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What IndyCar fans can learn from the post-Mayan-non-apocalypse

This is not the first time I’ve referenced the Mayans and their connection to IndyCar.  Earlier in 2012 I wrote “Are the Mayans to blame for turbo wars?” and  “The end is near…or not,” both times taking advantage of a long dead civilization that cannot defend itself.  The end of the Mayan calendar and the apocalypse following it was a trending topic that demanded attention as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for humor and/or a fearful ending to life on this planet.  I chose to humorously compare both Turbogate and the possibility of the IndyCar Series being sold to the pop culture end-of-the-world interpretation of the Mayan calendar.  Both of those worked because everything that happened to IndyCar this year seemed cataclysmic to the hard-core fans of the sport.  Of course, no one else on the planet seemed to care much at all.  So it seems I am going to take advantage of a vanished culture one more time and will try to wring a tenuous comparison to the Mayans before they fade from memory once again or until some New Age charlatan uses them to promote his the-end-is-near philosophy.

The few IndyCar fans left (at least until the movie Turbo creates a whole new generation of fans, making those of us who still care completely obsolete and no longer worth attention by the series) have been apoplectic about a number of decisions and actions in relation to the series.  Allow me to note a few of them:

  • The performance, looks, and cost of the DW12
  • The lack of aero kits
  • The perceived waffling of series management regarding the turbos for Honda and Chevy
  • The Lotus saga
  • The distribution of Leaders Circle money
  • The penalty at Milwaukee
  • The fence at Texas
  • The public airing by Randy Bernard of owners’ attempts to get him fired
  • The fact that owners were trying to get Randy Bernard fired
  • The possibility of the IndyCar Series being sold to Tony George or his minions
  • The TV contract
  • The TV ratings
  • The lack of media coverage
  • The lack of activated series sponsors
  • The demise of the China race
  • The politics of the Hulman-George family
  • The politics of the owners
  • The lack of American drivers
  • The relentless negativity of fans on social media
  • The relentless positivity of fans on social media
  • The number of races
  • The number of ovals
  • The number of street circuits
  • The number of road courses
  • The firing of Randy Bernard
  • The way Randy Bernard was fired
  • The management style of Jeff Belklus
  • The future of the series

Feel free to add your own ox to be gored or your issue du jour.  I am sure I missed a few.  It is quite a litany, though.  Nothing went right.  The sky is falling.  It is the end of the world.  The Mayans were right.  Or not.  The interpreters of the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world on December 21, 2012.  Doomsday preppers prepped, New Age priests prayed and took advantage of the gullible, and the sun came up on December 22 and life continued.  No comets streaked, no earthquakes shook, no tsunamis rolled, and no aliens landed.  And it is the same for IndyCar.

The fact is that IndyCar had a banner year on the track.  The races were competitive, and the championship went down to a riveting last race at Fontana.  The series has problems, of that there can be no argument.  The stakeholders have a lot of work to do to make the series more visible and viable.  But as long as there are cars and drivers, there will be races.  The Mayans were wrong about the end of the world, and the fans who continue to predict the demise of open wheel racing at its highest level in America are wrong, too.  Regardless of ownership or management, there will always be races.  Regardless of how many fans choose to take their money, interest, and devotion elsewhere, there will always be someone to watch the races.

With its many faults, IndyCar will always be a viable business because of the Indy 500.  The money derived from that event has subsidized the series and will continue to do so until the management can address the multitude of problems, real and imagined, that face the series.

The Mayan apocalypse was a non-event, just like we knew it would be.  It was a chance for the fringe element to have its day in the spotlight.  It was a chance for those with a non-mainstream point-of-view to rise up and be heard.  The 2012 IndyCar season was the equivalent to the Mayan calendar prediction of the end-of-the-world.  There was just enough fact for the hard-core freaks with axes to grind to reach end-of-the-world conclusions.  And just like the Mayans, they were wrong.

The end of IndyCar  racing will most likely coincide with the comet or asteroid that fate has decreed to auger in at some future date.  Until then, IndyCar can can simply quote that great American philosopher Mark Twain to its myriad of detractors by saying “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

As the Firestone turns: why this and why now?

It’s an understatement to say that I was surprised when Gordon Kirby of MotorSport quoted  Bridgestone/Firestone Racing’s Al Speyer discussing the rumor that INDYCAR had already reached an agreement with another tire company to supply the racing rubber for INDYCAR when Firestone’s contract expires after the 2014 season (see here).  The silly season always seems to spawn crazy rumors, but to have them voiced by Al Speyer caught me off guard.  Whether it’s real or not is secondary to the fact that Al Speyer thinks it’s real.  That’s news.

