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The Indy 500 – Meet the new boss

I was 11 years old when I went to my first Indianapolis 500 in the late 1960’s.  As a kid from small town Indiana, the race and the track were mythic entities.  Only the special few got to attend it in person.  In lieu of going, you listened to Sid Collins on the radio.  That was special, too.  The race was a big moment.

I would like to say that I knew everything about the race, the track, and the drivers.  I didn’t.  I knew the names that rolled out of the radio because I read the Indianapolis News, an evening paper, every day.  I knew nothing of a series or other events.  Day dawned on May 1st and the sun set on May 30th.  Everything in between was the race.  It was enough for any kid.

The month consumed us.  Every newspaper wrote reams of copy and every local television station reported on the events of the day.  Radio stations had track reporters on site every day all month.  It was national news.

Attending the race for the first time, spending the night before on 16th Street, and witnessing my first bacchanalia opened my eyes to the fact that this was more than a race.  Today’s Carb Day is a pale imitation of the activities that happened overnight and in the Turn 1 Snakepit back then.  Even the party was better.

This is not a screed on how great the month of May was back then, even if it was.  This is to note that IMS and the Indianapolis 500 have their mojo back.  The old lady’s new party dress, topped off with the revamped upper deck in the front stretch is just the right touch for a new beginning.

After years of searching for a way to bring three weekends worth of action to the track, IMS finally found what they were looking for: the Angie’s List Grand Prix, a Saturday and Sunday of drama in qualifications, a sanctioned day of drunkenness with Carb Day, one of the biggest parades in America, a big concert on Saturday before the race, and a completely sold out Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.  This is as good of a show as there ever was.  When did Indy ever have this much action?

The hope, of course, is that the revival of the Indianapolis 500 will be a rising tide that will lift the listing ship of the Verizon IndyCar Series.  It has been written that the series as we know it would dissolve without the  race on Memorial Day weekend.  Agreed.  You could also say that life on earth as we know it would end without the sun.  The race, the family breadwinner in the IndyCar Series, will continue to be the sugar daddy.  The sun will continue to shine on the series.

The British rock band The Who sang, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” in their song “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”  Well, meet the new Indianapolis 500, same as the old Indianapolis 500, and ready to once again take its place on the Mt. Rushmore of sporting events.  Where it belongs.

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Chasing the money in IndyCar

In a famous scene from The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone turns down a deal from rival Virgil Sollozzo by saying, ” I wish to congratulate you on your new business and I’m sure you’ll do very well and good luck with that. Especially since your interests don’t conflict with mine.”  As far as most people should be concerned, that is the correct attitude towards the Indianapolis Motor Speedway inking a presenting sponsor deal with PennGrade Motor Oil for $5 million over three years.  Turning down millions of dollars because of a perceived nobility does not make sense.  Take the money.

The parent company of PennGrade Motor Oil certainly sees value in this sponsorship.  They are attached to the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and will be able to provide tremendous business-to-business opportunities throughout the month of May.  I can just imagine the leadership of  D-A Lubricant, owners of PennGrade, sitting in an office saying, “We just bought the Indy 500 for $5 million.”  The amount, when compared to a marketing budget for the roll-out of a new product, is a sweet deal.

And it is a deal.  PennGrade Motor Oil just made a huge splash that will ripple for three years.  Who knew the Indianapolis 500 could be bought so cheaply?  Look, I’m no marketing expert who can tell you what the ROI (return on investment) will be for this purchase.  I will just assume for the sake of argument that D-A Lubricant plans to host a multitude of vendors and retailers connected to this product for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and two subsequent years.  Quite the soiree to help sell a product, wouldn’t you say?

Just like in The Godfather though, there is a real sense of interests conflicting.  D-A Lubricant cannot be faulted for buying the exposure that made the most sense to them.  Their $5 million bought them a huge platform to sell their product.  But what about the racing teams searching for sponsorship?  I am not saying that D-A Lubricant, based in nearby Lebanon, Indiana, was in play as a sponsor for any IndyCar teams.  I am saying that they should have been.  A 2014 Bloomberg article suggests that a sponsorship buy for the sidepods for an IndyCar season is between $5-9 million.  If remotely true, this means that sponsoring the Indy 500 for three years is cheaper than sponsoring a car in the Verizon IndyCar Series for one.  ROI, indeed.

