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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.


The end is near…or not

Are the Mayans here yet?  Will December bring tumult, chaos, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or just another Y2K?  Will our alien overlords stop back in to see how we have managed to screw up the world, or will the end of the year pass as every other year has passed in recorded history with nothing much changing?  IndyCar fans really don’t need the Mayan calendar to tell them the world is ending.  They will know the answer if Tony George and his minions regain control of IndyCar.

Is IndyCar paralleling the unrest in the rest of the world?  Many IndyCar fans equate the rise of one T. George from the dung heap of auto racing to possibly leading the series to the rise of the Antichrist foretold by Revelation and that Joe Nostradamus guy.  I think he is one of those call-in gambling touts.  Anyway, the teeth have been gnashing on Twitter and the message boards decrying the possibility.  Unless, of course, the fans happen to be of the oval persuasion, in which case they see George as the road to salvation…or at least the road back to Nazareth and Michigan International Speedway.  The fact that nobody is stepping up to risk promoting these events is lost on them.  Ovals are a blind faith thing to these proselytizers.  Holy war, indeed.

Be that as it may, it might be worth cogitating on how the Antichrist – I mean T. George – might come back into power.  I would like to believe the faithful who say that IndyCar is not for sale because the IMS Board of Directors said so.  The people on this board are above reproach, eh?  Saints, most likely.  Unless you are one to believe in mankind’s baser instincts.  The instincts that say everything has a price; that nothing is sacred.  Read the comments of Jeff Belskus, president and CEO of Hulman and Company, closely.  He said IndyCar is not for sale.  He said they plan to keep it because it gives them control over the series that feeds into the Indianapolis 500.  He said they did not solicit offers for the series.  At no time did he say that IMS would never sell the series.  Good business practices almost always allow for a door to be kept slightly ajar.  Word is that IndyCar lost $7 million last year.  That’s reason enough to sell, no matter what anyone says.  And if reports by the Sports Business Journal, leaked no doubt by the T. George minions, are true, then George has quite an elite set of backers.  According to published reports, Tony George’s apostles include Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, Kevin Kalhoven, and Zak Brown, the CEO of Just Marketing, International.  The money-changers in the temple worked so well before, how can we imagine it would not work this time?  I think this time might be different.

The saint-in-sheep’s-clothing in this case may be Zak Brown.  He is a true marketing mover and shaker in F1.  Check out JMI website here for some insight.  Zak Brown does not need IndyCar, but IndyCar may need him.  In an Indianapolis Star interview, Brown was not coy about his interest in being involved in a future leadership position in F1.  He’s interested.  Not only is he a motorsports marketer, he is also a former racer.   He knows the business.  One of the owners major complaints with Randy Bernard has been that he doesn’t know racing.  Zak Brown does.  But why would Zak Brown want to be involved in IndyCar?  I think he’s sitting in the catbird seat here.  My guess is that Zak Brown would be the CEO of IndyCar with an ownership stake in the company.  IndyCar’s success would be the bona fides for his future aspirations in F1.  If he could make IndyCar a going concern, he could write his ticket in another series.  The board of directors, presumably chaired by Tony George, would be forced to give him everything he needs to be successful, including an ironclad contract.  The owners get someone who understands racing and their concerns, both competitively and financially.  The drivers get a former racer who understands their issues.  And the fans get a business run by a marketing professional who understands the sport and feels compelled to deliver the goods.  It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

It probably is.  An old saying is a leopard can’t change its spots.  And that is the eventuality here.  The owners on the board would pressure Brown to give them a competitive advantage.  Tony George would find himself marginalized and very unhappy.  And Zak Brown would have a golden parachute that would allow him to float away from the internecine warfare that always engulfs this sport when it’s on the cusp of success.  And that’s the gospel according to New Track Record.

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