So I’m on a diet which limits me to one 12-ounce (ish) cup of coffee a day. That’s about 20 ounces less than I normally drank, so I REALLY look forward to my ONE cup of super dark roast coffee in the morning. Having it right now. Join me and let’s mull the weekend’s activities.
IndyCar at Barber — IndyCar drove around the GORGEOUS FACILITY (Barber Motorsports Park outside Birmingham, Alabama) on Sunday. Ryan Hunter-Reay (RHR) won it from the pole, but not before he had some drama. Notes here.
In the old days Barber was a snoozer. Festival of Follow the Leader, but the new IndyCar (DW12) which debuted last year, has vastly improved the racing at Barber. There are on-the-track passes now, and not just on starts and restarts. It’s no Talladega with its 1229 lead changes, but there were an extraordinary number of passes for the lead on the track (as opposed to passes caused by pit stops) at Barber. (OK, that number is about three or four, but still, on a road course that’s like 127.)
Some of the overtaking was caused by two things purists dislike: push to pass and the optional tire. Both were established to encourage passing on the track and add wrinkles to strategy.
Quickly for the newbies: Push to Pass is a system in which the driver pushes a button and gets extra horsepower for a certain duration, say eight seconds. Every driver gets a set number of pushes per race, at Barber it was 10. So you gotta use them wisely, which adds to the strategy. The alternate tires … on road and street courses Firestone brings two tires, a primary which is a harder compound and therefore lasts longer and an alternate which is a softer compound with more grip that goes faster at first, but wears out earlier. You have to use at least one set of each in the race.
Both last week and this week the difference in tire played a big role in the finish. This week Helio Castroneves was on primaries at the end and couldn’t stay ahead of the people behind him on faster, grippier alternates. Helio got inhaled for the lead and second place and finished third. So my first point is hurray for these “artificial” additions.
ANYWHO, Hunter-Reay found himself shuffled from the lead mid-race but hung in there and managed to pass his way back to the front and win. Scott Dixon drove like a honey badger and finished second for the FOURTH consecutive race at Barber. Four P2s. He joked about going out shopping for a bridesmaid’s dress after the race. Charlie Kimball had a break-out race, running up front the entire race and finishing P5. Rookie Tristian Vautier from France (pounced fraaaaawwwns) continued to impress with some top-5 driving and a spirited battle with countryman Sebastien Bourdais at the end. I made a super-clever Les Misérables joke about it in my race notes and GOT NO LOVE. Disappointing.
Dario Franchitti: snake bit. He crashed out of the last race (St. Pete) on a driver error (hit the marbles with cold tires coming out of the pits) and this race a header in his car broke. Season is off to a (Scottish accent) CRAP (end Scottish accent) start for him this year, and last year didn’t end magically deliciously for him either. He did win the Indy 500 last year, so don’t weep for Dario too much.
Finally, my boy Josef Newgarden (JoeNew) drove from P22 to P9 by overtaking a good number of cars on the track. In street races the “positions improved” can be deceiving due to retirements and whacky yellows, but there was only ONE yellow in this race, right at the start, so Newgarden’s start-to-finish improvement was pretty legit.
Check this brief recap video that includes some of the overtaking, including Charlie Kimball’s Balls Of Steel pass on Will Power:
It was standard road race in a lot of ways. Strategy — including tires and push to pass use — was as important as raw speed. The race was virtually all green, so no yellows helped anyone out much. The middle stint was, as usual, the time to refill your beer because cars on road courses in the second of three fuel stints tend to hold station and save fuel and tires to make their last stint as short as possible so they can go like hell. The last stint had drama with RHR regaining the lead and Dixon chasing him at the end.
The track people at Barber seemed to be happy with the race. Jenna Fryer of AP who covered the race (always good to have the lead motorsports writer from Associated Press covering your race) said attendance Sunday was “a race record 57,963. Three day total was second highest in four-year history of event.” Barber and IndyCar also renewed their contract for three more years. We’ll talk TV ratings in a second.
Here’s the zillion-dollar question: can road and street racing ever be popular enough to support the IndyCar business model? I don’t know. I doubt it will ever rip down a 3.0 rating, for example, but it does get a 1.0 on ABC (at times). Also, why can’t IndyCar make stars? Aside from Danica Patrick and drivers with famous names, IndyCar drivers are not superstars. It has to do with the low-low number of fans the sport has, obviously, but what can be done about that?
Jenna Fryer did a column (here) on the race that talks about defending IndyCar Champ Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is as American as it gets (GIVE US AN AMERICAN WINNER!) but has the curse of being a nice, regular guy. Kind of Johnson-esque. She counsels, and I agree, that drivers should let fans see more of their unguarded side, more of their rough edges and real selves, not the slicked-up, sponsor-pleasing, super-polite versions. RHR has moments. He’s gotten pissy with other drivers on camera in the past. Let it out, Ryan. More authentic emotion, please.
Finally (insert your cheers here), as I said in my race notes, I thought the NBC Sports Network broadcast booth team of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Wally Dallenbach Jr. stepped up their game this week. Last race was their first ever together, and it was a little rough at spots. To be expected. But this week I thought showed a marked improvement. There was more talk generated by what was happening on the track and less quippy banter between the boys. Just tighter and more viewer-focused in general. I actually listen to the broadcasters during IndyCar races. I don’t listen (closely, anyway) to them during Fox broadcasts of NASCAR.
