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2016 Indy 500 Turn 3 Diary

5:10 AM

As we roll out into the darkness, the family is restive¹.  There are murmurs of discontent from the younger element about arising at 4:00 AM.  My explanation about heeding IMS president J. Douglas Boles warnings about traffic and long lines at the gates fall on increasingly militant ears regarding my tenure as high potentate of our annual pilgrimage.  I will keep an eye on the more vocal of the group.  My anxiety increases as we are already 10 minutes behind the scheduled time of departure.

5:37 AM

We arrive at our first rendezvous in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood of Indianapolis.  After the perfunctory comfort stops, we pose for pre-dawn pictures.  I stay in the shadows, worried once again about lines, parking, and recalcitrant Yellow Shirts waiting at IMS.  Our caravan grows to three vehicles, again increasing my anxiety as images of stop lights and blissfully unaware family members causes digestive discomfort.

6:05 AM

We arrive on 30th Street via Moller Road and move briskly past the Coke Lot towards our parking in the North 40.  Parking tagless drivers are denied entry to the Coke Lot, resulting in hooting and jeering from the line of cars waiting to park.  Schadenfreude is strong in a race day crowd.  Better you than us, bub.  The traffic stops.  We wait moodily.

6:29 AM

We enter the North 40 parking lot, our lead car deftly maneuvering past a slow line and cutting in at the gate, both perplexing and irritating a yellow shirted whistle blower standing guard.  Score one for the proletariat.  We arrive at our parking spot.

6:56 AM

The mood darkens.  It seems that the celery salt for early morning Bloody Marys has been left behind.  Like true pioneers, we persevere.

7:00-9:00 AM

Breakfast, camaraderie, lies, and insults follow in succession.  A small contingent breaks from the alcohol induced early morning lethargy and enters the track for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.  I go along, acting as our all-knowing leader.  I imagine myself as Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans and mention this to the group.  My nephew says, “Last of the pains in the asses, more like it.” I take it as a compliment.

9:30-11:30 AM

I enter the NE Vista alone as my “family” eats tenderloins and ascend to Row NN Seat 1 in Section 27.  This is always a soothing moment.  I watch the parade of dignitaries and was truly impressed by the 33 museum cars that rolled by in review.  I imagined what the track looked like when it was full of those cars.  Pretty cool.

Pre-Race

One issue with the NE Vista is the disconnect with the action on the main straight.  While most fans see what is getting ready to happen, we mostly guess.  The upgrade in the sound system was noticed and appreciated.  The absence of the Florence Henderson’s warble was much appreciated.  Darrius Rucker’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was completely acceptable and the fast movers in the flyover were on point.   “Back Home Again in Indiana” by Josh Kaufman and The Indianapolis Children’s Choir was as good as Jim Nabor’s ever was.  There, I said it.  Let that Indiana boy do it forever.  The Hulman family’s multi-generational “Start your engines!” command was a nice touch, covering up an increasingly awkward moment.  And balloons!

Race

As expected, the Hondas were wicked fast and passing was nonstop.  If we have to have spec racing, this is the spec racing to have.  A radio or scanner was needed to help keep the leaders straight.  The beautiful video screen is wonderful, as long as the information presented there is big enough to be seen.  It’s not.  The scroll at the top of the screen is impossible to see without binoculars.  Either increase the size of the scroll or find a new style.  This was very frustrating to everyone in our section without exception.  I suggest the leadership sit in my seat and try to see the screen.  If they do, they will make changes.  The win by a fuel-saving Alexander Rossi was met by a collective shrug of the shoulders, not because he was a rookie without IndyCar pedigree, but because his ascension to the top spot caught everyone by surprise, announcers and fans alike.  I memory serves, fan favorite Dario Franchitti won in similar fashion.  This was expert strategy, plain and simple.  If an earlier pit road incident had not taken out Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell, things may have been different.  Rossi is an American driver in an American series who won the crown jewel as a rookie.  That’s a good story.  He never put a wheel wrong all month. An 82 year old Florence Henderson, denied an opportunity to sing, found her way into Victory Lane to kiss the winner.  This is a rather dubious new tradition, but I can guarantee no other race has it.

Potpourri  

It seems the denizens of the NE Vista were remembered by their overlords this year.  Food tents and trucks were everywhere.  Potent potables were all around, including a very tasty Fuzzy’s lemonade.  It felt good to be part of the race again.  Of course, the NE Vista was denied its opportunity  to toast the winner with commemorative plastic bottles of milk.  So we cheered, milkless, but not altogether bereft like past races.  The Yellow Shirts were not in evidence as much as in the past.  In fact, there were very few along the walkway in the Vista, which allowed a veritable throng to stand next to the fence and revel in the speed, noise, and proximity of the cars.  Our exit down the back stairs, closed for the duration of the race, was fine until we stumbled across the carcasses of quite possibly two or three pigeons that were left on the landings of the stairs by a nameless predator.  Ugh.

