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The IMS Garage Sale

I’m not normally reactionary.  I’ll tell a few jokes, make a few oddball connections, and generally cheerlead for the IZOD IndyCar Series.  You don’t come here for news or in-depth commentary.  Basically, I just try to be entertaining.  But occasionally I have a laser-like flash of insight; I suddenly see the future with uncanny clarity.  And I absolutely hate that this insight, this clarity, was inspired by Robin Miller.

On the Sunday, August 19 edition of Speed TV’s Wind Tunnel, a sport coat wearing Robin Miller was co-hosting and gave voice to the rumor that a few series owners were planning/conspiring to purchase the IndyCar series from IMS.  If anyone actually read this blog, I might take credit for starting the rumor that IndyCar was for sale.  Just scroll down to last week’s post, “IndyCar’s Endless Summer,” and read the “God Only Knows” section.  Sure, I suggested that NASCAR would be the deep pockets that would step up and take this slightly used series off IMS’s hands, but this sounds like a variation on a theme.  The big question is whether IMS would really sell the series.

Let’s make a list of the pros and cons, shall we?

Reasons for IMS to sell the IndyCar Series

  • The series is a giant sucking chest wound.  The patient is alive, but on life support.
  • The “family” at IMS probably doesn’t like to see their inheritances spent on a series that only gives them headaches.  Keep the kids happy.
  • No owners, engine manufacturers, chassis fabricators, series sponsors, series TV contracts, or series CEO’s will be a major concern again.  Ever.
  • It doesn’t matter who runs the series.  The Indy 500 will always be a bucket list event and make money.  Always.
  • IMS becomes the good guy again.  They don’t have to hire, fire, or defend a series boss.  Got a bitch?  Tell the guys in charge of the series.  We’re just the promoters.
  • IMS has positioned itself as a summer-long palace of racing.  They make money on every event.  Guaranteed.
  • The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is iconic.  The IZOD IndyCar Series is not.  Trade on the big name.
  • The IZOD IndyCar Series is a used car that needs new tires and is leaking oil.  That pesky “Check Engine ” light is on, too.  Some sucker will want to buy it, though.  I assume IMS will make them a whale of a deal, probably “30 Days Same as Cash.”

Reasons for IMS to keep the IndyCar Series

  • Tony George still wants to be like the Frances.
  • Power and authority never go out of style.
  • If you are one of the 1%, you can throw money away.
  • I will gladly post others if you think of them.

I really tried to find solid reasons for IMS to keep ownership of the series.  I just can’t come up with any.  IMS selling IndyCar makes incredible sense in this economy.  The only suitors out there are NASCAR, who would marginalize the series, or the current car owners, who would take it down the same trail they traveled before.  Someone can come in and look like a white knight rescuing the damsel in distress.  The new owners just need to remember that beauty is only skin deep.  Ugly goes all the way to the bone.  Anyone want to buy a used series?  I think IMS is in the market.

Ten Worthless Opinions – Stranger in a Strange Land Redux

Well, I did my tour of duty in the Social Media Garage at the Super Weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Met some great people, had a few laughs, got caught in the rain, and saw “the other side” of racing.  I have attended 44 Indianapolis 500’s; this was my  first Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com.  OK, I copied and pasted the name of the race because GOOD GOD, THAT’S A LONG NAME AND WHO THE HELL IS BIGMACHINERECORDS.COM, ANYWAY.  With that said, I will refer to the race as the Brickyard 400 from now on.  You’re welcome.  Here is the tale of an innocent IndyCar blogger/social media neophyte as he observes and reports on the monolith we call NASCAR.  These are the WO’s (worthless opinions) on his experience.

1.  I thought I had at least a working knowledge of the power of social media.  Untrue.  I am a babe in the woods compared to Jessica Northey, Jenny DeVaughn, the myth that is nascarcasm, and the Idaho weatherman known as Brian Neudorff.  At the Indy 500, my Social Media Garage brothers and I merrily tweeted and blogged our way through the month of May, never once saying the word “impressions.”  It seems that this word is a vital component to judging just how valuable a Twitter account or blog is to someone.  The names listed above have MILLIONS of impressions.  Jessica Northey already has business plans to make these impressions pay.  The two bright things I did this weekend were to shut up when they were explaining the power of social media to me and to ask questions after they stopped talking.  I know nothing, but I’m interested in this stuff.  I suggest all users of Twitter start tracking their metrics.  And by the way, I would LOVE for you all to re-tweet my idiotic comments on Twitter.  It seems that is of value.

2.  People are always ragging on the yellow shirts at IMS.  They yell, blow whistles, and generally brook no argument.  When alcohol induced stupidity by the fans is not involved, I have found the majority of these men and women to be friendly and helpful.  The rest, of course, are petty tyrants and martinets.  Do the workers at IMS really have a sense of humor?  Check out this sign I saw as I entered the track on Sunday.

Love it, right?  Good stuff.

3.  I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when I walked down the merchandise trailer row.  I counted over 30 trailers hawking hats, shirts, baby apparel, models, scanners, and various and sundry cheaply made and overpriced items that a person does not need.  EVERY name driver has a trailer.  IndyCar cannot compete.  I continued my tour and came to a trailer that had a giant picture of Jeff Gordon wearing camouflage posing with what appears to be a large, dead elk.

