COUNTERPOINT: The Texas twin sprints

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on August 20, 2010 1:15 pm
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(Originally posted to Planet-IRL.com.)

In today’s edition of Counterpoint, Paul and Steph weigh the pros and cons of Tuesday’s announcement.  First up is Paul’s view against the concept, followed by Steph’s view in favor.

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PAUL’S POINT:

When officials from IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway announced this week the creation of the Firestone Dual 275k’s, the air of optimism departing the balloon of hope was audible and palpable.  What could have been a great moment and an exciting new event for the IZOD IndyCar Series unfortunately became the latest in a long line of disappointing, over-hyped IndyCar announcements.  After the dust settled, many IndyCar fans felt not excited by the announcement but apathetic and insulted.

Even after reports of the dual races began to leak a couple of weeks ago, I held out hope that maybe there was a reason why Randy Bernard and Brian France were planning to be at the TMS press conference together.  I really did hope that this was going to be the announcement of the long-awaited IndyCar/NASCAR double-header weekend.  And what we got instead was the announcement of two IndyCar races to be run back-to-back on the same evening.

As I gathered more information during the press conference (I unfortunately wasn’t able to watch it live but followed along via texts and Twitter), I was more disappointed with every new piece of information.  I didn’t at the time understand the intrigue of running two shorter races.  Three days later, I still don’t understand the intrigue.  What we essentially have is two races, each only being half of the original, that we are being told are each standalone events.  What a bunch of crap!

Though rare since the advent of the players’ union, baseball still occasionally schedules double-headers during its long season.  Can you imagine the reaction if Major League Baseball sold a double-header consisting of two five-inning games?  Fans would be in an uproar.  Nonetheless, IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway are trying to convince the fans that somehow a 275-km race is the same thing as a 550-km race.  If that’s the case, then at least the half-length version pays a full purse like a real race and awards full points like a real race, right?  Wrong!  Each of these “standalone” events only pays half a purse and awards only half the points of a full race.  Yet, the fans are expected to believe that each segment of this dual is a real, standalone race?  Just how dumb do these people think we are?

The only thing more insulting to the intelligence of the fans is if IndyCar announces their schedule in the coming weeks and pretends like these are separate events and that this Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway actually counts as two oval races.  (If that’s the case, I propose the IICS runs half-length double-headers at only the best four twisties on the circuit, call them eight separate races, and then balance them against eight or nine different ovals.)

Could the idea of dual IndyCar races actually have made the event more interesting?  Absolutely!  I would be much more on board with this idea if dual concept actually added something to the event — something other than a halftime.  If each of these mini-races was, say, 145 laps instead of 114, each race would then be 350 km long.  Put a pair of 350-km races together and suddenly you have the Firestone 700k.  (For my metrically challenged friends, that’s roughly 435 miles).  Now you’re actually talking about an event that starts to challenge the teams and the drivers.

Let’s go one step further with this thought.  Nothing says the races would even have to be the same distance.  In my ideal, make-believe world, the second race is a distance that does not lend itself to being a fuel mileage race.  Given that the typical fuel run for the IndyCars at Texas is approximately 52 laps, let’s take 25 laps from the first race and add them to the second.  Now the first race becomes 120 laps (180 miles/288 km) and the second becomes 170 laps (255 miles/408 km).  Theoretically, neither of these races is now a fuel mileage run, and we hope to see great racing from start to finish.  I know that asking the drivers to go 290 laps in an IndyCar at Texas is asking a lot, but at least they still get their 45- to 60-minute halftime.  Besides, would it really hurt to see a trickle of sweat on Helio Castroneves’s forehead after he’s done with a race?

So, IndyCar and/or Texas don’t like my idea of a 400-plus mile race at TMS?  Fine.  The least they could have done is shake up the smaller events somehow so that we aren’t basically watching the same race twice.  Is there any reason to think, under the currently proposed format, that a car will race dramatically differently in race one versus race two?  There isn’t a practice session or much time to make major adjustments between the races, so if the car is good in the first race, it will probably be good in the second.  If it’s bad in the first, it will probably be bad in the second.  Regardless of how the line-up in race two is set, it’s almost a certainty that the positions will look identical to the race number one results within about 20 laps.  What would really be interesting is running the races under dramatically different conditions, e.g. running one race in the late morning when then track is a bit hotter and running the second at night under the lights.  Of course, you’d have to provide some midday entertainment for the fan, but Eddie Gossage is good at doing stuff like that.  Separating the races would make cars handle dramatically differently and actually mix up some of the racing going on.  But alas, the decision-makers only opened the lid on the box instead of actually getting outside of it to do much thinking.

