Disciple of INDYCAR Weblog

May 30, 2014

Vanquishing the Indianapolis 500 Ghosts of 1973

Filed under: The Disciple Blogs — Disciple of INDYCAR @ 1:39 pm

SwedeThis past month of May was memorable on a number of levels as every May usually is. Fans enjoyed a great 500 and were entertained all month by a re-engineered schedule of events that kept most everyone engaged. One highlight that personally touched a lot of fans involved a popular name from the past.


1973 is widely regarded as the most tragic, even forgettable 500 ever. Three lives were lost; one before the race, one in pit lane in horrifying fashion, and another a couple of weeks after the race caused not by a bad crash that looked fatal when it happened, but by the lingering effects of breathing burning fuel that seemed to spread as the emergency crew tried to extinguish it.  Add to that the permanent disfiguration of another driver who pin-wheeled down the south end of the main straightaway, the injury of several fans, and an ordeal that took three days to complete and not even to the scheduled distance makes it potentially the darkest year ever at the old Brickyard.

1959 was my first time through the gates. I was there in 1964 when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald lost their lives in a fiery 2nd lap crash. In 1966 I was feet away from a mayhem filled start. Sixteen drivers lost their lives trying to compete there during the time I have been attending and each one had a compelling and interesting career story prior to being so prematurely claimed. Every year most fans think about each one and the memories they left. The death of Swede Savage seemed pointless and incomprehensible. He survived a horrendous crash that split his car in half but died 33 days later at Methodist Hospital.

Angela and MarioThe lingering and mostly negative feeling about 1973 seemed to vanish for me this year after the track was visited by the daughter of Swede Savage. Angela never knew her father. For forty years she possessed trunks of his belongings but could not ever bring herself to explore them. She had plenty of time to wrestle with feelings of anger, abandonment and resentment. She also never got anywhere close to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by both choice and circumstance. Life out west is distant both in terms of miles and culture.

Angela and her family might well have lived their entire lives having no interaction with the sphere of people who admired and watched her father. But something magic happened. A man named Paul Powell and a small group of peers reached out. The culmination of their months-long efforts led Angela and her husband to Indianapolis this May. In Indianapolis the red carpet was rolled out wherever Angela went (with the notable exception of the IPL Festival Parade folks, whose aberrant and classless behavior scuttled an otherwise perfect weekend in a spectacularly sleazy manner) and Angela bounced from place to place with eyes as wide as a child visiting Disney World for the first time.

Swede SuitHer personality can best be described as energetic. She is a hugger. Anyone who took the time to meet her immediately became a friend for life. Most importantly she learned all about her father mostly by sheer osmosis. The community of IndyCar fans, IMS, and those who have worked in that business is relatively small and tight, and Swede Savage was extremely popular and on his way up. His month of May in 1973 turned a lot of heads. He had a great ride and embraced the challenge enthusiastically. Most everyone had a story and Angela soaked it up like a sponge.

On race weekend fans were invited to a social event at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in which Angela, Swede’s brother Bruce and a member of Swede’s pit crew related feelings and stories. It was both compelling and fascinating. Framed art, one of Swede’s driving suits and a custom-crafted exact replica of his helmet presented by Bell Helmets also highlighted the evening.

Angela got the grand tour of IMS, met with the brass, met with fans, interacted with competitors of the day, enjoyed the race and left on cloud nine. She connected with the father she never knew through people who both knew and knew of Swede Savage. It was easily the best story of the month. See you next May, Angela!


May 28, 2014

Indianapolis 500 Report Card For The Folks In Charge

Filed under: The Disciple Blogs — Disciple of INDYCAR @ 5:51 pm

The winnerAttention Doug Boles, Mark Miles, Jeff Belskus and all others responsible for running the big May show: Here is your report card from a fan who has now attended FIFTY Indy 500s. We will cover both the positive and the negative. Hopefully all of it is constructive. A great place to start is the GOOD in the areas that matter the most:

Presentation: Much better than in many recent years. Magnificent jobs all around and the events seem to have had the desired effect in increased attendance.

Getting inside the gates to attend the race: Night and day from last year. The problems that caused massive backups vanished. It was fast, efficient and easy.

Quality of the race: Second to none in most areas. The field composition was almost a throwback. We saw IndyCar stars mixing it up with Formula 1 and NASCAR veterans. It was a racing melting pot. The car performed well, the drivers raced hard, the pit crews made a difference and the fans cheered. The rookies impressed and a home-grown won. It rarely gets any better.

