Thursday, March 27, 2014

Indycar 2014-the People

With the season opener at St. Petersburg this weekend, I'd like to share some comments on the 2014 Indycar personnel lineup. It was going to be just drivers, but I have something to say about Derrick Walker's comments in a recent article. In no particular order (other than what's on the Indycar website):

Derrick Walker
Walker talked about a lot of rule changes for the 2014 season, many of which will certainly ignite controversy (no more double-file restarts???). The most important thing isn't the rule changes themselves. Rather, it's that someone at Indycar is talking about what they are and why they made them. You know, something befitting a professional sports organization. I doubt these comments would have been made to anyone in the press, say, 5 years ago. The mentality was (to this fan) so private-club.

Marco Andretti
Much was said about how 2013 was going to be his breakout year. Indeed, he was a strong performer for a good bit of the season. Part of that may have been because everyone else seemed intent on being as inconsistent as possible for the rest of the year.

Sebastien Bourdais
I believe getting away from Dragon racing is a good thing. Inconsistent on-track and a lawyer magnet off, one wonders what went on behind the scenes there. KV is a step up, if maybe not to the top as Bourdais would like. Prediction: Not a championship contender, but this team will dazzle at times and challenge for wins.

Ed Carpenter
I was pulling for Carpenter to develop on the road courses, but he made a good decision for his business and hired a specialist for those rounds. Conspiracy theorists may suggest that awarding double points for the 500 milers is a ploy to give Ed a chance at the championship.

Helio Castroneves
I almost feel bad for Helio, since everyone has already written him off for the 2014 championship. His unsuccessful 2013 championship run was regarded as his best shot at the title. See Marco Andretti above for the reason why.

Scott Dixon
My impression is that Dixon is the most feared driver on the grid. Odds are at least even on a 4th championship for him. If only the fans would give him the same love...

James Hinchcliffe
There are so many trite cliches that could describe Hinch's 2013 season. I think we should come up with a new one. How about... "He was leading the pack...Or bringing up the back!" That's pretty terrible, I think I'll go with it. Much better than having to hear "feast or famine!" again.

Tony Kanaan
This might be our last best chance to see what TK can really do with a car, especially when paired with a 3-time champ for a teammate.

Charlie Kimball
It's a toss-up: Who gets less respect-Helio Castroneves, or Charlie Kimball? Every piece written about him has a "but..." somewhere in it. 

Juan Pablo Montoya
Did 7 years in stock cars dull his reflexes? Is he still hungry? Can he keep his temper in check? I hope so. He might be the most exciting man on track this season. Remember 1999-2000 in CART? I do. I was there, man. I saw it...

Carlos Munoz
It's very difficult to tell on TV just how hard a driver is pushing it. Munoz' qualifying run in the Fast 9 at Indianapolis last year was an exception to that rule. I'm looking forward to watching him all season. I can't find complete stats on this short notice, but I would bet that he has the third-best average 500 finish in the field (2nd).

Will Power
If Scott Dixon is the most feared driver in the series, Will Power is the least scared. With his 500-mile win at Fontana last fall, the final piece of his confidence fell into place. I'm picking Will Power to win the championship in 2014. And he's going to have a good time doing it.

Graham Rahal
By my (possibly inaccurate) count, this is the 38th year in a row that Rahal has had no excuses and absolutely must perform. By teaming up with his father, both are betting their reputations that he will. With a rebuilding year under their belts, this should be the year Graham breaks through and regularly contends for wins. Seriously. We mean it this time.

Oriol Servia
Yes, yes, and yes! Finally, in a car he deserves! Er, well, for at least 4 races, anyway... 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Indycar Winter: Some comments

It's March here in Wisconsin, and we're still frozen in the middle of a winter that just won't end. The Indycar season is a few weeks away yet, but I thought I'd run down some of the stories that have come up during the off-season:

Ryan Briscoe to Ganassi; Tony Kanaan fills Dario Franchitti's old Target seat:
Briscoe may not have been the flashiest or the fan-favorite driver to fill this seat (I had really hoped for Justin Wilson), but that doesn't mean that he didn't earn or deserve it. He's a proven winner who's worked with Ganassi before. I can't think of anything bad to say about him. If I were Chip Ganassi, it would be hard to justify not hiring him.

National Guard to RLL:
I didn't realize what a stink this would become when it was first announced. Now Indycar, RLLR, and a bunch of other parties are facing lawsuits from Panther Racing's principals. This after they fired a popular American driver in the middle of the season (even if one could understand why), hadn't won a race in years, and asked for $5 million more than RLLR. Sounds pretty clear-cut to me. But I'm not a zillionaire team owner with a track record of not caring about the series' real customers...

Allen Bestwick to ABC Broadcast Team:
While I'm sure Marty Reid, Scott Goodyear, and Eddie Cheever are fine people who are fun to be around, they had zero charisma or chemistry on TV. They looked barely interested in what was going on, much less able to convey the excitement of an Indycar race to fans watching on TV. A change was long overdue. I think Bestwick is a great choice. He always did a good job on MRN radio in the '90s, knows what he's doing, and will be a familiar, comfortable face for any NASCAR fans who happen to tune in. He also has something underrated in a racing broadcaster-a great voice. Bob Jenkins might be the best example of someone who can speak loudly and clearly without apparent effort.

