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Horses for courses at the Indy 500

Tribalism runs deep in motor racing, with the disregard and mockery of rival series a cottage industry among fans and journalists alike.  The decision of F1 champion Fernando Alonso to skip the Grand Prix of Monaco to race in this year’s Indianapolis 500 is a case in point.

After the announcement, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton said Alonso would be the best driver there.  Former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said he would have worked to stop it.  Red Bull’s Christian Horner said Zak Brown of McLaren was “barking mad” to do it.  I assume Honda just wanted to prove they had a competitive engine in a top series somewhere.

Is it important to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 to have Alonso in town for the 500?  Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles was effusive in his praise of Alonso and McLaren coming to Indy in May, as was Zak Brown of McLaren.  AP writer Jenna Fryer’s recent article indicated that Alonso to Indy is just not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.  Andretti Autosport certainly likes it since it brings cash and notoriety to the team.  Twitter, of course, is Twitter.  Whatever opinion you have is vindicated there if you need that sort of approbation.

Here’s the truth: everyone is right.  Perspective is what perspective is, and we can’t really change the lens.  F1 finds it a mockery.  IndyCar considers it a huge get.  Andretti considers it a gift.  NASCAR fans are asking, “Who dat, bubba?”

The winner here is the Indy 500 and IndyCar for the simple reason that people are talking.  Mark Miles did not say that Alonso coming to Indy was a game-changer.  He basically said it was pretty cool.  Which it is.  Everyone else wants to analyze it from where they sit.  Where will that kind of thinking lead us?

Is every decision made by IMS and IndyCar expected to be the most important decision ever, subject to dissection and discussion?  Horses for courses is an old British adage meaning the right people in the right situation.  Alonso certainly seems to be the right F1 driver at the right time for the Indy 500.  Is every decision at IMS expected to do more than  generate publicity?  Must these decisions appeal to a certain demographic’s ticket buying proclivities to be acceptable?  Are there really courses for all horses?

With Fernando Alonso, is IMS going after not only current F1 fans but expatriate Spaniards with a fondness for former Ferrari drivers, too?  One can only assume that the announcement of Chicago Blackhawks “National Anthem” singer Jim Cornelison to perform “Back Home Again in Indiana” was IMS vying for the elusive hockey fan who has not seen the 500.  Or maybe it was to find the even rarer opera aficionado with a taste for speed, baritones, and Jim Nabors.  Singer Keith Urban was obviously selected to inspire Midwestern Aussie’s with a taste for country music to make the trek to Indy.  Where does this demographic rabbit hole end!  Not every decision is vetted through marketing to ascertain its value before being made.

Without discounting them, maybe it’s not all about marketing and ticket sales.  Maybe IMS was not doing a “deep dive” into demographics.  Maybe they weren’t trying to “move the needle.”  Maybe the Speedway and Andretti Autosport simply saw the opportunity to bring one of the greatest racers of his generation to Indianapolis to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  After that, of course, fire up the hype machine and flog away.  There has to be an unexploited demographic somewhere.

 

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The English Premiere League Indy 500 qualifying

One of the greatest advancements in televised sports in recent years is cable broadcasters falling in love with European sports.  All year, a fan of live sports can crawl out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, and without putting on pants, watch F1 racing, Wimbledon tennis, British Open golf, Tour de France cycling, and English Premiere League soccer.  Truly, my sports cup runneth over.

The Premiere League is particularly interesting since competition is vital at both the top and bottom of the standings, or table, as they say on the broadcasts.  Suddenly, there it was.  The Premiere League soccer season is almost identical to the new Indianapolis 500 qualifying format.  Let me explain.

To rebuild the waning interest in the month of May at Indy, the Speedway in recent years changed from a two weekend window for qualifying to a one weekend format.  Great choice.  The only problem was the car count was so small that the idea of Bump Day and its inherent drama of dreams granted or crushed was really not worth following on national television.  Audiences need action and drama, and hopefully, the new format supplies both.

In the Premiere League, there is no tourney.  Teams play all year to determine a pecking order for entry into other tourneys such as the Champions League and the Europa League.  At the bottom of the table, the three worst teams in the league are relegated, or bumped, into a a lower league while the champions of lower leagues are moved up.  It is just like the new format for the Indy 500.  Once you become acquainted with its esoteric nature (and qualifying at Indy has always been esoteric) you discover why it will work so well.

