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2016 Indy 500 Turn 3 Diary

5:10 AM

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

5:37 AM

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

6:05 AM

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

6:29 AM

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

6:56 AM

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

7:00-9:00 AM

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

9:30-11:30 AM

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

Pre-Race

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

Race

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

Potpourri  

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

5:23 Post Race

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

7:38

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Five worthless opinions: Fontana MAVTV 500 edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

The new month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is behind us, and as the sunburn, hangovers, tenderloins, and poor choices recede into our memories, it is best that we all reflect on the events before they fade away completely.  So as not to break any new ground with creative thought, I would like to look at recent events through the conceit of the Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  This three part series will look at one aspect each day.  Today, we look at the good.

The Good

1.  Ryan Hunter-Reay is absolutely going to be a good Indy 500 champion.  I have always been rather lukewarm towards RHR.  He seems to say the right things and avoids controversy.  Fair enough.  His two passes of Helio Castroneves for the lead in the closing laps of the 500 were gutsy and aggressive and belied his rather vanilla persona.  When Castroneves throws his samba blocking moves on, he’s more than tough to get around.  Hunter-Reay’s quotes in Victory Lane showed an emotion previously kept hidden and that, along with his refreshing honesty, resonated with me.  He truly gets the 500.

2.  Hunter-Reay said in his post race interview that he was “a happy American boy.”  Although it may seem jingoistic, an American winning the 500 is important to a series that currently runs all but one race on American soil.  The lifeblood of the Verizon IndyCar Series is the red, white, and blue flag waving fans that were in abundance on Memorial Day in Indianapolis.  We can only hope that the series is able to capitalize on this American winner of the 500 more than they did the same winner of the series in 2012.  Wait, did I snarkily offer a “bad” in here?  Sorry.  I will try to stick with the script.

3.  As expected, the racing was great.  What more do the fans want?  There were multiple passes for the lead, including those by RHR and Castroneves in the closing laps that required more than a little sand.  The cars once again protected drivers like Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell in HARD hits.  Give me safety over aesthetics any time.  Fie on the fans who decry this ugly beauty.¹  The DW12 is a great race car, no matter how it looks.  And it is ugly.

3.  The red flag at the end of the race, while unexpected and without precedent, was good for the fans in attendance and the TV audience.  As a traditionalist in general, I initially thought that one more IMS accepted protocol was going down the drain.   But after seeing the debris from Townsend Bell’s crash and watching the SAFER barrier being repaired, I realized it made the race better.  Change is sometimes good, even if it causes apoplexy in the hard-core constituency.  Who knew?

4.  The crowd was not just good at the race, it was great.  The Coke Lot was full at 7:30 AM as we arrived at the Speedway.  I have not seen that in 25 years.  Of course the downside of that is the Coke Lot was full of Coke Lot type denizens at 7:30 AM.  Estimates  of the crowd were up to 230,000.  Don’t let those empty seats fool you.  The place was full.  The lines to get into the facility that made life miserable last year were not issues.  The purchased parking credentials in the North 40/Lot 7 were another story, though.  Dang.  There I go again with the snark about one of the “bad” issues.  An official for the Speedway told me that ticket sales were up 25% this year.  Indy is back, baby.

5.  Although the commercials on ABC seemed interminable after I got a chance to watch, the pre-race portion is still the best around.  The network wove in Memorial Day, human interest, and race goodies in just the right proportion.  Watching the race in HD, particularly the in-car shots, is absolutely thrilling.  Although not “bad” by definition, I do find the constant video and interviews of the WAGS a little cloying.  Nobody ever yells “Show us the wives and girlfriends for god’s sake!” as a race winds down.  Nobody.  Ever.

