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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.

 

 

 

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Five Worthless Opinions: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Edition

At times, my WO’s (worthless opinions) can run to sarcasm.  Surprising, I know.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series  always seems to offer snark fodder in abundance.  At previous races this year, the fragile front wings, racing in the rain, and rules interpretations have made it easy for one so inclined.  The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park changed most of that.  While not snark free, most of these WO’s celebrate a great race.

1.  All-American Finish: Josef Newgarden winning is a big deal for many reasons.  A compelling storyline to recent Verizon IndyCar Series seasons is the lack of a marketable American drivers for a North American series.  F1, noted for drivers from around the world, is a truly international series with venues around the world.  The IndyCar series is not.  The international drivers in IndyCar are outstanding, but without sounding all jingoistic about it, having a young, well-spoken, and telegenic American cannot hurt the marketability of the series.  If the series chooses to market him, of course.  They had American Ryan Hunter-Reay as both series champ and Indy 500 winner, and it would be hard to say they capitalized on that.

2.  The Racing: Newgarden and his Chevy were racy from the start, passing Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power to grab the lead from a fifth place start.  It was the kind of start that had fans using body English to help the drivers maneuver through traffic.  Graham Rahal’s run in his Honda to second after a late fuel stop had fans watching two strategies at once: Newgarden’s slow-paced fuel saving in his Chevy versus Rahal’s hanging-it-out after stopping for fuel near the end.  Fans could actually see the interval decreasing by seconds per lap.  And while Newgarden’s early passes were scintillating, Rahal’s outside passes throughout the race were equally spectacular.  Great stuff.

3.  Lack of Idiocy/Penalties/Yellows:  It was almost life affirming to not see carbon fiber flotsam and jetsam strewn around the track on the first lap.  The racing was tight and, for the most part, clean.  For the second race in a row, yellow flag racing was at a minimum.  Of course, the last two races simply balanced out the first two in the green/yellow ratio.  We’ll see where it goes from here.  It goes without saying that no Verizon IndyCar Series race is complete without grousing and complaining from drivers and teams about the officiating.  Both Sebastien Bourdais and Stefano Colleti took exception to yellow flags causing them personal hardship.  Juan Pablo Montoya took umbrage at Rodolfo Gonzalez slowing him down.  James Hinchcliffe was upset with Rahal’s line through the turns.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is still upset about NOLA and sees inconsistency everywhere. And of course, everyone complained about Francesco Dracone’s pace.  The reality was that Race Control penalized some, drivers, warned others, and called nothing in other situations.  It’s like calling holding in the NFL.  An official can do it every play.  You can’t call it all in racing, either, no matter how much the drivers whine and complain.

4.  Success of CFH Racing and RLL Racing: Back at the top of the podium, the success of Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing over Penske and Ganassi bodes well for the sport and the team.  The same holds true for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, too.  The smaller teams in the series need success to bolster their bottom lines when it comes to sponsorship.  While Ed Carpenter has Fuzzy’s Vodka for he and Luca Filippi in their ride share, a win can go a long way to help Sarah Fisher land a season-long sponsorship for Josef Newgarden.  Graham Rahal’s second place finish sure put sponsor Steak and Shake in the spotlight.  And Rahal, ever the shill for his sponsors, tweeted after the race that he might stop in for a shake on his way home.

5.  Big Mo Heading to Indy: There must be something to momentum in sports.  Every announcer, coach, and player in every sport talks about its value.  If that’s true, then the month of May in Indy could be interesting.  Chevy certainly has engine and aero kit momentum.  They are the class of the field.  Penske has some, too.  The team has every driver in the top nine in the standings with Montoya and Castroneves running first and second.  The Ganassi boys are coming on, particularly after Long Beach.  With Newgarden and Rahal riding their Barber success, this might be the year for an underdog winner at the 500.  And don’t forget about the invisible man, Ed Carpenter.  He knows Indy.  The greatest beneficiary of momentum has to be the Verizon IndyCar Series.  After the aero growing pains of St. Pete and the weather woes of NOLA, the series seems to be finding its groove.

