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2016 Indy 500 Turn 3 Diary

5:10 AM

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

5:37 AM

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

6:05 AM

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

6:29 AM

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

6:56 AM

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

7:00-9:00 AM

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

9:30-11:30 AM

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

Pre-Race

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

Race

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

Potpourri  

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

5:23 Post Race

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

7:38

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Pole Day at Indy – Saturday should have been Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

IndyCar’s Sunday drive in Long Beach

Officiating anything is a thankless job.  Someone is always on the wrong side of a call and many will hold a grudge forever.  I know this.  I was a high school football referee for many years.  At one stadium a fan screamed, “You &$%#@*% zebras!” at us as we entered the field 45 minutes before game time. At another, an athletic director at a perennial powerhouse let us know before the game that if the coach liked us, he would be happy to have us back again, offering the subtle suggestion that we were their officials.  We had police escorts off the field, and at one stadium, we had a police escort onto the field.  We were castigated for flags we threw and for flags we did not throw.  But at the end of the night, we left the field knowing we had done the best we could, mistakes and all.  And even though the triumvirate in INDYCAR race control does the best they can do, they find themselves in the news once again for their decisions.

At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, race control’s call for a warning on Simon Pagenaud’s violation of pit exit rules in the closing laps was controversial.  As with most official decisions, there was a winner and a loser.  Pagenaud benefited from race control waving a rolled up newspaper at him while saying, “Bad dog.”  Runner-up Scott Dixon was the one who had his slippers chewed up when Pagenaud’s clear violation of the pit exit blend lines allowed him to maintain his lead on Dixon.  Not sure the “no harm, no foul” concept applies here.

Unlike other sports where violations have one penalty, INDYCAR race control once again put itself in the situation of having to make a judgement on the severity of the violation and went with the rolled up newspaper warning.  In football, a flag means a penalty with clear consequences: offsides is 5 yards, offensive holding is 10 yards, a personal foul is 15 yards.   The judgement is whether the foul occurred or not.  Once that judgement is made, the penalty is clear.  In baseball you are safe or out.  A call is made and the consequence is absolute.  Maybe INDYCAR can finally decide it is time to make consequences crystal clear.  Remember, the calling of the violation is not controversial.  Race control made the correct call.  The penalty is what is furrowing brows.

Of course, the real problem at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is that the penalty was the only thing that seemed worth remembering.  Yes, the end of the race battle for the lead between Pagenaud and Dixon was great, even without a pass.  But the rest of the race?  Put it this way.  What we saw was less racing and more driving down the street trying not to make a mistake, albeit at 170 MPH.  People tune in to and attend events to see racing.  It’s called racing instead of driving for a reason.  Passes are what people pay money to see.

The drivers complained post race about fuel saving making the race boring.  Their suggestion was making the race longer to require three stops and allow racing throughout.  That’s an easy fix.  Drivers also complained about aero issues making following and passing difficult.  No new news there, but the fix, while simple in concept, is not so simple in application.  There is no magic wand to make the racing better.  Aero kits changed all of that.

So for fans who enjoy the big Chevy teams lining up in their single file parade in the front while the Honda have-nots and smaller Chevy teams duke it out in back for best-of-the-rest honors, the Verizon IndyCar Series has you covered.  Welcome to the new F1.  For me, bring back the racing.  Bring back anything that keeps a line at pit exit from being the big story of a Sunday drive.  Excuse me, I mean a Sunday race.

 

 

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: IndyCar meets expectations

Yeah, the title is kind of damning with faint praise, but it is not totally true.  The race had much to like, and quite honestly, for the Verizon IndyCar Series meeting expectations is kind of a big deal.  Expectations, meet IndyCar.

