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The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part III – the ugly

Let me preface this by saying the good of race day 2014 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway far outweighed the bad.  It was no contest.  In fact, I was nit-picking to come up with ideas.  Don’t get me wrong, the bad existed, but we tend to gloss over the minor financial and culinary inconveniences.  My hat is off to IMS for another world class event attended by an estimated 230,000 fans (still ticked about the purchased parking pass issue, though).  Huey Lewis and the News sang “Bad is Bad” and that pretty much sums it up.  Bad exists.  But, as the old saying goes, ugly is to the bone. And IMS has some ugliness on its hands, too.

Ugly

1.  Let’s take a look at the cosmetically ugly first.  I cannot imagine the man hours it takes to keep a facility like IMS functioning.  It’s basically a small city with small city problems.  Pipes break.  Weeds grow.  Paint peels.  Concrete buckles.  Metal rusts.  Employees come and go.  Accepted without qualification.  But like a small city, when issues that crop up daily are neglected, they grow, sometimes exponentially.  The issue I notice the most is graffiti in the restrooms.  Small potatoes right?  Of all the social and economic ills in the world, I pick this one?  Go ahead and purse you lips and shake your head.  I get it.  Graffiti is ubiquitous in urban areas.  It can’t be stopped.  Plus, it can be extremely entertaining and enlightening.  A black address book of phone numbers can be gleaned from the restroom walls of IMS.  The years and hometowns of guests are always interesting to read.  Out in the hinterlands of the the NE Vista, it may be difficult to prevent, but it’s not difficult to conceal after the fact.  Paint and rollers will do the trick.

The very well maintained men’s restroom in Pagoda Plaza is a case in point.  The walls are white which makes it bright and welcoming, but some of the graffiti, if the writers are to be believed, comes from four or five years ago.  While it certainly contains joking references to Danica Patrick (she’s a popular topic), it also has a much darker side.  The offers of sex with phone numbers may be clichéd, but some have been in there for years.  The giant anatomical renditions of both male and female naughty bits seem a bit over the top, too.  How can these last year after year?  And I know Latin Kings gang symbols when I see them.  Can Gangster Disciples tags be far behind?  I realize there is a cost in manpower and paint to fix this, but if IMS is going to host multiple world-class races and concerts, it’s time to do so.  Hire some college kids to paint.  They have signs posted on telephone poles all over town.

2.  IMS, under the direction of Tony George, made the concerted effort to rid the facility of the riff-raff that inhabited the old Snake Pit in Turn 1.  In fact, the infield denizens have all been herded to Turn 3 and seem content to bask in the sun, quaff ale, and enjoy the day.  The Coke Lot, though, is another story.  Once a parking lot with a few hardy campers, it has become an all-night Bacchanalia replete with knives, guns, and death.  IMS is at a crossroads for the reputation of the Indianapolis 500.  Do they gamble on the future by standing pat with the cards they have now or draw to a new hand?  The Coke Lot is a massive, rarely mowed piece of property bordered by 30th St. to the north, Georgetown Rd. to the east, Moller Rd. to the west and the Coca-Cola plant to the south.  It’s gigantic.  With a few gravel drives and some field paint it becomes a parking lot on race day.  Without lights, roads, or close supervision, it becomes the Badlands at night.

Speedway has changed.  Urban crime is finding its way into the little pocket of small houses and well-maintained yards.  The thousands of campers, many coming for years, have now become targets of opportunity for theft, robbery, and homicide.  Something needs to change.  I’m not a prude.  I enjoy a good time as much as anyone, and regular readers know my stories of the night before the race on 16th St.  The threat of violence has always been there, but the threat of death is new.  In the Coke Lot this year, one man was shot to death in an argument and another was shot in a robbery.  It will not get better, only worse.