5:23 Post Race

I once again lost the race pool to a mocking relative.  After food and more alcohol induced frivolity, we packed up our empty coolers and our sunburns and headed home.  Many kudos to the soul who somehow managed to part the cable that kept the inhabitants of the North 40 from cutting unassisted onto Hulman Boulevard.  It saved us at least an hour in line.  Muchos gracias, my unknown hermano borracho.

7:38

Arrived home, spent but happy, and settled onto the back porch to begin planning next year’s foray.  Maybe an earlier start is in order.

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¹ restive – unable to keep still or silent and becoming increasingly difficult to control, especially because of impatience, dissatisfaction, or boredom.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Pole Day at Indy – Saturday should have been Sunday

The Saturday qualifications for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 were fantastic, fabulous, superb, scintillating, tense, and whatever other words can be found in a thesaurus.  It’s just too bad they didn’t count.  Let’s just pretend they didn’t happen and do it all over for television.  What did Sunday bring? The wind made it edgy for spots 10-33, but the drama of making the race was missing, as were all of those great adjectives.  Sunday qualification was perfunctory with a little bit of mystery.  They had to take a risk for no other reason than TV.  James Hinchcliffe, coming back from life-threatening injuries here last year, edged Josef Newgarden for the pole in the feel good story of the month, but the day could have been even better.

ABC wanted a show that fit neatly into its Sunday afternoon time slot and got what it wanted: nice images of cars going fast without the drama of making the race.  Real risk without only one real reward.

For a while on Saturday, it seemed that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had its mojo back.  Cars were on the edge and drivers were hanging it out.  Teams had to make the risky choice to get in the “Fast Lane” to qualify and withdraw their times or sit tight with their times.  Real drama in real time was finally happening again at Indy in May.  But other than for the Fast Nine, it was meaningless.

IMS has spent the last decade tinkering with the qualification format, confusing fans, media, and teams in the process.  The current format would be so much more dramatic if there were more than 33 cars available to qualify.  Truthfully, IndyCar fans should be thankful that 33 cars even entered the race.  When the series struggles to have 21 or 22 cars at every other venue, it is unrealistic to expect teams, cars, and engines to magically appear in May.  How much better would the day one show have been with the bottom of the grid trying to make the show while the top of the grid was trying to make the Fast Nine?

If there were more cars than spots, it would be like the English Premier League soccer table.  The teams at the top try to qualify for the Champions League while the ones at the bottom try to avoid being relegated to a lower league.  The concept works because of the drama at both ends of the table.  With only 33 cars, the only drama is at the top.  Other than the top 15 or so cars, there is no incentive to have another go at it if you are at the bottom.  The pathos is the heartbreak of missing the race, not missing the top nine.  Somehow, it is difficult to feel too sorry for a Marco Andretti or an Alexander Rossi missing out on the Fast Nine Shootout.  Exciting, yes.  Entertaining, yes.  Heartbreaking, no.

All props should go to Honda, though.  With five of the first six spots, Honda teams can smile and not worry about strakes and domed skids.  The sandbagger sobriquet for Chevy can be forgotten.  Honda is back.

So on Sunday, cars moved up or down on the grid, motors expired, gearboxes proved recalcitrant, trash bags blew out of cars, and Alex Tagliani found the end of the pit wall.  And for what?  To move up a couple of spots after surviving the four toughest laps in motor sports the day before.  The Fast Nine went by quickly, with SPM’s James Hinchcliffe holding off ECR’s Josef Newgarden for pole position for the 2016 Indianapolis 500.  Getting the pole is a big deal.  It is emotional.  The Fast Nine was exciting, no doubt about that. The cars were on the edge, and the drivers were hanging it out…again.  But let us see everybody hang it out with the clock ticking down to 6:00 PM, not just counting down the cars left to go.  Let decisions be made and hearts be broken.  Saturday should have been Sunday.

 

 

 

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/

 

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.

 

Millennials and the future of auto racing

Imagine a future where the whole concept of a car culture shifts.  A future where the youth of America are not overly concerned about muscle cars like the 60’s and 70’s or the rolling status symbols of the 80’s and 90’s.  A future where youth culture is concerned about environmental issues like CO² emissions, climate change, and the depletion of fossil fuels.  And don’t forget about a future where technology rules and everything is “on demand.”  Now imagine how that all gets rolled into the auto racing fans of the future.  Those fans, better known as Millennials¹, are here now.