  • As expected, Team Penske dominated the day.  Was there ever any doubt?  The best shocks, a Chevy motor, and that 50 year Indy thing.  If this happens all year, well, just expect it.
  • Additionally, Juan Pablo Montoya defies expectations.  He is not too old, fat, or cautious.  He also seems not to care a whit about what anyone expects.  IndyCar can expect a new champion this year.
  • Chevy, once again, is preparing to eat Honda’s lunch.  Did you expect otherwise?  Honda has been playing catch-up since last year’s aero mistakes.  Even with this year’s obvious gains, Honda is still behind.  Can the new motor updates coming down the pipeline even things up?  Expect Honda Performance Development to add the power.
  • What’s a race without a victim?  At St. Pete, Graham Rahal was victimized by the the optimism of Carlos Munoz.  Nobody is a better victim than Graham Rahal.  You just know that gesticulations will follow every time he feels wronged.  And he feels wronged often.
  • What’s even more expected than the victimizing of Graham Rahal?  The expected self-immolation of Marco Andretti, of course.  It seems Marco is snake bitten.  And it appears he carries his own snake.  After working his way up the grid, Marco managed to spin and hurt what looked like a pretty good car.  If he can keep his foot-shooting pistol in his holster, Marco may surprise this year.
  • You can always expect the Verizon IndyCar Series to have at least one driver each year who cannot get out of his, or anyone else’s, way.  It appears Carlos Munoz is meeting that expectation.  After causing the multi-car kerfuffle in Turn 4, Munoz managed to also end Conor Daly’s bid for a podium.  While it would be nice to hang a black hat on Munoz, he’s just too darn nice.  He accepted blame for all his transgressions.  What kind of IndyCar driver does that?  Munoz needs to attend a seminar at the Graham Rahal School of Victimization.
  • If experience has taught us anything, it’s that Conor Daly can wheel a race car.  Every time he gets in an IndyCar that doesn’t catch on fire, he competes.  Thanks to some Dale Coyne strategy, Daly found himself with a chance for a podium finish, at least until Carlos Munoz found him.  Expect a podium for Daly this year, and maybe a chance to move to a better funded team in the future.
  • As always, viewers can expect ABC to miss passes and follow the wrong battles.  On the other hand, ABC’s pit work is great.  Speaking of ABC’s booth, could Eddie Cheever be a bigger shill for ABC’s broadcast of the Indianapolis 500.  I forgive him completely for that.  I feel the same way.
  • If you agree with IndyCar honcho Mark Miles’ belief that IndyCar is growing, then you had to be excited by the TV numbers.  A 1.09 might not open any floodgates of sponsorship money, but they don’t close any, either.  Of course, there were no NCAA tourney games and NASCAR didn’t start until later in Phoenix.  Good to have a TV partner willing to find a nice slot.  I sure hope we can expect more of this.

I certainly hope this met your expectations.  If not,  just remember the words of Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar: “If you expect nothing from somebody, you are never disappointed.”

 

 

Show me a hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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¹Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”

In IndyCar, youth will be served

I knew it was going to happen.  As I approached the intersection, the light was green, and I could tell that two cars in the turn lane coming in the opposite direction were going to turn in front of me.  That was cool.  The social covenant of the road clearly gave them that option.  As an experienced driver, I quickly assessed the situation and continued at speed.  My years of experience also caused me to look at the third driver in line, a spiky-haired youth in a pick-up truck.  There was no way he had the time to make the turn without me getting hard on the binders, but I knew he was going to turn anyway.  And he did.

My tires squealed.  I would like to say that I calmly gained control of the car and continued on my way.  But I can’t.  I screamed, shook my fist, and gesticulated wildly.  My blood boiled. I turned behind him and considered following him to make a point about how dangerous his driving was and how we were only saved by my vast experience and cat-quick reactions.  Then a Gustave Flaubert quote rolled through my head: “By dint of railing at idiots, one runs the risk of becoming an idiot oneself.”  I let him go.

In our entitled society, I am sure many people think the proverb “youth will be served” means that adults do all they can to help and support young people.  It really means that young people cannot stop themselves from being the callow, self-centered,      pains-in-the-neck that they are.  Young people will do what young people do.  The case in point is Sage Karam of Chip Ganassi Racing.

I am not passing judgement on Sage Karam in his budding conflict with Ed Carpenter of Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing.  If Karam squeezed Carpenter in the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway and Carpenter had to take defensive measures, why should anyone be surprised?  He’s a kid with very little IndyCar experience acting like a kid, doing what he wasn’t supposed to do and going where he wasn’t supposed to go, breaking the social covenant of the racing fraternity.  Like most kids, he didn’t like being called out in public and on television by a grumpy Uncle Ed and responded just like the kid he is.  Again, what do we expect?

My biggest issue with Karam’s response to Carpenter was his quote ” “It’s close racing. It’s IndyCar racing. This aint gokarts or anything anymore.”  It makes me weep for public education in America.  The only thing that could have made it better was if Karam had dropped a “bro” and a “dude” or two in the interview.  Again, youth will be served.

