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.

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