that the racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series suffers from a similar public perception issue.  What do IndyCar fans really want?

One type of IndyCar fan abhors the fact the series has spec cars.  This fan absolutely knows the solution is to open up development.  This open development would allow the teams with the most money to spend their way to victory.  In the good old days of packed venues, these rich teams dominated the podium race after race, often winning by wide margins with only two or three cars on the same lap.  In this fan’s mind, it makes perfect sense.  If the series goes back to the way it was, then the crowds will follow.  This post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) argument connects crowds to differentiation.  Of course, running all the small teams out of the series because they cannot afford to be competitive in the current economy may not be the best course of action.

Another category is the hard-core fan.  The mantra is always the same.  If everyone worshiped at the altar of history, and the series and IMS promoted how wonderful the roadsters were, then fans would flock to see the modern incarnations of Bill Vukovich and Wilbur Shaw.  I fit in this category, and as much as I love the timeline of auto innovation that the history of IndyCar racing gives us, it is not enough to interest a new generation of fans not weened on the car culture of my youth.  Cars may be cool to them, but the history of cars is not.  History is full of martyrs who were willing to sacrifice all to prove a point.  The hard-core fans need to open their eyes and see that neither history nor martyrdom will save the series.

Lets not forget the fan who says the series almost has it right.  We just need a few tweaks here and there.  If only aero kits were adopted, then it would create a difference, both aerodynamically and aesthetically, that the fans would love without breaking the bank for the teams.  The downside could be racing like we saw at Texas Motor Speedway recently when Helio Castroneves had a lead of half a lap with no competition.  Now that’s racing like it used to be: a few cars on the lead lap with very little passing for the lead.  Derrick Walker, the new president of competition for the IZOD IndyCar Series, just tweaked the aero rules a little bit at Texas and changed the racing completely.  These fans need to remember the law of unintended consequences.

Some fans and owners say that all the series needs is a better TV package with more enthusiastic announcers.  They believe the broadcast partners need to promote the venues, TV productions, and the series better.  Maybe the movie Turbo with its action figures and video games will be the catalyst that brings more viewers to the broadcasts and allows IndyCar to reach a new demographic.  Without a doubt, the TV ratings drive investment in the series.

A set of fans believe that races need carnival barkers, amusement rides, and the assorted freaks and geeks that go along with this.  Maybe it is the local promoters who need to succeed for the series to grow.  If the races make money for the promoter, then the series can worry more about the myriad of other issues that it faces.  Even though the racing in the series is as good as it has ever been, the consumer at the venue demands to be entertained at all times.

Another fan screams that it is all about the future.  This fan says find out what someone needs to become a new fan and do that thing, tradition be damned.  They use the quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”  IndyCar has certainly had plenty of that.

The movie What Women Want follows a typical romcom storyline.  Mel Gibson’s character acts selfishly, loses true love, repents, and gains the love of his life.  Like most movies of this genre, it has a predictable happy ending.  The saga of the IZOD IndyCar Series may not have the same story arc.  Mark Miles, who seems to understand that change is needed, has not been given the gift to know what all IndyCar fans, current and future, are thinking, yet he must decide the course of the series for years to come based on his perceptions.  After he is through with the fans, maybe he can figure out what the owners, drivers, sponsors, and TV partners want.  If he can do that, then the Academy Award is his.

Where’s the noise? – the silence of IndyCar management.

Listen.  Can you hear anything?  I know, Robin Miller is still rattling some cages in “Miller’s Mailbag,” and Track Forum is always Track Forum: someone is always saying something over there.  But other than the recent test at Barber Motorsports Park, what is there to talk about?

And yes, I see the irony in my managing to write about the fact that there really isn’t anything about which to write.  The question is whether that is a good thing or not.  I believe there are two schools of thought on the subject.

The first school of thought is the drone of the dour doubters on “Miller’s Mailbag” and at Track Forum.¹  From their point of view, the silence of the post Randy Bernard regime is borderline criminal.  How can the series grow if the leaders of the series are not constantly out promoting the product?  My god, we are up the creek in a barbed-wire canoe!  We are going straight to a hell where we will be forced to watch NASCAR and listen to Darrell Waltrip tell us how that series invented the breaded tenderloin and steering wheels!  This school of thought sees a Hindenburg of a series just tossing the mooring lines out at Lakehurst, New JerseyOh, the humanity!