Access to drivers, garages and events: IMS does it better than anyone else in any series.

The BAD:

Qualifying hocus pocus: The notion of setting the field and fast nine on Saturday then re-qualifying for starting position and pole on Sunday is quirky and intriguing (and not even bad) but the fundamental problem remains: There are not nearly enough entrants. Compelling would be forty or fifty entrants trying for 33 starting spots. Seventy qualifying attempts among just 33 cars is a glorified shell game. As long as you folks choose to remain entirely beholden to manufacturers the field will always be pre-ordained and from a fan standpoint that stinks to high heaven.

Video boards: Not bad in the 70s or early 80s but modern technology makes those behemoths look as dated as a manual scoreboard at a baseball game. The wife and I felt relief once we unburdened ourselves from every last tube type television set we owned a few years ago. Our home is now adorned with multiple large flat screen digital televisions that provide amazing pictures and can be lifted with one hand. Get rid of all the old displays, bring in larger new ones and increase the number of them around the track.

The physical plant: New paint on concession cinderblock, a reconfigured road course and other cosmetics aside, IMS still looks like an elderly battered drunk. The first thing visitors see most days of the year is the museum parking lot, which remains a moonscape. Most stands that contain metal components are woefully rusted. The showcase corner, oval turn 1, looked worse this year than any year I have ever been there, and that goes back to 1959. I still have not accepted the loss of character experienced when the creek was buried and trees were removed but at least the landscaping was always meticulous. Not so now. It looks like the mouth of a meth addict. I do not envy having to be the one that makes decisions about what gets addressed with a limited budget, but remain exceedingly dismayed at how the facility in just a few short years has transformed from an Not FloEden-like garden paradise to a run-down trailer park, and most of that is attitude. If the grounds are hallowed why are they not maintained as such?

Florence Henderson: Jim Nabors retired on his own and that remains sad. Florence needs to be encouraged to do the same. She is very distant from Kate Smith. Her stint is the fingernails on the chalkboard portion of the pre-race festivities. She has to go.

Radio: Paul Page is sounding older and not as effusive as he used to be, but his presence is comforting, warm and familiar particularly given the energetic up and comers who now make up the rest of the track talent. Whoever decided to use the ‘Delta Force’ needs to orient him/herself in this century and decade. The synthesized, dated piece was fine in 1986 when the movie came out, but it is now nearly 30 years old. There are thousands of better choices. Using ‘Delta Force’ for anything these days stretches the boundaries of abject stupidity. It is an utter, laughable farce. I am very disappointed with the IMS Radio Network for allowing it.

Good AND Bad:

Levy Restaurants: The new food offerings are A) too fancy, and B) too expensive for most people who visit the track. Most of it, however, was pretty tasty. A basic Hoosier staple is the breaded tenderloin sandwich. For most people a plain white bun, some mustard and pickles and possibly a few sliced, not slivered, onions are all that is needed. A $9.00 tenderloin that contains pepperjack cheese, some undefined sauce, sliced jalapenos, pink onions, bacon slices and fits inside the bun is foreign to most. A good business parallel is the study of Steve Wynn opening the Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi, Mississippi a few years ago. Wynn essentially dropped something upscale into an area where people expect much less and it failed miserably primarily because he had no idea about any of the type of people who were potential customers. The one great thing that IMS allows (and most competitors do not) is for anyone to bring any of their own food or beverages they want. For the price of one concession Coke at IMS the average person can get two 12-packs at Kroger for the same amount. Offering the choice of convenience versus lugging around baggage is good. Levy is an upgrade but if they could figure out a way to do the basics a lot better, more consistently, and charge accordingly the bottom line would probably increase even more.

The crowd: IMS cannot control the weather but they can control the experience and IMS knocked it out of the park this year. That is most definitely good. Now comes the tough part of making all of them comfortable. In all the stands that currently exist the rows are way too close together and the marked seats do not have enough width. Engineering challenges aside find a way to add at least six more inches each in terms of width and depth. If you are going to restrict seating down low in the Vistas take those seats out. People are larger than they have ever been. It is common sense. Follow the lead of many contemporary sports stadiums and replace crappy seats with, for lack of a better definition, party decks. It provides additional sponsorship opportunity and purges aluminum that otherwise would just remain shiny and empty. A great potential location is the area in front of the suites over the old F-1 garages.