The Coke Lot needs to be lighted with many more graveled roads running through it.  Camping areas need to be clearly marked.  Security needs to be prevalent throughout the night.  Glamping it’s not, but the hoi polloi should be just as safe outside the track in the Coke Lot as the elite are inside the facility.  IMS could do what they did with food service: contract it out.  Let someone else run it.  The cost would go up for the consumer, but the experience should improve.  In any case, robbery, murder, and drug overdoses on IMS property are probably not the stories the boys in corporate on the corner of 16th and Georgetown want told.  Will IMS try to spin it or fix it?  Their reaction will tell us who they are and what they value.  Will the Coke Lot be Super Bad or Lord of the Flies?  The choice is comedy or tragedy.

No one really wants to talk about the ugliness, but sometimes it can’t be ignored.  One issue is purely cosmetic and the other is a choice about values.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2014 Indianapolis 500: Part II – the bad

It always comes down to this.  For every yin, there’s a yang; for every oversteer, there’s an understeer; for every drunken race fan there’s a smug glare of self-righteousness.  Part I of this series was the “good” of the title; the events, people, and actions that make Indy what it is.  For the sake of fairness and snark, there must be a “bad.”  Presented here are the ones that made the cut.

Bad

1.  The bad on the track was easy.  The contretemps among Ed Carpenter, James Hinchcliffe, and Townsend Bell took out two cars that had a chance to win with Bell wrecking later with what may have been problems stemming from this incident.  It was nice to see the bad side of Ed Carpenter, though.  His dirt track days just jumped out of him.  Not only did he physically loom over Hinchcliffe while Hinch was sitting in his car, he was quoted on ABC saying that it’s lucky Hinch had a concussion two weeks ago.  The indication being, I think, that if Hinch wasn’t already concussed then Ed would have been more than happy to oblige.  Dirt track meets championship wrestling with Ed Carpenter flipping from face to heel.  Bad boys.  Hinchcliffe did accept the blame, though.  Stand up guy.  Of course when video shows clearly that you made it three wide, there’s not much else to say.

2.  The luck of Chip Gaanassi racing was most definitely bad at Indy this year.  Not only did the boys have trouble qualifying, but Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Ryan Briscoe placed 29th, 26th, 31st, and 24th respectively.  Ouch.  Now that’s a “Bad Moon Rising.”  It’s time for someone there to say “Got my Mojo Working.”  Just a couple of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Muddy Waters references for you.  Again, it’s all about racing and popular culture here.

3.  As someone who paid $75 to IMS for parking passes to the North 40 (Lot 7), I was more than a little miffed when the parking attendants told me at 7:30 AM that there were no spots available for me to park.  My explanation that having a reserved spot to park is precisely the reason that IMS sold the parking passes and why I decided to buy them left the dead-eyed, yellow shirted parking attendant unmoved, and I was forced to park at the back of the North 40.  Imagine my surprise when I checked the front of the lot where I was supposed to park and found almost no cars with parking credentials.  It was just a smaller version of last year’s line fiasco being played out on a grassy stage.  Normally, commerce is conducted in such as way as to give a guest or client what they paid to get.  When you pay a year in advance for something you don’t get, it’s called chiseling. To put it another way, imagine how you would feel if you stood in an enormous line behind the NE Vista to purchase a $9 tenderloin and were told AFTER you paid for it, that it was given to an earlier patron for free.  “Thank you, and please come again.”  Bad business, that.

4.  Let’s talk about those bad concession lines.  In the NE Vista, which was packed, the new food service professionals at Levy Restaurants decided it was better to have fewer open concession stands to serve more people.  The lines were endless and slow.  I’m just glad IMS contracted the food service out to those that do it for a living.  I’m sure there’s an explanation for how this is better for the guests on site.  Spin it!

5.  With the last “bad” in mind, let’s consider that the marks customers are now paying more for every item on the concession list.  Again, I’m just a plebeian, untutored in the art of separating acquiring money from rubes guests.  I am sure a computer wonk in accounting can show how much better all this is for IMS.  And that is what counts.  I am sorry for being so selfish here and thinking only of my experience.  Mea culpa.

