29 August 2010

My Kinda Town

Despite Chicagoland Speedway being a short drive up I-65, I had never made the trip to Joliet, Ill..  To be honest, my knowledge of Joliet consisted of The Blues Brothers.  But with tickets readily available and hotels relatively cheap in Chicago, making it to Chicagoland was easy this year.

Just like at Kentucky last year, fans were treated to a typical Chicagoland finish - frantic and close.  In all honesty, when a .042 of a second finish is considered 'not that close,' the IZOD IndyCar Series clearly possesses the right formula for success at Chicagoland.

Honestly, upon arriving at the track, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of a crowd.  Tailgating in the parking lot, there seemed to be a steady stream of cars heading into the lots.  And what turned out to be a late-arriving crowd saw a thrilling race, one that was eerily reminiscent of the Indianapolis 500, minus a death-defying late crash.

The crowd wasn't big enough that my wife and I couldn't move around to different seats during the race; the strategy at Chicagoland Speedway appeared to be to work down from the tops of each section, as Row 63 was well-filled, while rows lower were not.  By the end of the race, we had moved down to Row 53, or something like that.

Regardless, the action on track was exciting throughout the night; the leaders ran in a pack for most of the night, spreading out briefly as Sarah Fisher moved back through the field after an alternate pit strategy moved her to the front.  While Ryan Briscoe held the lead, he was quickly reeled in by Will Power and Marco Andretti, and the lead pack was back together for the remainder of the race.

At the three-quarter mark of the race, it looked like all Dan Wheldon would need was a solid pit stop in order to pick up Panther's first win in a few years.  Instead it was Dario Franchitti's daring pit strategy that won him the day.  And combined with Power's late pit stop because of a lack of fuel, the series points championship became much more interesting.

Power's mistake is the kind he must avoid the rest of the way if he wants to win; though the Team Penske driver showed well most of the night and was a contender to win, he left a chance at a win on the table and let Franchitti close within 23 points with three races to go.  Once again, it looks as if the IZOD IndyCar Series championship will come down to Homestead-Miami.

To lose Chicagoland Speedway would be a major mistake for the IZOD IndyCar Series and the International Speedway, Corporation.  The series has given no indication that they are looking to leave the track, while the reception has been cool from ISC.  Still, with a decent crowd and always exciting racing, it would behoove both sides to come together and find a date that works.  And if they do, I'll be back. 

26 August 2010

Your Chicagoland Preview

(Note: I am also writing over at SB Nation Indiana, covering auto racing.  That means I write about NASCAR and any other series that visits Indiana.  You can follow SB Nation by clicking here.  This also means that the following article runs on SB Nation Indiana, too.)

With the Sprint Cup Series taking the weekend off, the IZOD IndyCar Series takes center stage on Saturday night, putting one of its most exciting races on display at Chicagoland Speedway.  The Peak Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 has routinely produced side-by-side racing and photo finishes, with five of the 10 closest finishes in series history occurring at the Joliet, Ill., track.

Last year, Ryan Briscoe used his push-to-pass button down the stretch to hold off Scott Dixon at the line, winning by .0077 of a second.  While another photo finish isn't guaranteed, it isn't advised to miss the end of this race.

Chicagoland marks the beginning of the final stretch of the IZOD IndyCar season.  While the series does not have a "Chase," it doesn't need one either, as each of the last four seasons (and six of the last eight) have seen the series title come down to the final race.  Though Will Power holding a 59-point lead with four races to go, questions still remain about his ability to hold onto the lead on the 1.5-mile ovals.

Power has never finished better than fifth on an oval, while his closest pursuer, Dario Franchitti, is one of the most well-rounded drivers in the IndyCar Series.  Franchitti knows a thing or two about close finishes, having won both of his series titles (2007, 2009) in the last race of the year.

2009 Winner:
Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe's win by a scant .0077 of a second helped push him into the series lead at the time, and the Team Penske driver narrowly lost the series title after Franchitti's win at Homestead-Miami in the series finale. This year, Briscoe could use the pick-me-up, as he has won just once in a relatively 2010 season. Briscoe's lone win was on another 1.5-mile oval, coming at Texas.