All day on the Saturday of qualification, the drivers will try to put themselves into the Fast Nine Shootout.  Just like the top teams in the Premiere League, you guarantee yourself a spot in those three rows.  And just like soccer teams playing games all season to put themselves into the Champions League tourney the next year, the drivers have multiple attempts to qualify to put themselves in those top nine spots.  In other words, the teams have great reasons to attempt multiple qualifying runs.  Good for fans in attendance and on TV.

One of the reasons the bottom of the Premiere League table is compelling is because teams are guaranteed a huge payday if they stay in the league.  The final games played by those teams determine if they stay in the league.  The pressure is huge.   Likewise, the bottom three of the Saturday qualifiers at Indy are not assured a spot in the show.  They have to come back on Sunday and go through possible bumping.  With 34 cars this year, that ramps up the pressure.

For the teams in the middle, the real urgency is Saturday, as they try to stay away from the bottom three or get into the top nine.  After that, the pressure on Sunday is not to make a mistake and take a position in row four or five and parlay it into a position in row nine or ten.  It is much easier to pass cars in qualifying at Indy instead of passing them in the race.  Again, Sunday is also a compelling day.  Add to all of this the ability to make multiple attempts without withdrawing your time, and you have the recipe for some sweet qualifying activity.

Still confused?  Check out this infographic courtesy of IMS that explains the whole process.  My only disappointment is that I can no longer compare the old Snake Pit denizens to the crazy fans in the Premiere League.  I miss those Indy hooligans.

 

 

Spending at the Speedway

The band ’63 Burnout has a song called “Trouble at the Speedway,” a very Dick Dale-ish surf guitar instrumental.  Good stuff.  The title made me ponder some of the current troubles at the Speedway.  Money was one that came to mind immediately.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am all for free enterprise and charging whatever the traffic will bear.  The object of business is, and always has been, profit.  I applaud IMS for finally monetizing everything in sight.  It’s the American way.

For years, IMS was the best value of any major sporting event in the world.  They could afford to be.  The track made money every year by having massive crowds for both Pole Day and Race Day.  Limited and very reasonably priced concession offerings sold well.  The corporation did not own a money-hemorrhaging racing series and simply mowed, painted, and repaired the facility until the next May.  Life was good.  All of the Hulman family had some folding money in their pockets and seats in a convertible for the parade as well as being Midwestern royalty reigning over a rather provincial outpost.  Who could ask for more?

Well, it seems the Speedway tired of being a once a year monument to speed, so they spent money like the lottery winners they were to make IMS a world class venue for other racing.  They erected the Tower Terrace Suites, made a goat ranch into a world class Pete Dye golf course, built a new Pagoda and garages, and added a road course in the middle of the once sacrosanct oval.  With all this building came NASCAR, F1, and the PGA.  The money train was on the tracks and rolling.  At least it was until F1, as it always does, found a better offer, until the golfers moved on, until the blush was off the NASCAR rose and the crowds dwindled, and until the formation of the IRL killed the popularity and profitability of the series and, to some degree, the Indianapolis 500.

There are a couple of different ways to deal with the loss of profitability.  The easiest way is to cut costs as IMS did.  Defer maintenance.  Sell your private jet.  Hire a skeleton crew to run your money-sucking series.  Deny requests to add much needed personnel.  Another way is to apply modern sports business knowledge to the idea of making more money.  Promote the product.  Hire the right people and let them work.  Add events.  Start charging for everything that has value.  This is Indy today.

Want to glamp? It will cost you.  Need preferred parking?  Pay up.  Need video boards?  The tickets cost more.  Hungry for a new cuisine or thirsty for a craft beer?  Pull out your wallet.  Want to watch practice?  Peel off a fin and a sawbuck ($15) for the privilege.  IMS should have marked everything up years ago but held onto the outdated notion of Tony Hulman that the facility and the race were public trusts.  While it is true that the track is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is still a business that needs to profit.  Do you really want to see the patrons howl?  Wait until the Speedway decrees that coolers are no longer welcome as a safety decision.  Talk about a new revenue stream!  And it is right for both safety and profit.  Nothing makes a capitalist happier than being able to justify profit in the name of Homeland Security.  The customers cannot argue.  I’m holding out hope that IMS uses a sponsor to offer a spectacular beer and cooler deal to the fans when the time comes, though.

Get used to it.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to get deep into your pocket for all the right reasons: profit and sustainability.  The old FRAM Oil Filter commercial used to have a mechanic saying, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”  For fans of the Indianapolis 500, later is now.  Pay up.

