Come Back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George by kentsterling
September 16, 2010, 5:08 pm
Filed under: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kent Sterling | Tags: , , ,

by Kent Sterling

There are rumors circulating among those who know things before anyone else in Indianapolis that there are at least two offers on the heavily coastered oak desk of Mari Hulman George for the sale of all family race properties. One might even involve the return of – you ready for this – Tony George!

Please, Mari, agree to the deal offered by your son.

The current events hosted at 16th and Georgetown are quaint visits to the past with tips of the hat to traditions insiders and natives have grown to love, but that have no relevance with the demographic they so dearly need to attract. Jim Nabors? Florence Henderson? Ruth Buzzi? Hey, I love them, but have as far as the 18-34 adults whose attendance owners crave, they might as well trot out the corpses of Fess Parker, Dinah Shore, and Gypsy Rose Lee.

There is no creativity, zest, or passion for taking risks at the IMS. IndyCar races are difficult to find on TV, although that is going to be corrected soon after the Comcast/NBC is final. The NASCAR event is defines tedium The races are pointless, and if not for the PR machine driving the building of the brands of drivers, the quality of the racing during the Brickyard 400 wouldn’t fill Indy Raceway Park.

The Indy 500 is a great race without enough stars to sustain itself. Danica Patrick is the only real draw, and she hasn’t been competitive in two years. Helios Castroneves is well-known because of “Dancing with the Stars”, but not a reason for fans to head to the race. That’s two drivers anyone but the diehards care about.

There was a buzz and energy at 16th and Georgetown in 2009. George, Joie Chitwood, and the crew at the IMS had things moving in a positive direction. There was a vibe that the IMS was the place to be race weekend. For the first time since moving here in 1993 that my phone rang with calls from friends in Chicago for tickets. This year – a big step backwards. No calls. no interest.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway needs an infusion of creativity and fearlessness. Current head of the IndyCar Series Randy Bernard may be incredibly savvy and edgy, but until the members of the Hulman George Family currently calling the shots are out, it’s going to be impossible to tell. The place has some phenomenally gifted minds being stunted by the current heavy-handed risk-averse leadership of the family that has run the place since 1946.

George is the man who should continue to shepherd the IMS back to relevance.

When accountants are in charge, creativity and fun are not going to be prized attributes of those sitting at the conference table when decisions are made. Two immutable rules of corporate design are never let the engineers create, and never let the accountants lead. Engineers build and accountants write checks. Period.

The spirit of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway deserves clear-eyed leadership that can chart a course to the future. The past is comfortable, and inviting Florence Henderson to the winner’s banquet is a nice nod to the distant past, but who watches? Evolve or die.

As Indianapolis’ greatest treasure celebrates the 100th anniversary of Ray Harroun’s win in the inaugural race at the Brickyard, Tony George leading a consortium that buys the IMS and takes control of the hallowed grounds would be spectacularly good news for open wheel racing fans, and worth a real celebration.


Moto GP Engines Roar in Relative Silence by kentsterling

by Kent Sterling

Moto GP is a popular form of racing around the world, but in Indianapolis there is no buzz today – the day of the third running of the Red Bull Indianapolis GP..

Motorcycles roar around the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 200 mph, but just as the U.S. Grand Prix failed to thrill, this event too has been received coolly by locals.

For years, I helped put together all the programming for every event emanating from 16th and Georgetown, so it was impossible for me to ignore any time the gates were open and the world’s greatest race course.  But being a fan of racing, I’m stunned that some of these ancillary events mean very little to the locals.

The Indianapolis 500 is still a very big deal.  It’s a civic celebrations, but the use of the speedway is not altogether different from Louisville and Churchill Downs.  Well over 100,000 people show up each year for the Kentucky Derby, but on a normal Tuesday of thoroughbred racing, you can sit wherever you like and rarely find lines for wagers.

People show up for the fun and pageantry of the Indy 500 as well as the race.  Just as Louisvillians love the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home”, fans at Indy wait for Jim Nabors to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana”.

