Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reloading in Lights

There are times when you wish you could just zoom forward through a story directly to the ending and see if what you think is going to happen is going to happen, because you not only have a sense for what could happen, but also because of the greatness of the story if it turns out as you think.

That is how I feel about the class of IndyLights drivers we have seen the past two years. It’s a pretty long list: Hildebrand, Vernay, Hinchcliffe, Beatriz, Mann, Saavedra, Cunningham, Kimball, Romancini and Plowman. Then when you throw in the final class from the Atlantics championship: Edwards, Desilvestro and Summerton you see a deep generation of talented young drivers that could be part of something very special in the IICS over the next 10 to 15 years. This could be the generation that brings IndyCar back to popular prominence, perhaps one of the greatest generations the sport will see.

For the next year or two though we will watch them scramble for that first opportunity in the big cars, experience learning pains with those opportunities and ultimately some will stick some won’t. Some will join their more aristocratically endowed generational peers (read: Rahal and Andretti) already established in good rides and will compete with them for greatness. Sadly some may never get that first chance or not be able to capitalize on the chances they get and will fade away. All yet to be determined.

But one thing is sure, they are leaving the cupboard bare, very BARE in IndyLights. I don’t really know how much work is put into oversight of the lights series from a product management and marketing standpoint, but w/o some major help, Lights next year will be a tough sell to advertisers, broadcasters and promoters.

There is one story however that could save the day. For all the effort that has been put into “The road to Indy” as a ladder system to develop drivers for the IndyCar series, it is clear that not everyone sees it as being a simple straight line. Randy Bernard’s road has a fork in it. Randy is committed to seeing that the feeder series pulls from more than one source. The other root to the system are the USAC series for sprint, midget and Silver Crown car drivers. The creation of the Scholarship for the USAC champion to run either lights or the 500 came BEFORE the announcement of the scholarships for the Road to Indy program. Ultimately the rivers meet at the IndyLights series, where the Kart raised formula racers from America’s coasts and other international series meet up with the Midwestern kids who got their start in quarter midgets and moved up the USAC ranks.

And in that context is where a reinvigorating drama in Lights may very well play out.
What we know so far is that USAC champ, Bryan Clauson, has won a $300k scholarship that will fund a ride for the oval portion of the lights schedule, likely with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Interestingly, Clauson said when the prize was announced that he would be interested in running road portion of the lights season as well. If Clauson is serious about running a full season, my guess is that the additional money won’t be a problem as SSM has at least one full time team sponsor.

On the other side of the ladder, Connor Daly spent 2010 absolutely humbling the rest of the Star Mazda field. He drives a Subaru wrx and was recently implicated in the firebombing of Graham Rahal’s mailbox so really, what’s not to like?

It has long since been assumed that the career path for Connor would take him to a GP3 or Formula 3 ride in Europe where he would climb the dev ladder into F1 where his father Derek Daly Raced and then back into IndyCar after his F1 window closed. To that end Connor participated in the GP3 tests this fall. Not being all that “up to speed” on interpreting GP3 test results, I consulted a European based blogger to get a more informed opinion on Connor’s test and the response was (paraphrased): solid, but not earth shattering, Connor was paced by several drivers who knew the GP3 car and Jerez circuit already.

Which begs the question, if Connor has no additional financing lined up, were the results strong enough to earn a merit based seat when compared to a number of other drivers who bring financing with them? Since the GP3 test, the Mazda Sponsorship of the Road to Indy was announced which includes a scholarship for the Star Mazda champion into IndyLights. This has to be a game changer for Connor considering Lights as an option.

Via twitter Connor recently asked his followers to guess where he was going to race next year. It seems to me that all roads for Connor lead to FIL and I am not the only one who now thinks that. Sage Karam the 2010 USF2000 champ who will be making the leap to Star Mazda replied via twitter FIL also. A paid for ride, potentially with Andretti Autosport is waiting should he choose that route. Randy Bernard has been selling Connor and Derek hard on the resurgent IndyCar series. If Connor Stays, another big win for Bernard.

When Bernard was the leader of the PBR, one of the interesting things he managed to do was to create a following for the individual bulls, not just the riders. Then the matchups between top bulls and top riders became as much must see events for PBR fans as when the great hitters face the great pitchers in Baseball. What it seems to me is that Bernard understands that matchups and rivalry make a sport compelling. In IndyCar, there is plenty to be had, road racers vs oval specialists, Americans vs Brazilians vs the rest of the world. But here in lights for 2011 just might be his masterpiece thus far. If Connor commits to Lights and Clausen runs the entire series, this matchup could begin a rivalry for the ages.

Though both Daly and Clauson both hail from Noblesville, they could not be any different. Daly grew up the son of a former F1 and IndyCar driver. Clauson grew up with no such pedigree. Daly has learned to drive turning both left and right, Clauson on dirt or pavement. Clausen would drive for Schmidt, Daly for Andretti, the two teams that have split the last 4 Lights titles right down the middle. A year ago their paths never would have crossed. A year ago neither would have been in Lights for 2011. But in short order, a plan has gone from vision to reality. I say let the spectacle begin. But the question becomes, will it be televised?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Barriers Still Being Broken

Sometimes you forget. You forget that things that YOU have accepted as non eventful outside of any normal context still have very powerful symbolic meaning above normal context for other people in other places. I kind of stumbled into that realization this Sunday.

Women racing in IndyCar has become dare I say commonplace? From Janet Guthrie to Sarah Fisher to Danica Patrick, many “Firsts” for women in IndyCar racing have been achieved. Only a 500 victory and Series Championships remain to be attained. Certainly there is work to be done, but with what has been accomplished by women in the IICS and the feeder series to it (race wins by Legge, Beatriz, DeSilverstro and Mann) women in our sport in our context has become common place and accepted. Gender is no more a differentiating factor than nationality or even hair color.

Ana Beatriz otherwise known by her birth name Bia Figueirido in Brazil won the second race of Felipe Massa’s “Star Challenge” celebrity Karting event this Sunday. This event has a big time guest list, Barichello, Massa, Meira, Kanaan, and Castroneves…Just to name a FEW.

The IndyCar blogosphere was happy to see Bia win and began twittering congratulations to her. Never being the one to do something simply – I decided to send my recognition of the accomplishment by referencing something that happened in IndyCar several years ago. A young Sarah Fisher had just passed Elisio Salazar for track position and his team owner, AJ Foyt, was heard screaming into the Radio “You just got passed by a GIRL”.

IndyCar fans laugh about this story now in the same way we laugh about the “We got screwed!” quote from Doug Boles. My Comment/congratulations to Bia referenced the AJ Foyt comment with the hope of being humorous “Attention @tonykanaan @vitormeira18 @Rubarrichello and massa, you all got beat by a GIRL!!! @biaracing”.

What didn’t occur to me was that while I am quite used to women in Nomex, significant portions of the rest of the racing world aren’t yet. What Bia is doing in Brazil, Simona and Pippa are doing relative to Europe really is the equivalent of what Janet Guthrie and Lynn St James accomplished in IndyCar all those years ago. When there are barriers like that being broken, there are people who do not want to see them broken. I got tweet backs from people who must have assumed I was in that backwards thinking community.