What to Watch:
The side-by-side racing. The 1.5-miles tend to bunch the IndyCar field, and if faster drivers get stuck behind slower traffic, be sure to keep an eye on that. With 29 drivers scheduled to take the green flag, conflicts between front-runners and backmarkers are sure to crop up over the 300 miles.

Who to Watch:
Power. If he is going to win his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship, his performance on the last four races of the year will decide his fate.  The Australian has shown steady progress on ovals, finishing fifth at Iowa after claiming the pole. Power also qualified second at Indianapolis.

Keep an eye on Franchitti and Dixon as well, as both need to race for wins the rest of the way if they want to make up ground on Power. For Dixon, the eighth time at Chicagoland might be the charm. In his first seven trips to the track, the Kiwi has finished second five times, including 2009.

When to Watch:
Versus has the coverage from Joliet, Ill., beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET, on Saturday night. Indycar.com will have streaming of practices, qualifications and the Firestone IndyLights race.

SB Nation Indiana
and Drive Hard, Turn Left will be providing on-the-scene coverage during the weekend as well, so be sure to check back often for updates from Joliet.

23 August 2010

Is Dominance Boring?

Will Power won on Sunday.  Again.  For the fifth time in 2010.  He's hitting 5-for-9 on road/street courses this year.  Basically, Will Power is 1941 Ted Williams when required to turn left and right.

But Power's success raises a philosophical question: is dominance good for the IZOD IndyCar Series?

I, without question, say yes.  Having Will Power control the road/street races this year has been excellent for the series.

touched on the subject of Will Power before - after Long Beach, when he was 2-for-3 on the young season.    And while he hasn't quite kept up that pace, the 29-year old has been impressive almost everywhere he has been in 2010, from his .556 winning percentage on the road/street courses to qualifying second at Indianapolis to a fifth-place showing at Iowa.

It wasn't boring watching the Bulls dominate the 1990's in basketball; through talent and a gigantic marketing effort, everyone knew Michael Jordon (or thought they did).  Fans watched expressly to see what would happen next.  Same with the New York Yankees of the late 90's.  Love them or hate them (just like Team Penske), they brought people to the stands and to the TV.

Now, to be honest, this has not happened just yet in regards to Will Power.  But I will admit that when a road/street course is on the schedule, I notice it and make sure to pay attention to Power.  Yes, Mid-Ohio saw exactly 0 passes for the lead on track, but given Power's prowess (say that three times fast), watching him try and hunt down Dario Franchitti was still fun to watch.

In the midst of Shark Week, Power chasing Franchitti was the IndyCar equivalent of the great whites chasing seals off the South African coast.

Sure, Power led 73 laps on Sunday.  Was it exciting?  If you enjoy watching the best in the sport put on a near-flawless performance, yes.  If you enjoy the story of a man who broke his back at the same track a year ago and returned to dominate the track and his competitors, then yes.

We are a cynical bunch, the IndyCar fans.  Unfortunately, we too often look the gift horse in the mouth.  Instead, recognize that a star is emerging - a relatively young, increasingly charismatic young man who is only going to get better over the next few years.  Sit back and enjoy what you're witnessing.  Because these types of seasons don't come along too often.    

17 August 2010

The Importance of SMI to the IndyCar Series Moving Forward

In the battle for control of racetracks, Speedway Motorsports Inc. (no relation to the town of Speedway, Ind.) and the International Speedway Corporation run most of the major racetracks around the country.  Some major tracks outside their control: Dover, Pocono, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When it comes to the IZOD IndyCar Series, the two corporations presently control 7 of the 17 circuits on which the series operates: Kansas, Texas, Watkins Glen, Infineon (Sonoma), Chicagoland, Kentucky and Homestead-Miami.  Of those tracks, SMI controls three (Texas, Sonoma and Kentucky), while ISC holds control of four tracks.

The IZOD IndyCar Series has already committed to heading to a fourth SMI track in 2011, adding New Hampshire Motor Speedway to its proposed schedule.  With NHMS on board, the IndyCar Series is holding events on four of SMI's eight major tracks, leaving Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte and Las Vegas on the outside looking in.  (The IZOD IndyCar Series hits four of 12 ISC circuits.)

Of those four, three - Atlanta, Charlotte and Las Vegas - have all hosted IndyCar races in the past.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard is already on the record as saying he'd like to try and go back to Las Vegas, possibly using the facility as a season-ending race.  Looking ahead, the Craftsman Truck Series runs their event at Las Vegas in late September, possibly creating a pairing with the IICS.

