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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.

 

Adios, ovals. It’s been good to know you.

History is replete with species that didn’t make it:  the passenger pigeon, the dodo, Dragon Racing.  You can add ovals other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series to the list of auto racing endangered species.  And like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Dragon Racing, the reasons for the potential demise are human .

Automobile oval racing is inherently an American product.  The county and state fairgrounds’ horse tracks allowed racing to be brought to the masses.  Indianapolis may have received the publicity, but oval racing came of age on dirt all across the country.  As for-profit board tracks and dirt ovals started popping up, fans had accessible and entertaining racing.  Life was good for many years.

But dirt gave way to pavement.  It was faster, cleaner, and modern.  Fans flocked to see the stars of their day drive in circles in open-wheel race cars.  The modern rear-engined IndyCar has its roots in F1 and road courses, but they were also designed for ovals.  The specs of the two series diverged.

The current DW12 is a robust beast that handles road and street courses well and is extremely competitive on ovals if the series gets the aerodynamic rules right for a particular track.  Let’s face it; it was designed for Indianapolis.  Even de-tuned, it is close enough to as fast as anyone wants to go there.  Recent Indy 500’s have had edge-of-your-seat racing and piss-your-pants passing.  That’s good, right?

Well, with that kind of action, why are ovals drying up like autumn leaves in October?  We can rehash the old reasons like the stubbornness of CART, the willfulness of Tony George, the ascendancy of NASCAR, and the ineptness of IndyCar management.  All are true, to one degree or another, and have led us to this point.  This point being one where no one wants to host and promote an oval and, apparently, no one wants to watch a race on one either.

People want to be entertained.  IndyCar may have the best on-track product of any major racing series, but they do not put on much of a show at an oval.  A road or street course will have on-track action throughout a weekend with the likes of three Mazda Road to Indy series, the Pirelli World Challenge, the Tudor Series, and Robbie Gordon’s Stadium Trucks as well as a circus-like atmosphere at street courses.  Indianapolis gets away with race day because of the tradition, pageantry, and debauchery, but even Indy has lost the shine on qualification weekend.

The Indy 500 is moving in the right direction, though.  Concerts and glamping helped this year.  Other venues need to follow suit, and the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to help.  Promoters are treating ovals like the toxic money-loss that they are.  IndyCar needs to pack up its own circus, support series, and musical performances and take them on the road.  Once an oval is popular and profitable, the series can wring more money for its services or allow the promoter to do his or her own thing.

If the series really wants ovals on the schedule, it has to do something.  If a business has a supply that no one want, they need to manufacture the demand.  That’s promotion.  IndyCar has made a big splash with its recent hires and series sponsorship. Now it needs to perform.

William Shakespeare wrote that “What’s past is prologue.”¹  If you don’t mind a moment of existentialism², we are always in THIS moment.  There is no other.  It doesn’t matter what brought ovals here, it only matters what the series does now to save a vanishing breed.  Let’s hope they find them worth saving.

 

1.  The quote is from The Tempest.  In the play, it helps justify murder.  That seems excessive.  I’m just looking for a little promotional help from the series.

2.   existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.  I think IndyCar fans should have a strong vocabulary.  It makes it easier to insult NASCAR fans and run away before they figure it out.

 

 

 

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

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

Ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The new month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is behind us, and as the sunburn, hangovers, tenderloins, and poor choices recede into our memories, it is best that we all reflect on the events before they fade away completely.  So as not to break any new ground with creative thought, I would like to look at recent events through the conceit of the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  This three part series will look at one aspect each day.  Today, we look at the good.

The Good

1.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is absolutely going to be a good Indy 500 champion.  I have always been rather lukewarm towards RHR.  He seems to say the right things and avoids controversy.  Fair enough.  His two passes of Helio Castroneves for the lead in the closing laps of the 500 were gutsy and aggressive and belied his rather vanilla persona.  When Castroneves throws his samba blocking moves on, he’s more than tough to get around.  Hunter-Reay’s quotes in Victory Lane showed an emotion previously kept hidden and that, along with his refreshing honesty, resonated with me.  He truly gets the 500.

