30 July 2010

TV Ratings Improving

At the bottom of Curt Cavin's Friday article in The Indianapolis Star comes this nugget:

The Izod IndyCar Series received better news, according to Sports Media Watch. 
Viewership on Versus has increased 24 percent over the past five races, with the average for those races 428,000. The media watchdog said that number is higher than the NHL's average on Versus (297,000) or the WNBA's average on ESPN2 (290,000).
Yes, having under half a million viewers still isn't where the series needs to be.  But if viewership continues to increase, and the series can once again have a naturally suspenseful end to the season, it puts the league in a good position when TV contracts come up, especially when the key male 18-32 demographic is trending upwards.

Versus' coverage of the series has been universally praised, and if the Comcast-owned channel becomes a partner with NBC Sports after the NBC Universal-Comcast merger, the series is poised to return to network television.  Increased ratings only help this argument for returning to network.

For more details on the ratings surge, click

29 July 2010

And So It Begins

With no aero kit manufacturers other than Dallara announced on July 14, 2010, worried speculation was that the IZOD IndyCar Series would remain a spec series.  Thanfully, Lotus ended some of those worries today.

The auto manufacturer, who has sought a larger role in auto racing in the last year, financially backing the No. 5 car of Takuma Sato and giving KV Racing technical help, announced that
Lotus would be designing an aero kit for the 2012 IndyCar chassis.

That's it for now as far as details go, but it's excellent news for the series.

27 July 2010

Making the Rules Transparent

The past 36 hours have seen an outpouring of thoughts on the finish to the Honda Indy Edmonton. Some view the blocking rule as arcane and ridiculous, but probably applied correctly, under the letter of the law. Others see the finish as a black eye for the IZOD IndyCar Series, despite the constant air time it received.

Now that Helio Castroneves' outburst has been the subject of the day, I turn my thoughts towards improving the series, as it comes to communicating with the fans.  While the ruling itself was controversial, maybe the most upsetting part of it came in knowing that there were specific rules/lines for the race that no fan had an inkling of prior to and during the competition
.  With that in mind, here are five ideas to help reduce controversy the next time a blocking call (or any other rules violation) comes from Race Control: 
  1. Make the rules transparent.  Yes, Indy Downforce members can now purchase a rules book with enough membership points, but the issue is larger than knowledge of the rules.  But who memorizes that?  I do some part-time work in Indianapolis as an official scorer for the Triple-A team, and I'll admit that I don't have the baseball rulebook memorized.  I keep a copy next to me during the game for reference, but to expect the average fan to understand the rule book is asking far too much.

    Each road/street circuit has the own personality, passing zones, etc..  Prior to the race, viewers need to know what line(s) are allowed and which are considered "blocking" lines.  
  2. This means opening up the drivers' meeting in some way, shape or form.  At the very least, it needs to be captured on film, as it (thankfully) was in Edmonton.  The Indianapolis 500 features a public drivers' meeting on Saturday, allowing fans to watch and get close to the field of 33.  Would this not appeal to fans at other circuits?  I think it would.

    For those not at the race, stream it live on
    Indycar.com or make it part of the Versus pre-race coverage.  The latter would be simple enough - on the road/street circuits, show us the dividing line when going over the course layout.
  3. Put a rules official in or near the TV and radio booths.  For other sporting events, a rules official is often on-hand to answer questions that the viewer and/or TV crew has.  Having a supervisor from the NFL explain a ruling helps the viewer further understand the events on the field.  It does no one any good to have Bob Jenkins or Mike King scrambling to try and understand why blocking was called.  Mike King was so confused/dumbfounded about the call that he suggested Castroneves drove off course diving down towards the checkered flags.

    Additionally, a liaison from Race Control near or in both booths can answer any questions that might pop up.  This person can easily pass along a note telling the talent who has been previously warned for blocking prior to an actual penalty being levied.  They can also answer questions about penalties levied in the pits, the reasoning behind a long yellow flag, etc..

