Thursday, December 29, 2011

Robbing Peter to Pay Chip

About 15 years ago strategic business consultants began to champion an item called the “Balanced Scorecard”.  The idea was that too many businesses were so focused on short term accounting profits, that long term customer and quality metrics were being forgotten.  The implication, it was feared, would be that businesses focusing only on short term profits might penny pinch or shortcut their way out of long term existence.  
Strategic consultancies began to build econometric models that showed short term profit seeking led to long term shrinkage.  Long term, sustainable growth was powered by the short to mid term management of customer and quality metrics.  Thus was born the Balanced Scorecard.  A report card for senior managers that combined profit, costing, productivity, efficiency, quality and customer metrics into a single dashboard.  Being a Marketing Researcher by trade, companies I have worked for through the years have been charged with providing customer metrics for such dashboards in the form of customer sat metrics or brand health measures. 
In addition to simply being a sheet of summary numbers, the scorecards were built upon simulators based on econometric models that helped senior managers allocate monetary expenditures across their business.  Would money saved on quality of inputs have an effect on customer satisfaction which would ultimately lead to lower profits in the long term or would customers be ok with lower quality so along as part of the savings be passed along as a price cut?  Ultimately the scorecards and models were to help guide businesses in allocating scarce resources for their ultimate financial good.
As I have posted items on this blog over the past three years, I have begun to accumulate a set of numbers that seem to me to be worthy of some sort of scorecard status: for example TV ratings goals of 1/2/6 for the Vs/ABC/500 broadcasts by 2012 or ~40% American drivers.  50% Ovals and 50% twisties.  I have no time series data and thus no model to bear these numbers out as reliable goals, but I am a blogger, HEAR ME ROAR! 
Another number I think is of some note is 24.  24 is a goal for two key measures of the series health.  A strong IndyCar series will have 24 events, each featuring at least 24 entries each.  How do we stand?  Well I put this post off a few weeks awaiting final word on the schedule and to see how car counts were shaking out.  Well, we know the story, we’re scraping to find a 16th event but according to Marshal Pruett, there’s enough Irons in the fire that when all shakes out, it is not out of the realm of possibility to have somewhere between 26 and 30 fulltime cars on the grid. 
Ultimately IndyCar is a two tier franchise business model.  It sanctions racing events for teams to participate in.  Promoters and track owners on one hand and racing teams on the other.  Two sets of businesses and profit centers based around the revenue streams that IndyCar produces.  Right now, it would appear that one set of these entities is doing better than the other.  New teams and old teams alike are bullish about the long term potential of participating in Indycar (the loss of NHL is noted, though I do wonder if the roll up of that revered team has more to do with devaluing an asset for estate planning purposes than being a deep statement about the prospects for operating an Indycar team in the near future).  On the other hand the league is searching for business models that work for new events and at almost any sort of oval in general.
Yesterday I posted a flow chart of the transfers of money that happens amongst the players on the IndyCar stage.  Pressdog will be relieved to see that all sources of revenue basically came from the fan base, filtered through sponsors, promoters and TV back to the league and teams.  Indeed, other than operating expenses (which all three profit centers have), only the teams had all the arrows pointing towards them, w/o any pointing away. 

I like race cars, you like race cars, we all like race cars.  Amazing to imagine how happy either ChampCar or the IRL would have felt about the car counts the league saw this year and could see next year.  But we also like RACES and the flip side of this is the pinch on the promoters and track owners.  It simply is a tough nut to crack for many of them to make money and hence, those willing to give IndyCar a try are fewer and the schedule has dwindled. 
But Oddly enough if you look at the flow chart hard enough you notice that there is a big stream of money from the tracks and promoters in the form of sanctioning fees coming in at $1.5m a pop to the league.  On the other hand there is a large sum of $ heading from the league to the teams in the form of TEAM money, roughly $1.2M a team for 22 entries.  TEAM money is IndyCar’s version of revenue sharing designed to flatten the competitive landscape and promote fair competition.  But 11 of the 22 paying slots next year are going to the Ganassi, Penske and Andretti behemoths. The little guys who would most benefit see none of it. 
So if we are in a situation where we seem to have plenty of cars but barely enough events would it not make sense for IndyCar to adjust its allocation of resources?  If car counts for 2012 are indeed as robust as they seem to have the potential to be, might it be good planning for the league to slow the stream of money to the set of franchisees doing relatively well and pass it along as a break to the set of franchisees that appear to be struggling?
A modest proposal for 2013.  Shave $100k from each of the team allocations.  Take that $2.2M and split it four ways to cut sanctioning fees in order to seed events at Phoenix, Watkins Glen, New Hampshire and Road America.  The cut in TEAM allocations will cause some belt tightening at the top of the grid, but is not likely to affect car counts from those teams, as the teams most struggling to survive don’t receive TEAM $ at all.  Then aggregating those funds to support events that are likely to play well on TV and into the future could well get more fans viewing races which in the long term increases sponsorship dollars for all. 
It’s just a thought -  Please don’t hit me Chip.

Please Review, There will Be a Quiz Tomorrow

Please Review the Money Trail Below...Tomorrow's Post/Opinion will be based on a firm understanding of the cash flows diagrammed.

