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The Indy 500 – Meet the new boss

I was 11 years old when I went to my first Indianapolis 500 in the late 1960’s.  As a kid from small town Indiana, the race and the track were mythic entities.  Only the special few got to attend it in person.  In lieu of going, you listened to Sid Collins on the radio.  That was special, too.  The race was a big moment.

I would like to say that I knew everything about the race, the track, and the drivers.  I didn’t.  I knew the names that rolled out of the radio because I read the Indianapolis News, an evening paper, every day.  I knew nothing of a series or other events.  Day dawned on May 1st and the sun set on May 30th.  Everything in between was the race.  It was enough for any kid.

The month consumed us.  Every newspaper wrote reams of copy and every local television station reported on the events of the day.  Radio stations had track reporters on site every day all month.  It was national news.

Attending the race for the first time, spending the night before on 16th Street, and witnessing my first bacchanalia opened my eyes to the fact that this was more than a race.  Today’s Carb Day is a pale imitation of the activities that happened overnight and in the Turn 1 Snakepit back then.  Even the party was better.

This is not a screed on how great the month of May was back then, even if it was.  This is to note that IMS and the Indianapolis 500 have their mojo back.  The old lady’s new party dress, topped off with the revamped upper deck in the front stretch is just the right touch for a new beginning.

After years of searching for a way to bring three weekends worth of action to the track, IMS finally found what they were looking for: the Angie’s List Grand Prix, a Saturday and Sunday of drama in qualifications, a sanctioned day of drunkenness with Carb Day, one of the biggest parades in America, a big concert on Saturday before the race, and a completely sold out Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.  This is as good of a show as there ever was.  When did Indy ever have this much action?

The hope, of course, is that the revival of the Indianapolis 500 will be a rising tide that will lift the listing ship of the Verizon IndyCar Series.  It has been written that the series as we know it would dissolve without the  race on Memorial Day weekend.  Agreed.  You could also say that life on earth as we know it would end without the sun.  The race, the family breadwinner in the IndyCar Series, will continue to be the sugar daddy.  The sun will continue to shine on the series.

The British rock band The Who sang, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” in their song “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”  Well, meet the new Indianapolis 500, same as the old Indianapolis 500, and ready to once again take its place on the Mt. Rushmore of sporting events.  Where it belongs.

A Good Race is Hard to Find.

Flannery O’Conn0r wrote the Southern Gothic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” about an old woman whose manipulative behavior and selfishness led to her family’s destruction.  Luckily, there was very little destruction at Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.  Sometimes though, fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series think that in 2016, a good race is hard to find.

Quite obviously, I sometimes reach for my comparisons.  This may be one of those times since Flannery O’Connor and her stories are not exactly household names.  Of course, neither is the Verizon IndyCar Series.  While many race fans love the verdant vistas of Barber Motorsports Park, they sometimes miss the fact that the racing is very good at this facility.  On site at any road or street course, a fan only sees what is in front of them.  Video boards help keep track of the action, but the view is most certainly limited.  On television, the viewer is often left wondering what happened with any driver beyond the top five.  That’s the nature of the beast.  A good race is hard to find.

If you sat on one of the grassy viewing areas at Barber Motorsports Park, you would have witnessed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon coming from last to 10th after an early lap dust-up with  KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais left him at the back of the pack.  Lap after lap you would have seen him weave though traffic, passing his way back to an acceptable placing.  Afterwards, Mike Hull, Dixon’s strategist, said that was how championships were won.  True that.  Those same in-person fans would have seen Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya shred the field going from last to 5th.  Both of these drivers put on a show that was seen by the patrons.  Truly, it was edge of the lawn chair racing.  Since these passes were not at the front, television didn’t show them.  A good race is hard to find.

That’s the essence of the title reference.  Sometimes the actual racing is hard to find during the broadcast.  The limitation of live television is so clear on road and street courses.  There is just too much to see.  If you want constant excitement, follow the race on the IMS Radio Network.  You may not hear every pass, but you are always hearing one somewhere.  Sometimes telling is better than showing.