    More explanation and details creates a more informed fan.  A more-informed fan is more likely to become a "hardcore" fan, as they feel a greater connection to the sport.  To finish the thought, the hardcore fan then becomes the consumer of IndyCar sponsors, creating the circular pattern that keeps sponsors coming back to the series and teams.  They are also more likely to talk about the sport at the water cooler (Monday Morning Quarterback syndrome), hopefully causing more people to watch IndyCar racing, or at least figure out what the guy is talking about, as a result.  The IZOD IndyCar Series is a winner with more informed fans.
  4. Consistently enforce the rules.  Blocking, especially in open-wheel racing, is always going to be a contentious issue.  But when questionable blocks are called in some races and obvious blocks are not called in others, it raises serious credibility issues for the competition administrators of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

    Again, if viewers knew the rules ahead of time, and knew who had been warned for blocking, they might not react with such vitriol when the black flag is waved. 
  5. Make a rules official available following the race as well.  Whether they explain every ruling immediately following the race, or in an Indycar.com article or in a video that runs during the week, make the rulings transparent.  Show the viewers replays and tell them why something was either called or not called.  Explain why Mario Moraes was served a drive-through penalty in Toronto instead of being parked.  If Brian Barnhart or someone else confirmed Rahal's "chrome horn" explanation from Toronto, does it not lend more credence to both Rahal and the series?   
These changes are not major. As a fan of the IZOD IndyCar Series, it would be nice for further transparency from Race Control.  The series has already begun the process of renovating its entire process, from its TV coverage to its sales and marketing to the actual look of its cars.  New chassis and engines are on tap for 2012.  Doing more to engage fans during the TV broadcast of a race with regard to the rules is just one easy step for the series to build its base.

26 July 2010

In a Year, Will You Remember Who Won Edmonton?

Quick question: what is in the water in Edmonton?

First, following up on Randy Bernard's comments about Milka Duno in Toronto, the drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series weighed in, voicing their concerns and displeasure over Duno's driving.

That article, allowing with Bernard's statement, appeared to pave the way for Saturday's announcement that Duno would be placed on probation for the remainder of the 2010 season, marking the first step the series is taking to remove Duno from the series.

The Duno probation probably would have been enough of a story line coming out of what figured to be another Will Power-dominated day in Edmonton.  And true to form, Power did dominate, leading a race high 76 laps.  But in giving up the lead late, Power helped set the stage for maybe the most memorable/infamous moment of the 2010 IndyCar season.

Simple recap: Going back to green on lap 93, Will Power swung out wide of Castroneves in an attempt to pass.  Castroneves appeared to maintain his inside line, possibly swinging out a little wide, but closed the door on Power to hold first.  In the process, Scott Dixon took second from Power and abruptly cut Power off from trying to recapture the second spot.

Almost immediately, Race Control ruled Castroneves blocked and ordered him to pit road for a drive-through penalty.  Castroneves refused, and Dixon was declared the winner following 95 laps.  Neither the Versus crew nor the IMS Radio Network could figure out where the block is.  See for yourself:

And honestly, a week after the Internet was disappointed that the IndyCar Series went 0-for-2 in terms of physical confrontations following Toronto, but managed to hit 1.000 on Tweet-fights, Helio Castroneves changed all of that.  (Head to the 4-minute mark to watch.)

With cameras rolling, Castroneves went after anyone and everyone, seemingly looking for members of Race Control to find out why he had a win taken away.  By the end of the night, Castroneves would issue a statement apologizing for his actions, but frankly, his actions were welcome.  When this is the reason for stripping a win:

And when the logic (and consistent enforcement) behind the call is shaky at best, who among us would not be furious?  In any other sport, Castroneves' actions, in the face of a seemingly incorrect call, would be celebrated (aside from maybe grabbing Security Officer Charles Burns, but did anyone think Helio was going to do anything there?).  Hell, Lou Piniella is celebrated across the north side of Chicago for a tirade against a far better call by an official.

The drivers, for their part, were unanimous in their approval for the move, which Davey Hamilton felt would change upon viewing tape of the race.  And of the drivers interviewed (Dixon, Power, Dario Franchitii), who wouldn't be appreciative of someone else being sent from first to 10th?

For the IndyCar Series, however, the ruling will likely be viewed as a black eye for the sport.  For Brian Barnhart, it is another bullet in the chamber for those who disapprove of the job he does.  And while I haven't been in that camp, I will concede that this type of inconsistency can and will ruin the credibility of the series if it isn't dealt with appropriately.

