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Archive for the tag “Pocono”

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”

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A scary IndyCar Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ten Worthless Opinions: Auto Club Speedway MAVTV 500 Edition

What better way to end the Verizon IndyCar Series than with a season-ending Ten WO’s (worthless opinions).  Some might think the better way to end the season was watching the actual race, but what do the fans know?  Don’t waste your time forming your own opinions.  In the truly modern American way, let an uniformed, totally biased, on-line media blogger masquerading as a mainstream journalist do it for you.  Here you go:

1.  How about a slow clap for Will Power?  He outdistanced his own racing demons to finally win a Verizon IndyCar Series championship.  No drive-through penalties, no overly optimistic passes, no gestures, no shoulder shrugs, just flat out badassery.  His passes on the late restart should become legend.  He only eased back on the throttle when teammate Helio Castroneves  took himself out of contention with an ill-timed penalty.  His post race interview as he exited his car really showed the pressure he was under to finally get it done.  He had nothing left.  Good on ya’, Will.

2.  Speaking of Will Power, his brother Damien, a comedian in Australia, live tweeted during the race.  Not sure how much was planned or how much was spontaneous, but it certainly was entertaining.  You can check it out at @DamienPower01 on Twitter.  He may or may not have been drunk.  The jury is still out.

3.   Yin requires Yang.  You can’t speak of the tortured artist Will Power without mentioning the effervescent Helio Castroneves, a gracious and positive championship loser once again.  It seems Power’s late season luck has been passed on to Helio.  His adventure above the pit-in blend line that resulted in a penalty took him out of the championship picture.  A word of advice: remember Lloyd Braun from the Seinfeld series.  His mantra was “Serenity now.”  That’s Helio, but he needs to know it’s okay to vent.  Lloyd Braun changed his motto to “Serenity now, insanity later” when he realized holding all that bad juju in was not a good idea.  Let it out, Helio!

4.  If you didn’t see it coming, Penske Racing is back with a vengeance.  Even though the teams are still making some in-race mistakes such as putting more front wing in for Power instead of taking it out, the triumvirate of Power, Castroneves, and a strangely upbeat and personable Juan Pablo Montoya may be set up to dominate next year.  Scary.

5.  I am sure that the schadenfreude fans of all sports who live in the Pacific Time Zone feel in the angst of the Eastern Time Zone fans who had to stay up until 1:30 AM to see the post race on NBCSN was sweet.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Now go back to watching the NFL at 10:00 AM on Sundays.  And enjoy F1 and the Premier League at 4:00 AM.  Seriously, did the late time really hurt viewership?  Since only hard-core fans watch on TV anyway, the numbers might surprise.

6.  Should IndyCar continue at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana?  Only if you like good racing.  Not many cars but there was passing, tire performance falling off, and enough OMG moments to keep it interesting.  Although the prerace activities on the concrete and asphalt were beyond hot, the race was run with the sun down.  The Verizon IndyCar Series needs to be here.  Big ovals are a dying breed in the series.  This one in the California racing market is worth saving.

7.  A negative for the series on big ovals is car count.  Twenty-one cars on a big track looks like ten.  Indy will never be a problem, but Pocono and Fontana need more cars and more on track action.  It may not look empty on TV, but it sure does in person.  And for the big ovals like Pocono and Fontana to survive, they need people in the stands and suites to make a profit for the promoters.  Fontana is lucky to have MAVTV signed for a few more years.  If they didn’t, this race would be gone.  Pocono needs that sort of sponsor security, too.

8.  The Dallara DW12 is a beast.  Not only is it a great race car generally, it’s a great race car specifically.  In both road/street and oval configurations it is racy.  If that is not enough, it protects the drivers.  Mikhail Aleshin’s wreck was as nasty as they come, a fence-ripping, chassis-shearing shunt that proved once again that form follows function.  Build it to be safe then build it to be fast.  Dallara has my respect as does, in retrospect, the ICONIC committee that chose it.