This trailer was selling nothing but camouflaged team and driver gear.  I have never seen this merchandise at an IndyCar race.  I think we are appealing to a different demographic.  Of course I now have a Tony Stewart camouflage hat to wear golfing.  Stylish.  When in Rome…

4.  The Continental Tire Series, with its production based cars and “gentlemen drivers,” and the Rolex Series both put on damn good shows on Friday.  They run in the rain!  I consider myself an Indy guy, but I have no problem with Indy hosting other series.  It’s their track and their business.  Make some money so the IndyCar series stays strong.  Keep these races.

5.  The Indy 500 has its share of drinkers, tattoos, mullets, and boorish behavior, but I’m pretty sure the per capita on these belongs to NASCAR.  I’d bet the 500 leads in total arrests, but I’ll have to go the over on NASCAR with concealed weapons.  It’s a different crowd.  A strong need to root against someone seems to exist in stock car racing.  You not only rabidly pull for someone, you just as rabidly pull against an opponent you perceive to have done your driver wrong.  I’m convinced you could get shanked in the lavatory for wearing a Juan Pablo Montoya shirt if he had just wrecked Junior.  Or maybe just for wearing a Juan Pablo Montoya shirt.  And I’m just talking about the women’s lavatory.  It’s a rough crowd, particularly for my refined tastes.

6.  How about that race?  Be honest with me.  You took a nap, didn’t you?  In a race to race comparison, the Indy 500 laps the Brickyard 400.  Indy had lead changes, charges through the pack, and a last lap dive bomb in Turn One that THRILLED the crowd.  I get it that NASCAR has more pit strategy with 2 or 4 tires and all the adjustments you can make during a race.  In my opinion, it’s a product of a relatively low-tech series that is just coming to grips with its “shade tree mechanic” past.  Still figuring that fuel injection out, huh?

7.  Give credit where credit is due, though.  The traveling carnival that is NASCAR dwarfs the IndyCar show.  NASCAR is BIG.  They have a mass of haulers just for the series gear.  The downside to that is NASCAR has a very high overhead as a series in a very bad economy.  IndyCar’s more streamlined product may be in better shape to weather the economic storm.  IndyCar is lean.  NASCAR  has to feed the bulldog EVERY week.

8.  Traffic in the Brickyard 400 Social Media Garage was much stronger than the Indy 500 traffic.  Even though the room was hidden this week, a good number of NASCAR fans came in to check it out.  This second iteration of the SMG was also better suited to move people from entrance to exit.  Also, the Brickyard 400 brings the local Indy 500 fans.  It was good to see so many of my social media friends, especially those that had Fuzzy’s Premium in a chilled flask.  Cheers, friends.  I was hoping people were stopping in to see me, but I have a suspicion the air conditioning was the main attraction.

9.  One of the highlights of the Social Media Garage was when Chevrolet brought Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart in for special wristband interviews.  Doug Boles, VP of Communications conducted a very professional Q and A.  The drivers were relaxed, engaged, and funny.  When I asked Gordon if he ever wanted to get back in the sprints and midgets, he said he gets the itch every time he sees a race, and he plans to attend the Knoxville Nationals this year.  Loved that answer. When Tony Stewart was asked what he does when it rains, he said, “I try to get somewhere out of the rain.”  He said it with a smile.  When I asked him what car or formula had the steepest learning curve, he said the winged sprint cars he’s racing now are the hardest to learn because the left side digs in going through the corner, not the right like the non-wings.  The guy is a flat racer.  Johnson talked about moving from bikes to buggies to stock cars.  Basically, he has been in a stock car since his teens.  It’s all he knows.  All three love Indy, and it shows.

10.  NASCAR drivers are rock stars.  They can’t walk anywhere without a crowd forming.  One thing I like about the 500 is that the fans respect the drivers as they walk from place to place.  If they stop, then of course the fans will ask for autographs, but it’s not a free-for-all with drivers ducking for cover.  I like the more mature reaction of the IndyCar fans.

Let me just give credit where credit is due.  Cassie Conklin is the IMS person in charge of new media.  The social media people who come in (like me) are pains in the neck.  Cassie’s a saint.  Pippa Mann stopped in and was her usual friendly and professional self.  What an ambassador for IndyCar.  Jarrett Peyton, the son of Walter Payton, stopped in with his amazingly positive personality to just hang out and talk.  Ashley Stremme, wife of NASCAR driver David Stremme, stopped by to chat with Jessica Northey and stayed to talk racing.  She grew up in a racing family and drove dirt modifieds.  She had interesting comments on being a one car team struggling to find sponsorship.  I’m now a fan.  Last, but not least, Todd and Cary Bettenhausen, the twin sons of Gary Bettenhausen, were in all three days helping visitors to the SMG experience iRacing.  Every kid that needed it got positive and friendly instruction.  And the boys had some racing stories to tell.  IMS history was right there next to me.  My opinions may be worthless, but the experiences I’ve had this year through IMS, Twitter, and this blog have been far from that.  Sometimes that stranger mentioned in the title finds a home.

Super Weekend – Did IMS Really Lose Her Virtue: A Mother’s Story

The purists at Indianapolis Motor Speedway shake their gray heads and mutter to themselves whenever the topic of other series racing at the stately matron at 16th and Georgetown comes up.  The purists, like the children of a widow, want their wealthy and popular mother to act her age.  They see the Indianapolis 500 as their father, whose sainted memory should be forever put on a pedestal, so his adoring family – presumably dressed in frock coats, vests, and cravats – can genuflect at his spatted feet.  The future?  Godfrey Daniels, my good man, we here in Indianapolis live firmly in the past.  They believe Mother IMS should stay home and entertain her old friends at afternoon tea.  Well, guess what?  Mother snuck out the back door while they were trying to decide what was best for her.