6.  I am sure I am no the only one who has noticed the decline in the interest, enthusiasm, and competence of the fabled Yellow Shirts at IMS.  Even though I have called some “petty tyrants and martinets,” it was obvious that they took their jobs seriously.  Many of the workers now seem unhappy and disinterested in improving the guest experience. For all the world, it seems like most have little or no training.  Many out in the hinterlands of the facility seem to have the dead, vacant stares of those who have the seen the world at its worst: fast food workers.  It’s not pretty.

7.  Finally, what saddens me the most is the passing of an era, the loss of innocence.  IMS has finally gone over to the dark side of corporate America.  No longer do I have the sense that the series, the race, and the facility are some Mom and Pop organization run on whims and greyhound rescues.  No, it has become the antithesis of that. It is now a business run on the American virtues of greed and profit.  And I’m really okay with that.  Money is good for the drivers, the owners, the promoters, the tracks and the networks.  It’s just not good for the soul.  I miss my old friend, the one who let you get falling down drunk on reasonably priced beer, the one who sold you a greasy frozen fritter of pork without acting like it wouldn’t give you heartburn, the one who allowed you to torch couches and old cars in the infield for the sheer joy of socially accepted arson.  Today, Simon and Garfunkel would sing, “Where have you gone, Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Our nation turns its bloodshot eyes to you.”  Woo, woo, woo, indeed.

Don’t get me wrong, the good far outweighs the bad in regards to my race day experience.  The Verizon IndyCar Series still offers the best racing on the planet.  I’ll be coming back with more cash in my wallet and lower expectations of what that cash will buy me but higher expectations for the action on the track.  And that is really the bottom line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Indianapolis 500 qualifications: It’s a new track tradition

What to take from the 2014 Indianapolis 500 qualification weekend.  The best perspective might be to ask what did IMS want to achieve with the new format.  The lack of cars on track due to available motors had clearly made the recent truncation of qualifications from four days to two even less compelling than they had been.  Bump Day had devolved into a glorified practice day with little, if any, drama.  The leadership at IMS and IndyCar knew they had to do something to bring back drama and package it into a neat little TV frame for ABC if they wanted more exposure and more live attendance.  I’m not sure if they succeeded on either of those counts this year, but at least they created a package that contains that potential.

Qualification Saturday at Indy has gone from pole day to BUMP DAY ALL DAY SATURDAY.  The TV audience on ABC was given two hours of almost non-stop qualifying action as drivers continued to make multiple attempts to get their cars into the Fast Nine round on Sunday.  Alexander Pope, an 18th century British poet, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”¹  Nowhere is that more evident than in auto racing.  Every driver thinks that the next run will be the one that gets the job done.  With the equipment and speeds so close in the Verizon IndyCar Series, any driver in the top 20 had a legitimate shot to bump his way into the Fast Nine.  Over and over the drivers gave it a shot.  The most compelling moment did not come to pass as Kurt Busch had to head to Charlotte to drive in NASCAR’s All-Star race.  How excited would the fans, both live and on TV, have been for Busch to make multiple attempts to make the Fast Nine for Sunday?

Not only was there multiple bumping, but just think of all the decisions that had to be made in the heat of battle.  At first, I thought the idea of an “express lane” for qualifying was too gimmicky, but after watching teams make the choice to pull their times at the risk of an accident that might put them in “relegation row” with no qualifying time, it was apparent that teams were willing to take risks to have the chance to start up front.  The teams could have simply got in the slow lane, which allowed teams to keep their earlier times if their new times were slower.  But as time counted down to 5:50 PM (thanks to the TV window, 6:00 PM is gone forever), the teams that were willing to take a gamble for the Fast Nine had to actually roll the dice.  Compelling.

