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Mark Miles cooks up a new tradition at IMS

In an interview on Inside Indiana Business with Gerry Dick, Hulman & Co. potentate Mark Miles threw the local media a bone by announcing possible changes to the qualifying procedures for the 2014 Indianapolis 500.  The few hard-core fans who actually remember the traditional 30 days in May practice, qualifying, and race formats had the expected paroxysms of angst at yet another attempt to make the events leading up the the 500 more compelling.  As a die-hard fan of the race, and by extension the series, I look forward to the possible changes.  It is time to shake things up.

Tony Hulman, the man that critics of change like to say spins in his grave when changes are made in the May format, moved the race to Sunday in 1974 for logical reasons.  Memorial Day had moved to Monday on the national calendar, and racing on the day before Memorial Day created a bigger crowd by allowing an extra day for travel and recuperation. Plus, it meant a larger television audience by being in a prime Sunday slot when almost all Americans were home.  In other words, it made financial sense.  At that time of course, the only thing that mattered was the 500.  The series was an afterthought.

Critics can decry the changes that brought the IndyCar Series under the umbrella of Hulman & Co. all they want.  It does not matter. The redheaded stepchild that is the currently unsponsored IndyCar Series is in the house and needs a seat at the table.  And presiding over the feast is the new head chef Mark Miles.  The cupboard may be relatively bare of sponsors, but dinner still has to be served.  Miles has to take the ingredients available and make them palatable to an unruly assortment of guests that include family, sponsors, teams, drivers, and fans.  He is currently whipping up a new recipe for the big dinner in May.

To begin with, Miles can now shop for better ingredients since he managed to get the local food bank, the State of Indiana, to pony up much needed cash for improvements.  The process of improving the facility for racing has already begun with changes to the road course.  I hope he doesn’t forget about some new dishes and silverware for the guests, though.  The old stuff is starting to lose its shine.

Next, Miles whipped up an appetizer never before seen at IMS.  He is using his main ingredient, the facility at 16th and Georgetown, to give the assembled guests a taste of racing on opening weekend.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis adds racing to the menu at the beginning of the two week period of on-track activity.  I am still waiting on a compelling reason on how more racing is a bad thing.  And simply saying “tradition” will not persuade anyone.  More racing is better.  Do you want one drumstick or two?

But it seems Mark Miles possible menu change struck a nerve with some.  To add more excitement and value, he has proposed all cars on the track for high stakes qualifying action on both Saturday and Sunday of qualification weekend.  Saturday qualifies the top 33 cars.  You are in or you are out.  On Sunday, all the cars that qualified on Saturday are back on the track.  Positions 12-33 will be determined by requalifying on Sunday.  The Fast Nine will go late in the day on Sunday.  Holy cow, how you not like this new attempt to create value for fans?  This will be much tastier than any value meal at Steak and Shake or White Castle.  Hopefully, multiple attempts will be allowed for each car on both days.  These changes would certainly add a little spice to the IndyCar gumbo.

And it seems Miles has finally added the sous chefs he needs to round out his kitchen staff.  With the new entity called Hulman Racing on the marquee, Miles has added CJ O’Donnell as the chief marketing officer and Jay Frye as the chief revenue officer.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that these gentlemen report to Miles and are not under the purview of any other officers.  Suddenly, the racing business at Hulman and Co. is starting to look like a business, and it appears that Mark Miles is firmly in charge.  He knows that too many chefs spoil the broth.

Will the new changes for the month of May and the series be a sweet treat or will they spoil on the spit?  I don’t know the answer, but I look forward to a tasty new serving of racing at IMS in May.

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.

 

The Indianapolis 500: iconic is more than a word

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

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

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

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

The Time Trials at the Indianapolis 500

Even with all the changes to its format over the years and the possibility of more to come, the pathos of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 never gets old.  The Time Trials both test and reveal character every year.  The true cognoscenti of IndyCar racing understand and savor the power of these raw moments of human emotion.  John Mellencamp, a good Indiana boy, sang that we live “Between a Laugh and a Tear.” That describes the Time Trials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the drivers and the teams.