Sponsoring a car means setting up activities and hosting guests for the full season.  It’s travel and corporate chalets and all the minutiae of a season-long sponsorship.  Why do that when you can set up in your own backyard for two weeks?  Sponsorship, the acquisition of working capital, is the number one concern for teams.  It’s water in the desert, the oasis the teams need to survive their season-long trek.  Without it, the teams will simply dry up and blow away, as did the teams of Sarah Fisher and John Barnes.  Suddenly, it looks like IMS and the teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series are chasing the same money.

What does all this mean?  A positive spin might be that the Indy 500 is an undervalued asset, worth more than the price paid.  Or the truth may be that the pool of sponsorship dollars for American open wheel racing is so small and the value of both the Indy 500 and team sponsorships so low that the teams and IMS are chasing the same money.  If that is true, then someone should be worrying.

 

The 2015 IndyCar season in the rearview mirror

Horace Walpole wrote “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”  That pretty much sums up the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, doesn’t it?

The tragedy of Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono will cast a pall on this season for years to come.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will always be known for the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald in 1964 and Scott Brayton in 1996.  Las Vegas Motor Speedway will always be remembered for Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011.  These types of accidents leave indelible scars on facilities, series, and fans.  Indelible.

Accidents like these leave other lasting marks, too.  Smaller fuel loads, fuel cells, and methanol were mandated after 1964.  Soon after the basal skull fracture death of Scott Brayton, HANS devices were mandatory.  Catch fence research is still ongoing after Dan Wheldon’s accident in Las Vegas.  Now, after Justin Wilson’s death, discussion about how to protect drivers in open cockpit cars is taking place.  Lasting.

But pathos has two faces.  While we are heartbroken for the family and friends of Justin Wilson, other far less tragic situations in the 16 races of the season leave us smiling, pulling our hair, or just shaking our heads.

  • Scott Dixon’s come-from-behind pulling-a-rabbit-out-of-his-hat championship surprised everyone and no one.  A strong, consistent team with the steadiest of drivers is a pretty good recipe for success.
  • Graham Rahal and his one car team proved once again that relatively equal equipment in a series can be exciting.  Fans were pulling for him to finish in the top three in the championship.  Underdogs make for compelling drama, and the series had plenty of that.  Nice to see Rahal mature into the racer people always hoped he would be.  Plus, he is the absolute best shill among all the drivers. *sips Steak ‘n Shake milkshake while hooking my car to a Battery Tender*
  • The Indy 500 qualification debacle once again proved that perception is reality.  Series officials looked like knee-jerk reactionaries bent on placating Chevy while hanging Honda out to dry.  The truth is probably different, but who can tell?  This is how it looks so that must be how it is.  People believe what they want to believe.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series quite often makes it easy to believe anything.
  • The loss of Derrick Walker as IndyCar president of competition and operations is another example of perception being reality.  The perception is even the best qualified individual cannot stay in this position.  I’m not sure Mark Miles, who has appropriated the job, is best qualified to head the competition aspect of the position.  Did anyone else hear General Alexander Haig’s declaration, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House”¹ in Miles acceptance of the job?
  • The ascension of Josef Newgarden to star status has begun.  The series needs him as the face of the series.  Real recognize real.
  • The failure of Penske Racing in general and Juan Pablo Montoya in particular down the stretch is another reason to like equal equipment.  With spec racing, money will buy a pretty good driver, but it can no longer guarantee a championship.  Still comes pretty close, though.
  • With all the talk about “date equity” for races, the series really needs “race equity” instead.  Let’s have the same races each year.  The maybe-but-not-quite race in Brazil and the rain-soaked one year experiment in New Orleans aside, the loss of Fontana and the life support of Pocono and Milwaukee leaves fans wondering not just what the dates of next year’s races will be, but what next year’s races will be.  It’s understood that races and promoters come and go, but IndyCar seems to dispatch both with an easy regularity.
  • All is not doom and gloom, though.  The addition of Road America and the possible addition of Phoenix could be harbingers of better things to come.  Or not.  Paying customers are what the series needs.
  • The TV ratings are up.  What a wonderful thing to be able to say.  It could also be said that figures lie and liars figure.  The hope that springs eternal is that high ratings usher in commercial partners and open pocketbooks.  At least it’s something to watch during the interminable off-season.

There you have it.  The season as it fades over the horizon was one to both remember and forget.  2016 cannot get here soon enough.