The finish is the most controversial, non-Indianapolis result I can think of since June 7, 1997, when A.J. Foyt wound up punching Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane at Texas.  And while the IndyCar Series has seen its share of incidents since then (Kanaan vs. Hornish Sr., the Danica-Milka towel toss, etc.), thankfully, Castroneves reintroduced some emotion and passion to the series.

Honestly, in a year or two, IndyCar fans won't remember that Dixon won the 2010 Honda Indy Edmonton.  What will be replayed over the following days and months is Castroneves' display of emotion following the race.  Now it's a matter of getting those who witnessed the replays to make their way to Versus for Mid-Ohio in two weeks.

22 July 2010

Where Ed Hinton Hits the Nail on the Head

I've been critical in this space of Ed Hinton in years past (May of 2009 and 2010 spring to mind), but it's only fair to post something when Mr. Hinton gets it right (in my humble opinion).

In his latest article in the run up to the Brickyard 400, Hinton discusses the possibility that Jeff Gordon could pick up his fifth win at IMS, eclipsing A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time winners (and join Michael Schumacher with five victories on the fabled grounds).

But Gordon takes exception, as Hinton writes:

The apples, to which nothing else compares in Gordon's eyes, are the four wins apiece in the Indianapolis 500 by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.
"That is one statistic that I will fight everybody on," Gordon said recently. "I mean, they've been having the Indy 500 since 1911 or 1912 or something [it was 1911]. You can't compare the history of the Indy 500 to the Brickyard 400, which has been there since 1994.
"So I'm proud to have four wins there, but you look at how few guys have won four in an Indy car there, [and] I'm guessing it must be harder in an Indy car than it is in a stock car."
Anyone with a broad view of motor racing would agree with him. But for NASCAR partisans, the case might need spelling out.   
The full article is here.  But this four paragraph stretch pretty well illustrates how much the Indianapolis 500 still towers over auto racing, no matter the format.

20 July 2010

What Does Penske Do?

For now, it appears that Penske Racing is planning for the 2011 season as a three-car operation, but according to Curt Cavin of The Indianapolis Star, the team does not have the sponsorship to continue as such.

Following his fourth win of the season, Will Power has to be the unquestioned 2010 leader of the Penske racing stable.  While Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe have each picked up a win apiece, Power's car holds the Verizon sponsorship on the sidepod, and it is the young Australian who holds a relatively comfortable 42-point advantage in the race for the "Your Name Here" IZOD IndyCar Series Championship Trophy.

So with the racing silly season just beginning to heat up, what happens should Penske scale back because of a lack of sponsorship?

For better or worse, Penske has largely been insulated from ride-buy drivers, but would open-wheel racing's most successful owner consider a third car if a "lesser-talented" driver came along, but with sponsorship?  Personally, I don't see it happening, but I also don't see Penske continuing to run three cars without securing some major sponsorship.

And while
Pennzoil will rejoin the Penske sponsorship group in 2011, most of that money appears ticketed for the NASCAR side of operations, which seemingly takes away one possibility for the almighty sponsorship dollar.

For the purposes of this theoretical scenario, let's say that Will Power wins the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.  With that in his pocket, Penske isn't letting him go to another team, especially as he continues to improve on ovals to go along with a supreme mastery of road courses.

That leaves two men fighting for one spot.  Thunderdome doesn't seem the appropriate place for the Helio Castroneves-Ryan Briscoe showdown, so we'll attempt to settle it here instead.  Which one, if either, would Penske keep?