What was shown was certainly worth seeing, though.  Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal carried the tattered Honda flag to a runner-up finish while driving most of the race with a damaged front wing and the end of the race without half of it.  Plain and simple, Rahal can wheel a race car.  His stalking and passing of Penke Racing’s Simon Pagenaud was epic, and I am not using the word loosely.  This is what the current iteration of IndyCar racing is all about.  A single car team challenges the big multi-car team for the top of the podium with skill and guts.  And Pagenaud got him right back .  It was worth waiting for.  Even after Rahal lost his wing after bumping Jack Hawksworth, his manhandling the car to second place was legendary.  And again, that word is not used loosely.

Every form of viewing a race has limitations.  At the track you can’t see everything, on radio you can’t see anything, and television, well, let’s just say that we don’t see everything, even though we could certainly see much more than we do.  The truth is in the Verizon IndyCar Series a good race is easy to find if you know where to look.  The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama proved that at Barber Motorsports Park.

 

IndyCar’s Sunday drive in Long Beach

Officiating anything is a thankless job.  Someone is always on the wrong side of a call and many will hold a grudge forever.  I know this.  I was a high school football referee for many years.  At one stadium a fan screamed, “You &$%#@*% zebras!” at us as we entered the field 45 minutes before game time. At another, an athletic director at a perennial powerhouse let us know before the game that if the coach liked us, he would be happy to have us back again, offering the subtle suggestion that we were their officials.  We had police escorts off the field, and at one stadium, we had a police escort onto the field.  We were castigated for flags we threw and for flags we did not throw.  But at the end of the night, we left the field knowing we had done the best we could, mistakes and all.  And even though the triumvirate in INDYCAR race control does the best they can do, they find themselves in the news once again for their decisions.

At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, race control’s call for a warning on Simon Pagenaud’s violation of pit exit rules in the closing laps was controversial.  As with most official decisions, there was a winner and a loser.  Pagenaud benefited from race control waving a rolled up newspaper at him while saying, “Bad dog.”  Runner-up Scott Dixon was the one who had his slippers chewed up when Pagenaud’s clear violation of the pit exit blend lines allowed him to maintain his lead on Dixon.  Not sure the “no harm, no foul” concept applies here.

Unlike other sports where violations have one penalty, INDYCAR race control once again put itself in the situation of having to make a judgement on the severity of the violation and went with the rolled up newspaper warning.  In football, a flag means a penalty with clear consequences: offsides is 5 yards, offensive holding is 10 yards, a personal foul is 15 yards.   The judgement is whether the foul occurred or not.  Once that judgement is made, the penalty is clear.  In baseball you are safe or out.  A call is made and the consequence is absolute.  Maybe INDYCAR can finally decide it is time to make consequences crystal clear.  Remember, the calling of the violation is not controversial.  Race control made the correct call.  The penalty is what is furrowing brows.

Of course, the real problem at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is that the penalty was the only thing that seemed worth remembering.  Yes, the end of the race battle for the lead between Pagenaud and Dixon was great, even without a pass.  But the rest of the race?  Put it this way.  What we saw was less racing and more driving down the street trying not to make a mistake, albeit at 170 MPH.  People tune in to and attend events to see racing.  It’s called racing instead of driving for a reason.  Passes are what people pay money to see.

The drivers complained post race about fuel saving making the race boring.  Their suggestion was making the race longer to require three stops and allow racing throughout.  That’s an easy fix.  Drivers also complained about aero issues making following and passing difficult.  No new news there, but the fix, while simple in concept, is not so simple in application.  There is no magic wand to make the racing better.  Aero kits changed all of that.

So for fans who enjoy the big Chevy teams lining up in their single file parade in the front while the Honda have-nots and smaller Chevy teams duke it out in back for best-of-the-rest honors, the Verizon IndyCar Series has you covered.  Welcome to the new F1.  For me, bring back the racing.  Bring back anything that keeps a line at pit exit from being the big story of a Sunday drive.  Excuse me, I mean a Sunday race.

 

 

The IndyCar Revenant

It’s movie time for the Verizon IndyCar Series once again.  This time, the movie connection is The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Academy Award winning vehicle.  Of course the plot of the entire movie doesn’t reflect the current state of IndyCar, but one scene certainly does.  The scene in question is THE scene in the movie.  DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his compatriots.  Violent, bloody stuff it is.  Which leads us to the current state of IndyCar.