If running a double-header weekend with NASCAR was truly out of the question, then the dual-race concept is probably the next best alternative.  However, the lack of originality and the attempt to sell us the notion that these two half-races are somehow different and better than a single, longer race just doesn’t compute.  Seems like a group of fellas named Fisher, Newby, Allison, and Wheeler figured that out over 100 years ago.

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STEPH’S POINT:

I’m not too big to admit it:  on hearing the rumors about twin races at Texas, my initial reaction (which I posted on Twitter and found was shared by many) was that I really didn’t see the point.  Two races that are half the usual distance and are collectively worth the same amount of points just equates to a race with a half-time, doesn’t it?

But Paul and I got to talking about it, and when I realized how deeply negative his views were on the whole thing, I began actively searching for positives.  (What can I say?  I’m contrary like that.)

After all, the three gentlemen responsible for bringing this idea to fruition — Randy Bernard, Eddie Gossage, and Bruton Smith — are very smart people.  It’s difficult to believe that a change like this would be cleared by all three of them unless there’s clear value in it.

And when you look at these three men and see what they all have in common — which is that they’re all marketing professionals first and foremost — the answer becomes clear.

This is a good idea, and may even be a great idea, because it’s different.

Okay, now you’re mad at me for stating the obvious.  But think about it for a minute:  where things stand right now, 2011 is poised to be a throwaway season.  Everyone has their hats and their hopes hanging on 2012, when the new car formula is supposed to rise up from the ashes of the current car and rescue this sport from the slump it’s been mired in for years.  (Gosh, that sounds familiar.)

But in the meantime, there’s still a full season to run, and the Series, teams, and racetracks still need to make money doing it.  That means finding unique ways to get people interested in the product we already have.

The idea of twin sprint features, while not new to small-c Indy car racing, has been dormant for long enough that it can be considered innovative in the current era.  And any idea that’s innovative is marketing gold.  People are thinking and talking about next year’s Texas race far more than they would be otherwise.  What if the field is fully or partially inverted for the second race?  How profound an effect could this have on fuel strategy?  What happens if you wreck in the first race — will any KV entry be able to run in the second?

In other words, the race weekend in Texas next year now matters.  People will go and will tune in just to see how this whole thing plays out, which means that, thus far, everything is going exactly to plan.

But if we step back and look at the bigger picture, the major potential hitch here is that IndyCar fans are by and large a jaded bunch.  Nowhere else in the entire world of sport will you find a group of people who will profess to love something so deeply and yet will dismiss every new idea placed before them with phrases like “that’s just not how we do things” or “that will never work.”

Heck, if an idea only elicits mild reticence from this crowd, it can be considered a victory.

With the twin sprints idea, this manifests itself in the fact that IndyCar fans are extremely sensitive to anything that can be perceived as being purely a marketing gimmick.  We live in perpetual fear of watching our Series — which has largely managed to retain its historical connection to proper motorsport — descend into the abyss of Lucky Dogs and green-white-checkered finishes, and we’re quick to stomp all over anything that carries even a whiff of potential for causing that.

Therefore, the key to success here is twofold.  The first step is already complete:  the superficial idea has been put out there to pique the interest of local casual fans.  From their perspective, they already know as much as they need to, and they’ll either respond with a resounding shrug of indifference or by declaring, “Two races in one day? Cool! Honey, get the kids in the car!”  (I’m inclined to believe that the perceived ticket value in seeing two separate races in one day will tend to garner the latter response from anyone in this group who was even remotely interested in the first place.)

Now, the second step needs to be implemented:  the concept needs to be handed over to the rule-makers to flesh out the details in a way that convinces the serious fan base that the endeavor is worthwhile.  It needs to have some palpable effect on the quality of the on-track product or it’s never going to fly.

To that end, here’s a crazy thought:  maybe that’s where we come in.

There are tons of ideas floating around out there on how to turn this concept into something exciting.  And today’s administration — far more so than any that has ever come before it — truly understands and believes that fan opinion is of the utmost importance to its success.

So, let’s make them put their money where their mouths are and tell them how we think this should work.

Let’s talk it out — here, in other blogs, and on the forums (believe it or not, there are people with influence who seek out fan opinions through those venues).  Or, if you prefer, email Randy Bernard directly — I don’t know how the man does it, but he really does read and digest every email he receives.

The more the Series hears from the fan base, the better it can work with its desires.  And if everyone can work together to turn this into something that fans can get positive and excited about, we’ll tell our friends, and then those friends will tell their friends, and a word-of-mouth marketing chain is born — one of the most powerful marketing vehicles there is — and maybe we can get somewhere in helping IndyCar racing to grow again.

Yes, it’s a lofty goal.  But if it works, this Texas Two-step thing could wind up being one of the best ideas to come through this sport in a very long time, don’t you think?

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