As the IndyCar season draws near we are not without controversy. The latest twist is a civil lawsuit filed by Panther Racing owner John Barnes against the entity acting on behalf of the advertising agency serving the National Guard account, Indy Car and Rahal Letterman Racing, among others. Predictably, Internet legal experts are quick to point out what a waste of human skin John Barnes is and how they also believe he is bitter, a blowhard, a cheat and all sorts of potentially slanderous epithets. As a racing fan the timing of the legal wrangling is unfortunate. National Guard sponsorship rode with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to victory at Daytona on Sunday.
What does it all really mean? For starters there is a very real possibility that a legacy team that began competing in IndyCar in 1998 could vanish. The DNA of that team is rich with pieces of a lot of other notable teams, including Team Menard and Dryer & Reinbold Racing. They made Sam Hornish, Jr. a champion in IndyCar and the list of drivers who have piloted their machines and the folks who who have worked on them is impressive. They have come painfully close to winning Indy a lot, including four straight second place finishes. Obviously they did a lot of things right.
The merit of Barnes’ claims is obviously fodder for a wider discussion, and the Internet gossip mill cannot help whispering scandalous claims about people not getting paid, subversion of Randy Bernard and all sorts of other tawdry innuendo. I am of the opinion that there are multiple sides to any such story. I am not ready to condemn Barnes. I remind myself (and you should too) that Bobby Rahal is involved, and would not any objective observer be able to cherry pick illustrious moments from his past as shining examples of sleaze? Barnes has been the victim of talent and sponsor poaching as much as anyone else. Eating the offspring of one another seems to be a hallmark of IndyCar, particularly among legacy ownership rescued/bailed out in the early 2000s.
We all know the Panther bid was higher than the Rahal bid, but how much do we know about the bidding process? Why is Panther not a part of the IndyCar leader program this year? What is the back story? Who knows what will be revealed? I doubt any casual racing fan will ever know. The only thing IndyCar generally ever releases publicly, particularly when something controversial is involved, is subterfuge, misdirection and happy talk.
As a racing fan abhorrent to the often seedy politics that once again pollute IndyCar regularly my concern is much more pure. I just really like what that team has accomplished over the years, and in many of them I rooted for them hard. Whether or not Barnes and company are able to continue remains to be seen (he says they will), but he has my admiration for making IndyCar compelling to watch through the years. Perhaps someday he will see his team win the 500, and that would be a great story.
This morning we were breathlessly assaulted with news from left field that 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve is returning to the big race this May with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. As a pure racing fan there is a lot about which to be excited. He is another 500 winner joining the fray, a former Formula 1 world champion, and someone with a large fan base. He helps the participant count and potentially sponsorship, and sparks interest among a fringe group who claim not to have paid attention since 1995.
As an optimist this must be seen as at least an interesting move. As a forward thinker the move remains open to question. Villeneuve is potentially the least favorite Indy 500 winner of the modern era. After his win (which many feel went to the wrong Canadian despite Villeneuve actually driving 505 miles to the checkered flag) he departed for Formula 1 where he peaked in 1997. He never won another Formula 1 event after his title in the years that followed. His off-and-on career in various NASCAR divisions, where he treated the roofed contraptions and competitors like carnival bumper cars, also did not make him a large number of friends. What a number of IndyCar fans who have remained IndyCar fans for decades (no hissy fits, boycotts or walking away, etc.) find troubling are a number of negative comments about the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar racing in general over the years. His public persona has been one of little to no appreciation for IMS and the 500. He has publicly personified the sheer arrogance that led directly to the events of the following few years. That makes his return at this late point in his dwindling racing career seem hypocritical. On the other hand that has been rather normal since the mid-2000s.
Sam Schmidt has been great at finding relatively obscure young racers, most with an ability to assist with funding, and finding golden nuggets along the way. Recycling of way-past-their-prime champions seems out of character but definitely interesting. Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi seem to feel it will work. My thoughts lament the sheer number of talented on-the-cusp young racers just standing there with their helmets and no discernable possibility for a ride. On the other hand inclusion of past champions from ‘glory days’ fifteen or twenty years past retains a certain appeal. What might really move the interest needle is even a possibility they could be bumped. That hardly seems likely given micromanagement of the field by IMS and the manufacturers.
As long as we are going down this road why not put Buddy Lazier in a competitive ride for once? A field that contains Montoya, Lazier, Villeneuve and Kurt Busch would attract a large and diverse cross section of racing fans.