 

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  1.  The history behind Alexander Haig’s quote for the youngsters out there. http://adst.org/2014/03/al-haig-and-the-reagan-assassination-attempt-im-in-charge-here/

 

Show me a hero

This is not a eulogy.  I did not know Justin Wilson, who lost his life after being hit by debris in the IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway, but he was friendly when I met him in passing.  I completely trust the comments of his friends and competitors as they exoll his virtues as a man, husband, father, brother, friend, and racer.  Communities grow close through tragedy and grieve by sharing stories and sadness.  Like many others, I am uncomfortable at funerals and memorials and do not share my grief well.  It is mine and I keep it close.

My Twitter feed after the announcement of Justin Wilson’s death was filled with tributes and remembrances, as one would expect.  It as also filled with people trying to come to grips with the moment.  Some said they could no longer be fans of a sport where people died.  Auto racing has always been deadly, yet somehow we are surprised by the ugly fact when it claims another victim.  Mortal risk cannot be legislated out of a grand prix or boxing or horse racing or any other event where such risk is part of the allure.  Football still seems to maintain a huge fan base despite its long-term tragic effects.  It’s just that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) kills you slowly instead of all at once.  And since the football players who die from this disease brought on by violent contact are old and retired, it does not diminish the popularity of the sport.  Out of sight, out of mind.

But Justin Wilson’s death was not out of sight.  We saw it.  And it is certainly not out of mind.  People ask what can be done.  Canopies and windscreens may make the cars safer, but they cannot eliminate the specter of death.  The truth is simple: some things are dangerous.  Can the danger be mitigated?  Certainly.  Can it be eliminated?  Absolutely not.  Open-wheel racing will continue to research how to make racing safer.  They will never make it safe.

IndyCar drivers live on the knife’s edge always.  If someone else is a few tenths faster, then they have to be faster, too.  I contend that most drivers see racing through a zero-sum mentality – for every winner there is a loser.  The harsh reality is that auto racing, whether at Pocono, Indianapolis, Daytona, Le Mans, or a local short track, is zero-sum, also.  You win or you lose.  You live or you die.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”  He could have been writing about Justin Wilson.  He could also have been writing about the 126 police officers who died in the line of duty last year.  Or the 64 firefighters who perished.  Or the 6717 service men and women who have given the “last full measure of devotion”¹ in our country’s war on terror.  Heroes are all about us.

I love auto racing deeply.  From my first races at Sun Valley Speedway in Anderson, Indiana; Mt. Lawn Speedway in New Castle, Indiana; and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I was compelled to be a fan.  The color, sound, speed, and danger pulled me into racing’s orbit, and here I am still.  Justin Wilson, like the soldiers, police officers, and firefighters who gave their lives in service to their country and communities, made a choice to get into a car to test his mettle against other racers, speed, and death.  And next week, racers everywhere will get in their cars to do the same.  I salute them all.

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¹Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”

Five worthless opinions: 2015 Indy 500 Qualifications

The Verizon IndyCar Series makes me happy.  Normally, that happiness comes from the racing itself.  Other times, it comes from a series that continually makes news for all the wrong reasons.  In other words, the WO’s (worthless opinions) often write themselves.  Let me offer my thanks to IndyCar for once again making my job easier.

1.  The flying cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are absolutely a cause for concern.  The DW12 Dallara chassis has had an unfortunate tendency to have the wheels lift off the ground when contacting walls at high speed.  When first introduced, the chassis had an issue with yaw, which is defined as “to twist or oscillate around a vertical axis,” when making contact with walls at high speed.  The current iteration of the Chevy aero kit has shown a ugly tendency to have the rear wheels lift off the ground on contact, particularly with a half spin, putting the tail of the car into the wind.  At that point, the car becomes a kite, having the necessary elements of air speed and a large surface area to deflect the air downward as it speeds by.  Yikes.  Physics has laws that must be followed, even by aerodynamicists.

2. One of the terms being thrown around at Indy this week has been “computational fluid dynamics” or CFD.  This usage implies that really smart people are using really smart tools to make really smart decisions so there is nothing to worry about.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Move along.  We have the CFD unit in here to take care of things. With the lack of real-world testing, the series and teams have come to rely on algorithms to solve their aerodynamic problems.  How is that working out?