Rest assured I am not. I am simply a little forgetful of the challenges that women in this sport, who come from different backgrounds, still face. The main feeder series for F1, GP2 and GP3, have yet to feature female drivers. Even closer to home, as used to seeing women participate and win in IndyCar, NHRA and USAC as we are, the gender barrier has yet to been effectively breached in nascar's Cup level.

Anyway Congratulations BIA! I hope this victory brings you a step closer to a FULL season in the IndyCar series next year. You have earned and deserve it.

As for the rest of us, when you see Simona, Bia and Pippa whizzing by at the 500 next year, remember, You are witnessing barriers being broken and history being made. It may not be your history but it is for them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An Early Christmas Present for JP and a Bittersweet Moment, All in a Single Press Release

Christmas came early today for JP. If you have followed this blog for a while, you know that one of the recurring themes of this blog has been to publically lobby for JR Hildebrand to land a full time ride in the series and today it happened. You know the news already, that JR will drive the #4 National Guard car for Panther next year. I couldn't be happier and frankly any fan of IndyCar should feel the same way. He's exactly what the series needs a little more of, a young Male American w/o a famous last name or step father. Someone that an average person can relate to.

The first time I ever talked to JR was in the autograph line at Milwaukee in 2009. I asked him fairly loudly "So when are we going to see YOU in one of the big cars?" Marco smirked and rolled his eyes, Brian Herrington and James Davison laughed loudly and patted JR on the back and JR got bashfull and perhaps even a little embarassed. I don't remember what he said at the time, but the humility in his body language said it all. That was the moment I knew he was the real thing, on the track and off. JR will do a GREAT Job with the Guard and be a great ambassador for the Series.

As happy as I am, it is a little bit of a bittersweet moment for me. As I have mentioned in a couple places, I have only come back to IndyCar racing within the past ~6 years. I abhorred the split and anything and anyone that had anything to do with it. From Johnny Rutherford and the Pennzoil Chapparal until the innaugural US500, I was an enthusiastic fan of the sport. After the duelling 500's I just walked disgustedly away.

When I came back to the sport, the first driver that sparked an interest for me was Dan Wheldon. Dan was young and in the ascent at the time. He was from Emberton England, and if you know my full name you will get the joke. Dan was a little different then, it was before the fancy haircuts, skinny jeans and teeth veneers. He was hungry and drove like it.

So now Dan and the veneers are out looking for a Job, that makes me a little sad. The driver who helped me regain an interest in the sport has been replaced by the driver who reignited my passion for it. I have made some twitter comments about Andretti insisting that they still plan to run a 4th car. I pondered that if Dan would run for a cost contained price, he would give Micheal a driver line up very comparable to what they had last year in experience and achievement, but a little easier on the team budget. I hope that this is how it works out for Dan. If not, Bobby over in Columbus couldn't possibly do any better for a two week program in May.

As for JR, I am hoping that Panther can get some T-Shirts printed ASAP and help save me from my Christmas shopping procrastination. Anyway, I thought I would go down memory lane and revisit some of JR's appearances in this virtual media Island. Enjoy...

JR and what could be IndyCar's next great generation...
The reason I played Powerball and Mega millions off and on for over a year
Satire and the way things ought to be...
An outstanding Idea for Sponsorship
The Very First JR Mention...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Conspiracy Theories, Get your Conspiracy Theories Right Here!

Most the (official) news this week revolved around the Penske sponsor announcements and growing list of minor sponsors they have accumulated. Most other commentators have commented on the pillaging of Andretti sponsors by the Penske bully machine. I have a few completely random thoughts “based on nothing” that at the end of the day paint Penske in a little less “evil” light.

First: Part time sponsors Meijer and Izod Moved to Penske, with league assistance, in part to open up car space at Andretti for a full time sponsor for one if not two cars.

Let’s play six degrees of separation…AA employs Danica who once ran with Motorola sponsorship, Motorola is the manufacturer of the Droid phones that are used to record important votes within the IndyCar series. The Moto Droid phones are only available on Verizon who has been pushing and hoping that their ultimate success will not require them to give in and offer the iPhone. So far the droid has done ok for techy males and IICS bloggers but has not crossed over into a broader and more notably, female market.

Advertising campaigns in the cell industry are often mixed party efforts between the Cell phone manufacturer and the carrier itself. One way to tell…if the ad mentions nothing but the carrier, then the $ to place the ad came from the carrier only. If it mentions a specific phone, then the phone manufacturer pitched in to buy the placement. More Verizon customers will mean that the Verizon manufacturers will sell more phones, so the manufacturers have an interest in seeing the carrier do well.

Verizon joined the league on Will Power’s car last year and was apparently quite happy with what they got out of the deal. SO the worst kept secret during this off season is that another “large sponsor of IZOD’s magnitude or greater” was to be announced any moment (at least in Angstadt time). Curt Cavin has mentioned on Trackside, that this sponsor was going to enable cell phone users to stream IndyCar races live over a mobile device…one would assume that this sponsor was either a cell carrier or hardware manufacturer, ie Verizon or the maker of their most advanced phone, the Droid by Motorola.

I think we all presumed that increased sponsorship from Verizon might mean that Briscoe or Helio might get to carry Verizon colors next year in addition to Will Power. But here’s the fly in that ointment, what if part of the money for Verizon’s involvement was coming not from Verizon, but from Motorola. Motorola who was sweet on Danica and by association, Andretti? Motorola may want to have a say in which drivers they have access to for their part of the effort to sell more Droid units. More specifically, they may want Danica (to help sell the Droid to women) and secondarily they may prefer an American male to compliment Danica. Hence Andretti picks up an option on RHR at a moment when they lose 7/11 and cut TK loose and Danica mentions this week that “She would love to be around in 2012 to drive the new car” and presumably cash in on a big new sponsorship deal.

Where this is all going, what if Izod and Meijer were swapped to Penske so that Motorola and Verizon had access to specific drivers who happened to be on contract at Andretti? Might we see a Verizon Droid car driven by RHR and a BIG associate deal with Danica as well? Roger would not have let Exclusivity to Verizon go without getting a piece in return…As I say… just thinking out loud here…

Another tidbit to think about here. I read somewhere that the Meijer money is in part coming from Coke, I have no way of knowing if it is true but... Again, business deals like this happen all the time, coke in particular will pay for all the Marketing research that a restaraunt chain will do on it's beverage line and will also do lots of research to support the sale of its products in a particular retail chain. Actual promotion dollars spent by a vendor like coke, to support a retailer like Meijer is not an uncommon arangement, right Chip? So what if the Meijer money does come from Coke? Well then Meijer can't spent it at AA. Why? Because Seven Up/Dr Pepper is already at AA with its Venom brand of energy drinks. Everyone in a the sandbox has to play nice and Meijer never would have gotten the Coke $$ if they had stayed at Andretti.

