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.

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