Sunday, October 28, 2012

Au Revoir, Randy Bernard

One thing about IndyCar, is that it seems like the bad rumors are the ones that come true.

The series, the American professional sports champion of poorly-timed decisions and incredibly wretched PR, voted for Randy Bernard's ouster sometime this past week. When is anyone's guess, but current IMS CEO Jeff Belskus has assumed the same role in IndyCar on a interim basis.

Bernard, who held the job for just under three years, has been under fire for various reasons during this past season, and his job status has been up in the air since June when it circulated in the press (and on Randy's own Twitter feed) that there were owners in the sport that wanted to see him gone.

This is a head-scratcher of the highest degree. With the series dying a slow and painful death when he was hired away from the Professional Bull Riding tour, he has injected new life into the series, and while everyone can agree that he made some big missteps along the way, the future looked a lot brighter than it did when he took the job.

What also makes this tough to swallow from a fan's perspective is the fact that 2012 may have been, top to bottom, one of the best season's in the series' history. The DW12 chassis made every race competitive, the Indy 500 staged one of its greatest races in front of one of its largest crowds in years, and the championship went down to the final laps of the final race and the series crowned an American champion for the first time in six years.

From my personal encounters with Bernard, be it in person at Indy or through a couple of e-mails I sent (to his own e-mail address, rare for anyone in his line of work), I came to the conclusion that he cared about IndyCar. A lot. This was his job, but his passion, too. You could see it in the way he didn't stick with the status quo but came up with fresh ideas. Some were good, some were bad, but unlike his predecessors, he was doing something.

So you have a series that is moving forward, led by a guy who gets it and was trying to make the sport better, and they go ahead and screw it up. That is so IndyCar.

I never saw Tony George come up with a fresh or original idea in his decade-plus of running IndyCar. He continued to roll out the same tired ideas and figured they would work because, well, he was Indy and dammit that should have been good enough.

What really ticks me off is once again the owners put their own interests in front of those of the fans. I'm not going to try and speculate what balance sheets look like or what goes on behind closed doors, but at the same time I saw very few owners who were/are willing to be part of the solution. Every idea Bernard presented was accompanied by bitching, but few people would counter with ideas of their own, at least on the record. He faced an uphill battle every day with the owners, and the history of open wheel racing in this country showed they were going to win.

In the end, that's what bothers me. I'm sure the people who made this decision have their reasons why, and if they felt like sharing could spell out the reasons Bernard shouldn't be in charge going forward. After all, the Chicago Bears are 6-1 but I don't think they are ever going to win a Super Bowl with Lovie Smith in charge.

I understand the owners being concerned about rising costs, poor TV viewership and the fact that several tracks have received discounts in sanctioning fees. But here's the deal, guys: IndyCar is a beggar, and beggars will never be choosers. It was either this or they didn't race. There isn't a single track that is knocking the door down for IndyCar, 1) because most of them have NASCAR dates, and that is where the money resides and 2) they like to make money, and with IndyCar they don't make much, if any.

Really, what negotiating power did Bernard have at any time or anywhere? Despite that, he secured races on new tracks and got more races on national television. He deserves high marks for those accomplishments.

Given the speculation I'm hearing that Bernard had little to no support from not only the owners, but the boardroom, and that they basically told Randy: "thanks for getting us this far, but we'll take it from here".

If they had a plan, I guess I would feel a little more comfortable with this. But if we have learned one thing from IndyCar is that they never have a plan. Instead they have too many people trying to impose too many agendas, and they never get things done. One of the reasons Bernard was brought in was to bring on someone who answered to the board and not the owners. Even back then someone knew that the voice of the owners was too loud.

So where do we go from here? Well, unlike many, I'm not going anywhere. Just like baseball, where I think Bud Selig has inflicted permanent damage on the sport with his decisions and refusal to address the doping issues in the sport 15 years ago, I keep what goes on off the field and what happens on it separate. I love baseball, and I will always keep watching.

It's simple: IndyCar is awesome. At its best, it is one of the finest and most exciting forms of motorsports in the world. The drivers are great people who do care about the series and the fans, and are people who conduct themselves in a way that is a good reflection on IndyCar. The support folks I have dealt with are helpful and accommodating.

Regardless of who is in charge, that won't change. To the people who say they "are done", or that they are not going to attend races or support the series, I hope you have a change of heart. The people who make the sport what it is had nothing to do with this, and somehow, someway, IndyCar will go on. If the last 30 years of buffoonery has taught me, it all figures itself out. At least I'm hoping it will.

To Randy Bernard, I say this: thank you for your service. You gave your heart and soul to this series. No one could ever question your commitment to making this series as good as it could be. It didn't work out, then again, that happens. I've been a part of a couple of those things in my life too.

When we look back on Bernard's tenure, it will be checkered in places. Let's be objective here. Still, he left it better than he found it, and for the fans, that's all we can ask.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Frenetic Friday: IndyCar 36

Taking a break from my business school studies (wink, wink), I thought I would celebrate the coming weekend by recapping the highs and lows of the IndyCar 36 series, which was one of the season's pleasant surprises.

