Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Trucks Heading to Eldora Next Year

NASCAR is heading back to the dirt.

Confirming talk that had been bouncing around for months, the NASCAR Camping World Truck series announced its 22-race schedule today, and the famed Eldora Speedway will be on the schedule, marking the first time since 1970 one of NASCAR's national series will race off the pavement.

(Don't worry, an IndyCar reference and rant will be coming soon.)

As expected, the announcement was extremely well-received. People are excited about the prospect of running on the dirt, and its possible that this race will have a record number of entries. Even Tony Kanaan posted on Twitter today that he was in if he can get a ride.

It's an incredible idea, and with the race going off the Wednesday (July 24) before the Brickyard 400, there should be a lot of interest and attention.

I have to admit, I'm jealous, because once again there is a great idea out there, and it wasn't IndyCar that came up with it.

Now, I'm not saying the IndyCars should race on dirt, and I am well aware that the fact that Tony Stewart owns Eldora was what made this happen. And, yes, the interest could be of the novelty variety and further down the road this just becomes another stop on the schedule.

Still, it's the kind of thinking that the people that run IndyCar can't seem to come up with. Lots has been written about "fixing" IndyCar, and it all comes down to one thing -- new ideas that get people talking and get people more involved and invested in the series.

This is the kind of stuff that IndyCar needs to develop, but yet they don't. I don't know if it is arrogance or bad business or a combination of things, but it seems like they think that fixing the series involves running the cars out there on race weekends and hoping people notice.

I think the doubleheader idea will help, as will several others coming down the pipe, but where is the seriously "out there" idea that gets people's blood pumping? I want to get excited about IndyCar, lots of people do, but they are doing their best to make it difficult.

IndyCar needs to come up with things that will break with "traditional" ideas, because those ideas aren't working. As I have said in this space before, I think a mid-week race like what the trucks will be doing is worth a try.

Going up against other sports is killing us, so getting away from that might help. My idea? Run the Wednesday after Major League Baseball's All-Star game in a major market like Chicago. Qualify at 6, race at 8.

I picked the date because the day after the all-star game is the slowest sports day of the year. Meaning, the race would be up against nothing but mid-summer reruns, and maybe they could even talk about putting the race on ABC or NBC.

If you hold the race in a place like Chicago, you have 10 million people within 50 miles of the track who might need some time to fill on a summer night. If done right, it could attract a crowd similar to what they get on a regular race weekend, so why not?

What would also be a big appeal would be that it would be Midwest racing at its best. You show up, qualify, and race. Maybe even run some heats or something else to make it interesting. I think one of the appeals of the trucks at Eldora is it is what racing is all about -- a midsummer night's show.

I know, I know. A lot of you are probably shaking your heads. This can't be done, for a variety of reasons, right? Maybe not, but to paraphrase Dr. Phil "how's this working for us"? How are empty seats working for us? How is getting drilled week after week in the ratings?

Because here is the deal. The trucks are racing on a Wednesday night in the middle of nowhere, and two things are true: 1) the race will draw more people than an IndyCar oval race and 2) it will be one of the highest, if not highest, television ratings of the year for the trucks.

I've always been a big believer in that if things aren't going your way, you just try harder. "Fixing" IndyCar isn't about rolling out the same ideas and everyone crossing their fingers, it's about real investment, real ideas and people who are willing to do whatever it takes to make things better.

Going back to my post last October, I called IndyCar a "mid-major". Let's be frank here, NASCAR is Notre Dame (Go Irish!) and IndyCar is Northern Illinois. We have to try harder to be noticed, that is our lot in life right now.

Doing whatever it takes isn't desperate, and neither is conceding that how things are going right now aren't working as well as we'd like them. It's adapting to the current situation and developing a plan that makes things better several years down the road.

Right now I'm watching the show "Nashville" (starring Connie Britton, my celebrity crush) and she told a record producer "sometimes you have to blow up the box". Blow it up, IndyCar...adapt or die. It's that simple. Can we be the one to think of an original idea someday?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Post-Season Banquet

I'm going to be blunt...the last few weeks in the IndyCar world have sucked. We haven't had a race in 67 days (and won't have one for another 130-plus days), Tony George tried to buy the series (although in hindsight, well, I'll keep that to myself) and the popular CEO was unceremoniously axed amidst the usual secrecy, politics and backroom dealings we have grown accustomed to in open wheel racing.