All in all, it was a most excellent race.  Let’s hope it sets the tone for a most excellent month of May in Indy.

A scary IndyCar Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indianapolis 500 qualifications: It’s a new track tradition

What to take from the 2014 Indianapolis 500 qualification weekend.  The best perspective might be to ask what did IMS want to achieve with the new format.  The lack of cars on track due to available motors had clearly made the recent truncation of qualifications from four days to two even less compelling than they had been.  Bump Day had devolved into a glorified practice day with little, if any, drama.  The leadership at IMS and IndyCar knew they had to do something to bring back drama and package it into a neat little TV frame for ABC if they wanted more exposure and more live attendance.  I’m not sure if they succeeded on either of those counts this year, but at least they created a package that contains that potential.

Qualification Saturday at Indy has gone from pole day to BUMP DAY ALL DAY SATURDAY.  The TV audience on ABC was given two hours of almost non-stop qualifying action as drivers continued to make multiple attempts to get their cars into the Fast Nine round on Sunday.  Alexander Pope, an 18th century British poet, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”¹  Nowhere is that more evident than in auto racing.  Every driver thinks that the next run will be the one that gets the job done.  With the equipment and speeds so close in the Verizon IndyCar Series, any driver in the top 20 had a legitimate shot to bump his way into the Fast Nine.  Over and over the drivers gave it a shot.  The most compelling moment did not come to pass as Kurt Busch had to head to Charlotte to drive in NASCAR’s All-Star race.  How excited would the fans, both live and on TV, have been for Busch to make multiple attempts to make the Fast Nine for Sunday?

Not only was there multiple bumping, but just think of all the decisions that had to be made in the heat of battle.  At first, I thought the idea of an “express lane” for qualifying was too gimmicky, but after watching teams make the choice to pull their times at the risk of an accident that might put them in “relegation row” with no qualifying time, it was apparent that teams were willing to take risks to have the chance to start up front.  The teams could have simply got in the slow lane, which allowed teams to keep their earlier times if their new times were slower.  But as time counted down to 5:50 PM (thanks to the TV window, 6:00 PM is gone forever), the teams that were willing to take a gamble for the Fast Nine had to actually roll the dice.  Compelling.

The teams in the middle were, as 20th century American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.” ²  They had no reason to re-qualify unless they had a chance to get into the Fast Nine.  Most of those teams decided to stand pat.  That made a lot of sense.  Why risk an accident when the real race for the grid was not going to be until Sunday?

The issue to the slowest teams was if more than 33 cars were entered.  If so, then the bottom of the grid would have been much more nervous and willing to go again.  As it was, some of the teams at the bottom went again on the rumor that Katherine Legge might be added as a driver before the 7:00 PM deadline.  Why is that an issue?  If only 33 cars present themselves to qualify, then the cars at the bottom of the grid have nothing to worry about.  They are in the race and have a chance to re-qualify to better their positions.  The Legge rumor, if it had been true, would have added a 34th car and changed everything for the bottom of the grid.  If more than 33 cars attempt to qualify, then the bottom of the grid would be like the bottom of the table for Premier League soccer.  In that league, the bottom three teams are relegated, or removed from the league, and teams from other leagues move up. You can call  the slowest three on Saturday “relegation row.”  Imagine a scenario where the last three teams on Saturday continue to try to bump out of the final three while teams not in the race try to bump in, and teams near the bottom three try to improve their positions to keep from being put in the last three.  All this will take place at the same time as the Fast Nine teams are bumping and being bumped. Confusing and exciting.

Sunday was more anticlimactic as teams outside the Fast Nine re-qualified and jockeyed  for position on the grid.  They got one shot.  It was a couple of hours and then it was done.  The Fast Nine was a made-for-TV moment.  That’s it.  Nine drivers re-qualified and Ed Carpenter snagged the pole with a run of 231.067, edging out James Hinchcliffe’s 230.649.  It’s clear that Sunday is designed for TV.  Saturday was made for the fans.

