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Chasing the money in IndyCar

In a famous scene from The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone turns down a deal from rival Virgil Sollozzo by saying, ” I wish to congratulate you on your new business and I’m sure you’ll do very well and good luck with that. Especially since your interests don’t conflict with mine.”  As far as most people should be concerned, that is the correct attitude towards the Indianapolis Motor Speedway inking a presenting sponsor deal with PennGrade Motor Oil for $5 million over three years.  Turning down millions of dollars because of a perceived nobility does not make sense.  Take the money.

The parent company of PennGrade Motor Oil certainly sees value in this sponsorship.  They are attached to the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and will be able to provide tremendous business-to-business opportunities throughout the month of May.  I can just imagine the leadership of  D-A Lubricant, owners of PennGrade, sitting in an office saying, “We just bought the Indy 500 for $5 million.”  The amount, when compared to a marketing budget for the roll-out of a new product, is a sweet deal.

And it is a deal.  PennGrade Motor Oil just made a huge splash that will ripple for three years.  Who knew the Indianapolis 500 could be bought so cheaply?  Look, I’m no marketing expert who can tell you what the ROI (return on investment) will be for this purchase.  I will just assume for the sake of argument that D-A Lubricant plans to host a multitude of vendors and retailers connected to this product for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and two subsequent years.  Quite the soiree to help sell a product, wouldn’t you say?

Just like in The Godfather though, there is a real sense of interests conflicting.  D-A Lubricant cannot be faulted for buying the exposure that made the most sense to them.  Their $5 million bought them a huge platform to sell their product.  But what about the racing teams searching for sponsorship?  I am not saying that D-A Lubricant, based in nearby Lebanon, Indiana, was in play as a sponsor for any IndyCar teams.  I am saying that they should have been.  A 2014 Bloomberg article suggests that a sponsorship buy for the sidepods for an IndyCar season is between $5-9 million.  If remotely true, this means that sponsoring the Indy 500 for three years is cheaper than sponsoring a car in the Verizon IndyCar Series for one.  ROI, indeed.

Sponsoring a car means setting up activities and hosting guests for the full season.  It’s travel and corporate chalets and all the minutiae of a season-long sponsorship.  Why do that when you can set up in your own backyard for two weeks?  Sponsorship, the acquisition of working capital, is the number one concern for teams.  It’s water in the desert, the oasis the teams need to survive their season-long trek.  Without it, the teams will simply dry up and blow away, as did the teams of Sarah Fisher and John Barnes.  Suddenly, it looks like IMS and the teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series are chasing the same money.

What does all this mean?  A positive spin might be that the Indy 500 is an undervalued asset, worth more than the price paid.  Or the truth may be that the pool of sponsorship dollars for American open wheel racing is so small and the value of both the Indy 500 and team sponsorships so low that the teams and IMS are chasing the same money.  If that is true, then someone should be worrying.

 

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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.

In defense of IndyCar Race Control

In recent days, IndyCar race control has been low-hanging fruit as far as finding something to disparage about the Verizon IndyCar Series.  In Toronto, the main criticism really wasn’t whether to run in the rain or not, it was the apparent waffling on the subject. The cars were on the track.  They were off.  The race started.  No, it didn’t.  You guys can start in your regular positions.  No, you have to go to the back.  You guys cannot work on your car, but you guys can.  Yikes.  Perception does become reality to many people.  The problem is that perception is often not reality.

I don’t pretend to have any special insight into IndyCar race control, but I do know a little something about officiating.  Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time race control gores your particular ox.

1.  You can’t call it all.  In the NFL, officials can call holding on every play.  They don’t do it because they know better.  If they did, then new officials would be hired.  Like water, the game finds its own level where the players and officials understand what is acceptable.  Racing is the same.  You can’t call everything because every pass, every defensive move, every decision could be seen as violating some rule.  You officiate the spirit of the rule. No harm, no foul.

2.  Owners and team managers, like coaches, don’t really know the rules very well.  Exceptions like Dale Coyne notwithstanding, owners and team managers think they know the rules.  Ask any official in any sport if most coaches get deep in the rulebook.  They don’t.  And that’s too bad, since knowledge of the rules can benefit you like working under red flag conditions truly benefited Sarah Fisher at Toronto.  Never assume the owners know what they are talking about.

3.  Don’t trust the announcers.  The only ones who know less about the rules than the owners are talking heads and ex-drivers.  The ex-drivers knew some of the rules when they drove, but I can guarantee that they only quote the rulebook when someone points out the rule to them.

4.  Let’s talk ox goring again, shall we.  Any official’s worst nightmare is the coach or player who wants every violation called on every play.  They never shut up.  Of course, they never want the same thing called on them.  Not mentioning any names, but IndyCar is full of drivers who see the world as against them all the time.  According to them, they are always innocent and everyone else is always guilty.  Be honest, how many drivers and owners came to mind?  More than one, right?

5.  No official sees it all.  Instant replay and slow motion have ruined the integrity of officiating in all sports.  We no longer trust the officials to get it right.  Actions take place at full speed in any sport, and that full speed in IndyCar renders real-time calls almost impossible.  I don’t care how many cameras IndyCar has, the crew in race control will never see everything.  Never.  A basic rule in officiating is to call it, you must first see it.  Guessing is not allowed.  When you add the idea of intent, then you have opened yourself up to second guessing from people who neither know the rules or are capable of interpreting them.

6.  One problem in racing is that decisions are often reached by committee.  Beaux Barfield may make the call, but he has input from the other stewards.  This is not a criticism of the decision makers; it’s an acknowledgement of the difficulty of reaching a consensus decision.  Having multiple voices in race control is endemic to auto racing, so there’s no changing it.  It also offers a little protection for the derriere.  And that’s important.  Officials need to believe they can call them like they see them.

7.  Officials can’t fight back.  Derrick Walker, other than an occasional ill-timed presser, has been solidly in race control’s corner.  His defense of the decisions made by Beaux and the boys goes a long way to silencing the critics.  Nothing is easier than sniping the decisions of an official.  The series needs to zip the lips of the teams in this regard.  You don’t see much official disparaging in the NCAA, NFL, NHL, or NASCAR because the league punishes this quickly and strongly.  Don’t allow the pot-stirring.

So cut the boys in race control some slack.  Whether you like the job they do or not, they are going to continue to call ’em as they see ’em.  As they should.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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