Thursday, March 29, 2012

Houston and a Couple of Other Thoughts

The announcement today that Houston will be on the 2013 schedule confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets of all time. While many tried to engage Randy Bernard and Roger Penske at St. Pete about Houston being in the works, they didn't bite, instead pleading ignorance about the whole thing.

Well the lid was blown off that this morning when Helio Castroneves tweeted that he was at the airport waiting for a flight to Houston. Oh well, at least everyone tried.

Anyway, the race is scheduled to go off in October and will feature a concrete "parking-lot" course around Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. The course was used for Champ Car for the 2006-07 races, which were both won by Sebastian Bourdais.

While I am not thrilled about the addition of another temporary venue, a couple of things make this a positive move. The race will be sponsored by Shell and Pennzoil, which gives the series better sponsor activation, and it will be promoted by Mike Lanigan, who owns a team with Bobby Rahal (making him familiar with IndyCar and what it needs to put on a successful race) and was a promoter of the Cleveland Grand Prix, which was long a popular and successful staple on the open wheel schedule.

Not only that, it moves the series into the nation's fourth-largest city and 10th-largest media market. Assuming Fontana and Belle Isle are still on the 2013 schedule, it means that there will be racing in five of the top 12 markets in the US. Los Angeles is the 2nd largest market, Dallas is seventh and Houston, Detroit and Tampa/St. Pete are 10th-12th, respectively.

(Note: Baltimore ranks 24, Indianapolis 25 and Milwaukee 33)

Also worth mentioning is Sao Paulo is the 6th largest city in the world and Qingdao has a metro population of 4.5 million people. While I think that the series should focus on North American races (don't want to forget Canada), venturing to areas that either have a built-in fanbase (Brazil) or an untapped market where sponsors want to become more involved (China) can work too.

On the oval front, Bernard invited an interesting guest to St. Pete over the weekend. Brandon Igdalsky, president of Pocono Raceway, was at Sunday's race as "a fan", but it makes you wonder if they had a couple of conversations about the series returning to eastern Pennsylvania. Pocono was originally built for open wheel cars but for a long time was woefully lacking in open wheel safety standards. That has since changed as Igdalsky has invested millions in infrastructure upgrades that could make a return possible.

What would be really cool would be a modified return of the old triple crown, with Pocono, Indy and Fontana (replacing the now-defunct Ontario Speedway).

Either way, reports that more than a half-dozen venues have been in touch with Bernard recently about putting on races in 2013, including ovals like Phoenix, Pocono and Richmond. While I hope that ovals will be a priority from here on out -- especially Chicagoland -- I wouldn't mind if Road America made it back on the schedule too.

Finally, it was announced that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be open for testing next Wednesday, April 4. One car from each team will be allowed to test, and no rookie drivers will be permitted. While $4.50 a gallon gas prevents me from taking a day off to get down there (saving up for May!), hopefully many readers and bloggers will be in the house.

Of course, the biggest tidbit of information we need (and YouTube videos as well) is lap times. A lot has changed on the cars since Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan tested in November, so next week will be a better predictor as to what we will see in May.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

St. Pete TV Coverage And Crazy Expectations

By now you have been hearing several discussions and/or complaints about how the TV coverage made St. Pete look "boring" despite accounts from people who were there that said it was much better than the TV product made it out to be. Others have said that, TV or not, the race just plain sucked.

When it comes to the actual broadcast, all I'm going to say is, they could have done better.

Outside of the ABC snoozefest, as I was thinking of a response to this quandary, it brought me back to a high school football game I was covering back in the fall. I was in Plano, a small town in my area which like many small towns is in love with its football team. Back-to-back state titles a few years ago helped.

Anyway, I was standing next to an assistant when the team took the field to AC/DC playing over the loudspeaker, teenagers dressed for battle in their purple and black uniforms running through smoke created by fire extinguishers, with all of that topped off with fireworks. As this spectacle was going on the coach leaned towards me and said:

"Remember when we just lined up and played the game?"

When I think about the reaction to St. Pete, that comment popped back into my head. For many, Sunday's race just didn't live up to expectations. For me it did, I thought it was a good, clean race with some decent passing and strategies -- some which worked and some didn't -- and eventually the best car and driver combination on that day won.

Problem is, that just isn't good enough for people any more. Expectations have changed. If you go back a generation (no, I'm not going to yearn for the CART good old days, it's just an example) this would have been a pretty darn good race. Seven different leaders, nine lead changes and 13 cars on the lead lap at the finish. Six different teams (seven if you count Charlie Kimball as separate from Target Chip Ganassi) in the top 10 representing a 6-4 split between Chevy and Honda engines, respectively.

Not to mention a lap chart  that showed some really decent battles. On paper it was a pretty good event.

Still, people weren't impressed, because it isn't just about the race anymore, it is the show that goes along with it. We need three-wide racing, a festival of carbon fiber, and maybe even a fight or confrontation (although I thought Ryan Hunter-Reay's strategist giving him the business to conserve fuel was pretty cool). We need flyovers and fireworks and cross-promotion and drama.

What people think they "need" is a NASCAR-inspired race. We have this idea that every race, every single weekend, has to nail us to the wall and at the end make us feel as exhausted as the drivers. And when it doesn't, because it always can't, we are left disappointed.

Now, I'm not dogging on NASCAR, far from it. As I have mentioned before, while I wouldn't consider myself a "fan" I have some favorite drivers and appreciate the sport. Although I will say this: take Martinsville off the schedule! What fun is 42 cars on a 1/2-mile track going 80 mph and creating 15 cautions in a 250-mile race? Really! And they go there twice a year?

Seriously, that's boring. Maybe it is the "roots" of the sport, but the drivers in the country's top stock car series should be past that.

But you know what? That is what the "fans" want. Follow Twitter or the message boards Sunday, and they will show you the way. The wrecks and bleeped-out cuss words and crunching sheet metal will be like a Sunday afternoon religious experience. Because fans of Driver A just know that he can whip Driver B's ass, despite the fact neither has been in a real, actual fight since grade school. And whatever happened here will be settled somewhere down the road when A puts B in the fence.

Please. I like the scoreboard approach...just beat the guy. You can talk the game, but can you play the game?

It isn't just about the race, it is the drama and the show and the theater. Nothing wrong with that, and I don't mind taking part in it sometimes, but in the end it just isn't for me in large doses. LAGSYE (Ladies and gentlemen start your engines) and let's go.

I'm in the minority, though, because we don't do anything small any more. Everything has a huge pre-game lead-in, and every sporting event now has festivities that before were reserved for special games, like the Super Bowl or World Series.

It's how NASCAR got so big, and how the NFL did as well. Problem is, now we expect everything to be that way. And according to that "new" paradigm, St. Pete was a run-of-the-mill race. Hell, people even complained about the Cup race at California, which I actually enjoyed watching because of Tony Stewart's brilliant driving, the strategies involved in trying to predict when the rain would come, and especially the long, green racing that made those strategies so important.

I will say this, I hate yellows, and I especially hate crashes. The first crash I ever witnessed was Randy Lewis sticking a car into the first turn wall at Indy on Pole Day in 1983 (or '84) and because I was a middle schooler at the time, I thought it was cool as hell. Now I just think they are a waste of time and money. A perfect day for me would be a race going green for the entire scheduled distance. Love that stuff.

Then again, I'm not a member of the demographic they are looking to get. I'm not between the ages of 18-35 and despite having ADD (as if you hadn't figured that out by my writing style) I still have a longer attention span than those in said demographic.

It's crazy how we worry about a race like St. Pete "turning off" casual fans. That would be like me watching the Cubs get one hit and get beat 10-0 and thinking "that sucks, I'm not going to watch that any more". (Yeah, that will probably happen a couple of times this year. Ugh, it will be a long summer)

As far as that goes, I will say this. If you are worried about the impressions of the casual fan, a nice early-season oval race, such as Phoenix, would fit nicely here.

In the end, I think this is a big battle that IndyCar will always struggle with. The expectation of what entertains us is so high, and for the most part I wonder if people will ever be satisfied, because I don't think on a weekly basis IndyCar can put on a show like that, unless they raced at places like Indy, Michigan and Chicagoland every weekend.

One thing I posted on Twitter the other day rings true: A race is an athletic competition, and not a reality show. Some races are great, others so-so, but that's sports anyway.

Unfortunately, NASCAR has given us a reality show, and that's what we expect. As Helio stretched out his lead the other day, someone tweeted that we should have a yellow to set up a more exciting finish.