Is the new procedure better than the old one?  I guess that would be determined by which old procedure you mean.  The new format is action-filled, exciting, and creates compelling drama on Saturday, particularly if more than 33 cars are entered.  The Fast Nine on Sunday just goes by too quickly.  The Fast Nine drivers having multiple attempts would certainly spice up the day.  Will it make qualification better than what they were years ago?  Probably not.  But they will make them what they need to be today.  And that’s the real goal.

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¹  Name another auto racing writer that quotes Alexander Pope.  That’s what we offer here: racing and literature.  Just another service.

²  That’s right, I just slapped down another literary reference.  How about a quote from a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner who spoke at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.  I have a Robert Frost tattoo on my bicep. *not true*

IndyCar edgy at Long Beach

The Verizon IndyCar Series has taken on a country club feel in recent years.  The drivers are all buddies. Before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, James Hinchliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay even joked on camera about flipping a coin to see who was going to lead the first lap.  I wonder if those two still had their senses of humor after the race.

Humor is nothing new in IndyCar.  Eddie Sachs was known as “the clown prince of racing” in the 60’s.  Bobby Unser was not only shockingly honest as a racer and an announcer, he was also a born storyteller.  Still is.  A.J. Foyt’s humor was always sharp and biting.  Still is.  So it is nothing new that today’s racers are funny.  What’s different is the politically correct way they interact.  The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach certainly changed all that.

To spice up the broadcast, NBCSN brought in Paul Tracy, four-time Long Beach winner and notorious truth-teller.  Everyone just knew he would stir the pot a little bit.  Sadly, PT was just another talking head, saying nothing controversial.  Sigh.  I am sure he will get the message to go find the real Paul Tracy.

This all leads us to how a pretty good race became an entertaining one.  Bad moves led to bad feelings, sheepish honesty, and a few apologies that may or may not have been accepted.  Hopefully, it will lead to a little ill will.  Then maybe Paul Tracy can get on board and put the hammer down on some people.

One of the best products of the close racing in IndyCar is the fact that anyone can win.  The spec chassis and similar power plants mean the shoestring budgets can hold their own with the deep-pocketed teams.  You just know this small budget competition chafes the big dogs.  The best part of the close racing is that Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson can call out Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon; SFHR’s Josef Newgarden can place the blame on Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay; and SPHM’s Simon Pagenaud can mock the apology of Penske Racing’s Will Power.  Now THAT’S parity.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to have this kind of close racing though the pack every week..  TV does not do it justice.

The irony in the series is delicious right now.  The top dogs were forced to act like contrite backmarkers. Scott Dixon apologized for pushing Justin Wilson into the wall and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Will Power apologized for punting Simon Pagenaud with his usual it’s-my-fault-that-it’s-your-fault line and the apology was UNACCEPTED.  Ryan Hunter-Reay apologized by saying a real racer goes for it when he sees the chance at exactly the wrong spot and his apology was UNACCEPTED.  I just love to see the shifty-eyed apologies of schoolboys caught in the act without a plausible story to tell.  Not ironically, Graham Rahal was his usual self and refused to accept any blame for anything.  Never change, Graham.  Both Michael Andretti and James Hinchcliffe were less than pleased with Hunter-Reay’s antics.

Simmering feuds, unaccepted apologies, and possibly a little bit of hate await us at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.  Barber is narrow, twisty, and just not conducive to the type of racing that the IndyCars are capable of right now.  The boys in back are not going to move over for reputation alone any longer.  In fact, when push comes to shove – and it will – the little guys are going to flex their muscles and push and shove back.  And consider this: Juan Pablo Montoya has not had a problem with anyone in two races.  Wait until that happens!  It’s good to see some of the politically correct veneer come off the series.  This is the racing and these are the racers people want to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Sao Paulo Indy 300 Samba Edition

Dancing is life in Brazil.  The main straight for the Sao Paulo Indy 300 is the Sambadrome, the 30,000 seat home to the carnival parade put on by the samba schools in Sao Paulo.  The samba schools are year-round organizations that are the social hub of the city.  Think the Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans or the 500 Festival for the Indianapolis 500.  You can always count on New Track Record to sprinkle a little culture in with the racing.  With that in mind, here are this week’s WO’s (worthless opinions) on the IndyCar dance soiree in the streets of Sao Paulo.

