Some year-end thoughts, one draft, 45-minutes of typing on various forms of racing:
IndyCar -- Insert a Festival of Trepidation here as I talk about IndyCar.
Willy P (Will Power) won the title, which was good to see, because I think finishing P2 in the championship again would have made him a danger to himself and others. I like Will Power. He’s got that volatile streak in him that makes him a threat to go Double Bird and any moment. IndyCar needs more of that. Screw being polite! Flip people off. (Shout out to Sebastian Saavedra for showing the birds to Marco Andretti at Detroit in 2013!)
Others have analyzed the race-by-race results of IndyCar -- and the Big-Fish (Indy 500) has been chewed over many times -- so I won’t get into them, except to say the Indy 500 finish was one of the best in years, with a 0.0600 margin of victory, and a knife fight at the end between the winner, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Helio Castroneves. AND, thank God, it finished under green. Because another yellow finish could have meant Green-White-Checker rule at Indy, and that would have killed scores of people. They’d have been lined up on the new Georgetown landscaping area with buckets of gas and matches.
The story of the year on non-Indy ovals was … tires. (Steve Matchett voice) “Tyre degradation.” The race I attended as a paying customer, at Iowa Speedway, was won on a tire strategy. When Ryan Hunter-Reay and Joe New (Josef Newgarden) pitted with under 10 to go in the race for tires, I was all like “WTF??” in the stands. But with the fresh rubber (cue Jack Arute: “fresh Dr. Feel Goods”) RHR and Joe New CARVED the field and overhauled leader Tony Kanaan, who had been dominating all race. BAM.
So you can either say “entertaining as hell!” which I did, or “faux!” due to tire strategy rather than brute speed winning it. Same deal at Texas, where tires have become the strategy. I know tires are a factor in all racing that involves pit stops, but IndyCar tires seem to fall off DRAMATICALLY on ovals compared to, say, NASCAR. A little less dramatic fall off would be fine with me, but, as I said, I was entertained at Iowa.
Another thing that stands out is the 2015 schedule. The Houston double-header is dead, thanks in part to scheduling the races in 2014 at a time of year when Houston is only slightly hotter than the surface of the sun. Also heat-related: Fontana got moved from the end-o-August slot because it was hot and about 43 people showed up. I know, a gross exaggeration, but that’s what I do. I heard crowd estimates ranging from 6500 to 12,000. Regardless, it seems clear that the management at Fontana was not happy with the date, so IndyCar moved it to June 27. Interesting side note: the late start and later finish at Fontana didn’t appear to impact TV ratings noticeably.
IndyCar is also adding a race at New Orleans (NOLA Motorsports Park) for 2015. I think IndyCar is smart to find venues like NOLA and help develop them. That’s what happened at Belle Isle (although Daddy Warbucks Penske lavished the cash on that one). How well they develop NOLA is TBD, but nobody should expect it to be IMS-epic, facility-wise, in year one. If they make good progress on fan accommodations in year one, then more in year two, that’ll be fun-tastic.
Also on the schedule is a race in Brazil (March 29) but last I heard there was some kind of dispute about who will build the track or something. That may not threaten the event. Hope not. IndyCar doesn’t need another overseas race debacle like China last year. Plus, IndyCar could use the Massive Check they are presumably picking up for racing in Brazil.
Also, I was interested to hear Mark Miles’s comments on the upcoming season. He talked a LOT about building TV audiences and how important that is. (Bruce Willis voice) Welcome to the party, pal. No, seriously, it’s good that Miles is getting on board with the TV ratings focus. Because to have TV ratings you gotta have … you know it's coming ... fans. More fans, more fans, more fans. Everyone from Miles in the front office down to the person who sweeps floors for every team should have “more fans” tattooed on his or her forehead, because that’s what IndyCar’s success comes down to, ultimately.
I also didn’t hear much fixation on Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Miles this year, which is also a welcome development. Hopefully, after the IMS improvements and adding of a race there last year they can move on to trying harder to build the brand and attracting fans outside of Indiana.
Finally … aerokits! OMG. They may actually happen. Hard-cores can remember the holographic animation used to introduce the new Dallara in 2010. The ability for others to develop aerodynamic parts for the base Dallara chassis was one of the selling points for selecting it for use starting in 2012. But the much ballyhooed aerokits were delayed and delayed, until we now hear that they will be available for use sometime after the Indy 500 (at least that’s the last I heard).
That’s a very good thing. I talked to Jack Hawksworth recently and he said he expects the new aerokits to have new winglets and maybe crazy do-dads maybe kind of F1-like Festival of Crazy Aero Parts. I’m still good with it. If some of the kits turn out to be butt-ugly with a giant shlong-like structure on the nose, a la F1, I’m STILL good with it. Anything that encourages people to mess with stuff and try new stuff is good with me.
So, optimism about 2015. Personally, I would like to see more ovals on the schedule. BUT, big-picture I think IndyCar’s best bet is to emphasize the twisties and diversity of tracks as a way to differentiate itself from the oval behemoth. Speaking of …
NASCAR -- Whereas IndyCar is an incremental, go-slow change kind of approach, NASCAR goes for a “take a big swing at it” kind of deal. The big swing this year was the new Chase structure that featured a 16-driver bracket with elimination races that created a four-car, highest-finisher-take-all finale.
Go ahead and piss yourself, but I think it worked well, based on NASCAR’s goals. I thought it was entertaining. Honestly, who wins the championship isn’t real high on my “care about” scale. I don’t think most fans get that knotted up about it either. NASCAR is a very individual driver-driven sport. People cheer for their driver, and care about him or her the most. The Championship is interesting, but it’s not like fans walk around “I WONDER WHO WILL WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP THIS YEAR???” for six months. They do walk around saying “I hope Junior (or whoever) wins this week!”