Notes/Assumptions that prevent this flow from getting to darn busy:
  • The Teams, League and Tracks each have sizeable expenses and budgets that are not chronicled here since they all have them.
  • I am ignoring the sale of swag by the League, Drivers and Tracks which for IndyCar is not overly substancial
  • Size of the arrows are not neccessarily to scale overall
  • Size of arrows for teams/tracks may differ across individual players.  IE TCGR probably has a much differently sized and split set of Arrows compared to Conquest. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

NBC Sports and the .Something Channels

As the off/silly season of discontent lingers on it seems that March is soo far away that it will never get here.  To pass the time we are focused on the usual offseason speculation about teams and drivers.  To this we can add additional drama concerning the schedule, as it seems that this year, events have their own extended silly season. Good news about new engine manufacturers is tempered by questions of balance in the new chassis.
Another Important change is coming to IndyCar within the next month. IndyCar’s primary cable partner, Versus, will undergo a major makeover to become the NBC Sports Channel.  Additional focus and brand recognition of the channel itself along with cross pollination/promotion with more prominent and popular sporting events could be a boon for IndyCar.
Something that would be even more beneficial would be if this new channel, NBC Sports, were distributed across the additional bandwidth that the Digital conversion of broadcast TV brought.  If you only watch cable or satellite, you may have missed it.  But if you have an HDTV ready TV or purchased a HD conversion box for your older TV set, you no longer have just five TV channels, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and FOX.  You now have “Child” or .something channels.  In Indy for example channel 13 is no longer just channel 13, it is now channel 13.1, 13.2 and 13.3.  Additional bandwidth for local TV franchises to offer additional programming to keep pace with cable distributors.
To date, this additional bandwidth has not been used that effectively.  In Indy, we have 5 of these 10 new channels devoted to either a loop of the local weather broadcast or radar (Which is REALY boring on a sunny summer day).  The best application I have seen utilizing this additional Bandwidth is 6.2 which broadcasts a new local channel “Hometown Sports Network” that broadcasts local High School sports.  At some point I expect that some of these channels will pick up Spanish broadcasting like Telemundo. 
For this post I was scrolling through my .something channels just to see what was there…and much to my surprise on 13.3 amidst the endless streams of Informercials, I saw a promo that this was the Universal Sports channel, branded with the peacock and all.  Universal sports is not new, it has bounced around my satellite services for three or so years featuring as I recall, lots of Olympic trials and cycling.  While very few people know it exists, It is getting rolled into Versus to become the NBC Sports channel. 
Imagine this…what if the NBC Sports channel was content that was delivered through one of the .something digital channels in every local NBC affiliate?  Every household in America could potentially have access to all the programming on this newly relaunched channel…Including IndyCar.  No more cable satellite provider squabbles with no more contractual black outs where providers failed to come to new contract terms.  No more inclusion only on “Premium Tiers”.
Of course the obstacle here would be all the local affiliates would need to be convinced that the content on this new channel had better ad revenue potential than Skytrac Radar relative to the costs of the content.  Likewise the viewers would have to know these channels existed and those accustomed to cable would have to know to attach an antenna to one of the input portals and use the TV/Video button on their remotes to move off the cable or Xbox feed to where these channels were.
I have no Idea if this is in the Launch plans for the NBC Sport channel, but what a boon it would be for IndyCar to have universal distribution for every race it broadcasts…

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

5 Questions: Leaving Las Vegas Edition

Closure means not forgetting, but it also means moving on. IndyCar will be faced with many questions in the Days, Months and Weeks to come. Here are Some I have been pondering without conclusive answers. (I think that some other blogger may already be using the “5 Questions” format – Sorry for the infringement.)

Las Vegas Motor Speedway…Will IndyCar Return? Certainly, the day of and shortly thereafter that answer would have been “No way in Hell”. But in the big picture, Randy Bernard has chosen to invest in Vegas as an anchor event for the close of the season. It has been well documented that a $9m sponsor would pay for a race on the strip, so I imagine if that money is found, Vegas stays but LVMS doesn’t. But what if the $ isn’t there? Do they race again at LVMS? I doubt you could excite anyone about racing on the road course at LVMS, so that leaves the oval. But is it too dangerous? If it is, then how can the league Justify Texas, Fontana or a potential return to Chicagoland? All three places have a history of the same Pack racing formula producing their own grisly IndyCar incidents which make them no different than LVMS. Next year will bring a new car, fewer of them and a driver pool sensitized to the inherent risks. Perhaps the game will have changed for the fast high banked ovals.

Will the New Car Really be Safer? I think in many ways the answer is yes. The closed rear wheels, the expanded cockpit with thicker crumple padding around the driver and other things I probably don’t know about are all good things. My concern with the new car is this. Back when Dan was testing it, one of the surprises he listed was the improved visibility in the car. If you have seen pictures of him in the car, you get what he is talking about. My concern, does greater visibility mean greater head exposure? Based on Vegas and the incident with Felipe Massa a few years back, others have commented about the need for closed cockpits. There is a concept in Economic theory called “Pareto Optimality” where in a market a scarce resource cannot be reallocated such that the loss suffered by one is not offset by the gain of the recipient sufficiently to improve the well being of the market overall. I wonder if in some ways car design is near this point, what are the “Unintended Consequences” of a closed cockpit? Can you go back and add a canopy to a design for a car that was originally engineered to be open? Is this a design point for 2015? I do think this. IMS could and should be the leader in searching for a better design for a catch fence. If you recall the “Netflix Prize” competition, Pay a million $ (plus patent royalties) for the team that produces the best computer tested design option for a new catch fence. You would have civil engineering students the world over creating virtual designs on their own dime and time. Once the winner is chosen you could do an actual build out to test and validate the design.