3.  Speaking of testing, the superspeedway aero kits did not really get much in the real world.  Airplanes are designed on computers and tested with software.  They are then given a rigorous series of real world flight tests, at tremendous risk to the test pilots, to ensure that they act as expected.  If not, then it is back to the drawing board.  As a cost-cutting measure and a way to provide parity in the series, the Verizon IndyCar Series severely limited testing, even with the new aero kits coming on-line.  As an additional monkey wrench, the series mandated holes be cut in the spec Dallara floor to decrease downforce.  In other words, the teams arrived knowing very little about the aero kits and have been allowed to try an insane number of aero combinations.  It has a little Wright Brothers feel to it. “Hey, Orville.  Let’s try this and see what happens!”  Just like airplanes, real testing is a vital component of development and safety.  More testing, please.

4.  The Verizon IndyCar Series certainly made an unpopular but arguably correct decision about qualifications at Indy.  Due to the rainout on Saturday and the continued flight of Chevy cars, teams were required to use their race aero set-ups for qualifying and the extra boost that was to provide a speed kick was taken away. Additionally, teams were only allowed one attempt to qualify.  Basically, the teams were told to take the cars off the knife edge that is the essence of Indy qualifying and make them stable and slower.  And if that didn’t work, then be reminded that you might not make the race if you wreck.  Point taken.  The runs were ho-hum, but the field got filled without incident. Poor Honda, though.  They did nothing wrong and were penalized for it.  And after the series played the safety card, any protest by Honda would be met by accusations that were against safety, freedom, apple pie, and the American way.  They cannot be happy.

5.  Do you need proof that there is power in social media?  After the rain washed out qualifications on Saturday, the IMS Twitter feed was letting patrons know that rain checks for Saturday would not be honored on Sunday, the explanation being that cars were on the track early and practiced.  Of course, the tickets said “Qualifications” in big letters and that did not happen.  Before Twitter, this would have been a non-starter as an issue.  People would have found out as they arrived on Sunday and been disappointed.  It may have made the paper on Monday, but not likely.  Immediately after IMS announced that people had to fork over more money for Sunday, you could feel the anger building on Twitter as more and more people started responding.  IMS felt the love fading and quickly changed its decision.  Power to the people

 

The English Premiere League Indy 500 qualifying

One of the greatest advancements in televised sports in recent years is cable broadcasters falling in love with European sports.  All year, a fan of live sports can crawl out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, and without putting on pants, watch F1 racing, Wimbledon tennis, British Open golf, Tour de France cycling, and English Premiere League soccer.  Truly, my sports cup runneth over.

The Premiere League is particularly interesting since competition is vital at both the top and bottom of the standings, or table, as they say on the broadcasts.  Suddenly, there it was.  The Premiere League soccer season is almost identical to the new Indianapolis 500 qualifying format.  Let me explain.

To rebuild the waning interest in the month of May at Indy, the Speedway in recent years changed from a two weekend window for qualifying to a one weekend format.  Great choice.  The only problem was the car count was so small that the idea of Bump Day and its inherent drama of dreams granted or crushed was really not worth following on national television.  Audiences need action and drama, and hopefully, the new format supplies both.

In the Premiere League, there is no tourney.  Teams play all year to determine a pecking order for entry into other tourneys such as the Champions League and the Europa League.  At the bottom of the table, the three worst teams in the league are relegated, or bumped, into a a lower league while the champions of lower leagues are moved up.  It is just like the new format for the Indy 500.  Once you become acquainted with its esoteric nature (and qualifying at Indy has always been esoteric) you discover why it will work so well.

All day on the Saturday of qualification, the drivers will try to put themselves into the Fast Nine Shootout.  Just like the top teams in the Premiere League, you guarantee yourself a spot in those three rows.  And just like soccer teams playing games all season to put themselves into the Champions League tourney the next year, the drivers have multiple attempts to qualify to put themselves in those top nine spots.  In other words, the teams have great reasons to attempt multiple qualifying runs.  Good for fans in attendance and on TV.

One of the reasons the bottom of the Premiere League table is compelling is because teams are guaranteed a huge payday if they stay in the league.  The final games played by those teams determine if they stay in the league.  The pressure is huge.   Likewise, the bottom three of the Saturday qualifiers at Indy are not assured a spot in the show.  They have to come back on Sunday and go through possible bumping.  With 34 cars this year, that ramps up the pressure.