And luckily for racing fans she did.  The old gal refused to be put out to pasture because others knew what was best for her.  She took off those gray rags and those hideously sensible black shoes and put on leopard print stretch pants, stiletto heels, and the brightest red lipstick she could find.  But you know how people talk.  Mama Indy had some, how do we politely say it, “gentlemen callers.”  The first was that France boy from down south.  He wooed her with promises of more money and prestige, even though he was what we call nouveau riche.  His family didn’t have the right connections, but he was loaded.  And that money would come in handy as a family rift with the Champ Car side of the family was on the horizon.  So Mother Indy hooked up.  And what’s wrong with that?  After him, she took up with that Bernie boy from England, and that caused quite a stir because she had to build him a new place on the family compound.  And then she had the audacity to run around with motorcyclists.  The purist family was aghast.  But she wasn’t done.  She brought in a support series for the man from the South, and she started keeping company with some young college types that call themselves “gentlemen drivers.”  Her purist family could hardly show their faces in public anymore.  How could their mother treat them this way.  Did she have no shame?

The simple answer is that shame, virtue, modesty, and tradition have nothing to do with what the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has done since 1994, when it hosted the first Brickyard 400. It has done what any business is supposed to do for its owners: make money.  And why is that a crime?  The purists say that the tradition of the Indianapolis 500 is paramount; there should be one race only.  Carl Fisher, the architect of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ran a series of events, including ones for motorcycles and balloons, and his first races put the cars in classes, very much like the support series for Formula 1 and the Rolex and Continental Tire Series.

Does the old lady look lonely when only 50 thousand of her friends show up for a party that can seat 250,000?  Absolutely.  Should perception be the deciding issue on hosting these events?  Absolutely not.  The bottom line for hosting an event should be the bottom line.  If it make financial sense to host a race, then host it.  Fenway Park is Fenway Park.  They play baseball, hockey, and host concerts there.  It’s the same for Wrigley Field.  I’m pretty sure the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is not the only time the horses run in Louisville.  The Derby first ran in 1875 and the traditions (including mint juleps and ugly hats) seem to hold up pretty well with other events running on the same track.  Tradition can survive change.  It has to.

So the next time a new suitor comes knocking on Aunt Indy’s door, don’t purse your lips, look over the top of your glasses, and cluck a tsk, tsk.  Give her a big grin and shout “You go, girl!”  Tradition be damned.  Have fun.

The survival of ovals in IndyCar

As a fan of IndyCar racing, I like all the venues to some degree or another, but I love the ovals.  I grew up on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Saturday and Sunday night stock car races at my local paved ovals of Sun Valley Speedway (now Anderson Speedway) in Anderson, Indiana and Mt. Lawn Speedway near New Castle, Indiana.  Just like you become a fan of a baseball or football team due to its proximity to you, I became a fan of oval racing because it’s what I saw on a regular basis.  If the midgets or sprints were there for a show, it was true exotica.  The Indy 500 was the pinnacle of the auto racing world.  I make no apologies for holding open wheel oval racing in such high regard.  Friends have tried to explain the nuances of road and street racing to me in the hope I will love it like they do, but I keep coming back to the speed, intensity, and danger of the oval track.  As I watch the slow withering of my favorite form of auto racing, I am buoyed by the success of Iowa Speedway.  They have figured out how to make oval racing successful.

Iowa Speedway has become a favorite oval of mine.  The cars are fast and the track is tricky.  The new aero package has them lifting in the corners.  The tires go away making the teams choose to be fast early in the run or save the tires to be fast later in the run.  Setting up a pass may take two or three laps, but passes can be made.  The cars actually need to be driven.  A team needs a strategy to be successful.  And Iowa had on-track action throughout the weekend.  No longer can IndyCar just run one race.  At Iowa we had three IndyCar heat races, a midget race, a Silver Crown race, a Star Mazda race, an Indy Lights race, and the IndyCar feature.  By my count that’s eight races.  Plus, the Indycar practice sessions set the fields for the heat races.  Take note, promoters: put action on the track.  That’s called VALUE.

But a successful race needs more than good racing.  It needs a promoter that knows how to sell and fans that come to the race.  With all of our eyes glued to the success of the series and the TV ratings, we forget that the promoter must make money – money that comes from either the paying customer through ticket, concession, and merchandise sales or from the promoters ability to sell sponsorships and partnerships with businesses.  Oval track promoters should take note of how Iowa Speedway does business.

Andretti Sports Marketing did a masterful job of creating interest and value for the Milwaukee race.  They created value by adding racing events, a midway, and lowering ticket prices.  People in the seats create a profit.  What they don’t have is a title sponsor paying them money.  And that is where Iowa Speedway excels.  Iowa Speedway succeeds because it attracts sponsorship and sells tickets.  Period.  How does this small track with about 30,000 seats manage to survive?  The simple answer is they find local sponsors who want to connect to local customers.