The crewESPN on ABC:  Overall the coverage this year was above average although during the most crucial point of the race at the very end what purpose does shrinking the intense on-track battle in favor of equal space for wife shots serve? The pre-race may flow on ABC but in recent years bending over for ESPN on ABC makes the experience in person very choppy and disorganized. It used to have a flow that built the excitement for the hour preceding what was always an orgasmic-like start. Bring back the flow without the silent gaps for the people in the stands and make ESPN on ABC structure their clock to conform to the natural flow instead of the other way around. By the way I actually liked the weird Newgarden piece and understood the point, although someone got a little exuberant with their special effects tools. Most members of the on-air staff (pits, host, Bestwick, etc.) did GREAT. Bestwick is a huge upgrade from the last few. The boat anchors remain Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever. I love them both as people and respectful winner/almost winner but their on air presence is like bags of sand that talk. Scott definitely must go. I am really tired of hearing the same exact points that I have for the past umpteen years in a row in the same mechanical monotone delivery. Cheever should stay, but pair him with someone with a bombastic personality. It will elevate Cheever’s game. He speaks with an intelligence and insight few have but must be drawn out. The right guy in the booth will do that. They installed the first one this year in Bestwick. They still need the second one.

Dallara-Indy-Lights-IndyCarDan Anderson: He is simultaneously building and killing the sport. Kudos to Anderson and others who have professionally elevated all of the rungs on the ladder to something that appears cohesive and orderly. Despite the fact that only 11 entrants started the Freedom 100 (biggest joke of the month) a portion of the future looks bright and the new 2015 car seems great. I would also incentivize current owners to field more cars in Lights. The biggest problem that Anderson and most everyone else in a leadership role do not understand is the overall importance of the oval component of IndyCar. I am dismayed when learning, for example, that Lights will not run with IndyCar at places like Fontana, leg three of the de facto ‘triple crown.’ The current aversion to oval racing by many owners, drivers and officials is disturbing and frustrating. Most seem to be willfully engineering a bizarre self-fulfilling (but mostly self-interested) prophecy about minimizing them. They state ovals are not popular, cause more risk and should be de-emphasized. Can you imagine what might happen if ovals were approached aggressively, enthusiastically and with even minimal effort sans the irrational fears the road racers in charge attempt to spout? As a fan of multiple disciplines I am tired of having oval efforts basically phoned in to non-Indy tracks and finding themselves thrown out after a handful of years. IndyCar should devote substantially more energy into energizing the oval experience in general and run all the ladders, especially at the dwindling number of small ones. Actively seek out now ones such as Gateway, Memphis or Rockingham. Making non-ovals the centerpiece is a proven prescription for failure. Here is a truly out-of-the-box suggestion for Indy Car: Engineer a smaller oval at Indy for the ladder rungs using the existing turns 3 and 4 and turning back in just north of the pit entrance. Add an elevation change before entering the big oval before turn 3. It would be the most unique oval anywhere.

A man can dream. A man can also face post-race depression, which is what the current state is. The days following the 500 will do that. Now on to the next event. Somehow it will not be the same.

May 22, 2014

Anxiously Awaiting Sunday’s Indianapolis 500

Filed under: The Disciple Blogs — Disciple of INDYCAR @ 4:46 pm

Pole ManA few days before the great race have gone by and thoughts about the newly configured qualifying weekend are clearer. At more and more oval race tracks the notion of one at a time qualifying seems outdated. It does not usually draw a crowd even at NASCAR tracks. Indianapolis, however, is different. Four laps of absolute intensity. Thankfully that has not changed.

What has changed is May being the make or break month for a high number of folks who make that their season centerpiece. IMS touted 70 qualifying attempts on Saturday which is amazing. The problem is it occurred with only 33 cars. That tends to lessen the intensity. Qualifying becomes a shell game. The best possible solution while controlling costs is loosening the specs. The notion of Honda and Chevy pre-ordaining the field is abhorrent. A pre-ordained field of any kind stinks to high heaven.

The 500The hocus pocus concocted by IMS, however, did end up compelling. Instead of bumping after 33 spots are filled, bumping occurred after/out of the first nine. A very smart idea is awarding points on Saturday in inverse order and determining the fast nine. GREAT idea. ‘Pole day’ harkened back to what it used to feel like. One shot. Four hard laps. That’s where you start. Period. Simple and easy and more traditional. Still, 45 or 50 entrants trying for 33 spots is absolutely necessary going forward.