I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say I was hooked from the first episode which followed Tony Kanaan during the opener at St. Pete. Each episode was very well done and gave some real insight to the sport and the personal lives of the drivers. I learned a lot, and especially enjoyed the technical and tactical discussions in the pre-race meeting. Cool stuff.

Still, there were some I liked, and some I didn't. Here is a list of my favorites and a couple of my not-so-faves.

*Josef Newgarden. I think beginning to end, this is the one I liked the most. It did a good job of capturing the ups and downs of a race weekend, and Josef and his SFHR team had its share of both at the season finale at Fontana. The positives started when he was cleared to driver after breaking a finger on his left hand at Sonoma and sitting out the race in Baltimore. He qualified fourth (started 14th with a grid penalty) and during the race had stretches where he was really, really good. He also took his team to In-N-Out Burger (and probably treated), which from what I hear is a highlight of any trip to Southern California. Unfortunately I didn't partake in my only trip out there in 2003.

But there were also plenty of downs. Newgarden's Honda cooked itself right off the bat in the practice session, and just after his first pit stop he had an electrical issue that cost him six laps, which was just the capper to the kind of hard-luck season he experienced.

The best part of the episode was his conversations with his team afterwards, especially his discussion with Sarah Fisher. She's a racer, she knows how hard it is, and might be the perfect owner for a young driver like Newgarden.

This series is tough, especially for a driver with his age and experience, because with just over a dozen IndyCar races under his belt, it wasn't a fair fight against guys who have been doing this for close to a decade -- or even more. He got a life lesson every single weekend, and next year will be a lot better because of it.

*Helio Castroneves. Keeping up with Helio is a tough task, and is especially tough at Indy, where his energy and intensity is ratcheted up about seven levels. Still, his quest for what is becoming a more and more elusive fourth win was interesting television.

One thing you notice about the drivers is the off-track commitments that take up a lot of their time on a race weekend. When you look at what goes into the weekend in the life of a driver at Indy, it is amazing how they can stay focused on task, and that is trying to win the Indy 500.

Backstage before the driver intros was really good. My favorite line was Kanaan saying how he thought it would get easier mentally, but actually it is the other way around. Knowing what we know now and how close TK came to winning just over three hours later, we understand.

Another highlight? The drive from his condo to the track on race day, and Will Power cranking up "California Love" on the car radio. Will Power, represent.

*Kanaan. Given that it was St. Pete, and all of the memories and emotions that being there conjured up for everyone, TK was rather subdued that weekend. Not like anyone blames him. The cameras captured a very personal moment between TK and Holly Wheldon just before the race started, and TK seemed to be carrying a lot on his shoulders into the car with him.

Still, a good pit call and a fortunate yellow put him into the lead 20 laps into the race, but alas his day ended when an electrical gremlin shut his car down while he was pacing the field under yellow.

I liked this one because given the emotion of the weekend a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn't afraid to show how he is feeling was a the perfect pick for the first race back after the way the 2011 season ended.

*James Hinchcliffe. Outside of Indy, very few drivers get the opportunity for a "home game", but that is what Hinch gets when he races in Toronto. An excellent part of the show was the focus on Hinch's connection to Greg Moore, and how he chooses to honor his memory by wearing the red gloves. He is also very cognizant of his responsibility to carry on the excellence of Canadian drivers of the past.

He also showed he "gets it"...that the fans are the most important part of the sport and it's why he tries to engage them and be accommodating as possible.

His weekend didn't go well, either, as his engine failed and he dropped out after climbing through the field. Too bad it wasn't next year as he would be able to come back the next day and try again.

I could go on about more of them I liked, but we'll stop there for now. Unfortunately, there were a couple of them that I wasn't too fond about.

*Graham Rahal. Graham just didn't come across well in his episode. Watching it, you would think that he'd had one of the worst racing weekends of his life, instead of what he did do, which was start eighth and finish fourth. He just seemed sour and complained a lot, which whether his complaints were valid or not they didn't come across very well.

One thing he did show was that he learned well from his dad how to understand the business side of the sport and how to engage sponsors. You can see from his visit to the NTB shop that he gets how to work hard to get and keep sponsors happy.

You can also see how close of a relationship he has with his dad, and how if as rumored Graham "goes home" and drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing that it will be a good pairing between the two.

*Ed Carpenter. I like Ed a lot, and watching him drive the wheels off of a car on an oval is a joy. I also respect his ambition to branch out as an owner/driver, and believe that when he steps out of the car and becomes a full-time owner that he might become one of the best in the series. He is incredibly bright and I especially like how important his family is to him and the relationship he has with his wife and kids.

That said, his show was disappointing. He was really down on the whole weekend, from the heat racing qualifying format to the setup of the cars and the way they drove at Iowa (which was much like Texas, which he hated). I know these are competitive guys and race weekends aren't always kittens and rainbows, but geez. I'm a firm believer in the mental side of the sport and he talked his way out of a good finish about the same time the car rolled off the hauler.