What is the difference between the two companies when it comes to hosting the IZOD IndyCar Series?  Perhaps the largest word is "indifference."  While ISC often treats IndyCar Series races as the red-headed stepchild of their racing schedule, SMI has reached out and actively promoted the series.

At New Hampshire, Dario Franchitti was allowed to showcase the IZOD IndyCar Series with a lap prior to the track's NASCAR race.  Texas Motor Speedway hosted a major press conference later tonight with Bernard and Helio Castroneves in attendance at the House of Blues in Dallas.  Over 1,000 people are expected to attend.

The marketing effort behind the announcement of twin 275s at Texas Motor Speedway helped put the story at the top of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's online section this morning.  During football season.  That doesn't happen every day in Texas.  That's market saturation that the IZOD IndyCar Series won't receive for a schedule announcement anywhere outside of Indianapolis.

While Eddie Gossage may be the best motorsports marketer in the business these days, he goes out of his way to promote the IZOD IndyCar Series, whether it be in this form or serving on the ICONIC committee.  It's just another reflection of SMI's commitment to hosting, and more importantly, putting on a show when the IZOD IndyCar Series comes to their tracks.

While the IndyCar Series won't be at Kentucky in Sept. 2011 (they will likely be in the Bluegrass State earlier in the year), I expect their Labor Day Weekend IndyCar race to be well attended, with camping spots utilized throughout the weekend.

The future between the IZOD IndyCar Series and SMI appears to be bright.  While I don't anticipate seeing IndyCar races at Atlanta, Charlotte or Bristol any time soon, I wouldn't rule any of those tracks out, either.

Meanwhile, the attitude towards the IndyCar Series from ISC could not be more polar opposite.  With recent track schedule announcements at Chicagoland and Kansas, future IndyCar dates at both tracks received nothing more than standard "we're working and we'll see" responses.

I'll be at Chicagoland, and I'm interested to see how much promotion it receives in the Chicago area.  With IZOD's help, I would fully expect it to be well-promoted from the IndyCar side of things, much as they have done in San Francisco leading up to the Sonoma race.  If anything, the market size of Chicago would probably help the IndyCar Series accept a deal to return to the track, even at a reduced rate.

Even though the IndyCar Series has traditionally brought exciting racing (and the occasional solid crowd) to the tracks, it appears that ISC would rather have the circuits be empty, with no cars running, than to bring the IICS back to their venues.  Included in the losing relationship is Watkins Glen, which remains one of the most historic open-wheel venues in America.  However, it appears that ISC would rather not invest in promoting the history of open-wheel racing at the track if it can continue to host NASCAR events.

The only way the IZOD IndyCar Series can keep or add venues from ISC appears to be in a package deal.  For instance, fans have been clamoring for a return to Phoenix International Raceway; but based upon rumors, the only way it will be put on future IndyCar schedules is if Auto Club Raceway is also used for an IndyCar race.

To be honest, I'd make that trade in a heartbeat.  Located outside Los Angeles, Fontana allows the IZOD IndyCar Series to saturate the L.A. market at the beginning (Long Beach) and end of season (Fontana) if scheduled properly.  It appeared that IZOD's marketing initiatives leading up to the Long Beach race were well-received.  Now what if they came back 5 months later, with a series championship on the line?

While it looks like ISC-owned tracks at Kansas, Homestead-Miami and Watkins Glen will be coming off the schedule, at least one (and possibly two) SMI tracks are coming on board.  Without the involvement of SMI, the IZOD IndyCar Series is caught between a rock and a hard place moving forward.

If SMI were not interested in putting the IndyCar product on track, or promoting it, ISC would have the series in a vice when it comes to contract negotiations.  ISC, which works hand-in-hand with NASCAR, could in theory be the death-knell to oval IndyCar racing, were it not for a few independent operators (Iowa, IMS) and SMI.  

At the very least, the IndyCar Series has leverage because of SMI's demonstrated commitment to hosting and marketing IndyCar events.  Moving into 2011 and beyond, that commitment bodes well for the future of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

12 August 2010

Sorting Out Hints in the IndyCar Schedule

The last few days have left plenty of crumbs on the trail towards figuring out the 2011 IZOD IndyCar schedule.  We'll try to start at the beginning and sort through all the breaded goodness that has been sprinkled on the way.