Sports fandom is generational.  What your dad took you to is what you are likely to take your kid to, and so on and so on.  The Indy 500 is a generational event.  All the way back to 1911 people have shown up for the 500 mile race.  The interest in the history of the 500 is so enormous in Indianapolis that a two-hour nightly show airs on 1070 – the Fan for the five weeks prior to the running of the race that is devoted entirely to questions from callers about that history.

The Moto GP has little history, and has generated limited passion.  There is no reason for the Hulman-George Family (who own the IMS) not to try to open it up as often as possible and make some cash.  Just because there is an event doesn’t mean people are going to show up, as the folks at NASCAR have discovered to past two seasons.

The Brickyard 400 has always been a single file parade that people went to because what the hell else are people in Indianapolis going to do in early August or late July.  A couple of years ago, Goodyear brought tires that disintegrated within ten laps, so the race was halted every eight laps for a competition yellow.  That was the tipping point for the soft local support of the race, and the IMS can’t fill the stands (or come close) by giving away tickets.

Moto GP is a different animal in that popularity for it was never intense, and a lack of effective marketing doesn’t help.  Without local TV and radio coverage, there would be no way to know that it exists.  I have no idea whether the current management of the IMS is spending more or less on marketing, or where that marketing is allocated, but I haven’t seen any.

MotoGP announced yesterday that it will return to Indy for at least one more year.  In the grand scheme of things, why not?  Maybe it’s a matter of judging all events at the IMS too harshly in comparison to the Indy 500, but anyone who thinks interest in that race is waning should attend one of the others, if they can find out when they are held.

There will be TV coverage on Speed Network at 3p.  Good luck finding that.  On DirecTV, it’s on 607, just four away from the also difficult to locate Vs.

With No Particular Place to Go by wesreynolds

by Wes Reynolds

Back in mid-July, the IZOD Indy Car Series made their announcement regarding the implementation of a new car for the 2012 season. I wrote back then that it was a good first step but lacked specifics. Well now the team owners in the series are asking for those specifics. Perhaps we should have all read the tea leaves back on July 15th when the series made its big announcement and yet very few of the major players or movers and shakers were in attendance. Roger Penske? Chip Ganassi? Michael Andretti? AJ Foyt? Helio Castroneves? Dario  Franchitti? Scott Dixon? Nope. Now it seems that there is very little support from the teams for the new car that the IZOD Indy Car Series and the ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective) committee said would be the “Car of the Future”.

According to a  story from Robin Miller published yesterday, the owners do not want this new car for 2012 and expressed said opinion to Tony Cotman, the former Champ Car chief steward and competition director in 2005-2008 who also served on the ICONIC committee and was recently hired by Randy Bernard to write the rules for the new Dallara safety cell and potential engine packages.

“The league decided to do a new car and never consulted the teams and we’re all wondering how we’re going to be able to pay for new equipment given the current economy and value of the series,” said Eric Bachelart of Conquest Racing.
“We asked Tony (Cotman) what our investment would be for a new car and he wasn’t able to tell us so we’re all a little bit uncomfortable.”

Another owner in the series, who remained anonymous, gave this quote:  “This isn’t a revolt and we aren’t going to start another series, it’s plain and simple, we don’t have the money to buy new cars. Roger (Penske) and Chip (Ganassi) are saying the same thing. But the IndyCar series signed a deal with Dallara to spend our money without us signing off on it and we’re the guys writing the checks. “What are they going to do if nobody buys it?”

The deal that is being referred to is the ICONIC committee and the series signing an agreement with Dallara to provide them with the exclusive rights to build the tubs for the 2012 car. In addition, Honda has extended their agreement to be one of the engine providers.

IZOD Indy Car Series CEO Randy Bernard has said the ship has already sailed in terms of the deals with Dallara and Honda. Bernard also expressed a little bit of exasperation when it comes to the owners’ complaints since the owners did have a representative (Gil de Ferran, co-owner of Luzco Dragon De Ferran Racing) on the ICONIC committee.
“Gil sent out three pages of questions and I don’t remember many owners mentioning possibly delaying things until 2013. This wasn’t a big deal then, so why is it a big deal today?”