What Will be the Effect on the IndyCar Brand? I need to tread carefully here, but the recent mass media attention IndyCar has received over Dan’s death will have an effect on the perceptions and future of the sport. What will that be? If you ever saw the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” recall the Buddhist parable the CIA agent tells Tom Hanks at the end of the film… The incident will reinforce the perception that IndyCar is an “Extreme Sport” but what does that moniker mean exactly. Is something “Extreme” popular because it is inherently dangerous or is it that any kid with a skateboard who lives near a public park with a stairway can do something cool/stupid in front of his friends? Dale Earnhardt’s death galvanized the commitment of all those who loved Nascar and piqued the interest of many who never followed it, Others made money by selling “In Memorial” window stickers for the back of pickup trucks. The positive and negative ramifications linger still to this day. Dan’s death is now a given. If the sport is stronger and better 5 years from now, he will be proud. If people have merely exploited the tragedy for Money, it will be a Shame. For further reference Bing or Google “Smiths Lyrics Paint a Vulgar Picture”

Will Randy Bernard Stay? Damn, I hope so. Has his leadership had bumps in the road? Yes. Were many of these bumps in place before Randy? Yes. The training period is now over, the final lesson on motorsports has been taught. I’d like to see how the pupil utilizes his education. A fair read on the matter can be found at: Not to go all black helicopter here, but if you have seen all the slams in the mainstream press and people riling up discontent in the comment sections of other more well read blogs and forums, I sometimes wonder if someone with an agenda is seeding discontent.

Will the GoDaddy Sponsorship Stay? And if it does, who ends up in that seat? What are the dominoes that follow. Finding someone who can win races in that seat is probably easier (Vitor Meira for example) than finding someone with a big enough Q score to move the needle to make GoDaddy happy (the best candidate I can come up right now with is lounging around the ranch in Napolean, Ohio right now). I doubt that contracts in place with Dr Pepper/Snapple, Circle K or DHL would allow for a RHR or Marco shuffle into that car. Perhaps an investment is made to create a new star for the future. IDK. But this seems to be the biggest domino for the upcoming offseason.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Long Drive Home…