The biggest knock on the Chase was it was faux, or gimmicky, or an abomination to the purity of racing, or a sign of the decline in American morals, or whatever. I can see that argument, but, again, it doesn’t rise high enough on my give-a-shit meter to cause me much angst. I mean, some critics go into a grand mal froth about it, tearing their clothes and putting on sack cloth as if New York City had just been nuked by terrorist. Tip 1: get some medication. Tip 2: watch other forms of racing that don’t do the “gimmicks,” like IndyCar, if you find NASCAR repelenat. Acting like you have to personally work tirelessly to stamp out NASCAR before it spreads, kind of like ebola, is not healthy.
I enjoyed watching it develop, seeing who was eliminated, hoping that Ryan Newman would win the championship without winning a race, just to witness the EXPLOSION OF UMBRAGE it would engender. But, in the end, Kevin Harvick, who had been consistently fast all season and won multiple races, won the final race to win the Championship. Newman finished P2, however. Insert chortle here.
The thing that continually impresses me about NASCAR is how effective they are at marketing in general. I consider public relations part of marketing (because it is), and further it’s the most cost-effective form or marketing. NASCAR is a PR machine. The best public relations is about helping the media cover your sport. Just check out all the stories and coverage that NASCAR generates every week, month and year. NASCAR plans it out and work the plan. They have media days and driver panels and the whole deal to make it easy for the media to cover them. On championship weekend alone there were about 938 stories generated (another exaggeration! But there were a lot). And some of them were focused on “is this too gimmicky or what?” It all sounds like a cash register to NASCAR.
But, a caveat: it all comes back to fan numbers. Sports reporting is driven by fan demand. In other words, the sports with the most fans get the most coverage. I don’t care if you have the greatest PR people, or 283 of them, if you want a lot more media coverage, get more fans. It’s really about that simple ... and difficult.
No post from me re: NASCAR would be complete without a Danica Patrick mention. I hear your gnashing! Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs. Danica did better this year than last. (Insert all the statistics you want to throw at me here.) When I say she did better, I mean I thought she was more in tune with the car and better able to relate what was going on to the crew chief, Tony Gibson Jr. , and to also discuss some of the changes Tony had in mind, that kind of thing. She was more competitive toward the end of the season, and things were looking good.
Then the crew chief swap came. Tony Gibson went to Kurt Busch’s team and Daniel Knost came from Busch to Danica’s team. In a bunch of stories Danica said the swap was a team call and the reasons for that switch were a bit murky.
The drivers spent the last few races working with the new crew chiefs. Danica’s last race was the best with Knost, but still not stunningly positive. She sounded pretty frustrated on her radio (listen in via NASCAR RaceView Audio every week). It will be interesting to see if Knost, who was announced as sort of an interim or trial CC, and Danica stay together for 2015.
Overall, NASCAR had a NASCAR-like season. Detractors talk about a “ratings dive” but, “dive” is a relative term. Under my definition of “dive” is losing 25% or more and that didn’t happen. I think ratings were relatively flat. Note: to me dropping or gaining five percent is "relatively flat" when you’re talking about numbers in the millions. And average ratings for the Chase part of the schedule were up, per ESPN PR.
Ratings are a funny thing. I used to get SUPER STRESSED about IndyCar ratings because I viewed them as a vital sign, like blood pressure, that indicated the relative health of the sport, which I greatly wanted to survive and thrive, not die. But then came the epiphany: I can’t do jack about ratings, so why stress it? So I don’t.
People also like to use ratings to justify their personal position or belief. So if you hate NASCAR (or IndyCar), you hope and pray the ratings dive so your position will be justified and perhaps the changes you advocate will be made. Again … gigantic waste of energy with a negativity cherry on top. Ratings are what they are. My advice is to look at them, say “Huh. Interesting.” and move on. You’ll be a happier person.
NASCAR is the place to go if you like to watch oval racing. No offense to IndyCar, but just the small number of oval races there makes NASCAR the Oval Source. That, and Danica’s move to NASCAR, have accounted for my increased viewership. I think I watched at least some of every NASCAR race this year. I can’t say that for IndyCar (cue Belle Isle), for the first time in about eight years.
BUT, unlike some (and contrary to what people read into the paragraph above), that doesn’t mean I hate IndyCar or want it to DIE. Quite the contrary. I hope it has whoppin’ big fan number increases in 2015. Nobody would be happier if IndyCar ripped down a 4.0 TV rating for every race (indicating a massive fan base). It’s not an either/or proposition for me (either you like NASCAR or you like IndyCar). And, I can and do enjoy NASCAR without wanting IndyCar to DIE DIE DIE, and vice versa.
Being happy for something is way different than structuring my life around it. If IndyCar succeeds, awesome. If it doesn’t, too bad … but my life will be relatively unaffected either way. Ditto for NASCAR. (Bill Murray voice) It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!
Formula 1 -- Didn’t watch it. Well, watched a couple laps here and there. Why? Same two cars running for the win every race. Not enough to keep me interested. It IS enough to keep others interested -- because there’s more going on than that, like battles for 10th, etc. I don’t diss that at all, and if you enjoy that, more power to ya.
Plus I find the amount of money in F1 severely off-putting. And Bernie Ecclestone making Crazy Train comments all the time. Water cannons, etc. Every time he opens his mouth, no matter how random or insane what comes out is, he gets 192 stories. I’m starting to think he knows that and just says wackazilla stuff to get the pub. If so … smart man. Play the media like a violin, Bernie!
That’s it. Gotta go earn a living. Feel free to add your comments below. I look forward to reading them.