Bernard knew that this was going to be a tough job back in February when he was first hired from Professional Bull Riders. However, I don’t know if he knew what he was really dealing with upon making his first visit to 16th & Georgetown. Bernard is a marketing guy and a good salesman, but he is not a “techie”, which is why he hired Tony Cotman. Bernard’s main job was to market the series and try to get more eyeballs on television screens and more butts in the seats. However, Bernard listened to the fans and the open-wheel media and realized that they needed to make drastic changes with the new car since open-wheel racing had always embraced innovation and technological advances. If it wasn’t for Bernard’s persistence, series COO Brian Barnhart would likely have done nothing in terms of changing the new car and the series would be stuck with the same cars they have had since 2003.

The owners do make fair points in regards to the lack of specifics. However, they need to have a little foresight here as well. They have to realize that the series has little chance to show any future stability or even potential growth if the cars don’t change. The current economic constraints affect most, if not all businesses, and motorsports is no exception. Many teams that will take the grid this Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway for the IndyCar race are struggling to make ends meet and just get onto the track every race weekend. Nevertheless, the owners need to make their minds up in terms of what they want. Do you want a new car or not? Are you happy with where the series currently stands or would you prefer to see growth? History has already shown us that team owners cannot call the shots in open-wheel racing. They already tried that in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was called CART.

Do more specifics need to be provided to the owners and team principals? The answer is a resounding yes. That being said, this is Randy Bernard’s first big fight as IZOD IndyCar Series CEO and he needs to win this fight. He has to stand up to the owners and not become their puppet like so many CART Presidents became before him. If some of these teams cannot race, then perhaps they need to get the hell out of the paddock. Maybe open-wheel racing needs just a little bit of Social Darwinism.

Immediately after the July announcement for the “Car of the Future”, the 1964 Chuck Berry hit No Particular Place to Go played over the loudspeakers. The song was likely selected for its opening lyric of “riding along  in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel”. Unfortunately for open-wheel racing, the song actually serves as a metaphor for the current standstill between the series and its owners. Everyone seems to want a new car for 2012, but many don’t want to do the work to make it happen. If this potential impasse cannot be avoided, then the IZOD Indy Car Series will truly have no particular place to go.

IndyCar Analyst Launches Worthwhile Campaign for 2011 Indianapolis 500 by wesreynolds
August 10, 2010, 11:32 pm
Filed under: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Media | Tags: , ,

by Wes Reynolds

Recently while reading various forums and blogs, I stumbled across the “You Don’t Know Jack” blog authored by longtime ESPN/ABC IndyCar pit reporter and current Versus analyst Jack Arute. In Arute’s most recent blog, he makes a convincing case to have former two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi drive the pace car for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 next May. Arute also made this case to new IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard last weekend at the race in Mid-Ohio. If Bernard’s short tenure as CEO has  shown anything, it’s that he listens to all ideas and takes action on a significant amount of them. Many of the IRL loyalists will scoff at the notion of putting a “CART” guy in the pace car. Others will say that you need a big-time mainstream celebrity to perform this duty especially in light of IMS’s centennial era culminating with the one-hundred year anniversary of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. Those people obviously don’t know the story of Alex Zanardi.

Zanardi, born in Bologna, Italy, first came to the United States in 1996 after three years in Formula 1 driving for backmarking teams Jordan and Lotus. Zanardi was signed to drive for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 1996 and he subsequently moved to Noblesville with his wife and young son. One of the most unfortunate fallouts from the open-wheel split between Tony George’s IRL and CART was that the immensely talented Zanardi did not race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ganassi’s team was a part of the CART series at the time. Zanardi’s first season in CART earned him Rookie of the Year in 1996 due to five pole positions and three race wins (Portland, Mid-Ohio and one of the all-time classic races at Laguna Seca) and finished tied for second in the points with Michael Andretti (Zanardi’s Ganassi teammate Jimmy Vasser won the CART Championship that year).