For the teams in the middle, the real urgency is Saturday, as they try to stay away from the bottom three or get into the top nine.  After that, the pressure on Sunday is not to make a mistake and take a position in row four or five and parlay it into a position in row nine or ten.  It is much easier to pass cars in qualifying at Indy instead of passing them in the race.  Again, Sunday is also a compelling day.  Add to all of this the ability to make multiple attempts without withdrawing your time, and you have the recipe for some sweet qualifying activity.

Still confused?  Check out this infographic courtesy of IMS that explains the whole process.  My only disappointment is that I can no longer compare the old Snake Pit denizens to the crazy fans in the Premiere League.  I miss those Indy hooligans.

 

 

Sibling rivalry: the plight of the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis

People with older siblings understand the story. If your older brother or sister is anything you are not – smart, good-looking, athletic, popular, criminally insane – then you are constantly in the position of being compared, normally unfavorably. You hear the disappointment in every back-handed compliment and outright criticism:

“Those grades are okay.  Not as good as your brother’s, though.”

“Why can’t you take more pride in your appearance and dress like your sister?”

“You know that your brother averaged double figures when he played basketball.”

“Even though he went to prison, your brother was a real genius when it came organizing a distribution network and cooking meth in the barn.”

We have all heard it.  And it hurts.  So welcome to the family Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis!  Your little road race is cute, but look what your big brother built.

That really is the story.  The GP of Indianapolis will always be in the shadow of its older, more successful, and more popular sibling.  And truthfully, not much can be done about it.

I’m a fan of the road race at IMS.  Turn 1 (Turn 4 area on the oval) is exciting as hell.  Unless you are Juan Pablo Montoya, of course.  His quote after this year’s race dealt with a long, fast straight leading into a first gear corner and the expected carnage at the beginning of the race.  Point taken, JPM, although as a counterpoint I would mention that every driver knows that the aforementioned first gear corner is there.  Act accordingly.

The GP of Indy had some great stories.  Graham Rahal’s second place run once again proved that something is different on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.  It must be engineering since having his dad Bobby off the box couldn’t have that big of an effect, right?  A one car team with local sponsor Steak and Shake could add up to a tasty story line for the 500.

Will Power is stamping his dominance on the Verizon IndyCar Series.  He simply put on a show that stated he is all grown up and focused.  Finally.  He is the most dominant road racer in the series.  The oval at IMS remains his white whale, though.  He needs Ahab focus in the next two weeks.  Without the insanity, of course.

Even with these storylines, the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis is still the little brother tagging along for the ride because the parent company Hulman Motorsports said so.  The lengthy shadow cast by its much older brother simply cannot be overcome.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has done a masterful job of taking a month of May that had dwindled to the 500 and a convoluted qualifying weekend with barely enough cars to fill the 33 car field and expanded it to a three weekend month with two IndyCar races on two different courses at IMS sandwiching a convoluted qualifying weekend with barely enough cars to to fill the 33 car field.  Regardless of the attendance, a race with a title sponsor should be making money for the series/facility.

The problem is not the racing at the GP of Indy, nor is it the fact that it is a road race.  The problem is that it is not the Indy 500 and never will be.  Simply put, the big brother is just more popular than the little brother in everyone’s eyes.  Any racing event absolutely depends on local attendance.  While the Indianapolis 500 brings in fans from around the country, the majority of its fans are local.  These locals plan for the event.  They order tickets in advance, host parties, shop for food and beer like its Black Friday, and spend money like drunken sailors on leave.  They do it because the event is the thing.  It’s the Indy 500.  It’s a Midwestern Mardi Gras.  At the end of the month, they sober up and go back to sleep for another year.  They don’t have the love or the money for another event.  Going to a race at IMS is a massive undertaking.

All this leaves the GP of Indy waving its arms in the air and shouting, “Look at me!  Look at me!” to a populace that smiles and pats it on the head telling it how cute it is and then turns its attention to the fair-haired older sibling who always gets the accolades.  Fair it is not, but who said life was fair?  Even though the general admission tickets are an absolute bargain, and the spectator mounds offer sight lines to the best passing zones, the Indy area fans will always love the 500 more.

What does all this mean for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis?  Just keep trying to get everyone’s attention.  There is no need to cause trouble, act out, or start hanging out with unsavory characters.  A younger sibling in this situation has two choices: quit trying or get busy pleasing yourself instead of trying to compete with big brother.  My advice for the GP of Indy is simple.  Be yourself.  Or else spend years of therapy trying to come to grips with your feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.  Your choice.