1.  Of course, you have to get to the dance first.  Penske Racing may have outsmarted itself by waiting to put down a hot lap in the first round of knock-out qualifying.  Both Helio Castroneves and Will Power were unable to get a time since Tristan Vautier and James Jakes both had problems on track and the clock kept on ticking.  The line to the dance starts in the back, boys.  The Andretti Autosport strategy of banking a lap early paid off for pole sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Will this become the strategy in future rounds of road and street course qualifying?

2.  Like a dance, a race needs a great first step.  The long straight of the Sambadrome allowed a stellar start and great restarts all day.  It is a matter of fairness.  Backmarker or not, no driver should be at a disadvantage at the beginning of a race other than that of his qualifying position.  The hairpins at St. Pete and Long Beach are unfair on starts and restarts to any driver from the middle of the pack back.  If you cannot get all the cars lined up in a fair way, then standing starts are in order.

3.  The Penske boys just didn’t seem to have the rhythm at Sao Paulo.  It’s low-hanging fruit, but Dancing with the Stars champion Helio Castroneves and his dance partner Will Power stepped on each other’s toes going into the newly designed first turn.  Come on guys, figure out who’s leading.

4.  After moving quickly through the field, Power’s day ended with what seems to be the new IndyCar problem du jour: a header fire.  Will there be more flames at Indy?  Castroneves, always the entertainer, even did a nifty pirouette in the first turn to show the crowd that he still has some sick dance moves, but the judges weren’t impressed with his cha-cha as he headed to the back of the pack.

5.  There didn’t seem to be any wallflowers at this ball, though.  Everyone wanted to dance.  Passing was happening throughout the field.  The problem with a television broadcast is the inability to follow action throughout the field.  A street course, live or on television, only allows you to see what happens in front of you.  Ovals allow you to see action building.  At the risk of sounding like a shill, that’s why you should attend an IndyCar oval race.

6.  The boys in the booth back in Indianapolis did what they could with the Brazilian television feed.  Jon Beekhuis added intelligent technical commentary without speaking down to the ordinary fan, and Robin Miller apparently had nothing better to do, so he showed up in the studio.  Miller is the most underutilized asset of the NBC Sports broadcasts.  He has value.  Find him something to do, or don’t invite him to the dance.

7.  Spec racing or not, the IZOD IndyCar Series is fun to watch.  Whoever choreographed this big dance number deserves an award.  Edginess permeated the day.  Multiple, and interminable, cautions ruled.  Takuma Sato took the lead late and fought off Josef Newgarden before finally succumbing to James Hinchcliffe on the last turn of the last lap.  The newly patient Marco Andretti quietly finished third.  NASCAR had the “Big One” at Talledega and made the news.  IndyCar just continues to have the best racing on the planet and is ignored.  I guess the dance marathon at Talledega was more exciting than the IndyCars doing the lambada at Sao Paulo.  America still like its dancing and racing the old-fashioned way: boring.

8.  The judging of this particular dance contest was called into question on both the broadcast and social media.  As the laps wound  down, Takuma Sato made some highly questionable moves to keep James Hinchcliffe behind him.  Beaux Barfield gets the benefit of the doubt if only for being so transparent on the fact that something is being investigated.  The secrecy and favoritism that typified race control in the past has disappeared.  Of course, that does not mean that every call is correct.  If those moves had happened between cars fighting for 4th and 5th, would the call have been the same?  One would hope so, but no one likes to see the winner decided on a call on the last laps.  Blocking?  Yes.  Right call?  Yes.  As Townsend Bell said on the broadcast, “It’s good, hard, knife fighting racing.”

9.  Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing are fast becoming the stories of the year.  These single car entries are tap dancing at the front of the pack and challenging for wins.  The spec formula for the Dallara DW12 was designed to do just this – give smaller teams a chance to win.  It’s working.  Of course, since it benefits the smaller teams, Chip Ganassi will have a problem with it.  Don’t those teams know they are the chorus, not the headliners?