Given the depth of the overall field and the combination of folks with such diverse experience, the 98th running should provide a great show, and the weather forecast looks favorable. See you there!

May 13, 2014

Month of May Musings from IMS, $9.00 Tenderloins and All

Filed under: The Disciple Blogs — Disciple of INDYCAR @ 11:27 am

As a racing fan who spends the majority of May in Speedway, Indiana watching preparations for the greatest race in the world my observations are filled with mixed emotions. It is very easy to admire the out-of-box thinking of the current leadership. In some plate appearances they have hit home runs and in others have struck out.

Perhaps if I were a barely literate child who refused to budge from the last century and were stupid enough to delude myself into believing the only reason the sport changed is because Tony George offended the delicate sensibilities of a small group of arrogant mutineers it would be easy to criticize without the benefit of intelligence. Fortunately you are reading a blog borne of a lifetime of passion for that race and the sport that has provided a colorful cast of characters for decades, not to mention recognition that the world has evolved in fundamental ways.

US 500 likeThe absolute creepiest part of IndyCar direction these days remains the latest headlong plunge into non-oval racing. The business guy who runs the entire ladder is doing a great job building the ladder cohesively, but is on record as not favoring oval racing as are most of those running the IndyCar show. Most IndyCar competitors these days are mined from road racing series. In many cases the first time many of these people experience ovals are the first time they strap in at Indy. That, to me, is a problem. The current venue imbalance level in IndyCar is about 70/30 weighted toward non-ovals. Historically that is a prescription for failure and is a niche from which meaningful growth is just not possible. That is why the best possible expectation for one at Indy is about 40,000 people, even in May.

Still it is difficult to criticize the attempt. The goal of IndyCar was to get a crowd into the joint for opening weekend. They did that. Everyone to whom I talked had a great time. Having the non-oval event on Saturday and the opening day on Sunday was very smart. There was a nagging feeling all day that IMS was attempting to transform a barn dance into something far more Elizabethan and remained creepy. I might have offered free admission on Sunday with a Saturday race ticket, but that would have required common sense.

Evidently the spirits of the place had to send reminders, and the amateurish standing start combined with foolish restarts and uninspired, slow racing demonstrated that. Despite questionable artistry most went home happy. It was a magnificent attempt at changing the status quo.

The road course event is not the big problem for IndyCar racing. The most serious threat to long term success became more focused on Sunday. When the track opened for Indy 500 practice Helio Castroneves took a ceremonial lap then parked. Then we waited a long time for practice to actually begin. Nostalgia was remembering what used to be a rush to hit the track and the prestige that went along with it. Dick Simon came to mind. Most folks who crave interesting stories are generally disappointed when the entire field is pre-ordained and not everyone gets to play.

The century-old facility continues showing its age, amplified by the recent lack of prideful maintenance that once was hallmark. A stroll through the garages these days can get depressing. The rows of garages resemble the mouth of a meth addict. Several random teeth are missing and there exists a hollow, vacant look despite normal hectic May activity.

RIPCorporate innovation is not the same as individual innovation. It is more than a little ironic that the legendary A.J. Watson passed yesterday. How are fans really supposed to be inspired by a field full of Dallaras, the number of which is determined by either Honda or Chevrolet, who also essentially call the shots on when and how many laps folks can run (unless you drive for Penske, Ganassi or Andretti)?

The IMS experience has always been about more than folks giving it everything they have on the track. Inside the grand old facility there remains more rust, deterioration and neglect than is possible to repair. Painting cinderblock on concession stands is nice, but the visceral experience of taking in the place is suffering. The once magnificent oval turn one now looks like a battered wife.

PerfectionNowhere is IMS more out of touch with the regional population (the folks who buy most of the tickets) than the new Alley concession area behind the Pagoda. Does a tenderloin sandwich, a Hoosier food staple, really need to cost $9.00 and contain pepperjack cheese, bacon, special sauce, pink onion chips and wafer thin jalapeno slices? The one I tried was lukewarm, too thick, had a semi-stale bun and contained a rigid slice of cheese right out of the fridge. My friend Glenn found a curly black hair on his. Here is some free advice from the DCG (Disciple Consulting Group): Pound them flat, marinate them in buttermilk, bread them with Panko, fry them up right and serve with three basic condiments: Onions, pickles and mustard. Five or six bucks is about right. If folks are going to overspend on a gourmet tenderloin (oxymoron) should they also not have a comfortable place to eat them? Why did all the umbrellas disappear from picnic tables on the Pagoda concrete? They provide shade and rain protection, and if they contain sponsor logos could probably be had for free. If you want to ensure customer comfort try to make them comfortable.