 

 

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.

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.

The Indianapolis 500: iconic is more than a word

An icon is someone of something regarded as a representative symbol of something.  It is fair to say that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 are icons of auto racing.  Oh, other tracks like Le Mans and Daytona can lay claim to this iconic status, but primarily as icons of types of racing like sports cars and stock cars.  Even though Indy is open wheel racing, it has always been the track and the race most associated with racing in general.  Other tracks and series will not agree, but it is a fact.

Certain names, dates, phrases, and activities become associated with anything that rises to iconic status, and IMS and the Indianapolis 500 are no different.  Allow me to present a short list of the iconography of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

  • The Brickyard: Go ahead, name another track whose nickname is as famous as its real name.  Can’t do it, can you?  Only the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a moniker with such a great backstory.  According to the Speedway, 3.2 million bricks were used to pave the track in 1909.  Iconic, indeed.
  • Speedway, Indiana:  There are many famous tracks named after the town where they are located.  IMS has a town named after the track.  Now THAT’S a return address to have on your mail.  Eat your heart out Talladega.
  • Memorial Day: How can you not love a holiday sporting event that NEVER forgets the holiday on which it races.  IMS honors the military with fly-overs and an always emotional rendition of “Taps.”  I’m crying as I write this and will cry again on Race Day.  Thank you for remembering our veterans, IMS.  And thank you to our veterans for serving.
  • Time Trials:  Any other race has “qualifications.”  At Indy we have Time Trials.  I can picture men in suits wearing fedoras and skimmers reading their hand-wound stop watches to figure lap speeds.  The name screams history.
  • Bump Day: Only at Indy do you have a name for another day of qualifying.  It’s agreed that Bump Day has lost some of its luster since there are no longer enough cars to bump anyone from the field, but the concept is still cool.  I will hate to see it go, but economics and the lack of action may doom it.
  • Carb Day:  Where else but at an iconic facility do you have a practice session named after a piece of technology that is no longer used in the race.  At least the deep thinkers at IMS were smart enough to move this day from Thursday to Friday to increase crowds and encourage heavier drinking.  And wasn’t Poison, this year’s Carb Day band, around when the cars were still running carburetors?
  • Snake Pit: The Indianapolis 500 has a LONG history of heavy drinking and bad behavior, and the Turn 1 infield area known as the Snake Pit was the epicenter for all of it.  It got so bad in the 70’s and 80’s that Tony George felt compelled to get rid of it to help make the 500 more family friendly.  Who needs an extra 20, 000 fans anyway?  I do admire IMS for resurrecting the concept with their own corporate version appealing to the twenty somethings that they already had on a yearly basis in Turn 1 before they cleaned it up.
  • 11 Rows of 3:  Some things never need to change and this is one of them.  Anyone who says 33 is just a number is either a casual fan or just doesn’t get it.  This is what makes Indy special.  If you have never seen 11 rows of 3 roll down the front straight at Indy into Turn 1 in person, then, as Al Unser Jr. said,  “You just don’t know what Indy means.”
  • The Pagoda: The scoring tower at IMS has always been called the Pagoda and has twice actually looked like one.  When you see the current version in film or in pictures, you do not have to ask where it is.  You know.  That’s iconic.
  • The Wing and Wheel:  Indy’s logo has been around as long as the bricks have.  You don’t change history.  The Wing and Wheel is a simple logo that suggests both speed and history.  I like the fact that speed has always been the calling card.
  • Gasoline Alley: The lane from the garage area to the pits is the original Gasoline Alley.  When you have the original, then you won history.
  • Back Home Again: The song has been sung since 1946.  It’s NOT the state song, but who cares?  It’s the 500 song.
    Back home again in Indiana,
    And it seems that I can see
    The gleaming candle light, still burning bright,
    Through the Sycamores for me.
    The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance
    Through the fields I used to roam.
    When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash
    Then I long for my Indiana home.
  • Gentlemen, start your engines!: Even though the provenance on this bit of Indy 500 history is a little suspect, let’s just say that Anton “Tony” Hulman owned it like a boss.  It was his, and no one will ever do it better.  I can’t wait to hear it again on Sunday.

Religious icons in history were often mosaics found in ancient churches.  I completely understand.  I hope you liked the little pieces of tile that help make up the picture of the racing shrine I will be visiting this Sunday.  Everyone is welcome.  The last time I checked, you only have to worship speed to step into this cathedral.

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