IndyCar off-season: the good, the bad, and the ugly

IndyCar commentary — By on December 22, 2010 6:57 am
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Anyone connected to the IZOD IndyCar Series admits that this has been the best off-season for American open-wheel racing in recent memory — perhaps the best since the post-1992 off-season when it was announced that reigning Formula 1 World Champion Nigel Mansell was set to join the CART PPG IndyCar World Series with Newman/Haas Racing in 1993.  Unlike the last dozen years, there is little to no talk of politics, abysmal car counts, or races leaving the schedule.

That isn’t to say, though, that there isn’t still much work to be done.  Now that we’ve reached the Christmas lull, let’s take a look at INDYCAR’s “good, bad, and ugly,” or in other words, “what I like, what I don’t like, and what leaves me scratching my head.”

THE GOOD

There can be no other place to start INDYCAR’s “good” list than at the top with freshman CEO Randy Bernard.  Randy has breathed new life into the struggling series in a way that Tony George was unable to do for the better part of 13 years.  His philosophy of openness and transparency has been a welcome relief to an industry that was accustomed to closed-door meetings, dictatorship, and lack of action.  In engaging teams, current and potential INDYCAR partners, fans, drivers, media, and pretty much everyone else that wants a bit of his time, Randy has endeared himself to everyone currently associated with INDYCAR and pretty much everyone that Randy wants associated with it.

The teaming of Randy Bernard with title sponsor IZOD has also been a productive match.  IZOD’s efforts, fronted by Phillips-Van Heusen Executive VP of Marketing Mike Kelly, have been completely unprecedented in INDYCAR history, even dating back to when PPG was the title sponsor during what many consider the golden years of 1990-1995.  From throwing a party in downtown Los Angeles and taking over Macy’s stores from coast to coast to buying TV and print advertisements seemingly by gross, IZOD has proven that it believes the IICS to be a valuable asset and one worth investing in heavily.  It should have been a clue when IZOD IndyCar Series commercials appeared during the NFC and AFC Championship broadcasts in January (reportedly seen by more than 100 million viewers) that IZOD was treating this relationship differently than PPG, FedEx, Northern Light, or Pep Boys had done in the past.  IZOD is committed to making the IICS a success once again, and their enthusiasm is quickly wearing off on other potential Series partners.

The biggest of those partners thus far is Chevrolet.  When the iconic American auto maker walked away from the IZOD IndyCar Series following the 2005 season, it did so with little hope that it would return any time soon.  Chevrolet had been beaten badly in 2003 by newcomers Honda and Toyota.  By the midway point of the season, Chevrolet was forced to introduce a new engine to remain competitive.  The Chevrolet “Gen IV” was in fact designed and produced by Cosworth, which at the time was owned in large part by Ford.  While the “Chevworth” proved to be fast enough to compete, it found little success outside of Panther Racing.  The “Bowtie” failed to win any races in 2004, and after winning only one race in 2005, Chevrolet announced in August of that year that it would not return in 2006 and beyond, citing lack of return on investment as justification.  Now, thanks in part to Bernard’s leadership, IZOD’s commitment to the Series, and the new technical specifications introduced by the ICONIC Committee, Chevrolet has recommitted to the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2012 and is poised to bring its large and loyal fan base with it.

Another element of the good news for the IZOD IndyCar Series during this off-season is the resurgence of the Stars and Stripes.  The field has been sadly lacking in American drivers for the past several years, and only one victory has been scored by an American over the past two seasons.  Though I don’t personally believe that the entire field or even the majority should be American drivers, I do understand that many people want to see a strong American contingent in this American-based Series.  Furthermore, when drivers like Graham Rahal and JR Hildebrand have done everything they can do to prove their skills at all levels of racing, it is imperative that they be given a good opportunity to showcase their talents at the highest levels.  It appears at this point that Rahal (at Service Central Ganassi Racing) and Hildebrand (Panther Racing) will be joined by fellow Americans Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay (all at Andretti Autosport) and Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Ganassi Racing).  Ed Carpenter will also represent the Red, White, and Blue in at least nine events.  And more important than simply showing up, these seven Americans should all have very competitive equipment.  It would be a surprise if this group of drivers doesn’t bring home a few victories in 2011.