That daring move (watch video from 4:20 on) on the last lap, known in open-wheel circles as “The Pass”, made Zanardi an open-wheel star. Unfortunately for open-wheel fans, we were only at the beginning of the split and many local fans had chosen to side with Tony George, IMS and the Indy Racing League, so Zanardi was never recognized as the IndyCar superstar that he deserved to be. Zanardi would win twelve races over the next two seasons and won back-to-back CART championships in 1997 and 1998. He was also the first driver, after winning a race, to start the tradition of spinning his car around in tight circles, also known as “donuts”. This tradition is now oft-imitated, but never duplicated, even today in both IndyCar and NASCAR. As I know you will read in many of my future columns pertaining to IZOD IndyCar Series, one of its main problems is the lack of American stars. There are few stars even close to the level of the drivers that I watched as a kid like Rick Mears, Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan. However,  Zanardi was far from just being yet another “foreigner” in open-wheel racing. He was passionate and oozed charisma and became as popular, if not more so, than any other driver in CART including Michael and Little Al.

Zanardi’s open-wheel success led to another brief stint in Formula 1 in 1999. However, it was not a successful season for the Italian and his Williams team and he found himself out of a job in 2000, only one year into his three-year contract. In 2001, Zanardi returned to CART and drove for owner Mo Nunn. This was especially ironic since Mo Nunn, while he was employed as chief engineer for Target Chip Ganassi, advised Ganassi against hiring Zanardi because he believed Italian drivers were too prone to make driving mistakes. Zanardi’s 2001 season was plagued with mechanical failures and getting caught up in others’ accidents. Those various problems in the 2001 season became minimal to Zanardi on September 15, 2001 when CART raced in Klettwitz, Germany.

The race in Germany that day, held just four days after the tragic events of 9/11, was renamed “The American Memorial”. While the NFL, MLB, NASCAR, College Football and the PGA Tour had cancelled or postponed their sporting events, both CART and Formula 1 (Italian Grand Prix) mistakenly did not postpone their events. Zanardi, while leading the race, came onto pit road for his last stop. He accelerated and lost control of the rear end of the car and slid onto the race track and was struck by Alex Tagliani. Zanardi, being the class act that he always has been, immediately called Tag after his surgery and told him not to blame himself for the accident.

This accident, one of the most horrifying that I have ever seen, caused Zanardi to lose both of his legs and ended only his open-wheel racing career. Thankfully it did not end his life. Zanardi was dissatisfied with the prosthetic limbs for which he was fitted, so he subsequently designed his own to allow him to compare the weight and stiffness of various feet in order to find the most suitable for racing. Yes, Zanardi wasn’t going to let the loss of his legs keep him from his first love, auto racing. Zanardi has actually raced touring cars since 2003. Among his other accomplishments included testing a Formula One car in 2006 for BMW Sauber, placing 4th in the New York City Marathon in the handcycle division, winning the disabled category at the 2009 Venice Marathon and 2010 Rome City Marathon and is currently training to make the Italian team for the 2012 Summer Paralympics in handcycle. Zanardi also authored two books in 2004 and here is an interview from CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman. As you can see, he is a highly engaging and interesting personality.

If you take a poll of the best open-wheel driver to never win the Indianapolis 500, Michael Andretti is usually at the top of the list since he has led the most laps (431) without winning the race. However, Alex Zanardi should be right up there at the top of the list. He never got the chance to race at the 500 since he was essentially a casualty of the open-wheel split, but there is no doubt in my mind that his face would have been on the Borg-Warner Trophy. How fitting would it be to have him drive his first ever laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just months before the 10-year anniversary of his near-tragic accident? This would not only be a great story for sports media, but also national and local mainstream media outlets. Besides the wonderful human-interest aspect of the story, it’s the right thing to do for long-time open wheel fans and could perhaps be yet another step in bringing back some of the fans (especially from CART/Champ Car) that IndyCar has lost over the years. This is undoubtedly an effort that local motorsports media-types like Derek Daly of WISH-TV, Curt Cavin of The Indianapolis Star, Robin Miller of SPEED TV, John Oreovicz of and Kevin Lee of 1070 the Fan would certainly support, It probably isn’t likely that these individuals could come to an agreement on what type of coffee to serve on race day morning at the IMS media center, but they would certainly have to agree on this one. Hopefully Randy Bernard, IMS CEO Jeff Belskus and IMS Chairwoman Mari Hulman George can come together to consider and implement Jack Arute’s recommendation. I, along with many fans, certainly would love to see Zanardi finally turn laps at IMS, even if it’s only in the pace car. What a wonderful tribute this would be to a great racer and an even better man.