With a series and a venue on the cusp of change, both major and minor, decisions are in the offing regarding every element of the race.  The question is what to do with the Time Trials.

One suggestion, even with changes in format, is to keep the historical moniker of Time Trials.  In an era of homogenization, the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to find ways to get noticed.  As much as the current formats of the series and the race are going to change, anything that defines you as different, particularly historically different, needs to be accentuated.  As much as the name Brickyard or the slogan The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the term Time Trials shouts Indianapolis 500.  Recent comments by Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., suggest that both IMS and the series do not want to be wedded to a past that not only comes with some baggage, but often seems to stifle forward thinking.  Instead of being guided by its past, IMS needs to use its history to define its product to a modern audience.  The name Time Trials does that.

The most obvious element of Time Trials is the true humanity that is revealed every year.  The ticking of the clock down to 6:00 PM on Bump Day creates a tension that is absolutely not artificial.  A game is not on the line as time counts down; a chance to participate in one of the world’s most iconic events is.  It doesn’t get much more compelling than that.  The faces make for perfect TV drama.  The moments that bring tears, sighs of relief, and joy always do.  The pit scene with Ed Carpenter after he secured the pole for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a moment custom-made for television.  Those David and Goliath stories always are.

Lack of interest and the cost of opening the doors at IMS may doom even the current two-day Time Trials, which were pared down for those same reasons from the four-day Time Trials of the past.  Will the future bring a shortened week one with Fast Friday being the opening day followed by one or two days of qualifying?  The shortened attention span of the modern sports fan says it will.  The drawn out two weekends of track activity will most likely be packed into a much shorter time span.

Of much more concern is the viability of Time Trials on television.  NBC Sports was unfairly pilloried on Pole Day because they cut away from the Fast Nine shootout to show a Preakness post-race show.  It has to be assumed that contracts and paid advertising were in place for that live show.  IMS made the decision to extend the Fast Nine not only beyond 6:00 PM, but past the 6:30 PM coverage window of NBC Sports.  Doing so most likely created a fair and equal opportunity for all participants to have a chance to practice and qualify, but if social media outrage is any indicator, the switch infuriated fans who had invested hours of their Saturday in watching the lead-up to the Fast Nine drama and then were denied the pay-off.  IMS made the best decision for its drivers and teams; unfortunately, this decision put its television partner in a bind.  If a series or race is looking to expand its media reach, locking out viewers or telling them to go to live streaming may not be the best avenue to pursue.  With that said, in ten years switching from broadcast or cable networks to live streaming will simply be a button on the remote.  Maybe IMS is just way ahead of the times.

The nexus of television, live streaming, compelling drama and the modern fan’s attention span is changing how we interact with our sports.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests that organisms must evolve or diminish.  The Time Trials at Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been evolving over the past twenty years and must continue to do so.  If not, the concept of the Time Trials will be just another grainy newsreel of a diminishing past.

Value added Fast Friday at IMS

As IMS rubs its hands together and gleefully prepares to spend its own tax money on moving both its facility and fan engagement into the modern era, the question is how to spend the money.  Since I have absolutely no qualifications to offer any suggestions or advice,  I feel compelled to do so.

The obvious and easy answer is to simply maintain the existing facility.  Roads need repaved, rust needs scraped, and walls need painted; money needs to be spent on this every year, and while maintenance does not necessarily enhance the fans experience, lack of maintenance absolutely devalues it.  And value for the fan is paramount in attracting patrons who will continue to attend the Indianapolis 500 and other events at IMS in the future.