Take a look at the sponsors for the IndyCar, Nationwide, and Camping World truck weekends:

  •  Casey’s General Store USAC Challenge Presented by Messerschmidt Ice and Kix 101 (USAC Midgets and Silver Crown)
  •  Sukup 100 (Firestone Indy Lights)
  •  Iowa Corn 250 (IndyCar)
  •  American Ethanol 200 (TWICE!  Once in July and once in August for the trucks)
  •  Prairie Meadows 200 (ARCA)
  •  U.S. Cellular 250 Presented By the Enlist Weed Control System (Nationwide)
  •  Pizza Ranch Winner’s Circle

Notice anything in the list?  Other than the U.S. Cellular 250 Presented By the Enlist Weed Control System, every other race is sponsored by an Iowa business (U.S. Cellular is Illinois based and Enlist is weed control for corn marketed by Indianapolis based Dow AgroSciences.)   And guess with whom Iowa businesses want to connect?  Yep, those convenience store shopping, grain bin storing, corn growing, cell phone using, weed killing, ethanol producing, pizza eating Iowa farmers.  And connect they do.  The track was packed and the hospitality tents were full.  These local sponsors reaching out to local consumers were activated at Iowa Speedway.  Are the sponsors happy?  I asked Mindy Williamson, the communications and PR director for the Iowa Corn Growers Association, a few questions about their sponsorship of the Iowa Corn 250:

NTR: What is the value of this sponsorship to your organization?

Williamson: We have an excellent return on investment. We have the opportunity to talk with those outside of agriculture about things like ethanol, but also what corn means to our state and the many products we produce. We also have an opportunity to thank our members and give farmers a chance to enjoy themselves as VIP’s in our hospitality tent. We have each year about 1500-2500 farmers and their families that join us for the fun!

NTR: How do you activate at the track?

Williamson: We activate on many levels from advertising, to working with drivers, to promoting ticket sales, to on track involvement. We use traditional media, social media, member communications and more to reach people with our messages. I hope you saw and heard messages from Iowa Corn while you were here!

NTR: What response do you receive from your members?

Williamson: They love racing. In fact, racing is the number one sport among farmers. Some of them are new to IndyCar racing, but they are interested in the mechanics, the technology, and the innovation – many of the same things they invest in on their farms.

Clearly, the Iowa Corn Growers, the sponsor of the Iowa Corn 250, see value in this event.  I would expect the sponsors of the other events at Iowa Speedway see similar value to their sponsorships.  What lesson can be learned from Iowa Speedway?  It’s simple.  Ovals can thrive when the promoters seek out sponsorship that connects to the people who will be sitting in the stands. In Iowa, that demographic had a connection to agriculture.   Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Pocono, for example, would be attracting a different demographic.  But Iowa has a secret weapon.  It is not owned by ISC or SMI.  It is not a pawn in the battle between all the competing motorsport series.  Iowa Speedway is like the small oval tracks of my youth.  Its success or failure is its own.

The sad part of this story is that the locally owned and operated oval that works hard to make each event a success has been replaced by the corporate gamesmanship of both ISC (International Speedway Corporation) and SMI (Speedway Motorsports, Inc.), the owners of most major speedways in America who use their tracks like pawns in a large chess game to deny access to IndyCar or to devalue the series for the betterment of the NASCAR series events they prefer.  The Iowa Speedway model works for ovals.  The problem is there are so few independent ovals to use the model.  So unless IndyCar decides to get in the track-owning business by buying the ovals in Nashville and St. Louis, they had better take real good care of the people who are taking good care of them, or the oval racing that is IndyCar’s past will be relegated to the history books.  And any promoter that wants a model for oval success should give Iowa a call.  They get it.

Ten Worthless Opinions – Detroit Grand Prix Edition

Holy hell, how do you even start the list from Belle Isle.  I normally follow a semi-chronological order, but for this…uh…CF, I will make an exception.

1.  The track falls apart.  Let me rephrase that – Roger Penske’s track falls apart.  I acknowledge that Belle Isle is not really RP’s possession.  With Detroit’s property market today, it’s obviously better to lease than own, and you expect RP to always make the best financial choice.  But this is HIS race.  Kudos, though, to the powers-that-be for getting the surface fixed for the sprint to the finish.  I just did not expect Roger Penske to follow up a great 500 by giving IndyCar this black eye, particularly after his comments regarding Randy Bernard this week.  Did you read between the lines?  The Captain said it was business as usual with INDYCAR CEO’s, and he did not support a change in the middle of the season.  The italics are mine.  How does it feel to be human like the rest of us, sir?  The hoi polloi salute you in Will Power fashion, Captain.

2.  Beaux Barfield owned this race.  He did not make a knee-jerk decision after the track came apart.  He let the workers finish the job and sent Tony Kanaan and Will Power out to look at it.  He did not wilt under the pressure of the TV camera.  He spoke to the media and explained exactly what he planned to do, even if that was to just wait.  He did not allow the teams to switch tire compounds from the ones they were using when the race was red flagged, a very fair decision.  And he stopped teams from doing so, much to their chagrin.  It makes me wonder if people got away with stuff like that in the past.  It rewarded the teams that made the tire decision earlier.  He decided to race until lap 60, creating a 15 lap sprint.  Take a bow, Beaux.

3.  I cannot believe that Randy Bernard’s Twitter comment moved down to #3 on my WO’s (worthless opinions).  In the pre-race, Marty Reid made an interesting comment (Yes, THAT Marty Reid).  He said Randy’s tweet was either a stroke of genius or a big mistake.  I go with stroke of genius.  It was a throw down of epic proportions.  Whoever the owner was, he cannot come forward because it proves Randy right.  He just has to shut up.  Randy wins.  If the owner does come forward, he shows himself to be a sneaky shit who is working to the detriment of the series.  And Randy wins.  Regardless of the final reckoning, Randy Bernard has taken the series forward with aggressive marketing and a relentless work ethic.  He has made mistakes, but “getting after it” is not one of them.  At Detroit, he faced the media and said he was just getting the facts out.  He also said he does not work for the owners; he works for the IMS board of directors.  Here’s the translation: “Kiss my ass.  I don’t work for you.”  Stay tuned.  This story is just starting.