One thing that I found interesting is that there seemed to be an "IndyCar 36" jinx on whoever was being featured that weekend. Just a quick recap: TK's motor dumped at St. Pete, Ryan Hunter-Reay was penalized for punting Takuma Sato at Long Beach, JR Hildebrand qualified 18th at Indy, while Helio hit a tire from Will Power's car and finished 12th, Charlie Kimball crashed up at Texas, Carpenter was gawd-awful at Iowa, and Hinch blew a motor at Toronto.

About the only people who fared well were Rahal at Barber (4th), Simon Pagenaud (3rd) at Mid-Ohio, Power (2nd) at Sonoma and Oriol Servia (7th) at Baltimore.

Hopefully that won't discourage other drivers from participating next year! They picked a pretty good crop of drivers this year, but there are a bunch of others still to come in 2013. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

Good lord, are we really still five-plus months away from St. Pete? Ugh. Since we have time, let's throw out a few things to discuss. I'll give you the topics.

*F1 to NBC Sports Network. It was a very interesting development to see the F1 series leave Speed and move to NBCSN, and of course lots of speculation is happening on its effect on IndyCar, especially given that four F1 races will be run on the same day as an IndyCar race, giving true open wheel fans an entire Sunday of racing.

Overall it can be a boost to the series, so long as NBCSN is a good partner and includes cross promotion between the two. The double coverage may bring some fans back because while many fans left IndyCar for NASCAR years ago, others went to F1, and given the on-track product in IndyCar now would be a good time for them to check out the sport again. To me a perfect day would be to show the F1 race then go straight into an IndyCar 36 before moving to pre-race. That would be cool and a lot of people would stick around and keep watching.

But at the same time, the series (and the fans) need to focus on what IndyCar can do for itself as opposed to what kind of a bump comes with F1. The actual race production itself is fantastic but contractual bindings keep IndyCar from making like it is 2012 and pushing the product through several other mediums.

(Editor's note: Before I go on with my criticisms/observations, let me remind everyone that Tony George negotiated this honey of a TV deal.)

Where IndyCar woefully lags behind is in streaming and live action. If you want to be considered a major motorsport series, it is inexcusable to have your qualifying done tape delay, and if it is, even more inexcusable to not stream the video online live. That's just embarrassing. I'm not privvy to any contracts, and if I were they are still way above my pay grade, but how in the world is IndyCar roped into this and why are they the only series where this is so?

Production costs aside, all on-track action needs to have a live, streaming presence in one way, shape or form. Heck, just throw some webcams up around the track and then go with the in-cars (yes I know it is harder than that). Just give people something that they can watch. We are a visual society now and companies who want our business have to roll with those kinds of expectations.

Another important decision will come with who is chosen as the play-by-play announcer to replace the retired Bob Jenkins. This is a huge decision because a good play-by-play person is gold. Paul Page (who would be a great choice but his age -- 67 next season -- might be a factor) made the CART broadcasts back in the day. From time to time I watch his Indy 500 intros with the Delta Force music in the back and it still gives me chills.

Guys like Page, Mike Joy and Bob Varsha bring races alive with their knowledge, skill and passion. Not to mention, Joy and Varsha keep the conversation going during the week by interacting with fans on Twitter, which also builds interest in the sport.

That's the kind of person IndyCar (NBCSN) needs to bring on board, and with a further commitment from ABC I think that side of it needs to be addressed as well. It's nothing personal, but Marty Reid doesn't get me fired up about the races, and Scott Goodyear is incredibly smart and knows the sport, but his delivery just doesn't move me. And for a guy who last I knew lives up the road from a majority of the teams' headquarters, he doesn't give us anything new.

I don't see what they do as bringing in and engaging new fans or giving the people a reason to watch the races. I know it's probably a homer point of view, which I don't get into often, but Kevin Lee would fit either seat. Other people appear to feel the same way, so he would be a popular pick.

I'm happy that F1 and IndyCar are going to be on the same channel, but expecting to hitch a ride onto F1 and expecting that to reap some sort of benefits is a little dangerous.

*Tony George. There are still some rumblings going on about this story, and a few points brought up by Curt Cavin lately in the Indy Star (among other sources) raised my eyebrows. The first point is that George is on the board of Hulman & Co., which owns IMS and IndyCar. So how is that not some sort of nasty conflict of interest? If he is serious about this takeover (and that's what it is) then he needs to get his ethical ducks in a row.

Is this illegal? No. Is it poor form? Absolutely.

Another point Cavin made in his Q&A today is that George would like to see more ovals (who wouldn't) and that his backers could provide him more "seed money" to try to make that happen. Now, with deep pockets like Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske and Kevin Kalkhoven allegedly involved in this, wouldn't they be keepers of said "seed money"? And if they are, why don't they just give it to Randy Bernard and help him grow IndyCar?

As the layers of this unfold, it seems like this is more of a power play funded by the owners. Tony George reportedly doesn't want to own the series, he just wants to have his hands in it. What the owners want is a Bud Selig (baseball's commissioner), a front guy who makes them all money by doing their bidding and what is best for them instead of the sport. George is that guy. This is all a quest to get Bernard out of the big chair and someone in it who will do their bidding, fans be damned. Baseball is working the same way.