Even worse, who is in charge? Jeff Belskus had the "interim" title removed and is now the official IndyCar CEO, but Mark Miles was named CEO of parent-company Hulman & Co. and said everyone in the organization reports to him. I don't mind if that's the case, because Miles has 15 years of experience running a pro sports organization (ATP tennis) and spearheaded Indy's Super Bowl week, but who makes the final decisions? Because if it's Belskus I don't have a lot of confidence in the future, because I see the new boss looking like the old one, and by that I mean the old guard of the Hulman family and the Board, who in 16 years have yet to show me they can run a racing series.

Anyway, as usual, the stuff off the track has overshadowed what happened on-track in 2012, but it's time to eat, drink and be merry as we celebrate the 15DIM 3rd Annual Awards Banquet. OK, so it's a sort of virtual thing, but you get the drift. As usual, I'm passing out awards, so if you win one contact me and I'll send out the trophy. If not, I will be more than happy to present one at one of my stops on the IndyCar circuit this year.

Yeah I know that won't happen, but wouldn't it be funny if someone wanted to play along?

Driver of the Year -- Ryan Hunter-Reay. It seemed like for the longest time RHR carried around that dreaded "potential" tag. People have felt he's always had the talent to do something big, but for various reasons it just hadn't worked out for him. But this year it all came together as he used a huge mid-summer surge to capture his first IndyCar title, and the first for an American driver in six years.

Winning three straight races (Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto) in June and early July, RHR was firmly in the title hunt but after finishing 24th at Mid-Ohio and 18th at Sonoma, stood 36 points behind Will Power with two races to go. He then put together two big time drives by winning Baltimore and finishing fourth at the season-ender in Fontana. He has a title, confidence and job security (for probably the first time in his career)...he might only get better.

Drive of the Year -- Dario Franchitti, Indy. After winning his third consecutive title in 2011, Franchitti got off to a slow start in 2012, finishing P13 at St. Pete, P10 at Barber and P15 at Long Beach. A fifth-place finish in Brazil sent him into May with a bit of momentum, but struggled finding the right combination between his Honda motor and DW12 chassis and qualified a poor 16th. Then on race day, he found himself in 29th place early after contact with EJ Viso in the pits after an early yellow.

Then, the stuff got real. Dario charged up through the field and eventually held off an amazing last-lap, balls-to-the-wall move by Takuma Sato in Turn 1 to win the most competitive 500 of this generation and put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy for the third time. What was even more impressive is that most of his run through the field was accomplished under green flag conditions. From lap 18 until he took the lead for the first time on lap 153, the race was green for 117 laps, meaning he passed a ton of cars on track, not in the pits. As a British fan behind me remarked "he knows how to win".

Race of the Year -- Indy. Yeah, like there was even any debate on this one. One one of the hottest days in race history, the drivers put on an incredible show that included 34 lead changes among 10 drivers, and 11 lead changes in the final 100 miles. In the end, Franchitti and Sato dove into Turn 1 together in one of those two-guys-go-in-and-one-leaves scenarios, and it was Franchitti who came out the other side in one piece. Just an amazing day.

Move of the Year -- Tony Kanaan. Indy. This is a new category this year, but I had to honor what I think could be the move of the millennium. As the field came back to the field to restart the 500 on lap 185, TK, bolted from sixth to first in typical fashion, and though he was passed by Franchitti by the time the field came back around, added another page to his book of amazing restarts.

Rookie of the Year -- Simon Pagenaud. Like fellow first-year driver Rubens Barrichello (who was ineligible for the "official" series ROY), Pagenaud was a "rookie" to IndyCar but entered the series with a wealth of racing experience throughout several series, and that showed as he adapted quickly to IndyCar. He finished with four podiums and adapted well to ovals, which he was driving for the first time. Pagenaud finished the season fifth in the standings, the only driver in the Top 10 who was part of a one-car team.

Comeback Driver of the Year -- Helio Castroneves. This spot last year was for the "Most Underrated Driver" but honestly I had a hard time choosing, so I made up another category. If you recall, I gave Helio the "Most Overrated Driver" award last year because of his 11th-place finish in points, which was probably a better finish that he deserved because he was plain awful.

There were questions entering the season about Helio's future, but he answered those questions when he won the season-opener at St. Pete. He late won at Edmonton and though he had just three overall podium finishes, was very consistent with nine Top 6 finishes.

