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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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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.

Ten Worthless Opinions: 2014 Month of May Edition

Living in central Indiana offers very few perks most of the time.  There’s corn and soybeans.  And humidity and mosquitoes.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our provincial outlook on politics and life.  And, uh…well, I’m sure there are many other features of Midwestern life that I’m missing, but you get the picture.  As the monochromatic landscape of winter gives way to the burst of color that is springtime in Indiana, we suddenly have the month of May and the Indianapolis 500.  In other words, central Indiana does have at least one truly redeeming characteristic.  I would like once again to offer my ill-conceived and poorly rendered “Ten worthless opinions: 2014 month of May edition” to identify some of the perks of this year’s race.

1.  IMS finally fixed the road course to make it racy for IndyCars.  We are not being relegated to a support series show with just the USF2000, Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights.  You want on track action? All three support series will race on Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11 followed by the Verizon IndyCar Series on Saturday afternoon.  There are cars on track both days with seven total races.  It may not quite be the Field of Dreams mantra, but they built it, so they will race.  That’s the idea, right?

2.  The return of former Indy champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve and the addition of Kurt Busch is so combustible that you just know it’s going up sometime in May.  Best case scenario: all three get in an altercation and start swearing at each other in different languages.  I assume that hand gestures will fill in any missing context.  Make this happen, racing gods!

3.   The IMS Radio Network, after years of foisting Mike King on the listening public, finally bowed to public opinion and threw a bone to the die-hard fans by bringing back Paul Page as the voice of the Indianapolis 500 and the Verizon IndyCar Series.  Does his voice still resonate with older IndyCar fans?  Absolutely.  Do younger fans care?  Not at all.  They do not listen to the race on the radio.  They either go or watch it on television.  Game changer?  Nope.  Nostalgia?  Yep.  And that’s good enough.

4.  Enough cannot be said about the value of ABC covering the month of May from the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to qualifications to the Indianpolis 500.  The series, as well as the 500, has lacked any traction nationally for a long time.  Should IMS bow and scrape to the TV gods to create buzz for the race and the series by adding races and butchering the traditional qualifying program  The NFL, NCAA, and NASCAR do it all the time because it is good for their properties.  This is good business.  The race is the tradition, nothing else.

5.  How about that change in the qualifying procedures, huh?  The die-hard fan screams, “It ruins the month of May!”  The casual fan says, “There’s a qualifying procedure?”  They still go four laps.  I can’t say I’m enamored of the extra day to set position.  The fact is qualifying at Indy is a dangerous proposition and everyone knows it.  I don’t mind a change in the qualifying procedures; I do mind a change that creates unnecessary risk.  This change, made exclusively for television, creates unnecessary risk.  Unfortunately, risk equals interest.  And that’s your answer.

6.  The 500 will be the first real test of new series sponsor Verizon.  They are a telecommunications company that wants to be known as a technology company.  Here’s some advice: make my Verizon phone work at the race.  Don’t upcharge me to make my mobile communications device do what it is supposed to do.  I want to text, tweet, update Facebook, and utilize the Verizon IndyCar app during the race.  You’re on the clock Verizon.  Signage and other activations are vital to the business, I know, but make my phone work, please.

7.  Huge ups to IMS for taking risks and making big changes to almost everything.  They rebuilt the road course, changed qualifying, hired new people, restructured management, added new races, scheduled a big concert, hired a new food service, and offered glamping inside the track.  I’m sure I missed something.  IndyCar fans have long shouted for IMS management to fix everything but change nothing.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it works that way.

8.  Pork tenderloins become a big topic in Indy in May.  Indianapolis is stuffed with tenderloin joints that all have their own take on this pounded, breaded, and deep fried delight.  If you plan on coming to town in May, give me a shout on Twitter (@newtrackrecord) and I will hook you up with this Midwestern delicacy.  And yes, it is a direct descendent of the schnitzel brought to the Midwest by German immigrants.  You can find a pretty good one at IMS.  It’s not fresh cut, pounded, and breaded on site, but it still does the job.  I’m not such a snob that I won’t eat a frozen fritter.

9.  One common complaint heard from the casual fan is that there is nothing to do in Indy over Memorial Day weekend except the race.  Granted, much of what happens socially is directed to the local populace, but I think the weekend is pretty packed.  From Carb Day on Friday until the race on Sunday, you can drink, watch cars, drink, eat tenderloins, drink, watch the parade (it’s exceptional), visit Indy’s thriving brewing scene, watch live music, and drink.  Some of Indy’s best nightlife can be found in Broad Ripple, on Mass Ave., and in Fountain Square.  Hey, IMS can’t plan your whole weekend for you.  Do a little homework.

10.  Apparently, there’s this soiree on Sunday, May 25 that’s been around for a while.  There are bands, princesses, celebrities, military personnel, balloons, iconic songs, prayers, and someone says something about engines.  And then they race cars.  Sounds like an outstanding time.

The confusion of being an IndyCar fan

The Verizon IndyCar Series put on a pretty good show at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.  There was a great pass for the lead that viewers saw on TV, and many passes for position that fans only knew if they listened to the IMS Radio Network or read post-race media releases.  Even if you were in attendance at the race, you only knew about in-pack action if you actually saw the pass or listened to a scanner or radio.  And since the series is hoping that the TV audience will eventually supersede the spectators at the race, it’s incumbent on both the series and television to, you know, kind of get things right for the viewers.  That was not the case at St. Pete.