I will give George this: he and his family are wonderful curators of the greatest racecourse and the greatest race in the world. The fact that they have kept a massive entity like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway going for 67 years without taking a dime from anyone is a testament to their ability to run their business. They have also been forerunners of safety and its advances over the years, which is a great legacy to have.

George can run the Speedway, but outside its gates he is just absolutely clueless. Whether or not you like Bernard or jive with his vision or direction, I think you can agree with me that they made a great decision to turn IndyCar over to an outside person and let them do what they are good at doing. Randy answers to the board and not the owners and whether it is Bernard or someone else as the CEO, the health of the series depends on that arrangement staying that way.

*By the is it that Penske is unable to field a third car next year without more funding, but he can be part of a hostile takeover of the series? Yes, I appreciate and understand that he funded his own cars for quite some time (well, his business entities did), but when a man is worth of $1.1 billion (I looked it up) you won't get much sympathy from me.

*Goodbye top 35. I know this is an IndyCar blog, but I have to make mention of NASCAR getting rid of the Top 35 rule at the end of this year. The previous rule, based on owners points assigned to a car, was intended to make sure that the cars (not drivers) in the Top 35 would make the race each weekend. It was a safeguard to protect the teams -- and especially the big-name drivers -- from missing a race should something go wrong on race weekend.

That part made sense, but the rule was bent in so many different directions it had outlived its intended purposes. Owners were swapping cars and points (and people) around so much that it went against the spirit of the rule and was starting to fall out (if it hadn't fully already) with the fans.

Starting next year, the field will be set with the 36 fastest qualifiers, followed by the next six cars based on owner's points, with the final spot going to a past champion. If all past champions make it in by other means the spot will be given to the next spot in line on owner's points. This makes sense and covers all the bases. If Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or whoever crashes in qualifying or loses an engine or whatever, they have seven different criteria to make the race other than speed. Meaning, if something goes bad, they will still get in.

Another change is that qualifying will be done by a blind draw as opposed to practice speeds, which should add some extra twists. I like it...qualifying should be an important part of the weekend, and in IndyCar, especially on twisties, it still is. But in the previous format qualifying seemed like a formality or a let's-just-get-this-over-with affair. I haven't read anywhere how this affects Daytona qualifying or the Duels, but I hope the change is for the better because I think those races are much more exciting when guys have to race their way into the race. Over the past couple of years it seems like only one or two spots were up for grabs, so hopefully this changes things.

*Post-season awards. As has been my tradition over the last two years, I will be handing out some awards soon. This time it will have a new twist: Most Popular Driver. Hit me up here or on Twitter (@15daysinmay) with your favorite and the vote will constitute a good portion of my selection process.

Happy Friday! (Well, almost)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dan Wheldon's Legacy As A Driver

It's hard to believe it's already been a year since Dan Wheldon was killed in a crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 IndyCar season finale.

I don't think anyone who was in attendance or watching TV will forget what happened that day, as much as we would like to sometimes. I've been a racing fan for over 30 years, and have been exposed several times to a driver suffering fatal injuries in a crash. I was in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Gordon Smiley lost his life in 1982, and I saw both Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt's crashes on television.

I realized long ago that the possibility of drivers being mortally injured in a crash is the cruel drawback to what is otherwise an incredible sport. Thankfully safety advances have made it an uncommon occurrence. But even thought I had been through this several times before, I couldn't believe the impact Dan's death had on me that day.

His was different in so many ways. He was the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, his racing career, after being sort of cloudy for a while, seemed to be on an upswing as he had signed on to run the GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport, and it was especially tough to know that he left behind a wife and two very young sons.

Plus, I was dealing with a personal situation in that my older sister Joni was in the final stages of a cancer battle, which took her life on December 22nd.

A year later, with the opportunity to take some time and heal, we can reflect on the entire experience with clear eyes and full hearts (to use a line from Friday Night Lights). I'd been thinking of a couple of different ideas for this post for the last couple of weeks and have been trying to decide which direction I wanted to go.

Regrettably unlike a lot of my fellow bloggers I never met Dan personally, although like many because his personality was so huge and so gregarious I did feel like I knew him. I wish I had some sort of story to share, but my only "personal" connection to Dan was seeing him from afar at the Pagoda after he won the 500 last year. That is an experience I will remember forever because even from a distance you could see the pure, unadulterated joy that he possessed that day. Very few people get that opportunity to experience joy at that level.

It was also special because it was the first time my son Matt had attended a race, and to have experienced such an amazing moment in sports such as the Centennial and the finish of an incredible race with him is something I will cherish. As my kids have grown up I have hoped to pass along my love of the sport to them, and I think Dan helped me pass that love along to him that day.

When someone passes, especially if that person is well-known or accomplished, we talk about their "legacy". Dan certainly left one, and it is very multi-faceted.

But as we mark his death, the legacy I want to focus on is the one he left as a driver. Simply put, Dan Wheldon was one of the best open wheel drivers of this generation, and when it comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was one of the best of all time.

Let's start with his IndyCar career. In 128 races he posted 16 wins, 43 podiums and five pole positions, winning the championship in 2005 and tying Sam Hornish Jr. for the title the next year, although Hornish had more wins that season and was awarded the title on the tiebreaker.