6.  The pre-race ceremonies at IMS for the 500 are nonpareil.  If you have never witnessed it in person, put it on your list.  The fact of the meaning of Memorial Day is always there, as it should be.  I hope that IMS, in its quest for more profit, never turns the pre-race into a sponsored circus to make a quick buck.  It is already the gold standard.  Keep it that way.  With that said, I really will miss Jim Nabors, a B-List singer and actor who found a home in Speedway, Indiana on Memorial Day weekend.  He sang “Back Home Again” the right way.  Please IMS, don’t bring in an oddball assortment of record label sponsored train wrecks to audition.  Find another baritone who gets Indy and can make it each May for the next 30 years or so.  The name is not as important as the song.  Do NOT mess this up.

7.  The month of May is back as an event in Indy.  After years of condensing the month due to lack of fan interest, the gang in the blue glass edifice on 16th and Georgetown finally packed in enough activities to interest new fans.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the new Time Trials weekend, Carb Day, the Jason Aldean concert, glamping, and the electronic dance music in the Snake Pit on race day all added fans through the turnstiles.  The numbers for the month could be pushing 350,000 fans.  Do the math.  More fans = $$$.  $$$ = more racing.  More racing = happy fans.  Repeat.

That’s the good, great, and just okay as well as some sub-textual bad that just keeps popping up.  Sorry about that.  Tomorrow brings the defined “bad” of the race.  And possibly a little more snark.

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¹  In my continuing effort to bring culture to racing, I used the oxymoron “ugly beauty” to describe the Dallara DW12.  An oxymoron is when two opposite terms are used together for effect.  Old Billy Shakespeare used them often when describing bear-baiting and cock fights, so there is some tradition of sporting usage.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten worthless opinions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg edition

Sometimes having ten worthless opinions is the only way to discuss an IndyCar race.  The story of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is really the story of Will Power and Penske Racing.  That’s it.  He moved to the front, dominated, screwed up, and won.  Luckily, I combed the race and the broadcasts for the nuggets that often slip by the mainstream media and racing cognoscenti.  Don’t expect in-depth analysis or breaking news here.  In other words, lower your expectations.  All I have are ten worthless opinions.

1.  I listened to qualifying and part of the race on the IMS Radio Network to see how the iconic voice of Paul Page has aged.  Radio is unforgiving.  An announcer can be wrong about what is going on if no one is watching the broadcast, but he must be smooth whether he is right or wrong.  The timbre of Page’s voice is no longer what it once was, nor is his delivery as smooth as it was when he was the voice of the 500 on both radio and ABC.  But it’s early.  Page gets a pass simply because he’s Paul Page.  And let’s face it.  Other than the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400, only the most dedicated of fans listen to the radio.

2.  In deference to Paul Page, I attempted to listen to both the radio broadcast and ABC telecast.  When I added all those voices to the ones already in my head, it just got too crowded.  But before I gave up the attempt, I was incredibly impressed by the insights and delivery of IndyCar driver Pippa Mann.  Already a fan favorite for her humor, social media prowess, and unflagging determination to put together a ride for the Indy 500, she can now add broadcasting maven to her resume.  Even though she has done both radio and television for Indy Lights, it was her first foray into broadcasting the Verizon IndyCar Series.  She’s smart, observant, and smooth in the booth.  Auto racing is still one of those sports that does not have a female voice in the booth calling races.  This is the voice that needs to be there.

3.  ABC’s putting Allen Bestwick in the booth with Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear was a great choice.  He was prepared and professional.  ABC just got better.  Cheever and Goodyear are acceptable but bland.  Even when Cheever gets irritated, like when he compared Will Power’s slow restart to something you see in go-carts, he comes off as churlish and haughty.  At least I think that was Cheever.  I can’t tell him and Goodyear apart sometimes.  The booth needs some fireworks.  Get on that, ABC.

4.  Is Rick DeBruhl letting his inner Jack Arute come out to play?  His prerace chemistry bit that culminated in the assessment that Ed Carpenter was “bonding” with Mike Conway was only missing an Arute style prop to be perfect.  And let’s face it, the “bonding” thing just might have gone over the head of some viewers.

5.  A.J. Foyt just kills me.  He is the most honest voice in a traditionally guarded industry.  ABC tried to highlight the Odd Couple relationship between him and Takuma Sato.  A.J. summed it up by saying, “He’s not a smart-ass.  If I like him, I like him.”  There you go.