To me it doesn't work that way. Once the green flag drops, what happens, happens. But many fans won't hear of that. If the lead gets too big, throw a yellow. If a guy falls a lap down, give him a chance to get that back -- and in giving him that back throw in a plug for a sponsor. And if the yellow is out at the end of the scheduled distance, give us a do-over or a mulligan to make it "exciting", thereby manipulating the outcome of what is supposed to be a sports competition.

Again, not bashing here, just stating facts. Lots of people complain about IndyCar being "boring" at times, but will die with a gun in their cold, lifeless hand before taking on any of NASCAR's "gimmicks". Well folks, it's the gimmicks that get the eyeballs.

Because if you take out the gimmicks, the fanfare and the screaming, most weeks on the NASCAR circuit you have an average, run-of-the-mill race, like California was, as was Bristol and Las Vegas. And if you take out the Towering Inferno, Daytona was too.

So in the end, what do we want? Do we want IndyCar racing, or NASCAR version 2.0? Because if you want thrills a minute every weekend, that is what it is gonna take.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

St. Pete Recap

"Most of all we are missing Dan, that wound is still fresh, and this race would have been better with him in it." -- Ryan Hunter-Reay

Finally we have racing! St. Pete was a new beginning in so many ways, and despite a few hiccups I think the race was a great start to 2012. It was obvious that the memory of Dan Wheldon would be on the minds and hearts of everyone in the IndyCar world, and of all the fitting tributes that happened during the day, this one might be the one that sticks in my mind the longest.

There was a lot to talk about when it comes to Sunday's race, and trying to prioritize is not easy. So let's just do is a bit of a rundown of what happened, in no real order.

*Helio wins! Castroneves drove a brilliant race to win for the first time since Motegi in 2010 and third time at St. Pete. Fast and  focused all weekend, he started his put-up-or-shut-up season with a bang. If you didn't get emotional watching his post-race celebration, just stop watching the sport.

*The podium. The top three spots were taken by the teams of usual suspects (Penske, Ganassi, Andretti), but Scott Dixon's runner-up finish was a long time coming at this circuit. Overall it was his third P2 here, he had been P22, P16, P18 and P16 the last four years. Ryan Hunter-Reay stepped up again with a podium, continuing the success he'd had at the end of last season.

*Other notables. James Hinchcliffe finished three seconds back of RHR in fourth to tie a career-best. Get used to him running up front...Ryan Briscoe led some laps and finished fifth, while Simon Pagenaud continued to impress with a sixth-place effort...Will Power got out of pit sequence early and came home seventh, while Josef Newgarden, the only true "rookie" in the field, ran as high as third and drove a solid race to place 11th...Dario Franchitti was amazingly enough never a factor and finished 13th, while Rubens Barrichello drove around and learned as much as he could in placing 17th...Takuma Sato led 10 laps before finishing 22nd.

*Mechanical issues. Chevy was obviously the dominant powerplant on the day, and Lotus had its struggles, with Alex Tagliani carrying the banner for Lotus in 15th place. Still, there were several gremlins that sidelined several drivers, most notably Tony Kanaan, who finished 25th after experiencing electrical problems, and Sebastian Bourdais, who in a Lotus had charged to the front of the field (unofficially as he never crossed the line before pitting) but later dropped out. There are so many variables that just can't be run through in testing and need some real-time data. Many of these issues should be ironed out over the next few weeks.

*Race control. Race No. 1 of the Beaux Barfield era was a success in the sense that race control did not become a part of the story. Since the driver's meeting was closed (and with the exception of the tradition at Indy I think they should stay that way) it was hard to know exactly what Barfield covered. But I thought the drivers gave each other space, especially on starts and restarts, and seemed to take the time to feel out the car and start pressing the issue as the race went along.

A possible controversy was avoided with a quick response to the Castroneves/Ed Carpenter incident where Helio spun out Carpenter on the exit of turn 14. I felt from the beginning it was a racing incident, a group of cars had been pressing Ed and Helio had a run on him onto the straight, but unfortunately Carpenter slowed to dive into the pits. Just one of those racing deals, drive on. It was a quiet day for race control and like a referee who never gets noticed, it means they had a good afternoon.

*Parade of IndyCars. If you watched the race at home, you would have gotten the idea that there was little to no excitement or passing. Those there, including Pippa Mann -- who was a great race correspondent on Twitter -- said there was a lot more going on than what we saw. Which leads me to:

*TV coverage. I thought it was average at best. While I am appreciative of ABC's partnership with the series, I have always believed they fall short on coverage. One thing I tell people watching a race in person for the first time is to not fixate on the leaders, look all through the field as just because a battle for 20th place is exciting too. Unfortunately they spent too much time on the front of the field and not enough showing some good battles. Thanks to the people there who set us straight.

One other thing is that they were constantly slow on identifying drivers who had made passes for position or had experienced difficulties that put them out of the race. Case in point: Bourdais pitted as the leader and then moments later was out of the race. You would have thought that he had disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle for the amount of information they had.

There are just too many ways to cull information. Again, Mann and others were tweeting way more info than we were catching on TV. That is inexcusable.

That said, I thought the network's Wheldon tribute was very, very well done. It was hard to watch and very emotional to relive what happened last October, but hats off to them.

*Next week. I'm happy for a quick turnaround to Barber. I think with one race down many of the things learned in the new equipment will make the racing even better next week. NBC Sports Network takes over the coverage, with Tony Kanaan the subject of what should be a very entertaining IndyCar 36 segment.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

St. Pete -- And They're On It

You didn't think I would sit out the first race weekend of the year, did you? Yeah, I know, I'm a little behind, but with all of my fellow bloggers covering season previews and power rankings like a blanket, and me doing work stuff I figured I'd let them handle all of that and jump in when I could.

Which is now, just minutes after qualifying for St. Pete has concluded. Despite what the end result looks like -- Penske dominating with Will Power on pole and Ryan Briscoe in P2 -- it was a very interesting session. Here are a few thoughts on the Fast Six and beyond.

Will Power is the Roadmaster: Really, did we expect anything different? Power started on pole the first four races last year and got off to that same start in 2012. He's just better than anyone else on the twisties, 'nuff said.

Ryan Briscoe: Briscoe got behind the 8-ball last year by finishing 18th at St. Pete and 21st at Barber. This was exactly what he was looking for.

Ryan Hunter-Reay: Always fast, always underrated. See above, RHR didn't finish better than 14th in his first six races last year, then whipped off a win at New Hampshire, two other podiums and eight top-10s to close out the year. No doubt carrying that finish into 2012.

James Hinchcliffe: Was near the top of the speed chart in every session today and has quickly proven he was the right man for the job at Andretti Autosport. He will be a force very quickly in the series.

Helio Castroneves: Helio looked racy enough for a run at the pole before scraping the left side of the wall and damaging some suspension. Another guy that needed this badly, and he looks as revived as advertised so far.

Simon Pagenaud: The party crasher! Fast all day long and slugged it out with the big boys as the only Honda in the Fast Six. Despite knowing he was going to drop 10 spots due to an engine change, still drove hard in the final session. Respect.

Where were the red cars?: Target Chip Ganassi is doing some head scratching right now after failing to advance either car to the Fast Six. Scott Dixon, who missed the session by .0022 seconds, will start sixth after moving up one spot because of Pagenaud, while Dario Franchitti will start 10th.

Rubens watch: Rubens Barrichello just missed moving into the round of 12 by .03 seconds, so he will start 14th. Being realistic, a Top 10 tomorrow is a pretty solid goal.

Men in the middle: Marco Andretti starts eighth and Tony Kanaan ninth, while Franchitti (10th), Graham Rahal (11th), Mike Conway (12th), Barrichello and Justin Wilson (16th). That's some road-racing star power in the middle of the field, look for some hard driving and strategy as this crew tries to go to the front.

So tomorrow we go -- in the words of the great Dan Wheldon -- "GREEN!". Here's hoping for a
fast, clean, safe race. And hey, ladies and gentlemen, can we get through the first lap without hitting each other? Please?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Fearless Predictions for 2012

I thought about calling this the "My Left Foot" edition in honor of Dario Franchitti, but changed my mind. Yeah, I know the movie was about a man who could only use his left foot, as opposed to Dario not being able to use his, but it's late and for a second I thought it was funny. I was going to make fun of Dario about it but then I remembered how Derek Zoolander of "Zoolander" fame couldn't turn left and he was still able to carve out an incredible career.

Anyway, it has now been 166 days (and counting) since the official season finale in Kentucky. If you don't mind, I am not counting Las Vegas. Since the season is now just a little over a week away, I figured it was time to prognosticate.