First, we have the excellent interview at
Planet-IRL.com with IndyCar head honcho Randy Bernard.  In his interview with Stephanie, Bernard says:
“I think we’ll be able to release it before August 30th.  There will probably be one or two that we’ll hold because there’s some steps in there that we need to put in place beforehand, and a couple of them will require some board meetings, which would mean it would be into September.  Mid-September, maybe.
Always a crafty one, that Bernard.  Leaving himself plenty of room on the release date.  I've got think that the schedule will come out on Labor Day weekend, or in the leadup to Motegi, to try and generate any attention on that race.

Shortly after Mid-Ohio, Bruce Martin mentioned that with the loss of the Kentucky Labor Day date,
Baltimore would probably slide into that date.  Of course, this is all dependent on the Major League Baseball schedule.  Because, apparently people still go to Orioles games.  I was surprised by this development, too.

To add to the confusion, Chicagoland Speedway received a new NASCAR date.  In all likelihood, Chicagoland, along with Kentucky, are headed to the middle of the IndyCar schedule, sometime in June.

The loss of the late August Chicago race has Paul at Planet-IRL.com speculating that
2011 will be the end of IndyCar at the oval, which would be a major loss for the IZOD IndyCar Series.  Hopefully the folks at Chicagoland can look through the ISC-tinted lenses to release that good, exciting, open-wheel racing can sell in the Chicago area.

Just for fun, New Hampshire Motor Speedway fiddled around with its NASCAR race dates, too, forcing the IndyCar Series off their intended date of July 31.  According to
USA Today's Nate Ryan, NHMS will see the return of IndyCars on August 14 now.

But that's in the middle of the road/street block of courses.  Does this mean those are coming to an end?  Let us hope so.

Then just, for fun, Brant James broke the news about a major press conference that Texas Motor Speedway would be holding on Tuesday.  Per his
twitter account:

Dual same-day races will be the Izod #indycarSeries news from @TXMotorSpeedway presser Tuesday. CART ran 126-miles x2 at Michigan 7/15/79  
What does that mean?  Who knows.  It's tough for me to think that Texas would be run as a day-night doubleheader of sorts in early June.  What I could see is Texas becoming an All-Star race of sorts, running two races at night and inverting the field (or some kind of gimmick) for the second race.  Though with an inversion, if the field isn't, well, competent, that is positively frightening to think about on the banks of Texas Motor Speedway.

And we haven't even thrown in speculation of a finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway or the return of Milwaukee to the IZOD IndyCar Series yet.  With 20 days until Bernard's first deadline, he's already creating plenty of intrigue about the 2011 schedule

11 August 2010

The Beginning of the End of the Blocked Schedule?

Earlier this week (and just below this post), it was outlined why the blocked scheduling of tracks - both ovals and road/street circuits - needs to come to an end.

Now, it appears the first blocks in the wall are coming down.  Per USA Today auto racing writer
Nate Ryan's twitter account:
New Hampshire Motor Speedway moves its previously announced IndyCar date from July 31 to Aug. 14 to accommodate mid-July #nascar race.
As the schedule stands right now, that race falls directly after Mid-Ohio and before Sonoma.  With rumors persisting that the Baltimore race will be over Labor Day weekend, it would seem that the blocked schedule is being adjusted rather sharply, though we should know more around Aug. 30 (though my money is on Labor Day weekend at Kentucky for a formal announcement).

09 August 2010

Putting an End to the Blocked Schedule

(Note: this post has been updated to reflect recent events pertaining to the IZOD IndyCar Series.)

Watkins Glen.  Toronto.  Edmonton.  Mid-Ohio.  Sonoma.  All challenging courses in their own right, but put them together over a seven week stretch, and they begin to blur together.  By August 22, when the IZOD IndyCar Series returns after its second straight two week hiatus, all I know is, as a fan of the series, I'm worn out on road and street circuits.

This isn't a knock on any of the courses or venues - far from it as
I believe that the series needs a balanced schedule in order to properly identify the best driver of the course of a season.  But to stack the schedule with five consecutive road/street courses and to follow with four similar ovals, doesn't create the most exciting racing conditions.