It’s been a week now.  A week since sitting for what seemed an eternity in the stands at LVMS.   Wondering if the endless wait was a horrible thing or something worse.  In that time I have thought about writing this post several times, with the time not being quite right each time.  I have spent the last week staring into large geological chasms of stupefying beauty where nature reveals the artistic creativity of God that has distracted me from pondering the mystery of purpose that constitutes the lives we lead.  The sting of the moment is gone and as memory is a degenerative thing for me, the time to record the feelings, thoughts and memories that remain is now at hand.  I appreciate your patience.
I am not one of the followers of the IndyCar community that is close to the participants, I am in large part a simple fan.  A fan who can point to limited interactions with drivers under controlled circumstances as well as consumption of the IndyCar media product as the basis for my feelings about those drivers.  My pre Vegas thoughts about Dan are summarized HERE.  So I can’t honestly call Dan a friend, Acquaintance is stretching the truth.  He was an Icon of the Sport I love, and as the sport grieves his loss I grieve as well.
Sunday morning began with much promise, the sun was shining, not that that is any great thing in Vegas, but the summer heat had given way to a fall warmth that would be the perfect summer day in the part of the world where I reside.  Jenny and I rode the elevator down at the Golden Nugget, where we were staying courtesy of the AJ Foyt promotion.  When the elevator opened and we walked from lobby of the Rush Tower out into the loading area for busses and into the parking garage we were hit by the large number of people milling about who were obviously involved with the sport as either a participant of the sporting enterprise, a sponsor or a fan.  At that point the day seemed even more promising than merely the weather.
The drive to LVMS from downtown was all of a whopping 13 minutes, parking was simple and the walk to the track reasonable.  We hit will call, picked up our tickets and paddock passes and then proceeded through the tunnel under the track as quickly as possible to “DisneyWorld” otherwise known as the garage and paddock.  Had the camera in hand and it was going to be a great day. 
The first character of the magical kingdom we came across was Simona DeSilvestro.  She looked tense today.  Jenny greeted and cheered her as she walked by.  Our efforts couldn’t elicit a smile or a wave.  This was not the Simona we had seen in the paddock times before.  Today, for many, there was concern both in the air and in the pits of stomachs.  From the young woman recently stung by oval tracks multiple times to veterans Tony Kanaan and Vitor Meira who seemed strangely distant this morning, we were reminded of our own concerned premonitions as well as those which had been pronounced by Alex Tagliani two weeks earlier at Kentucky.
For other drivers starting the 3rd or 4th race of their careers, it was a day of excitement and of promise that today would be a window of opportunity for the rest of their careers.  Pippa Mann smiled and laughed with all the Autograph seekers following her on her way from the final driver meeting to her Transporter.  Jay Howard walking the same path a mere 10 feet away, watched bemusedly as a pudgy guy old enough to be Pippa’s father pedaled backwards as fast as he could with his camera pointed at Pippa and his finger on the shutter the whole way.  Wade Cunningham posed and made incredible hulk gestures for me all while eating a pre race sub sandwich. 
There’s a fine line that separates Jay, Wade and Pippa from JR, Hinch and Ana in this sport.  Championships and wins are not the criteria that determines destiny for an IndyLights driver.  Wade Cunningham is one of the best IndyLights talents that IndyCar has chosen to ignore.  He was going to race hard this day and we cannot blame him for that, his future career was on the line.  I feel for him, the criticism he is starting to receive and the internalized grief and sorrow he must be feeling.  If he had spun the same way on any other day, everyone gets out of their cars, the carbon fibre gets swept up, the cars get loaded back on the truck and hauled back to the shop for repair and life would go on as usual.  It happens every race weekend.
That morning I saw JR alternately talking with John Barnes and signing autographs and posing for pictures.  JR is the one driver who recognizes me.  I think it dates back to that evening at in the Mid Ohio paddock during his second year in Lights when he was wandering anonymously through the paddock and I rushed up to him and excitedly asked to have my picture taken with him.  He wasn’t used to that sort of attention yet and I think it stuck with him.  Today I asked him to pose with me for a picture that Jenny could text the nephews.  They, by association, have become fans as well and the MMS message would make their day. 
I asked if I could step into the garage for some pictures, JR asked John Barnes who chuckled “Sure, after today no one will have any secrets anymore”.  Before I headed for the garage and started taking pictures of the engineers checking the mapping of buttons from the driver’s wheel to the Engineering computers, I stepped back and shook JR’s hand and told him “Be safe out there today”.  I hope I didn’t spook him, but in truth it is how we all feel about all the sport’s participants each and every race day.  I hope they never forget that.
We arrived at our seats in the Petty terrace with about 15 minutes to spare…I think…I don’t really remember much here.  It is all a blur for a while.  I remember texting with a friend of mine who was in the center grandstand.  The race started and I tweeted “4 laps in the field is still one massive 4 wide pack”.  Then it all happened, a cloud of smoke, fireballs and a storm of race car parts exploded in front of me, playing out in what seemed to be slow motion.  The moment lasted too long.  The only thing I could muster and tweet was “Oh my God”.  I counted cars as they pulled onto pit road.  14 unaccounted for.
We all sat and listened to IMS on the PA.  I checked twitter…Often.  Soon we all realized that everyone but Dan was out of their car and not in life threatening circumstances, but no word on Dan yet.  From the Petty terrace we could see the helicopter warming up in front of us.  We could see the canopy where the ambulance would pull in and the doors a driver would go through to the med center.  No ambulance yet.  It was taking a while. 
I had a long lens with me, it would get pretty close to the scene down there.  I decided not to use it.  Somewhere between “Press” and “Fan” lies the “Blogger”.  I have always considered myself and this forum to be closer to the “Fan” end of the spectrum.  Real news gatherers and photographers, were on the scene and this was their Job.  My job was to sit, hope and pray for Dan. 
In succession the ambulance arrived at the care center and the car was brought up, shrouded in a yellow tarp.  Underneath it was the outline of a car that clearly had no roll hoop.  At that point I knew, no matter how this turned out, things would never be the same.  I worried about Sam Schmidt having a driver suffer the same outcome he endures to this day.  Realism was setting in for me, that paralysis was likely the most positive outcome the day might bring.
They wheeled Dan out on the stretcher, put him in the copter and it took off.  Then we waited.  Apparently rumors were flying left and right, but I heard none of them.  That is a tribute to the fine people I follow on twitter, while they may have heard or guessed or suspected things, they never reported what they didn’t know to be absolutely true.  You are a great group.
In my mind I waffled on whether the wait was a good or a bad thing.  If he had passed, they would just tell us.  If it was taking a while, then heroic efforts were underway to ensure two young boys still had a father.  I was bargaining.  We all were.  Then I saw the 98 machine wheeled off pit road.  My heart sank.  The only car the Sam Schmidt team had left in the field was going home.  I tweeted what I saw and then just sat and waited for the word to come.  Tony Kanaan was on the big screen after the drivers meeting.  The look on his face said it all.