The teams in the middle were, as 20th century American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.” ²  They had no reason to re-qualify unless they had a chance to get into the Fast Nine.  Most of those teams decided to stand pat.  That made a lot of sense.  Why risk an accident when the real race for the grid was not going to be until Sunday?

The issue to the slowest teams was if more than 33 cars were entered.  If so, then the bottom of the grid would have been much more nervous and willing to go again.  As it was, some of the teams at the bottom went again on the rumor that Katherine Legge might be added as a driver before the 7:00 PM deadline.  Why is that an issue?  If only 33 cars present themselves to qualify, then the cars at the bottom of the grid have nothing to worry about.  They are in the race and have a chance to re-qualify to better their positions.  The Legge rumor, if it had been true, would have added a 34th car and changed everything for the bottom of the grid.  If more than 33 cars attempt to qualify, then the bottom of the grid would be like the bottom of the table for Premier League soccer.  In that league, the bottom three teams are relegated, or removed from the league, and teams from other leagues move up. You can call  the slowest three on Saturday “relegation row.”  Imagine a scenario where the last three teams on Saturday continue to try to bump out of the final three while teams not in the race try to bump in, and teams near the bottom three try to improve their positions to keep from being put in the last three.  All this will take place at the same time as the Fast Nine teams are bumping and being bumped. Confusing and exciting.

Sunday was more anticlimactic as teams outside the Fast Nine re-qualified and jockeyed  for position on the grid.  They got one shot.  It was a couple of hours and then it was done.  The Fast Nine was a made-for-TV moment.  That’s it.  Nine drivers re-qualified and Ed Carpenter snagged the pole with a run of 231.067, edging out James Hinchcliffe’s 230.649.  It’s clear that Sunday is designed for TV.  Saturday was made for the fans.

Is the new procedure better than the old one?  I guess that would be determined by which old procedure you mean.  The new format is action-filled, exciting, and creates compelling drama on Saturday, particularly if more than 33 cars are entered.  The Fast Nine on Sunday just goes by too quickly.  The Fast Nine drivers having multiple attempts would certainly spice up the day.  Will it make qualification better than what they were years ago?  Probably not.  But they will make them what they need to be today.  And that’s the real goal.

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¹  Name another auto racing writer that quotes Alexander Pope.  That’s what we offer here: racing and literature.  Just another service.

²  That’s right, I just slapped down another literary reference.  How about a quote from a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner who spoke at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.  I have a Robert Frost tattoo on my bicep. *not true*

Indy 500 Time Trials: a new day is dawning

Sorry for the turgid prose of the title.  A kernal of truth is in there, but really, “a new day is dawning”?  And I have the gall to write that after a week of rain delayed practice.  I have no shame.  What I do have, though, is a good feeling about how the new Time Trials format at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to play out.  So what if it is hard to understand.  The old formats required a little thought, too.

First a word about Time Trials.  I’m going old-school here and calling this weekend’s activities Time Trials instead of qualifications.  It adds an aura of authenticity and tradition to a month that has recently been described as ignoring it altogether.  Maybe if IMS will dress up the weekend with this moniker, it will help disguise the disgust that some people feel about it.  My mom always told me to wear clean underwear in case I was in a wreck.  There may be a corollary here.  Or not.

In any case, some compelling storylines are attached to the weekend.  The biggest positive from this new format is that the drivers must hang their rear-ends out on both days to make the field.  Truthfully, this both excites and worries me as a fan.  The stories of drivers white-knuckling ill-handling cars around the circuit to make the race are legendary.  And we get to see it twice.  That’s good for the fans.  Having to do it twice, with the inherent risk to both driver and car, is bad for the teams and drivers.  It is simply the price the series is exacting from the teams and drivers to build excitement.  The balance between just enough and too much is mighty thin.  I just hope they never ask me to vote with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a qualifying run.  Too gladiatorial.