The other perspective is a little more restrained.  They see the silence of the management team as a sign that a deliberate and thoughtful plan is in place to move the series forward that does not include the bosses being the story.  Randy Bernard’s popularity with the fans (which was much deserved) stuck in the craw of some of the drivers who believed (and rightly so) that they were the stars of the series.  This new low-key style was played out at Barber this week when a decidedly unpublicized meeting took place with Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, IndyCar CEO Jeff Belklus, and IndyCar COO Robby Greene meeting with IndyCar drivers and team principals.  This would have been press conference material in the recent past.  The agenda would have been leaked and dissected before the event.  Interviews and comments about the meeting would have found their way into Curt Cavin’s “Pit Pass” as well as a snarky column from Robin Miller.  This year?  Crickets.  No press release, no leaks, no videos, no snarky comments.  What in the world is going on here? This may be a sign that IndyCar is becoming  a serious business.  The focus was on the product.

In any case, it appears that a new management model is in place.  That may be good news for IndyCar, but it is absolute hell on bloggers who need the series dysfunction that had become the norm so we have something about which to write.  A successful IndyCar series would silence the snark.  So come on, IndyCar people, do something stupid.  I cannot keep writing about nothing.  This is not Seinfeld, you know.

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1.  I love “Miller’s Mailbag” and Track Forum.  And I’m not just saying that so the maniacs there don’t feel the need to verbally attack me here, although that would make a lot of sense.  The fact is we need the maniacal and the fanatical.  Every sports entertainment property needs the hard-core fans.  They are the sourdough needed to make new bread.  You have to have yeast, and I am sure there are very doughy body types single finger typing behind those 10-year-old HP computers.  I appreciate the passion.  We need more of it.

Preseason Blogging Practice: Boston Consulting Group Edition

Many thanks to AP’s Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) for doing the hard work of reading the Boston Consulting Group’s 115 page opus on what IndyCar needs to do to be successful and then giving us the Cliffs Notes version of the main ideas.  Since the IndyCar season is still down the road, it is time for New Track Record to get in some preseason practice.  With so little news coming out of the IndyCar camp, even the bloggers need some extra time to dial things in.

Does anyone else find it interesting that the AP’s Jenna Fryer got a “leaked” copy of the BCG report for her “AP Exclusive: Family told to keep IndyCar, IMS” story?  The IndyCar Series has suffered from a very provincial mindset regarding publicity.  One reason the series has not received national coverage, other than the total dysfunction of management, is that they do not work for it.  Since the main daily coverage of IndyCar was by local reporters Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star and Robin Miller of Speed, most information was leaked to them and gleaned by them.  They, along with Speed‘s Marshall Pruett, were the only real media following the series.  They play the quid pro quo game with the teams, drivers, and management.  They get the scoop.  They are also players in the continuing internecine battle for political supremacy among owners, drivers, and management.  Sources give information to reporters because it helps them in some way.  Nothing new there.

What is new is that, after being frozen out of exclusive news last year, Jenna Fryer got the skinny on the BCG information.  I don’t think it was an accident.  With the notoriously leaky ship that is IMS and IndyCar, it is more than just surprising that no one else got a copy.  Someone with unquestioned authority made sure the national media got the story first.  And that is good news for IndyCar, even thought the Twitterless Robin Miller might disagree.

If IndyCar is going to be a BIG DEAL again, then they have to think beyond the Indianapolis 500.  The practice of freezing out local media to give exclusive content to the national media is prevalent in all pro sports.  The Indianapolis sports media is often bypassed by the Colts because the power and reach of ESPN is so great.  It makes better business sense to go national.  The local media hates it, but they understand it.  It’s not personal; it’s just business.  Curt Cavin, Robin Miller, and Marshall Pruett will get their copies.  They just won’t get them first.  Watch how this plays out for the rest of the year.

Well, it was great to take the blog out for a couple of shakedown paragraphs.  I’ll get it back to the shop, check for leaks, take a look at the data, and get it back out later in the week.  For sure.

Ten Worthless Opinions – MavTV 500 IndyCar Championships Edition

I really don’t know if I can condense the action from the MavTV 500 IndyCar Championships to just ten WO’s (worthless opinions).  There were retirements, new contracts, an American series champion, awkwardness, and a race winner who was roundly ignored by everybody.  It’s IndyCar at its best.  Here we go.

1.  What a race.  If you watched it, then you don’t need me to explain it.  If you didn’t, then you need to read Curt Cavin’s Indy Star article here.  Or read John Oreovicz’s ESPN.com article here.  Or Jenna Fryer’s AP article here.  They have the quotes and insights.  I just make stuff up.  I was on the edge of my seat and sweating trying to do math in my head to figure out what Ryan Hunter-Reay needed to do to be the first American champion of this iconically American series since 2006.  Robin Miller will tell us that’s a good thing because of fan interest.  I will tell you it’s a good thing because of the racing.  After a desultory first 200 miles, all hell broke loose when Will Power, who only had to keep pace with Hunter-Reay to finally win the championship, spun into the wall and opened the door for Hunter-Reay to go from journeyman to champion.  The rest of the race was a story problem from 7th grade algebra.  “Solve for x, where x is the place a driver needs to finish to score enough points to beat his closest rival.”  The math made my head hurt, so I let NBC Sports do it for me.  Unfortunately, all NBC Sports wanted to talk about was the championship.  It was still a race, and the drivers competing to win it should have been recognized a little.  Just my opinion.  And it’s likely Ed Carpenter’s opinion, too.

