29 June 2010

The Pessimist's Take

On Monday, coming on the heels of the IZOD IndyCar Series announcement of the addition of New Hampshire to the 2011 schedule, I wrote an article praising Randy Bernard for bringing a sense of energy and forward-thinking to the series.

the Indianapolis Business Journal's Anthony Schoettle does his level best to throw water on the idea that Bernard is changing much of anything to this point in his four-month tenure.

Frankly, I could not disagree more.  Does the series have issues?  Yes.  Without a doubt.  Flaggin TV ratings are an ominous cloud on the horizon, but as any resident of the Midwest knows, those can break apart and dissolve into nothing as well.

And to say that Bernard has not signed a single major sponsor seems wrong, too.  
I seem to recall Sunoco coming on board in late May to become the official fuel retailer and convenience store of the series.  And if Sunoco plays up this partnership, as they've done with NASCAR (I see Sunoco-NASCAR stickers all over the east coast as I drive out there every summer), that relationship is a solid one.

Rumors of an official rental-car company sponsorship continue to percolate, as well.

The schedule is seemingly improving, and Bernard has made it clear that he will partner with tracks that will market and support the IndyCar Series, which makes too much sense not to have happened earlier.  To boot, Bernard feels as if he can build a 24-race schedule in the near future.

All signs point to 2012 being a massive year for the series.  With new chassis/engine packages expected to roll out that season, coming shortly after the Centennial celebration at IMS, the IZOD IndyCar Series is poised to make a splash over the next few years.  The ABC/ESPN TV contract will be up as well, forcing the network to make a crucial decision - promote the heck out of the series, or risk losing it to NBC/Comcast (i.e. Versus).

Sure, Randy Bernard hasn't cured all the ills of the series.  And for a certain faction, he will never be able to solve some of the fissures that have occurred over the last 10 years.  But I would venture to guess most fans have been remarkably impressed by Randy Bernard and feel as if he is leading the series in the right direction.

28 June 2010

Randy Bernard Continues to Impress

Within the Indianapolis Star's N-word notebook, the IZOD IndyCar Series makes an appearance this week, after Dario Franchitti turned laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, promoting the return of open-wheel racing to the oval.

And while the return of the IndyCar Series to the northeast is a major move in the first place (you think Boston won't be utilized again by IZOD for a giant party leading up to the race?), perhaps bigger is Bernard's seemingly larger vision for the future of the series' schedule.

Frankly, getting coverage for the IZOD IndyCar Series in the Boston Globe should count as a small victory.  The only other time the series gets coverage is for the Indianapolis 500; the rest of the time, the series is lumped in with general racing results and news.

 From Bernard's press conference on Sunday came the following news:

The New Hampshire oval joins a Baltimore street race as new events on the 2011 schedule, which Bernard said he hopes to have finalized by late summer. Still to be decided are what tracks will drop off to maintain the current level, although Bernard said "in a perfect world, with a perfect television contract," he believes the series could eventually sustain a 24-race schedule.
"From what we're hearing from promoters, there is that much interest out there," he said.
24 races?  I've speculated on future schedules before, but little did I think the IZOD IndyCar Series would seriously consider expanding to a 24-race season any time soon.  I figured going to 20 races would be about as envelope-pushing as it got.  To be honest, I'm happy to be wrong.

So where does this lead the series, circuit-wise?  Hopefully to Las Vegas, for one.  It'd be a great end-of-season loop in a high-profile city for IZOD to have a massive post-season blowout.

As for 2011, the good folks over at
Planet-IRL.com have a solid look at some potential future sites and a projected 2011 schedule (only 17 races, unfortunately) that is promising.

Randy Bernard is already delivering on his promise.  Brought in as an outsider to the world of IndyCar racing, Bernard is quickly mending fences and building positive momentum for the series.  And if it leads to a 24-race schedule in 2012 (new cars!  new engines! new tv package?!), he may well have done more for the IZOD IndyCar Series in a year and a half than his predecessor will ever be given credit for. 

21 June 2010

Thank You, Tony Kanaan

It's been a rough year for me, sporting-wise.

The Colts lost the Super Bowl.  (ok, that happens, I reasoned.)

Butler damn near won the NCAA title, but their half-court heave missed by about 1 inch (man, the city of Indianapolis cannot catch a break this year I remarked in the media room that night.  To which I was reminded that the Indiana Fever lost in the WNBA championship, too.)

Tony Kanaan nearly restored my sporting faith on May 30, until a late pit stop cost him a chance at the most thrilling Indianapolis 500 victory many of us would have ever seen.  It also fueled some serious dehydration-related rage on my part for the better part of an hour.

I'm a Cubs fan.  They're miserable to watch most days, except for the 2-3 per week they actually play to their capabilities.

On Saturday, the high school baseball team I help coach lost 1-0 in 9 innings in the state finals.  (I'm still fairly numb over that one.)

Upon waking up on Sunday, I could not shake reviewing the play-by-play from the previous night.  I wasn't sure how I would get through the day, to be honest, other than to immerse myself in the fridge full of Miller Lite in the garage.

Thankfully, the IZOD IndyCar Series came through with their most thrilling race of the season later in the afternoon, helping lift the malaise (for a while, anyways).  Furthermore, Tony Kanaan won the race.  Not a Penske or Ganassi driver, but Tony Kanaan.  And while people talk about Andretti Autosport being one of the "Big Three," let's be honest: Ganassi and Penske have ruled this series with an iron fist since the 2008 season, I reckon.