6.  Verizon has already engaged!  Almost every driver interviewed referenced the arrival of Verizon as the title sponsor of the series.  They know what they have: a motivated, committed, engaged sponsor with boatloads of money and a desire to partner with the series.  Their first commercial said, “A title sponsor has a certain responsibility to push the sport.”  Yeah, not quite sure IZOD saw it that way.  The Verizon ad referenced the cars, fans, and the technology.  Consider the game changed.

7.  TV often misses back of the pack moves on a street course.  It’s the nature of the medium.  Graham Rahal made a mad dash at the start to pick up multiple spots at the start.  From that beginning, he moved to mid-pack and stayed there.  The more impressive feat was Josef Newgarden moving from the last spot on the grid to finish ninth.  It wasn’t a series of youthful banzai moves but instead a series of passes that were of the stalk and pass variety.  The boy is growing up. If TV didn’t show it, then how do I know about it?  The IMS Radio Network.  They make everything exciting.  Take a cue, ABC.  Enthusiasm is a good thing.

8.  One storyline of the race was Tony Kanaan’s move to Chip Ganassi Racing.  The sparks didn’t fly, though.  He moved to the top ten and just stayed there.  At the end of the race, he said his fuel-saver knob fell off at the beginning of the race.  The knob FELL OFF!  Some Gorilla Glue will take care of that, guys.  And make sure to put some on all the trophies this year, too.

9.  I guess Tim Cindric doesn’t have to eat his rivalry comment about Chip Ganassi Racing just yet.  Will Power dominated the second half of the race as Chevrolet put three motors in the top five and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second with Honda power.  Jack Hawksworth for Bryan Herta Racing is pretty salty for a rookie, and you can expect Simon Pagenaud for Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Justin Wilson for  Dale Coyne Racing to find victory circle this year.  One of the strengths of the series is that so many teams can win any race.

10.  Will Power’s game of here-I-go-no-I-don’t on a restart ruined the days of Jack Hawksworth and Marco Andretti and certainly seemed to be aimed at teammate Helio Castroneves’ proclivity to jump restarts.  In other words, it was just another bit of auto racing gamesmanship.  Power tried to rationalize that he did not apply the brakes but did lift only because he was confused by the green flag being displayed before the restart zone.  Really, Will?  You slowed down because you saw the green flag?  You looked liked a shifty-eyed school boy caught cribbing for a test in the post-race interview.  The highlight was Power’s teammate Castroneves jokingly calling Power a “wanker.”  Don’t you love it when meaning gets lost in translation?  Helio may want to have that translated into Portuguese before he uses it again.  Or just call him a “tosser” next time.

There you go.  “Ten worthless opinions” is the only place you’ll find Aussie slang, Gorilla Glue, Jack Arute, and the Verizon IndyCar Series all in one convenient location.

The long dark winter of IndyCar

Ah, IndyCar.  You had a great season last year: multiple winners, a great come-from-behind champion, an Indy 500 for the ages, and fantastic racing at every kind of circuit.  The only thing left to do was capitalize on the energy and momentum.  Sure, the TV ratings were stagnant, but good things happened.  Now all that was left was to use that on-track success to build up to the new, compressed season on the horizon.  Ready, set, wait a minute.  Where did that energy go?

It seems every form of autosport is using the offseason to, at the very least, make some sort of news.  Good or bad, it is the responsibility of the series to put its face in front of the public.  Let’s review the news for some of the popular racing series:

  • F1: The new cars, which will once again be ugly as dirt, are soon to be revealed.  And although this was not a PR move by the series, Bernie Ecclestone’s travails with the German judicial system led to his resignation from the F1 board.  Even the change at the top of McLaren with Ron Dennis replacing Martin Whitmarsh is noteworthy for the series.
  • NASCAR: Stock cars even make the news when they have no news to report.  According to the Charlotte Observer, NASCAR is considering changing its points and Chase protocol to create a “game 7” experience.  This decision has not been made, but social media BLEW UP at the possibility of the change.  The testing at Daytona with tweaks to the drafting rules was televised.
  • TUDOR United Sports Car Championship:  Even with the most unwieldy of names, this series has stayed in the news, albeit with questions about classifications, cars, and licensing.  The benefit to this series, like with NASCAR, is that they open their season in February with their biggest race.
  • IndyCar Series: *crickets*