2.  Hunter-Reay said in his post race interview that he was “a happy American boy.”  Although it may seem jingoistic, an American winning the 500 is important to a series that currently runs all but one race on American soil.  The lifeblood of the Verizon IndyCar Series is the red, white, and blue flag waving fans that were in abundance on Memorial Day in Indianapolis.  We can only hope that the series is able to capitalize on this American winner of the 500 more than they did the same winner of the series in 2012.  Wait, did I snarkily offer a “bad” in here?  Sorry.  I will try to stick with the script.

3.  As expected, the racing was great.  What more do the fans want?  There were multiple passes for the lead, including those by RHR and Castroneves in the closing laps that required more than a little sand.  The cars once again protected drivers like Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell in HARD hits.  Give me safety over aesthetics any time.  Fie on the fans who decry this ugly beauty.¹  The DW12 is a great race car, no matter how it looks.  And it is ugly.

3.  The red flag at the end of the race, while unexpected and without precedent, was good for the fans in attendance and the TV audience.  As a traditionalist in general, I initially thought that one more IMS accepted protocol was going down the drain.   But after seeing the debris from Townsend Bell’s crash and watching the SAFER barrier being repaired, I realized it made the race better.  Change is sometimes good, even if it causes apoplexy in the hard-core constituency.  Who knew?

4.  The crowd was not just good at the race, it was great.  The Coke Lot was full at 7:30 AM as we arrived at the Speedway.  I have not seen that in 25 years.  Of course the downside of that is the Coke Lot was full of Coke Lot type denizens at 7:30 AM.  Estimates  of the crowd were up to 230,000.  Don’t let those empty seats fool you.  The place was full.  The lines to get into the facility that made life miserable last year were not issues.  The purchased parking credentials in the North 40/Lot 7 were another story, though.  Dang.  There I go again with the snark about one of the “bad” issues.  An official for the Speedway told me that ticket sales were up 25% this year.  Indy is back, baby.

5.  Although the commercials on ABC seemed interminable after I got a chance to watch, the pre-race portion is still the best around.  The network wove in Memorial Day, human interest, and race goodies in just the right proportion.  Watching the race in HD, particularly the in-car shots, is absolutely thrilling.  Although not “bad” by definition, I do find the constant video and interviews of the WAGS a little cloying.  Nobody ever yells “Show us the wives and girlfriends for god’s sake!” as a race winds down.  Nobody.  Ever.

6.  The pre-race ceremonies at IMS for the 500 are nonpareil.  If you have never witnessed it in person, put it on your list.  The fact of the meaning of Memorial Day is always there, as it should be.  I hope that IMS, in its quest for more profit, never turns the pre-race into a sponsored circus to make a quick buck.  It is already the gold standard.  Keep it that way.  With that said, I really will miss Jim Nabors, a B-List singer and actor who found a home in Speedway, Indiana on Memorial Day weekend.  He sang “Back Home Again” the right way.  Please IMS, don’t bring in an oddball assortment of record label sponsored train wrecks to audition.  Find another baritone who gets Indy and can make it each May for the next 30 years or so.  The name is not as important as the song.  Do NOT mess this up.

7.  The month of May is back as an event in Indy.  After years of condensing the month due to lack of fan interest, the gang in the blue glass edifice on 16th and Georgetown finally packed in enough activities to interest new fans.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the new Time Trials weekend, Carb Day, the Jason Aldean concert, glamping, and the electronic dance music in the Snake Pit on race day all added fans through the turnstiles.  The numbers for the month could be pushing 350,000 fans.  Do the math.  More fans = $$$.  $$$ = more racing.  More racing = happy fans.  Repeat.

That’s the good, great, and just okay as well as some sub-textual bad that just keeps popping up.  Sorry about that.  Tomorrow brings the defined “bad” of the race.  And possibly a little more snark.