Speaking of young drivers, another facet that has seen improvement this off-season is the solidification of the Road to Indy, which is now sponsored by Mazda.  Last spring, the official ladder system to the IZOD IndyCar Series was announced, but to call it fragmented was gracious at best.  Though the theoretical path was in place for drivers and teams to ascend the ladder, the various series making up the ladder seemed disjointed and actually reaching the IICS through USF2000 and Star Mazda seemed unlikely.  Recently, however, Mazda has announced a formal scholarship for each level of the ladder system that assists the champion of each series with finding a ride at the next level.  The highest level of these scholarships, the one given to the Firestone Indy Lights Champion to race in the IZOD IndyCar Series, will be critical in ensuring that the Road to Indy doesn’t terminate with the Firestone Freedom 100 but offers FIL champions the opportunity to show their talents in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Randy Bernard has also gone to great lengths to rekindle the relationship between USAC and the IICS.  Though it has been more than 30 years since USAC was a true feeder series to the Indianapolis 500, their roots are still undeniably linked, and there are great numbers of fans who want to see talented young dirt track racers have a shot at Indianapolis.  Bernard, at the insistence of Robin Miller, has attended several USAC events since he took over the INDYCAR reigns and likes what he sees.  As part of his vision for the cooperation between the two sanctioning bodies, INDYCAR will now award a scholarship for the USAC National Champion to complete in the Firestone Indy Lights oval races.   The money isn’t enough to command a full season ride, but it should go a long way in allowing these drivers to prove their worth and make a case for a shot at full-time FIL ride or a chance at the Indianapolis 500.

One more thing that I feel deserves mention here is Bernard’s rebranding of the sanctioning body from what was formerly called the Indy Racing League to the shorter, less divisive INDYCAR.  I have to admit that this really isn’t that big of a deal to me, but it seems to be significantly more important to my site co-editor Steph.  Being the admittedly black-and-white person that I am, I find it hard to believe that many people actually avoided the IZOD IndyCar Series because of the use of the Indy Racing League moniker, or IRL for that matter, but others out there seem to disagree.  In my opinion, if you used the excuse that you didn’t want to follow the IRL, you probably aren’t going to follow INDYCAR just because  the name has been changed.  This has been on Randy’s radar since he and I talked in May, so obviously someone got his attention early on regarding this matter.  I doubt it will actually have any effect on the perception of the Series, but if it makes a few people take a second look at the IZOD IndyCar Series and doesn’t drive anyone away, I suppose it’s probably for the best.  My greatest concern is that it causes confusion between the sanctioning body name and the name of the top-level series.  From that standpoint, I liked the name Indy Racing League because it made differentiating between the two easy.  Now I believe those lines have been unnecessarily blurred.

THE BAD

Calling it the bad, or even “what I don’t like,” is a bit harsh.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to call it “things that still need to be addressed.”

The biggest single issue is that of sponsorship issues for many of the smaller teams.  While there have been several sponsorship announcements at the Series level and amongst the top level teams, the quest for sponsorship is still very difficult for teams other than Penske and Ganassi.  While HVM Racing recently announced that it has secured funding for Simona de Silvestro to return to that team and is hoping to return to a two-car effort for next year, as the paddock’s smaller teams go, HVM is in the minority. When Tony Kanaan was confirmed as the driver at de Ferran Dragon Racing, Gil de Ferran declined to discuss sponsorship, only saying that he hoped to make an announcement in early 2011.  Likewise, KV Racing Technology has announced that they are hoping to return the trio of Takuma Sato, Mario Moraes, and EJ Viso to their lineup but have yet to secure the sponsorship to do so.  In December 2008, AJ Foyt Racing announced that ABC Supply Company had committed to being primary sponsor through the 2010 season with an option to continue through 2011.  Though Vitor Meira inadvertently tweeted a couple of weeks ago that he had re-signed with Foyt for two more years, no word has come from Foyt yet as to whether ABC Supply has exercised their option for the 2011 season.  Other teams still looking for major sponsorship include Newman/Haas Racing, Conquest, and Dale Coyne Racing.