Second…this chapter is subtitled “IMS kicks ISC in the crotch in the one small way that it can”

The biggest story that accompanied the release of the 2011 schedule was the absence of any track that contained an ISC in the spelling of it’s name. This was met with:

  • Angst from many IndyCar fans who were losing their favorite or home track
  • A slight tinge of remorse from the folks up in Watkins Glen
  • Apathy from the track managers at Chicagoland, Kansas and Homestead, who hadn’t even realized that they hosted IndyCar races to begin with.

But besides the fans who was hurt the most from IndyCar’s decision? The track manager at Fontana. Huh? What? Fontana didn’t even have and IndyCar race. Correct, but what made the IndyCar race in Kansas expendable was its gaining second cup date that in turn was taken from Fontana. SO Fontana had some time available on its schedule and more importantly, it had a sponsor, Auto Club, who had in 2008 paid upwards of $75m over 10 years to put their name on a facility that now sat empty for what was supposed to be a second large event crowd. ISC bait and switch in action thank you.

ISC no doubt understood that it would have to find a replacement for that second cup date, which is why they were pitching that IndyCar close its season there and not Vegas. So when IICS pulled the plug on all ISC tracks, including Fontana that was lobbying the hardest, they left ISC in a sticky position with a sponsor who had written a big check.

Of course I have never seen the contract between ISC and Auto Club, but I wonder if there are event provisions in it that specify the number and standards for events to be held at the speedway complemented by punitive remedy clauses that kick in if those standards are not met. And so today Auto Club announces that they are sponsoring Helio at Long Beach and Texas… I wonder where the $ came from? I also suggest that the #3 will wear AAA colors at the Vegas, once it becomes official, as Vegas is another large Auto Club market.

Chapter 3, Are Sponsors fearing the dips in nascar ratings beginning to hedge their bets by dabbling in IndyCar?

Over the past few days we have seen Shell Pennzoil, Auto Club and Chevrolet all enter the IndyCar series as sponsors. While none of these companies have left nascar behind, they have stuck their toe into the IndyCar pond. But why? At this point IndyCar ratings would not really support a move into the series for most sponsors, but at the same time the nascar juggernaught seems staggered and wavering, unable to deliver the same growth that has experienced over the last 15 years. Are sponsors dabbling in IndyCar to have alternatives if nascar can’t right the ship?

Suppose you were a sponsor and were looking to get involved in racing. You enter the sport in 2002, seven years after the IndyCar split and at a period where nascar is in its ascendency and IndyCar is in the middle of its Mid split freefall. Looking at the ratings trend, you decide to throw your dollars behind a nascar effort. Five years later, in 2007, things have gone well on that initial investment, and you start negotiating with your nascar partners. They tell you how great it was to have you around and that because of the growth in the sport over the past five years and because of the growth they EXPECT to see over the next five they are going to charge you substantially more for the same sponsorship package. Because the first 5 years were such a success, you agree to the offer.

But now suppose that instead of following the red line upwards that your contract assumptions were based on, nascar ratings followed the blue line into decline. While at the same time IndyCar, which you had long written off as dead, reunified and seemed to right it ship financially and again looks destined for relevance. Knowing that your contract was up in 2012 and knowing that you are likely to place a racing sponsorship somewhere, would you start testing the water Before your 2012 renewal came up?

Aw hell it’s late and I am tired. Going to bed now thanks for reading – again this was based on NOTHING. Be sure to write your congressman and governors letting them know that The National Guard should spend your tax dollars hiring an outstanding young American driver like JR Hildebrand. Guten Abend.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Chip Stack: Short Stacked with about 20 Blinds Remaining

Editor's Note: This Post came out PRE - Lotus Engine Announcement. With the engine involvement AND the aero kit+color scheme This relationship moves up to the Blue Chip Level.

In honor of the “impending” 2011 season finale at Las Vegas, I thought I would take stock of the current Sponsorship, Marketing and Media relationships the Izod IndyCar series currently has, WSOP style. Hence the Chip Count. Blue Chips are worth 10, Red Chips are worth 5 and white chips won’t be counted because they tend to follow the bigger chips around. For the series to grow, this stack needs to grow. Generally chips are earned for series wide sponsors or primary car sponsorships, but if the sponsor is too obscure, chips aren’t earned. Let’s get on with the inventory…

Blue Chips (10 Points each)

Izod – A Title sponsor is worth 5 points simply for having their name on the product, Blue chip status comes with the activation, celebrity networking, buzz build and positioning equity they lend the league.

Honda – No Brainer Here…

Chevrolet – May need to break out with Purple chips if Chevy is competitive right out of the box in 2012

Verizon – This spot may be a bit premature pending the long overdue Angstadt press conference, but that ad with Power and Alagier was placed outside IICS broadcasts and that has to mean something.

Target – Solid…While probably not what is could be, activation within Stores is not nascar biased and that is unusual.

50 Points From Blue Chips

Red Chips (5 Points Each)

Dollar General – Activation has been nice, the car stands out and gets IndyCar into smaller communities across a wide geographic region.

Lotus – Nice for old school fans, and will give the series a sexy exotic feel once casual fans realize it is a sportscar and not a yoga position.

Firestone – Every race series has a tire sponsor and not worth 5 chips without the heavy in broadcast ad placement and involvement in race sponsorship and further down the development ladder

National Guard – One of the Big 4 armed forces would be a blue chip, but Panther and Dan Wheldon have done well with this relationship, finding an American driver (Read: JR Hildebrand) to take it to the next level is the next logical step.

Apex Brasil – That’s a lot of Money Wilbur…

Go Daddy – Danica and her Go Daddy hook up is a relationship known well beyond the IndyCar faithful. Now does anybody actually remember Danica is “IndyCar’s Own”?

BSA – Great relationship to expose imaginations at just the right age…

NTB – Core Industry sponsors are always good.

Versus – Say what people will, Versus is in as many Households as Speed and on the three systems I have had, they have always been the channel NEXT TO Speed. Good broadcasts and an audience for the rest of its programming that is off the beaten path for auto racing. And Pending Final Merger details…

BAND TV – The BIG secret of the IndyCar series…nascar sized ratings in one of the world’s top 10 and fastest growing economies…Soon friends, we will see stickers like “Ipiranga” on the side of IndyCars for no other purpose than for this audience to see them whiz by…

50 Chips from Red Chips

Close but no cigar – ie White chips…

Venom – Venom is owned by Dr Pepper, if only the parent company was on the side of that car every race….

7/11 – Easy Come, Easy Go….There's a lesson to be learned here...

Mazda – Sponsoring the entire formula root of the feeder series and an engine sponsorship for Lights would move Zoom Zoom up the list.

Peak – Torn, lots of in broadcast ads and I saw a cutout at AutoZone once but…

Z-Line – Solid Backing for Justin is appreciated, but this brand is just a little too obscure

Sunoco – Every race series has an official Fuel, tell me something I don’t already know.

ABC – An effort comparable to a late night air buy is a big demerit from what should be a blue chip relationship.