IndyCar Should Give Helio Castroneves an Award by kentsterling

by Kent Sterling

So Helio goes crazy because IndyCar honcho Brian Barnhart assesses a black flag penalty for blocking teammates Will Power’s attempt to pass.  Helio disagrees, ignores the directive to pit, and finishes in the lead of the IndyCar race in Edmonton last Sunday.

When informed that he did not win the race, Helio loses his mind and grabs IndyCar official Charles Burns by the collar.  All this is caught on video and replayed countless times on ESPN, giving more heat to IndyCar, excluding Danica Patrick Go Daddy commercials, than for anything since A.J. Foyt knocked Arie Luyendyk into some bushes at the Texas Motor Speedway in 1997.

Here’s the video of the Helio’s really not too crazy craziness:

For his lunacy, Helio might be suspended from racing in the series for a short period of time.

Is someone at IndyCar on crack?  What the hell is going on when a driver brings light and focus to a racing series in dire need of both is discouraged from doing it again?  No one thought the race official, who looked like he could have snapped Helio like a twig anytime during the fracas, was in any danger, and there was no damage done.  Just an agitated Brazilian losing his temper and flailing into the path of a person who had no reason to fear Helio more than Chumley feared Mr. Whoopee (Chumlee was a walrus in the old Tennessee Tuxedo cartoons, and Mr. Whoopee an elderly professorial type who owned the 3D-BB, and three-dimensional blackboard Mr. Whoopee used to show Tennessee and Chumlee how to outwit their foes.  Oh the hell with it.  It’s a shitty reference)

A series like IndyCar should pass out cigars and gold watches to drivers who give ESPN a reason to pay attention to a road race held on the runways of an Edmonton airport.

Drama is good.  Without it, no one would watch sports.  Unless we see a demonstrative display of emotion and personality, why would I root for anyone.  Nice smiling men and women going is circles isn’t going to drive ratings on Versus or any other network.

Penalizing the very behavior that led to IndyCar getting some face time on the Worldwide Leader should be praised, not damned or fined.  Car owners should list combustability as one of the trait to which they hire, and for God’s sake, find us a villain.

I’ve written it enough times that my fingers are tired of hitting these same keys in sequence, but here it is again.  These events shouldn’t be races, but TV shows.  Build TV shows that happen to feature a race.  The drivers are characters, and so are the cars.  When all the drivers and cars are the same, no one cares who wins.  The cars are the same, and will be even when the new Dallara is debuted in 2012, despite the efforts to allow teams to customize.  All the teams are going to figure out quickly which package runs best and mimic it.

Fans need to be emotionally invested in the drivers.  Helio and the easily irritated Danica, the drivers people care about because we see their frustration, anger, and joy.  The others are drones who can drive fast.  Scott Dixon may be the nicest and fastest driver alive, but does he have 10 fans?  It’s okay, NASCAR has the same issue with Jimmie Johnson.

A series can live with a couple of comparatively dull drivers, but not 18.  Tony Kanaan – nice funny guy.  Dario Franchitti – nice guy, aging starlet camera-loving wife.  Will Power – no idea.  Ryan Briscoe – ditto Kanaan.  Dan Wheldon – nice big teeth and cool accent.  Tomas Schekter – now we’re getting there because he’s a reckless daredevil who pisses drivers off.  Justin Wilson – Tall.  Marco Andretti – Young.  Vitor Meira/Mario Moraes/Raphael Matos/E.J. Viso – are they replicants?  If you can tell one from another, your name is Vince Welch, Jack Arute, Curt Cavin, Kevin Lee, or Jake Query.  Minus Danica and Helio, who are these people?  I know their names.  I watch, and have for years, but I have no idea who they are.