Here is when it gets amazing. In the five seasons between 2004-08 he ran 82 races, winning 15 of them (including a career-high six in 2005) and finishing on the podium another 22 times. In that span he placed second, first, second, fourth and fourth in the points standings.

By comparison, Dario Franchitti has run 83 races over the last five seasons he has competed in IndyCar, winning 17 times and posting a total of 42 podiums.That's some pretty good company.

Speaking of good company, Wheldon is one of just eight men who have won the Indy 500 twice, and one of just 18 to have won multiple times. Among that group of two-time winners only Bill Vukovich (5) and Tommy Milton (8) ran the race fewer times than Dan's nine, but he ranks fourth in laps led per start (26) and is tied with Rodger Ward with five top-three finishes.

(Editor's note: The IMS website lists Mauri Rose as having won twice, but since his face is on the Borg-Warner Trophy three times, in my mind he is a three-time winner.)

He also started on the front row three times and the second row another three times. Although starting further back in the field wasn't a problem because he won from the 16th starting spot in 2005 and finished second in 2009-10 while going off 18th both of those years.

Because he accomplished so much in such a short period of time at Indy, among the two-time winners I would have to rank him third behind Vukovich and Emerson Fittipaldi, who led 505 laps over 11 starts and with a bit of luck could have won the race at least two more times.

It was unfortunate that Wheldon was left off the Greatest 33 list last year, but probably shot his way up the field with his second win as it gave people the chance to reassess his career.

I'm happy to say I saw both of those wins, and I think they were equally impressive. Of course he won for the first time during his championship season, so arguably he had the best car, but he didn't go to the front in that race until Lap 150, and didn't take the lead for good until passing Danica Patrick with seven laps to go.

Last year was the same way, a patient, steady drive. He was in the top 10 all day and did pass a lot of cars, but with 10 laps to go was in seventh place and as we all know only led about 500 feet of the 500 miles.

Still, you don't luck your way into five top threes and six top-five finishes at Indianapolis. The race is too long and there are too many variables. Once, sure, the race is full of one-hit wonders. But six times? Of the multiple winners, only Al Unser Sr. (13), AJ Foyt (10), Rick Mears (9), Johncock (8), Wilbur Shaw (7), Al Unser Jr. (7) had more, and Shaw was the only one who had fewer than 15 starts. Four of the drivers on that list had a minimum of 19 appearances.

Of course you can argue that Wheldon drove in a different era, one where the cars are more reliable and top finishes are "easier" to come by. I'll give you that, but he has the same number of top-fives as Helio Castroneves and Franchitti combined, and one more than Scott Dixon, who is the most consistent driver of this era.

I know that I posted a lot of stats, but that was the point. One thing I have noticed in the way we have remembered Dan as an IndyCar nation is that most of it has focused on him as a person, and rightfully so. I love reading the personal accounts of the people who worked with him, spent time with him, or just met him once or twice. It gives such depth to why he was so loved, and why his death has had such an effect on all of us.

Still, at the same time, the guy was one heck of a driver. He was fast, consistent, brave and a winner. He drove hard and he never, ever gave up. A guy with a very, very huge heart and hunger to compete. When we look back at his impact on the sport, it's simple: he was one of the great ones. And on this day, let's remember that too, because we were lucky to have seen him drive, if only for a little while.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tony George Needs to Go Away

In another episode of "IndyCar rumors that refuse to die", today's Indianapolis Business Journal ran this story that Tony George has submitted an offer to buy IndyCar from Hulman and Company, or otherwise known as, his mom and sisters.

This comes after another report a few days ago that he had the investors together and was looking to make said offer. Now, given that NO ONE in his camp has spoken on the record about this, I'm taking it with a grain of salt, especially given the report once again that Randy Bernard was hanging onto the CEO position by his fingernails.

 I mean, how many times can you declare a guy dead? I'm happy that since other than his foray into the world of denials back in May, he is staying clear of this fray and moving forward and doing his job. Plus, the only person who can fire Bernard is Mari Hulman George, and she doesn't seem interested in doing that anytime soon.

Still, the idea that this potential deal is still hanging around concerns me. I'm not one of these people that blames Tony George and him alone for the unfortunate occurrences that went on between 1996-2008. Lots and lots of people dropped the ball and didn't have the sense to notice that in their desire to be right and push their agenda that NASCAR lapped open wheel racing repeatedly and took away a lot of its fans.

Still, his ideas and his vision were part of what led us here today, and I don't see how he grew a brain over the last few years and has some sort of miracle cure for open wheel racing in the US. He couldn't fix it the first time, so why is there a faction of people who think he can on a second go-around?

And what even is more discouraging is that reportedly Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, Kevin Kalkhoven and Michael Andretti are in on the deal. Let's take them in order: part of the problem, part of the problem, one of the biggest parts of the problem, and in the case of Andretti, one of the most disappointing pieces to this puzzle.

Ganassi, Penske and Kalkhoven watched open wheel racing burn in the early 2000s and did nothing to stop it, instead pushing their own agendas and throwing more and more gas on the fire. Kalkhoven is like George in that he has too much money, and you know what they say about fools and their money.