NASCAR at the Paperclip -- Here’s a mind-blower … NASCAR at the half-mile Martinsdale (shaped like a paperclip, hence the nickname) gave me a real road race vibe. First, they were going pretty slow out there. Lap speeds were around 90 mph all day. Second, there was a lot of being patient and playing strategy. Third, it was all about getting through the corner and getting the power down, like a road course. Finally, starting position seems pretty important (though not as critical as on a road course) and Jimmie Johnson won from the pole, his eighth win at Martinsville.
Clint Bowyer was second, followed by Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch.
Of course the Martinsville contact wasn’t road-race-like. But the fact that most of it happened at relatively low speed was. I continue to think NASCAR races are just too long. But, again, I think that’s by design. All NASCAR races seem to have an endurance element (for the cars) built into them. One thing about it, you get HOURS of viewing for the price of your NASCAR ticket.
Denny Hamlin, who suffered a broken vertebra during a crash with Joey Logano at Fontana saw his streak of 264 consecutive starts snapped (sorry), but he was there to help his fill-in Mark Martin. The whole LOGANO MUST DIE storyline didn’t really pan out. Kurt Busch did fill in with some drama after his brakes failed and he BASHED into the wall and his engine caught fire. Kurt calmly unbuckled, deployed the engine compartment fire extinguisher and climbed out. No big thang.
There also was some controversy when Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun and while trying to get refired, got passed by the leader Jimmie Johnson, who didn’t stop on the track and wait for Dale to get going. Dale got it going again right after Jimmie passed him and while the rest of the field dutifully waited. Except Johnson’s pass put Junior a lap down, and caused cries of “YOU BASTARD” aimed at Jimmie.
Meh. I would have done what Jimmie did. I doubt I stop on the track and wait for him. I wouldn’t stop on the track and wait for Random Backmarker, so it’s one of them racing deals for Junior. Not sure if he was pissed about it or what.
Haters Skip Ahead. Danica Talk Coming — Danica drove an impressive race at Martinsville. She got some luck to go with it, sure, but she drove from dead last to P12, even after being spun early. She got two timely yellows to let her get back on the lead lap right as the car came to her. She drove from P24 (ish) to P12 in the last segment of the race.
Of course this created a festival of news stories, especially since the race up front with Johnson beating on everyone wasn’t that eventful. I thought this audio from Danica’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, summarized it pretty well. In it, Gibson also theorizes that Danica’s experience in IndyCar helps her on short tracks.
I listened to Danica’s radio all race and she seemed calm and happy. Speaking of, the subscription scanner service strongly encourages me to watch the NASCAR race live so I can listen in to the drivers while the race is on. Since IndyCar has no such web-based offering, even for a subscription fee, which I would gladly pay if it worked, I watched NASCAR live and IndyCar on DVR.
ANYWHO, the car was working pretty well, and when that’s the case often drivers are pretty quiet on their radios. Danica just needs to take one race at a time, not get caught up in all the experts, haters, and lovers spewing on about how she needs to do this and that. Gibson and his team seem to be invested in helping her improve, so that’s a good thing. I’m looking forward to the few road courses that NASCAR runs to see how she does there. Danica was strong in those in Nationwide. Also superspeedways, which rely on smoothness and mo-mentum are usually good for Danica, again due to her IndyCar superspeedway experience, I believe.
TV Ratings — Word on the street is NASCAR at Martinsville got a 4.0 overnight, up a tick from the 3.9 from last year. Jenna said she heard IndyCar at Barber got a 0.27 overnight, up from 0.18 same race last year. When you look at NASCAR and IndyCar TV ratings side-by-side, it’s not pretty for IndyCar. But … a 50% improvement (albeit only 0.09 of a point) in IndyCar is still an improvement. PLUS, Barber ratings had been on a slide -- final ratings (different than an “overnight”) were 0.40 in 2010, 0.34 in 2011 and 0.25 in 2012. That’s going the wrong way.
Update (4/10/13): Final IndyCar ratings from Barber were actually pretty flat at 0.18. More here.
Also interesting on the ratings front … NBC Sports Network kicked out a news release taking about how their ratings in general are up 14% in the first quarter of 2013 compared to Q1 2012. Read it here.
My theory is NBC Sports Network has been getting pounded from all sides about their crappy ratings in general. Some of their shows make IndyCar viewership look like the Super Bowl. One of the reasons I like to see ratings publicized it that (I believe) it puts pressure on NBC Sports Network to improve. NHL games are the most popular NBCSN programming. I watch hockey on NBCSN virtually every night and I see a lot of promos for IndyCar and F1 during the games. Getting more hockey fans over to watch IndyCar is a good start. Also trying to create a shared audience between F1 and IndyCar on NBCSN is a good move too.
TV ratings are a strong indicator of the viability of a sport, which is why I care about them. I want them to go up for IndyCar so the sport will be around long term. It’s easy to get frustrated with the growth of IndyCar TV ratings which have been essentially flat overall since 2009. At least to me when you’re talking about numbers that vary by 0.05 or so, that’s essentially flat.
But, hey, there’s not much you and I can do about TV numbers, aside from watch TV ourselves and maybe encourage others to watch, so I quit stressing the numbers long ago. They (odioius racing expression coming) are what they are. There is plenty of pressure on leaders of the series to improve the TV numbers, because TV numbers indicate fan eyeballs, and fan eyeballs attract sponsors, and sponsors write the checks. But, remember, without fan eyeballs it’s over.
On that sunny note, time to write a letter (sent via U.S. Postal Service, no less) to the oldest daughter in college. Have a beautiful day in the neighborhood. pdog … out.