The announcement came, the crowd let out a moan and then went silent, sitting quietly in a saddened shock.  I sat in tears and we waited for the 5 laps salute.  The saddest 5 laps IndyCar has ever seen.  I pulled out the camera and started shooting.  I got the 77 on the scoring pylon.  I got the crews and league officials lined up on the white pit road line and I got the cars crossing the scoring line three by three.  Most of all I distracted myself from the reality of the moment.
The crowd started to dissipate after the salute laps were completed.  We sat for a while longer, there would be traffic in the lots.  We had no place to go.  It dawned on me at that moment, thinking back to the 500 just four months earlier, that Dan had not only done a miraculous thing on the track, winning the 500 for a team competing in only its second race, but he had also achieved a sort of elusive perfection of style and fashion.  Crisp white with Orange and Gray highlights, all complimenting themselves in a manner that only Dan could have pulled off.  Is it a silly thought?  Sure it is, but I doubt a driver will ever look that good in a suit or a car ever again. 
We staggered back to the car, the sun was catching up with me, I needed water and was beginning to get a pretty annoying headache.  We sat in the rental as the rest of the crowd streamed and rolled by. 
I didn’t know Dan and he didn’t know me in any meaningful way, but as Jenny and I sat there, my thoughts drifted back to a time three years earlier.  At a go Kart track about 20 minutes from my home there is a high profile endurance Kart race every October.  In 2008, upon hearing the list of IndyCar drivers participating in the event with the Karting regulars, we decided to go check it out.  One of the participants was Dan.  Where we stood was quite a bit away from the drivers having their prerace meeting, but we could spot Dan.  It was hard not to.  He was wearing this brand new, blank, but blindingly white driver’s suit.  He couldn’t be missed.  We noticed that after the meeting he was heading back to the garages, specifically, the men’s room. 
Jenny and I knew better that to pester him while he was in the bathroom so we waited about 10 yards away from the door, Jenny with cell phone camera in hand.  He exited the bathroom, we gave him 5 good steps and then “Smile Dan!” He did and then quipped with a grin that we at least gave him the dignity of getting out of the men’s room.  Yes we were star stuck dorks at that point in our following of IndyCar – there’s no denying it. 
He hopped in his Kart and the race began.  It was going fairly smoothly for a while, but then not sure what led to it, but we saw a Kart sporting a driver in the shiniest white driver’s suit you’ll ever see, go off the track and into a pile of hay bales.  Dan got out from under the kart and bales, got some help flipping the Kart over and then drove into the pits.  Last we saw of Dan that day.
About six months later, in Milwaukee for the last well attended race at that great IndyCar track, Jenny and I were going through the autograph lines.  We chose to hit Dan’s first.  We got to Dan and I asked him how his Karting career was coming, he said something like it was going great and he was looking forward to doing as much of it as he could in the future.  I suggested with a smile, that he be careful Karting in New Castle, I heard the hay bales there ate Englishmen alive.  He laughed and said he knew of no such thing.  We both laughed.  Not wanting to hold the line up further we moved along, where we met a seemingly shy female Lights driver with green hair from England.   I glanced back at Dan, he looked up, made Eye contact and winked.
As we sat in the car in the parking lot, I kept wanting the remind Jenny of those moments, but I couldn’t.  I’d lose it.
We finally got going from the track but with the lack of fluids and headache catching up with me, we pulled off at the next exit and went looking for some water and Excedrin at the local truck stop.  After checking out we glanced down the hallway towards the Pizza Hut attached to the convenience store.  At the drink fountain I saw Scott Dixon.  He looked shell shocked.  I felt the need to do something, but what could I possibly say to the man who just lost a former teammate, who shared the same role in a risky profession with two children of his own.  I can’t begin to imagine the thoughts and feelings that were weighing on Scott in that moment.  I walked up patted him on the back and said something like “Scott, you guys are our heroes, take care”.  I wish I had said something better, but I don’t really know what that might have been.  Jenny wanted to give him a hug, but touched his arm and said something they both got a little smile out of.  Perhaps leaving him alone would have been the right thing to have done, but even if we don’t know each other, on that day we were all family.
Once back downtown, we got on the parking garage in the Nugget and began the ride down.  The floor below us, the elevator stopped and a man got on.  Not sure if it was on his hat or his Jacket, but “Las Vegas Motor Speedway Safety Team” was embroidered.  He carried a lunch cooler with him, reminded me of a Steel worker of old heading home from a long day at the mill.  He saw we had been to the race, I asked him “Rough day I Imagine?” He replied “Yes it was” and looked away.  We did as well.  I wish I had thanked him for the work that he and his co-workers do each weekend.  I like to think that heaven is a place where others will know the feelings in our hearts, not just the words we managed to utter in the moment.
Once back in the room, I took a handful of pills and laid down hoping to feel better.  After an hour and a half I got up and decided to scroll through the images I had taken of the Parade laps.  Posting some of those would be how the blog would mark Dan’s passing. As I scrolled though the images, I hit the back button once more and saw an image I did not expect to see.  Car parts, brake and tire smoke and oil fires.  I did not remember doing so, but apparently, in the moment, I had reached for my camera and sprayed the shutter.  I put the camera down, nearly dropping it.  Quickly DM’ed a friend and asked him what he thought I should do with the images.  He said I didn’t need to do anything with them.  The world will have seen enough already.  The parade lap images were what the IndyCar world needed, not fireballs and carnage.  Thank You Doug.
I ran downstairs and over to the Golden Gate to get a turkey sandwich at the snack counter.  After eating, on my way back the lights went down on Fremont street.  The light and video show of the Fremont Experience was about to start.  This hour’s selection…Don McClean’s “American Pie”.  Standing amongst thousands of others bemused by the electronic spectacle, I fought back tears and thought to myself that surely today was the day “The racing died”.
The next three hours are a blur of ESPN segments and insomnia.  I eventually found myself again with my camera and a tripod.  Walking up and down Fremont taking time lapse images of every neon sign I could find.  As I staggered back to the nugget at 2 am, the street cleaners were out with their machines cleaning off one night’s hedonistic residue in preparation for the next.  A trio of hookers were cruising for the evening’s last customer.  No ma’am, I’m fine, moving right along. 
I got up to my room and again began to look at the images on my camera.  Past the 107 images of neon, Past the 24 shots of the parade laps, were 10 other images.  Working from the reverse order from which they were taken, I zoomed in and examined each of them.  When I got to the third one in the string, I saw a car, upside down, in the catch fence.  Behind it a fireball reminiscent of a comet in the sky.  At that moment I broke down and cried.  There was nothing else that could be done.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