For the second-level teams to start reaping the benefits of increased INDYCAR awareness and secure sponsorship, it has become apparently that top-level teams will need to have full sponsorship first.  For better or worse, many companies find more benefit from being a small associate sponsor on a Penske car than being a primary sponsor on a mid-level car.  Perhaps a television package that focused more on the cars and drivers that aren’t within a few seconds of the leader would help alleviate some of this pain, but that’s just not what is happening right now.  This has become painfully evident this off-season as Team Penske has plucked not one but two major sponsors from Andretti Autosport, which even for all its struggles is still considered a top-level team.  From that perspective, it seems that the final piece of major sponsorship that needs to be secured before the dam breaks is a large, primary sponsor on Ryan Briscoe’s #6 Penske machine.  While Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi will likely never turn down sponsorship, companies will soon find that major signage on a mid-pack car at a reduced rate will yield greater return than a 16 square inch decal on the back of Scott Dixon’s sidepod.  The seven Penske and Ganassi cars only have so much real estate for primary and major associate sponsors.  Once those spots are filled, it would be great to see the sponsors look at mid-level teams that can perform significantly better with more secured funding.  To that end, I will once again argue that regardless of the size of the check a team owner is cashing, a team is much more productive (and significantly less expensive) when they are not constantly repairing crash damage.  Even if Mario Moraes brought $20 million to KVRT last season, the team was still constantly set back by the number of damaged race cars they were repairing, leaving little time and money to test and further develop equipment.

Of course, one way to increase value to the sponsors is to increase the number of eyeballs viewing the content.  The issue of the limited reach of Versus has been beaten to death ad nauseum, and I am still not convinced it is really the problem.  While Versus is available to “only” 75 million homes against ESPN’s 100 million or so, the ratings the IICS currently draws just do not support the assumption that 25 million more potential viewers is the key.  If you extrapolate the current average ratings of about 0.6 (probably actually a bit high for the Versus broadcasts), the projected rating would only be around 0.8.  That’s better but still not good enough to make much of a dent in the eyes of sponsors.  (That also ignores the fact that a large percentage of the people who passionately seek out the Series have probably already subscribed to a television package that includes Versus.)

What INDYCAR desperately needs is a new way, or at least a better way, of reaching the fans who are already within the grasp of Versus.  Whether this is a new mid-week television show, better usage of the qualifying shows (particularly on ovals), or attention to more drivers during the race telecasts, Versus needs to do a better job of highlighting the entire field of drivers and sponsors.  Yes, Versus already does a much better job of doing this than ESPN ever did, but it’s still not good enough.  Just ask Dale Coyne or Eric Bachelart how much value their sponsors received from last year’s broadcasts.

Speaking of the television package, I have heard many fans express their unease about the heavy amount of promotion for the MMA and UFC events on Versus during INDYCAR broadcasts.  Without having official numbers available, it would seem that the IICS and UFC have similar target demographics, so balancing this cross-promotion could be a difficult maneuver.  However, as Randy Bernard has recently focused on making INDYCAR a more family-friendly sport (as evidenced by admittance of nine-year-old children in the IICS garages next year), many parents are growing concerned about the bloody and violent commercials airing during telecasts that they wish to enjoy with their young children.  Obviously, it’s not Randy’s position to dictate what commercials Versus can and cannot air during the IICS telecasts but perhaps he might drop a hint and let the folks at Versus know that this might be a growing concern.

Keeping drivers in the Series long term is an important part of maintaining a fan base, and most of the news this year has been good on that front.  Retaining Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan was imperative to the viewers who have followed the IICS for several years.  Next on the list to find a ride for next year is Dan Wheldon.  The 2005 Indianapolis 500 and Series Champion is unemployed after Panther Racing announced that JR Hildebrand would be piloting the #4 National Guard entry in 2011.  Wheldon is one of the larger personalities in the IICS and is a driver who truly understands the history and prestige of open-wheel racing.  Though he has his quirks, Dan has a strong group of fans and is a great personality who should definitely be in a car next season.