Thanks to Pressdog, I am officially primed for the opener, and will be ready to throw one back at the first mention of "momentum". I'll stop short of calling it my most important purchase ever, but it is up there.

On with the predictions:

IndyCar Champion: Will Power. With 11 road and street courses on the schedule, this is Will's year to ascend to the throne. He could easily win at least half of those events, and if that happens all he will have to do on the ovals is go into prevent defense mode and come home with a top-10 finish and some points. Not as easy as it sounds, of course, but the way this year is set up it is his for the taking.

Indy 500 Winner: Tony Kanaan. TK has done everything BUT lead laps and win the race the last two years, and is the favorite to find victory lane in a fan poll conducted by IndyCar Advocate earlier this week (cool poll, Zachary!). Amazingly enough Kanaan has led just 17 fewer laps than Helio Catroneves (3 wins) and 21 fewer than Dan Wheldon (2 wins). It's not how many, of course, but when, and TK is due.

Over/under before Rubens Barrichello wins a race. I'm putting it at four (4) and taking the under. Four straight road/street courses to start the season gives him plenty of opportunity to catch up on whatever learning curve is left. I'm sure he will be motivated to do well in Rio, so maybe that will be the place. Now normally I'm not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories when it comes to drivers getting "the call", but if it somehow happens to Rubens at Rio I will happily look the other way. (Kidding!)

First-time winner. I think James Hinchcliffe wins a race this year. Or maybe hoping as the more Hinch can run up front and get into the media spotlight, the better off the series will be.

Breakout season: Graham Rahal. About the only guy who had worse luck than Rahal was Ryan Briscoe, who I think was hit at one time or another by every car in the paddock. Rahal qualified well and had some tough spells on race day. The biggest highlight, though, was his drive at Indy where he passed close to 65 cars on the track, led the race with 75 miles to go and ultimately finished third. If the series is looking for a "face", Rahal might be it. Young, articulate, social-media savvy and a great driver (not to mention American, which to some still matters), he is like Hinch...get him in front of the media as often as possible.

Rookie of the Year: Simon Pagenaud. The candidate pool is small as only Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Katherine Legge will be up for the award. Given Pagenaud has made 17 starts between Champ Car and IndyCar and Legge made 28, it's a little unfair for Newgarden -- a "true freshman" in college football terms -- to be competing with them, but those are the rules. Pagenaud was a pleasant surprise during testing at Sebring and has an experienced team behind him in Sam Schmidt's operation.

A few other predictions: The Indy 500 pole speed will be similar to speeds we have had over the last several years...Ed Carpenter will win one of the oval races...This one more involves some serious and hopeful finger-crossing, but Milwaukee will be a success. Let's put it this way: it has to be. I'll be there, how about you?...I think Chevy will win the most races, with Honda a close second...When the 2013 schedule comes out will everyone calm down about the ovals?

And my final prediction? Lots of awesome stuff is going to happen this year and 2012 will be one of the most memorable we've had in a while, and that is saying something. I do agree with Randy Bernard that this year will be one hell of a ride.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Turbo! IndyCar Goes Hollywood

Thanks IndyCar and DreamWorks

As I shared the other day, I'm a huge movie guy. So it was very cool news to hear that IndyCar and DreamWorks will be teaming up to release "Turbo", a racing and Indy 500-themed animated movie in the summer of 2013.

The movie, whose current release date is July 19, 2013, is about a snail who dreams of going fast and winning the Indy 500. Turbo loves racing, and gets the chance to chase his ambitions when a freak accident makes him the fastest snail alive.

Ryan Reynolds will be the voice of Turbo, while other well-known stars such Paul Giamatti, Samuel Jackson (whose talents will be slightly wasted because it should be a rated G or PG movie) and Snoop Dogg. Dario Franchitti is on board as a technical consultant.

This is another product of the IndyCar Entertainment division, which is a West Coast-based IndyCar office whose objective is to raise the exposure of IndyCar and its drivers in the entertainment world. So far it has been a successful venture, given the exposure created during Super Bowl week in Indy, as well as Michael Andretti's appearance on "Celebrity Apprentice".

This isn't a low-budget feature, it is a major motion picture backed by a huge production company and a nine-figure budget. No doubt this is a huge opportunity for IndyCar, and an even bigger chance to get the sport in front of the masses.

Probably the biggest impact will be the opportunity to appeal IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the younger generation. I think that is huge, because when I started following racing when I was nine I became a fan for life. Getting children into open wheel racing and showing them the tradition of the Indy 500 will be something they will remember, trust me.

"Exposure". Young or old, that's what gets people into the sport. I can't even count how many people I know who at one time hated open wheel racing -- or racing in general -- but are now fans because of a trip they took to the Speedway or another track, or were friends, significant others and spouses of fans who got into it thanks to that person's passion and enthusiasm.

Right now IndyCar Nation is being built almost one fan at a time. What's it going to be like when (hopefully) millions of people go see this movie? Maybe they will want to read up on it, or check out a race on TV. I think one thing is for sure, the 2013 should have an event that weekend, as well as the next.

Just a couple weeks ago a few people were complaining that IndyCar was lagging behind in exposure to the masses. Guess those people need to think again.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Can We Just Start Racing Already?

In my 30-plus years following the sport, I just don't really remember the hype and attention surrounding the IndyCar series this past off-season. While we started out with tons of bad news, it's been more than counter-balanced by some great stuff, and the energy as we work towards the opener at St. Pete in 14 days...yes, I said 14 days! reaching a fever pitch.

We've had so much to talk about, and that has been great, but with no races or points battles to analyze and no real driver smack to talk it seems we are reaching the the kind of saturation point where stuff is being rehashed to death, and I am beginning to read more and more stories that make me think "where in the hell did THAT come from?".

Of course the controversies surrounding Texas have taken on lives of their own. Classic cases of he said-he said stuff about the fencing and safety and boycotts. It just won't go away.

Sometimes it seems like we are at the point that people are resorting to just making stuff up. A fellow named Norris McDonald, a sports journalist with the Toronto Star, threw together a blog entry where he claims that James Hinchcliffe's ride with Andretti Autosport was in danger before he even ran a single race.

McDonald claimed that since AA gave Ana Beatriz a stint in Hinch's car during the Sebring test that Hinch was on the ropes. Of course he didn't call AA or even Hinch (who verified via Twitter he was blindsided) to try and get to the bottom of it, just used a lot of hearsay and dot-connecting to say that Bia was on her way to being the new GoDaddy girl.

The orignal blog has been cowardly replaced with this version as a sort of "ooops, my bad, I didn't check any of my sources and my story was total BS." Remember a post last week where I talked about "guerrilla journalism"? Here is the example.

Of course, McDonald hasn't had a lot of nice things to say about IndyCar lately, posting here that IndyCar shouldn't even pursue an opportunity to race in Phoenix and here where he said if we thought the attention Danica got was bad, we had better get ready for all Rubens, all the time.

Now from a writing standpoint these last two I don't agree with, but I won't quibble with the content. They are blog posts, and they represent his opinion. That's cool, it's no different than what I do here.

But to just up-and-up write something that is "harder news" in a blog is pretty irresponsible. No calls, no quotes, no nothing. And I'm sure that mistake was realized given that the post was spiked in favor of a shorter, tamer version.

The final two lines of the "new" post looked like this:

I then wrote: "And this could very well be much ado about nothing."

And as it's turned out, it was.

OK, and it was ado about nothing until you decided to take it a couple of steps further! And if you had done your research before taking this crap online it would have stayed that way.

Stuff like this is just a pet peeve of mine. This whole use of "contact" and "sources" that are utilized in the hopes of putting out a story before the other guy is dangerous and unprofessional. Unfortunately, our sport is surrounded with people like this who try to become part of the story instead of just writing about it. A certain person who has a "Mailbag" likes to do the same thing. It's wrong and it isn't fair to the people involved.

Anyway, rant over. All this means is that it's time to start racing. Please! Let's get some fresh stories and ideas and really give people something to talk about.

Spring Training Has Few Surprises

Looking at the combined results from IndyCar spring training this week, it shook out pretty much the way I expected it. Penske and Ganassi were fast, Andretti Autosport wasn't far behind, and a few guys who know how to hustle a car around a road course filled in the blanks.

I think many people took the results as a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" scenario where the top teams were going to dominate with the DW12 in the manner they did with the old Dallara.

Well, of course they would. Why would we expect any different?

I'm not going to get into money, sponsorship or resources, I'm just going to look at this in another way.