IndyCar Oval Fans Step Up to Save Race in 2012

Editor's Note:  If you are new to reading this blog, be aware that a significant number of the posts here are FAKE NEWS.  This blog is to IndyCar reporting what the Onion is to CNN.  Any quotes anywhere in this blog were never said by anyone, anytime or anywhere.
With that said, and by no means speaking for IndyCar or any of it's associated properties...If you think the following fake news item might well be a good idea, send a check to IndyCar designating "Save Kentucky" in the memo section.  Have a fine afternoon.  JP.

Threatened with the prospect of losing another two ovals for the 2012 season, IndyCar and its fans banded together to do the unthinkable … Create a Fan Sponsored Race.  The IndyCar Nation 300 at Kentucky Speedway will run October 7th, 2012 and will be a race for the fans, sponsored by the fans and Owned by the fans. 
“We were in a pinch here” Said Randy Bernard CEO of IndyCar, “We had to do something different.  The financials just weren’t adding up for our return to either Kentucky or New Hampshire.  Track owners just weren't selling enough tickets locally to support these events.  We were in a situation where we needed to find title sponsors for each race or they both were done, off the schedule.”  Typically, title sponsorship runs about $300,000 for an IndyCar event.
The league resorted to the unusual business model of letting Fans monetarily support their own favorite race type as a last ditch resort.  Bernard continued “I have always thought, if I had had a $20 bill for every single person that sent me an e-mail or bitched about the lack of ovals in Miller’s mailbag or Cavin’s Q&A.  I’d be a rich man.” 
Then IndyCar PR VP Amy Konrath had an epiphany… “You know we only need 15,000 people to give $20 each to make either one of these events happen.” Things took off from there.
“We beleive there is a market for open wheel oval racing in this country, but unfortunately it is not geographically concentrated enough to make local events viable.  This funding plan is a great opportunity for all those people who say they like to watch oval racing on TV but Can't get to a track near them to see the kind of racing they like.  Through Direct fan sponsorhip, Our fans directly determine the kind of racing that we as a league do.  In many ways it’s like a pay per view event, in fact, the plan is less expensive than most pay per view events out there.” commented Bernard.
Heroic, fan sponsored efforts to have a say in the destiny of professional sports teams or events is nothing new.  In the mid 70’s the city of Indianapolis staged a telethon on behalf of the Indiana Pacers to raise the entry fee dictated by the NBA required of franchises from the defunct ABA to join the League.  Even in IndyCar racing fans voluntarily stepped up with petty cash donations to keep fan favorite Sarah Fisher running during the 2008 500. 
Bernard continued “We hope to have a website up within two weeks to begin accepting Fan support for the Kentucky event.  It will run through the end of the 2012 500 in May.  Depending on the amount raised, multiple oval events in Kentucky, New Hampshire, Milwaukee and Chicagoland could be added to the 2012 schedule.  For every $300,000 raised, we will add another oval race to the 2012 schedule.  If everyone at the 500 dropped $1 in one of the collection Jars at we plan to position around IMS in May, that would be enough to get Chicagoland back on the schedule.”
Fans who donate to the sponsorship program and attend a race in person will be allowed new levels of access to the league and the drivers themselves with invitations to special hospitality tents, driver appearances and garage access.  “The fans are our sponsors” Said Bernard “We are going to treat them as such”
When asked what he thought of the effort Bruton Smith, President of SMI, the company that owns Kentucky Speedway and New Hampshire Speedway offered “Gotta give it to these oval loving IndyCar fans, They are a dedicated bunch.  We screw ‘em for $80 a ticket and they come back for more!”

Friday, August 26, 2011

JP Does Sonoma…If Delta Cooperates

SO I have a business trip to San Francisco next week…and it just happens that IndyCar is racing at Sonoma…Hmmmm
If Delta gets me in on time Saturday and I navigate traffic successfully I should hit the track in time for Quali’s and then Pix and perhaps an interview or two afterwards.  Stay tuned for updates Saturday and Sunday night.
I am interested in seeing the crowd this year.  Last year’s crowd was reported to be a healthy increase over 2009.  I have a suspicion that the crowd could continue to grow. Two reasons: 
First the hometown hero, JR Hildebrand, makes his return home with quite a bit more notoriety than his cameo appearance last year.  JR has spent the week out and about in the Bay area promoting the race, most recently showing off the whitest legs in the paddock to the crowd at the Giants game.
Second, Ho Ping Tung … Huh? What? Ho Ping Tung?  How does he move the needle?  Bear with me…
I have been the holder of a mini season ticket package for the Indiana Pacers for several years and no matter how bad the Pacers had been in recent years there were three teams that would guarantee a full house.  Lakers, Cavs and then the Rockets.  Bryant, LeBron and Yao Ming the stars for the three teams.  Yao’s army showed up in numbers for every road game the Chinese star played.  Does Ho Ping Tung have an army of followers?  While Ho Ping Tung is ethnically Chinese he is not from China, does this make a difference?  The city with the largest Chinese community in the country might give us some clues…Of course did anyone bother to tell the local Chinese media?  I have no clue.
So yeah this is a pretty lame post. Despite the available material, I just haven’t really been feeling that worked up or opinionated about anything as of late.  There was going to be another tidbit here, but frankly it is worthy of an entire post sometime when I have a little more enthusiasm. 
Enjoy the race this weekend and make sure you have plenty of beverages on hand, George Phillips suggests watching Sonoma makes him thirsty.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Looking for a Precedent...

I tweeted this earlier tonight but tweets are fickle things w/o lasting permanence if you weren’t paying attention.  Please answer this question for me: 
In a basketball game:  a referee makes a mistake and inadvertently blows his whistle, after the whistle, an offensive player takes a dribble and then hits a shot.  Does the shot count???
In Football, the play is in progress, the a defender attempts to tackle the ball carrier, the referee thinking the ball  carrier’s knee has hit the ground blows the whistle and calls the play dead.  When in fact the ball carrier’s knee doesn’t hit the ground and a split second later fumbles the ball which is picked up by the defensive team.  After 20 minutes of replay review, Who’s ball is it?
Pretty clearly we are breaking new ground here, so the best I can do is follow precedents set by other sports who have similar situations arise…All due respect to NHL and Oriol Servia, This is Ryan Hunter Reay’s race.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