Now, that is a completely unfair comparison.  News has happened in IndyCar.  Three time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced his retirement from racing.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a road course race at IMS was confirmed.  A significant change in qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 has been floated and will most likely be announced soon.  Do you notice any connections among those three items?  The focus of all of them was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Yes, Franchitti was a series champion but will forever be known as an Indianapolis 500 winner.  Yes, the series has another race, but it is inextricably linked to the 500 and IMS.  Yes, the change in qualifications at the 500 will put the action, and the series, on national television, but it is still the 500.  The big question is the value of the 500 vs the value of the sponsorless IndyCar Series.  The IndyCar Series is what has to worry about crickets.

Off-season promotion of the series has been relatively non-existent.  As was the case the previous year with Ryan Hunter-Reay, series champion Scott Dixon has been next to invisible.  Why is this the case?  When the 2014 season ends on Labor Day, will the series go dark for six months.  I don’t think hibernation is in the best interest of the series.

As always though, things are happening behind the scenes.  The new sheriff at 16th and Georgetown is C.J. O’Donnell, officially in charge of marketing, communication, and social media for both the IndyCar Series and IMS.  He accepted the job in November, and we can only assume that gears are grinding in the shiny blue headquarters in Speedway.  In O’Donnell’s defense, he has had only two months to evaluate employees, strategies, and programs in all three areas under his purview.  When that is finished, he will need to map out a strategic vision for both the series and IMS.  Even with all the grumbling about the direction of the series and the perceived lack of promotion during the off-season, it is still a little too much to ask for everything to happen at once.

Yes, IndyCar has been abysmal at promoting the series the past two years.  That is a reflection of leadership and vision at the highest levels.  At this point and at this time, the series should be given a pass on the lack of PR for the upcoming year.  Any change of leadership and philosophy brings with it an institutional inertia that cannot be avoided.  Change, and the difference it brings, takes time.  But the fact is IndyCar fans are getting just a little tired of waiting.  You are on the clock, Mr. O’Donnell.

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.

IndyCar needs a Sugar Daddy

Something was missing at the Milwaukee IndyFest this past weekend.  It wasn’t the racing; that was excellent.  There were passes throughout the field, and drivers were dirt-tracking the corners.  It wasn’t the strategy.  Pit strategy put A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato in front of the pack and allowed Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to take advantage of a late yellow flag to move to the lead and victory.  It wasn’t the show.  The promoters (Andretti-Green Productions) made both Friday and Saturday a festival of, well, festivals.  Bands played, amusement rides whirled, and the fans got close to the drivers.  Still, one glaring omission cast a dark shadow over this otherwise sunny race.  Sponsorship.

I know what you are going to say: there were RC Cola and Sun Drop banners everywhere!  Agreed, but those are not the deep-pocketed sugar daddies that all events and series need.  The name Milwaukee IndyFest say it all.  The event had no title sponsor.  A title sponsor buys the rights to the event, and the promoter uses the cash to do two things: promote the event and put cash in his pocket.  Everybody has to eat, or the show will not go on.

The problem facing every promoter and venue in motorsports is that the big-time sugar daddies just aren’t very hungry right now.  If you don’t count longtime series supporters Honda and Firestone and Roger Penske’s connections to Chevrolet, Shell, and Firestone, then the 19 race IndyCar schedule has four title sponsors for its races: Toyota, Iowa Corn, Go Pro, and Mav TV.  Other than the Daytona 500, its crown jewel, NASCAR’s February to November schedule has exactly ONE race without a title sponsor: the New Hampshire 300.  And with the TV money that flows to the promoters, that race will most certainly make money, just not as much as every other sponsored race.  And since most of the tracks are owned by either Speedway Motorports, Inc. (SMI) or International Speedway Corporation (ISC), the competition for sponsorship dollars is decreased.  One reason the IZOD IndyCar Series loves the street and road courses is because they are not owned by these two entities.  The street courses in particular offer great opportunities for sponsorship.