Growing up I was a big fan of the cartoon Speed Racer. After school I would run home and catch as many episodes as I could. There is one scene where he is trying to run down another car and Trixie (I believe) says: "Speed, he just has a faster car!"

To which he replies: "He might have a faster car, but I am a better driver".

In racing there has always been a chicken vs. egg argument...does the driver make the car or does the car make the driver? In my mind it's both. A good car with an average driver is one thing, a good car with an above-average driver is another. Sure, Penske and Ganassi drivers win because they have the best of everything, but that doesn't always guarantee success. There have been a handful of drivers for both teams that have struggled during their time of employment. They win because they have all of that stuff and are also some of the best drivers in the series.

Take a look at the top-5 in speeds at Sebring and their resumes:

1) Scott Dixon. 24 wins. 2008 Indy 500 champion. Two-time IndyCar champion, top three in points six times.
2) Dario Franchitti. 29 CART/IndyCar wins. 2007 and 2010 Indy 500 champion. Four time IndyCar champion.
3) Helio Castroneves. 25 CART/IndyCar wins, 2001-02, 2009 Indy 500 champion. Between CART and IndyCar won races in 11 straight seasons.
4) Rubens Barrichello. Record 322 F1 starts. 11 F1 wins. 60-plus podiums. Top three in points four times.
5) Will Power. 15 Champ Car/IndyCar wins. Two runner-up finishes in points. Arguably one of the finest road course racers in the world.

That's your top five, folks. A combination of talent, skill and resources, and the confidence that comes with having all of those. And if you took a poll among the drivers who they thought had the most technical skill of any driver in the series, your top five wouldn't look much different than this.

At this level, sheer technical skill is what separates the drivers in many instances. Since 2000, the Indy 500 has been won by the following drivers:

Juan Pablo Montoya 2000
Helio Castroneves: 2000-01, 2009
Gil De Ferran: 2003
Buddy Rice: 2004
Dan Wheldon: 2005, 2011
Sam Hornish: 2006
Dario Franchitti: 2007, 2010
Scott Dixon: 2008

Notice something among all of those drivers? All of them also won championships, save for Castroneves, whose body of work speaks for itself. Rice is the outlier here, but otherwise they are all tough, experienced, technically sound drivers.

Rick Mears won Indy four times of course, but is it because he had the best equipment driving for Penske, or because he is one of the masters of the Speedway. On the surface you can say he had great cars, which he did. But go to Youtube and watch a video where he drives Jimmie Johnson around the track in a Corvette and listen to how he describes his approach over virtually the entire 2 1/2 miles of the race course. This while cruising around at about 95 mph. It is the closest thing you will get to hearing a prophet speak.

Like most people, I hoped the new equipment, especially the idea that at least for now the engines may provide some sort of attrition, would change things, that other drivers and teams would have a chance to win races and championships. I still believe that might happen.

But before they start taking the poles, wins and championships we all wish would go to someone else this year, let's admire them for the fact that as drivers they are just better than everyone else. That doesn't disrespect any of the other drivers in the series, as I think guys like Tony Kanaan and Justin Wilson (especially on twisties) are just a notch below, and younger drivers like Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe are going to take their places someday.

When I think of these guys, I think of the famous line about the football coach Bear Bryant: He can take his and beat yours, and he can take yours and beat his. That's what these guys represent. Could Franchitti jump into the car of a backmarker team and make it a winner? Doubtful, but I would bet he would drive it better than the current pilot does.

The equipment is good, no doubt. But if that was all it is, why isn't Ryan Briscoe ever part of this conversation? Briscoe is an above-average driver, but despite having similar resources has never put up the kind of numbers his contemporaries have.

When you look at the rosters of the drivers the superteams have employed, they represent some of the best drivers of the generation, guys who not only won for Penske and Ganassi, but other teams as well. They are the best of the best, and that is why they have the success they do. They are just better drivers.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- At The Movies Edition

Reading over my posts of the past week or so I have realized that I took a really serious turn, and trust me, people who know me know I sure as hell am not THAT serious! So with that in mind I figured I would celebrate the start of the weekend with some lighter fare.

I have to admit, I am a huge movie fan, and have been since I was little. There are few things I enjoy more than grabbing some food and watching a good film in a theater. And since I'm a night person, too, I end up watching a lot of movies over and over late at night. Thank goodness for DirecTV and 200 channels.

I've had the chance to see some of the best and most popular movies of the last 40 years in the theater, and then watch them another several dozen times (yes, seriously) at home. I would guess that there are a few movies out there that I have seen more than 100 times. Rocky and Hoosiers being two of them.

And for the record, my favorite movie is Bourne Identity. Like me some action flicks.

I like sports movies, especially the way they have been made lately, where a film like Friday Night Lights is about football but isn't a football movie.

Unfortunately, it's been a long time since a good movie about racing has been made. One that is authentic and isn't reliant on dumb race sequences or ridiculous cliches. More on that in a minute.

I want to see a racing movie made that is like many sports movies now, where racing is the center of a good story but is secondary to the people and traditions that make it great. I have an idea for one, actually, so if anybody knows how to write a script, let me know! For what it is worth, my girlfriend Darcy thinks my idea is stellar.

Anyway, here is a list of a few racing-themed movies that I have seen over the years, and my thoughts on them.

* Grand Prix (1966). James Garner is an American F1 driver who is fired from one ride after critically injuring a teammate and then joins another team, but not before he hooks up with his ex-teammate's wife, who justifies what she is doing because she was going to leave him anyway. Yves Montand plays an aging driver who is facing the end of his career but wants one last triumph. The racing scenes are good and the ending has that kind of 1960s and early 70s vibe where the movie just...ends, usually not very happily. The racing scenes are excellent, and Garner gets props for doing his own driving. In fact, according to the website, the movie used Formula 3 cars and Garner held his own in pickup races between filming. It was also a reflection of the times as 10 of the 32 drivers in the movie, including Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren, were killed in racing-related accidents over the next decade.

*Le Mans (1971). Steve McQueen starred in this one, and stayed true to himself, not saying much and staying in badass form the entire movie. (I say that with a lot of awe, by the way. McQueen didn't need to say anything to totally take over the screen.) McQueen plays Michael Delaney, an American driver who the year before had been involved in a fatal accident that had killed a fellow driver, something he was still haunted by. There are several plotlines and twists, but the racing and the cars are the stars of this film. The movie relies heavily on footage shot from the 1970 race, and the depiction of the tense moments before the race starts and the frenzy in the first few minutes as the car take the track are awesome. The in-car footage is great. Again, according to, there is no dialog from the major characters in the first 37 minutes of the movie. They just filmed the cars and let them do the talking.

*Days of Thunder (1990). This movie is just bad, but I catch myself watching it every so often. Tom Cruise plays an up-and-coming driver named Cole Trickle, who immediately locks horns with Rowdy Burns and drama ensues. They are both involved in accidents that make Burns unable to race, and Trickle takes over his ride for Daytona. His new rival is Russ Wheeler, who took his old car and is the new flavor of the month. By the way, Wheeler's girlfriend -- is that really a man? Anyway, Cruise faces his fears and wins Daytona and they all go home happy. And then he marries Nicole Kidman, who was also in the movie. Robert Duvall is the highlight, because he is just an incredible actor regardless of material, and has two of the funniest dialogs in the movie, first when he explains the concept of "rubbin' is racin'" to Trickle, then tells him to hit the pace car "because you've hit every other goddamned thing out there and I want you to be perfect!".

*Driven (2001). This sits behind Leonard Part 6 and Showgirls as the worst movie I have EVER seen! I don't only give this movie two thumbs down, I give it the double bird, Will Power-style. How CART ever signed off on this is beyond me. Cliched and utterly predictable, the movie relies on huge, unrealistic crashes and special effects to try and make the racing scenes exciting. Tip to movie people: you don't have to go with CGI to make race sequences good, just film them and let them speak for themselves. I'm not even going to summarize this movie because then it would give it more credibility than it deserves.

*Talladega Nights (2006). Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, who lives the "if you ain't first, you're last" credo in all areas of his life. Like Driven, the movie is utterly funny and ridiculous, but unlike it that's because it was really written that way. Ricky ascends to superstardom in NASCAR with the help of his sidekick Cal Naughton Jr. (ever notice there are a lot of Juniors in stock car racing?). Like Days of Thunder, Ricky loses his ride and his confidence after a horrible crash, then comes home from the hospital to find out he has lost everything else as well (even his wife, who leaves him for Cal because as a racing wife "I...don' Living at home with his mother and delivering pizzas, Ricky hits the comback trail with the help of his long-lost father (played to the hilt by Gary Cole) and his tough love driving lessons, and teams up with his PR chick Susan to face his fears and former F1 driver Jean Girard in a really, really bizarre finale. But after watching this year's Daytona 500, I actually could see it happening.