Spending at the Speedway

The band ’63 Burnout has a song called “Trouble at the Speedway,” a very Dick Dale-ish surf guitar instrumental.  Good stuff.  The title made me ponder some of the current troubles at the Speedway.  Money was one that came to mind immediately.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am all for free enterprise and charging whatever the traffic will bear.  The object of business is, and always has been, profit.  I applaud IMS for finally monetizing everything in sight.  It’s the American way.

For years, IMS was the best value of any major sporting event in the world.  They could afford to be.  The track made money every year by having massive crowds for both Pole Day and Race Day.  Limited and very reasonably priced concession offerings sold well.  The corporation did not own a money-hemorrhaging racing series and simply mowed, painted, and repaired the facility until the next May.  Life was good.  All of the Hulman family had some folding money in their pockets and seats in a convertible for the parade as well as being Midwestern royalty reigning over a rather provincial outpost.  Who could ask for more?

Well, it seems the Speedway tired of being a once a year monument to speed, so they spent money like the lottery winners they were to make IMS a world class venue for other racing.  They erected the Tower Terrace Suites, made a goat ranch into a world class Pete Dye golf course, built a new Pagoda and garages, and added a road course in the middle of the once sacrosanct oval.  With all this building came NASCAR, F1, and the PGA.  The money train was on the tracks and rolling.  At least it was until F1, as it always does, found a better offer, until the golfers moved on, until the blush was off the NASCAR rose and the crowds dwindled, and until the formation of the IRL killed the popularity and profitability of the series and, to some degree, the Indianapolis 500.

There are a couple of different ways to deal with the loss of profitability.  The easiest way is to cut costs as IMS did.  Defer maintenance.  Sell your private jet.  Hire a skeleton crew to run your money-sucking series.  Deny requests to add much needed personnel.  Another way is to apply modern sports business knowledge to the idea of making more money.  Promote the product.  Hire the right people and let them work.  Add events.  Start charging for everything that has value.  This is Indy today.

Want to glamp? It will cost you.  Need preferred parking?  Pay up.  Need video boards?  The tickets cost more.  Hungry for a new cuisine or thirsty for a craft beer?  Pull out your wallet.  Want to watch practice?  Peel off a fin and a sawbuck ($15) for the privilege.  IMS should have marked everything up years ago but held onto the outdated notion of Tony Hulman that the facility and the race were public trusts.  While it is true that the track is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is still a business that needs to profit.  Do you really want to see the patrons howl?  Wait until the Speedway decrees that coolers are no longer welcome as a safety decision.  Talk about a new revenue stream!  And it is right for both safety and profit.  Nothing makes a capitalist happier than being able to justify profit in the name of Homeland Security.  The customers cannot argue.  I’m holding out hope that IMS uses a sponsor to offer a spectacular beer and cooler deal to the fans when the time comes, though.

Get used to it.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to get deep into your pocket for all the right reasons: profit and sustainability.  The old FRAM Oil Filter commercial used to have a mechanic saying, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”  For fans of the Indianapolis 500, later is now.  Pay up.

 

 

Why Indy is more than a race

After winning the Indy 500 in 1992, Al Unser, Jr. said, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”  He was right.  Somehow, words cannot always convey the emotional connection that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has on its fans.

Growing up in central Indiana, it was easy to fall in love with the month of May.  The peonies and lilacs bloomed, the weather warmed, checkered flags appeared in all the newspaper ads, and the Indy 500 took place on Memorial Day.  The topics of conversation were how the rain was affecting the farmers and who was going fast at the track.  And it was always “the track.”  No more needed to be said.

The Indy 500 was the only race that registered on the national consciousness. Sorry, Daytona.  You are a more recent icon.  Some of the long-time Indy 500 fans’ bitterness toward stock car nation is how it has eclipsed not IndyCar racing, but the Indy 500 itself.  No one wants to see his idol tarnished.  And after the IRL split from CART, the Indy 500 lost some of its luster and has been trying to burnish its image ever since.