The DiCaprio character of Hugh Glass is Honda Performance Development and the grizzly, of course, is Chevy.  Currently, Chevy is having its way with Honda, both with engine power and aero kit performance.  And it’s bloody.  In the movie, the DiCaprio character vows revenge.  We can only hope that Honda Performance Development has the sand that the movie character displays.

And that’s the question, isn’t it?  After years as the only engine supplier, using dependable, de-tuned motors, Honda welcomed Chevy to help with the heavy lifting and to provide much needed competition in a stagnating series.  So far, so good.  The competition was scintillating, particularly at Indy.  Then the decision to implement aero kits for each manufacturer was made.  Hello, Mr. Grizzly Bear.

Each manufacturer teamed with a different engineering firm for aero kits: Chevy with Pratt & Miller Engineering and Honda with Wirth Research.  Chevy ended up with an aero kit that teams understood and developed while Honda ended up with a work of modern art that offered too many solutions to the problems of aerodynamics.  After the perceived favoritism afforded Chevy last last year in Indy with airborne cars and changed qualifying rules, Honda has found itself falling further and further behind.  And that leads us to this moment in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Other than by using pit strategy, Honda has not been able to move to the front of pack this year at either St. Pete or Phoenix.  As expected, the Honda teams are complaining, particularly about the coming use at Indy of domed skids, devices designed to increase downforce in a spin to prevent flying cars.  After testing, the Honda teams have vociferously protested the domed skids as both unsafe for high speed racing and a detriment to competition, particularly at Indy.  Chevy, on the other hand, is just fine with it.  How about that irony?

At Indy last year, INDYCAR used safety as the absolute reason for revamping the qualification rules after cars became airborne.  Even though Honda aero kits had not suffered the same fate, it was hard for Honda to argue with safety, right?  Now, Honda is using safety as the same argument this year to remove or modify the domed skids.  Will the series succumb to the same argument this year?  Sorry, Honda.  The grizzly bear is holding all the cards.

Did Honda Performance Development hitch their wagon to a falling star in Wirth Research for its aero kit?  In hindsight, the answer is probably yes.  Truthfully, that is simply the way it goes.  Racing, as in all competition, has winners and losers.  The problem with this in the Verizon IndyCar Series is that there are only two engine and aero kit providers, and it is imperative that both remain in the series.  The series is always walking a very thin line to keep everyone happy.  Would fans like to see racing where everyone is in competition?  Sure, they would.  Do aero kits really help differentiate the cars for the fans?  No, they don’t.

For Honda, this is all about Indy.  They need to be competitive in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”  For manufacturers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, this is an absolute truth.  The politics are vicious because the only thing worth winning is the Indy 500. These small stakes are huge for owners, drivers, and employees in the series, too.   Sponsorship depends on success.  Expect politicking from Honda and its affiliated teams to continue until the month of May to remove or modify the domed skids.  It would be the safest thing to do on many levels.

 

 

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: IndyCar meets expectations

Yeah, the title is kind of damning with faint praise, but it is not totally true.  The race had much to like, and quite honestly, for the Verizon IndyCar Series meeting expectations is kind of a big deal.  Expectations, meet IndyCar.