Nights is funny as hell and is chock full of movie quotes that I use on a regular basis. And who names their kids Walker and Texas Ranger? Brilliant. Still, one pet peeve bothers the heck out of me. Why when Ricky and Cal are going to pass cars, they downshift? That bugs me like you would never believe! Nobody does that, especially in a stock car where doing that at speed would put a piston through the hood of the car. I guess you need some sort of trigger for the audience when you are going into beast-mode, so that might be the explanation. Whatever.

So there it is, my list of movies with a racing theme. Now, I've only listed movies I've seen, knowing there are others out there. If you have a favorite, let me know!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lap 77 For Dan Update

The incredible power of social media is really all I can say about what has happened since I posted the idea of the broadcasts of the Cup race on Sunday at Las Vegas going quiet on Lap 77 in honor of Dan Wheldon.

Like the old commercial about me telling six people, and then they tell six people and so on, when I posted the idea on Twitter Monday afternoon I received quite a bit of support from people I didn't even know. And my blog received 2 1/2 times the number of page views than it has ever received in a day before. So thank you to my new blog readers and Twitter followers!

While the fan support was solid, the idea didn't go over well with the media. Of the people I tweeted or personally e-mailed, I received just one response, from a certain IndyCar writer who thought it wasn't the best idea to introduce a Wheldon memorial on Cup weekend.

It was a bit discouraging until Fox play-by-play man Mike Joy sent me the following tweet:

@mikejoy500: Good idea, I'll ask. @15daysinmay Can the FOX broadcast can go silent on Lap 77 Sunday? Would be a great tribute to Dan Wheldon at LVMS.

He later came back with another:

@mikejoy500: @15daysinmay FOX, NASCAR and the track would all have to agree, keep your fingers crossed.

First of all, much respect to Mike, and while this may or may not happen, his effort is much appreciated. I'm confident, thanks to retweets and other postings, that the powers-that-be are aware of the fan support behind this. What also might help is that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing announced today that the Lionheart sticker all of the cars bore at Talladega last fall will be on the cars driven by Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya. Dan will be on people's minds this weekend.

But until a decision is made, please continue to tweet Mike Joy, NASCAR (@NASCAR), Fox Sports (@foxsports) and LVMS (@lvmotorspeedway). Also send one to @indycar and @rbindycar to let them know as well. I have begun using the hashtag #Lap77forDan

I have also created a Facebook page that is open to everyone:

It's just cool how social media gives people the chance to come together and interact with people in a way that was never possible before. A few tweets and this idea is in front of people that will make decisions for a national television broadcast.

It's crazy.

So the quest continues, and will do so until a decision is made for Lap 98 of the Indy 500 as well. This has been way more fun than I ever thought it would be!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dan Wheldon 500 Ticket Unveiling

The ticket for the Indy 500 was unveiled at an Indianapolis-area middle school today, and as expected it carried the likeness of 2011 champion Dan Wheldon.

There is always some anticipation when the tickets are shown to the public, because that means they go in the mail soon after. Just another reminder that May will be getting here soon, and the race is just 82 days away.

While it is tradition that the ticket carry a photo of the previous year's winner, this time the circumstances were a little different. While drivers over the years have not returned to defend their titles for various reasons (injury, retirement, move to another series), Wheldon became the first reigning champion since George Robson in 1946 to be killed in a racing accident prior to returning to Indy.

I think the ticket looks great. I have tried to keep all of the tickets from the races I have atteneded over the years as they are a neat momento, and I will definitely be hanging onto this one. It captures the essence of what was a truly crazy day. All of the hoopla surrounding the centennial, an amazing battle on the track and the wildest finish ever, with just the second last-lap pass in the history of the race.

It's still sad to think about Wheldon being gone, because his win at the Speedway had revitalized his career and brought him tons of new fans and well-deserved attention. Still he is and always will be a great champion and one of the legends of the 500.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lap 77 and Honoring Dan Wheldon

As most of us know, NASCAR will be racing at Las Vegas this coming weekend. I thought that given it is the first major event to take place at LVMS since the death of Dan Wheldon on Oct. 16 that it would be a perfect opportunity for the racing community to honor him in some way.
I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter mentioning that perhaps we should all post a tweet containing the #77 hashtag on Lap 77, which is a great idea. But I would like it to go even further.
Thinking back to 2001, I remember how the Fox broadcasters would go silent during Lap 3 of every race the rest of the season in memory of Dale Earnhardt. With that in mind, I think it would be fitting for them to do the same thing on Lap 77 of Sunday’s race to recognize Dan.
One thing I was very impressed with NASCAR in the aftermath of that tragedy is the way they responded. Despite the fact that Dan was a member of a “competing” series, they honored him as one of their own, which was very touching. It was also a wonderful thing to see so many of them later contribute items to Graham Rahal’s online auction.
I honestly think that the NASCAR community, and more specifically the Fox network, would be open to such a request from fans of Dan’s and of IndyCar.
I know that many of us follow drivers from the NASCAR series and the Fox broadcast team, and maybe it can start there. Tweet it to your followers and to the IndyCar/NASCAR personalities you follow, and ask them to do the same. And while you are at it, tweet to them the idea of doing the same on Lap 98 of the Indy 500 in May.
I think it would be a really, really cool thing and would be a great tribute to Dan and what he contributed to not just the IndyCar series, but the entire racing community. 

Edit: This is officially a campaign, and I now have a Facebook group!

Part 2. Media, Social Media and the Driver's Responsibilities

I'm going to start this post out with a story.

Back in 2005 when I was still a part-time staff writer with the Aurora (Ill.) Beacon News, we received an e-mail from a NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) series team, offering to make a reporter a "pit crew member for a day" when the series ran at Chicagoland.

Without a second's hesitation, I took the assignment. Actually, since I was the only racing fan in the department, they assigned it to me without asking!

I've done some cool things in my writing career, but that one is one of the best. When I arrived at the track I was given one of those fancy team shirts, got to walk out to the start/finish line to watch driver introductions, and then spent the race atop the pit box with the crew chief and team owner.

My guy had a tough weekend. They qualified 33rd and spent the day treading water in the back of the field before finishing 27th in a race that was won by Kevin Harvick. Watching the race up close was something I will never forget, it was so much louder and faster along pit road up close. Jimmie Johnson was in the pit stall behind ours, and it was just a wild and crazy day and gave a great glimpse as to what a race is like "inside the ropes".

Just like pro golf (which is where I borrowed that phrase from), from that perspective it is a completely different animal. It just sounds and looks different.

I went back to the office and wrote a 90-inch story on the race. Just for reference, an average sports story is about 12-15 inches or 400-500 words. I was given as much space as I wanted and so I took advantage if that. In the finished product, only one thing was missing -- a quote from the driver himself about his take on the race.

Now, both the driver and crew chief were more than happy to talk to me beforehand, but when I asked the PR person if I could get a quote after, she told me they were upset with how things went and it wouldn't be a good idea.

And you know what? That was total BS. Now, I'm not going to name the driver or the team, but when you invite a guy to come out and give pub to your driver and race team, you need to talk to them, for better or for worse. You don't "big league" someone just because you had a crappy day, especially when you invite them down for the express purpose of spotlighting your organization. If he had done well, I'm sure he would have been extremely chatty, but win, lose or draw there are obligations, and that was one of them.

Fortunately there doesn't seem to be many instances of that happening in IndyCar. Most of the drivers are stand-up individuals who go in front of the mic or a tape recorder no matter what happens. It is something that I really like about the series.

Because you know what? And here is the point of Part my mind, it is something they should do, as driving the car is just a singular part of their jobs. The most important part, of course, but there is a lot more to it, and if IndyCar wants to keep making gains, dealing extensively with the media and fans are what they need to continue doing.

In essence, a driver is the quarterback of the team. Lots of people are responsible for getting that car on the track, but the success or failure on any given weekend is ultimately in the hands of the driver. As the face of the team, you always have to be that leader, no matter what happens.

I know these guys are busy, but that has to be a point of emphasis now and going forward. No matter who, and no matter what, they should give access to any legitimate media organization that wants a few minutes of their time.

I'm not an advocate of  the "guerrilla media" that is prevalent these days. If a driver wants to blow someone off who asks a confrontational question or sticks a mic in their face before they have cooled down after an incident on the track, I'm cool with that. Those people aren't true journalists and should be ignored.

