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IndyCar and television: a dysfunctional relationship

Iowa Speedway put on a great show with its Iowa Corn 250 this past weekend.  Even though Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe dominated the race, there was passing throughout the field.  Ryan Hunter-Reay came back through the field to finish second while Tony Kanaan held off Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal for the last podium spot.  And the ABC/ESPN broadcast of the race did a pretty good job of making sure the viewers knew those things were happening.  After all the commentary bashing the ABC/ESPN coverage, that was good news.

But the fact is watching a small oval like Iowa Speedway in person cannot be simulated on television.  The tight shots seen on television rob the viewer of the perspective from the stands.  Following multiple battles on the track at the same time is what makes Iowa exciting.  You can see the passes being set up laps in advance.  As you wait for one pass to be set up, you can watch another pass being made.  From any seat in the house, you can see the whole track and every bit of action on it.  Television, for all the bowing and scraping we do to the ratings, just doesn’t do justice to a track like Iowa.

Televising racing isn’t easy.  An 18 second lap at Iowa often had five cuts.  That required the director in the trailer to do many things at once: watch multiple feeds to decide which battle to follow, determine when to cut from one camera to another, decide which replay to show, and inform the announcers exactly what was happening and what was getting ready to happen.  Easy it’s not.

Even though I’m usually rough on the ABC booth, Marty Reid is actually getting better.  At least he’s amping up the enthusiasm.  The funereal presence of Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear still don’t do it for me, though.  The boys do get emotional during close racing, emitting the occasional “ooh” and “wow” to let us know how tight the racing is.  They do understand what’s going on.  As vapid as their presentation is, they get the facts right.  It is obvious that this booth is not going to connect to the demographic that IndyCar is looking to attract.  And I don’t think that ABC/ESPN really cares.

ABC and its political master ESPN do not really need IndyCar to be a big deal.  All they need is to own the Indianapolis 500 and for it to continue to be a pretty big deal.  I’m going to go all conspiracy theory here, so bear with me.  ABC owns the network broadcast rights to IndyCar.  That means they are the only non-cable network that can put IndyCar on TV.  In other words, NBC gets the leftovers.  Without the Indy 500, NBC Sports inherited a racing series that, while offering the most versatile and exciting racing on the planet, does not offer the most famous race on the planet.  Yikes.

ABC was allowed to cherry-pick any races they chose, and in addition to the Indy 500, they picked Detroit, Texas, Iowa, and Pocono.  Shrewd move.  If IndyCar had any success with the fans before the 500, ABC benefited.  Any subsequent interest would be to ABC’s benefit, too, since they had four of the next five races on the schedule.  In case any of the races after Indy were spectacular, ABC wins.  The cherry on the post Indy 500 sundae would be keeping NBC’s cable sports network, NBC Sports, from gaining any traction with viewers.  ABC/ESPN will brutally deny a start-up cable sports network ANY success with a partner, particularly if that cable network has a broadcast network connection.  Dividing IndyCar benefits ABC/ESPN.  IndyCar unified on NBC/NBC Sports can potentially hurt ABC/ESPN.  What happens to IndyCar beyond the 500 is unimportant to ABC/ESPN as long as it doesn’t help the competition.  ABC/ESPN does not want to see NBC/NBC Sports have the success with IndyCar that they had with the recently completed NHL Stanley Cup Final.  The hockey games bounced between the two NBC networks and prospered.  The IZOD IndyCar Series could help NBC’s fledgling sports network, but this will not be allowed to happen.  With both networks locked into contracts with IndyCar, the intentional dysfunctional relationship of the series and its television partners will continue.

To prosper, the IZOD IndyCar Series eventually needs to be on one family of networks, preferably one that does not have a NASCAR contract.  That severely limits the players, doesn’t it?  IndyCar is the awkward sibling.  Because of the success of the Indy 500, it can’t be disowned, but the networks don’t really wants to spend much time with it.  So IndyCar continues its lonely existence away from kith and kin, dreaming that one day a network family will adopt this poor, orphaned series.

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.

Indy Tenderloin Tour – Iowa Speedway Edition

I’m a breaded tenderloin snob.  I know its history (the schnitzel German immigrants brought to America), and I know the good from the bad.  The bad generally means a frozen fritter, one dripping in grease, or just bad meat.  I consider myself an aficionado of the sliced, beaten, breaded, and fried pork sandwich.  This pork hubris led me to start my “Indy Tenderloin Tour” during the month of May to introduce out-of-state Indy 500 fans to this local delicacy, the likes of which can only be found in Indiana.  And then I went to Iowa Speedway.