  • As expected, Team Penske dominated the day.  Was there ever any doubt?  The best shocks, a Chevy motor, and that 50 year Indy thing.  If this happens all year, well, just expect it.
  • Additionally, Juan Pablo Montoya defies expectations.  He is not too old, fat, or cautious.  He also seems not to care a whit about what anyone expects.  IndyCar can expect a new champion this year.
  • Chevy, once again, is preparing to eat Honda’s lunch.  Did you expect otherwise?  Honda has been playing catch-up since last year’s aero mistakes.  Even with this year’s obvious gains, Honda is still behind.  Can the new motor updates coming down the pipeline even things up?  Expect Honda Performance Development to add the power.
  • What’s a race without a victim?  At St. Pete, Graham Rahal was victimized by the the optimism of Carlos Munoz.  Nobody is a better victim than Graham Rahal.  You just know that gesticulations will follow every time he feels wronged.  And he feels wronged often.
  • What’s even more expected than the victimizing of Graham Rahal?  The expected self-immolation of Marco Andretti, of course.  It seems Marco is snake bitten.  And it appears he carries his own snake.  After working his way up the grid, Marco managed to spin and hurt what looked like a pretty good car.  If he can keep his foot-shooting pistol in his holster, Marco may surprise this year.
  • You can always expect the Verizon IndyCar Series to have at least one driver each year who cannot get out of his, or anyone else’s, way.  It appears Carlos Munoz is meeting that expectation.  After causing the multi-car kerfuffle in Turn 4, Munoz managed to also end Conor Daly’s bid for a podium.  While it would be nice to hang a black hat on Munoz, he’s just too darn nice.  He accepted blame for all his transgressions.  What kind of IndyCar driver does that?  Munoz needs to attend a seminar at the Graham Rahal School of Victimization.
  • If experience has taught us anything, it’s that Conor Daly can wheel a race car.  Every time he gets in an IndyCar that doesn’t catch on fire, he competes.  Thanks to some Dale Coyne strategy, Daly found himself with a chance for a podium finish, at least until Carlos Munoz found him.  Expect a podium for Daly this year, and maybe a chance to move to a better funded team in the future.
  • As always, viewers can expect ABC to miss passes and follow the wrong battles.  On the other hand, ABC’s pit work is great.  Speaking of ABC’s booth, could Eddie Cheever be a bigger shill for ABC’s broadcast of the Indianapolis 500.  I forgive him completely for that.  I feel the same way.
  • If you agree with IndyCar honcho Mark Miles’ belief that IndyCar is growing, then you had to be excited by the TV numbers.  A 1.09 might not open any floodgates of sponsorship money, but they don’t close any, either.  Of course, there were no NCAA tourney games and NASCAR didn’t start until later in Phoenix.  Good to have a TV partner willing to find a nice slot.  I sure hope we can expect more of this.

I certainly hope this met your expectations.  If not,  just remember the words of Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar: “If you expect nothing from somebody, you are never disappointed.”

 

 

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.

 

The 2015 IndyCar season in the rearview mirror

Horace Walpole wrote “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”  That pretty much sums up the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, doesn’t it?

The tragedy of Justin Wilson’s death at Pocono will cast a pall on this season for years to come.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will always be known for the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald in 1964 and Scott Brayton in 1996.  Las Vegas Motor Speedway will always be remembered for Dan Wheldon’s death in 2011.  These types of accidents leave indelible scars on facilities, series, and fans.  Indelible.

Accidents like these leave other lasting marks, too.  Smaller fuel loads, fuel cells, and methanol were mandated after 1964.  Soon after the basal skull fracture death of Scott Brayton, HANS devices were mandatory.  Catch fence research is still ongoing after Dan Wheldon’s accident in Las Vegas.  Now, after Justin Wilson’s death, discussion about how to protect drivers in open cockpit cars is taking place.  Lasting.

But pathos has two faces.  While we are heartbroken for the family and friends of Justin Wilson, other far less tragic situations in the 16 races of the season leave us smiling, pulling our hair, or just shaking our heads.

  • Scott Dixon’s come-from-behind pulling-a-rabbit-out-of-his-hat championship surprised everyone and no one.  A strong, consistent team with the steadiest of drivers is a pretty good recipe for success.
  • Graham Rahal and his one car team proved once again that relatively equal equipment in a series can be exciting.  Fans were pulling for him to finish in the top three in the championship.  Underdogs make for compelling drama, and the series had plenty of that.  Nice to see Rahal mature into the racer people always hoped he would be.  Plus, he is the absolute best shill among all the drivers. *sips Steak ‘n Shake milkshake while hooking my car to a Battery Tender*
  • The Indy 500 qualification debacle once again proved that perception is reality.  Series officials looked like knee-jerk reactionaries bent on placating Chevy while hanging Honda out to dry.  The truth is probably different, but who can tell?  This is how it looks so that must be how it is.  People believe what they want to believe.  And the Verizon IndyCar Series quite often makes it easy to believe anything.
  • The loss of Derrick Walker as IndyCar president of competition and operations is another example of perception being reality.  The perception is even the best qualified individual cannot stay in this position.  I’m not sure Mark Miles, who has appropriated the job, is best qualified to head the competition aspect of the position.  Did anyone else hear General Alexander Haig’s declaration, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House”¹ in Miles acceptance of the job?
  • The ascension of Josef Newgarden to star status has begun.  The series needs him as the face of the series.  Real recognize real.
  • The failure of Penske Racing in general and Juan Pablo Montoya in particular down the stretch is another reason to like equal equipment.  With spec racing, money will buy a pretty good driver, but it can no longer guarantee a championship.  Still comes pretty close, though.
  • With all the talk about “date equity” for races, the series really needs “race equity” instead.  Let’s have the same races each year.  The maybe-but-not-quite race in Brazil and the rain-soaked one year experiment in New Orleans aside, the loss of Fontana and the life support of Pocono and Milwaukee leaves fans wondering not just what the dates of next year’s races will be, but what next year’s races will be.  It’s understood that races and promoters come and go, but IndyCar seems to dispatch both with an easy regularity.
  • All is not doom and gloom, though.  The addition of Road America and the possible addition of Phoenix could be harbingers of better things to come.  Or not.  Paying customers are what the series needs.
  • The TV ratings are up.  What a wonderful thing to be able to say.  It could also be said that figures lie and liars figure.  The hope that springs eternal is that high ratings usher in commercial partners and open pocketbooks.  At least it’s something to watch during the interminable off-season.