Otherwise, I think if the opportunity to speak to members of the media is there, they need to do so. Canned quotes that are made up by PR people and sent out in releases are boring and useless, take five minutes and show some personality, give someone a little time to learn something and write something interesting. It goes a long way and people like to read it.

I think that taking a few minutes here and there, whether it is to speak to the media, talk to and sign autographs with the fans, and perhaps even providing content to team websites via blogs, online chats, video or Twitter, would go a long way towards the "activation" that is needed to further publicize the series.

The best way to bring in fans is to get them to become personally invested in you. Look around at the most popular drivers, and think about why they are so well-liked. It's because they give the time to the fans, they show their personalities to the media, and they get you to like them. In the end you root for them because you feel like you have a connection with them. You feel like they are going out to perform for you.

Especially with kids. I remember meeting athletes years ago, and the guys that signed autographs and took time with fans were the people I rooted for. Heck, even as a sportswriter, the guys I hope do well are the people that I have come across that were cordial and generous with their time. All of the athletes I call "favorites" are people I have dealt with that were just awesome people to be around.

I'll give up an allegiance here...I am a Tony Kanaan fan. I love the way he drives, and I enjoy the way he has a passion for his job, and his life, and how he lets that part of him show when he is around the track. And from what I have read and seen, he is kind, outgoing and passionate when no one is looking too.

I root for him because he drives hard and wants to win so badly. I know they all do, but TK is one of those people who wears it on his sleeve, and I like him for that.

The closer a driver can be to being "one of us", the more people want to root for them. Like Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR. No doubt there is name recognition, but even though he hasn't won in 131 races, Junior is still the most popular driver in the series, because with his personality and his interaction with fans, he is what most of us think we would be if we were race car drivers. We'd be cool and chill and have buddies over to race go-karts in our backyard and race people on iRacing in the middle of the night. He has fan loyalty because he does all of that, and people respond to it.

Another example is Dan Wheldon. When he was sponsored by the National Guard, he said many times how much he thought driving for the Guard as a sponsor was a privilege, and how he wanted to provide those soldiers with thrills and entertainment, and to race in a way that represented their courage and commitment. That's what made Dan so popular, he brought you in, he made you feel like if you were a fan, he was racing for you.

Dan (and TK) got it. That whenever you have the chance to promote the IndyCar series, you need to do it.

Making connections is what brings people to the track and plops them in front of the TV on race weekends. Doing whatever it takes to get them to do that should be the focus, bar none.

Because the way I see it, if they don't care about us (and by "us" I mean, fans, sponsors, media, etc) then why should we care about them? It doesn't take a lot of time, and they should be willing to give it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Media, Social Media and Other Things

It all started Saturday afternoon with a simple question:

@OriolServia: I'm bored at the airport, anybody has indycar questions?

So started a Twitter Q&A between Oriol Servia and IndyCar fans. Yet another example of the effort many IndyCar drivers make to interact with the fans. Servia answered several questions, including mine where I asked him what advice he would give to Rubens Barrichello when he starts driving ovals.

@OriolServia: Patience and do not follow !

Great advice, actually. And I think the first word of that "advice" should be some advice to those of us who think IndyCar isn't getting it done in the social media world.

Ever since NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski Tweeted during the red flag period at the Daytona 500 on Monday, people have had this idea that IndyCar is being totally pantsed when it comes to social media. As with many things comparing Cup to IndyCar, it's not fair or accurate.

One thing many don't know is that in a way what Keselowski did wasn't anything new.  A couple of IndyCar drivers tweeted from their cars during the famous parade down the Strip while in Vegas back in October, so while no one had done it during a race, drivers have given a glimpse into the world from their office before.

Many drivers and teams are very active on Twitter, and while what Keselowski was cool and brought him new followers, he still falls almost 225,000 followers short of Tony Kanaan, who is one of the better and more frequent tweeters in IndyCar. Looking back to last year, many drivers were very active while the season was in progress, and I see this year even being more.

And let's be honest, were many people talking about NASCAR and social media before the season even started? So with the IndyCar season -- and first TV broadcast -- three weeks away, why should we be in bash mode for what the series is and isn't doing?

Because first, I think they are watching what other forms of media are doing, and they are paying attention. And second, some of those ideas are being put into place. 

As guest blogger Angie King found out in a post on the blog Indycar Minnesota if you ask a few questions you get some great answers. In just a few e-mails with a member of the @indycar staff, she discovered that not only are they planning on expanding the role in social media, Twitter hashtags for each event are being finalized and will be passed out to the teams to use concerning each race weekend.

So my point is this: let's wait until the season starts before we get up in arms. 

Now, that's not to say there aren't a ton of things the cars and drivers can do to expand their reach to the fans. There are lots of areas that either need improvement or can be used to do even better.

The first is websites. Recently I have gone to several sites only to find out they are stale and haven't been updated in quite some time. I know that during the off-season there isn't always a lot to post, but still they need to do SOMETHING to keep the fans engaged. Post a couple of headlines, or a blog or even some photos. Keep things moving.

I mean, if I know that the more frequently I update my site the more visits I get, they should know that too. But still, as hard as this is to believe, the Indy 500 website hasn't updated its blog since Nov. 7. Really?

Another media source I think teams should utilize is Youtube. How cool would it be to see some video or a quick recap of how teams did during a practice or qualifying session? I don't see how hard it would be for a PR person or assistant to carry a flip recording device or something to get some footage. And I don't see how it would be a problem for a driver to stop really quick and share a minute's worth of thoughts after a session.

It's no different than stopping to speak with a couple of reporters, and gets the message out the way they want it. When I interview an athlete or a coach after a game, I would guess that our talk lasts, say, two minutes. What gets in the story probably totals 5-10 seconds. That doesn't mean I didn't like what they said the rest of the time, in fact, I can't tell you how many times I've heard a quote and said "man, I love that quote but just can't find anywhere to use it".

Full video helps, and also showcases more of their personality. In a short sound byte or quote, Scott Dixon doesn't come across as a very interesting guy. But he is quite witty on Twitter and is way better in interviews and conversations I have seen on video. Team-issued video would work well for him.

To quote fictional heavyweight champion Clubber Lang, one of the best faux quote-machines of all time, I got a lotta more on this subject, which I will share in a later post.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

It seems like when a couple of things go well in the IndyCar series, something comes up that at times makes me wonder if we are really as far along as we think we are.

Today's announcement that the open Texas test had been moved to May 7 seemed pretty benign. The move makes sense so that the cars don't have to switch from road to oval mode in the midst of a four-race run on road courses, and Dallara can make more parts in case demand is warranted. This also ensures they get a good test in after gathering some real-race data as they get ready to move to the oval part of the schedule.

You would think that kind of move would pass with little or no comment on any side. Somehow, it just isn't always that easy with IndyCar. TMS president Eddie Gossage returned fire with a few snide comments and though the sides always seem to put up a good front for everyone, maybe it isn't as happy of a relationship as some might think.

In a RacinToday article, Gossage took a few shots at the series and in particular the drivers, who were none too pleased that Texas declined to make some of the safety upgrades they suggested. And I'm sure he is also slightly pissed about the rumors (true or not) that a driver boycott of Texas might be in the mix. Truthfully, I don't blame him. Gossage and TMS have stood behind IndyCar and gone to bat for them a number of times over the years, and have been a good partner. No doubt he feels a little betrayed.

From the article:

“I’m really disappointed and don’t know why IndyCar drivers feel the need to constantly damage the sport,” Gossage said at a NASCAR promotion this week in Dallas. “You know, engineers have told us over and over that the current fence design is the best that technology provides us today. But if you were a sponsor, if you were a fan, if you were a TV network – why would you get involved with IndyCar racing if they can’t tell you today where they’re going to race tomorrow? And the drivers – the spokespersons for the sport – are tearing it down?

“So, it’s absolutely irresponsible of those drivers, and they deserve – because of the way they conduct themselves sometimes – they deserve where they stand now in the food chain of motorsports.”
Gossage, a key ally of INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard, said he will continue to deal with the sanctioning body on a year-by-year basis. “They just keep shooting themselves in the foot and I don’t understand it,” Gossage said.”Great show. Unbelievable skills. But just lacking common sense.”

Honestly, I see both sides. I understand the drivers' point of view that in the aftermath of the death of Dan Wheldon changes had to be made so that it doesn't happen again.

And here is another thing: it can't, but that goes against everything that racing is about. Those of us who have been racing for a long time know that the sport is dangerous. I learned that very early on as I was at the Speedway in 1982 the day Gordon Smiley was killed in one of the most gruesome crashes in racing history. Once the wreckage was cleaned up, qualifying went on. We all understood, because that was racing.