Robin Miller at Speed.com got a response (sort of ) from INDYCAR (see here) that did nothing to quell the rumor.  INDYCAR issued a statement from Randy Bernard that was standard business-speak.  Basically, it said the contract is up in 2014, and Firestone is one of the suppliers to whom they will talk.  It should be noted that Randy Bernard is almost always willing to go on the record with Robin Miller and other journalists.  That press release was done to prevent any off-message comment.  It was cold and calculated.  Something’s up.

Al Speyer and Bridgestone/Firestone played a very public game of hardball in 2011.  They wanted more money to keep supplying the series.  I have no problem with that.  The R.O.I. (return on investment) of being the sole supplier of IndyCar had most certainly suffered as IndyCar’s TV ratings lagged.  In other words, Bridgestone/Firestone had leverage and used it.  That’s business.  The fact is that IndyCar as a series is secondary in value to the Indianapolis 500.  Firestone gets more mileage (sorry) from the iconic “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” than they do from all the other races in the series.  And they got a little fat and sassy.  Working leverage can do that to you.  Once you win, you assume you will always win.

And Firestone still has leverage, which Al Speyer has already started to use to bend INDYCAR to its will.  We are going to hear a few things in the near future:

  • Firestone is safe.  That’s true.  They have not had a catastrophic failure at a superspeedway.  NOTHING should trump the safety of the drivers.
  • The teams are happy with the tires.  They are not real happy with IndyCar or Firestone in regards to the cost of the tires, though.  The teams accepted the cost because the tire is great.
  • The drivers are happy with the tires.  They don’t fail at speed.  If you were a driver what tire would you want?
  • Firestone has a 100 year history with the Indy 500.  They are a good corporate partner and a brand that is as iconic as the Indianapolis 500.   The 500 is a very valuable asset.

I can guarantee your that the blogs, forums, and Twitter will absolutely BLOW UP over this.  Randy Bernard will be crucified and excoriated over something that hasn’t happened yet.  In other words, it will be business as usual.  But it does beg the question: why would Randy Bernard and INDYCAR consider dumping Firestone as the tire supplier for the IZOD IndyCar Series?  Randy Bernard reminds me of coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers when the character of Opal Fleener tells him, “Sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass everyday, but mister, you ain’t seen a ray of light since you got here.”  That’s Randy Bernard.  He didn’t have the right pedigree in racing.  He personally promoted a race that ended in tragedy.  He has endured a rebellion of owners that would cause most people to get the hell out of town.  A tweet of his started a firestorm.  His schedule fell apart in mid-season, as did the track in Detroit.  Is this another gaffe?  I think we are going to meet a different Randy Bernard here.  Just like Norman Dale in Hoosiers, nobody is going to “hide-strap (his) ass to a pine rail and send (him) up the Monon Line!”

I can see no benefit to playing hard ball with Firestone to get a better deal, particularly playing hard ball in public.  Firestone, with Al Speyer, knows something is afoot.  Losing the Indy 500 would be losing face for a Japanese company.  They want Indy.  They want iconic.  That’s why they went on the PR offensive.  So what’s up?  It just doesn’t make sense for INDYCAR to dump Firestone to save the owners some money.  The bad PR on that is not worth it, nor is the safety risk.  Here’s my take: Randy Bernard has a BIG ace up his sleeve, just like a cowboy sitting in some Western saloon.  I think Randy Bernard and INDYCAR have a tire supplier who wants to make a big splash.  IZOD wants out of IndyCar and is stuck with a contract to sponsor the IZOD IndyCar Series.  My completely uninformed conjecture is that a tire manufacturer is waiting to not only provide the series with racing tires, but to become the title sponsor of the IndyCar Series.  The ancillary benefit to this manufacturer is that little race at 16th and Georgetown and the history and credibility that comes with it.  Maybe Randy Bernard is preparing to screw the pooch on this.  Maybe he is looking for an exit strategy where the board at IMS has no choice but to fire him.  I don’t think so.  I think he is ready to go all-in on his biggest bet as the CEO of INDYCAR.  Would INDYCAR dump the safety, reliability, and history of Firestone to secure the long-term viability of the series?  Would they be willing to weather the firestorm of criticism that would surely follow such a decision?  In the culture of corporate America, does money trump everything else?  We know the answers, don’t we.

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