At sports venues across the country, the concept of “value added” is at the forefront.  Go to a Major League baseball game and you can purchase tickets in a section that includes food and drink.  At NFL stadiums, your tickets for the club section often includes concession servers and private restrooms.  Barcoded tickets often carry extra benefits that can be redeemed at concession and merchandise stands.  Basically, owners have found a way to add value, or at least appear to add value, to attending an event.  In the past, this value was almost always reserved for the captains of industry and their minions sitting in the suites.  Extra value cost a lot of extra money.  But after these suites dwellers were mined for their cash, team owners cast their gazes at the hoi polloi in the bleachers and realized that there were ways to extort extract more money from them.  And let’s face it, the metrics of management showed that giving the plebes a little something extra once in while made them feel so good that they spent even more and came back again because their experience had “value added.”  The question is how can IMS add value to the experience at the Indy 500 and other events?

IMS has already started to add value to the Indianapolis 500.  The new Snake Pit, with DJ’s Afrojack and Diplo, absolutely adds value to the young people who go to the race, not to see the cars, but to see these celebrities and hear their music.  Many of these people will return again next year, quite likely because their experiences were enhanced.

The addition of the zip line that will be moved around the facility during the month has been much reviled by many hard-core racing fans as a gimmick, which it absolutely is, but will it bring local fans out during practice, qualifications, and Carb Day?  Yes, it will, and that is added value to the consumer.

The Bronze Badge at $100 and Junior Garage Credential for $75 are tremendous added values.  Access to restricted areas and special events is an easy and relatively cheap way to make people feel special.

Those are here now.  But how can IMS add value in the future?  Here are some ideas:

  • More and mobile video boards are needed.  The current ones are dark, blurry, and out-of-date.  Instead of enhancing the fans’ experience, they diminish it.  The modern fan expects more.  Instead of installing permanent video boards that are likely to be obsolete in a very short time, lease or buy portable devices that can moved around the facility as needed.  These can be updated when necessary, and IMS Productions could become the leasing agent of these portable boards when not in use at IMS.  That can add value to not only IMS but the whole IZOD IndyCar Series.
  • Special sections with ticketed benefits are necessary.  For an upcharge, ticket holders can get concessions and merchandise by simply having their tickets scanned.  This can include special lines for patrons with these tickets.  There should be club sections where fans have wait staff to take their concession orders.  Fans love to feel like they have something others do not.  If IMS wants to see tickets to the Indianapolis 500 be a premium again, then they need to offer premium services.  And they can charge a premium for these tickets.
  • Add seatbacks in the Vistas.  These massive sections in the turns have fantastic sight lines and back-breaking benches.  If  money and space are a limitation, then add an extra cost to the ticket to include a temporary seatback.  At major college venues, this is an upfront cost and the seatback is installed for you.  Currently, you have to rent the seatback on-site at IMS and lug it up the Vista yourself.  This would absolutely be a value added option.
  • More special parking is in order.  This year, the Speedway charged $75 for front row infield parking and $25 for general admission infield parking.  They even offered front row parking in the North 40 lot outside Turn 3.  I guarantee that every patron who paid money for these spots feels special.  It is value added, baby.  Find parking in every nook and cranny and charge for it.
  • Make sure the facility has the best cell phone reception in the world.  Your event can’t be the greatest if some things are the worst.  Today’s fans demand that their handheld devices work on all networks.  The Verizon IndyCar 13 app is fantastic, but not if I can’t use it at the race.  If it does not work at the 500, then I walk out with my experience less than enhanced.  I will be upset with IMS and Verizon.  Spend your money on making sure the fans basic expectations are met.