Of course, to those of us locals, the image never lost its shine.  The edifice always stood at 16th and Georgetown, and we could visit it anytime.  It dominated the sports scene in Indy.  Much of the world woke up to Indianapolis on Memorial Day, but the true believers celebrated the entire month.  Students skipped school to watch practice.  You always went to at least one of the four days of qualifications even if you did not go to the race.  It was headline news in both local Indianapolis papers all month, and all of the local TV stations devoted coverage to the race.  It seemed that every business had a promotion connected to racing and checkered flags.  Simply put, May in Indy was the 500.  There was no escaping.

The result was that you became a fan of something that was yours in some indefinable way.  Central Indiana, for all of its Chamber of Commerce PR, really had nothing else of note to brag about.  It was always a little stunning to realize that this world class racing event was just down the street.  To be honest, most Indy 500 fans in Indiana cannot tell you the history of IndyCar, the IRL, or CART.  Those are just names.  But ask them about Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, or Helio Castroneves and they will tell you all about where they were and what they were doing while they watched or listened to the race.  The 500 is part of the fabric of Hoosier existence, the warp and the weft of our lives.

In the age of social media with its immediacy of opinions, fans of the 500 often find themselves at odds with out-of-state or series-first fans who object to the hagiography that builds up around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  These fans often allude to to fact that it is just another race.  It is most assuredly not.  It is a time marker, a cultural touchstone, and a crown jewel to its Indiana fans.  All good race fans have their favorite stories about the month, the track, and the race.  Even its detractors have their stories about why they don’t like it.

Hoosiers, despite recent adverse political publicity, are a friendly and accepting lot, and completely understand why people wish, if only for one month, that they could be one of us.  While we cannot always wax poetic about it, we know that Indy is more than a race.  Just ask us.

 

The Chevy aero kit: flicks, kicks, and wedges

Chevrolet revealed its aero kit at the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series media day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week.  Finally.  Even with a sharp video and a detailed picture with all the bits and bobs highlighted and named the result was, well, about what was expected.  This is not meant as disparagement.  Really, what did the racing public expect?  Winged Furies?  What they got was a compromise, one that was settled upon during the tenure of Randy Bernard and was so far down the road that there was no going back.  What they got was differentiation without crippling development costs for the teams.  Goal accomplished.

Chevy and Honda, whose own aero kit will have the sheet pulled off on March 15, were both toiling under the restriction of the Dallara DW12 spec chassis the pieces had to fit.  Did people really expect the aero design to radically change the looks of the car?  It is different, but only the most aware of the IndyCar cognoscenti will really notice or care.  And that is acceptable.  As long as the aero kit capped Dallara DW12 looks like a proper race car – and it does – then everything is copacetic.

Making the assumption that the Honda kit is not radically different, does it really matter how they look?  Of course it doesn’t.  What matters is how they race.  Hopefully, neither manufacturer misses the target and creates a disparity between the two.  A situation like that doesn’t help the series, the teams, or the fans.  The racing the past two years has been superb, and anything that changes the balance of power too drastically can hurt the series.  Chevy and Honda need to be different, and both want to win.  Great.  But neither needs to embarrass the other.  The series needs competition, not dominance.  The series, teams, and fans need the engine builders to be happy and stay in the series.  What is really needed is another deep-pocketed engine manufacturer with a willingness to design an aero package.

If aero kits keep the hard-core fans happy, or at least in a reasonable facsimile of happiness, and keep the engine builders interested, then by all means keep building them.  Of course, the series might want to make sure the parameters of the chassis will support the engineering of the kits.  Both Honda and Chevy were a little put out to be informed that the downforce generated by the new designs went beyond the expected tolerance of the Dallara suspension pieces.  This was discovered, of course, after the fact and required significant change by the manufacturers.  Great aero engineering.  Great downforce.  Not so great communication.  In any case, both Honda and Chevy have invested time, effort, and wads of cash.  They each expect to win.

Aero kits having any effect on fan development is highly unlikely.  Fans pull for drivers – not aero kits, not sponsors, not engines, not chassis.   In today’s world, the fans that IndyCar wants to find most likely do not care about aero parts called upper flicks, main flicks, top flicks, side floor kicks, wheel wedges, and inboard fences.  They never will.  They need to be entertained by the racing and engaged by the drivers.  Those are the entrées.  Everything else, including aero kits, are side dishes.  If the main storyline in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year is how one aero kit is better than the other, then the series will once again fail to highlight what it has in abundance: great drivers and great racing.

 

 

 

 

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