The points earned this weekend make Time Trials worth another race to the drivers.  A driver can win points equal to a race, and more, by simply driving fast.  No passing, no pit stops, no fuel mileage calls – just raw speed and iron balls.  That by definition is compelling on TV or at the track.  That is a reason to get after it.  I don’t think the regulars in the Verizon IndyCar Series are going to want any one-off teams to out-qualifying them.  Expect competition, not complacency.

Even though Time Trials have been condensed into one weekend, most of the available track time on Saturday and Sunday in recent years has been taken up by practice.  An aficionado of open wheel might not mind this, but the casual fan, and more importantly ABC, find it less than entertaining.  So IMS squeezed the qualifying times into neat little TV windows to interest the fans and appease the network.  And it is about time.  Now everyone knows exactly when the Fast Nine are going to be on TV.  Will more people watch?  A few.  Will more people know about it?  Definitely.  It’s just one more baby step on the 500’s march to greater relevance.  And as the 500 becomes more relevant, so to will the series.  Hopefully.

The fact is that Bump Day, for all the angst about its demise, just hasn’t been that good, except for the last 30 minutes or so, for a long time.  As fans, we always seem to want what we don’t have.  The last minute jumping into cars has been gone for over a decade.  The lines of cars waiting to take a last shot at making the field had dwindled to a mere handful.  We no longer have the cars or motors to ever bring it back.

Will the new format be the vehicle to drive the race to new viewers?  Who knows?  What I do know is that the 33 men and women who take the green flag in qualifying attempts this weekend will risk lives, equipment, and reputations for a chance to be one of the 33 on the grid for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 on May 25.  Isn’t that enough?

 

IndyCar is “Almost Famous”

My mind runs to comparisons.  You name the topic and I can probably list how it is similar to something else.  In fact, this ability to compare unlike things is one of the marks of an agile brain.  We learn new things by seeing them through the lens of what we already know.  So I wasn’t surprised recently when the movie I was watching conjured up images of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  What movie?  I was watching the fictional rock and roll period piece Almost Famous.  Besides being a soundtrack of my misspent youth, it was also telling the story of the current state of the IndyCar Series.

Just ponder the title for a moment.  With all the exciting racing and interesting personalities, it seems the series is on the cusp of a breakthrough.  IndyCar is Almost Famous. The big question is how to move past the “almost.”  Many seem to have the philosophy of the character of rock critic Lester Bangs as he describes Stillwater, the rock band being profiled by William Miller in the movie.  He describes the article being written as “…a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with its own limitations.”  That’s been the IndyCar Series for the past few years.  It has absolutely struggled with its economic limitations and its decreasing popularity.  What is there to do?

The lead singer of Stillwater, Jeff Bebe, asks the heavens this simple question, “Is it that hard to make us look cool?”  In the case of IndyCar and the Indy 500, it has been rather hard to look cool.  The series has not had a title sponsor in recent history that has activated its brand.  IZOD rolled out the same tired commercial for a couple of years and then just quit.  The drivers swimming and riding on watercraft looked pretty cool, but it not engage the public.  There was an idea, but no follow-through.  The Firestone commercials connected to a time long past, but did not really connect to what is cool now.  Maybe new title sponsor Verizon will finally make the series cool again by connecting a very real and current technology to both business partners and the public.

Maybe the series can take a lead from the new corporate Snake Pit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  In Almost Famous, William Miller’s professor mother Elaine tells her college psychology class that, “Rock stars have kidnapped my son.”  It looks like the Snake Pit at IMS is making a concerted effort to kidnap a demographic that has been eluding IndyCar for years: the hipsters. Mark Miles has gone on record saying that IndyCar is not trying to capture the NASCAR demographic.  Maybe the demographic he is after wears fedoras and listens to dance music spun by DJ’s in clubs.  The Snake Pit has managed to grow that demographic by bringing in DJ’s like Benny Benassi, Krewella, Afrojack, Diplo, NERVO, and Hardwell.  Names don’t ring a bell?  Who cares as long as they ring a bell in the head of deep-pocketed hipsters willing to return year after year until they finally decide to watch the race.  What?  You thought all those drunks who came back to the organic Turn One Snake Pit of yore year after year were there to watch the race?  They came for the party.  The party’s just moved to the other end of the track.