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¹  In my continuing effort to bring culture to racing, I used the oxymoron “ugly beauty” to describe the Dallara DW12.  An oxymoron is when two opposite terms are used together for effect.  Old Billy Shakespeare used them often when describing bear-baiting and cock fights, so there is some tradition of sporting usage.

Sitting in judgement of Indy 500 Time Trials

Suffice to say that opinions on the new qualification format at IMS for the Indianapolis 500 are mixed.  As a trained observer (I’m not), I have the opportunity to listen in on the conversations of media types, drivers, owners, and fans.  What follows is a sampling of what these different groups have to say about qualifying at Indy.  These quotes may or may not have really happened.  Go with the latter.

Old Time Local Media: “It’s a travesty.  Why, I had to park all the way over on the golf course.  I have a bad knee, a bad hip, and a bad attitude.  What would all those journalists from the 50’s and 60’s say about this parking?  I remember when the place was packed for the first day of qualifications.  Those were real drivers.  I could never really explain the old qualifying rules, but they were much better than these new ones.  Did I mention the parking.”

Modern National Media: *Crickets*

Drivers: “What the hell?  Do people know how hard it is to run flat out around this place for four laps ONE time?  Huh?  Do they?  And now they are asking us to do it on two days with chances for do-overs with no penalty.  What is wrong with these people?  This is incredibly dangerous stuff.  Wait.  Is your mic on?  Sorry.  I meant to say that the drivers are in full support of the series and IMS in their quest to bring excitement and fans back to qualifications.  A rising tide lifts all ships.”

Owners:  “We are busting our tails chasing sponsors who demand exposure and TV time.  You can believe that we support anything that helps us get this publicity for our partners.  Yes, it’s a risk for our equipment and drivers, but it’s one we are willing to take.  Anything for publicity…I mean the series.”

Hard-core Fans:  “Qualifications are ruined.  The split changed everything.  We are the only ones who really care about the history of the race and IMS.  Tony Hulman, Wilbur Shaw, and Carl Fisher would roll over in their graves if they knew what was happening.  The esoteric nature of the old qualifying rules is what separated the casual fan from the real fans.  A real fan is willing to work to understand the format.  The only redeeming feature of the new rules is that they are even more confusing than the old rules.  THAT we like since you really have to care about IndyCar to bother learning them.”

Casual Fans: “What new qualifying rules?  The fastest car is on the pole, right?  I have Twitter, Facebook, and the IndyCar 14 app on my phone.  Who needs to know about rules?  I can stream the qualifying and DVR what is not streamed.  Why does anybody care about what the rules are?  We just want to see the cars go fast.  Aren’t Hardwell and NERVO going to be in the Snake Pit this year?  The cars sure look pretty when they go by.  I liked the balloons.”

There you have it.  That’s the real skinny on what people are saying about the new qualifying format.  You can find the truth anywhere.  Always remember that this is your source for lies and innuendo.

 

Indy 500 Time Trials: a new day is dawning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ten Worthless Opinions: 2014 Month of May Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peonies, lilacs, and the Indy 500

Editor’s note: I wrote the following for The Polk Street Review, Noblesville, Indiana’s best (and only) literary review.  The book was divided into monthly sections this year, and because of my love for the Indy 500, I was asked to write about the month of May.  It touches on a little more than just the race.  If you grew up in small-town Indiana in the 1960’s, you will understand.

Early each spring, my neighbors look out their windows and see me standing by my garage staring at the ground.  The grass is not yet green, and the leaves on the trees are still buds.  My neighbors don’t know it, but I’m waiting for my old friend the peony bush to push its way out of the mulch and thus begin my countdown to the month of May.

I’m a perennial guy.  You can keep your petunias, begonias, and marigolds.  An annual just doesn’t have the heart of a perennial.  They may last longer and have prettier blooms, but annuals are just so transitory.  Give me reliability over flash anytime.  Perennials are something you can trust.  The perennials I trust bloom three times in the month of May: once with the peony, once with the lilac, and once with the Indianapolis 500.