2.  As reported by the AP’s Jenna Fryer on Twitter, Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske both have come to the startling conclusion that there may be something wrong with the owners’  perspectives.  There has to be a back story here.  Comments about the owners not seeing the “big picture” and worrying about the parts prices instead of “building the series” were mentioned.  There is a plot afoot.  Something is about to happen.  Stay tuned.  Roger and Chip never say anything that does not in some way point to their self-interest.

3.  I will miss Bob Jenkins in the booth.  NBC Sports, and I assume IMS productions, put together a stellar retrospective of his career as an announcer.  When I think about a race, I think about it in Bob Jenkins’ voice.  Here’s to you, Bob.  Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.

4.  Mike Conway stepped out of AJ Foyt’s car because he was spooked by oval racing.  What impressed me most is the support he received from the driving fraternity.  It’s a dangerous business and nobody understands it better than the drivers who risk their lives weekly in pursuit of winning.  IndyCar drivers are a special, and rare, breed, and I have immense respect for what they do.  I get spooked at 80 mph on the interstate.  I cannot imagine hanging on in a corner at 200 mph.

5.  Did anyone else notice the crowd behind Kevin Lee’s gear-like structure in the pre-race?  They were excited!  Of course, they were excited because someone was throwing free t-shirts to them for making noise.  Here’s a hint, NBC Sports.  Don’t throw them so high that the viewers can see them on TV.  You want us to believe that the crowd is cheering for IndyCar, Kevin Lee, and the guests, not their own self-interest.  Remember, the Wizard of Oz was successful only when he stayed behind the curtain.  As always, this advice is a free service from New Track Record.  I am available for consultation.

6.  Does NBC Sports talk in production meetings about how to make Robin Miller look like a clown?  Would he wear a red nose and floppy shoes if they paid him enough?  On the pre-race, the broadcast team sat perched high on their chairs.  All except Robin Miller.  His chair was at least a foot lower than all the others.  It was entertaining to watch him try to raise it.  He failed to do so.  The sad part of this is that RM is aces when it comes to series info and gossip.  His quick overview of the silly season possibilities of drivers and teams was spot on.  Viewers need that information.  The grid run, as always, was an afterthought.  Add Marty “The Shit Stirrer” Snider to it.  If NBC sports is going to show the segment, then they should at least plan the segment.  It’s embarrassing.

7.  I say this every week, but Jon Beekhuis adds tremendous value to the broadcasts.  He not only talks, he thinks.  His “Professor B” segments tell me things I don’t know.

8.  I am warming to Ryan Hunter-Reay.  His openness talking about chasing the championship was refreshing.  Yes, he mentions his sponsors and team, but he also has his emotions right there for us to see.  When he got out of the car at the end of the race, he did not have a speech prepared.  He was moved by the moment, and we saw an honest reaction.  He’s a little wooden and a little awkward.  And that’s OK.  I like my heroes to be human.  Plus, he remained loyal to Andretti Motorsport by signing a contract extension.  I think I like that.

9.  Sometime in the near future, Will Power will be as classy a champion as he is a runner-up.  His responses last night after losing the championship in a gut-wrenching fashion just oozed class.  He allowed the fans to see the rawness of the moment.  He shared his bitterest disappointment with the world.  I seem to remember rather churlish behavior from the tin top drivers in similar circumstances.  Will Power is just another reason to like IndyCar.

10.  I will end with a shout-out to Ed Carpenter for a great win last night (called by Robin Miller).  Ed’s an oval driver.  Period.  He’s a hometown Indy guy with an Indiana sponsor who deserved to be celebrated for his win at Fontana.  And he was an afterthought to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the post-race activities.  I hope ECR decides to team up with either another car or another driver (Hey, Mike Conway) to be competitive on all the circuits next year.  The new Dallara has opened the door for the small teams to win.  It’s another reason to like IndyCar.

New Track Record’s WO’s (worthless opinions) are in the bag for 2012.  Just like the new Dallara, they were designed to be quick, functional, and used in the IndyCar Series.  I will likely hold them in abeyance until the start of the 2013 season.  But, thanks to the relative dysfunction of owners, drivers, series officials, and fans, I will have plenty to write about until then.

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