The truth is that the Verizon IndyCar Series needs the energy and edginess of youth.  Karam’s limitation is going to be financial if he keeps wadding up DW12’s.  It will not be because he is controversial.  Even Mark Miles says that the Karam/Carpenter dust-up does not qualify as a violation of the new IndyCar Gag Rule 9.3.8, even though a reading of the rule clearly shows it could be.  Miles knows, as do we all, that controversy sells.  And IndyCar really needs to sell the product in any way it can.

A new audience for IndyCar translates to a young audience.  You sell youth with youth.  Drivers like Karam, Josef Newgarden, Gabby Chaves, and Conor Daly are the personalities that have the chance to connect with new, young fans.  The series needs them to have success.  It also needs them to connect with the ever-changing ethos of a new, young audience.  Right now, Karam is the only one with an edge.  That is a really good thing.

So cut the bro a break.  Sage Karam is needed in IndyCar precisely because he possesses the punk attitude.  It doesn’t matter if fans love him or hate him.  As far as promotion goes, love and hate are two sides of the same coin.  It is about time that the fraternity of IndyCar drivers goes from the Omegas of Animal House fame to John Belushi’s Deltas. Toga! Toga! Toga!

 

Five worthless opinions: Fontana MAVTV 500 edition

Surprise, anger, frustration, elation, bitterness…sounds like IndyCar to me.  Fontana, with nobody watching, put on one of the best races in recent memory.  Unless you think good racing is not racing at all.  More on that below.  Here they are, the best worthless opinions about the Verizon IndyCar Series you will find in the shrinking corner of the Internet that still cares about the endangered species known as oval racing.

1. Graham Rahal won a race.  In a Honda.  For a one car team.  What’s better than those three items is how he won it.  He bullied the status quo.  He chopped, shoved, bumped, and squeezed his way to the front while dragging fueling equipment with him.  This was no rainy street course where a fueling or tire strategy bumped him to the front.  He did it on his own.  And it seems that the black hat the series so desperately needs someone to wear fits him well.  It will be interesting to see if someone decides to knock it off his head.

2.  Honda won a race that was not decided by weather and/or strategy.  With Honda playing coy about a long-term contract to supply motors to the series, this is cause for corks to be popped.  After the Indy 500 debacle of punishing Honda for the sins of Chevy, Honda and the series needed this to happen.  Honda has leverage over the series, and everyone knows it.  The best part of this story is how Honda won.  They rolled up their sleeves and made the aero better.  Of course, social media was abuzz with conspiracy theories about how the series jiggered the finish to ensure a Honda win.  Right.  It is just hard for me to imagine IndyCar race control, you know, controlling anything.

3.  It appears that the easy collegiality of the paddock is a little frayed right now.  That’s what close racing does to people.  Was it pack racing?  Sure, why not.  Was is simply close racing?  Sure, why not.  It was crazy racing, that’s for sure.  It was dangerous, risky, scary, no holds barred, fish or cut bait, white knuckle stuff.  It was edge of your seat drama that had people, fans and drivers both, taking sides.  Will Power, Tony Kanaan, and Juan Pablo Montoya quite clearly though it was stupid and needlessly risky.  Ryan Hunter-Reay thought it was worthless to do it in front of an almost non-existent crowd.  Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti just consider it racing.  High flying Ryan Briscoe did not condemn the style of racing even though he went airborne at the end of the race.  The most pointed comment was from Ed Carpenter, who tweeted that people should shut up or retire.  Wow.  Since there are no more tracks like this on the schedule, the dissent should go from a boil to a simmer.  For now.

4.  As an oval fan, I hate to see a track like Fontana fade away.  When no one attends an event that is refused not only date equity but a date that works for the promoter, the writing is on the wall.  You will find no answers to this conundrum here.  Oval fans want Fontana, Milwaukee, and Texas on the schedule, but if no one attends the races, there  will be no races.  Promoters have to eat.  Whether you like it or not, the MAVTV 500 was the most exciting must-see racing of the year.  A recent report by Brant James in USA Today indicate that the series is open to being “flexible with sanctioning fees and fees and offering a modest co-op fund to help promoters market.”  It took the series this long to realize that these options are necessary? IndyCar has a problem on its hands.  I think the series needs to print “Save the Ovals” bumper stickers.  It worked for the whales.