As far as Andretti goes, I don't get it. He seems to be the guy that is supporting IndyCar the most, his group manages races and he puts his money where his mouth is by having cars in each level of the ladder program. He seems like the person that is trusting this process the most and I hope the rumors of him being involved are categorically false.

I don't know where they get the idea that owners running the series is a good thing. Yes, a quarter-century ago it was seemingly working, but was it? Penske owned engine leases, Carl Haas controlled most of the chassis and the competitive balance wasn't even close to what we have now. Races were won by laps instead of seconds. It's like Billy Joel once said: "the good old days weren't always good..."

Here's a news flash to those that live in the past: the series, from top to bottom, is better, and more competitive than it has been for a long, long time. Maybe the "name" drivers aren't there like there was a generation ago, but IndyCar puts on a show every single time it takes the track from the front of the field to the back. That hasn't always happened, despite what anyone likes to tell you.

I won't blame any one person for what has happened over the last 15 years, but I will say that the people in charge failed the sport and they failed us as fans. IndyCar recognized that when they brought Bernard on almost four years ago. They brought in a guy who is visible, fan friendly and ready with fresh ideas, not to mention a guy that had taken something from nothing and built it into something.

He's doing it again, but it isn't done in a day. The TV contract -- which Tony George negotiated, by the way -- is a huge noose on the series. There are still uber problems that Bernard is cleaning up, problems created by Tony George and Company.

Don't get me wrong. Bernard is far from perfect and has made several missteps along the way. Still, I feel that in his leadership the series is moving forward, which is something I wasn't able to say for a long, long time.

What makes this even worse is that these rumors and uncertainty is one element that is keeping the series from growing. Who would want to start a race team in this cess pool, and worse yet, who would want to put their money in advertising and sponsorship into a series that conducts itself like a kindergarten class on a sugar high? My hats off and major props to the folks that do, because if I had big checks and could write them, I don't know if I would do it.

I just wish he would go away. Anton, your family is rich and despite the fact you pissed away a large part of their fortune, they continue to still claim you. In fact, they love you so much that despite all you have done they have given you a job again. Be happy with that. Do us all a favor, live off your family's money and leave the heavy lifting to the big boys.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Brisoce Back at Penske (?) And A Couple of Other Musings

After reading a couple of stories today that indicate Ryan Briscoe could be back at Penske Racing next year, I was once again reminded of why it is called "silly season".

A few weeks ago, it seemed like he was auditioning for his job, whether for Penske or anyone else, and if that was the case he did respond really well by winning at Sonoma and finishing second at Baltimore before earning a front-row start at Fontana.

Still, that didn't seem to be enough to save him and the rumours were flying that he would be going elsewhere, perhaps in Graham Rahal's old seat at Ganassi B. Now comes word today that if financing is found for a third Penske car that Roger wants him back.

From an Associated Press piece: Right now we are just trying to get a third car lined up. We've got commitment with Helio for another year and obviously with Will, so it's a matter of sponsorship," Penske said. "I am either going to have one or I am not, and I don't know at this point."

Should a third car develop, would Briscoe be in the seat?

"I sure hope so," Penske said.

Doesn't sound like someone who is completely out the door. I could imagine Briscoe being told he could pursue new opportunities, but I'm guessing he is waiting until it was absolutely necessary. Nothing "better" is going to come along so why not hang out and see what the future holds. Because when Roger Penske wants you it's best not to wave at him and say, "you know, Captain, thanks for the offer...but I'm good!"

Outside of Andretti Autosport and Ganassi A any move is neither a step up or even a lateral one.

In the end, I wonder how crazy things can get. I wonder if we are going to be disappointed because this isn't really the time and place to make career changes. In the end I'm predicting that outside of Graham Rahal driving for his dad and one of several drivers filling his seat with Ganassi B that that particular move will represent the end of the madness.

That doesn't mean a good seat isn't out there. Maybe not great, but good. I'm talking about the AJ Foyt entry that is open since Mike Conway walked away from the car at Fontana. Larry Foyt (AJs son and a super nice guy who I interviewed once) said as many as 20 drivers have called about the ride.

They have a couple of different options: 1) bring in a name driver to run the season; 2) bring in a rookie from the feeder series (which they don't want, unless they can add another car and a veteran mentor); 3) bring in two drivers -- and Conway could be one -- to split the driving on the No. 14 car.

It's good to see Mike didn't burn any bridges with his decision (in fact it was highly respected throughout the paddock) to turn away from ovals, because there are a couple of plans that could use his services. He is an above-average twistie driver who can get results if you give him a car. It will be interesting to see who they choose but I would think they would want an experienced driver with the money they are putting into the team. AJFR has had a couple of tough seasons and I'm sure feel like they need to move up the standings in 2013.

With no IndyCar races to talk about...I'm going to talk about Dega. Last weekend was a restrictor-plate race, and as usual stupidity or awesomeness (depending on which side of the aisle you sit) reigned.