Crusty old Bernie Ecclestone at F1 has made it clear that he, and by extension F1, are not interested in creating new fans since young people do not have any money.  Bernie has always used himself as F1’s target audience; he’s only interested in other rich guys.  So while he is waiting for all those types to spring into existence, he has alienated his European promoters and allowed his teams to sink under the weight of enormous costs.  Over at NASCAR, the one-time American racing bully and its partners have been pulling seats from all of their tracks to make tickets more elite.  Well-managed but sometimes tone-deaf, the series is slowly moving away from the mainstream and back to its guns, camouflage, and beer Southern roots.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  They know their core audience and go after it hard.

All of this begs the following question: Is auto racing too expensive and elite as in F1 or too rural and redneck as in NASCAR for the Millennials to follow?  Whatever series captures this demographic while simultaneously keeping their own core fans will be the one to assert their dominance.

It would seem Formula E would have an edge here.  This electronic series, described as having forklift motors and Formula Ford chassis with bad tires, certainly checks some boxes of the Millennials: it’s green, technologically relevant, and cool.  The racing, while slow and quiet, is really pretty competitive when you get past the lack of sound and speed.  The fact is that Millennials might not know the difference.  Plus, they have some big name sponsorship with BMW, DHL, Michelin, TAG Heuer, and Qualcomm.  What series wouldn’t want that?  What it does not have is an existing core fan base.  It’s starting from scratch.

Which brings us to the Verizon IndyCar Series.  This is the series best positioned to connect young fans to old fans and begin its ascent to greater popularity.  The series certainly brings a rabid, albeit small, fan base.  Unlike F1, it is not sinking under he weight of outrageous cost.  The argument can be made that it was sinking under the weight of less-than-stellar management.  No longer.  Technology giant Verizon markets the phones and data that Millennials desire.  That checks another box.  The racing is superb, which trumps the slo-mo action on the Formula E circuit.  The Verizon IndyCar Series’ willingness to race on any type of circuit gets it into places that F1 and NASCAR cannot go: city centers.  IndyCar can bridge the past to the future.

Need more?  The introduction of the new aero kits has been big news from the non-traditional media as well as the racing media.  Articles appeared in Wired, The Verve, DesignBoom.com, Fox News, USA Today, and Jalopnik.  Okay, Jalopnik is a car site but it’s not a racing site.  The article there is outstanding.  IndyCar has some buzz going on about things that are not the bad news of recent years or Indy 500-centric.  Just as yellow flags breed more yellow flags in a race, good coverage breeds more good coverage in the media.  At least IndyCar fans hope that is true.

IndyCar promoters should look to the Indy 500 and IMS for lessons on how to hook Millennials while keeping their core fans.  At the corporate Snake Pit in the infield at the 500 this year, Millennials will pulse to the beat of world-class EDM (electronic dance music) DJ Kaskade.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who this is.  The Millennials do.  And it matters if you want to hook them.  Can you imagine this at Daytona?  IMS caters to its other demographics with rock and roll on Carb Day and a top flight country show on Saturday.  This stuff matters!  If a race fan doesn’t care about it, great.  Just go to the race.  You are an important demographic, too.  Quit being so stuffy about it all.

The ascension of the Verizon IndyCar Series is under way.  Real business people are running the show, real research is being done, and they have a real product to sell.  As the character of Penny Lane explains so well in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous, “It’s all happening.”  Be there or be square.

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¹ Millennials are the demographic group following Generation X.  Birth years of this group range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.  These are the coveted money spenders of the future.

IndyCar’s open-cockpit conundrum

Historically speaking, it can be said that IndyCar, in all its various names and acronyms through the years, is the oldest continuous open-wheel and open-cockpit racing in the world.  To a great extent, the concept of open-wheel and open-cockpit is what defines the genre.  In fact, no race other than the Indy 500 can say that they have been been racing the same basic concept of cars for 100 years.  That is why it is so surprising that an echo of support for some type of canopy is rolling into the rules makers of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Political correctness, with all of its attending hypocrisy, is hard at work changing the looks and history of a true American original.  The arguments against open-cockpits cannot easily be refuted.  The moral high ground has already been staked out.  If you support open-cockpits you are against safety, family, and life.  Open-cockpit fans are dinosaurs who only come out to see wrecks and death.  Open-cockpit fans are ghouls who revel in carnage.  What hypocrisy.  Everyone is thrilled by the risk.  Everyone.