5.  IndyCar fans are nuts.  I could just stop right there and most readers would just nod their heads in agreement.  Social media absolutely blew up with every possible opinion on the racing at Fontana.  One side loved it.  The other abhorred it.  Some fans thought the celebration of Graham Rahal’s win should be muted because the racing was dangerous.  How does that work?  I have written before that the future of the Verizon IndyCar Series does not rest on the passionate nutjobs that currently follow the series.  The future of the series is completely about people who are not currently fans.  This kind of racing, as crazy and dangerous as it is, is one portal to draw in these new fans.  This is not a promoter’s problem; it is a series problem.  If the problem is not fixed, losing ovals will be the least of the series’ problems.

There you go.  Completely worthless and totally uniformed opinions that you only find here.  It was my pleasure to make them up.

Why Indy is more than a race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IndyCar weathers the storm at NOLA

The inaugural Indy Grand Prix of New Orleans has come and gone…and hopefully comes again next year.  While not everyone liked the weather, or the Verizon IndyCar Series reaction to the weather, it seems as if NOLA Motorsports Park will be in the line-up in the future.

The public needs to remember that this is a new track attempting to move up to the major leagues with IndyCar.  The facility made the safety and fan upgrades that IndyCar required and had to expect some issues.   A weekend of horrendous weather can neither be predicted in the long term nor changed in the short.  The track and the series had to deal with it.  And that was problematic.

The series and promoter were in no-win positions with decisions this weekend.  During qualifying on Saturday, approaching lightning forced the series to evacuate the grandstands and ask the fans to seek shelter.  With one lawsuit looming over flying debris at St. Pete, the series could in no way delay action on this call.  Legal counsel always errs on the side of safety with lightning.  If it is on the way, get out.  All major sports do this now without delay.  On Saturday, NOLA sent fans to every inside shelter on the facility, including buses.  Great call.  And the lightning certainly came in.  It doesn’t matter if the weather is deemed severe or if a warning exists.  Lightning equals evacuation.

The more noticeable issue, and the one that brought the most criticism, was making the race on Sunday a timed event with so much TV window still open.  The series and promoter made the call to start the race early.  This is fan friendly.  This likely would not have been as doable on ABC.  NBCSN had a little more wiggle room with programming.  This gave the series a chance to have rain delays and still get a race completed.

So the windows, both TV and weather, looked good on Sunday.  The teams handled the wet track pretty well at the beginning of the race, but as the track dried and the slicks replaced the wets, so too did yellow flags replace green.  By the race’s end, 26 of the 47 laps were run under yellow conditions.  Why?  Slick track, slick tires, aggressive drivers.  But not to worry, there was plenty of time to get all 75 laps in.  Or not.

Weather was coming in.  It could be seen on the radar.  Predictions said it was going to rain.  Simulations were done that predicted both the time and place of the storm’s arrival.  People saw it on their phones.  Here it comes.  Such was the dilemma on Sunday.  While not a full house, the crowd was robust for the race, the weather, and the facility.  It must be assumed that most had checked weather and brought umbrellas and raincoats.  Even so, if lightning rolled in, there was no place to put all the people.

The people.  The ones that had to park offsite because there was no onsite parking.  This is not a criticism of the venue.  Many major golf events move 30,00-40,000 people from parking lots to courses via shuttles daily.  NOLA Motorsports Park does the same thing.  But as with any new event, the wait times for the shuttles after the race were going to be very long.  It would not do to have thousands of people waiting for shuttles in a storm with no place to harbor them if lightning showed up.

So the decision was made to shorten the event.  The expectation had to be to have great green flag racing, finish the race, and get the people to their cars and safety.  The call was the right one except for the fact the expected weather did not roll in.  Poor IndyCar.  They made the right choices and still managed to provoke every troll on Twitter and every critic with an ax to grind.  Everyone wanted a full race and lots of green flag racing on a sporty, fast circuit, but fan safety trumped all.  IndyCar made the only choice it could make for the circumstances.

IndyCar will weather this storm, and hopefully NOLA Motorsports Park will, too.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to be the premier race at this track as it grows in the coming years.   A spot on the calendar needs to be found in the early spring where this event will blossom.  Until other road courses starting knocking on the series’ door, IndyCar needs to party in New Orleans, rain or shine.

 

 

Fast Five Worthless Opinions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Yes, it’s true.  The rarely beloved and often reviled “Ten Worthless Opinions” feature is no more.  Why, you may ask?  “Well, it seems that due to the vagaries of the production parameters of this fragmenting of the audience to the cable television, carnivals, water parks,”¹, the 1000-1300 word length of the feature is much more relevant and readable when it is nearer the 500-750 word limit.  Plus, it’s so much easier to come up with five opinions than it is ten.  So there’s that, too.  In any case, here you go.

