Attention 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.
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 Eden-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.
ESPN 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.
Dan 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.