The Case for Helio Castroneves
  • He's a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion.  Those don't exactly grow on trees.  With that comes a significant amount of notoriety.  If Penske can turn that fame into an influx of sponsorship cash (though they haven't seemed to yet), it would be a notch for the Brazilian.
  • He's Brazilian.  In case you haven't noticed, it seems to be a bit easier for Brazilians to come up with sponsorships right now.  You're telling me a Brazilian company wouldn't want to be on the sidepod in Indianapolis in 2011 when Castroneves hunts for Indy 500 No. 4 in the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?  Hell, I'm thinking about cutting a check right now after typing that out.
  • Castroneves owns the soccer-mom/senior citizens market.  That Dancing With the Stars win, while quickly becoming as fashionable as acid-washed Jordaches, still resonates with people who like to watch other people execute tangos, rumbas and other dances I quickly forgot about after a short stay in cotillion classes.
  • He's one of the most recognizable faces in the entire series, because of the three 500 wins and the Dancing with the Stars titles.  Makes marketing pretty easy.
  • A proven winner.  17 career wins bear that out.

The Case Against Helio Castroneves
  • How much does he have left in the tank?  Castroneves turned 35 this year and has a young daughter at home.  Is he holding on solely for a few more runs at a fourth Indianapolis 500?
  • For all the winning, Castroneves has never won a championship.  Finishing second twice (2002, 2008) in the points chase, the Brazilian has always been able to deliver in qualifications, but not always on race day.  On an otherwise spotless record, the lack of a series championship will always be the "but" in the argument against Castroneves as an all-time great in open-wheel racing.  While as long as Castroneves remains at Penske, he is among the contenders to win a series title, it seems unlikely he will do so against rising competition.
While the main argument against keeping Helio Castroneves appears to be his age, age is not a factor with Penske's third driver, Ryan Briscoe.  The Australian will turn 29 later this season, seemingly in the midst of his peak racing years.

The Case for Ryan Briscoe
  • He's a young, talented driver.  Not as young as a few other spring chickens, but Briscoe nearly won a series championship in his first season with Penske, coming a few laps shy of the title.  Along the way, he showed he could win races, recording six wins in two and a half years with Penske.
  • Consummate teammate.  Despite being overshadowed by Castroneves' personality and three Indianapolis 500 wins and Power's 2010 dominance, Briscoe is the good soldier in the Penske stable (actually all three are).  One never hears any complaints from the Sydney native.
  • He has more wins (six) than Castroneves (five) over the last two and a half years.
  • Seems to rally at exactly the right time.  Winless and struggling early with Penske, Briscoe rallied for his first career win at Milwaukee in 2008.  Similarly, he did the same in 2010 at Texas after a tough first five races.  

The Case Against Ryan Briscoe
  • While Briscoe has been successful over the last few years, he still has a tendency to make mistakes at the wrong time.  Whether it be spinning the tires exiting the pits at Motegi in 2009 or failing to make a turn in Brazil while under pressure from Ryan Hunter-Reay.  And the highlight/lowlight of the 2008 Indianapolis 500 is Briscoe sitting in his damaged car, refusing to get out as Danica Patrick stomped down pit lane towards him after a wreck knocked them both from the race.
  • Along with this, does he have the mettle to win a championship?  The 2009 season would indicate that he possesses the needed thick skin to compete.
  • It's not a knock against Ryan Briscoe, but for a buttoned-down organization like Team Penske, is it possible that they occasionally view his wife's (Nicole Manske-Briscoe) actions as an occasional distraction?  She used her husband's twitter account to start the #ParkMilka movement (the sentiment I agree with), and then blasted Graham Rahal on Sunday for giving the chrome horn to her husband in Toronto.  While supporting your husband is understandable, she is also a racing journalist.  Blurring those lines could cause some friction in the Penske paddock, possibly, especially if her husband's career continues to grow.  
So after all this, where are we?  Excellent question.  Talented young drivers like Graham Rahal remain unsigned for 2011 (and Rahal has been continually championed for a Penske seat by Robin MIller), leaving the possibility that Penske would jettison one (or both) for the chance to sign an up-and-comer like Rahal.  And if you think Sunday's punting of Briscoe would keep Rahal from moving to Penske, you're crazy.  It's all about winning.  And sponsorship dollars wouldn't hurt, either.

Without knowing any contract details, it's fuzzy math trying to figure out where anyone would land in a two or three-car operation.  In any case, I would have to bet on Briscoe being the one on the shakiest ground, with Castroneves retiring in a few years and Penske returning to a two-car team with Power and a young driver in hand.