Most Overrated Driver -- Marco Andretti. Marco didn't just take this award from Helio this year, he ripped it from his hands. On an Andretti Autosport team that saw one teammate win the title and another finish eighth in the standings (James Hinchcliffe), Marco dropped off the face of the earth, finishing 16th in the standings and cracking the Top 10 just three times. Marco had his share of bad luck, but so did lots of other drivers. He just seemed in a funk all year.

Lastly, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving. In this space last year I posted this: "I think 2012 promises to be a great season, and it can't get here soon enough!" I feel the same this year, looking forward to 2013!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Week That Has Been

Good lord, have I been busy! So major apologies for no posts in the last couple of weeks. I've done plenty of writing, just not here. But, a few things happened this week so I figured now would be a good time to get back into the swing of things.

Anyway, this week brought the confirmation of Graham Rahal signing a contract to drive for his dad Bobby and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Service Central continues its sponsorship and Valvoline is on board as an associate sponsor.

Let's get this one out of the way right now (and I know I'm not the only one that feels this way): if there is any opportunity to get the Valvoline livery -- especially circa early 1990s Al Unser Jr. style -- please, please do so! It would be great to see those colors taking laps again.

While we have kind of known for a while that Graham was going to drive for his dad, it's good that everything is now set in stone. Because as we have discovered this silly season, there are lots of rumors but few confirmed deals. On that front, hopefully those deals get done soon.

I think this is going to be an outstanding pairing that has been in the works for a long time. Like any dad, Bobby wanted his son in the family business, but I'm glad they both had agreed that Graham would find his own way first so that it didn't seem he was handed a ride. Graham has more than done so, establishing himself as a solid driver while earning respect on the business side for his dealing with sponsors, something his dad is very good at too.

And as Graham himself said, there will be no doubts as to who will be the No. 1 driver on the team. That wasn't the case over the last couple of years driving for Ganassi B as he was, at best, the third driver on the team. I'm not saying that was the wrong thing because Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon earned their spots on that pecking order, but I don't think Graham (and Charlie Kimball) was given the necessary resources to win.

He has them now, but what comes with that is the pressure that comes with being QB1. As Takuma Sato proved last year, RLL can turn out some really fast cars, and Bobby Rahal is one of the best in getting his driver(s) in position to win on race day. This is Graham's best chance to show that he can win and compete at the highest levels of IndyCar.

Graham's arrival all but assures Sato's departure, and here's hoping he finds something out there full-time, although if he doesn't it's a good bet he is back with RLL at Indy. When Sato keeps his head together and keeps the car in one piece, he is very, very good. The problem is that he has struggled with consistency throughout his career. He still makes mistakes at the worst possible time, but there is no question he can win. It's just a matter of how much money he will spend breaking stuff in the process.

Also with a new ride (that came complete with a Get Out of Jail card) next year is Simona de Silvestro, who this week tested with KV Racing and her new teammate, Tony Kanaan, last week.

Judging by the photos I saw on Twitter, Simona seemed in good spirits. Meaning, she probably went very fast and liked it! I see her season of 2013 a lot like Rahal's in that there is the pressure there to produce. There is no doubt she has the talent, but the last two years have been an utter loss to her career.

She started 2011 with an updated Dallara chassis, but lost that when a suspension part failure at Indy sent her into a hard crash with the Turn 4 wall that saw her car flip over and saw de Silvestro suffer burns to her hands. She later crashed at Milwaukee and had to pull out of the race with concussion symptoms that also caused her to miss the Iowa race.

Last year you can sum up her problems in one word: Lotus. Enough said.

Needless to say, 2013 is a sort of make or break season. I'm not saying de Silvestro needs to run up front and win races, but she needs to consistently break into the Top 10 and even contend for a podium at times.

Finally, it's hard to think that in four decades as a car owner (and even longer as a driver) that there was something Roger Penske HADN'T won. Still, after winning Indy 15 times and capturing 12 open wheel championships, Penske Racing had never captured a NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

Brad Keselowski had given Penske his first NASCAR championship of any kind when they teamed up to win the Nationwide Series in 2010, and added the big trophy today when Keselowski finished 15th at Homestead to secure the Sprint Cup.

I've been more than critical of Penske at times because I do believe he has put his own interests over those of IndyCar, but my hat is off to him here. Winning a championship at any level of racing isn't easy, as indicated by the fact he has yet to win an IndyCar title since returning to the series full-time 10 years ago. To win one takes such a combination of skill, organization and preparation meeting opportunity. I won't call it "luck" because I don't necessarily believe in that word. Everyone creates their own opportunities, unless it deals with the lottery and holes in one in golf. Yes, those are about luck and no, I don't feel that way because I'm bitter because I've never had a hole in one!