Further, if you want to build up the month of May why not build a smaller oval on the north end using the existing oval turns 3 and 4 and north chute, then add two flat turns south, a teardrop shaped oval with elevation changes along the golf course portion? Then have the ladders run the small oval? Why not ensure May consistently contains at least 50 entities trying for 33 slots with less micromanaged specs? There is nothing exciting or inspiring about Honda or Firestone technicians walking around with laptops helping micromanage the competition.

Apologies if portions of this come off as overtly negative. May remains the high point of the year for actual IndyCar fans, and I am having fun on site every day the place is open. See you there!

May 1, 2014

Welcome to May! It’s All About Indy….

Filed under: The Disciple Blogs — Disciple of INDYCAR @ 5:23 pm

The month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is here. Even given all of the pure and inherent greatness this month has represented for over a century there remain a determined few who choose to try and pee on it for actual racing fans every year.

ESPN web site racing writer John Oreovicz wrote a column about Jacques Villeneuve that was mostly innocuous enough about his return to the big race after 19 years and several other interesting career phases, including his long and mostly successful/enriching run in Formula 1. The problem is not that type of nostalgia, it is poking at the Indy wound that is never allowed to heal.

Last WinnerOreovicz cited dialog between Villeneuve and local radio host who asked for commentary about 1995 being ‘the last real Indy 500.’ Uh-oh. Out came the old cart playbook complete with the same sound bites:

‘The IRL days were not really the best, I would say.’

‘They have been doing a good job of rebuilding it so it’s picking up again — just the level of drivers and professionalism. But a lot of damage was done and it’s tough to recover from that.’

‘It’s been extremely important and it’s a shame to see how IndyCar has gone down from 15 or 20 years ago. To see it being rebuilt is amazing, and I hope it keeps carrying on in this positive direction.’

This spouting of aging, mephitic dung is precisely why Jacques Villeneuve, as exciting as his 1995 win was, remains the least favorite 500 winner for many. Is it not time almost twenty years later for folks inclined toward that point of view to finally grow up? Apparently not. Anyone who harbors any notion of ‘last real 500’ exposes two things about themselves: 1) They really have no clear or broad understanding of what the event is really all about and that it really is much bigger than not only everyone who has ever competed but even anyone who has won, and 2) They have no right to refer to themselves as fans with a straight face.  In the Facebook comment section that follows the linked story, IndyCar blogger Paul Dalbey summed it up best: ‘The Indianapolis 500 always has been and always will be bigger than the men that compete in it.’

The remainder of that particular comment section thus far is an assortment of various sentiment (some particularly more clueless than others) but in one Oreovicz reply his true colors are reinforced: ‘…nobody is going to forget about it until the guy who caused it apologizes and takes some accountability.’ I realize John’s demographic group does not have the benefit of being fans of the sport for two or three decades before the actual The 500‘split’ in 1979 and I can overlook a certain amount of such willful ignorance probably borne of relative youth. One day those who eschew objectivity in favor of obfuscation might come to a realization of actual fact. Tony George’s creation of the Indy Racing League did not cause split damage, the reaction to it by the cart community did. It was that group that forced the acrimony and resultant damage.

Real racing fans do not care about apologies or hold grudges and always look forward. That is relatively difficult to do considering most of those who actually caused the problem slithered back after they failed, twice, on their own then relied on the graciousness and charity of the man they still foolishly blame for a mess they created all by themselves.

All that said should any of us be surprised about such vulgar rhetoric? After all about 95% of the Euro-centric IndyCar field would drop any and all ovals if given a chance, have already evolved the schedule to 70% non-oval including a non-oval event at IMS in May, and with continuing arrogance that is patently offensive to many continue to assert how much better off the entire sport is today with themselves as the key players.

This May marks the 50th Indianapolis 500 I have attended. My experience shows me that the race has always been bigger than those who compete in it. I will enjoy this one as much as any, including all the ones I chose not to boycott or make fun of during those so-called ‘dark’ days. My vacation schedule is set and I will be there every day the track is open again. I cannot say the same about most of those who continue to spout arrogant nonsense about it. Like every other year there are many more great and compelling stories than twenty year old hostility. Will the really great stories get fleshed out? We shall see.

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