10.  The belle of the ball was James Hinchcliffe, though.  He pressured Sato after Newgarden fell back and took advantage of Sato’s last corner slide to duck under him for the victory.  The bigger story is Andretti Motorsport.  After years of being the best dancer in the chorus, the Andretti team is auditioning to be the prima ballerina in the IndyCar company.  The aging grande dames of Penske and Ganassi are just not quite as robust and hungry as Michael Andretti’s team.  It is interesting to note that Andretti Autosport does not split its resources and time with a NASCAR team but has instead invested in the IndyCar ladder series.  It takes focus to be a champion.

All in all, the IndyCar samba in Sao Paulo was a great performance.  While the ratings may not be as high as Dancing with the Stars, I’ll take Dancing with the Dallara anytime.  It’s time to quick step to Indy.

The Mods and Rockers: what IndyCar can learn from British pop culture

The IZOD IndyCar Series needs fewer Mods on scooters and a few more Rockers on motorcycles

In the recent NASCAR Nationwide race at Richmond, a typically long and relatively boring race was spiced up by a post race contretemps between Brian Scott and Nelson Piquet, Jr.  It was the kick felt around the racing world as Piquet, Jr. took rather low aim as he connected with Scott below the belt.  The juxtaposition of Scott, your typical American stock car racer, and Piquet, Jr., a Brazilian scion of F1 champion Nelson Piquet seemed oddly familiar.  Suddenly, an image from popular culture came flashing back.  The fight between Piquet, Jr. and Scott was a modern version of the British conflict between the Mods and the Rockers in the early 1960’s.  It certainly ramped up the media interest in the Richmond Nationwide race, just as the events in the ’60’s exploded in the British media.  And truth be told, it is exactly what IndyCar needs in 2013.

To make my point, a little history lesson is in order.  If you are not familiar with the Mods and Rockers, I did some time-consuming and exhaustive research on the subject (I went to Wikipedia and watched the TV show Cafe Racer on Velocity).   The Rockers were rock and rollers who wore leather and rode British motorcycles like BSA’s, Triumphs, Nortons, and Vincents.  In other words, tough guys.  The Mods were clean-cut, suit-wearing, jazz and R & B aficionados who drove scooters.  We would probably call them preppies today. The two groups had some near riots that sent the British press into paroxysms of angst and conjured images of youth run amok.  All of this brings us to what the IZOD IndyCar Series needs right now.

IndyCar is all Mods and no Rockers.  Proof?  Check the scooters in the garages and pits at any IndyCar race.  What message does this send?  It screams effete hipster snob! Even the Penske stable uses matching scooters that are always lined up perfectly in front of their motor homes.  These latter-day Mods need to have a counter-point.  Where are the Rockers, IndyCar?  Where is the leather?  IndyCar may not need the post-race fisticuffs of NASCAR, but it certainly needs a little antipathy among the racers.  Robin Miller of Speed and NBC Sports always says that hate is good.  I’ll settle for a little hostility.

Fans like to know that competitors really want to beat the other guy, not just win the race.  Even though IndyCar has marketable young Mods like James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Marco Andretti, and Graham Rahal, these young guys don’t have a Rocker nemesis cast as an antithesis to their Mod coolness.  The closest IndyCar comes to a Rocker is IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield, who drives a two-wheeler that is decidedly not a scooter.  At least we can still have bad blood between the Mod racers and the Rocker race director.  It’s something.

Beaux Barfield's Rocker ride. (photo: Mark Wilkinson)

Beaux Barfield’s Rocker ride. (photo: Mark Wilkinson)

It’s time for IndyCar to develop some real rivalries.  The frat house that is the IndyCar paddock needs a little dive bar biker atmosphere to spice it up.  Could it be oval specialist Ed Carpenter in a leather jacket?  Maybe J.R. Hildebrand and A.J. Allmendinger could bring a little of their California Rocker ethos to the paddock.  I’m afraid it may be a lost cause.  The boys and girls in the paddock are just too nice.  And that’s just too bad.