You will find few people better in an walk of life who are better at putting the right people in the right places to succeed as Penske. You can argue about the fact he has more money than anyone else, but when the green falls you still have to execute a plan and get the job done. And he has done that better than almost anyone in racing over the years.

This was a long time coming, so congratulations to Kes and Penske on a job well done.

Friday, November 2, 2012

This House Is So Confusing

I stole that line from a scene in the 1980s-era movie "16 Candles" where Long Duk Dong goes to open the front door and opens the closet door instead. Of course, given the fact he was hung over didn't help, but that line sort of reflects my feelings about IndyCar right now.

Given the oversaturation of information I've seen this week, maybe I'm a bit hung over too.

I'm really, really confused, and the the last week hasn't helped much. Let's see, Randy Bernard was sacked, no actually, he just stepped down. New (or old) CEO Jeff Belskus sends out and open letter saying despite the fact that they think Randy sucks, they are still going through with most of his plans for 2013 and that IndyCar is moving forward.

In other words, the letter screams "ALL IS WELL!" (Animal House reference here)

Then I read a massive, epic, awesome two-part series by SpeedTV man Marshall Pruett that is so informative and complete it reminds me of the fact that there are two kinds of writers -- ones that have a talent to do so and the others (like me) who do OK because we try really, really hard.

You can read Part 1 and Part 2 if you'd like. Also, check out Robin Miller's rant and his mailbag chock full of fed-up fans while you are at it.

One thing I have figured out over the last few days is that these events, sooner or later, were inevitable. Bernard had a wonderful vision of the series, which is good, but at the same time, a widening chasm developed between him and the paddock, and when you are talking the kinds of personalities and egos that are involved at that level of anything, that doesn't get repaired.

Bernard's case was also not helped in the paddock because despite the positive changes he has brought to the series, it didn't reflect in attendance and didn't result in better television ratings, but with that dog of a contract I don't think that is necessarily on him. Still, someone has to take the fall when things go wrong, and Bernard had been out-numbered from the get-go. He was going to lose.

In short, there were a lot of good things going on, and I think everyone liked those, but there were underlying issues that couldn't be resolved and that led to what happened last weekend. Kind of reminds me of the time I ended a relationship a couple of years ago and my mom said, "She is a very nice girl, just not the girl for you." She was right, because the one I'm with now is mind-boggling incredible. But I digress.

For varying reasons, Bernard wasn't right for the series. That's not said with the purpose of degrading Randy or the job he did, because he did the best with what he had to work with and made certain strides never seen before in the series' history. He was an outsider with great ideas that was pushing the series forward faster than many wanted to see, and because of that he met resistance at ever turn.

From what I have read this past week, the relationship was beyond repair, and a change had to be made in one way or another. It's like a bad baseball team, you can't fire all of the players, so you fire the manager. I don't agree with that decision, but I see it.

What a lot of people don't realize is that this outrage isn't just about Bernard the person, it is also what he represented. He was a breath of fresh air, someone who brought the sport to the fans and made us feel like what we had to say mattered. That had never happened before, and we liked it.

In the end, what bugs the absolute crap out of me is that this was handled in the worst way imaginable. Yes, these are messy, but the problem with IndyCar is EVERYTHING is messy. Everyone should know by now that every move the series makes is scrutinized to the nth degree, but yet the people in charge continue to bungle each move in a way that embarrasses the series.

The fan reaction wasn't all about outrage in regards to Bernard's firing, it was how it was handled. Couple that with the bungled and ill-timed takeover by Tony George just a couple of weeks before, and the series was once again made to look like it is run by a bunch of bungling misfits. A quick Google search of "IndyCar PR nightmare" brought back 422,000 hits. People are talking about IndyCar, but as usual, not in the way we need them to.

Maybe the series is run by a bunch of morons. Maybe it is true that an organization wrought with insiders and nepotism needs to step aside and let a more progressive group take over. Maybe it is time for IMS to entertain the thought of selling the series and getting a group in there with enough clout to run the series with a NASCAR-like absolute power. Maybe it is time to get people involved who have the means and the desire to push technology, innovation (on and off the track), social media and a presentation that will bring eyeballs to the product.

I don't know, because as I mentioned at the top of this piece, I'm confused. All I'm going to say to the powers that be is this: 2013 is all of the sudden a make-or-break year for IndyCar, and I pray that you all know what the hell you are doing. And to the owners that made this happen: watch what you wish for.