There you have it.  The season as it fades over the horizon was one to both remember and forget.  2016 cannot get here soon enough.

 

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  1.  The history behind Alexander Haig’s quote for the youngsters out there. http://adst.org/2014/03/al-haig-and-the-reagan-assassination-attempt-im-in-charge-here/

 

In IndyCar, youth will be served

I knew it was going to happen.  As I approached the intersection, the light was green, and I could tell that two cars in the turn lane coming in the opposite direction were going to turn in front of me.  That was cool.  The social covenant of the road clearly gave them that option.  As an experienced driver, I quickly assessed the situation and continued at speed.  My years of experience also caused me to look at the third driver in line, a spiky-haired youth in a pick-up truck.  There was no way he had the time to make the turn without me getting hard on the binders, but I knew he was going to turn anyway.  And he did.

My tires squealed.  I would like to say that I calmly gained control of the car and continued on my way.  But I can’t.  I screamed, shook my fist, and gesticulated wildly.  My blood boiled. I turned behind him and considered following him to make a point about how dangerous his driving was and how we were only saved by my vast experience and cat-quick reactions.  Then a Gustave Flaubert quote rolled through my head: “By dint of railing at idiots, one runs the risk of becoming an idiot oneself.”  I let him go.

In our entitled society, I am sure many people think the proverb “youth will be served” means that adults do all they can to help and support young people.  It really means that young people cannot stop themselves from being the callow, self-centered,      pains-in-the-neck that they are.  Young people will do what young people do.  The case in point is Sage Karam of Chip Ganassi Racing.

I am not passing judgement on Sage Karam in his budding conflict with Ed Carpenter of Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing.  If Karam squeezed Carpenter in the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway and Carpenter had to take defensive measures, why should anyone be surprised?  He’s a kid with very little IndyCar experience acting like a kid, doing what he wasn’t supposed to do and going where he wasn’t supposed to go, breaking the social covenant of the racing fraternity.  Like most kids, he didn’t like being called out in public and on television by a grumpy Uncle Ed and responded just like the kid he is.  Again, what do we expect?

My biggest issue with Karam’s response to Carpenter was his quote ” “It’s close racing. It’s IndyCar racing. This aint gokarts or anything anymore.”  It makes me weep for public education in America.  The only thing that could have made it better was if Karam had dropped a “bro” and a “dude” or two in the interview.  Again, youth will be served.

The truth is that the Verizon IndyCar Series needs the energy and edginess of youth.  Karam’s limitation is going to be financial if he keeps wadding up DW12’s.  It will not be because he is controversial.  Even Mark Miles says that the Karam/Carpenter dust-up does not qualify as a violation of the new IndyCar Gag Rule 9.3.8, even though a reading of the rule clearly shows it could be.  Miles knows, as do we all, that controversy sells.  And IndyCar really needs to sell the product in any way it can.

A new audience for IndyCar translates to a young audience.  You sell youth with youth.  Drivers like Karam, Josef Newgarden, Gabby Chaves, and Conor Daly are the personalities that have the chance to connect with new, young fans.  The series needs them to have success.  It also needs them to connect with the ever-changing ethos of a new, young audience.  Right now, Karam is the only one with an edge.  That is a really good thing.