What makes Subway, Bank of America, Sylvania, Geico, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, and other decidedly non-automotive sponsors plunk down millions of dollars to attach themselves to the mind-numbingly similar races put on by the stock cars?  If you will pardon the vernacular, the answer is asses and eyes.  Those races have people in the seats at the track and viewers sitting at home in front of the TV.  Currently, IndyCar has neither.

The IZOD IndyCar Series does have a title sponsor in IZOD that not only wants out but also refuses to activate that sponsorship in any meaningful way from week to week.  Does IndyCar need a new series sponsor?  Absolutely it does.  Are there any open wallets out there?  The cellular giant Verizon is a name that keeps coming up, but who knows?  It has to make sense from a business perspective.  The value for Verizon is quite likely a business-to-business relationship.  The people who inhabit those corporate chalets and suites are business partners for the sponsors.  In other words, the sponsors make money off of these people.  And while the corporate kingpins certainly want the hoi polloi in the stands and watching on TV to use their products, this sell is often secondary to the business-to-business connection.

IndyCar is at a crossroads.  The product is scintillating.  The venues are diverse.  The drivers are engaging.  But people are not attending the races or watching the broadcasts.  You often hear about racing teams struggling to find the right set-up.  They start down the wrong path and can never get back to normal.  Every choice they make takes them farther from where they want to be, and they start flailing about, taking bigger risks in the hope that something will be right.  That is the IZOD IndyCar Series right now.  The races struggle to find sponsorship to stay afloat.  The series struggles to create interest and fans.  And the flailing begins.  Double headers are offered as a way to save/make money and boost ratings.  Green-white-checkered finishes are discussed as a way to entertain a jaded fan base.  And so it begins.

The solutions are obvious, though.  The series needs increased sponsorship, higher ratings, and bigger gates.  The road map to get there is the problem.  It is sad to watch a once-proud series lose its way like a race team that just can’t find the right set-up.  The hope is that the series does not lose its way so badly that it can’t find its way home.

Ten Worthless Opinions – MavTV 500 IndyCar Championships Edition

I really don’t know if I can condense the action from the MavTV 500 IndyCar Championships to just ten WO’s (worthless opinions).  There were retirements, new contracts, an American series champion, awkwardness, and a race winner who was roundly ignored by everybody.  It’s IndyCar at its best.  Here we go.

1.  What a race.  If you watched it, then you don’t need me to explain it.  If you didn’t, then you need to read Curt Cavin’s Indy Star article here.  Or read John Oreovicz’s ESPN.com article here.  Or Jenna Fryer’s AP article here.  They have the quotes and insights.  I just make stuff up.  I was on the edge of my seat and sweating trying to do math in my head to figure out what Ryan Hunter-Reay needed to do to be the first American champion of this iconically American series since 2006.  Robin Miller will tell us that’s a good thing because of fan interest.  I will tell you it’s a good thing because of the racing.  After a desultory first 200 miles, all hell broke loose when Will Power, who only had to keep pace with Hunter-Reay to finally win the championship, spun into the wall and opened the door for Hunter-Reay to go from journeyman to champion.  The rest of the race was a story problem from 7th grade algebra.  “Solve for x, where x is the place a driver needs to finish to score enough points to beat his closest rival.”  The math made my head hurt, so I let NBC Sports do it for me.  Unfortunately, all NBC Sports wanted to talk about was the championship.  It was still a race, and the drivers competing to win it should have been recognized a little.  Just my opinion.  And it’s likely Ed Carpenter’s opinion, too.