Television, whether it is ABC or NBC Sports, simply cannot show everything on a street course; there is just too much going on in too many places.  Both networks do as well as they can under the circumstances, I guess.  It would be a Herculean effort to pick out the most interesting battles and find time to show them.  All the fans really ask is for the broadcast to be accurate.  Therein lies my issue with the ABC booth at St. Pete.

Up to Will Power’s restart kerfuffle/gamesmanship/screw-up, the booth of Allen Bestwick, Eddie Cheever, and Scott Goodyear had been acceptable.  Bestwick brought enthusiasm and certainly seemed prepared.  The scenario should go like this: Bestwick tells the audience what just happened and Cheever and Goodyear explain why it happened and the consequences of it happening.  The fans only ask that they be given accurate information and commentary.  This did not happen on the lap 82 restart after Charlie Kimball’s spin.

Will Power, as everyone watching the race knows, brought the single-file field around for the restart very slowly and waited until the acceleration zone to, you know, accelerate.  Even though this was, according to Verizon IndyCar Series president of operations and competition Derrick Walker, exactly how the drivers were instructed to restart, ABC’s Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear vilified Will Power, comparing the start to something you see in go-carts and placing the blame for drivers in the rear of the field laying back and accelerating to pass on the lead driver doing what he was instructed to do.

It was the new play-by-play guy Bestwick who knew that Power had not reached the acceleration zone.  This begs the question of the preparation of both Cheever and Goodyear.  The viewers want to know both facts and opinions on those facts.  The color guys need to know what the play-by-play guy knows.  Shouldn’t both Cheever and Goodyear know what the drivers have been told?  Fans don’t need to be confused; they need to be enlightened.  Uninformed knee-jerk commentary does not help achieve that goal.

To top it off, on the next restart Power accelerated much earlier, and Cheever lauded him by saying, “That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”  Really?  Derrick Walker later said that Power received a warning on the second restart for accelerating too early.  Confusing, huh?

Gamesmanship will always a subject of debate on restarts.  Power did admit to lifting on the first restart to keep his teammate Helio Castroneves in line.  But according to the IndyCar rulebook as explained by Derrick Walker, no rules were broken.  I liked the enthusiasm of both Cheever and Goodyear, but do the fans a favor announcers: know the rules and tell us when they are broken or when they are followed.  Maybe Cheever and Goodyear visited the Dali museum inside the track at St. Pete and were inspired by Salvador Dali himself, who said, “What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it.”  If that’s the case, then carry on.

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.

In IndyCar, “The Song Remains the Same”

I was excited to note that Spotify, my music streaming program of choice, was finally allowed to offer the song catalog of Led Zeppelin, one of the bands that provided the soundtrack of my misspent youth.  In fact, the band’s music has played on an assortment of radios, 8-tracks, cassettes, CD’s, and MP3’s while I have attended the Indianapolis 500 over the past years.  Good times.  As always, you can count on New Track Record to reference the very best in pop culture as it relates to IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.  This is no different.

As I scrolled through the band’s progression from a blues-influenced group to the masters of heavy metal that they became, I smiled at the name of one of their cuts: “The Song Remains the Same.”  While quite likely referencing some drug-induced peek into an altered reality, it also offered a contemporary take on the new voice of IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.  It seems Hulman Racing has decided to go retro with the familiar pipes of Paul Page, the former radio and TV voice of IndyCar and the 500.  The song of the Indy 500 will remain the same.  And that’s not a bad thing.

The fans of IndyCar fall into two groups: the long time hard-core fans and all the people who do not listen to or watch the series or the 500.  That sums it up neatly, don’t you think.  While Page will not attract any new listeners to the IMS Radio Network, his hiring is a tasty bone tossed neatly to the small-but-noisy set of long time fans gnawing on the leg of Mark Miles demanding a return to roadsters, the Snake Pit, and the way things were in their memories.  One of those memories is Paul Page.  His voice connects us to IndyCar’s past, and I can only imagine the ways that IMS Productions is already planning to use him.

A change in the radio booth was well past time.  Mike King, a decent announcer in a corner or in the pits, had become a joke as the anchor of the broadcasts to many of the fans listening to the radio.  Hulman Racing had a choice: replace him or continue to demonstrate that they did not care about their radio and on-line product.  King went out on his terms, resigning to prevent the ritual press release saying the company had decided “to go another direction.”

While not a big money maker from rights fees paid by radio stations across the country, the IMS Radio Network does make money on selling ads that are broadcast to the listeners on that network, particularly during the Indianapolis 500.  The network is a must-have if the series is going to expand beyond the hard-core fans it now has.  And it must have a recognizable voice to be attractive.  Enter Paul Page.  He brings instant recognition and gravitas.  He knows how to call a race.

The fact is that only the dedicated fans listen to the radio.  The myth of the whole family gathering around the picnic table to listen to the race has been replaced with the reality of hand-held video games and easy access to other forms of entertainment.  By this choice, the powers that be at 16th and Georgetown have tipped their hats to mythology, to history, and to the long suffering fans of a a formerly dysfunctional series that had no idea who their fans were.  This tells us that they now know who those hard-core fans are.  The real problem is figuring out who the future fans of the series are going to be.  And I don’t think Paul Page’s voice can tell us that.

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