The peony bush requires some explanation.  I remember being taught that the peony, pronounced with three syllables and a long “e” sound, was our state flower. I never connected that flower with the peony bush, pronounced with two syllables that sound like  pine with a “y” at the end: piney.  That’s how it was pronounced in the Shirley, Indiana of my youth.  I was stunned to find out that they were the same flower.  The peony is one of the hoi polloi of flowers, a blue collar bloom if there ever was one.  It’s deep green leaves and stalks grow quickly and sport massive buds that bloom into large, heavy, ant covered flowers that explode and fade in the month of May.  After that riot of color, it resumes a plebeian life of ugliness and lives out the year on the borders of properties, waiting again for its fleeting moment of glory.

Small town people understand the peony.  They appreciate its toughness and resiliency.  They admire the springtime beauty that requires no extra attention, no extra cultivation, no extra love.  That is how small town people have lived their lives in Indiana for over a century.  The peony is a paean to Hoosier life.  So every year I stand by my garage and stare at the ground, waiting for my favorite flower to announce once again that spring is here.  And every year it brings memories of the end of school, dewy mornings, and the month of May.

As the peony flowers sag to the ground under their own weight or become victims of the baseball bats of boys, the lilac’s purple flowers remind us that beauty can be both seen and smelled.  Our yard had only two beautiful things: the peonies in front of the house and the lilac bush out by the alley.  Growing up in a house where making a living took most of their time, my parents never added beauty to the property.  I am sure that both the peonies and the lilacs were planted long before we ever moved into the house on the corner of White and Shirley Streets.  Even so, we took time out to walk around the lilac every year, basking in the fragrance of its purple flowers.  That such a beautiful and wonderful thing existed in our yard always amazed us, although we never spoke about it.  Beauty was never spoken of in our house.  We acknowledged its existence silently, internally.  It was as if beauty was reserved for others, for special people who somehow deserved it.  The lilac was our beauty.

Today, the scent of the lilac sends me back to the innocent wonder of beauty in our backyard.  I cannot explain where that sweet purple smell takes me.  It is not a certain place, time, or event.  It is not one achingly beautiful or sad moment, nor is it one game of catch in the backyard with my dad.  It is all of those things.  The lilac whispers to me in a voice I can’t quite hear, describing things I can’t quite see, about a moment I can’t quite remember.  The lilac makes me cry.  It is the essence of May.

But all is not rural dialect and maudlin reminisces.  Even though the natural beauty of flowers and shrubs are touchstones for the month of May to me, a man-made event culminates the month and has dominated my interest since I can remember.  The Indianapolis 500 makes the month of May the centerpiece of my existence.  Time is measured as before or after the race.  Only in Indiana can you say “I’m going to the race” or “I’m going to the track,” and no one ever asks what race or which track.  There is only one of each.

May was listening to Sid Collins announce “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on the radio.  You were one of two tribes: A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti.  You could not be both.  You read both the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News to make sure you did not miss any stories about the race.  It was almost beyond belief that this event was taking place just down the road.  It was ours.

When I was ten years old, the impossible happened.  My brother told me I could go to the race with him.  On the afternoon before the race, a highly modified 1953 GMC panel truck with the sides cut out and a platform on top pulled into our driveway.  A local tavern owner and his cronies had built it for the sole purpose of going to the 500.  It was the most exotic thing I had ever seen.  As my mother frowned powerfully, we headed to Speedway to spend the night on 16th Street.  In the morning we rode our bright blue chariot into the track and up to the fence in the second turn.  I have been going ever since.  Just like the peonies and the lilacs, the Indy 500 is one of my May perennials.

I have five peonies next to my garage, two lilacs in my backyard, and ten tickets to the Indianapolis 500.  My children go to the race with me every year.  My son has peonies planted next to his garage, and my daughter cuts lilac blooms from my bushes to put on her kitchen counter.  My perennials have become theirs. Maybe one day they will tell their own children about their first race.  Maybe my daughter will smell lilacs with her grandchildren.  And maybe one day, my son’s neighbors will see him standing next to his garage staring at the ground.

 

 

IMS: museum or racing facility?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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