4.  Normally, only a driver or two get “Visoed.”  At Detroit, almost the whole field got it.  What’s the problem with racing at Belle Isle?  Simply put, the problem is EJ Viso.  He can hold up the entire field because there is no place for an IndyCar to pass at Belle Isle.  We follow up a GREAT Indy 500 with this pig.  Put all the lipstick you want on it, Belle Isle is still a porker.  Either create some passing zones or follow Indy with an oval.

5.  Here are some plugs.  The Verizon IndyCar App really worked for me this weekend.  I listened to the radio broadcast on it (it worked, as opposed to IndyCar.com), followed timing and scoring, and listened to some team/driver communication.  I was not displeased.  Also, if you do not subscribe to TrackSide Online, stop reading this right now and subscribe.  For $22, you get TSO’s coverage of the race on site, and TSO sends out every press release from the teams and the series.  Invaluable.

6.  Once again, I will provide my consulting totally free to IndyCar.  Add on-board starters RIGHT NOW.  Do you realize how many full course yellows could be avoided?  No, I don’t know, but it’s a bunch.  High tech series, my ass.  I’m going to start charging for this stuff sooner or later.

7.  Don’t worry, ABC.  I didn’t forget you.  To be honest, I liked the short pre-race.  It was just a few interviews and a recap of Indy with a little Randy Bernard gossip.  Nothing  bores me more than the interminable NASCAR “Oh my god, this racing series is so spectacular we just can’t stop talking about it” pre-race blather that all the networks foist upon us.  Let’s get the race started.  Luckily, ABC was able to save some of that stuff for the red flag time.  Of course, ABC’s thinking was probably “Let’s not waste any time, effort, or money on this series.”  I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they really just wanted to go racing.

8.  During the stoppage, ABC aired a segment about speed and danger.  I thought it was well done and accurate.  It is absolutely part of racing, and the drivers interviewed acknowledged it.  Twitterland responded that it was in “bad taste” or “too soon.”  Sorry, folks.  Danger is inherent in this profession and cannot be ignored.  Pull your ostrich heads out of the sand and accept the truth: speed is dangerous, and it attracts interest.  We watch because the cars and drivers are on the edge.  I will suggest that is the same reason the drivers race.  That’s who they are.  And for better or worse, that’s who we are.

9.  During the race, I turned down the ABC coverage and listened to the radio broadcast.  What a difference.  The radio broadcasters made the race seem exciting.  They told the listeners who was trying to pass and where.  Passes did take place in the pack.  It’s just that TV only reports on what it sees with its cameras, and they NEVER see passes.  Radio reports what the broadcasters see with their eyes.  And that’s a huge difference.  Radio has people reporting from around the track.  ABC has Marty Reid and Scott Goodyear tethered to a monitor, reporting only what they see at any given moment.  There has to be a better way.

10.  All in all, it was an interesting week and race.  Randy Bernard fights back.  An online petition to keep Randy pops ups (sign it here).  Robin Miller names names (read it here).  And check out Tony Johns’ “The IndyCar Fan White Paper” at Pop Off Valve (read it here).  The owners back down publicly, but you can assume the smear campaign will continue.  Randy intimated that the China race is not 100% and that he has a back-up plan.  Detroit’s infrastructure continues to fall apart, as does the momentum of the IZOD IndyCar Series.  IndyCar is like the 1971 Mafia comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  You had better work on your aim, guys.

There you go, another semi-lucid set of opinions called “Ten Worthless Opinions.”  I’m not sure they even make sense to me.

Climbing the IndyCar Ladder

(Editor’s note:  This is the second post this month from the cagey Canuck Steve Wittich.  Pay attention.  He really knows his stuff.)

I wanted to thank Mark one more time for allowing me to contribute to his blog.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have a soft spot for the feeder series.  It goes back to my childhood and my Dad who closely followed the Formula Atlantic Series in the 1970’s.  What wasn’t to like with names like Gilles Villeneuve, Bobby Rahal, (Uncle) Jacques Villeneuve, Bill Brack, Keke Rossberg, Price Cobb, Tom Gloy, Howdy Holmes and Danny Sullivan?

But this blog is not going to be about Formula Atlantic’s (although it might be the subject of another blog if Mark has me back).  I’m going to concentrate on the two iterations of Indy Lights (another possible blog) and their impact on this year’s Indianapolis 500.

First, let’s start with a few quick statistics about how Indy Lights drivers have fared at IMS in the past decade.  Five of the last ten Indianapolis 500 winners have been Indy Lights graduates: Dan Wheldon (twice), Helio Castroneves (twice) and Scott Dixon.

The 33 drivers in the Indianapolis 500 come from very diverse backgrounds: Formula One, Indy Lights, Formula Atlantics, GP2, World Series by Renault, International Touring Car Series, and Mexican Formula 2.

The Indy Lights contingent makes up the largest proportion of the field with 15 graduates competing.  That list includes seven past Indy Lights champions: Josef Newgarden, J.R. Hildebrand, Wade Cunningham, Townsend Bell, Scott Dixon, Oriol Servia, and Tony Kanaan.   It also includes Sebastian Saavedra who is currently leading the 2012 Indy Lights points chase.

But the Lights graduates aren’t just confined to the starting field.