Despite a strong urge to hold my nose, shrug and perhaps yawn about the Villeneuve news my big picture concern lies only with IMS and Indianapolis 500. A propensity to drop anchor in a previous century that impedes forward movement notwithstanding, on balance and as racing fans we should cheer optimistically for tangible things that attract more eyeballs. For better or worse this is a textbook case. Welcome back, Jacques. Please go talk to Mr. Foyt or members of the Unser family about what Indy means before you strap back in. It will be most interesting to see how the grand dame treats you.
To many auto racing aficionados the racing season begins each year with the Daytona 24 hours deal, which is fine. To most casual fans the Daytona 500 is the unofficial start of actual racing for the new year. It was a chore to watch this year because after the first 38 laps it took 6 ½ hours to run the final 162. The ‘Junior Nation’ is happy, however. It was easy to feel sorry for the fans in attendance dodging rain and severe weather. Even with the attendance challenges that face NASCAR and most all sporting events there were still a lot of folks there. Not 250,000, as some new outlets suggested when discussing the evacuation for tornado warnings.
My hair splitting annoyances, as usual, involved members of the Waltrip family on live microphones with their usual hyperbolic fiction; e.g., Daytona is the birthplace of speed, drivers come from all over the world to compete there, etc. Evisceration of the English language is also a popular drinking game, although our group ran out of liquor even before the first ‘boogity’ was uttered, and had we had enough to last until the end of the race chances are the living room might have resembled Guyana in 1979 by the stroke of midnight.
With regard to racing, the restrictor plate packing led to a few big ones which undoubtedly drives the purists nuts. My main concern was not really that, but the idea of racing itself. At the start of the event most drivers who talked strategy were counting on not racing, but driving for the first 2/3 of the race and were counting on fellow drivers to do the same. So why is it called a race, much less the great American one? If they are not going to race for the first 2/3 of the event why not just run 67 laps since that is the number in which racing will occur? The first 132 are probably why I nod off.
Still, most are comforted by the fact that racing season is underway. It is a shame we have to wait a few more weeks for IndyCar.
The comment section of my previous blog entry quickly became polluted by squawking cart-centric flat earthers still stuck in the previous decade. Despite what I thought was a realistic forward-looking future schedule that included new venues in new markets, consistency with existing offerings and rationale for all, a handful of ‘sky is falling’ nutjobs offered no alternatives or meaningful counterpoint. That is not what I had anticipated.
Yelping Comment Dropper 1
Instead we got the same tired and dated howls of Tony George as the root cause of all the problems in open wheel, 25/8, aggressive attempts to position the sport as a sponsor-less, ratings-less, attendance-less waste of time. If that is the case why is the same handful of impaired individuals devoting so much time to preaching their gospel of doom-filled nonsense? What purpose does it serve? If they were not hypocrites would they not have found another way to enjoy themselves at some point over the eighteen years we are from their quaint little D-Day?
I appreciate fellow racing fans whose sphere of consciousness pre-dates 1979, whether from direct experience or intelligent study of the history of the sport. Sadly, many actual fans are leery of walking into such a minefield, whether it is my blog or any number of other blogs or forums designed with such chatter in mind.
Yelping Comment Dropper 2
Here is a suggestion for the obsessed: We have clearly understood for nearly eighteen years that you believe the sport is dead, dying or whatever, and that you hold Tony George primarily responsible. Instead of recycling your repetitive banter over and over why not take a different approach? A refreshing change might be to offer suggestions for righting the ‘sunken’ (LOL) ship.
It’s easy to be pessimistic. The current crop of mostly foreign road racers and their like-minded competition director seem hell bent on continuing to Euro-ize the series into a predominately non-oval adventure complete with an increasing number of standing starts and the like. History shows that approach fails 100% of the time in this country. That is my big worry. Back to basics is what is needed.
Think you have the courage to contribute something that looks forward and not backward? Forward is the only thing any of us can really affect now.
-Must schedule around the NFL
-Can’t generally run on NASCAR tracks that have two Cup dates with some exceptions
-Should try to beat all other series to the bell
-Successful scheduling and marketing by IndyCar will need to consist of more than ‘. . . fork over 1.5 million dollars and we will appear.’
-IndyCar must work hard to improve the venue balance. Non-oval predominance is getting ridiculous, and is a historically proven path toward failure.