Heading to the checkered flag to end a green/white/checker finish, Tony Stewart was leading and in a desperate move to stop a train being led by Michael Waltrip from passing him, started a 25-car melee that led to Stewart ending up on his lid and over a million dollars of perfectly good race cars wrecked.

Call me not impressed. Don't get me wrong, one of the appeals I find in occasionally watching NASCAR is that the cars can lean on each other and bang around a bit. Unfortunately that leads to a lot of wrecked cars and yellow flags, which are boring and a waste of time.

I don't dump on NASCAR all that much because as I mentioned in a post back in February, I no longer compare it to the IndyCar series and when I am interested in watching a race I do, and when I'm not, I don't. Simple.

But I will dump on NASCAR here because more and more it seems like the appeal to a seemingly larger portion of the fanbase are the crashes, because green-flag racing with great passing and intriguing strategy is boring.

Those fans want to see crashes and the want to see the "big one", because it's cool and like thrill ride where all of the cars come to a stop and the drivers climb out and live to fight another day.

I've read a few blogs who have covered this topic, and Steph over at More Front Wing just absolutely, totally nailed it, so I'm going to use a quote of her's, although you can read it here.

The quote:

"It’s a very sad situation for NASCAR that it’s built its entire brand around giving a home to the we-watch-racing-for-the-crashes crowd. For some reason, it’s become okay in NASCAR circles to ignore that there are living, breathing human beings driving these cars — sons, husbands, fathers — and watch solely for the purpose of waiting for them to risk injury or worse for the entertainment of others" 

The line "ignore that there are living, breathing human beings driving these cars..." is the most chilling of the entire piece. We all watch racing for the danger, of course, and the drivers are more than willing to accept that element too. They understand the risks and the knowledge that lots and lots of things could go bad at the wrong time.

But at what level does that risk become unnecessary, and is pack racing approaching that threshold? As Pippa Mann so wonderfully explained to me at Milwaukee, pack racing in open wheel cars is beyond that threshold. When you have a grasp of their concerns from a technical side, you get it. They want to go fast and they want to race hard, but there comes a point where it is stupid and crazy and that's where it has to be pulled back.

Unfortunately it took the death of Dan Wheldon almost a year ago to hammer that point home. As I've said before, NASCAR's become part of the leadership when it comes to safety, and I commend them for it. But at the same time, it's reached a point where everyone has become a bit too comfortable with the car they have built, and how long it's been since something really bad happened.

Sound familiar?

It's near bulletproof, but the car isn't immortal, and neither are the drivers. If you keep rolling those cars out there four times a year and put them in 500-mile crashfests, someone's number is going to come up someday. That's just how this stuff works. Wheldon, and the other drivers in the series, raced thousands and thousands of miles in packs safely, but it took one fateful wobble from one car to change everything.

I have seen the Dega clip a couple of times, and 30 years of watching racing has giving me the instinct to know something is coming. I was about five seconds into that clip when I knew there was going to be a lot of sheet twisted metal. I actually got butterflies in my stomach because the cars were packing up four-wide and no one was going to give an inch. It's similar to the feeling a got as the laps clicked by at Vegas last year.

Man, something has got to be done about this. The drivers hate it...Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that if they had to race that way week after week he'd find another job. And this comes from one of the better plate racers in the business.

The problem is that there are enough fans that want it to keep it, and in the NASCAR world where everything is Disneyworld, no one in the media wants to take it on because they would crush you like a grape. If you don't think that NASCAR controls what the public does and doesn't read, think again.

As a writer, I wouldn't want to take them on, they have muscle and aren't afraid to flex it. Heck, remember back in the day when they wouldn't even let ESPN on the grounds? Kind of funny now. Maybe a guy like Ed Hinton can, and he has before, but it only gets louder when others chime in, and that ain't gonna happen. People aren't going to put their livelihoods on the line to champion a cause.

It's bad for the sport and is bad for the reputation of the sport. And with a championship on the line it shouldn't be left to luck and the roll of the dice. Matt Kenseth didn't win Sunday because he had the best car, he won because he was able to avoid the mess and get across the line first. Lots of plate races are "won" that way.

I don't have the answer on how to fix it, but as Earnhardt said, there are some engineers that do. They need to get to it...and soon. Someday this won't end well.

Monday, October 1, 2012

We Have A Schedule

As promised, IndyCar released its 2013 schedule on SpeedTV last night. It was actually a nice segment that included CEO Randy Bernard answering questions about the many changes that are taking place next year.

Some of those changes are good (like adding Pocono and the Triple Crown, as well as a new TV package for Canada -- which in reality is huge -- and more races on ABC), while some are not so good (gaps in the schedule and a doubleheader at Belle Isle). Overall I like more than I don't and hopefully some loose ends might be getting tied up for a couple of other events to fill in some of the gaps.

First, check out the schedule here (thanks to A total of 19 races at 16 venues beginning March 24 in St. Pete and finishing October 19 in Fontana.

Let's start out with the things I do like, starting with the fact we actually have a schedule on October 1st. If you remember back to last year, the schedule was a fluid thing well into the new year, and both Milwaukee and Baltimore didn't get off the ground until about 100 days before each event. Even better is the fact that many of the returning races will fall on the same weekends they did this year, giving the schedule continuity that didn't exist in the past.