But perhaps AA is ready to take that step back into regular contention - they now have two wins this season (Ryan Hunter-Reay - Long Beach) - and if their road/street program is as good or better than they showed earlier this year (Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Andretti have all been in contention in races), it's within reason to think that they could be back.

And, fortunately, Tony Kanaan helped restore my faith that 2010 won't completely be a lost sporting season for me.  Even if the Cubs continue to suck.

16 June 2010

An Appreciation for Ganassi (and Penske)

As the IZOD IndyCar season hits another oval, the gnashing of teeth over the dominance of Target-Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing will surface once more.  When you haven't lost on an oval since 2008, it's fairly understandable that people would be sick of seeing those two teams win nearly everything.

I would know; as a self-avowed Tony Kanaan fan, I know full-well the annoyance that comes with seeing red, white (and black) cars dominate most of the races.  It was the same feeling those fans had when Andretti-Green had control of the series in the middle of the 2000's.

But while I will always be in Kanaan's corner, the last four months have given me a newfound appreciation for just what Target Chip Ganassi Racing has accomplished in the last 15 years.  While the IZOD IndyCar season was getting underway, I was coaching high school baseball in Indianapolis at my alma mater.

In much the same way that Ganassi has become the leader (or one of the two leaders) of the series, the high school I coach at has done the same in the last 13 years or so (which is why I will refer to them and not the dominators of the last 30+ years, Penske).  And I hear the same grumbling about our program that I hear about the Ganassi's and Penske's of the racing world.

As a spectator and fan, does it get old watching the same two teams control many of the races?  Of course.  But as someone who as a player and a coach had the opportunity to be a part of a similar squad, I can understand why Ganassi would refuse to make any apologies for his team's stranglehold of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

First, if you want to win, you cannot make apologies for it.  And if you don't want to win, what's the point of racing?  If you'd like to turn a profit, go to IndyLights, which for years has been rumored to actually offer owners a chance at a small profit.  But if you want to win, you need to surround yourself with the best, and Chip Ganassi has built one of the top staffs in the series, from top to bottom.

Ganassi demands excellence.  Just staying on the lead lap has never been enough for Ganassi (even if it might have been during his driving career).  His demands of excellence upon all members of the team trickles down, elevating the baseline performance of all team members.

Excellence begets excellence.  When you've established a repeated pattern of success, other successful people want to enter into that environment.  It's easier to bring in rising engineers, tire changers, what-have-you, when you're successful.

Instead of complaining that Ganassi and Penske dominate, perhaps we should reserve our scorn for those who limit themselves.  Yes, I understand budgets.  And if it's as simple as a lack of money or other resources, I can understand that.  But for those who have the means yet don't commit to becoming the best in one way shape or form, they ultimately deserve to have the fans asking questions.

 Look, do I wish that Andretti Autosport would raise their game and create a chance where 9-10 drivers might have a shot at winning every week?  Yes, without hesitation.  I'd like to see Dreyer & Reinbold and Panther Racing get there too (and at the Iowa Bull Ring, who knows what could happen).  But, as I hopefully am reflecting upon an IHSAA Baseball Championship on Sunday, I hope that those teams rise to the level of Ganassi and Penske, elevating the entire series.

04 June 2010

The Firestone 341.754

Everything is bigger in Texas.  It's fact.

In Indiana, we like to think of our State Fair as being one of the nation's best.  And with fried everything (peanut butter cups, snickers, coke, etc.), it comes damn close.  Texas's state fair?  They host one of the most anticipated college football games in the middle of the fair, though this year it moves to the Cowboys' gigantic stadium.  If the state of Indiana wanted to compete, they'd need to put the Indianapolis 500 in August, or move the State Fair to May.  I don't think either is happening.

And just six short days after another stirring Indianapolis 500, the state of Texas (and master marketer Eddie Gossage Jr.) continue in their attempt to make the Firestone 550 seem bigger than the 500.  Not necessarily in crowd size, or spectacle, but in distance.  And to be honest, I don't have a problem with it.

While most announcers won't reference it as a 550 kilometer race (the metric system is for sissies, most Texans would say, I'm sure), calling your race a '550' sounds a lot cooler than the "Firestone 341.754."

To be honest, Texas is a nighttime bull-ring of controlled chaos.  It's one of the fastest circuits on the IndyCar schedule, and one of the most supported, in terms of attendance.  And after a 500 that saw domination (Dario Franchitti) and chaos (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway), it feels a little early to be hopping back on that horse.

At least in years past, the 1-mile oval of Milwaukee served to slow speeds and let everyone seemingly catch their breath before heading to the Lone Star State.  Now, with Milwaukee gone (hopefully temporarily), I feel like a college student on a Saturday morning, preparing to get back on the proverbial saddle after a long Friday.

So, Texas.  Bring me your chaos, your speeds, and your Saturday night racing.  We'll see if I can hold up the same as I used to five years ago.  

01 June 2010

The Aftermath

362 days. 3 hours. 38 minutes.

And while that seems too far away, the 95th Indianapolis 500 will be here before most of us know it.  Thinking of that warm late-spring May day will help when the winter rears its ugly head.

Honestly, I don't know exactly what to write today.  A part of me is sad that the 500 has come and gone again.  Another part loved what I saw from Paddock Section 9 - from tears welling up during "Back Home Again" to watching Ashley Judd run down pit lane - and would like to try to find a way to express it.

Another day, I will.  For now, I'll let the memories continue to build.