Want more rock star vibe?  The Snake Pit is now selling “glamping” inside IMS.  If you are willing to shell out the dough, you can spend four nights luxury camping in the infield.  That’s only the coolest thing EVER.  If you have the money, that is.  And somebody does.  You can go to the Snake Pit and channel Almost Famous character Russell Hammond as he shouts from the top of a house, “I am a golden god!”  Well, you can as long as you can pay the freight, anyway.  And let’s face it, we all want to be a golden god.

The most famous line in the movie is probably said by the groupie/Band-Aid Penny Lane.  She cryptically tells William Miller that, “It’s all happening” in reference to the tour of Stillwater.  IndyCar is finally able to say the same thing.  New hires have been made.  A title sponsor has been announced.  Infrastructure construction has been planned.  Social media has been embraced.  New events like the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the vintage car races have been scheduled.  Big time performers have been slated for concerts.  The Snake Pit is grabbing a new demographic. Take a real good look at everything bubbling up in the series.  IndyCar is looking at us just like Penny Lane looked at William Miller and saying, “It’s all happening.”  All a fan can say is it’s about time.

IMS: museum or racing facility?

As I was digging out of another Midwestern winter storm, I encountered the bane of the driveway: a solid layer of old ice that had adhered to the concrete with a tenacity that shovels, salt, and swearing could not surmount.  As I walked away, defeated, the ice became a symbol of the hard-core IndyCar fans that are still left.  They have held on to their beliefs, no matter how outdated, through the long winter of IndyCar’s discontent.  And just like a warming southern breeze will do to the ice what I could not, so to will a modern approach to the racing business of IndyCar and IMS melt away what is left of the hard-core fans’ deeply held belief that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should be a shrine to a once-a-year event and then close down for the rest of the year.  They want a return to Kurt Vonnegut’s famous definition of Indianapolis: “…the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race again.”

The days of opening once a year are gone.  IMS must be more than an edifice to the history of open-wheel racing.  Don’t get me wrong, if economics allowed IMS to only be open for the month of May, I would be ecstatic.  But the economic reality is that the Speedway and its grounds are the financial engine to the IndyCar Series.  As IMS goes, so goes the series.

The argument against IMS hosting a variety of events always comes down to the history of the Speedway.  It is a specious argument.  Carl Fisher, the founder of both the Speedway and the Indy 500, was more than willing to run multiple events.  He decided to run only the 500 for solely economic reasons.  One big race could make more money than many races, especially if the races all had the same cars and drivers.  That is an important distinction.  IMS is offering multiple series, cars, and drivers.

The question remains: Will opening IMS up to two IndyCar races, the IndyCar support series, sports cars, stock cars, motorcycles, vintage cars, stadium trucks, and concerts make less money for the owners?  Isn’t the answer self-evident?  The track, through tickets, suites, TV, concessions, and apparel makes a profit.  And it needs to do so.  Those profits, one way or another, support the series that WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT THEM. How tone-deaf do fans have to be to not realize this simple fact?

Can an iconic track with a famous race coexist with other events?  Look south.  Daytona International Speedway hosts the Daytona 500, The Great American Race, every February.  Does hosting the Rolex 24, ARCA, Whelen Modifieds, K & N Pro Series, Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Duel, Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series, Daytona 200 AMA Pro Racing motorcycles, Daytona Supercross, and the Coke Zero 400 tarnish the luster of the ugliest trophy in motorsports?  Hardly.  And all of those are sponsored races, meaning more coins in the coffers.  The Daytona 500 is the race that put NASCAR on the map.  All the other races put money in its pocket.  NASCAR parlayed a facility and its history and status into the most popular racing series in North America.  Maybe there is a lesson to be learned.