But you know what? That's not the world we live in any more. Formula 1 has not had a fatality since Ayrton Senna in 1994, and NASCAR last lost a driver when Dale Eanrhardt was killed in 2001. NASCAR has since built a near-bulletproof car that can take the most vicious of impacts and have the driver climb out of the car and start posting stuff on Twitter. Casual fans -- which make up much of the fan base these days -- seem to think it should be that way with everybody.

Like it or not, that's were we are in racing -- fatalities are not acceptable any longer. The problem IndyCar has is that with the speed and car configurations, and the fact that the cars race fairly close together, that danger still exists in a world that believes it shouldn't.

Forget the fact that the old Dallara had an excellent safety record, forget that 14 of the 15 drivers involved in the incident at Las Vegas all but walked away from the crash, and forget that reportedly Dan Wheldon's only injury was the head injury that killed him...let me repeat that, according to my understanding of the accident report Wheldon, despite flying more than the length of two football fields and tearing into the fence at 168 mph, had no other serious injuries. It doesn't make his death any easier to accept, but at the same time it proves that IndyCars are not death machines, either.

Forget all that, Indy cars have the perception of being unsafe, and that is unacceptable in today's racing environment.

Sure, true racing fans know that is total BS. With speed comes force, and sometimes the force happens as such that a human being cannot withstand it. Someone, someday will die in a stock car, just like someone will lose their life in an F1 machine. Don't get me wrong, I am not wishing ill will on ANYONE, nor do I want to see it happen as some sort of equalizer for IndyCar. But it is the nature of the beast, and that beast will come calling someday, no matter what is done to stop it.

I see it from a driver's standpoint, too. No doubt they absolutely hate facing their mortality, and that is what is happening right now. All of the sudden, after driving for years without having to face that fear, it hit them again: holy shit, I really CAN die in a race car. I think a lot of drivers across many racing series have been lulled into a false sense of security that it couldn't.

The series knows this, and knows that another fatality would all but destroy IndyCar. All of these factors have resulted in everyone walking on eggshells and wondering how much action and how much more praying will need to be involved for this to pass over them.

On the other side, you have everyone else, who say that as drivers, their job is to stare those fears in the face and keep driving. All of this "whining" (as some may call it) makes the drivers look like lesser competitors as compared to the rest.

Looking at it objectively, and thinking about it as a non-racing or casual racing fan might, they are. They are supposed to be professionals, the best of the best, yet don't want to race on 1.5-mile ovals, they don't want to do double-file restarts, and they don't want to race side-by-side. All of which the fans want. Seeing it from an objective point of view, it looks bad, and makes you wonder...if they don't want to do that, what do they want to do?

As I said, I can see it from all IndyCar glasses are not that rose-colored. I understand the driver's concerns, but there are no surprises, the series is exactly what it was when they all signed up. At the same time, I think in the end all they are trying to do is protect themselves and each other. But as we all know in racing, you can only do that to a certain point.

Perhaps the media is blowing this up into more than what it is. After all, no one has expressed any worries about racing at Indy, where the prospect of serious injury or death is probably still greater than any other track in the world. And when pressed, the drivers say no one has asked for anything out of the ordinary, and the "boycott" is a figment of Robin Miller's imagination.

It doesn't matter. Perception is reality. Want an example? In the hands of any other series, the Daytona 500 would have been considered an absolute fiasco. IndyCar would have been crucified had a driver plowed into a jet dryer and another started posting on Twitter. But because it is NASCAR it was brilliant. And yeah, it kind of was. Just another day in NASCAR, a circus on wheels.

I'm not saying that as sour grapes. They are the big kid on the block and to the victors go the spoils. Still, IndyCar has itself an image problem and they need to get it fixed, or else all of the great things that have happened recently will go for naught.

I posted last week that I was sick of the drama, but I guess some of it can't be avoided. In the end, though, it is time to put up, shut up and race. It's time for the series -- and especially the drivers -- to go out and compete and prove that they are among the best in the world. I think they are, but I'm not one of the people whose minds they need to change.

Eddie Gossage is right, stop shooting yourselves in the foot. Put it to the floor instead.

Milwaukee IndyFest...I'm In

Well, I put my money where my mouth is and I bought my tickets to the Milwaukee IndyFest the weekend of June 15-16.  I'm really excited as Milwaukee is a race I have wanted to see for a while, and doubly pumped because it will be my 11-year-old son Kevin's first race.

After reading a couple of articles in the Milwaukee newspapers and hearing Michael Andretti on Trackside last night, it really seems like he feels he has a lot of good ideas that will make the race work, now and in the future. This isn't just another business venture to him, he is invested because of his appreciation of the history of open wheel racing in this country and how the Milwaukee Mile fits into that.

The Mile has also been very good to him, as he has reached victory lane there on eight occasions -- five times as an driver and three more as an owner.

His approach is going to be much different than past races, especially the debacle last year where a paltry crowd originally left the event off of the 2012 schedule. His idea of more community involvement has more of a road/street course feel to it, and maybe that is something that will broaden the appeal of the event.

It won't just be a race, he said, but a festival that will incorporate many other activities besides what is going on out on the track. It's obvious that just putting on a race doesn't do it any more, so why not add a few other things that will get people excited?

I think that is the right idea. During the summer I work for a local newspaper as a "beat" writer for the Kane County Cougars, a Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and one of the most successful franchises in low minor league baseball. The Cougars learned long ago that just a baseball game wasn't necessarily what people wanted -- they want an experience of going to the game and being entertained as well.

The Cougars refer to their stadium as a "baseball Disney World" because the team appeals to families and provides other forms of entertainment such as on-field contests between innings, on-field entertainment and fireworks. It's pretty simple, when the team offers a lot of other things to do, people show up, sometimes to the tune of 13,000-15,000 on a warm night in the summer. When they don't offer much outside the game, the crowds are very, very small.

It's the same concept here. With a fan fest in the infield, and other activities such as a post-race concert, people can feel like there is more to do than just watch the race. Which is fine, because maybe some of them will like what they see and want to learn more about IndyCar. And if not, that's OK too because they helped that one stop on the series become a success.

I think people will like it because it features good weather (hopefully), cars, plenty to do and music. Add a little beer and some grilled food and you are set. Trust me, in this part of the country, this is what we do.

One other thing I like is that they are being very proactive in the social media front. The website is slick and well done (not to mention up to date, which is the subject of a post this weekend), and they have presence on Twitter (@MKE_IndyFest) and Facebook.

Another thing I like is that tickets are reasonable, and are even moreso for kids 12 and under. I didn't buy the best seats in the house, but before taxes and fees my two tickets to just get in the building only cost $43, which isn't bad.

Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but they key is that an effort is being made, which is way more than I have seen in year's past. It seems like a lot of IndyCar Nation is excited about this one, and I am looking forward to being a part of it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Nigel Mansell

I figured that with Rubens Barrichello making the announcement that he was indeed coming to IndyCar for the 2012 season, it was time to look back at the last time a Formula 1 driver made such a splash when he came to the States.

Of course, Mansell is one of several great drivers who drove IndyCars after an F1 career. Emerson Fittipaldi -- a favorite of 15DIM, by the way -- drove for 10 years in CART, winning the Indy 500 twice and his 1989 championship started a run of six straight seasons where he finished in the top five in points. Danny Sullivan and Eddie Cheever also drove F1 before earning wins at the Speedway, and a handful of other drivers had solid careers as well.

But none of them came to CART as a reigning world champion, as Mansell did when he joined Newman-Haas Racing in 1993. With Michael Andretti moving to his ill-fated season with Ferrari that year, a seat was open, and Mansell, who at the time was locked in a contentious war of words with Frank Williams, slid into the No. 5 Lola/Ford.

In 15 seasons in F1, Mansell drove in 187 Grand Prixs and posted 31 wins and 32 poles while driving for Lotus, Ferrari and Williams. His championship season featured nine wins and three runner-up finishes.

Mansell and Mario

Mansell picked up in CART right where he had left off in F1 by capturing the pole and winning the season opener at Surfers Paradise, Australia. His season looked in jeopardy, though, when he crashed at Phoenix weeks later and suffered extensive back injuries. He soldiered on with a third-place finish at Long Beach before heading to Indianapolis.

Despite no oval experience, Mansell drove on sheer will and talent and qualified a solid eighth at 220.250 mph. On race day, he was in the mix from the beginning and took his first lead at Lap 70. Having never driven more than 200 miles in a race before in his career, Mansell led 34 laps and was on the point for a restart with 16 laps to go.