I was minding my own business.  Oh, I noticed the pork chops and stopped to talk to the fine folks from the Tama County Pork Producers.  These were just the type of grilled pork offerings you would expect from Iowa residents.  They were quite tasty.  But of course, they weren’t breaded tenderloins.  And then I walked past The Machine Shed, a local restaurant that operated one of the concession stands.  It was very hard not to notice The Machine Shed, since this was cooking directly in front of it.

Yep.  That’s a whole hog roasting its way to succulent perfection.  Again, wonderful pork presentation, but not a breaded tenderloin.  But as I scanned the menu, it jumped out at me.  There it was: Pork Tenderloin Sandwich.  But so far in Iowa, most pork products were naked.  The pork loins, pork chops, and pork burgers might be seasoned, but they were not breaded.  After a brief moment of discussion, I found that the tenderloins here were indeed breaded, so I ordered up one of the breaded babies.  Here is what arrived:

I believe I insulted the workers in The Machine Shed when I asked if the tenderloin was a frozen fritter.  These tenderloins are sliced from the loin by The Machine Shed in their cutting room, pounded by real human beings, and breaded/battered in their own recipe.  I was also pleased to learn that the pork is locally sourced.  Iowans care about their food.

All that’s nice, but what about the taste?  Well, I included this sandwich in my “Indy Tenderloin Tour” didn’t I?  Doesn’t that tell you something?  My first bite told me that these Hawkeyes knew what they were doing.  The meat was thick and cooked to perfection.  Tenderloin fans know that you hide bad meat by pounding it thin and breading it heavily.  This was a thick piece of meat with nary a bit of gristle.  The coating was more of a batter than a breading and was crispy, bordering on crunchy.  My personal preference is for breading instead of batter, but that does not change the fact that this was a great tenderloin.  If you are in Iowa and are lusting after a breaded tenderloin, The Machine Shed is ready for you.

I have to give The Machine Shed a checkered flag.  My hat is off to my first out-of-Indy stop on the “Indy Tenderloin Tour.”

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.

Ten Worthless Opinons – Iowa Corn 250 Edition

Corn was in evidence at Iowa this past weekend.  Coming through the tunnel into the infield at Iowa Speedway for the Iowa Corn 250, you are greeted by a healthy stand of Pioneer corn.  Yep, Iowa Speedway uses corn as landscaping.  Now that’s what you call sponsor activation.  This week’s theme for my WO’s (worthless opinions) is that staple of both human and cattle diets, zea mays.  How American is corn?  It is the American grain, domesticated right here in this hemisphere.  Feel proud, Americans.  This corn’s for you.

1.  Let’s give a little high fructose corn syrup to the people at Iowa Speedway and the people of Iowa.  Not that they need it, though.  Iowans are just nice.  It’s a Midwest thing.  At the race this weekend, people wanted to know where I lived, how I was doing, what I thought about Iowa, and if I was having a good time.  As a fellow Midwesterner, I answered all the questions and asked the same ones back.  A gentleman even apologized to me when I was told my credentials did not allow pit access on Saturday.  I think Iowans could tell me to go to hell and make me look forward to the trip.  There’s just something homey about Iowa Speedway.  It’s probably the green corn vistas everywhere you look.

2.  Is corn oil a lubricant?  If so, I think the padre who gave the invocation used a little with the Big Guy to smooth the evening weather.  He thanked God for the rain to help the corn, and thanked him again for keeping it away for the IndyCar race.  Don’t underestimate these Iowa corn farmers.  They know people.

3.  After watching this race in person and watching it later on TV, I can only say live is WAY better.  Make the drive to Iowa to watch this race.  You can see the whole track.  It’s a cornucopia of visual delight.  Watching Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud work through traffic all evening was racing at its finest.  TV can focus on one thing.  Being at this race, you can focus on all the battles.  Ed Carpenter battled back from a lap down to get into the top ten.  The Andretti Autosport drivers were wicked fast all night and aggressive as hell.  Watching a pass being set up for two or three laps adds real drama to the racing.  Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pass for the win had me twitching in my seat.  You get the sense of it on TV; you see it and feel it at the track.  Attend your local race.  It’s good for the series and good for your soul.