With that in mind, here is a proposed schedule and rationale:
- Second to last weekend of January: Walt Disney World Speedway (after SAFER installed). Why? It is a week before the Daytona 24 hours. It is the only time of the year Disney would actually like a race there. You would attract a lot of snowbirds in the throes of winter. OVAL.
- Last weekend of January: Run at Daytona just before the 24 hours. Great publicity at minimal cost. NON-OVAL.
- Mid February: The Houston street race. Weather would be better than in mid-summer. Far enough away from Eddie’s race. NON-OVAL-STREET.
- End of February: Try Homestead again because Cup only has one date at the end and perhaps both entities could finally learn how to market a great product. OVAL.
- Mid-March: Circuit of the Americas. It is time. Weather is usually 65-70 and it is far enough away from F-1. Far enough away from Eddie’s race. NON-OVAL.
- End of March: Andy Hillenberg’s Rockingham. Great short oval with SAFER; all classes can run, and it opens up a brand new Iowa-style market. Creative presentation required. OVAL.
- Early April: Barber. Traditional slotting and great partner. NON-OVAL.
- Mid-April: Long Beach. Maintains its normal position. NON-OVAL-STREET.
- End of April: Phoenix. Perfect spacing between Cup events and nice pre-Indy oval. OVAL.
- First of Mary: Memphis Motorsports Park. Opens up a brand new market, is not owned by ISC or SMI, is geographically desirable, has SAFER and is a great short oval on which all classes can run. OVAL.
- Mid-May: IMS road course deal. NON-OVAL
- End of May: Indy 500. OVAL
- First of June: Give Eddie back his first race after Indy status. He deserves it. OVAL
- Mid-June: Belle Isle. Personally I think Detroit is a hopeless cause and these cars actually deserve MIS more, but as long as Roger Penske is alive and Chevy is a partner we will probably have to live with it. NON-OVAL
- First of July: Pocono. What a great addition last year and if the slot stays consistent could be a long term winner. OVAL
- Mid-July: Iowa. Enjoy that great small oval while it lasts. OVAL.
- Late July: Toronto. NON-OVAL-STREET.
- Early August: Mid-Ohio. Great fan attendance. NON-OVAL.
- Mid-August: Milwaukee. Hopefully they continue building this event. Track is as historic as Indy. OVAL.
- Late August: Sonoma. Good money. Great location. NON-OVAL.
- Season climax: Fontana. OVAL.
11 ovals, 7 road courses, 3 streets. Perfect balance.
Other out of the box ideas: Make a deal with ISC that basically states ISC will take their heads out of their asses with regard to Pikes Peak, and IndyCar will stop running there as soon as they get their track built in Denver. That was a great little market for IndyCar, and the area has blossomed both in terms of population and economy since. Weather is nice most of time too.
As the general population of the country continues growing vaginas at a startling pace, ‘manly’ testosterone fueled sports are under assault. It is actually rather frightening. The NFL, for example, is threatened by fear of serious long term injury, particularly head injuries. One look at a 70 year old legend from Super Bowl weekend, Joe Namath, provides compelling circumstantial evidence. The guy has problems expressing coherent sentences, and he screwed up the coin toss. Combine that with the increase of soccer as the population tans and as child rearing couples increasingly forbid their kids from playing tackle football, and the NFL should be worried.
Today ratings and revenue are not a problem for the NFL, but the chick-ization of society has definitely affected all of auto racing. NASCAR’s ‘chase’ has not worked out as they had hoped so not they have added reality-like eliminations in an attempt to increase eyeballs. Ratings are flat and seats are being removed from tracks at a fast clip. Formula One experienced a 10% decrease in ratings, purportedly because fans became tired of seeing Vettel win most of the time.
IndyCar has been under assault for over a decade. The most ignorant of the screechers continue stupidly blaming Tony George and 1996, but a combination of horrible, revolving management bent on self-destruction has plagued the genre more than anything else over the years. The critics are very fond of pointing out ratings challenges for IndyCar.
As a subscriber to the Hemingway definition of sports (bullfighting, motor racing and mountain climbing, presumably because all three can lead to literal sudden death) the wussification of society is troubling because meddlesome people who believe they have a right to tell others what they can or can’t watch have gained a foothold, and sports that can kill participants greatly trouble such folks.
Hopefully I am wrong. My tendency to be, as my critics point out, full of crap may be indicative of some irrational fear. But look at the numbers and look at the trends, then try to look forward fifteen years. Pretty scary.