2012 IndyCar to Feature New PART System to Enhance Competition

On Monday and Tuesday of this week the long awaited 2012 IndyCar turned its first laps on the track at Mid Ohio.  Amidst the hubbub over the looks, the sounds and the racing potential of the new vehicle another significant feature was overlooked by many commentators.  The 2012 car will feature the revolutionary Position Adjusted Racing Turbo System.  The PART system is designed to adjust the boost settings for each car based on its relative position on track.  The second place car will run at 5 HP more than the first place car, the third place car 10 HP more than first place and so forth on down the line.  Based on the scoring for each previous lap the PART system will update the boost allowed to each car reflecting the most current position for each car.  Expectations are that the additional HP boost for trailing cars will increase the number of overtaking opportunities at places like Mid Ohio or Sonoma and vastly increase the competitiveness of racing overall.
Asked about how the system was operating during its first test, Technical director for the 2012 car program Tony Cottman was quoted as saying “Yes it seemed to be working very well during our test.  We had some concerns as the electronics involved rely on an electronic stream of data from our timing and scoring system.  Some people have reported having issues with that stream in the past.  We have observed no problems so far, we can’t wait to get two cars on the track to test the system further”
When asked why the PART system was developed, Cottman responded, “We really want to think about the enjoyment of our fans as being vital to improving the sport.  We have repetitively heard that fans find passes made on track to be entertaining.  Our first effort at engineering additional passing into races, the Non Defense rule, has been met with only lukewarm reaction from fans”.
Perceptions of the competitiveness of racing as a sport seem to be a concern in many circles.  It seems that in the age of digitally enhanced car chases in action movies and race based video games, racing fans are no longer content to simply watch the fastest car and driver combination race off to victory. 
The first series to dabble with rule changes to enhance racing competition was nascar.  In the 80's Nascar began a policy of “Competition Yellers” to insure that if the lead car was about to lap a popular and marketable driver with a nice sponsorship package, a yellow was dropped in order to clean hot dog wrappers off the track and allow the other cars to bunch up behind the lead car again.
Champcar and later IndyCar were next to tinker with competition by introducing technology aimed at increasing competition during races.  Multiple compounds of racing tires and a various versions of a “Push to Pass” system that allows drivers to temporarily increase the horsepower of their cars by pushing a button on their steering wheel have been utilized by the league.  Additionally, the non defense rule introduced by the league makes it illegal for car a leading car to defend any racing line other than the preferred racing line.
These changes ultimately did not disturb the balance of power on the track as after the Competition Yeller, the fastest car was still allowed to drive away after the drop of the green flag and the soft compound tires and P2P’s were doled out in equal shares across competitors.  This level handed approach to increasing passing was blown out of the water earlier this year when Formula one introduced it’s new Drag Reduction System.  The DRS shifts the balance of power towards the trailing car by allowing it to reduce the drag created its rear wing down long straightaways, allowing the trailing car to accelerate to much quicker speeds than the leading car. 
The DRS has reintroduced the concept of “Passing” back into F1 after its disappearance following the arrival of Micheal Schumacher during the early 90’s.  Many fans have raved about the effect the DRS has had on the show “Wow! I saw a car go past another car! I’ve never seen such a thing before!” Said an excited Sean Clayton.
But not all fans are impressed.  “It’s horrible!  It’s not racing” said a distraught John Pembrokeshire.  “It’s like the second car was shot out of a bloody cannon and just went buggering on by the poor wanker who was leading”
It remains to see how IndyCar fans will react to the redistribution of horsepower to cars that had previously under performed.  Well known skeptic, curmudgeon and opponent of change, George Phillips was quoted as saying “It sounds like Socialism to me”.
Cottman was more optimistic when asked how he thought fans would react to the 20th place car running at 100 more horsepower than the leader, “I think when our fans see these new cars rolling into turn 1 at Long Beach with the new PART system, they will be really excited at what they see.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Forgotten American

Other than the words “Tony George” it is perhaps the most polarizing topic in IndyCar racing today, the number of Americans in the IndyCar series.  The number is up this year, but a defection is looming as are the retirements of some of the 500 one off drivers. 

For many of the remaining domestic IndyCar fans and the international contingent that follows the series, the count of Americans is not a blip on their radar and it represents an aspect of American Culture they don’t completely grasp or share.  But for the fans that the League insists it is targeting to regain: Racing fans it has lost over the past 15 years, it is a significant issue.  On a Friday night go to any short dirt track running sprint cars, modifides or late models or try the local drag strip and ask the throngs of ticket buying fans the question “Why don’t you watch IndyCar?” the first answer always given is always the same.  “There aren’t enough Americans”.  It is issue number 1 to regrowing the sport if your core acquisition targets are endemic racing fans.
I have commented on the issue before, I tend to fall in line with many of the current IndyCar fans…it doesn’t really matter that much in a general sense.  It is only in the implication for popularity, ticket sales, ratings and ultimately business that the issue concerns me.  My opinion is this, if your core markets are The US, Brazil and Canada, then 2/3 of your drivers must come from those countries in order to be marketably viable in those locales.  The other Third?  I don’t care where they are from as long as the talent is more pronounced than the checkbooks are deep.  It is hard to be world class if the world is not part of your pool of competitors.

