• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, May 26, 2014

INDY INSIGHTS

It was a last-minute go/no-go decision. But I again took U.S. Airways flight No. 500 from Phoenix to Indianapolis for my 36th Indy 500.

My first lasting memory was the weather forecast was incredibly good right from the start of race week. It usually changes several times and the chance of rain always adds to the stress level for competitors, fans, sponsors, TV -- and management. This time it was fantastic and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway execs could not have asked for a better race weekend forecast and weather.

My first "official" act was a 20-minute talk with IndyCar CEO Mark Miles Friday morning on the seventh floor of the Pagoda. I'll write more extensively about our conversation in the next week or two. But, as I sent out as a Tweet, not likely Phoenix International Raceway will be on the 2015 Verizon series schedule. Points-paying international races will take up early-year dates that might have worked for PIR. I guarantee you 99 percent of sponsors would prefer to be in the important Phoenix market rather than overseas. One result of Miles' move to condense the schedule to end by Labor Day means fewer available race dates, which results in a supply-and-demand business situation. Miles told me competition boss Derrick Walker will take a look at the Phoenix possibilities. I spoke with Derrick and he mostly understands the issues at play here.

Cruising Gasoline Alley on Carb Day is always one of the more interesting experiences of any I500 weekend. For me, it means catching-up with friends and people I've worked with on teams in the past. It's a great way for me to get informed on current developments with the cars -- team managers predicted to me then the draft effect would not be as dramatic this year as the last two -- and, yes, sometimes remember Good Old Days. In some ways I think this remains one of Indy's most important purposes: As a common meeting ground for buddies and business associates. Don't underestimate how valuable that is.

(For example: Wonderful to see Nigel Roebuck visiting Indy for the first time since Mario Andretti was last on the front row. Nigel, now well into his fifth decade covering Formula One, skipped Monaco to again see The Greatest Spectacle.)

Added to the Friday schedule this year: A late-afternoon Robby Gordon off-road truck race. I'm not criticizing it, but it's impossible to think Tony Hulman could ever have imagined such a thing!

Friday night at the IMS Museum was the launch party for the new Jim McGee/Gordon Kirby book, Crew Chief of Champions. It was very impressive and the turnout was huge. McGee and Kirby autographed books all evening (see photo on my Twitter page.) I've known Gordon since 1980 and McGee since the 1970s. He was a good resource for me when I was CART's communications director and then we worked together at Newman/Haas Racing for two years, including Nigel Mansell's historic 1993 PPG Cup championship season. McGee's knowledge and influence were massively important in achieving that title.

It was impressive -- and refreshing -- to see RaceMaker Press publisher Joe Freeman invest in his product with such a classy event. Believe me, this kind of thing was typical in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, but not anymore. That's due to budget restrictions, true, but also because too many have decided it's good enough to build "relationships" on Twitter and Facebook. As I wrote on Twitter, the highest compliment I can give is that Jim Chapman would have approved of, and enjoyed, the evening. First class and well done to all involved.

I will be diving into the book this week and anticipating a great read and some special stories. Check out www.RaceMaker.com or www.GordonKirby.com for more information.

I've been in the Museum countless times. I have to say the special exhibit of turbine-powered cars is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen there. Not only Jack Zink's first-try at a turbine, but also all three of the 1968 STP Lotus "wedges". That color and that design remain one of my top-five favorite cars. But also on display: The evil Carroll Shelby-Ken Wallis creation that was so undriveable the entries were withdrawn before qualifying in '68. And the little-remembered 1971 Lotus Formula One car that Emerson Fittipaldi, and others, tried. The display is capped with a re-creation of the 1967 STP garage and the turbine Parnelli Jones almost won in. It's very well done.

Saturday moring was a quick visit to the Firestone-Honda sponsored AARWBA breakfast. I wanted to see Donald Davidson receive the Bob Russo Founders Award for life-long contributions to motorsports. Incredibly well-deserved and what an incredible asset Donald has been to me, many others, and the sport as a whole. And congratulations to my Arizona Republic colleague Mark Armijo who won two awards in the annual AARWBA journalism contest.

Later that morning I got to do something I've wanted to for months: Shake Dario Franchitti's hand and congratulate him on a great career. Dario was the appropriate choice to drive the Chevrolet Camaro pace car.

Hoosier favorite Jim Nabors, who sang Back Home Again in Indiana for what he says was the last time, got a standing ovation -- including from the drivers -- when introduced at the ceremonial drivers' meeting. Nabors was presented with a special ring normally reserved for the qualified drivers.

I abandoned my usual pre-race routine and stood in front of the podium to get a good view of Nabors' final performance. (And the spectacular Martina McBride's America the Beautiful.) Nabors then was given the honor of sharing the "start your engines" command with Mary Hulman George.

I listened to most of the race on the IMS Radio Network, my friend Paul Page's return to the anchor microphone that made him famous. He sounded good and was in classic Page form directing the work of his team of pit reporters. Paul has always had a great sense of storytelling and again used that well to make sure listeners were as connected as possible to what was happening. The Speedway's economic new reality was reflected in the increased commercialization of the presentation, including a corporate name for the pit reporter crew. I thought that was a bit overdone but I understand why.