2.  As reported by the AP’s Jenna Fryer on Twitter, Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske both have come to the startling conclusion that there may be something wrong with the owners’  perspectives.  There has to be a back story here.  Comments about the owners not seeing the “big picture” and worrying about the parts prices instead of “building the series” were mentioned.  There is a plot afoot.  Something is about to happen.  Stay tuned.  Roger and Chip never say anything that does not in some way point to their self-interest.

3.  I will miss Bob Jenkins in the booth.  NBC Sports, and I assume IMS productions, put together a stellar retrospective of his career as an announcer.  When I think about a race, I think about it in Bob Jenkins’ voice.  Here’s to you, Bob.  Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.

4.  Mike Conway stepped out of AJ Foyt’s car because he was spooked by oval racing.  What impressed me most is the support he received from the driving fraternity.  It’s a dangerous business and nobody understands it better than the drivers who risk their lives weekly in pursuit of winning.  IndyCar drivers are a special, and rare, breed, and I have immense respect for what they do.  I get spooked at 80 mph on the interstate.  I cannot imagine hanging on in a corner at 200 mph.

5.  Did anyone else notice the crowd behind Kevin Lee’s gear-like structure in the pre-race?  They were excited!  Of course, they were excited because someone was throwing free t-shirts to them for making noise.  Here’s a hint, NBC Sports.  Don’t throw them so high that the viewers can see them on TV.  You want us to believe that the crowd is cheering for IndyCar, Kevin Lee, and the guests, not their own self-interest.  Remember, the Wizard of Oz was successful only when he stayed behind the curtain.  As always, this advice is a free service from New Track Record.  I am available for consultation.

6.  Does NBC Sports talk in production meetings about how to make Robin Miller look like a clown?  Would he wear a red nose and floppy shoes if they paid him enough?  On the pre-race, the broadcast team sat perched high on their chairs.  All except Robin Miller.  His chair was at least a foot lower than all the others.  It was entertaining to watch him try to raise it.  He failed to do so.  The sad part of this is that RM is aces when it comes to series info and gossip.  His quick overview of the silly season possibilities of drivers and teams was spot on.  Viewers need that information.  The grid run, as always, was an afterthought.  Add Marty “The Shit Stirrer” Snider to it.  If NBC sports is going to show the segment, then they should at least plan the segment.  It’s embarrassing.

7.  I say this every week, but Jon Beekhuis adds tremendous value to the broadcasts.  He not only talks, he thinks.  His “Professor B” segments tell me things I don’t know.

8.  I am warming to Ryan Hunter-Reay.  His openness talking about chasing the championship was refreshing.  Yes, he mentions his sponsors and team, but he also has his emotions right there for us to see.  When he got out of the car at the end of the race, he did not have a speech prepared.  He was moved by the moment, and we saw an honest reaction.  He’s a little wooden and a little awkward.  And that’s OK.  I like my heroes to be human.  Plus, he remained loyal to Andretti Motorsport by signing a contract extension.  I think I like that.

9.  Sometime in the near future, Will Power will be as classy a champion as he is a runner-up.  His responses last night after losing the championship in a gut-wrenching fashion just oozed class.  He allowed the fans to see the rawness of the moment.  He shared his bitterest disappointment with the world.  I seem to remember rather churlish behavior from the tin top drivers in similar circumstances.  Will Power is just another reason to like IndyCar.

10.  I will end with a shout-out to Ed Carpenter for a great win last night (called by Robin Miller).  Ed’s an oval driver.  Period.  He’s a hometown Indy guy with an Indiana sponsor who deserved to be celebrated for his win at Fontana.  And he was an afterthought to Ryan Hunter-Reay in the post-race activities.  I hope ECR decides to team up with either another car or another driver (Hey, Mike Conway) to be competitive on all the circuits next year.  The new Dallara has opened the door for the small teams to win.  It’s another reason to like IndyCar.

New Track Record’s WO’s (worthless opinions) are in the bag for 2012.  Just like the new Dallara, they were designed to be quick, functional, and used in the IndyCar Series.  I will likely hold them in abeyance until the start of the 2013 season.  But, thanks to the relative dysfunction of owners, drivers, series officials, and fans, I will have plenty to write about until then.

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