Former Lights champions Bryan Herta, Eric Bachelart, & Robbie Buhl are car owners in the 2012 Indianapolis 500, and Ed Carpenter is an owner and a driver.

If you watch the NBC Sports coverage of Carb Day, two more Indy Lights grads are featured.  Wally Dallenbach, Jr. joins 1988 Indy Lights champion Jon Beekhuis in the booth to provide expert coverage of IndyCar racing.

It is not uncommon to hear whispers that Indy Lights doesn’t provide a lot of value to IndyCar.   And while it would be great to see more recent Indy Lights grads (Jay Howard, Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann, Rafa Matos, Martin Plowman and others) in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 field, it is clear that Indy Lights plays a starring role in the production of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

A Bowl of Indy Stew – Day 3, 1986

Hang on just a minute…it’s back here somewhere…just let me move the ice cream…there it is!  Way back in the freezer in an unmarked Tupperware container is the very last bit of the 1986 Indy Stew.  Let me look.  Yep, there’s one bowl left.  I just need to stick it in the microwave and give it a quick stir.  And here it is.  The last bowl of Indy Stew from Day 3 in 1986.  If interested, I suggest you click the link to check out these other servings from 1986 in “A Bowl of Indy Stew” archives.

If you remember, our race goers have been guilty of trespassing, avoided the law, laughed at vomit, watched our biker buddy scare a citizen, and witnessed assault with a hammer.  And now, after three nights on 16th Street and two rainouts, we are entering the gates at IMS for the third time hoping for a smooth landing.

As we entered Turn 2, we saw an open area to park my VW Rabbit, but as we pulled in, an angry young man waving a 2 iron told me that he was saving the ten or twelve spots there for his friends, and we should move along.  He waggled the 2 iron menacingly.  I’m not small.  I shut down the car and got out.  He stepped closer, informing me that his friends would soon be there, and it would be in our best interest to leave.  My friend Gil, an offensive lineman in college, stepped out of the passenger side and looked over the top of the car at golf club guy.  Still emboldened by his club and inebriation, golf club guy stepped closer, raising his voice and frowning powerfully.  I just smiled.  I smiled because our buddy Marv was just starting to get out of the back seat of my small car.  It must have seemed like a nightmare for golf club guy. His buddies had not arrived, and Marv was unpacking his 6′ 5′, 300 pound self from the back seat.  A nicer man you will never meet, but Marv had been in the football trenches as a college defensive lineman.  He knew how to menace.  And he did.  Imagine Swede from Heartbreak Ridge [1] walking around the corner to intimidate Gunny Highway (Clint Eastwood).  Except golf club guy was no Gunny Highway.  After giving us the eye for a few more moments, golf club guy made a great choice.  He said we could keep the spot, but would we help him hold the others?  One confrontation down.

Since the race was now on its third day, you could sit where you pleased, so we decided to see how the race looked from the outside of Turn 2.  We headed for the SE Vista.  All went well until a gentleman wearing black pants, black shirt, black vest, and black boots walked up the stairs.  For whatever reason, an old song called “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” [2] went through my mind.  I sang, apparently not softly, the lyrics, “He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots.”  From behind me came a female voice singing, “And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back.”  What could I do?  I turned around to see a quite fetching young lady and sang, “He rode a hopped up cycle that took off like a gun.”  She smiled and replied, “That fool was the terror of Highway 101.”  And we both sang “Doo Wa, doo wa!”  I’m not making this up.  I have witnesses, including a rather perplexed and most definitely scowling boyfriend.  We sang the other verses to the song and had a good laugh.  Later, as I was applying suntan lotion to my back, she asked if she could be of assistance.  Having been taught that good manners meant not saying no to a lady, I allowed her to apply the lotion.  Maybe she had been drinking, I don’t know, but it seemed to take a good, long time for that lotion to soak in.  At some point, I heard her obviously irritated boyfriend say, “Do you think that lotion is rubbed in yet?”  Point taken, I thanked the young lady and turned my attention back to the race.

Being exhausted from the night before (read the previous entry “A Bowl of Indy Stew – The Night Before Day 3, 1986”), I began napping in my seat and was told by my buddies that I was turning my head to listen to the cars go by but keeping my eyes closed.  I informed them later it was a scientific experiment regarding the Doppler effect.  They did not buy it.

From all indications, Bobby Rahal won the race, beating Kevin Cogan in the last laps.  It only took three sleepless nights, two rainy days, and a Saturday in the sun to get it done.  And there is distinct possibility that I did not tell all of the stories of 1986.  Find me at IMS on almost any day in May when cars are on the track, and I will tell you the rest of the story.

I guess it’s about time to start cooking up another big pot of Indy Stew from a different year.  I’ll just need to run to IMS for some 2012 ingredients.

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1.  OK, so Marv didn’t look quite like this, but he did to golf club guy.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4gAZKsL2CU

2.  I have found THREE versions of the song “Black Leather Jacket and Motorcycle Boots.”

Paint It Black

“I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes” [1]

Judging by the outcry over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s decision to paint an advertisement in the Turn One infield grass, you would think the marketers at IMS had just sold naming rights to the Pagoda.  Oh, wait.  They did that a few years ago with Bomdardier, didn’t they?  People are acting like they put a sponsor on the Borg-Warner Trophy.  Wait a minute.  Sorry.  Well, you would think they partnered with Coca-Cola to be the sole supplier of soft drinks at the track.  What?  Really?  Well then, you would think they entered into a deal with Cholula Hot Sauce …Tag Heuer…Shell V-Power…Apex Brasil…Peak Performance…Miller Lite…IZOD.  Oh, they DID enter into marketing agreements with all of these companies?  What do you know, IMS is acting like it is a business trying to make money.

