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Ten Worthless Opinions: Indianapolis 500 Race Fan Edition

How did the Indianapolis 500 start for a citizen journalist (read: blogger)?  I was up at 4:30 AM wrangling a household of relatives that included two from Greece, two from Virginia, and one from North Carolina.  Add to the mix my own young adult son and daughter plus a family friend.  I screamed, threatened, and cajoled until showers were taken, coolers were iced, and the van was packed so we could leave at 6:00 AM.  Drove 20 miles to rendezvous with friends only to find that I had forgotten the new North 40 parking pass that I purchased for them.  After formulating a new plan that required a split-second connection with my wife to get the parking pass, we left for the track.  It was 7:00 AM.  The difference between a real journalist and me is that I don’t relinquish being a fan to pretend to have objectivity.  I am a fan of the Indianapolis 500 first and foremost.  I saw the race live from our seats high in the Northeast Vista (Turn 3) and watched the replay on Memorial Day.   Here are my Ten Worthless Opinions: Indianapolis 500 Race Fan Edition.

1.  Hint to the brain trust at IMS:  If you plan to search every bag and cooler coming in the gates, it might be a good idea to add lines and employees to facilitate it.  I have absolutely no problem with security requiring these searches.  Safety first is always the correct mantra when dealing with large crowds today.  If IMS plans to make the fan experience the primary focus, then be aware that about 200,000 of your fans park outside the track.  The weather might have been part of why it was a late arriving crowd, but having security lines rivaling airport TSA at its worst just might have slowed down the fans, too.

2.  The fabled Yellow Shirts sure seemed to be spread much more thinly in the hinterland of the Northeast Vista, and they did not seem to have the zest for their jobs as the old-timers did.  Many staircases were closed and security was not as evident as in the past.  Cost cutting?  New guidelines?  The facility sure seemed to be much more bare-bones than usual.  When poachers took seats for which I paid, I could find no one nearby to settle the dispute.  Tension prevailed.  This did not enhance my experience.  Also, there were fewer concession stands open, and the ones that were seemed to have fewer offerings.  I hope all that money from the state of Indiana will upgrade more than lights and video boards.  The facility needs more than just cosmetic changes.  The fan experience is not what is was.

3.  Plenty of greatness ensued, too!  The pre-race flyover of the B-25 was aces.  Archbishop Joseph Tobin went a little long on the prayer, though.  After asking for God to bless the Indiana Pacers, I would not have been surprised if he said the prayer was brought to us by Verizon and IZOD.  He may want to dial it back a little next year.  Or just go ahead and sell commercial time.  Both work for me.  Also, Jim Nabors can still bring it.  Kudos.

4.  According to the gossips at the Indy Star, Randy Bernard was a special guest of Josie George, who is on the Hulman & Co. board of directors.  I LOVE politics.  I assume this is to be continued.

5.  Tony Kanaan!  What a popular winner.  All my thousands of new friends in Turn 3 agreed that he was most deserving.  Regular fans were crying in the stands.  It was very Lloyd Ruby-esque in that he is such a popular person and not just a great driver.  The story of his receiving the good luck necklace back from a girl he gave it to years ago was made-for-TV drama.  All hail TK!

Additionally, the NE Vista denizens gave a rousing Bronx cheer for Dario Franchitti when he was introduced.  While some may find him a little whiny, he has been nothing but a gracious 500 champion.  The NE Vista crowd is a surly lot.

6.  Kanaan’s win also brought up the ugly specter of IndyCar adding the reviled green-white-checkered finish to spice up the ending to attract more NASCAR fans.  Why else would they do it?  The casual IndyCar fan is not aware of GWC, and the majority of hard-core IndyCar fans do not want it.  The ONLY reason to do it is to attract the tin-top crowd since they are habituated to end-of-race carnage and bad behavior.  Don’t do it, IndyCar.

7.  Yes, IndyCar has spec racing.  Yes, IndyCar’s all look alike.  Yes, we need aero kits to separate and identify the cars.  With that said, how can anyone who watched the race complain about the racing?  For the first time in my four decades of watching the race live, I did not want to leave my seat for anything. There were 68 lead changes, breaking last year’s record of 34.  As a fan, you had to watch the cars come by you every single time or you missed a pass for the lead.  If ABC/ESPN and NBC Sports cannot find a way to promote this type of racing, then it’s on them.  There is no need to put lipstick on this pig.  Wow!

8.  One or two popular journalists decry that IndyCar has (gasp) pack racing, and it will surely lead to the end of auto racing and Western civilization.  I agree that the racing is awfully close, but the danger of pack racing with the old Dallara chassis lay in the fact that cars could not pass each other.  The new DW12, while not creating separation, not only allows passing but almost requires it.  Artificial it may be, but exciting it is.

9.  IMS is certainly looking to the future.  My tickets cost $80 and remain the same price for next year.  A section or two over the price increased from $85 to $100.  If you raise the price, the expectation of the level of service rises, too.  It will be interesting to see how the new bosses of IMS make this happen.  The ball, as well as the money, is in their court.

10.  Even though I watched live at the Speedway, I feel obligated to comment on the ABC/ESPN coverage.  The pre-race storylines, particularly the Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves segment, were prescient.  Lindsay Czarniak is quite the upgrade, too.  She may have been a little too reverent for my taste, but she gets auto racing and its personalities.  The camera work around the track and the super slow motion shots are beyond cool.  Now, I am sure that the trio of Marty Reid, Scott Goodyear, and Eddie Cheever are wonderful people.  They are probably active in their communities and coach their children’s youth league teams.  But their somnolent tones and torpid delivery make you forget that the race is so freaking exciting.  Can they take some classes?  Wake up!  Make me sit on the edge of my seat.  Make the race so exciting that I have to tune in, not next year, but next week.

The post-race celebration and libations with friends and family capped off another fabulous month of May.  I am reminded of the liner notes from Jimmy Buffett’s  Son of a Son of a Sailor.  He used a quote from Robert Wilder’s Wind From the Carolinas that sums of my month of May every year:

“There had been a time when the settlement had made a profitable living from the wreckage of ships, either through the changing of lights or connivance with an unscrupulous captain…

There would be a time of riotous living with most of the community drunk and wandering about in an aimless daze until the purchased rum was gone.  After that the residents sat moodily in the sun and waited for something to happen.”

Now if you’ll excuse me,  I need to go sit moodily in the sun until next May.

 

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.

AJ Allmendinger: a casualty of corporate hypocrisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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