I have often compared the IndyCar Series to a starving artist.  He wants to be true to his art, but he needs to eat, too.  At some point, an artist needs to sell his work to pay the bills.  And if that work finds its way into a famous museum, that can only expose the artist and his work to a wider audience where a deep-pocketed patron of the arts may be willing to support him.  The IndyCar Series has just the museum needed to do this at 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.  All forms of racing are art.  The next exhibition at IMS starts in May and runs all summer.  It’s either that or 364 days of miniature golf.

The long dark winter of IndyCar

Ah, IndyCar.  You had a great season last year: multiple winners, a great come-from-behind champion, an Indy 500 for the ages, and fantastic racing at every kind of circuit.  The only thing left to do was capitalize on the energy and momentum.  Sure, the TV ratings were stagnant, but good things happened.  Now all that was left was to use that on-track success to build up to the new, compressed season on the horizon.  Ready, set, wait a minute.  Where did that energy go?

It seems every form of autosport is using the offseason to, at the very least, make some sort of news.  Good or bad, it is the responsibility of the series to put its face in front of the public.  Let’s review the news for some of the popular racing series:

  • F1: The new cars, which will once again be ugly as dirt, are soon to be revealed.  And although this was not a PR move by the series, Bernie Ecclestone’s travails with the German judicial system led to his resignation from the F1 board.  Even the change at the top of McLaren with Ron Dennis replacing Martin Whitmarsh is noteworthy for the series.
  • NASCAR: Stock cars even make the news when they have no news to report.  According to the Charlotte Observer, NASCAR is considering changing its points and Chase protocol to create a “game 7” experience.  This decision has not been made, but social media BLEW UP at the possibility of the change.  The testing at Daytona with tweaks to the drafting rules was televised.
  • TUDOR United Sports Car Championship:  Even with the most unwieldy of names, this series has stayed in the news, albeit with questions about classifications, cars, and licensing.  The benefit to this series, like with NASCAR, is that they open their season in February with their biggest race.
  • IndyCar Series: *crickets*

Now, that is a completely unfair comparison.  News has happened in IndyCar.  Three time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced his retirement from racing.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a road course race at IMS was confirmed.  A significant change in qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 has been floated and will most likely be announced soon.  Do you notice any connections among those three items?  The focus of all of them was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Yes, Franchitti was a series champion but will forever be known as an Indianapolis 500 winner.  Yes, the series has another race, but it is inextricably linked to the 500 and IMS.  Yes, the change in qualifications at the 500 will put the action, and the series, on national television, but it is still the 500.  The big question is the value of the 500 vs the value of the sponsorless IndyCar Series.  The IndyCar Series is what has to worry about crickets.

Off-season promotion of the series has been relatively non-existent.  As was the case the previous year with Ryan Hunter-Reay, series champion Scott Dixon has been next to invisible.  Why is this the case?  When the 2014 season ends on Labor Day, will the series go dark for six months.  I don’t think hibernation is in the best interest of the series.

As always though, things are happening behind the scenes.  The new sheriff at 16th and Georgetown is C.J. O’Donnell, officially in charge of marketing, communication, and social media for both the IndyCar Series and IMS.  He accepted the job in November, and we can only assume that gears are grinding in the shiny blue headquarters in Speedway.  In O’Donnell’s defense, he has had only two months to evaluate employees, strategies, and programs in all three areas under his purview.  When that is finished, he will need to map out a strategic vision for both the series and IMS.  Even with all the grumbling about the direction of the series and the perceived lack of promotion during the off-season, it is still a little too much to ask for everything to happen at once.