19 July 2010

The True North Strong and Free

Returning to the land of working TVs on Sunday morning, I was promptly awoken by my dog at 9 a.m., giving me roughly fours of sleep after driving straight through from Boston to Indianapolis in 13 hours.

And as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I vowed that I should have just stopped in Buffalo for the night.  If I had, Toronto was a short drive away on Sunday morning.  All I needed was my passport, which was conveniently back in Indianapolis.  In any case, I thankfully had the TV and sports to watch once again on Sunday.

After touring the Maritime Provinces as a kid, and taking a reckless trip or two to Montreal in college, I thoroughly enjoy Canada.  The people are friendly, the beer is cheap and the summertime weather is phenomenal.  All that kept me from the Honda Indy Toronto was the passport.

In any case, Toronto once again proved to be the rough-and-tumble street circuit on the IZOD IndyCar schedule.  With six caution flags, all due to contact, the race left drivers' nerves frayed and TV viewers on edge, and not just because ABC continued their mind-boggling efforts to miss as many restarts as possible.

While attendance figures are tough to come by, the race seems to be on track for a 25th season in 2011, as the Canadian government is poised to give race promoters Kevin Savoree and Kim Green a $750,000 grant if they can match the funds.  What this does for Edmonton's future, though, is unknown.

With an exciting circuit, a population base of 3 million and strong promotion, Toronto should be a staple of the IndyCar series for years to come.  Additionally, the excellent journalists over at
Planet-IRL.com reported that IZOD is committed to building a base in Toronto, just as they have attempted to do this year with IndyCar stops in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, to name a few.

Maybe most importantly, based on highly-respected
Toronto Star reporter Norris McDonald's statement that "there was a 'big event' feel to the race, again. That’s what’s important to me," it sounds as if Green-Savoree Promotions appear to be on the right track with their five-year plan, regardless of how thestar.com may portray the attendance (or lack thereof) at the race.

Toronto has a chance to be, and should be in all actuality, a racing spectacle nearing that of Long Beach, with better racing.  Given further support from all parties, it looks well on its way.

14 July 2010

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly of the Chassis Announcement

The nice part about heading to Maine for vacation is the absence of some of the utilities I'm used to in Indianapolis.  Staying in a cabin with no Internet, nor TV forces one to do things like read.  Or hike.  Or venture 20 minutes into town to find Internet.

However, when the IZOD IndyCar Series makes their 2012 chassis announcement, it makes following the information difficult.  Thanks to the power of cell phones and Twitter, a steady stream of information flowed forth.

And after saying "One chassis" in my best Derek Zoolander voice roughly four times, I went to write some quick thoughts on the announcement.  But of course, without Internet, it could not reach the marvelous masses until I returned home, at approximately 4:30 this morning.

So without further ado, a speedy breakdown of the 2012 chassis announcement:

The Good

  • Cut costs.  Reducing the amount of money spent on a single chassis, down to $349,000.  Making cars affordable for all teams in a down economy is crucial.  And with the moneys saved - nearly 45 percent - teams can either pocket or re-invest in research and development, leading to increased competition, in theory.
  • A shortened contract.  Giving Dallara the exclusive rights for the chassis through the 2015 season gives the racing economy (and overall economy) more time to recover.  Should Lola, Swift, BAT and/or DeltaWing continue to chase a contract for an IndyCar chassis, three years is a fairly short amount of time to have to wait.
  • Building in Speedway.  With Dallara committed to building in Speedway, Indiana, the area around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway continues to grow.  The Speedway Redevelopment Commission has done an excellent job in rehabbing portions of the town already, and by bringing in Dallara, Speedway, along with IMS, continue to help make the area the Racing Capital of the World.  If the SRC can bring in an aero kit manufacturer or two, it would go a long way as well.  (They just need to get to work on the proposed Hall of Fame, as well.) 
  • Opening up competition.  Even with just one chassis, opening up the aero kits to multiple manufacturers is a great step forward.  Of course, this leads to...
The Bad
  • No announced aero kit manufacturers.  Yes, Dallara will make aero kits.  But if no one signs up, has anything really changed from the last few years?  Now Lotus is rumored to be on board to design aero kits, and if they join the fray along with a few others, then the IndyCar Series looks excellent in their decision-making process.  But if not, all the 2012 chassis change brings is just that - a new car, but a spec car.  
The Ugly
    • The lack of multiple chassis.  Yes, I understand the economy isn't good.  That doesn't mean that I didn't want to see a Swift design tackling Turn 1 at IMS in 2012.
    • The lack of internet in Maine.  It wasn't fun waiting four days to copy and paste something I wrote.