Bad blood is good copy and good televison.  Will Power (who may be the Rocker the series needs) made news with his double finger salute to Brian Barnhart at New Hampshire as well as the same gesture to E.J. Viso at Iowa last year.  Sadly, Power has not taken his Rocker role to heart.  He is back in the frat house with the rest of the Mods.  A.J. Foyt, the true IndyCar tough guy who may have never listened to rock and roll in his life, had his Rocker moment at Texas when he threw Arie Luyendyk to the ground in Victory Circle.  Those were the days before politically correct sponsor concerns trumped human emotion.  You were still allowed to publicly dislike someone.

Even though the IndyCar drivers have the occasional fit of pique over on-track indiscretions, don’t expect them to start kicking and swinging anytime soon.  Unfortunately, you just don’t see much Mod on Mod violence anymore.  And IndyCar is a little less fun because of it.  The Vespas are winning.

Ten Worthless Opinions: St. Petersburg “Adventures in Paradise” Edition

The first race of the IZOD IndyCar Series FINALLY arrived in paradise, or if not paradise, at least St. Petersburg, Florida.  All else being considered, it sure looked like paradise for those in the North who were locked in the embrace of winter’s last gasp effort to deny global warming.  The water and palm trees dancing on our TV screens brought back visions of Gardner McKay and the Tiki III as he cruised the South Pacific in “Adventures in Paradise.”   In this case, it looks like James Hinchcliffe took the title role in his own adventure in paradise.  A new season brings out another volume of WO’s (worthless opinions).   Mai Tais for everyone!

1.  It looks like this may be the last gasp for the Firestone Indy Lights Series.  There were nine, count ’em, NINE cars on the grid to start the St. Petersburg 100.  With only two lead changes and six cars running at the end, compelling drama it was not.  It’s easy to say that a new car and more entries are needed to save the series, but who is going to invest in a series with no traction (sorry) with fans or sponsors?  The success or failure of the IZOD IndyCar Series is the key to the future on Indy Lights.  And that result will not be evident in the short term.  I’m not sure the labor of love that is Indy Lights can wait that long.  The real downside to the possible demise of the series is that it has been successful as a stepping stone to the IZOD IndyCar Series.  IndyCar drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, and Dan Wheldon all graduated from its grid.  IndyCar needs this series.

Another Indy Lights graduate making a name for herself is Pippa Mann.  Even though Pippa would rather be behind a wheel at IMS for the 500, her smooth debut on NBCSports portends a possible career in broadcasting.  She obviously did her homework for the broadcast.  She knew the drivers and teams and offered spot-on racing commentary.  Just remember to look at the camera, Pippa.

2.  I observed on Twitter that some people were complaining about the qualifications for St. Pete being slightly time delayed.  So what?  It actually made the broadcast run more smoothly and kept it in a time window so NBCSports could show it.  They don’t have to broadcast it, you know.  Baby steps, people.

3.  The new broadcast team takes some getting used to.  Jon Beekhuis is much better in the booth and as Professor B. than he is in live interviews.  His in-race questioning was a little obsequious.  You are the media, Jon.  Flex your muscles!  Show them who’s the boss!  Stir the shit!  I hope NBCSports will continue to use his strength in technical matters.  Kevin Lee is solid, even if he did manage to suck up to David Letterman with a gratuitous Ball State reference.  Can a Garfield/Jim Davis comment be far behind?  Brian Till was acceptable and had the quote of the weekend during an interview with Will Power when he said Power was at the top of the “championship shart” last year.  I didn’t even know they had a contest, Brian.

The booth team of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. was competent as they hashed out their dynamic and their roles.  Diffey did a good job calling the action, but struggled at times to rein in the back-and-forth between Bell and Dallenbach.  Remember guys, most people tune in for the race, not the commentary.  Focus.  The TV commentators are at the mercy of their directors regarding what they see and what they know.  When they appear clueless, it’s most often the fault of the people talking in their ears.

4.  I really don’t want to beat a dead horse, a horse as dead as Robin Miller will be if someone does not take charge of that damned grid run.  At least he found people to talk to this time, highlighted by Alex Tagliani mentioning how close he was to the Port-O-Potty.  Good TV.  Here’s an idea:  add a second person so we don’t have to listen to Miller puff his way along the grid.  It is brutal!  That way you can switch back and forth between interviews, which give the viewer entertainment value.  How about adding Pippa Mann?  You need a female voice in the pits, and she probably can jog to the next interview without pausing to catch her breath like Miller.  This can be a great segment instead of a joke.