The formula for value added is simple.  Make it fun, make me happy, make me feel special.  Make it seem that I get something for nothing.  For me, the racing is enough, but for the vast majority of fans, it’s not.  Modern fans want to have a great experience, not just a great race.  Everything at the event needs to be incomparable.  IMS legend Eddie Sachs said it best: “If you can’t win, be spectacular.”  With its history and pageantry, IMS should have no problem making the experience spectacular for its patrons.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s past is not its future

I doubt if Tony Hulman ever envisioned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway being what it is today: a multi-race, multi-series venue poised to add lights and reap a favorable interest free loan from the state of Indiana derived from its own taxes.  The fact is, he never had to see this future.  Under Hulman’s watch, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its doors to the public on May 1st each year and closed them after the facility was cleaned in early June.  As long as one race a year made a profit and allowed some improvement to the facility, everything was copacetic.

But a funny thing happened to IMS on its long march to immortality – the American sports’ fan changed.  While still loving iconic facilities like IMS, Churchill Downs, and Augusta National, fans want more than an event; they want an experience that transcends the event itself.

Before a knee jerks in response, I will add that a die-hard race fan does not need more than the Indianapolis 500 offers.  The slow, daily rise in speed at practice, the expectant pause as fans wait for each lap time during Pole Day, the shattering disappointment or the sudden euphoria of Bump Day are moments of history repeated every year.  On race day, the march of bands, “Back Home Again,” the invocation, and “Gentlemen, start your engines” prove to us that we share something with history.  These links to Indy’s past are powerful reminders that we are not alone as we ride the wave of history into our individual futures.  The power behind that wave is our shared human experiences.  For race fans, that shared experience is the 96 other Indianapolis 500’s that have come before now.  The problem is that not everyone cares about the history.  Many just care about right now.

Tony George, Tony Hulman’s grandson, changed the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Under his watch, the original Snake Pit in the first turn was sanitized.  His vision was a venue that was clean and safe for its patrons.  Do I miss the original Snake Pit?  I don’t miss it as place to watch the race, but I miss it as a touchstone of the past.  IMS has hijacked and monetized it by adding modern music and amenities that attract modern fans.  Face it, the original Snake Pit was a place to party and watch one lap of the race.  The new version is a corporate attempt to lure a specific demographic of twenty-somethings into the track to have an experience that will bring them back again.  It helps create a history for them that does not include listening to Donald Davidson amaze with his arcane knowledge of races, cars, and drivers.  IMS and IndyCar need the fans in the new Snake Pit to come back in the future just as much as they need the die-hards to continue their love affair with history.

George also added a road course, a new Pagoda, modern garages, and, most galling to purists, additional races with F1, NASCAR, and MotoGP.  While not to the liking of many purists who want to see IMS remain host to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing only, the track and its owners have a vision for the future that includes racing at night and most likely another IndyCar race on the road course.  While reviled by many, these are simply economic decisions to improve the bottom line.

If adding lights increases the attendance at the Brickyard 400, then add lights.  If adding an IndyCar race to the road course is profitable, then add it.  Will it diminish the historical relevancy of the 500?  Maybe, but I doubt it could be diminished much more than it is now to the vast majority of people who just do not care.  For the continued success of the Speedway, more money needs to be made and more fans need to be found.  The die to maximize profits was cast when all the major infrastructure upgrades that were needed were made.  These upgrades to seating, technology, and the fan experience need to be made every year.  Money is needed to support these upgrades, and fans are needed to supply the money.  Fans want video boards and dependable cell service.  Maybe we are spoiled, but these are the expectations.  Attendance, sponsors, and TV ratings are the coin of the realm when it comes to profits.  Businesses that survive use sound business practices.  IMS is no longer a hobby for a philanthropic family; it is the source of income.

The cost of keeping a historic venue like IMS up and running is enormous.  While I certainly like touring historically significant houses, I would not enjoy the daily and expensive upkeep that such a house requires.  Plus, I like the modern conveniences that I have come to expect in life.  The cost of maintaining the facility at 16th and Georgetown will never decrease.  The business masters at IMS will spend money only if they can make more money.  If not, you can expect cracks in the foundation and dandelions in the grass, just like at home.  You can only slap paint on the old gal for so long.  Sooner or later, you have to feed the bulldog.