If IndyCar wants to gain in popularity, people in their homes (who know where the hell Versus is on their DirecTV – channel 603 – or cable package) need to be able to recognize these people as a collection of personalities, and not just pilots of crazy fast cars.

It’s not enough to go fast anymore.  You have to bring recognizable characteristics.  To get ratings, IndyCar needs to encourage displays of personality, not penalize them.

Star’s Bob Kravitz Incorrectly Blames TV for Vanishing Brickyard Fans by kentsterling

by Kent Sterling

Indianapolis Star columnist and former talk radio icon Bob Kravitz made the case in his column today that people are looking in the wrong places for determining a culprit in the case of the missing NASCAR fans.  He believes that TV coverage is so superior to the live experience that fans are simply making the correct choice in popping open a beer in the air conditioned comfort of their recliner and watching Jeff, Junior, Jimmie, and Juan Pablo roar 160 laps.

Fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, even in the best seats, can only see half the track, and the video screens that were state of the art in the mid-1990s make following the coverage like a trip to a broadcasting museum.

Bob’s argument is buttressed by the local TV ratings rising 27% over last year, but what else would the NASCAR fans choosing to stay home for any other reason do?

That watching on TV is now seen by fans as a superior option to attending the event in person is not so much about TV, but about the cost, event, and venue itself.  In medical terms, fans watching on TV rather than attending is a symptom, not the disease.  If only there was one disease, NASCAR officials and IMS bigwigs could cure the patient easily.

TV traditionally has built desire in the market for live attendance, and that’s what should happen with the Brickyard 400.  The Chicago Blackhawks are the latest cause and effect study that illuminates this seemingly illogical reaction to access.  The Hawks had forever forbidden live telecasts from Chicago Stadium and the United Center.  Attendance dipped and dipped to the point where only a few thousand fans attended the games.

The architect of that stupidity was owner Bill Wirtz, whose death allowed team management to reverse course and put the games on in Chicago.  BOOM!  Gate increased steadily until sellout were routine.  That also coincided with a significant improvement of the team, but if a sports brand wants to engage kids, it must display its product on TV.

Choosing to watch on TV rather than live speaks to the level of passion fans have for the brand and event, and it’s that lack of passion that must be addressed.  A radio manager asked me last week about the popularity of the Brickyard, and I shared some research I conducted recently.  Despite NASCAR dwarfing IndyCar in popularity, the Indianapolis 500 has a massive edge locally for male sportsfans in central Indiana.  The passion for the Brickyard barely outstrips that of the Indiana Pacers.

The problems for the Brickyard are many and difficult to solve.

  • With cars that take ten seconds longer than IndyCars to cover a 2.5 mile lap, there is an almost constant sense of “where the hell are they”.
  • If fans can see only 25% of the track, as is the case in a lot of areas, that leaves 75% of the time they don’t know what the hell is going on.  The video boards must be upgraded.  Nobody watches 4:3 ratio TVs anymore.  Those must be replaced with giant 16:9 screens, and they have to be bigger.
  • The IMS has already announced it’s lowering its price point for next year, but $40 this year for general admission was a lot of cash, and the way they advertised it, the IMS acted like that was doing fans a big favor.
  • The Brickyard needs to engage kids.  In the 18-24 demographic, I can’t find anyone who cares.  That’s a problem that can be cured by creating a decent video game that captures the NASCAR experience.  The current game flat-out sucks.  Driving 160 laps in a video version of the Brickyard is as monotonous as watching it.
  • NASCAR blew up when Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison threw hands at one another in the 1979 Daytona 500 after Cale and Bobby’s brother Donnie wrecked while battling for the lead.  Now, every time a driver yells about another driver, they get fined.  It’s like the series is allergic to being interesting.  Fights and arguments shouldn’t be staged, but honest exchanges of ill-temper shouldn’t be penalized.

The best moment of the year for IndyCar was Helio Castroneves going bananas in Edmonton on Sunday.  You think IndyCar would have gotten any time on ESPN otherwise?  No chance.