5.  It seems NBCSports and IndyCar are getting on the same page in regards to promotion.  The Mav TV 500 was advertised.  Robin Miller interviewed retiring Firestone honcho Joe Barbieri, which was really a hat-tip to Firestone for all the series and advertising support.  It certainly was not impromptu since NBCSports had pictures ready to roll.  The #Indy500orBust Twitter and Instagram promotion for the Indy 500 was prominently mentioned, as well as a Helio Castroneves commercial for distracted driving awareness with the snail from Turbo.  I guess J.R. Hildebrand didn’t preview that  before the race.  Maybe later.  In any case, promotion of the series and its partners was evident.  More of that, please.

6.  And then they had a race that happened to be engaging.  To begin with, the drivers made it through Turn 1 without incident.  I think the guys in the booth were a little disappointed.  They had all the statistics handy to deal with the accident.  The cars were racy and entertaining throughout the field.  Of course, TV can rarely show that on a street course since you can only see a small portion of the track.  That’s one reason the radio broadcast of a street course is so exciting.  There’s action everywhere, and the broadcasters around the track can see it.  The TV guys are tethered to a monitor controlled by a director.  Simona de Silvestro showed she is a racer.  A podium is absolutely in her future.  She ran out of rubber on her Firestone Reds at the end of the race, or she would have been there at St. Pete.  Takuma Sato started falling back but still managed a P8.  Good start for AJ Foyt and the boys from Texas.

7.  Poor Will Power.  He cannot catch a break.  J.R. Hildebrand popped a wheelie on his bumper (thought that was not supposed to happen).  This Hee Haw video is all that comes to mind regarding his luck: “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.”

8.  James Hinchcliffe is an absolutely deserving winner.  He was in position to take advantage of a Helio Castroneves mistake and ducked under last year’s champion in Turn 1.  His Firestone Blacks held off Helio’s Firestone Reds as the different compound gimmick created the drama is was supposed to create.  His emotional comments on Dan Wheldon and his family were sincere and spot-on.  The Canadian flag was a perfect point of pride.  Did anyone else notice a PR person hand him a notebook with the words “Thank Bob Parsons” on it.  Parsons is the CEO of Go Daddy, his sponsor.  Just a little TCB, baby.  On his interviews with Speed Center, Wind Tunnel, and local TV affiliates, he was friendly, engaging, and authentic – exactly what IndyCar needs in a champion.  And prerace, he said he “might need to pee in Will Power’s gas tank” to slow him down.  THAT’S entertaining.  More than James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport, and Go Daddy, IndyCar needed this victory.  IndyCar needs a marketable champion like James Hinchcliffe.  It was big win all around.

9.  It was good to see that dysfunction exists in other motorsports and not just IndyCar.  The F1 race in Malaysia had a contratemps between teammates Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber about who was supposed to win the race.  They also had Lewis Hamilton pulling into the wrong pit box and wheels nearly falling off cars.  Maybe those 2.5 second pit stops leave a little to be desired.  And in NASCAR land, the series continues to allow and endorse a driving style that will ultimately lead to tragedy as Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin wrecked on the final lap with Hamlin crashing HARD into a non-safer barrier wall, requiring a hospital stay.  The “Woo hoo!  Yee haw!” crowd needs to come to their senses.  They are living in a fool’s paradise.

10. If IndyCar and NBCSports do not promote and market this race champion and this racing series with its remarkable cast of characters and its scintillating on-track product, then it is on them.  I hate to be all political and pissy here, but it is time for IndyCar and NBCSports to step up and do their jobs.  The continuing problems plaguing IndyCar racing are not the fault of the fans.  Maybe they can channel Cassius as he speaks to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

That’s it from paradise.  I guess Jimmy Buffett’s song is as about as close as I’m going to get.  Just substitute “breaded tenderloin” for “cheeseburger.”  And I prefer mayo, not Heinz 57.

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