9.  Enough cannot be said about the Holmatro Safety Team in the Verizon IndyCar Series.  They were at the Aleshin accident before the cars stopped moving.  They are the best in the racing business, the gold standard.  No one else comes close.  Additionally, a hat must be tipped to Hulman Motorsports and the Verizon IndyCar Series for continuing to fund this vital piece of each race.  In a time when corporate cost-cutting is the number one way to increase the bottom line, they put safety over profit.  My utmost respect to both the Holmatro Safety Team and Hulman Motorsports for a dedication to doing what is right.

10.  With all its shortcomings regarding a short season, TV ratings, large oval problems, street race comings and goings, and road course disinterest, the Verizon IndyCar Series, week in and week out, puts on the best show in auto racing on the planet.  The product is there.  It’s up to the suits in corporate to have the vision and to execute the plan to sell it.  Everyone else is getting the job done.  Even though the off-season for the series is lengthy, it is an important one for the future of the series.  Your move, bosses.

 

 

 

Ovalistas, where are you?

Yankee baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.” This convoluted philosophy is exactly what the Verizon IndyCar Series is fighting at all ovals on the schedule that are not the Indianapolis 500.  Ovals in the series are on life-support, and whether the fans or the series like it, the economic concept of supply and demand will have its way.

Other than Indianapolis and Iowa, the ovals suffer from woeful attendance issues.  The series, trying to appease what seems to be a very small but VERY vocal minority of fans, has worked diligently to add ovals to the menu.  For all I know, all of the oval fans may be going to the races.  It doesn’t seem that there are very many of us left.  In any case, it is not enough.

The ovals all have their own unique issues.  With Texas and Fontana, the heat is oppressive.  Unless you are absolutely hard-core, it’s easier to stay in the air-conditioning and watch on TV.  Milwaukee lost its prime schedule real estate when Roger Penske demanded and received the week after Indy slot and the accompanying momentum and ABC network broadcast.  Pocono, while being in driving distance of East Coast fans, soon discovered that there don’t seem to be many fans in those locations who want to venture into the mountains on an already crowded and expensive 4th of July weekend.  Iowa Speedway, even though the crowd has remained steady, is now owned by NASCAR, a series with a history of showing very little love to IndyCar.  Many of the venues suffer from lack of on-track activity before the race.  And with the economy often limiting fans to attending fewer events, even the Indianapolis 500 is in competition with Milwaukee and Pocono.

Another problem, reminiscent of being and F1 fan, is that watching ovals has become a somewhat esoteric activity.  You need to be an oval fan to understand and appreciate oval races.  Pocono, from my perspective, was a great oval race.  Strategies were in place to save fuel, leading to Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden being in front with the laps dwindling down.  Pit service had to be spot or you dropped back.  The low-banked and long corners created edge-of-your-seat racing that was incredibly fast and edgy in person but did not necessarily translate to television.  Fuel saving at Pocono, while a strategy, created a holding station situation for the drivers.  Saving fuel meant that there was very little racing for position until the end of the race.  The longer the race went without a yellow flag, the slower the cars went and the more they strung out.  Like it or not, these are the types of strategies that go with oval racing.  With just one yellow flag, the cars never had a chance to restart and race hard.  The one time they did led to an OMG moment as the pack hurtled toward the first turn with Will Power continuing his turn to a heel by blocking teammate Helio Castroneves.  It was a scintillating racing moment.  You just had to be a fan willing to wait over 400 miles for it.

Brandon Igdalsky rattled his saber the week before the race because of low ticket sales.  Unlike promoters such as Eddie Gossage at Texas, who enjoys taking public shots at the Verizon IndyCar Series and its drivers, Igdalsky called out the fans by pointing out that he added IndyCar because research showed that the fans wanted it.  Basically, he told the fans to put up or shut up.  And that’s where the oval fans in IndyCar are right now.  Hopefully, Iowa Speedway is packed for the Iowa Corn 300.  If not, then it may be time to shut up about how many ovals are on the schedule.  Of all the things that Yogi Berra misspoke, I certainly hope the following becomes true about IndyCar ovals: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

 

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