  • The Brickyard needs to be marketed as an event.  Two weeks before the race, I couldn’t remember during which weekend the race was being run.  Jesus.  Who’s minding the store at IMS PR these days.

Watching the Brickyard 400 on TV wasn’t the cause of poor attendance, it was the result of a race that pales in comparison to the excitement and speed of the Indianapolis 500, people making choices in how they allocate their discretionary dollars, and the disaster of the 2008 Brickyard that left fans feeling used and abused as tires disintegrated so quickly that mandatory competition yellows were thrown every 10 laps.

Don’t discount the complete dissolution of the IMS public relations staff.  The local people I see socially on a regular basis never even mentioned the Brickyard, much less considered attending, and that goes for my son’s friends as well.

Winning back fans is going to take time and a significant investment.  They need to treat the causes, not the symptom, as Bob suggests.

Indycar rules inconsistencies rob Helio of win in Edmonton by wesreynolds

by Wes Reynolds

Two weeks ago, the IZOD Indy Car Series unveiled their plans for the new chassis formula for the 2012 season. One of the main questions that open-wheel fans were and still are asking is “what are the rules”? Fans and observers are asking the same question in a slightly different context today. No one is asking that question more passionately and vociferously than three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.

Castroneves passed Team Penske teammate and polesitter Will Power on Lap 78 largely due to the fact that he was on the faster red compound tires. Power had led every lap prior to losing his lead. A full-course yellow flag was thrown when Simona De Silvestro went off course with 5 laps to go. 

On a restart with three laps to go, Power drove hard to the outside on the wide corner at the end of pit road, catching up to Castroneves and appearing ready to overtake him. That’s when Castroneves was accused of moving off his normal racing line to the outside to block his teammate, a violation of Indy Car rules. Indy Car Rule 9.3 (B) states: “A driver must not alter his/her racing line based on the actions of pursuing Drivers or use an abnormal racing line to inhibit or prevent passing. Blocking will result in a minimum of a black flag “drive through” penalty.” Helio moved to left in order to make a the corner for a  pending right-hand turn which is standard procedure in road and street course racing, as pointed out by Versus analyst Jon Beekhuis. Here is the video of the alleged “blocking” violation and then the immediate aftermath, including Brian Barnhart’s ruling.  

As you can see, there is actually a lot to talk about regarding this situation. Power got a run on Helio on the outside. Power chose the outside line and Helio moves about 7 feet to the outside to make the corner. Keep in mind the Edmonton City Centre Airport track is about 200 feet wide on the main straight. This was called “blocking”. The leader is allowed to pick his line that he chooses to race. Barnhart, the Indy Car Series President of Race Operations, explains that a driver is “only allowed on the inside half if attempting to overtake”. So what about the leader? The leader doesn’t have anyone to overtake unless it’s a lapped car. According to the Indy Car Series’s definition, this is “blocking”. This definition of “blocking” is completely off base. There is a distinct difference between “blocking” and driving a defensive line. The wrong call was made here. This is supposed to be major-league auto racing, not proper etiquette on the interstate. I’ve seen worse “blocking” on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago than I saw in Edmonton yesterday.

If you either listened to the IMS Radio Network or watched on Versus, all of the commentators during the race were incredulous in their disbelief that this penalty was levied. Last night on SPEED TV’s Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain, host Despain called this the worst call he’d ever seen. The overwhelming opinion of the fans also lies with Despain’s belief. According to the letter of the law, this was the right call. However, when you have so many fans, like myself, who don’t see that Helio did anything wrong, there is a huge disconnect. The biggest disconnect is because Castroneves took the checkered flag, but second-place Scott Dixon (who got around Power on the restart) went to victory lane and was declared the winner. The fans at Edmonton and the small amount of television viewers got cheated by this ending.

“Why we end up with that inconsistency all day long I have no idea. Whether that’s good for the series, I guess only Randy (Bernard, Indy Car Series President) can decide whether that’s the right thing or not”, Penske Racing President Tim Cindric said immediately in his post-race interview. There is no question that Tim Cindric was sending a not so cryptic message to Randy Bernard calling for Brian Barnhart to be removed as the chief enforcer of Indy Car rules. If this was the case, then Cindric joins a litany of other owners and team principals who would like Barnhart to receive the same fate.

