Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tenderloins on the Menu at Spago

About 5 years ago a friend of mine decided to open a restaurant.  She wanted to bring fine dining to Rushville.  If you know Rushville, then you know that the citizens of Rush county aren’t known for their sophisticated pallet.  The local chamber of commerce thought it might help lure new industry to the area, so they egged her on and she opened up in the Big, abandoned building that used to house a family restaurant on the south side of town. 
The menu was fancy…a variety of pasta selections the locals could not pronounce, round white things called scallops that weren’t potatoes and finely seasoned and marinated steaks.  Initially locals flocked the restaurant, but upon reviewing the menu, were at a loss to find something they were familiar with or could afford.  Eventually people recognized the word “Steak” and would order one of the four cuts off the menu.  When they were served, back to the kitchen they went.  Medium in Rush county doesn’t involve Pink flesh or blood in the juice.  Well done means crusty layers of ash on the outside of the steak.  People ordering the Tuscan Ribeye were heard saying “What the hell is this green crap (pesto) on my steak?  Take it back and cook it decent and bring me some ketchup for it too”
Business diminished quickly.  There were a handful of people in Rush county that appreciated the menu and made regular visits, but the building had a big footprint and the restaurant needed more than 20 tables on a Saturday night to keep the kitchen busy, waitresses tipped and bills paid.  After some agonizing over what to do, my friend decided to change the menu up.  With the building she had inherited the recipes from the Family Restaurant that been there for 50 years before closing 5 years earlier.  It had been famous for Pork Tenderloins and Fried Chicken.  So those items were added. 
BOOM.  The lunch crowd doubled, Friday and Saturday evenings it was hard to get a seat.  It looked like the restaurant might just make it.  But my friend was discouraged, she had opened the restaurant to bring healthy cuisine and fine dining to Rushville, not simply be a place for massive portions of greasy fatty home cookin’.  The dream was compromised and over time her interest waned.  She found other pursuits to focus her passion on and began to spend less time in the restaurant.  The employees were left to run the shop on a regular basis.  Corners were cut, money disappeared, food and service quality dipped and soon the customers weren’t returning.  After three years in business, the doors were closed and locked.
“What the hell does this have to do with racing?” you ask.  Nothing directly, but based off what we saw in Texas and Toronto, we can draw some symbolic comparisons. 
I admit, I was entertained by the race in Toronto.  Was it the greatest example of skilled racing to be found, no. But entertaining with a number of compelling story lines coming out of the event. 
During the race and then soon after the “Purists of the Sport” let loose on blogs and twitter with all available guns.  it was truly difficult to comprehend how low the quality of competition had sunk”, “Needless to say it was an embarrassment to the sport as a whole” and “I feel like I need a shower after attempting to watch the Festival of FUBAR masquerading as a race in Toronto today.” Were some of the blog reactions to the race.  Twitterers were drawing comparisons to the skilled and talented drivers competing at Lime Rock in the ALMS race at the same time.
Then on Monday, a funny thing happened… the initial overnight ratings came out…and they were good.  The Purists were appalled, “We finally get a decent rating and put on a show that scared them all off”.  I wanted to talk about the rating but I didn’t understand it well enough to comment.  Was this rating the result of momentum built from a stellar oval race two weeks before in Iowa, or were people watching the race, enjoying it and then texting or calling their friends to watch it as well?  If the rating was strong to start and then diminished through the broadcast it was the former, if the number improved as the broadcast went on, then it was the latter. 
The final number was released today.  A .5, the second largest rating ever for IndyCar on Versus and It was higher than the overnight and it increased through the broadcast.  More people liked what they saw and encouraged others to join than turned off offended by the “low driving skill Level”.  Apparently what the purist demands in motorsport is less popular than Fubar.  It should be noted that the ALMS race that purists were raving about, was not covered on live on TV, it had to be streamed over the internet.  Not Only did no TV exec want to PAY for the ALMS content, but the ALMS itself doesn’t have the sponsorship funding in place to BUY live time from a network.  Apparently the number of purists in America for the sport aren’t in large enough supply to fund a series that meets the taste of the racing purist.
So the choice is to spicen up the menu and serve some tenderloins and fried chicken or close the doors and go home.  It is also funny that the most watched race ever on Versus this year was Texas, the two step with the game show in between, because it also brought with it a firestorm of criticism about sanctity vs spectacle.  IndyCar “Had gotten drunk and put a Lampshade on its head”. 
The message here I would suggest is this, Not everyone is like YOU.  Not everyone has the same tastes in racing as YOU.  There’s not enough of YOU to support budgets for the kind of racing YOU like to see.  So if you want to see racing with a sustainable future, you may need to adapt to meeting the tastes of the people who aren’t watching the sport currently. 
What kind of racing might that be?  Well I firmly believe that this year’s Iowa race with the high speed knife fight between Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan or the 1993 New Hampshire race featuring the duel between Nigel Mansell, Paul Tracy and Emerson Fitipaldi is as good as oval racing gets anywhere.  As for road racing, I suspect most Americans expect to see something akin to the car chase scenes from A Bourne film.  So if that means on occasion we turn into a race and Toronto breaks out, don’t have a conniption, it would seem that someone somewhere really digs what is happening and their eyeballs draw with them sponsors that will help fund the Iowa/Milwaukee’s and (hopefully) Watkins Glens/Road America’s of the schedule. 
Truthfully, Long Beach could be Toronto as well – short, tight, bumpy urban concrete canyon, but since LB is early in the year and everyone sans the second car at Coyne is still in the title hunt, LB participants are on their best behavior.  By the time Toronto rolls around, championship bubbles have burst for most and drivers are racing for individual wins and podiums.  In Toronto, desperation carries the day and that desperation breaks up the follow the leader seen in LB.
Oddly enough after our friend changed the menu at her restaurant, we went even more than we had before.  We could now get a dinner with a $60 bill or a $25 one depending on our mood and budget.  Will the team owners lament the compromises made and close up shop and go home?  I doubt it, they want the league to be successful not just their dream of pure racing. 
SO I guess the question is for you…can you live with some fried Chicken and Tenderloins in order to keep racing in business or will you pine away until more people buy in to the “Purer” aspects of the sport…the engine's sound, entry and momentum through the curves or the racecraft of a successful “non competition enhanced” pass. 
For me I know there is a limit for me, it involves competition yellows, tandem drafts and animated ducks and rodents.  Randy’s not there yet, but I am sure Eddie may tell him how to get there…


  1. Outstanding analogy, and absolutely spot on! I will freely admit to being one of the "purists" who thought that the mayhem was a step too far. However, its hard to argue with ratings and they do, after all, pay the bills. You're right to point out that ALMS, which used to have the best racing in the US in my not-so-humble opinion, is pretty much a non-entity now. Sucks. To borrow from your analogy, though, there's a reason why McDonald's and Burger Kings are on every street corner and not nice sophisticated bistros.

  2. Tough to argue with ratings, that's for sure! I wasn't happy with the lack of penalties and the confusion, but I think most everyone (most!) calmed down the day after.

  3. Great take, JP (trying in vain to catch up on Google Reader today). The only thing I wasn't a fan of at Toronto was the swallowing of the whistle by Race Control. The wrecks and stuff? That happens, every year, in just about every series. It's a part of racing. If the once or twice per year that we tune into an IndyCar race and a hockey fight breaks out brings in better ratings for the balance of the season, I'm for it.


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