The race pace through 150 laps was incredible. As predicted in my Friday Tweet, the draft was not what it was the two previous I500s. It was becoming a track position race until the final stages and the excellent Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves battle. This was one of those Indys that will be remembered for the last few laps, not the overall race. And let's note Hunter-Reay has now twice emerged from late-race red flags (for the series championship a couple of years ago at California Speedway) that might have cost him Big. Ryan said in victory lane that he's a "proud American" and it will be worth observing if a U.S. Indy winner will actually move the popularity meter the rest of this season.

And, for the benefit of the fan "experts," let me say this about that late red flag. Anyone in a position to have HONEST (in other words, not Politically Correct) conversations with the REAL in-the-know movers-and-shakers in Gasoline Alley and the IMS executive offices (or who monitored the scanner or even a bit of the IMS Radio Network broadcast) knows race director Beaux Barfield was hell-bent on stopping the race in the last 10 laps in order to get a green-flag finish. Just as he did, to much criticism, a few years ago at Fontana. That mindset was in place before Nabors' sang. Barfield's decision to stop was made well-before the chatroom know-it-alls saw a quick fix being made to the SAFER barrier. What Barfield had in mind was made clear to me last Friday, from those who know as opposed to those who guess, so I wasn't shocked.

It's a true Sign of the Times that Kurt Busch commanded so much of the Indy media attention. After Friday's final practice, Kurt came to the Chris Economaki media interview room. One national writer blasted past me on the stairs -- open laptop in hand -- to insert a few Kurt quotes in his story and then press "send." My pre-race observation was IMS bosses were secretly hoping Kurt would run competitively and actually finish the 500 miles to keep the NASCAR audience tuned-in. An early DNF would likely mean a lot of lost eyeballs. Kurt fell back early, getting a handle on his car, and using pit stops to make handling adjustments. He came on strong in the closing stages and finished a very honorable sixth.

I think it's fair to say Busch's attempt at "The Double" was the most intriguing -- maybe the biggest pre-race -- story of the downsized Month of May. Not that you'd have known much about it by reading only the NASCAR-centric media outlets. The fact that NASCAR's own spinners essentially ignored Busch's effort -- the wrong move if for nothing else as a way to boost it's own TV ratings of the Coca-Cola 600 -- was shameful and smacked of arrogance. Just where was that NASCAR.com on-site coverage?

Yes, NASCAR is king of the American racing scene. But, get this ladies and gentlemen, there are useful achievements to be had beyond the NASCAR garage area. Kurt Busch proved that Sunday. 

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, May 18, 2014

BACK FOR THE BIG DAY

I've emerged from the far side of a dark tunnel in time to (hopefully) enjoy racing's Most Important Weekend.

With the admission that lately I haven't been paying as close attention to what's happening, there are several things that immediately come to mind as racing's Christmas Day arrives.

ABC will televise the Indianapolis 500 for the 50th consecutive year. That seems, to me, like something of a Big Deal but I haven't noticed much push for this. Maybe this week . . . And Allen Bestwick will be under the microscope as he calls The Greatest Spectacle for the first time. Meanwhile, Paul Page returns as anchor of the Indy Radio Network, one of the best decisions made at 16th and Georgetown in recent years. I say good luck to both of them.

Indy represents another Big Test of CEO Mark Miles' overall plan to re-energize the Indy Car sport and the 500 in particular. Will it be a memorable race? How many empty seats will there be in the downsized Speedway grandstands? Any bump in TV numbers with ABC's lead-in coverage the last two weekends of the road course race and qualifying? How much of this will be because of Kurt Busch's run at The Double? All important things that, I guarantee you, sponsors and potential sponsors will be monitoring.

Over at NASCAR -- after another running of the least important and most over-hyped race of the year, the "All-Star" event -- there's the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Charlotte has cleaned Indy's clock in recent times as far as the TV numbers are concerned, but NASCAR's TV audience has been down I think at every race this season. It's an increasingly alarming trend and might make ESPN's decision to opt-out of NASCAR look smart. Will those audience totals go up at Charlotte? 

Formula One, now dominated by Mercedes instead of Red Bull, is showcased on NBC broadcast TV for the second consecutive year with the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. That's one of the best things to have happened in quite a while. No doubt, that was a big reason NBC's sports cable outlet got the F1 rights. I'm sure the Monaco visuals will be great. I hope the racing is, too.

NHRA -- foolishly in my view -- is back on the Memorial Day weekend calendar after staying away for a number of years. Going up against Indy and Charlotte guarantees that Kansas is nothing more than a regional event for the straight-line racers and their sponsors. Just as Phoenix was on the same day as the Daytona 500. National media coverage? Forget it. Don't think sponsors don't notice ridiculous decisions such as this.

And, of course, there will be countless local short-track events from Sea-to-Shining-Sea. These remain the historical backbone of American motorsports and I particularly wish these promoters success and these racers good -- and safe -- runs.

This weekend's Winners and Losers will be decided in the marketplace as well as the racetracks. Those results will be known next week. This weekend, though, I am going to try to just enjoy it all as much as possible. I hope you can, too.

[ more next week . . . ]