Revised Championship Points System:
After NASCAR and Formula 1 did their best to ruin competition and destroy what credibility they have with revisions to their points systems, Indycar made changes that, well, kind of make sense. In a nutshell, 500 mile races (Indianapolis, Pocono, and Fontana) are each worth double the points of any other race while Indianapolis 500 qualifiers score from 33 to 1 point for making the big show, with bonus points paid to the Fast Nine qualifiers.
The extra points paid for the 500-milers are a sign of how important Indycar (rightly) sees its longest races. They are the series' biggest, fastest, longest, and most prestigious races, and now the competitors have reason to look at them the same way. If you don't like it, well, I guess think of it as more closely matching points paid to miles driven.
Points for Indy 500 qualifying seemed a bit stranger, until I gave it some thought. It kind of dovetails with last week's post about bump day. Without any significant bumping (and all the qualifying on TV), awarding points by qualifying position gives the day some real stakes. Points for the Fast Nine mean that no one who makes it that far will be able to rest on his laurels. With every position worth a point, competitors will be much less likely to make a slow, safe run knowing that they'll start at least ninth.
With the consolidation of 'real' qualifying events to one day and the awarding of points to the results of that day-it's almost like adding an extra race weekend to the schedule.

Verizon as Series Title Sponsor:
It was recently announced that Verizon would be the title sponsor of the Indycar series for the next several years. This is fantastic news. Not only from a cash- and activation-(which reportedly will be far greater than what came from Izod the past couple of years) point of view, but because this is the exact kind of sponsor Indycar needs. Often ignored is the 'reverse sponsorship' effect-where identification with the branding sponsor brings attention to the series, instead of vice-versa. Think of someone not interested at all in racing-then he sees the car sponsored by his favorite brand of beer. Without knowing anything at all about the series, the driver, the team, the history, or anything else, he has become a fan of, say, the Budweiser car. The brand's advertising has made him aware of the series, instead of the opposite, intended effect.
The best sponsors in this case are national consumer brands (companies that sell their wares only to professionals-Snap-On tools, DuPont paint, for example-are not 'consumer brands') with near-universal recognition and loyal followings. Other than Verizon, Target, HP, and Shell/Pennzoil, there aren't very many recognizable sponsors, and that much less for the casual fan to latch onto and identify with. Hopefully Indycar's marketing staff is courting companies like this; my ideal grid would have the Pepsi car, the Coca-Cola car, the Google car, the Apple car, the Budweiser car, the Miller car, the Wal-mart car, and so on.

I'm hoping to have a couple more posts up before the green flag at St. Pete. I have some things to say about the various driver moves and everything surrounding the Indianapolis 500.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

There's No Need to Mourn Bump Day. At Least Not This Year.

Indycar announced last Friday a revised qualifying procedure for the Indianapolis 500: All cars run on Saturday to get in the race. For Sunday, times are scrapped and the fastest 9 run in a shootout to determine the pole sitter. Each car in the rest of the field makes another 4-lap run to set the starting order. This procedure, obviously designed to showcase the race for the pole on TV, is undoubtedly inciting a lot of anger among fans: Bump day has been effectively relegated to Saturday, robbing the fans of that high drama in favor of just setting the field and running for the pole. Once, the final Sunday of qualifying was the most dramatic day in motorsports as drivers at the bottom of the speed charts chased their dreams by making last-minute deals and hanging it all out for 4 laps. On the last day of qualifying in 2014, all but the 9 fastest cars will be making qualifying runs that do nothing but rearrange their starting order. The fastest 9 will be going for the pole. It's all glory for those 9, not much drama for anyone else.

The effective death of bump day will make some fans apoplectic. And I understand that. Rage may be a pretty reasonable reaction to the loss of a tradition like this. But it won't bother me at all, at least not this year. And it shouldn't bother anyone else, no matter how strident a traditionalist he or she may be.

That's because, in 2014, it's unlikely there will be any bumping. I'm not sure if 33 entrants have been identified at this point on the calendar. 'Bump Day' would have been a drama-free (i.e. boring on TV) event anyway. If ABC's cameras and air time are going to be focused on the Speedway for a few hours, everyone who wants more exposure for the series should agree that the shootout for the pole is a much better use of that time. That's at least worth points and money, unlike a glorified practice session.

The future is a different story, at least if there will be bumping. If there are, say, 36 or more entrants in 2015, then I would advocate tweaking the format again: Everyone runs on Saturday to determine the Fast 9 and provisional positions 10-33. Sunday is for the actual Fast 9 shootout and bumping. The question is, if you want to hook casual viewers, which do you run first: The bumping, or the Fast 9?

Another question: 2014's Fast 9 shootout gives each of the pole contenders one 4-lap shot at the pole. Which makes for a better show: That format, or the timed format of a couple years back that allowed for multiple attempts during the shootout? I thought it was pretty cool to see Ryan Briscoe waiting in the cockpit of his car, helmeted and suited up, ready to go in case someone bested his time.

Please stay tuned, I am preparing some new posts for this blog and plan to roll them out as the Indycar season approaches!