The traditionalists want nothing to change.  They want the new ad painted in Turn One painted black, like the Rolling Stones lyrics suggest.  They can’t fathom ads on the walls.  Really?  You have a problem with money?  Maybe a short history lesson is in order.  If you want tradition, look no further than Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl Fisher.  To drum up business for his car dealership, he attached a car to a balloon and had it fly across Indianapolis.  THAT’S a promotion, and promotion is why he built the track.  He wanted to sell cars and headlights.  He understood that you had to advertise to make money.  And I guarantee if painting the infield was worth a dollar to him, then the infield would have been painted.

After Tony Hulman bought the track, the cash cow that was IMS was only milked once a year.  For years the Hulman family did not own a racing series, did not build a road course, did not pay F1 a sanctioning fee, did not host NASCAR, did not host MotoGP, and did not own a Pete Dye golf course.  They became rich selling Clabber Girl Baking Powder and hosting the 500 in the month of May.  But when the Hulman-George family did do all of those things, they spent a substantial amount of money, possibly enough money to cause a restructuring of the board of directors.   Suddenly, making money, or at least not bleeding money, became VERY important.

Things changed at Indy when making money became the primary objective.  The marketing types suddenly were looking for ways to increase revenue.  If you wanted to produce the ring for the winner, you had to do more than just make the ring: you had to pay for the privilege.  That’s the way they do it in the real world.  The Pagoda, the video boards, the upgrades to seating, the yellow shirts, and the maintenance to the facility are costs that continue to increase.  A business has to make money; people have to get paid.  If a few ads keep my ticket prices down and the sponsorship up, then I’ll be happy.

And the last time I looked at the cars, they had sponsors on the side.  What’s the difference?  I hear no one bemoaning the sanctity and tradition of the car. You don’t expect the cars to all be painted black, do you?

“I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a new born baby it just happens ev’ry day”

Some fans consider the Speedway to be a somber matron dressed in subdued colors.  How many somber matrons do you know who get any attention?  Matrons today are ditching their drab and dreary attire.  You stay young and vital by acting that way.  So let the old girl put on some leopard print pants and high heels.  I say strut your stuff, Indy.  You’re only as young as you feel.  If your make-up includes a few ads, so be it.  We are all walking billboards for designer clothing companies, anyway; I proudly sport my IZOD logos.

The tradition of Indy is alive in its history, pageantry, and tradition.  And the tradition includes having a viable family business that stays in the family.  I don’t begrudge the Speedway creating a little more cash flow.  Consider the possibility of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway being sold to some faceless multinational corporation because of financial issues.  Now that’s a picture that is truly painted black.

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1.  Like the Rolling Stones?  Here’s the song “Paint It Black” along with the lyrics.  I love the intro. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Egt1Hq4wpE

Honda: Checkered Past to Checkered Flag

(Editor’s Note: Steve Wittich, today’s guest blogger, is one canny Canuck.  New Track Record was lucky enough to get him to write about some real history instead of the semi-lucid ramblings usually found here.  We hope he will follow this up with another post next Thursday.  You can find a daily dose of racing opinions from Steve on Twitter @stevewittich.)

I’d like to thank Mark for this opportunity to guest blog on NewTrackRecord.  I had a grand plan to explain the IndyCar engine wars of the past and dovetail that into explaining why engines are leased instead of purchased.  I decided that might be a little deep for my first blog attempt, so I have instead decided to focus on a study in perseverance for one of IndyCar’s current engine manufacturers.

Honda’s mid-80’s foray into IndyCar racing was a disaster.  Their “badging” of the Judd AV lasted only one year.  Fast forward to the mid-90’s, 1994 to be exact, and this commercial:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osNyXkMWnSE

This time instead of partnering with a third-party engine manufacturer, Honda took matters into their own hands and formed Honda Performance Development.  They chose to partner with Rahal-Hogan Racing with drivers Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff.  As far as the overall season went, it wasn’t a total disaster.  Bobby Rahal finished 10th in points and Mike Groff finished 20th in points. The results were extremely inconsistent with mechanical failures being quite common. .

But remember that the tag-line in the above commercial was “See ya at Indy”.  From the beginning Honda has made it quite clear that winning Indy was their goal.  Unfortunately for Honda the month of May didn’t quite go as planned.  Rahal and Groff were unable to get their Honda powered Lola’s up to speed and ended up leasing two Ilmor powered Penske PC22s from Roger Penske.  Both easily qualified for the field.  Groff’s day ended early when he and Dominic Dobson made contact, and Rahal was able to ride his rented mule to a third place finish.

One might think that after those two missteps, Honda would reconsider their involvement in IndyCar racing.  They doubled down and pressed on, and in 1995 they joined forces with Tasman Motorsports.  Tasman fielded one full-time car for Indy Lights standout Andre Ribiero as well as a part-time car for Canadian Scott Goodyear.

The year started off slowly for Tasman and Ribiero with three DNF’s in the first three races, but their luck started to turn around at Nazareth.  Giving us a hint of Honda’s new found power was a sixth place start and 11th place finish.  It was now on to Indy where Goodyear would drive a second Tasman car.  Goodyear’s surprising outside front row starting position was overshadowed by the failure of Team Penske to qualify for the race.