With the exception of Danica Patrick, nobody in the IICS has a bigger fan base throughout the United States than Helio Castroneves.  If there is good to be found in the departure of Phillip Morris from Team Penske, it is that INDYCAR and Team Penske should now be free to leverage Helio’s popularity in a big way.  I was hoping this would happen more in 2010 but it failed to come to fruition.  In an interview last year with More Front Wing, Penske Racing President Tim Cindric bristled at the notion that Helio’s public awareness and marketability had been hampered by his previous association with Marlboro and Phillip Morris.  However, the fact remains that as a three-time Indianapolis 500 Champion and a winner of Dancing With the Stars, the general public has rarely been exposed to Castroneves in his race car or his race attire.  When seeing commercials starring NASCAR drivers, one is led to believe that they eat, sleep, and drink in their firesuits.  Unfortunately, Helio is more known for his banana yellow DWTS suit than his black Team Penske driving suit.  With Helio freed from the shackles of Phillip Morris, hope is once again rekindled that Helio can be front and center with INDYCAR’s promotion activities in 2011.

THE UGLY

Thankfully, this section is pretty short.  In fact, it didn’t even exist in my head until yesterday.  That’s when Tony Cotman’s latest Racer.com blog hit the internet.

I like Tony.  I really do.  I think he has a bigger task ahead of him than any of us can possibly fathom.  Unfortunately, I think he has completely missed the boat with his latest article concerning the return of the fuel knob for the 2012 season.

Tony argues in his latest column that fuel strategy has been a major component of racing since its beginnings, just as tires and aerodynamics have been.  That’s good.  We agree there.

However, regarding the need for an electronic control of fuel mixture, our agreement ends.

Imagine for a moment that a device existed that allowed a driver to instantly clean all the built-up marbles off of his tires.  Going a step further, let’s say this mythical device allowed a driver to automatically slow down so that his tires didn’t wear down as quickly and lasted a couple of extra laps during the race.  Would fans accept such a device?  In my opinion, they wouldn’t.  However, that is the exact argument that Cotman is trying to sell in regards to the fuel knob.

As Cotman says, tire wear and management have always been critical aspects of racing, whether the car is a dirt car, an IndyCar, or a stock car.  As such, drivers have had to make decisions about whether to drive hard and lean on tires, thereby significantly reducing their wear life, or to driver easier, slowing down in corners, and extending the life of the tires.  It is a critical decision that affects race strategy and should remain part of spirit of the competition.  More importantly, the execution of the strategy is placed in the driver’s hands (or feet, as the case may be).

IndyCar fans understand for the most part that a finite amount of fuel and a known race distance will understandably lead to teams trying to make the end of the race using less fuel than the other guys.  Regardless of what some people may claim, IICS officials cannot actually control when yellow flags occur, so there is no way to completely avoid fuel strategy races (although allowing larger fuel tanks and longer fuel stints would conceivably reduce them).  What fans have clamored for and continue to express in light of Tony’s latest article is to ensure that the difference in fuel mileage between drivers is a result of driver input and skill, not of an electronic adjustment that automatically controls fuel flow for the driver.  Just as there is great skill to setting up a car to make a turn, hitting the apex, and releasing the car from the corner, there is great skill to maintaining fast and competitive lap times while controlling the throttle to maintain maximum fuel efficiency.  It’s another aspect that separates the great drivers from the good drivers.  It’s what the fans want.  I have a hard time believing that it isn’t what the drivers want, too.  I truly hope this matter is reconsidered and that Tony in the end writes the fuel knob out of the 2012 rule book.

Overall, as can be seen from the way this post is weighted, there’s much more positive to reflect on thus far in the off-season than negative.  Let’s hope this trend continues as we step into 2011 and continue to look forward to another IZOD IndyCar Series season.

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