Total Chip Count = 101 (100 from symbolic chips and 1 actual Chip)

This is down from the day reunification was announced but Up from where we were at the end of last season. Back at reunification, the partner points were way down compared to where they are now, but the stickers on the sides of the cars were better. The off season is not over and we will revisit the topic. As for a goal???? Needs to be 150 by the start of the season. Keep at it Randy et al…

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Match…

I was scarfing down lunch today and mentally playing fantasy matchmaker with open or hypothetical second seats at various teams and the drivers who could fill them. Taking the big three + Foyt out of the equation, here’s some I came up with. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Panther – JRHildebrand - Full Time program, Ed Carpenter – Oval Program, John Edwards - Road +500 program. Some of this may be in the works already. Robin Miller has placed JR meeting Guard Brass last week. If you have been at a Pacer game this year, you know that Fuzzy and Ed are going to be somewhere next year and it’s a pretty cool use of the new balcony rim lights at the fieldhouse. If it is true that the guard is paying Panther $10m a year to field a team, and $3M is no longer going to Dan Wheldon you would imagine that it would not require a large amount of incremental money to round out the rest of the road schedule and like JR, Edwards would be another good match for the core sponsor.

Lotus/KV – Sato and Tracy…Come on Jimmy and Kevin… Do the right thing…

Newman Haas – Lloyd and Mutoh. Alex had a good year driving on the leftovers of Citgo’s dime, it would be nice to see him take a step up into a better ride in 2011. Word has been that the clock is ticking down for one of the storied teams in open wheel history, here’s to a 4th quarter deal coming together for a pairing that was supposed to happen last year.

Coyne – Viso and Summerton. Viso has money and will be somewhere, while word still has him at KV next year, Dale gave Milka’s Venezuelan money a good ride and he would do the same for EJ’s as well. Jonathan was one of the drivers in the mix for the BSA ride last year and, like the National Guard pairing above, this would be another bold step towards logical sponsor/driver alignment.

Dreyer Reinbold – Wilson, Conway and Beatriz. Wilson is signed, a Comeback by Conway would be a great story and frankly we all could use a little more Ana Beatriz.

Conquest – Baguette and Vernay. Bertrand was a pleasant surprise last year and the Lights champ should always have the chance to move up. Can you imagine the Continental Breakfast at the Conquest hospitality tent? Croissants, Waffles and Brie!

Sarah Fisher Racing – Townsend Bell with Sarah back for the 500. Randy Bernard killing off the under promoted and under attended races at ISC properties for hopefully better attended ones elsewhere should play well with a marketing plan for Herbalife to use race events to get distributors in touch with and sampling to a large number of potential new customers. If the Dollar General money buys into Townshend as well, could this be a full season deal with split sponsorship?

TCGR Satellite operated by Sam Schmidt – Graham plus Jay Howard for the 500. We may hear about something like this real soon…

DeFerren Dragon – Kanaan and Matos. Tony runs on Sugarcane Ethanol and could probably teach Raphael a thing or two, both on the track and how to be more congenial to fans off the track.

Fazzt – Tagliani and Hinchliffe. In case you have not noticed, there are a few examples of “All Nation” teams in this list – let’s throw in one more! And all of Canada, both English and French speaking, came together for a group hug, and a dog wash.

HVM – Desilvestra and Pippa Mann. Simona is booked for next year and Pippa would be a nice pairing for the 500 plus a couple other events. As for sponsorship, someone get H&M on the phone!

Rahal Letterman – Dan Wheldon for the 500 and perhaps the rest of the Ovals? To date the NOZ has only been in hand, perhaps it’s time to be on the side of a car too…

And Finally, JP’s Lottery Money would buy up any leftover 3G, Vision or any other equiptment he can get his hands on for Oriol Servia, Roger Yasukawa and Wade Cunningham. Because good, talented guys deserve rides too.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

So What Do the NFL, NBA and IndyCar All Have in Common?

My answer would be that all three are engaged in some risky games of Labor cost containment. It is well known that the CBA covering both the NFL and NBA are within a year of expiration. Labor / Mgt unrest in both sports may lead to lock outs or strikes. But it strikes me that IndyCar is also in a period of salary adjustment and the stakes are high here as well. Is seems funny that labor costs are an issue in a sport where Alex Lloyd ran the season for virtually little more than a race weekend per diem and the opportunity to keep a career (hanging by a thread) going. But at the top of the sport, where rides are earned not bought, there is a war raging.

The labor struggle at the top of the IndyCar food chain is not a struggle reminiscent of the current NFL situation where a League at the peak of its game is looking to grow owner coffers by expanding the season, yet not compensating the players for the additional weeks on the field. Rather it seem more like the problems the NBA faces.

Recently David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA has come out and said that the league is looking for labor concessions to cut the on court payroll by nearly 30% for the next CBA.

Comparing the NBA and NFL labor arrangements is a study between night and day. In both leagues, there is a salary cap. In the NFL, the cap is hard, there is no exceeding that dollar amount in base pay (signing bonuses are a different thing). In the NBA the cap is soft, you merely cannot sign free agents to exceed your cap amount, but you can sign your own players to larger contracts and exceed the cap as an owner see fit. There is eventually a “Luxury Tax” that sets in where payrolls in excess of a certain amount the teams must pay a penalty to the league commensurate the amount that the payroll exceeds the tax threshold.

A second point of contrast is the binding nature of contracts. In the NFL, contracts are at will and terminable at any moment by the franchise that grants them. If a player is not meeting the expectations of the team he can be cut at any moment freeing up everything except the pro-rated portion of his signing bonus for the team to go sign a replacement player. In the NBA, contracts are guaranteed, if a player is not measuring up, tough luck for the team that holds that players contract, they are stuck with that player and if there is no more room under the cap, the team has to play the roster it has or make a trade that requires special accountants fluent in cap rules and regulations.

It is the combination of these two points that has put the NBA and many of its franchises in jeopardy. What started out as a concession to insure that the Boston Celtics could always pay Larry Bird more than any other team bidding on him in the free agent market has lead to a situation where exorbitant, yet un-terminable “Max Contracts” are bleeding franchises dry. While there is no denial that the teams issuing the contracts are to blame for their fortunes, there remains no recourse or relief for a team suffering the wake of what the Game Theoretical Economist would call “Agent Based Moral Hazard” issue.

It is in this context that the current labor skirmishes in IndyCar must be viewed. In the NBA there is a type of salary called a “Max Contract” where a team pays a player the maximum amount allowed by the league for a player of that relative experience level and can only be issued by a team holding the “Larry Bird” rights to a player. This type of deal was initially created for the Bird, Magic, Jordans, Bryants and Duncans of the world, but eventually began to be issued to the McGrady’s, O’Neals (Jermaine), Marbury and Murphy’s of the world. These contracts were issued based on projections of potential greatness or greatness once attained, expected again, but not since observed.

IndyCar, the equivalent to the “Max Contract” is the $3m per year salary issued by the merit based teams. By my reckoning the following drivers were in that club during the 2010 season: Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, Wheldon, Patrick and potentially Briscoe. While perhaps only Briscoe and Patrick’s status in this club were based on a projection of talent, the rest were based on attainment of championships and 500 victories. But as in the NBA, what happens when players or in this case drivers no longer live up to that elite status? When the best years are behind them or when the driver and team combo have no chance of living up to that expected level of performance?