4.  Open up a jar of corn liquor for the pit reporters on NBS Sports.  Townsend Bell brings it.  He knows the drivers, the cars, and racing.  His questions on race set-ups and balance with Dario added insight.  And Dario’s answers were informative.  The thin line being treaded here is whether the Q and A is sometimes a little too esoteric.  In other words, does the technical jargon go over the head of someone not versed in the minutia of mechanics?  Even of it does, I would have to say it is balanced out by the SFHRacing home movies of Josef Newgarden sleeping on the couch and riding a Jet Ski.  IndyCar offers a little insight for everyone, I guess.

5.  Robin Miller is the corn pone king.  His jokes are lame, and he lacks the presence and delivery of a good TV guy, but I love him.  He knows everyone in the paddock and the drivers respond to the fact that he is knowledgeable and interested in their opinions.  Plus, he is trying to get the foreign drivers to hop in sprint cars.  Now that is something I would pay to see.  Walking through the garage area at Iowa, you see just how hard RM and the other TV guys work.

6.  Do you think Dario has a future in TV?  His presence in the booth was entertaining.  And entertainment is the bottom line in TV.  To use a pro wrestling term, Dario has become a heel (See my post Can you smell what IndyCar is cookin’ for my take on IndyCar as professional wrestling).  Some fans actually boo him now, and some cheers went up with the smoke rolling off the back of his car.  IndyCar is not NASCAR.  People are not ready to fight you because you root for, or against, a specific driver, but we need both heroes and villains in the series.  For whatever reason, Dario has become a villain.  In the booth Saturday, he commented on E.J. Viso’s pointing to his head after Will Power came down on him by saying, “Little rich coming from E.J.  He’s hit everything but the pace car.”  Nice.  Way to take a corn knife to him, Dario.  He calls them like he sees them, which we like.  What we don’t like is the way he sees them.  The boy has a future in television.  He’s not vanilla.

7.  I thought race control was going to have some cream corn on its hands Saturday night.  What the viewers at home did not see was a safety truck on the front straight as the pace car turned off its lights and pulled off the track on a restart.  The cars accelerated past it as they formed up for the restart.  Fans in our section were standing and pointing.  The truck was just backing into its spot on pit exit as the cars entered turn one.  That was WAY too close.  I would expect somebody to notice it.  As of this writing, nothing has been mentioned in print and nothing was said on TV.  Scary.  How about it Race Control?

8.  How did TV not play up the E.J. Viso – Will Power gestures is beyond me.  They showed it and then chose not to comment on E.J. and Will exchanging sign language pleasantries.  Watch this clip with some popcorn.  Now do the new dance I am calling the Viso.  It’s kind of like the Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. [1]  It’s a point to the head with both hands.  Then do a stylish flipping of the double birds.  Follow that up with a single or double crotch grab with a pelvic thrust.  It works best with a Samba beat.  Top that, NASCAR.

9.  The booth on the NBC Sports broadcast held its own.  Kevin Lee started during pre-race and moved to the pits after the arrival of Bob Jenkins.  Tommy Kendall added insight, but Jon Beekhuis is still the man with pithy observations.  Kendall needs to smooth it out in there and stop the long-winded observations when a pass is taking place on track.  Don’t forget you are there to provide narration to the event.  Most fans want to know what’s happening on the track, not what’s happening in your head.  Fill in when the action is slow.  Narrate when it’s happening.  Basically, you need a little less butter on the cornbread.

10.  Just to show you it’s not all racing, I managed to sample some great Iowa pork products this past weekend.  I had sausage gravy, bacon, pork chops, a pork burger, and a great breaded tenderloin that is getting its own review in my Tenderloin Tour coming up later this week.  My pal Steve Wittich (@stevewittich) tried the non-pork offering of fried meatloaf on-a-stick from The Machine Shed at the speedway.  Rave reviews all around for everything.  But there was one thing missing.  There was no corn on the cob drenched in butter.  Guess it’s not in season yet, and the good people of Iowa refuse to import any corn products from out-of-state.  That’s brand loyalty, folks.

The citizens of the Hawkeye State love their racing, their corn, and their pork.  They’re my kind of people.  Now where’s that can of hominy for dinner?


1.  Everyone do the Time Warp.  Still one my favorite dances.  Ah, Magenta and Columbia.  Here’s the scene from the movie.

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