So cut the bro a break.  Sage Karam is needed in IndyCar precisely because he possesses the punk attitude.  It doesn’t matter if fans love him or hate him.  As far as promotion goes, love and hate are two sides of the same coin.  It is about time that the fraternity of IndyCar drivers goes from the Omegas of Animal House fame to John Belushi’s Deltas. Toga! Toga! Toga!

 

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: The Chevrolet Dual in Detroit

The Verizon IndyCar Series floated onto Belle Isle in Detroit and, with promoter Roger Penske’s help, managed to put on two races that once again highlighted the yin and yang of IndyCar as we know it.  Here are some waterlogged WO’s (worthless opinions) to bring some sunshine to your day.

1.  Andretti Autosport went 1-2 in Saturday’s race with Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti.  Strategy of any kind makes a race more compelling.  The decision to stay on slicks and stretch fuel as the rain was coming in was flawless, as was Marco’s aggressiveness in staying out longer than the team wanted so he could build his lead.  Munoz’s later fuel stop allowed him to pass Marco for the win, but it was gutsy racing from both Andretti drivers.  Take a chance, win a race.

2.  What was great about Sunday’s race?  The obvious was the small teams up on the podium.  Sebastien Bourdais, a beast in the wet for KVSH Racing, held off Takuma Sato, another beast in the wet for A.J. Foyt Racing, for the win.  The final podium spot was Graham Rahal, a beast in general this year for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.  Something less obvious was the fact that it was a Chevy and two Hondas vying for the win and nobody really noticed.  It should be the drivers competing for the win, not the motors.  I am sure that Honda is proud of sweeping eight out of the top nine spots on Sunday, but Will Power taking out Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya running out of fuel, and Scott Dixon getting wrecked by teammate Charlie Kimball had a little something to do with Chevy’s bad day.

3.  Wet socks were the order of the day for both Saturday and Sunday, as was the cold.  Rain and temperature are a strategist’s nightmares.  Will the race go the distance?  Will it be timed?  When do we go from rains to slicks and slicks to rains?  Do we stay out for position or get fuel?  A hard-core fan is following all of these possibilities.  A casual fan is wallowing in them.  One thing that is extremely difficult to follow at a street race is strategy.  If you have a radio or scanner, it helps tremendously. At home, viewers depend on the broadcasters, who are at the mercy of their monitors and their directors.  Truthfully, radio does a much better job of explaining strategy.  In any case, being able to follow team strategy just makes the racing better.  Not shilling here, but if you have a Verizon phone, download the IndyCar 15 app.  Radio broadcast, team radio communications, and other goodies…all free.

4.  Speaking of strategies, Jon Beekhuis (@JonBeekhuis) conducted a Twitter Q and A after the race that was illuminating.  He explained timed races, discussed tire selection, and interpreted rules and penalties.  My question is this: Why is this only taking place on Twitter after the race?  All these are topics that fans and viewers want and need to understand.  Much of the consternation of being an IndyCar fan comes the esoteric nature of rules, penalties, and strategy.  A new fan to the series needs a primer on these topics.  If not, then rain shortened races like Saturday and Sunday confuse fans instead of excite them.  Beekhuis takes these topics, and without dumbing them down or using props, clearly and cleanly explains them.  Use and promote this man on pre-race, YouTube, and Twitter!  Engage the fans!  We are not stupid, just uneducated.

5.  The rules and race control are in the news, as always.  I will give race control this, they are NOT making calls that affect the outcome of races.  Whether this leads to issues on the track or not remains to be seen.  Graham Rahal moved all the way over on the track to block Takuma Sato on Sunday and defended this by saying blocking is legal as long as you don’t move in response to another driver.  Fair enough.  Still called for blocking, though.  He was required to give up his position to Sato.  That’s a penalty I can live with.  His race was not ruined, just his spot on the podium.  Juan Pablo Montoya complained loudly that Sato jumped the start.  If he did, there was no penalty.  I am not sure that probation and points penalties handed out on Wednesdays will deter rule breaking, but so far a light hand has seemed to work.  I do wonder if the rolled-up-newspaper threat to drivers will be ignored by the drivers like it is ignored by dogs everywhere, though.

In honor of the doubleheader weekend, I considered a doubleheader set of WO’s (worthless opinions) but decided against it.  The two days of bad weather in Detroit this weekend was punishment enough.

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