If you have any doubt what locally grown drivers can do for race attendence or TV ratings, we need to look no further than the most recent race in Toronto.  Race attendence was up to it's highest level since reunification. Even more, the ratings on TSN were the highest for an IndyCar race in nearly 15 years.  1.2 Million Canadians tuned in to watch a recently relevant Alex Tagliani and the hometown debut of James Hinchliffe.  Canadians turned out and tuned in en-masse to see the largest number of Canadians ever in an IICS race.  Home grown talent matters in Canada and it matters here in the US also.
Though he would probably never come out and admit it is a critical concern, Randy Bernard must understand the issue.  With a glimpse through the driver roster in Indy Lights I think you will find evidence that it is an issue he has tried to address.  While the number of full time Americans is small, 1 to be exact, additional sprinklings of American influence is seen in every race.  What’s more, until this past summer, many of these drivers probably weren’t on IndyCar’s radar, nor was IndyCar on theirs. 
A scholarship was created to find the USAC champion Bryan Clauson seat time for the oval part of the Lights Season.  Connor Daly was persuaded to keep at least a toe in the IndyCar water as he pursues his F1 dreams.  A key player in nascar’s diversity program, Chase Austin, was introduced to Willy T Ribbs and a new lights team was created.  From a year in European GP3, Josef Newgarten returned home to try his hand in an American Open Wheel series.  It may not equate to having Coach K knock on the door of a 6’ 10” 16 year old with ball skills, but I think Randy has been on the recruiting trail.  The names listed above represent his first recruiting class.  His next is to be revealed over the next month and will make their debuts in Vegas.

As a group, I think they have solid potential.  Most need more than this year to be ready for the big cars.  Newgarten and Daly have made their presence known with victories.  Josef looks to be the series champion at this juncture and will have Road to Indy $ in hand to look for a ride in the IICS proper next year.  Clauson has kept it clean and has been top five in all three races he has run.  Austin is climbing the highest mountain, his racing to date is in cars as different to an IndyCar than anything thing out there sans a dragster and he is driving for a new team that still doesn’t know where all the parts fit on the car.  Nonetheless, Chase has kept it clean and pointed in the right direction.
But there are other Americans that should not be forgotten…Drivers for whom Randy should rekindle an interest in the sport and make potential sponsor support visits on their account.  I can name a handful, but for me one stands out a little more than the rest. 
On Opening Day in May I was wandering through Gasoline Alley and I caught a strange logo on the back of a fleece jacket.  A1GP apparel is quite the rare sight anywhere these days as the international off season series went defunct a year and a half ago.  In the Jacket – Jonathan Summerton.  A credible and deserving driver, a member of the Handful mentioned above.  But in this case he was a reminder.  The second reminder came later that day.  It was a short session for the IndyCar teams, but in Virginia the Grand Am Series was racing and as the results came in and IndyCar drivers began to tweet about it.  My thoughts went to “I wonder How John Edwards did today?”  What was unfortunate…I don’t think Edwards was even racing that day.
A lot of hoo haa surrounds the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system and well it should, it is a vital tool for IndyCar to organically grow Drivers, owners and team members.  From 2007 – 2009 Edwards competed in the Mazda sponsored and powered development series, but back then it had ceased being the Road to ChampCar and was not yet the Road to Indy.  It was simply the Road to Nowhere.  In 2007 at the age of 16 Edwards competed in the Formula Atlantics series, he finished 9th in the standings.  Some older but more familiar names participated with him.  Raphael Matos was the series champ, The Canadian dynamic duo of Wickens and Hinchcliffe finished 3rd and 4th.  Jr Hildebrand placed 7th and Simona DeSilvestro 19th. 
In 2008 with no funding, Edwards, still only 17 stepped down to Star Mazda, missed the first race and then dominated the rest of the season, becoming it’s champion and earning a scholarship ride back in Formula Atlantics for the next year.  Formula Atlantics limped through the 2009 season and never answered the call for the 2010 season.  2009 was dominated by Edwards, Summerton and Desilvestro each claiming 4 victories apiece.  The season is primarily remembered for the exploits of Simona.  But when Simona received an assisted DNF at Laguna Seca in the season Finale, Edwards was the champion. 
But as the champion of a defunct series, he had nowhere to go.  Mazda paired him with 2009 Star Mazda Champ Adam Christodoulou in one of its factory GT cars in the Rolex series for 2010.  The pair won at Lime Rock and unfortunately for the life of me I cannot find where they finished overall in the championship. 
In 2011, that ride lasted for the 24 Hours of Daytona only.  After sitting several races out, Edwards is now schlepping around the middle of the field for a non factory mazda team.  It’s the racer’s story told 1000 times over:  Plenty of talent, no cash, no opportunity.  Many fans have liked drivers who fit this description.  Jonathan Summerton, Joey Miller, Jonathan Bomarito, Joey Hand, Andy Lally or Frankie Muniz all Americans with more talent than cash or sponsorship. 
At the end of May, Mike Kelley, President of Izod Declared that Simona DeSilvestro would be the face of the Izod brand in racing going forward, many speculate that means she will replace Ryan Briscoe at Penske next year.  Way too early to ponder any of the dominoes, but if Entergy looses its driver to Penske and Izod, I wonder if the Nuclear/Entergy Brass will remember that Edwards won an Atlantics Championship with their name on the side of car?
Born in Louisville, now living in Cincinnati, The youngest ever winner of a formula open wheel car race in America, Red Bull Driver Search winner, Star Mazda Champion and Formula Atlantics Champion.  Everything it would seem that Randy Bernard and IndyCar could want or desire in a young American driver. 
If you turn in to a Grand Am race and see a Mazda RX7 with Sahlen’s (yeah the cold cut people) on the side of it, that could be Edwards.  I wonder if his dream of driving an open wheel car still remains?  Does he remember the IndyCar series?  I don’t know, but it does seem the IndyCar series has forgotten him.

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…

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