Fans come out to see racing for many reasons, but one reason is a powerful trump to the others.  Fans like the thrill.  To have thrills, there must be an element of danger, and in IndyCar that element of danger has always been the open-cockpit.  And make no mistake, it is dangerous.  The chance of intrusion by debris or fencing exists; that is truth.  And debris and fencing will always be there.  It is part and parcel of the racing that the drivers understand from the first time they sit in a real race car.  Racing is dangerous.  That danger is part of what draws fans and contestants to the track.

No doubt about it, the danger in racing should be mitigated.  The real question is how much.  Rear bumpers were a design feature on the current Dallara to keep cars from climbing on one another and getting airborne.  The Dallara chassis was updated to help prevent yaw events and keep the cars grounded during side-impact accidents.  The new aero kits will have debris fin options in front of the driver.  Barriers against intrusion are being added to protect the drivers’ lower bodies.  Even though many of the factors of risk have been lessened, the element of risk must still be there, or it is not really racing.  No new fans are going to come to the track because someone says, “Let’s go watch IndyCar.  It’s really safe!”  We fool ourselves if we don’t think danger sells.

Open-cockpits in IndyCar are no less a tradition than 33 on the starting grid at Indy and a bottle of milk for the winner afterwards.  They make the series unique and dangerous.  And IndyCar needs those qualities as it builds the momentum and the fan base for 2015 and beyond.  A canopy on an IndyCar is a regression to a sports car prototype.  The series needs to sell what it has, speed and danger.  In fact, speed and danger are what IndyCar racing has always had, and the open-cockpit is one of the reasons why.  This is one time the fans need to say to IndyCar, “Please don’t change.  We love you just the way you are.”

 

A scary IndyCar Halloween

How about all the news out of IndyCar since the season ended in September?  You remember, right?  A race was announced for Brazil…and, uh….wait a minute…I know there’s something else.   Oh, James Hinchcliffe changed teams and has a beer named after him, and Simon Pagenaud is now driving for Roger Penske.  Did I miss anything?  The long off-season of the Verizon IndyCar Series has begun with what many predicted: a scary lack of anything resembling the buzz that IndyCar so desperately needs.  The fear that IndyCar will not build on its spectacular racing and personalities is only one of the tricks that the series may have played on it.  Here are a few more.

I sure would love to start planning my IndyCar travels for 2015.  To do that, of course, the series would have to release a 2015 schedule.  With all the talk about the importance of date equity, it seems that movement to new dates for Toronto, Milwaukee, Fontana, and Pocono may be in the offing.  Mark Miles and his team have suddenly gone quiet on when the schedule will come out after falling into the old IndyCar trap of talking about races before the checks have cleared.  Cue the sound of rattling skeletons in the closet.

Will one of the aero kits being designed (and clamored for by internet trolls everywhere) shift the balance of power between Honda and Chevy so much that the season will become class racing?  Could one aero kilt be dominant on ovals and another on road and street courses?  Sure.  The old Law of Unintended Consequences could be in full effect here.  Be careful what you ask for.  The racing last year was great, but that is no guarantee that next year will be.

Derrick Walker has stated that the series is closing on on having race control sorted out.  This recurring Nightmare on 16th Street could wreak havoc on the credibility the league has been so desperately pursuing if the decision is somehow mishandled.  With the track record of the series, this has the potential to be a flaming paper bag full of potential problems on the front porch of the series.  On one side, the hire needs to have the support of the owners and drivers form the beginning.  Beaux Barfield was an outlier and his support in the paddock was lukewarm, at best.  Brian Barnhart was a control freak that was liked in the paddock but had terrible PR with the public.  How about somewhere in the middle?  No tricks here, please.

One of the things I like about the holiday triumvirate of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas is the buzz.  You cannot escape the marketing might of corporate America from October to December.  Granted these marketing mavens have a lot of money to throw around, but they are out there selling every day.  Where’s the sell, IndyCar?  I know it is too early to have commercials on television, but where’s the buzz?  Did you know that John Green (3,296,107 Twitter followers), best-selling author of The Fault in Our Stars, was in the two-seater at IMS?  How about Deadmau5 (3,015,012 Twitter followers) being on track with James Hinchcliffe?  It should be noted that IMS did tweet about these appearances as they happened, but not much before or after.  Build the buzz.  Both of these artists have more followers than the total viewers of every IndyCar race the last two years combined.  Leverage that.  And if Deadmau5 plays at the Snake Pit this year, that is HUGE, even if you have no idea who he is.  He wears a mouse head as he DJ’s electronic dance music, for what it’s worth.  Costumes are big this time of year, right?

So Happy Halloween, IndyCar!  The fans are still waiting for their treats, but keeping their fickle interest may be the biggest trick of all.

 

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