    01 July 2010

    A 2013 Chassis Would Actually Make Sense

    I sit writing this from my domicile in Indianapolis, which is devoid of air conditioning. Thankfully, the weather has been in the upper 70's all week, allowing one to feel almost as if they are on vacation.  And when I come back from work and grab a cold Miller Lite from the fridge, I can almost taste the two weeks off work.

    (And then the neighbors show up, ruining the grand illusion.)

    However, in 24 hours, I'll be off on vacation, taking in the great outdoors for another summer.  The route takes me nearly past Watkins Glen, but unfortunately, carries me 8 hours past The Glen.  Though if I time the 2011 vacation up better, Loudon is right on the way.  Consider me in.

    The Glen is one of the nation's most historic circuits, hosting Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar throughout its 60-year history.  If for no other reason than its ties to the past of open-wheel racing, I hope it remains on the IZOD IndyCar schedule.  Let's hope that ISC figures out a way to work out that contract with the series (if it and Chicagoland were the only two ISC tracks left on the schedule, I wouldn't be too upset.  Though adding Fontana, Michigan and Phoenix would be nice).

    Instead of making it to The Glen, it's nothing but hiking, drinking Shipyard Summer Ale, laying in a hammock, trying to convince the dog to go in the ocean and avoiding
    the great white sharks that appear to be returning to the northeastern seaboard, for the next two weeks.

    I had timed the vacation perfectly - leave two days after the planned chassis announcement of June 30.  But alas, Randy Bernard continued to disappoint, postponing the release by two weeks, to July 14.  Just another reason - along with failing to single-handedly draw TV viewers and failing to solve the DH rule in baseball - that he deserves a "C."

    Knowing I could be in the middle of the woods when the announcement is made, or in a kayak, or on a beach, let me say this now:  Multiple chassis are the way to go.  With that in mind, I hope the ICONIC committee puts a cap on the chassis spending.

    I hope for two or three chassis choices (Dallara, Lola, Swift), with the parts to be built in Speedway, Indiana, which has spoken to all three about manufacturing in the racing capital of the world.  Read this excellent breakdown from Curt Cavin for details on all five chassis proposals - it looks like Dallara and Lola are the clubhouse leaders, which makes sense.

    Multiple chassis are the way to go.  Introduce a mixed chassis/engine package in 2012 or 2013.  2013, you cry?  Yes, Tom Petty once said "The waiting is the hardest part."  But if the masses wanted a new chassis yesterday, who in their right mind will wait until 2013?

    Since I threw 2013 out there as a possibility, let's address the fact that it has been on the table since early April, when Roger Penske mentioned it.  
    I don't wait to wait until 2013 for a new car, but when you break it down, it does make sense.     

    Why would 2013 work?  (And yes, it would be disappointing to watch these chassis compete for two more seasons.)  One reason it might be feasible: TV.

    The IZOD IndyCar Series' four-year contract with ESPN/ABC will run out following the 2012 season.  2013 would allow for a fresh start for the series.  New engines.  New chassis.  New TV package.  More tracks, potentially.

    If the chassis/engine packages are rolled out in 2012, it gives ESPN/ABC one year to heavily promote the new aspect to the series.  Should the network continue to show its current level of interest in the series, even with new cars and interest, it is only logical for the IZOD IndyCar Series to shop itself to a new network.

    And it just so happens that NBC/Comcast is lying in the weeds.  Think the Peacock wouldn't jump at the chance to add the Indianapolis 500 to it's "Championship Season" promotions?  If the Comcast merger is approved, it becomes adds to the synergy between NBC Sports and Versus.

    Two to three chassis options.  Similar engine numbers.  A new network.  Additional sponsors.  More races.  Even if the chassis announcement reveals a 2013 debut, I think Randy Bernard could earn an "A" by then.