Yes, IndyCar has been abysmal at promoting the series the past two years.  That is a reflection of leadership and vision at the highest levels.  At this point and at this time, the series should be given a pass on the lack of PR for the upcoming year.  Any change of leadership and philosophy brings with it an institutional inertia that cannot be avoided.  Change, and the difference it brings, takes time.  But the fact is IndyCar fans are getting just a little tired of waiting.  You are on the clock, Mr. O’Donnell.

Truth in advertising: how to market IndyCar

The (your name here) IndyCar Series, by whatever name you want to call it, has a checkered past when it comes to marketing acumen.  In recent years the Indy Racing League and its scion, the (your name here) IndyCar Series, have been second-rate at best in the selling of the series.  The folding of the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sales and marketing departments into a single entity called Hulman Racing will hopefully end years of internecine battles for sponsorship and sales.  Mark Miles smartly hired C.J. O’Donnell as chief marketing officer and Jay Frye as chief revenue officer to work not only for Hulman Racing but for him.  Their marching orders are simple: make us visible and make us money.

Of course the marketing bar for both the series and the Indianapolis 500 have never been set very high.  If not for marketing partners Firestone, Honda, and IZOD, the series would have had no advertising of note in the last few years.  And the Indianapolis 500 has always sold itself in odd ways.  The Gene Simmons “I am Indy” experiment should never have been let out of the laboratory, and last year’s #Indy500orBust Twitter campaign, while trendy, probably did not increase attendance to any great degree.  As a long-time sell out, the 500 never really had to market extensively.  When attendance waned after the split, the 500 found itself having to market a race that was once a guaranteed full house.  I just want to let C.J. O’Donnell knows that New Track Record is here to help.  Allow me to offer some new marketing slogans that highlight the truth about IndyCar racing.

IndyCar – No title sponsor needed.  Just embrace the reality.  This series can stand on its own.  Let people know that pride and history are all that are needed.

The IndyCar Series – Now condensed into a shorter season.  Don’t hide from the fact that the series is afraid to go head-to-head with NASCAR, college football, and the NFL.  Sell that decision as somehow benefiting the race fan by freeing them up to watch other programming.  IndyCar is the series that cares about all of your teams.

The IndyCar Series – You don’t have to worry about what to wear after Labor Day.  IndyCar can position itself as a cutting edge pop culture icon by appealing to the female fan’s interest in fashion.  No longer will someone have to decide if white is acceptable at a race after Labor Day.  The IndyCar Series will make that decision for you.

IndyCar – Quite possibly an international series.  Remember, you can sell not only what is, but the possibility of what may be.  IndyCar wants to be international.  We can just leave it at that.

The IndyCar Series – Family owned and operated.  Markets often use the “plain folks” sales technique.  This appeals to the small town person inside us all.  A family owned and operated business always means folksy advice and values.  We just won’t mention provincialism, shortsightedness, family squabbles, and soap opera stars masquerading as celebrities at the 500.

The IndyCar Series – It’s all about the month of May.  Don’t hide the fact that the series takes a back seat to the Indianapolis 500; embrace it.  I’m sure the glitter of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will sprinkle the pixie dust of success on the series.

IndyCar – What we lack in innovation, we make up for in dysfunction.  If you can’t sell what you want to have, then sell what you do have.  The series has a car that allows little team innovation.  Every garage has the same car and looks the same.  If you can’t sell the tech, sell the screwed-up relationships among the owners, drivers, officials, and the series.  And go ahead and add the fans in the mix.  They’re crazy, too.

IndyCar – Where innovation and technology don’t exactly go hand-in-hand but kind of walk together, not like friends but more like acquaintances or people you know at work.  OK, this one needs a little work.  There’s a kernel of truth in that sentence somewhere, but it might need a little editing.

There you go.  I want C.J. O’Donnell to know he can use any of these.  Consider them my gift to the (your name here) IndyCar Series.  Of course, my marketing slogans may be a little too truthful.  The marketing team at Hulman Racing may have another direction in mind.  At least I hope they do.

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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