I fully understand what the IZOD IndyCar Series was trying to do when they went to the "stacked" schedule in 2009.  By pairing tracks and courses around each other, teams can save time and money by not having to convert chassis to road or oval configurations on a weekly basis.  At its most basic, it does make sense.

But, from a fan's point of view, I'm not necessarily interested in what is easiest for a team.  I want to identify the best team, whether that be Team Penske or HVM Racing.  Let's see who can adjust from a tricky 7/8 of a mile ring at Iowa to a road course in a week (or two).  The
2008 schedule started at Homestead-Miami and went to the Streets of St. Petersburg just a week later.

Over the course of the summer in 2008, the IndyCar Series went from a 1 mile (Milwaukee) to a 1.5 mile white-knuckler (Texas), back to a smaller course (the 7/8 mile bullring at Iowa), graduated to a slightly larger track (Richmond), before going road-oval-road over the next three weeks (Watkins Glen-Nashville-Mid-Ohio, respectively).

That kind of variety and mixing up of the schedule brings excitement to the series.  In that span, the seven races were won by five different drivers, from four different teams.  To the casual viewer, at least that looks exciting.  In the last four races of 2010 - all road/street circuits, three drivers from two teams have won (though that is indicative of the state of the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2010, too).

With different types of courses, mixed in throughout the year, fans can see different drivers near the front.  Unfortunately, by lumping courses together, the same drivers wind up being seen at the front of the field nearly every race.  Since the 4th of July, fans have been treated to the Will Power Show.  While that's well and good (watching a supremely talented driver is a fine thing), it gets repetitive over the course of six weeks.  Unfortunately, when five street/road courses, or even four-five ovals, are strung together, that's what the IZOD IndyCar Series begins to feel like - reruns.

Furthermore, given the recent announcements from NASCAR pertaining to their 2011 schedule, it reflects the IZOD IndyCar Series' need to remain flexible in its scheduling.  Blocking tracks together can put the series in a bind when it comes to creating the schedule.  Right now, the apparent best date for a race at Chicagoland Speedway in 2011 comes when the series is entering its annual five-circuit swing on road/street courses.  New Hampshire Motor Speedway, whose IndyCar race was originally slated for July 30, might not be able to hold that date if the rumors of a mid-July NASCAR race occur.

Breaking up the blocked scheduling allows the IndyCar Series to adjust to the whims of NASCAR and their track partners much easier.  Until the IZOD IndyCar Series becomes a bigger draw at those tracks (and that day is a long way off, in all likelihood), they can't command dates the way NASCAR presently does.

With the 2011 schedule due out in a few weeks, avoiding that feeling of sameness is exactly what the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to avoid.  Every race needs to feel fresh, exciting and new.  Solid venues like Chicagoland, which brings exciting racing on a year-in, year-out basis, need to be kept, provided that the track is willing to work with the series.  Mixing up the tracks, while more costly to teams, would go a long way to helping the series avoid some of the summer doldrums.

03 August 2010

The Cost of Entertainment

The IZOD IndyCar Series may be losing their VP of Marketing, John Lewis, but the announcement of Helio Castroneves' penalty for his actions following the Honda Indy Edmonton was a shrewd marketing strategy.

The news broke just before the 6 p.m. news, getting it into the evening news cycle across IndyCar markets.  This morning, it is among the headlines on AOL.com.  All this in a week in which the series is coming off of a bye week.  Now the IZOD IndyCar Series puts itself back into the headlines, most of which conclude with the tag, "Castroneves and the IndyCar Series resume their schedule at Mid-Ohio on Sunday."

Let's be honest: I'm sure most fans, given the option of seeing an entertaining, post-race reaction (when warranted), and knowing that a driver would be $60,000 lighter in the wallet, would immediately sign up to watch the spectacle unfold.  And they did, in droves.  From Pardon the Interruption to ESPN.com to SportsCenter, Castroneves' outburst covered the ESPN family of networks.  And when the IZOD IndyCar Series can garner attention on the Worldwide Leader, regardless of type (driver fatality excluded), it has to be considered good.

Now, I won't go as so far as to encourage driver arguments and physical altercations with on-track officials following a race, but Castroneves' display of emotion was far more welcome than watching tweets pop up from sparring drivers.  And it got more coverage, too.