We see what we have already seen this off season, those drivers who are furthest away from their championship seasons or 500 victories are cut loose from their teams or asked to take large pay cuts to stay where they are. Rumblings about issues with Wheldon started last year only to come to the surface again in the closing days of this season. Many are penciling in other drivers into the Panther seat, I still suspect that Wheldon may be back with a $1m contract as opposed to the max deal he had been enjoying. Kanaan’s contract status was announced in tandem with the announcement of the departure of 7/11 as a primary sponsor for his car. I personally think that timing was expedient. I think Michael did not want to be paying that amount of money for a driver whose best days were in the rear view mirror. But, can you blame him for that? Ultimately for Michael it is easier to sell a sponsorship for a $4m program where the driver makes $1m than a $6m program where the driver makes $3m. Similar pressures and dealings were probably at hand with whatever re-working of Ryan Briscoe’s deal took place. But with typical Penske class that laundry was aired in private thank you.

I do not intend to take a stance on who was worth what, or who deserves this or that. This is merely my association of what I see as similar trends and actions. As the NBA is pressuring it’s union to allow the dumping of the Larry Bird provisions in favor of an NFL inspired “Franchise Player “ tags, IndyCar owners have revised the standards for who is invited into the $3m club. Hard ball cost containment of driver salaries has come to the Merit based teams in IndyCar.

In the NFL and NBA these games between management and labor threaten the on the field continuity from season to season without interuption. In IndyCar these moves threaten the inclusion and involvement of Icons and known faces at a time when the series has precious few to put forth to the public. It is a dangerous game all the sports are now playing.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Controversy Builds Over Technologically “Enhanced” IndyLights Driver

Controversy bubbled over today at Homestead Miami a day before practice began for the final Firestone IndyLights race of the year. At the heart of the controversy IndyLights Driver Pippa Mann and her recently surgically repaired left hand.

According to Press releases, Mann broke the hand during a practice incident at Toronto earlier in the season. She raced in the Toronto race and the following weekend at Edmonton before having the hand surgically repaired, forcing her to sit out the race at Mid Ohio. She returned to race at Sonoma and has been on track with the series ever since, winning the most recent race at Kentucky speedway.

Others however dispute the story, suggesting something more sinister might be at work. Pointing to a great disparity in finishing position before the surgery compared to after (avg place before surgery 11th place, after 2.66th place) as an indication that something more substantial than a plate and a few screws were inserted into the wrist.

One driver who refused to named commented “it’s like that wrist is now like a machine…bionic, like the bionic woman, and it allows her to steer the car more quickly and with more authority than before”, referencing the 1970’s Television featuring Lindsey Wagner. The show’s premise is that a young woman is nearly killed in a fashion shopping accident and is then repaired by a team of robotic scientists that replace all her nonfunctional extremities with robotic appendages which help her become a crime fighting superhero.

Others see things differently. “She’s a deep space mutant alien and she is here to devour the male drivers” said JK Vernay working through his interpreter Roy Hobson. “She takes on a pleasing form to distract our attention as she consumes our male vitality. She’s like that monster machine woman Seven of Nine from the Star Trek television show” Hobson continued after Vernay began talking to other reporters. The Seven of Nine character in the Star Trek Voyageur series was played by the buxom dimpled bombshell Jeri Ryan. Seven’s character background was that she was a human girl, 10 years old, when her space colony was assimilated into a Borg commune. 15 years later when the starship Voyageur destroys the Borg commune, unlike all the other Borg drones that short circuit and die, Seven’s remaining Human vestiges reassert themselves over her short circuiting machine elements. The Voyageur Captain decides to rescue Seven and dresses her in skin tight silver spandex in order to raise the morale of the male officers and distract them from the reality that they were sucked into a black hole and were 2 billion light years away from earth.

Driver Charlie Kimball postulated that “Since the alien technology was implanted into her left wrist, it was helping her to do exceedingly well on ovals”. In fact, in her two oval races since the surgery, Pippa has finished second at chicagoland and then first place at kentucky.

One driver apparently isn’t content to stay around and have his male vitality consumed. Sebastian Saavedra recently bolted from the league aqnd sketchy rumors persist that are tracing Saavedra's exit to a paranoid fear about Mann’s robotic appendage.

When asked what he thought about Mann’s robotic enhancement, driver James Hinchcliffe commented “I think it is sort of HOT! Just imagine the action she now gets on her spanking motion!”

When asked about the controversy, Mann responded “I don’t know what all the fuss is about, it was a metal plate and six screws!”. When asked to explain why her results had shown such drastic improvement since the surgery she responded “During some Idle time at Mid Ohio I went shopping and found this smart little store called “Fashion Bug” they had the greatest pair of jeans. I have never had such a great pair of jeans they made me feel so much better about myself. It’s like they have turbo charged my self confidence.”Outside the paddock, the controversy is seen in a positive light. Independent T-Shirt vendor, John Pemberton related “Pippa and her alien technology have really saved my season. I was looking forward to getting stuck with a bunch of Wade Cunningham, JR Hildebrand and Jon Edwards merchandise, but my latest design for Pippa has been selling like hotcakes” referring to a T shirt with Mann’s image and printed saying “Resistance is Futile” on the front and “Prepare to be A-Pippa-lated” on the back.

Mutant technology or smart jeans, the answer to this mystery is still being sorted out. But the final race of the Firestone IndyLights schedule will be run Saturday at Homestead Miami speedway and it will not be televised on Versus, because apparently they don’t care, but yet they can show 10 freaking hours of fishing shows every damn day. BASTARDS.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Championship Contenders Defect from Series on Eve of Season Finale

Izod IndyCar Championship frontrunners Dario Franchitti and Will Power have announced plans to leave the series just days before the season’s final race that was to crown the champion. Heading into the finale, only Power and Franchitti were mathematically still alive for the championship with Power leading Franchitti by 12 points.

Apparently the issue compelling both of them to leave the series relates to the unveiling of a new championship trophy for the series. “It’s a way wrong scary bugger ‘ee is” said Franchitti when asked to describe the new trophy. He added “Ashley won’t want that in the ‘ouse”.

Power seemed to be wavering on the decision, was quoted “It’s a very hard decision for me because It would be my first series championship, something I have fought for all year, but I can’t have that thing in my house, I’ll have nightmares”.

The trophy created by sculptor Ted Gall is meant to symbolic of man, machine and the symbiotic beast they become “We’re not just a human form; we’re what we use all the time,” said Gall. “It used to be if you were a cowboy you’d ride a horse. Now we’re really attached to wheels our whole lives. The arms are imploring; they’re reaching out for that golden ring, for that big win”.