So bring on the tin-tops, the motorcycles, the sports cars, and a second IndyCar race if it makes more money and allows the Greatest Spectacle in Racing to still be exactly that and not just some faded piece of history.  Winston Churchill said it best: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”  It is time for fans of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 to accept that the future is now.

Sun Tzu and the Art of IndyCar

Faced with an off-week for IndyCar this past weekend, I decided to tune in for the Chinese Grand Prix from Shanghai. I am open-wheel to the bone, and even though the drivers of F1 often make the word “entitled” seem an understatement, they certainly put on a good show. There must be something IndyCar can learn from the Chinese Grand Prix, some Zen or Tao that will offer sudden enlightenment to a series in desperate need of it. Then I had my own vision, my own flash of understanding. IndyCar must have some connection to Sun Tzu and The Art of War. This Chinese general from 2500 years ago is credited with writing a treatise that explained the intricacies of warfare and has been used in military academies, boardrooms and athletic fields to help guide leaders to victory. It is pretty clear that some of Sun Tzu’s philosophies could apply to IndyCar. Allow me to offer my interpretation and commentary on a few of the general’s quotes.

“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” Well, this seems simple enough. The leaders at IndyCar over the past few years have worked very hard at becoming their own worst enemies. I’m not sure that is what old Sun Tzu was talking about, though. The list of self-inflicted wounds in IndyCar is a litany of lost opportunity. The IRL was a spec series that hemorrhaged money. Sponsors ran for the hills. A TV contract was signed that relegated IndyCar to the backwoods of cable. The palace intrigue that cost Tony George his leadership role also resulted in a very messy and embarrassing parting of ways with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. Yep, I think IndyCar has practiced this particular stratagem.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In assessing how IndyCar has marketed itself in recent years, it is clear that Sun Tzu would have had a problem with the series. The vision of Kiss’s Gene Simmons with his “I am Indy” campaign that went nowhere is an example of strategy without tactics. It was a great overall concept that was never implemented as more than a slogan. Randy Bernard, on the other hand, was a master of the moment. He always had a good idea of what to do today, but it never seemed to reach the level of strategy or vision. Let’s see if the new IndyCar masters have the ability to put the two together.

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” Sun Tzu mentions leadership often. This comment seems like it was directed at Penske Racing and Roger Penske. I’m pretty sure Penske’s new driver AJ Allmendinger would follow Roger into the deepest valley. No other owner has more loyal employees or less turnover. When you have that kind of loyalty, you win the battle. I guess following that old Golden Rule bromide has some staying power. Chalk another one up for Sun Tzu.

“Opportunities multiply as they are achieved. Which team has made the most of its opportunities this year? Which team is on a roll? The answer is Andretti Autosport. First James Hinchcliffe wins in St. Pete, and then Ryan Hunter Reay finishes first at Barber. Our Chinese general understood momentum. And Andretti Autosport has it.

“Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.” Wow. It seems like Sun Tzu actually knows Chip Ganassi. How do you beat Chip? The general knows. Make him discount you. Nothing entertains me more than watching an in-race interview with Chip and hearing him complain about some backmarker getting in the way of his world domination. The nerve of those…people. Sooner or later, Ganassi’s arrogance will cost him a race. I just hope it is one of those backmarkers that beats his car to the line. How sweet will that karma be?

There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” Enough cannot be said about the raciness and safety of the Dallara DW 12. Even though the only thing different about the cars is the livery, they have provided quality competition on all three types of venues. Is a spec series and controlled costs the way to put spectators in the seats and eyeballs on the TV screens? No, good racing will do that, and that is what the IZOD IndyCar Series has right now. The cars are just the paint and brushes; the artists are sitting in the cockpits.