Barnhart has long had a reputation for over-officiating this series. Let us not forget that it was Barnhart who came over the radio in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 and told the 33-car field to hold their lines and that the leader has earned the right to lead the race into turn 1. Somebody forgot to give Dario Franchitti that memo as he took the lead from Helio in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 in turn 1. The beautiful, 11 rows and three-abreast starts that are always one of the best moments at the 500 and Indy Car race officials haven’t even gotten that right the last several years. Barnhart also attempted to prevent Helio from climbing the fence after his third Indy 500 win. The fans come to see the drivers drive and not to see the officials officiate and sometimes Barnhart forgets that.

Helio has a notorious reputation as a “blocker” in this series. He’s already had one victory taken away from him when he blatantly chop-blocked Justin Wilson at the 2008 Detroit Grand Prix.

The win was rightly awarded to Wilson. You don’t have to be the most knowledgeable open-wheel fan to see that the “blocking” in Detroit was much more of a clear-cut call than the one in  Edmonton yesterday. Helio does do his fair share of blocking, but this is where the inconsistency lies. Curt Cavin of The Indianapolis Star was a guest on WTHR’s 13 Sports Jam and said that Helio probably had the penalty coming because of past offenses. Well, then you have to penalize him for the past offenses when the past offenses occur. You can’t have retroactive punishment.

I probably fall within the middle between two extremes when it comes to Barnhart. On one side, Cavin frequently is seen as a defender of Barnhart and even when he is critical, which is rare, the criticism is tepid at best. On the other side, you have SPEED TV’s Robin Miller, who has called for Barnhart’s head for well over a decade and has verbally burned him at the stake both in print and on the air. However, Barnhart and his officials need to be held accountable for the inconsistencies in rule enforcement over the years. I’m not saying they should embrace the new NASCAR approach of “have at it boys”, but races need to be decided on the race track and not in an office on West 16th Street.

Although the Indy Car Series seems to be a big winner with the publicity that the aftermath of this race has received today, there are a lot more losers than winners in this situation. The first loser is obviously Helio. He loses the race, then he loses his mind afterwards. In addition, none of his fellow drivers, even his own teammate (I’m sure the Captain is having that discussion with Power this morning), backed him up in this case. Of course this can likely be attributed to drivers that are mad at Helio for previous infractions that haven’t been called and it’s also self-serving because a fellow competitor and championship contender loses valuable points in the standing. As we saw the last week in Toronto, drivers like to settle grudges. The second losers have to be Brian Barnhart and Indy Car Series Technical Director Kevin Blanch. They have a record of inconsistency pertaining to rules enforcement and Blanch was very confrontational with Helio after the race. Contrast Blanch’s reaction to Charles Burns, former Indiana State Trooper and current Director of Security for the  Indy Car Series. Burns came over to defuse the situation and had a hot-tempered Helio grab him by the collar, for which there should be a fine. You can’t put your hands on an official. However, Burns didn’t go Joey Crawford on Helio and respond with his own anger. He let Helio vent his obvious frustration and eventually calmed him down with the help of Cindric and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chief Mechanic Owen Snyder. There has been a purge of Indy Car Series staff members as of late by new CEO Bernard and IMS President Jeff Belskus. I hope Charles Burns is one of the employees that keeps his job. He handled the situation beautifully yesterday. The winner of yesterday’s race, Scott Dixon, is also a big loser. He could have said that he didn’t want to win the race that way and then thanked his team and moved on about his business. Instead, Dixon and teammate Franchitti rubbed more salt in the wound by defending the Barnhart call. It’s best to stay out of the situation and take your somewhat tainted win and move forward.

In less than 18 months there will be a new rules package for the “Car of the Future” in the IZOD Indy Car Series. As a fan and observer of the series, I would like to have more confidence that those rules will be properly enforced in the future. However, how can I have that confidence when there are so many inconsistencies now? This decision is yet another one that Randy Bernard has to make to ensure the long-term future of this sport.