Other drivers were asked their opinion of the new trophy and reactions varied. “I think it is really interesting, reminds me of a time back home when a movie was being filmed and the call went out for extras to take part. I went down and they made me up in layers of brown makeup so thick my cheeks were numb. I think they said we were orcs or something. Not sure if they ever finished the movie or not but it was fun staggering around in the makeup making strange noises” said Scott Dixon.

“I am disappointed that they got rid of the old trophy, I promised my son that next year I would win it and he could take a bath in it” said Tony Kanaan. “He’ll take a look at this and he’ll cry”.

Danica Patrick was quoted as saying “and they wonder why I am leaving for nascar?”

IndyCar officials were confident that after initial reactions subside, both Power and Franchitti would return to their cars Saturday night. “We only create the trophies and prizes, it is up to the drivers to decide to accept them or not”. Said Brian Barnhart, President of Competition.

When asked what motivated the league to design such an unorthodox prize, President of Commercial Stuff, Terry Angstadt related “After Kentucky we were hanging out polishing off a case of Fuzzy’s, and we were thinking how hysterical it would be for Ashley to have to display some hideous monstrosity in her house after Dario finished off Power during the oval part of the series and then EJ Viso went by on his unicycle”.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was quoted “We believe it is important to leave the politics of the split behind. That includes the symbols of that era, like the previous championship cup. Taking things further, we want people to forget that we are even an auto racing series. People said that in rejecting the Delta Wing, we weren’t bold enough, we didn’t take the risks necessary to move this series forward. I would suggest that this trophy represents a commitment to bold, risky thinking that will carry the series into the future”.

Persistent rumors suggest that there were other motives to the retirement of the IRL trophy. Rumors on the internet have sprung up suggesting that since the IRL trophy was made of solid Silver, it was sold to a local cash 4 gold location for an estimated $100,000 which was used to pay the bonuses to the two new discipline champions. The trophy was melted down and made into dental fillings.

Meanwhile, a perplexed Will Power struggled with his decision “I really want to win a championship. Maybe I can just take the hat home with me. They can keep the trophy at the Museum or something”.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pulling for The Fairytale Ending

The Izod IndyCar championship will be determined this weekend at Homestead and I need to pick a side. None of my Fav’s are in the hunt: JR Hildebrand is Home in Sausalito eating copious amounts of Italian food, hunting for funding for his big chance; Vitor Meira drives for Foyt – enough said; Ryan Hunter Reay has had a solid first season with Andretti Autosport – but not championship quality. I have no chips on the felt. So I resort to plan B in picking a favorite and that plan is rooting for the outcome that I see as the best bet to move the needle for the league. But who would that be, Will Power or Dario Franchitti?

This year my nod goes to Will Power.

The Versus promo spot for Homestead says it all. The replay of the horrendous accident at Infineon last year, the images of Will in traction being loaded into the Evac chopper with the voice over from Bob Jenkins summarizing the list of broken vertebrae in Will’s back. During the chopper flight, the tears and fears of potentially ending Nelson Phillipe’s life during the accident’s impact. The doubts about ever racing ever again. The long difficult Rehab. The commitment of a class organization to keep a seat open for his return. All followed by the general beat down that Will has dealt out to the rest of field on the road and street circuits this year.

Indeed, compared to where Will was a year ago, this would be the top feel good, fairytail story in racing since Alex Zanardi got back into a car for the first time after losing both legs. This storyline is why we love the personalities in racing and in sports in general. It is the reason athletes become our heroes. We love athletes with the “will power” to overcome difficulties and adversities to climb to the top in the competitive endeavor.

Many are counting Will out. He’s never won on an Oval. He has one of the greats of his generation in the rear view mirrors. His team has had hiccups in the pits and has been outsmarted by the TCG boys more than once.

But, never has does not imply Never will, and Will has been very close to that first oval win multiple times this year. But on three occasions, it was bobbled away in the pits. With a championship close at hand, Team Penske has begun to shift pit crew members around. The group that will sport Verizon fire suits this Sunday will be an all star crew. The story only gets better if Will seals the deal by winning at Homestead on Saturday.

So why is a Will Power championship the best outcome for the league? Simple, the story is great and it will get legs. But some promotion wouldn’t hurt either. I would hope that Randy Bernard would be on the phone to Bristol, CT Monday selling a story, looking for commitment from his broadcast partner. What might this entail? As the Versus promos show, the story is great copy and would be strong support material for ABC’s promo activity next year.

Then there are those things called the ESPY’s, ESPN’s own little awards ceremony. Aired on the slowest day of the year, the day after the MLB All Star Game. The event draws the eyes of the entire sports world. Two awards nominations for a Power championship would seem logical: Top Racing Performance and Best Comeback Athlete. Fan voting determines the winners, and after Sunday momentum is rolling on a fifth Cup championship for Jimmie Johnson. The racing prize probably goes there. BUT the comeback award is a bigger deal in the show’s program and the Will Power story will be a tough one to beat. This is the kind of exposure the league needs from a source is sorely needs it from.

Another likely outcome from a Power championship is the likelihood that Power’s sponsor, Verizon will want to brag a little. This could mean full page ads in prominent national papers. It could mean television spots during other sporting events. But most of all it would be a favorable coincidence for a sponsor who has begun to step up their involvement from a single car to a wider association with the league as a whole. Activation friends, activation.

I respect and admire Dario Franchitti. His 2009 championship was about redemption, for himself and in some larger sense the league. His second 500 victory was about legacy. But the sport has enough legacy and history, it now needs new heroes to sell to a new generation. A Hero that stars in a Fairytale ending is a good place to start.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Evaluating the Commitment of a New “Partner”

That’s what I’ll be doing this weekend, on Saturday in particular. It’s the yearly trip for the Mrs and I down to Kentucky Speedway. Fourth year we’ve made the trip and this is one that I will be pretty interested in making, and not just for the racing. The first two times we made the trip, it was an enjoyable experience, decent racing and a decent sized crowd. Then came last year, the race of the year … with no one around to see it. Even though I had witnessed David nearly topple Goliath, I was pissed. Pissed that no one else was there to see it. Pissed that My Wife, Her father and I had nearly 4 rows to ourselves. Pissed that the new owners of the place, supposedly reported to be “Master Promoters Extraordinaire” had achieved a colossal FAIL.

Some background may be necessary. Kentucky Speedway opened in 2000 and as with other new independent (i.e. not ISC or SMI owned) venues such as Iowa, Invited IndyCar to race and christen the new facility while efforts began to attract nascar dates to the facility as well. As the speedway had no cup date to sell, management put a lot of effort into selling and promoting the IndyCar date it had. While not completely full, the crowds were healthy for a sport that was in free fall from a decade of civil war. Then it was announced that Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motor Sport would be buying the facility. Last year was the first year the IndyCar race occurred under SMI’s watch…and apparently Bruton forgot to sell tickets, or invite anyone for that matter. If it weren’t for the army of Dollar General employees in attendance as a corporate perk to see Sarah Fisher race in the corporate colors, the whole lot of fans could have fit in the New Castle High School gym.