“Great results, can be achieved with small forces.” Even though fans and writers rail against the idea of a spec series, it does create a parity that would not exist if the wealthy owners were able to spend their way to Victory Lane. Whether it was Dan Wheldon winning the Indy 500 for Bryan Herta, Justin Wilson winning at Texas for Dale Coyne, or Ed Carpenter winning at Fontana driving for himself, the DW 12 creates a situation where anyone can win. Let’s hope for some more great results by the little guys. Sun Tzu would get a kick out of it. And it would really irritate Chip.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” This should be the mantra for the IZOD IndyCar Series this year. You have diverse venues, a competitive car, and a cast of fan-friendly characters both in and out of the car. Much of Sun Tzu’s philosophy can be distilled as “strike while the iron’s hot.” It is incumbent on the series to do something with this wealth of talent and entertainment. The leaders of the series need to lead. That seems simplistic, but much of what Sun Tzu says is common sense and simple. He advocates planning and strategy. Seize the day, IndyCar.

If Mark Miles cannot right the IndyCar ship, it may be time to bring in an Eastern philosopher/warrior/priest to instruct him. Maybe it is time for Mr. Miles to watch the old Kung Fu TV series and channel his inner Kwai Chang Kaine and meet Master Po for some instruction. Listen to Master Po, young grasshopper.

IMS Marketing: Hashtag FTW (for the win)!

I like to pretend I have insight into many things – IndyCar racing, marketing, broadcasting, and event management are just a few of the areas on which I pontificate.  It’s an ancillary benefit of writing a blog.  I have no credentials or resume to support any of my opinions.  So please allow me to offer another unsolicited morsel of my deep understanding of social media.

In some metaphysical way, my blogging and Twitter presence cause people to assume that I actually know something about the power of social media.  In fact, the fine people at IMS were so completely fooled dazzled by my social media cred last year that they asked me to participate in the inaugural Social Media Garage at the 2012 Indy 500.  That participation and my subsequent Social Media Garage activity at the IMS Super Weekend for NASCAR were great insights into how a business begins to incorporate social media into its marketing.

What I observed last year was the initial flailing about as a business tried to connect a relatively new and somewhat uncontrollable method of communication with a marketing strategy that may or may not have been fully fleshed out.  One senior member of IMS management alluded to last year’s Social Media Garage as “dipping a toe in the water” of social media.  It looks like IMS has decided to jump all the way in this year.

The Twitter use of #Indy500orBust (remember, you pronounce # as “hashtag”) is the 2013 social media campaign of IMS to connect to the increasingly mainstream demographic that uses the social media platforms of Twitter and Instagram.  You can go to indy500orbust.com to get the skinny on the campaign.  The marketing team at IMS has connected Twitter to Instagram, a social media photo sharing site.  Not a bad idea to connect the two platforms, especially since Instagram users are decidedly less snarky, judgmental, and reactionary than those on Twitter.  Or so I’ve heard.

The negative reactions I have seen on Twitter (surprise!) make a very valid point about the seemingly cross-purposes of marketing at INDYCAR and IMS.  The #Indy500orBust ads that we saw before and during the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg seemed to promote the INDY 500 at the expense of races at St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park, and Long Beach.  While ticket promotion at those sites is the domain of the promoter, it would seem the series would have a vested interest in promoting the television productions of these races.  If viewership drives sponsorship, then the primary business of INDYCAR should be driving eyeballs to the broadcasts.  Even so, you cannot fault IMS for trying to sell tickets to the 500.  My guess is that the new management team being put in place by Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles will be putting more marketing and promotional personnel under one roof to drive advertising dollars, sponsorship, and viewership to both entities.  The long-term viability of the series demands it.

So keep the hashtags coming IMS and INDYCAR!  Continue to connect us to Instagram, and I look forward to using Vine during the month of May this year.  And I’m sure someone in the Snake Pit will be using Snapchat.  If you don’t know what that is, ask a teenager.  It’s the next big thing.  Until the next big thing, that is.

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.

Preseason Blogging Practice: Boston Consulting Group Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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