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.
The 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.
Corporate 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.
Nowhere 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!