Randy Bernard has said he wants COMMITTED PARTNERS who are interested in helping to grow and promote the sport. There’s no doubt that is how it ought to be. But it comes with a cost. Many in the IndyCar community are mourning the likely loss of Chicagoland this week as the definition of “Partnership” appears to be beyond ISC’s interest level. But ISC these days is all about Vertical integration and keeping the money in house. There’s no point for ISC tracks to be outsourcing for talent when the in house talent (in the form of the Nationwide and Craftsman series) works on the cheap. Likewise, an aggressive bit of scheduling to draw fans away from the Brickyard next year appears to have the goal of returning that precious cup date back to an in house ISC track.

One entity that is not burdened with the conflicting interests associated with owning both tracks and a major racing series is SMI. SMI is all about the tracks and hence all about Dates, races and events. As Randy Bernard has become comfortable as the new president of the IICS, he has been spotted out on the town numerous times with his new suitor, Bruton Smith and SMI. They are quite the Item. SMI appears smitten with IICS and IICS with SMI. But for this romance to continue, SMI has to show that it is in fact a COMITTED PARTNER.

So far, things have gone well with SMI since the IICS called out its business partners. New Hampshire is on the schedule and Smith saw to it that fans at the spring cup date were exposed to the speed gap between a cup car and an IndyCar over the objections of the nascar president Mike Helton. A new format has been announced with the goal of revitalizing the Texas IndyCar event. Even reviled Sonoma Is showing signs of life. The IndyCar race there was reported to be the only race at the facility where ticket sales were up from past years. As I watched the race, I saw people in stands and on the grounds where I am not used to seeing people at that venue. All good signs going forward.

Which brings me back to Kentucky 2009. What I saw that night was not the product of a committed partner, it was work that an apathetic ISC track president would have been proud of. There have been quite a few personal appearances by drivers to support the race this year and I have heard many radio spots on local sports stations promoting the race and ticket sales for it. Whether or not these efforts will get butts into seats is yet to be seen.

This Saturday night will be a litmus test, to see just what COMMITMENT PARTNER means from SMI. My posse for this Saturday’s race is up to six from the traditional three. Bruton, I’ve stepped up my game, have you stepped up yours??

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lance Armstrong, Jimmie Johnson and the Tour De France

Editor's note, I put this together last winter before the proposed double existed with plans to post it this week , So I thank you Randy and Bruton for making this post all the more pertinent. And yes, you may say I am a dreamer...

For me growing up in Indiana for whatever reason meant that summer was spent watching non traditional team sports. Basketball and Football owned the Fall and Winter, but once Spring was upon me the focus shifted, Racing and tennis came to the fore. Go figure on that pair, but then I don’t watch much tennis these days.

The other sport that joined the summer viewing repertoire in 1989 was cycling, particularly the Tour De France. Back in those days, before the channel that Lance built (now known as Versus) existed, ABC coverage was limited to an hour on the tour Saturdays that summarized the previous week and then another hour on Sunday that covered the Sunday stage that would invariably include some sort of key mountain or time trial. In 1989, watching American Greg LeMond climb the great Alpe D’Huez and then riding the greatest time trial ever onto the Champs-Élysées erasing a 50 second deficit to a Frenchman named Laurent, who wore a long blond pony tail and later blamed losing the tour to “saddle sores” (draw your own conclusions…) LeMond did this all with 37 shot gun pellets embedded into his back with two residing in his heart lining. Needless to say I was hooked and have followed ever since.

While LeMond was the first American to win the Tour (3 times), in this country these days the event is associated with Lance Armstrong. It is a funny study in character between these two, both overcame tremendous adversity to climb to the pinnacle of world cycling, but within Europe, and specifically France itself, the two men could not be regarded differently. To this day the French love LeMond, possibly because of the last name, partly because the greatest French cyclist ever, Bernard Hinault anointed Greg as his successor. Whereas, Lance is seen differently. Despite the universal love and respect that he commands on this side of the ocean, in France, Lance is an enigma hated by many If not most. Barry Bonds if you will and similar to Bonds, Lance is widely assumed to be the greatest, sneakiest Doper ever in the history of cycling.

But how did it come to this? That a man who carried out the greatest comeback from adversity to become the greatest cycling race’s greatest winner becomes hated villain? It has to do with the relationship between the athlete and his sport and ultimately which is more important to the fan base that loves them both. Initially, Lance’s success was welcomed by all as the feel good story that followed two Tours tarnished by drug scandal. Sentiment changed however in 2004. Doping allegations against Lance surfaced and public sentiment began to turn. But why 2004? In 2003 Lance won his fifth Tour and showed no sign of stopping.

This did not sit well for a couple of reasons. First, there had never been a six time winner of the Tour. The greats Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain had all won five and no more. So here was this American with an accomplishment in his sights that no European had ever attained, but the issue I think is more complex. Popular American understanding of professional European cycling is the TDF, Period. Sort of like all the Danica fans who are surprised that there are more races than the 500 in the IICS. European cycling has three Grand tours: the Giro d’Italia (May), La Tour de’France (July) and the Vuelta aEspana (September). A triple crown if you will. A triple crown Anquetil, Merckxx and Hinault have all completed. Indurain having won two of the jewels. As for Lance? TDF and TDF only. It is not only a question of winning the other events, it is a question of even attempting to race them. In essence the issue was “Why are you ruining our record books when you haven’t bothered to fill out your own resume???” Suppose Tiger Woods ONLY played the Masters?

To be fair, Lance did race the Vuelta once, as the first race in his comeback from cancer, but once he got rolling, there was never another mention of participation in the other races. Filling this gap in the resume was to be goal one of the current comeback. Lance was to be the team leader for Astana in the 2009 Giro, but a fall and broken collarbone put an end to the plan. By the time Lance was ready to ride again, it was TDF time, but Team Astana had planned to lead with Alberto Contador, the 2007 TDF champ, who had taken 2008 off from the TDF to…….Win both the 2008 Giro and Vuelta and complete the career triple crown. But Lance had not made another comeback to play Domestique to another rider and a battle for team leadership played out during the 2009 Tour. Ultimately the younger Contador won out and Lance was vanquished. To this day, the only American to win one of the other great tours of Europe remains Andy Hampsted, who won the Giro back in the LeMond era.

If you were to ask a European cycling fan who was the greatest cyclist of all time, who would they say? Probably not Lance, despite being the winningest rider in the sports greatest race, most cycling fans would say Eddie Merckx and his 11 grand tour victories or Hinault and his 10 victories.

So what does this have to do with Racing? Well when this post is published, it will be Brickyard week at the Speedway, the week nascar comes calling to the greatest race course in the world. Nascar is having its own struggles these days, many blame the COT, some blame the series leaving its rural southern roots behind and then some blame Jimmie Johnson. JJ has won four straight Cup championships and is probably well on his way to his fifth championship. While Petty and Earnhart both won seven total titles, these runs were not in a row. Until Johnson, the record for consecutive cup victories was three. Many will argue that Johnson winning five will chase away fans and is a contributor to the ratings and popularity declines that nascar has seen of late. The naysayers are now beginning to say that it is crew chief Knaus who is winning all these titles and that Jimmie is just the fortunate driver at the wheel. After all it wasn’t Lance who won all those TDF’s, it was the drugs. Does the story sound familiar?