The Honda’s race day horsepower was evident as soon as the green flag dropped when Goodyear swept to the lead and led the race for 42 laps.  Unfortunately while leading during a late restart, Goodyear passed the pace car, and his refusal to acknowledge the black flag meant he finished in 17th place.  Honda came “that” close to achieving their goal in only their second try.  I’m not sure anybody knew at that point that it would be almost two decades before they got another shot.

The rest of the year for Tasman and Ribiero was a mixed bag of results as they generally qualified in the top 10 but due to mechanical issues and incidents failed to finish many races.  They did have one VERY bright spot as Ribiero put his Reynard Honda on the pole at New Hampshire and proceeded to run away with the race.

The following season (1996) saw Honda greatly expand their effort to include seven full-time cars including Chip Gannasi Racing.  Honda won all but three races that season and won their first series championship with Ganassi’s Jimmy Vasser.

This started an impressive string of six straight CART championships including two by Alex Zanardi, two by Gil de Ferran and one by Juan Pablo Montoya.

In 2002 Honda announced that they had unfinished business at the Indy 500 and would begin supplying engines to IRL teams in 2003.  They had some success in 2003 with wins by Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta, but they would have to wait until 2004 to finally taste victory at Indianapolis.

Buddy Rice came out on top at the 2004 Indianapolis 500 giving Honda victory exactly two decades after they went home with their tail between their legs.  It was a dominating performance by Honda that saw them take home the first seven spots in the race.  That win began an era of Honda domination, and they have won the last seven Indianapolis 500’s and drove their competition from the series

Honda came to dominate IndyCar, but I’d like to remind people not to forget their inauspicious start and applaud them for the perseverance and dedication that it took to overcome that.

Whether Honda can make it eight Indianapolis 500 victories in a row is a big question mark.  Engine competition has brought some new story lines to IndyCar and watching Chevrolet try to wrestle control of the Indianapolis 500 away from Honda is definitely the headliner.

Indy Tenderloin Tour – The Red Key Tavern

I am an unabashed lover of kitsch. [1]  Tacky?  I love it.  Over-the-top odd?  I’m there.  That is why I absolutely love the Red Key Tavern at 5170 N. College Ave. in Indy.  It suits me.  The term “eclectic” [2] comes to mind when you walk in the door.  It is a neighborhood tavern in every sense of the word.  The regulars all know each other.  You can leave your money on the bar when you hit the head.  The jukebox has Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby on it.  How cool is that?

The bar was owned by Russ Settle, a WWII bomber crewman, who passed away in 2010.  You MUST read his obituary in the Indy alternative paper NUVO, as written by one of his former employees. [3]  It explains everything from a much more personal perspective.  I know my limitations; I can’t tell his story like Nora Spitznogle can.  And it’s his story that makes the bar.  He had rules you had to follow and expectations you had to meet.  Everything in the bar, from the songs on the jukebox to the model planes hanging from the ceiling, defined him.  The Dan Wakefield novel Going All the Way, had scenes set here.  The movie of the same name starring Ben Affleck had scenes filmed here.  If “keeping it real” is just a phrase to you, don’t stop.  If you want a real experience – and a great breaded tenderloin – this place is a “must see.”

How about that tenderloin?  Our friendly bartender Robin told us the meat is pounded and breaded on site.  The breading is nothing fancy.  It’s just a commercial product.  But that’s OK.  The magic is in how this baby is cooked.  Most places deep fry their breaded tenderloins, but the Redkey has no deep fryer.  What they have is a 60-year-old flat-top grill.  The breading is light because they cook your breaded beauty on this grill with just a splash of oil.  And pause for a moment to consider the flavor that a flat-top grill has burned into it over 60 years.  That’s called seasoning.  Get the picture?  This is a great sandwich because of how it’s cooked.  Add a couple of locally brewed Sun King Cream Ales and you have a great meal.

Russ Settle had his rules.  Here are my rules for visiting the Red Key Tavern

  • Get there early if you want a tenderloin.  They run out.
  • Order the potato salad.  Again, they run out.
  • If the tenderloins are gone (you have been warned), then get a hamburger.  They are cooked on the same seasoned grill.
  • They have no beer on tap.  They do, however, carry locally brewed products.  I suggest the Sun King Cream Ale or the Sun King Wee Mac.
  • Play the jukebox.  Try something you have never heard before.
  • Behave yourself.  Follow the rules.
  • BRING CASH!  The Red Key does not take plastic.  Old school, baby.  This is the kind of place you might expect to see Blue from the movie Old School. [4]
  • Enjoy this place.  Bars like this are vanishing pieces of Americana.

I have to give the Red Key Tavern a checkered flag, not only for the tenderloin, but for the whole experience.

Ratings:
Checkered Flag: It’s a winner.  Picture should be on the Pork-Warner Trophy.
Green Flag: It’s a go.  Solid competitor with a chance to be a winner.
Yellow Flag:  Warning.  Something is not copacetic.
Black Flag:  Get this pig off the track.

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1.  Here’s a good primer on “kitsch.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitsch

2.  For the vocabulary impaired, “eclectic” is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources: her musical tastes are eclectic.”  And yes, I am a supercilious prick for using the term “eclectic” and for assuming that the reader does not know the definition.

3.  Here’s the NUVO obit.  http://www.nuvo.net/FoodDrinkBlog/archives/2010/04/05/red-key-taverns-russ-settle-died-sunday

4.  Here’s Will Ferrell’s tribute to Blue from the movie Old School.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vnywlzr7Y1o

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