With no experience with restarts, Mansell got a slow jump at the green and was passed by Fittipaldi, who eventually won the race, and Arie Luyendyk. Despite brushing the wall several laps later, he came home third and won Rookie of the Year honors in a race I called in a post last year my favorite 500 ever. .

He showed he was a quick study on the ovals, winning at Milwaukee the next week and then capturing the Michigan 500 later that season. Mansell finished with five wins and captured the championship to become the only drive to hold the CART and F1 titles simultaneously.

The honeymoon had unfotunately ended by the time Mansell returned for the 1994 season. Prickly, boorish and rude, Mansell burned every bridge he could find that year and finished winless on the year with just three podium finishes and seven DNFs. He finished 22nd at Indy after being involved in a bizarre crash with rookie Dennis Vitolo where Vitolo's car finished on top of Mansell's in the north chute warmup lane.

Mansell returned to F1 the next year and drove two races for McLaren before abruptly retiring at age 40.

Despite a sour ending to his CART career, his impact on the series in the 1993 season cannot be denied. With CART at its peak and featuring the best drivers of that generation, Mansell showed talent and brilliance in his driving that had to be seen to believed. I was glad that I had that opportunity.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rubens Barrichello -- It's Official

In the continuation of a story that was broken here at 15DIM yesterday morning (obvious sarcasm, but I was first!), everything became official today when Formula 1 veteran Rubens Barrichello joined the IndyCar series as a part of KV Racing Technology.

The announcement was made today in Brazil, and the 39-year-old Barrichello -- who raced in 325 Grand Prixs over 19 seasons -- will carry the No. 8 on his car as part of a team that includes Tony Kanaan and E.J. Viso. Barrichello will join the series for the entire schedule, including the ovals, which was one area where there were questions about his participation.

(Full release below)

Rumors began surrounding Barrichello's possible move to the series after a few Twitter pokes from Kanaan, a close friend since childhood. That led to a couple of tests with KV and finally a full-blown ride. While it took a lot longer to hammer out than I thought, it's good to see it done and that IndyCar is getting closer and closer to being full steam ahead for the season opener in three weeks.

There is already a lot of talk between the lovers and haters as to the significance of this move. I'm happy for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is that a solid, established, quality driver is coming into the series. Argue that the guy is on the downside of his career, and I will come back by saying he is near the same age as drivers like Dario Franchitti, Kanaan, Oriol Servia and Helio Castroneves.

F1 is a young man's game anymore -- look at the ages of World Champions since Michael Schumacher retired for proof -- so for Barrichello to be as competitive as he was for as long as he was is a testament to his ability and the respect he commanded from his fellow drivers.

He also brings along a fanbase and a heightened media presence. All we need to do is look at the coverage he is already receiving to know that there is at least an initial impact. In googling his name for more info for this post I found links to outlets all over the world that are running with this story, and I'm sure the curiosity of his first race in three weeks at St. Pete will bring even more coverage.

Will that translate into more fans? We don't know, but it will help. This is part of the process, getting the series in front of people and building the base. It's not going to happen overnight, but this is an influx that the series could really use right now.

The other good news that came out of the announcement is that Kanaan was given a two-year extension through 2013. That represents quite a turnaround for a guy whose career a year ago at this time was up in the air. Now he is in a completely comfortable situation and that should only make him better.

This has just been an incredible off-season, and one that I didn't see coming. It's getting better, peeps, slowly but surely it is getting better.



PAULO, BRAZIL – MARCH 1, 2012 -- KV Racing Technology announced today that Formula One legend Rubens Barrichello and IZOD IndyCar superstar Tony Kanaan, who often refer to themselves as “brothers”, will both contest the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season for the team.

Barrichello will pilot the No. 8 BMC | Embrase – KV Racing Technology Chevrolet/Firestone machine. Kanaan will drive the #11 GEICO | MOUSER ELECTRONICS – KV Racing Technology car for 10 races, the MOUSER ELECTRONICS | GEICO KV Racing Chevrolet/Firestone entry at four and the ITAIPAVA – KV Racing Technology Chevrolet/Firestone machine at Brazil. GEICO and MOUSER ELECTRONICS will be co-primary sponsors at the Indy 500. Barrichello and Kanaan join E. J. Viso, #5 CITGO | PDVSA – KV Racing Technology Chevrolet/Firestone, in a three-car effort for the team in 2012.

“I was at Sebring when Rubens first got into an Indy car. The smile when he got out of the car was a great moment and lasted for three days. Rubens ended up the fastest at the end of the test, showing the speed he is capable of and his experience setting up a car. Teamed with his “brother” Tony Kanaan this is going to be an exciting and successful season for the drivers, the team and the fans,” said KVRT co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven. “

Jimmy Vasser, the V in KVRT said. “We are very excited to have both Rubens (Barrichello) and Tony (Kanaan) competing for our team in 2012. Rubens is going to be a great addition and last year Tony, once again demonstrated his leadership abilities and his proven ability to compete for wins and the championship. The addition of Rubens and the return of Tony along with E.J. (Viso), gives KVRT a very strong driver line-up and one I am sure can compete for podium finishes and race wins. I would also like to thank all the sponsors for making this deal possible and KVRT General Manager Mark Johnson for his tireless work getting all the parties together.”

Barrichello, whose Formula One career spanned 19-years (1993 – 2011), is the most experienced driver in Formula One history with 322 starts out of 326 races entered. The 39-year-old native of Brazil was the runner-up in the Formula One championship in 2002 and 2004. He has earned 11 victories, 14 pole podiums, 68 podiums performances, 106 top-five finishes and172 top-10 showings. Barrichello, despite his vast racing experience, will now become a rookie in the IZOD IndyCar Series, entering his first season in U.S. based open-wheel competition and starting a new chapter in his career.

“I am thrilled, it is something very new to me,” Barrichello said. “I need to thank everyone involved, especially Tony because he has been involved for a long time. I would also like to thank my sponsors, BMC, Embrase and Locaweb for their help. This is a new experience, but I am very very happy. With all my experience I will start as a rookie, but I think I will get better as the year progresses. My main thing is to be an addition to KV Racing Technology. They have been doing very well and Tony brought the team to a different level last year, so I hope with my contribution we can build on this and take the team to another level. I am extremely happy and have a big smile on my face."

Kanaan, the 2004 IZOD IndyCar Series Champion, will contest his 15th U. S. based open-wheel season, 11th in the IndyCar Series (ran one race, the Indy 500 in 2002) and second with KVRT. One of the most consistent and fearless drivers in the Series, Kanaan is a perennial title threat. The 37-year-old Brazilian, who finished fifth in the IZOD IndyCar Series championship in 2011, has placed in the top-six in the championship every year he has run the full IndyCar season, a total of nine consecutive seasons. Kanaan, who holds the IndyCar Series record for consecutive starts at 148, has made a total of 149 IndyCar starts (242 career) earning 14 victories (15 career), 52 podiums (58 career), 85 top-five top-five finishes (101 career) and 111 top-10 showings (160 career) with 11 poles (15 career).

"I am very excited to be returning to KV Racing Technology not only with a two year deal but also to have Rubens Barrichello as my team mate,” Kanaan said. “We have always dreamed about racing together but never imagined it would actually happen and certainly not in the near future or in IndyCars. So I am looking forward to the start of the season, I think its going to be a very exciting year.”

General Manager Mark Johnson commenting on the addition of Barrichello and Kanaan to the KVRT stable said, “Speaking for the entire KV Racing Technology organization this is truly an exciting time for all of us. The saying ‘Good Things Come to Those That Wait’ could not be truer. With Rubens addition to the team being just slightly more timely than Tony's situation last year we are ecstatic we could get the deal put together for all of us. Just as it happened last year Kevin, Jimmy, myself and Rubens (with extensive encouragement from Tony) shook hands and said lets make this happen after the initial Sebring test. Every individual involved has given 150% effort over the last two weeks to insure we were able to push the deal over the finish line. I believe as a team we are very well positioned entering the 2012 IndyCar season.”

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season begins March 23-25 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in St. Petersburg, Florida.

About KV Racing Technology:
KV Racing Technology was founded in January 2003 and joined the IndyCar Series in 2008. The Indianapolis based team is owned by successful venture capitalist Kevin Kalkhoven and 1996 CART IndyCar World Series Champion Jimmy Vasser. Veteran Motorsports manager, Mark Johnson is the team’s General Manager. Johnson is assisted by Team Manager Tom Wurtz, Technical Director Eric Cowdin and Operations Manager Steve Moore.

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