A couple years ago created a list of the greatest race car drivers ever. Much to the shock of the stock car faithful, the top spots on the list didn’t include Petty, Earnhart or even Gordon. Likewise, the F1 crowd was shocked to not see Schumacher, Senna or Fangio. The top 2? Foyt and Andretti.

Why? Simple – it was success in ALL forms of racing that placed them at the top of this list. Each completing their own “triple Crown of Racing”. Besides being the first to win 4 Indy 500’s, Foyt’s resume includes wins in the Daytona 500 and the 24 hours of LeMans. Andretti’s resume includes the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the F1 world championship.

It seems to be considered the greatest in cycling or racing, one has to be willing to take on all challenges and be victorious at them. Which brings us back to Jimmie Johnson, what will it take for Jimmie to have a chance at the all time greats? After a 5th cup title, more cup titles don’t add much more to the argument and I think Jimmie knows this. He has begun to participate in champions of racing karting events and now Grand Am events running in the 24 hours of Daytona. But honestly, does immortality require a Grand Am victory?

Jimmie, as you take in sights and sounds this week at IMS, you know which race victory would set you above your peers, above even Petty and Earnhart. Randy Bernard and Bruton Smith are doing their best to make it financially appealing and physically possible. It doesn’t have to be forever, no one would ever expect you leave cup behind. But in 2011 give it a thought, a couple ovals to get acquainted and then during the month of May take a stab at immortality. The 500 is calling.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

2012 The More I THINK the More I LIKE

Editor's Note...I have been thinking about this post all afternoon and as I have finally settled in to pound away on the keyboard, I am listening to the Trackside Podcast. I suppose great minds think alike...

So I was sitting at Quiznos at lunch yesterday (because Potbelly has yet to come to Indy) feverishly updating my Droid’s Twitter app, when the dreaded word “Dallara” began to show up, repeatedly and without the company of Swift or Lola to soften the blow. And I began thinking “What sort of idiots purposefully alienate the last bastion of fans they have?”. To which I tweeted about the production value of the announcement as being “lipstick on a PIG”. Fortunately the twitter stream started mentioning stuff like “Custom Aero Packages” and “open to all interested developers” and the day turned less gloomy. Questions remained, “Is there enough margin in a $70k aero kit to make it economically viable to interest a company in developing in the first place?” “will Penske get back into the parts/car business?” “how do you make sure that an aero kit, as a point of design, does not devastate the wake for the following car” “is the engine stressed?” and so forth.

Last evening I streamed the presentation and my questions about the uncertainties were replaced by imaginings about the possibilities. Frankly, there are many and they are above and beyond the obvious benefits of some infusion of innovation and variety of car design balanced with cost efficiencies for teams. There is now another platform for sponsorship available in the car itself. Historically, only the engines and tires represented an opportunity for sponsor involvement though the car that raced. The chassis manufacturers were specialized makers of racing gear and as such had no benefit from their products being branded for a wider audience. But now the aero package has the potential to be marketed as a meaningful asset. I don’t however think that the aero packages are likely to be sponsored by car companies. 30 years ago we could possibly have seen a Chevy Engine hidden under an aero package by Fisher, but those days are gone.

The aero package introduces a whole new different list of potential manufacturers participating. The name dropping of Boeing and Lockheed Martin was not accidental but nor do I believe either is a likely participant. But aerospace is the target, and here are a couple entities within the realm of IndyCar’s influence who could be interested.

Bombardier – Historically this company has sponsored the Texas race each year. But given the current state of affairs, the sponsoring of a single race has a pretty short reach and unless you are throwing a party for airline execs in one of the TMA suites, probably is not money well spent. Unless you are talking the 500, a sponsor is going to capture a pretty small number of people with a single race sponsorship, the people who show up to the track and the couple hundred thousand that happen to catch the race on Versus. Whereas if they were to move their involvement to an aero package, their marketing now reaches everyone who attends any one of the 18 races or who watches any of the races on TV. Now they would have 18 races to entertain multiple clients. Most importantly they are involved with the 500 w/o being an official Pagoda or anything for that matter. In addition, for Bombardier it doesn’t even have to be all about the airplanes – Learjet or Canadair – they could use something like the aero package to support something that defies classification like their CanAm Spyder Roadster.

Embraer – The maker of the most comfortable regional jet in the sky (the 175 that is - the older smaller ones –meh..) also happens to be a dues paying member of the Apex Brasil organization. You might recall from the second Apex commercial, where Tony does his “not all Brazilians have rhythm” dance that one of the industries prominently mentioned was…Aerospace. So here’s a question, why would Embraer get involved with a racing series? Simple, in the land of Boeing if a person has the choice of Airline A flying a Boeing 717 and Airline D flying a Embraer 175 familiarity with the Embraer name helps bridge the gap for a passenger concerned about the airplane with the funny name. Here’s another possibility, if Target throws some of their vendors an occasional bone by painting the 10 car with the vendor’s colors, then Embraer could write a check to a team to run their aero package and slap the name “Delta” on the sidepod in order to reward the issuing of a large aircraft contract.

Now do these companies design and make the Aero packages? Do the airplane engineers work on a side project during lunch breaks? Probably not. So who does? Well, at least one of group comes to mind. Bruce Ashmore mentioned that while BAT probably would not be interested in designing Aero kits, his own existing company would be. But he probably has a problem, where do the funds for development come from? Suppose it takes $2m of R and D to create and test the aero package, To simply recoup those costs at $70 a kit, you need to sell 28 kits simply to recoup development let alone cover production of the kit themselves. So how does he come up with those funds? Bruce meet Embraer, Embraer meet Bruce. Likewise, Bombardier meet Swift, Swift meet Bombardier. Or more simply, Swift could support their own Airplane business with IndyCar participation. Much like the racing engine manufacturers badge the racing engines with a production nameplate, the aero packages can now be badged marketing opportunities.

Is all this hopeful thinking? Perhaps. But I don’t think the committee would have gone down this path without some very warm leads for participation. Build it and they will come may work for the movies, but smart businessmen won’t leave such things to chance. I am very optimistic that there will be 4 or 5 available packages by the time 2012 comes along. The Base Dallarra, Lotus Seems interested, an Ashmore design badged as an airplane manufacturer, Swift as themselves or another Aerospace company, at least one team creating something on their own intuition.

Similarly, I don’t think opening the Engine spec’s to include 4 cylinder engines was an accident. Someone is on the hook. Honda, Ford badged Cosworths, and either Mitsubishi or Mazda dropping their existing 4 cylinder racing engines into the mix seems likely to me (next time you see that Mitsubishi ad featuring the Eclipse with the Paddle shifter ask yourself why is that ad running THERE…in such a niche broadcast like an IndyCar race, ad placement is not an accident).

Engines…Aero Packages…as fun as silly season can be for drivers, the next 18 months will be a lot of fun for the creation of car combinations. 2012 is looking better and better the more I think about it…

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