1.  Penske Domination: What can be said?  Will Power was the class of the field until a very slight pit delay allowed Juan Pablo Montoya to take the lead during pit stops.  After that, it was all Montoya.  The Penske posse dominated the time charts all week and did the same in the race.  This leads to the real question of how Penske does it.  They have the same Chevy engine and aero kit as the other Chevy teams, so that is not the only reason.  While the team does have more driver depth and talent than any other organization, it cannot be just the pilot.  And yes, the pursuit of perfection by the whole organization certainly leads one to believe that Team Penske could dominate by sheer attention to detail.  But after the parity of the last two years, what does this group have that other teams don’t?  Hmm.  I wonder how the Team Penske cars support all that downforce?  Remember what other area is open to development, and you might have your answer.

2.  Honda vs. Chevy: It is way to early to tell which will be dominant throughout the year.  Chevy (read: Team Penske) certainly seems to have the upper hand on the street.  We will see if the same holds true for natural terrain road courses at NOLA Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park.  The ovals are still a tossup between Honda and Chevy, particularly with the removal of so much downforce.  What the series does not need is for Chevy for run away with everything, particularly after the last two years of parity and multiple winners from both large and small teams.  When you hang you marketing hat on the series being competitive and it’s not, then you have a problem.  Follow the leader (read: Team Penske) is not good for the series.  Let’s hope Honda and the other Chevy teams get it figured out.

3.  Wingapallooza:  At least in St. Pete, the worst fears of many came true: Wingapallooza.  In a clear demonstration of aerodynamics, a broken wing proved it can fly, sailing over the grandstands in Turn 10 and seriously injuring a spectator.  It is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. If injuries to fans isn’t enough of an issue, wing related issues affected the racing, also. No race needs 20% of the laps run under full course yellow conditions, particularly if most of those laps were a direct or indirect result of the less-than-robust wing assemblies being unable to take the punishment of the old Dallara wing.  And it could have been worse!  Race Control was very judicious in not throwing the yellow for every piece of carbon fiber that found its way onto the track.  They even had a track worker pick up a piece on the main straight during green flag conditions.  Let’s hope that this is a simple learning curve, and the drivers adapt to the new fragility of the front wing pieces.  In any case, I can see an old Italian man sitting in a big office in Varano tapping his fingers together saying, “Eccelente.”

4.  Tears for Graham: Let me go on record by saying that IndyCar needs Graham Rahal, an American driver with a superb racing lineage, to be successful.  He is great with sponsors and supports charities.  I pull for him.  Really.  But he makes it so hard sometimes.  Even though I have a scanner, I really like the Verizon IndyCar 15 app.  It offers drivers’ radio communication, the IMS Radio Network, and great visual information.  And it’s free!  This week, Graham Rahal was one of the featured drivers, and all I can say is that he is the poster child for the over-indulged generation.  Nothing is his fault.  He biffed Charlie Kimball, an aero kit casualty, and blamed him for basically being in front of him.  When he was penalized with a drive-through, he radioed his dad and said, “They’ll find anything they can to screw me!”  C’mon.  Of course, this all may be sour grapes on my part since he also loves to tweet how much he loves flying with his new partner Wheels Up in their new Cessna King Air private plane.  Just rub it in, Graham.

5. Chip’s Chatter: According to an interview at TrackSide Online, a subscription IndyCar news service, Chip Ganassi may be less-than-enthused about how Mark Miles is going about building a new schedule.  His concern is that a short calendar season makes it hard to find sponsorship, and that the series should have extended the front of the series in February before axing the schedule after Labor Day.  As much as I enjoy pointing out Chip’s foibles, I tend to agree here.  Even though Chip Ganassi Racing is one of the big boys in the Verizon IndyCar Series, he does not have the budget and personal fortune of someone like Roger Penske.  He must have the sponsorship to compete, and sponsors do not like the short season.  Maybe it all gets sorted out with next year’s schedule, but for now, Chip is not happy and he is not afraid to make himself heard.  As if there was ever any doubt of that.

That the five fast WO’s for this week.  Let’s hope we have fewer flying wings and more passing at NOLA Motorsports Park.

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¹ This is Kramer’s explanation to Raquel Welch in a Seinfeld episode as he fires her from the production of The Scarsdale Surprise for not swinging her arms when she dances.  Seemed apropos here.

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