Bringing in Pocono is huge, not only does it add another oval to the schedule, but it is a nod to the history of open wheel racing. From the time it was opened in 1971 through the last race in 1989, Pocono hosted IndyCar (or USAC, CART, whatever you want to call it) and put on some good shows. With its flat turns Pocono is suited for open wheel cars and with a one-lap record of 211 mph set by Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989, it would become the fourth-fastest circuit in the series behind Indy, Texas and Fontana.

According to Bernard the Pocono folks did their homework and there should be a pretty nice crowd there next year. 

Also adding to that is the resurrection of the Triple Crown, as Pocono will join Indy and Fontana to make up the triumvrate. While the Crown stood in different incarnations over the years, Indy and Pocono were often two of the legs and are part of it once again. There is also a financial incentive: win all three races and pocket $1 two of the three and take home $250,000. Needless to say, winning all three races would be quite the windfall for a driver as it would mean close to a $4 million in earnings.

While NBC Sports Network's outstanding production, but its miniscule viewership, return, it's good to see that ABC will be televising six of seven races in the middle of the season between Indy and Pocono. While I don't particularly like the quality of the broadcasts, I like the exposure, especially given that Texas will be on the network, and on a Saturday night might I add. Iowa will be on ABC as well, but I am disappointed that it will be on a Sunday afternoon as the night race really pops.

I'm a big fan of the idea of standing starts, which will be added to one of the races at each of the three doubleheader venues of Belle Isle, Toronto and Houston. Some think it's too much of a nod to F1, but I think that is such an exciting part of races in that series. The cars pull into their spots, wind up the motors and go. The anticipation during the countdown of the final seconds is so amazing. While the idea of an embarrassing pile-up at the start worries me, that's always that risk, and I'd rather try it than not do it at all.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with taking bits and pieces of what works in other series and applying it to IndyCar. Some people do, but let's be frank, we need to sell tickets and we need television viewers. If some tweaking is involved -- stopping short of competition cautions and green-white-checkers and the likes of those, of course -- that accomplishes that end then that's fine with me.

Doubleheaders leave me mixed. I guess the jury is still out on that one because racing all weekend is super cool, I just don't dig the venues, especially the idea of doubling up at Belle Isle. The worst race hands-down in the series this year and next year we are going to run that race and then line it up and do it again the next day? Yikes. I wish we could flip the TV coverage of that with Toronto, that would be worth watching twice.

But the promoters like it and think they can sell lots of tickets, so we'll see how it goes. Also a bit up in the air is how points will be scored (the only thing I read is that they will be split "equally" between the two races) and how the fields will be set. Grid penalties will need to be factored in as well.

EDIT!: In a press conference at Pocono today Bernard said: "We want full-length races for full points for full prize money."

I don't want an inverted start, not on road courses at least. Maybe two sessions of qualifying? I actually would like that because what the doubleheader concept does do is gives people a chance for the mulligan. If you don't make the Fast 12 or Fast Six in the sessions for race 1, you might be able to make some adjustments and qualify better for race 2.

And in the same vein, if you struggle in the race on Saturday, a team might come back Sunday with a different result. Like James Hinchcliffe at Toronto. He was crazy fast in the race until his motor blew up and he spent three-quarters of the race on the sideline. In this instance he gets to come back the next day and do it again. I think the potential is there to have two completely different finishes and scenarios on the back-to-back days.

Staying with Toronto, I think a guy like Sebastien Bourdais would have loved to have come back the next day and done it again with the car he had. Like I said, I'm not a huge fan of this, but there is a little bit of intrigue in there to keep me interested.

One other thing that needs to be fixed, though, are the long breaks over the final weeks of the season. Once again, three weeks will separate Mid-Ohio from Sonoma, Baltimore runs a week later and then it is another 34 days before the series resumes in Houston.

No doubt some of that is because of Fontana. It is a must that the series ends on an oval, and the idea of stretching it to 500 miles was brilliant, but the weather was absolutely brutal. Fontana in October has always brought some great weather for racing and watching racing, and no doubt will do the same next year. But running just six races over the course of 77 days (two of which will happen in one weekend) is equally brutal.

That needs to be fixed. Is there a track out there with a date in September that could take on a race? Kentucky could, I'm sure, but beyond that I don't know how many other partners IndyCar has right now that would be able to step up, and adding another twistie won't cut it.

Overall I think this is a good schedule and if there are some more races (ahem, ovals) in the pipe (ahem, Michigan, Phoenix, ahem) for 2014 it is a step in the right direction. I've seen some complaining about the schedule already, but let's look at the long-term, peeps. Getting better each year is the key. Sure, it would be great to have hit a home run and thrown out a schedule with 23-24 races that included all of our favorites, but not every deal can be made, and in this economy you can't expect teams to take on a budget that would amount to 25-30 percent of what they had to work with in 2012.

You have to make decisions with the future in mind, it was short-sided thinking that got us into this pickle in the first place. IndyCar isn't going away, and in 2012 put on one of the best racing shows in the world. That's not going to change. Patience, grasshoppers, we'll get there.