This is What Indy Means

Living in Europe, I never grew up with the Indianapolis 500, my world has always been centred around Formula 1. I’m British so the big event was the British Grand Prix, then the Monaco Grand Prix. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is up amongst them but while it has a huge crowd it doesn’t always have a ton of media interest.

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American racing doesn’t really enter into it unless you are already a fan of racing and you go on to learn about Indianapolis and Daytona. Sure most people have heard of those names in relation to speed, and most racing fans know these are historic locations but perhaps don’t know any more than that. Many follow US-based racing reasonably well and are very knowledgeable about the acheivements of drivers, and enjoy some very good racing. But even these most ardent racing fans in Europe don’t always really get Indy, or Daytona for that matter. Accusations of ‘talentless left-turn-only’ are rampant.

In America this is not so. Perhaps it is among the non-fan, perhaps the non-fan in America thinks the same, associates them with speed but doesn’t really know the history. That’s fine, they aren’t fans, we don’t expect them to know. But for the racing fans? My impression is it is totally different. For them, Indianapolis is like a European F1 fan’s Monza – but more so. If speed is our religion, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of our most holy temples, and it has taken me a while to realise this.

I’ve known for a while that Indianapolis has a lot of racing history. I wasn’t aware of just how ingrained in the psyche of the US open wheel fan it is, until this year. The IndyCar blogging community has been coming up with some truly fantastic writing over the last month and on the eve of the 500 I feel the need to share some of them. Whether you are a fan of IndyCar racing or not, I urge you to read these pieces.

People think as an oval, Indy is easy. It is not. Most ovals now are high-banked and essentially two turns, one at each end. Indy is not. Indy has four distinct corners which are each to be approached in a different way. This is what Indy means.

Indianapolis is dangerous.  Its narrow road and concrete walls tear at man and machine.  A skillful drive can turn to disaster without warning, but the quickest times are found just inches from the walls.  It is there the bold must rise.  Searching for the fastest lap, even the bravest are not without fear.

To drive Indy requires skill.  To race at the front: dedication.  To win: courage.  A champion must push beyond fear.  The four corners at Indianapolis draw out a special significance.

from Paul Page’s opening to the broadcast of the 1992 Indy 500, as shared by Will of Is It May Yet? (Tw @IsItMayYet)

As an experience it is like no other in racing. To an outsider such as myself, IMS’s self-styled phrase “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” sounds obnoxious or pretensious. Surely a Formula 1 grid is louder, more energetic, and faster on a non-oval? Surely 55 Le Mans cars heading down the Mulsanne as one is the greatest spectacle of all? Perhaps not. Perhaps the following perspective has made me rethink that view. This is what Indy means.

Then, at the end of the final pace lap, you look into turn three and see the cars arranging themselves into eleven rows of three. And that’s when the chills start racing up your spine. You can’t help it. The pace car flashes past and dives for pit road, and the cars are alone on the track. As they go by the engine pitch starts to rise, but it is quickly lost in the loudest cheering you’ve ever heard in your life. 300,000 people are screaming at the top of their lungs and, you discover, so are you. Screaming to tear out your throat, in fact, because on the screen you see the green flags waving and you know that the race is underway.

by Tony of Pop Off Valve (Tw @SBPopOffValve)

There’s the effect on lifelong fans. This is what Indy means.

The first car race I ever heard about in my house was the Indy 500. Memorial weekend, my Dad would lug the cooler outside loaded with his favorite beverage, some sandwiches, and other snacks. He would turn up the radio so loud I’m sure the neighbors would hear it. I don’t think he cared. It was the Indy 500 he was listening to for crying out loud. My Mom would tell all of us, “Don’t be bothering your Dad, the race is on.” That was a time he was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. He would jump out of his lawn chair and yell at the top of his lungs at the radio. Then he would do it all over again when they would show the replay hours later on TV.

by Matt from Planet-IRL (tw @Indy44)

Then there is what the place can do to people. How it creates new fans. This is what Indy means, and this really is worth reading.

We sat there in the grandstands hardly saying anything – with him intently watching the cars, and me intently watching him. And while that sounds a bit more melodramatic than I’d like, it’s the truth. We were both entirely fascinated, but for entirely different reasons.

by Roy of Versus.com

Finally, I can’t pick a quote but this post from the_race-gIRL (Tw @the_race_gIRL) is also worth a read as she introduces the sport to her brother. A new fan, right there. Perhaps you haven’t read everything I’ve linked. That’s fine, there are a lot of words. I do urge you to at least read the Pop Off Valve and Versus articles.

I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the community has produced this Month of May (shortened or not). I can’t speak for how many people feel this way, the IndyCar viewership figures would tend to suggest not many yet IMS is packed most years and the 500 is the most-watched IndyCar race by far, often by an order of magnitude.

This is more than any old oval race run for spec cars. This is different. This has 101 years of history, countless traditions large and small, and is still one of the fastest tracks in the world – faster than most other ovals on the schedule save Texas I believe – while remaining a tricky test of nerve, skill and patience.

This is what Indy means.

Vote for the IndyCar Road/Oval Trophy

IZOD IndyCar Series (4C) 5in 300dpiFor the 2010 season, and counting retrospectively back to the start of the year, the IZOD IndyCar Series will be awarding a trophy to the driver who scores the most points on road and street courses, and the driver who scores the most points on ovals.

I think this is a fantastic idea. This is something no other major series can legitimately offer, the NASCAR Sprint Cup could do it but it only has two road course races. It doesn’t detract from the main championship and gives teams and drivers another means of generating publicity and sponsorship, something this series has been doing (or not) woefully inadequately in the past.

It also gives us fans (and bloggers) something else to talk about, and that’s never a bad thing. Fans of all sorts of sports love talking about different strengths and weaknesses and slicing up wins/points in different ways, and racing fans are no different. Now we can talk about drivers doing well in the oval points year after year and struggling on road courses, or vice versa – just as we always did of course, but this time we have a barometer to measure it with. Fairly arbitrary of course because it depends on the points weightings, but what sports ranking isn’t arbitrary, really?

Perhaps the only other type of racing the concept could apply to is rallying, they could offer a gravel trophy and an asphalt trophy. I wonder if that is something the WRC should consider? That’s potentially a whole other blog post.

The interesting twist to these two trophies is the fan interaction. The trophies themselves will be named for famous and/or notable drivers from the over-100 year history of Indy racing. The IndyCar media whittled down a large number of names to a choice of 5 in each category, and now it is our job to vote. Here are the choices:

Oval Trophy:

  • Mario Andretti
  • Rick Mears
  • AJ Foyt Jr
  • Ted Horn
  • Bill Vukovich

Road Trophy:

  • Alex Zanardi
  • Mark Donahue
  • Dan Gurney
  • Al Unser Jr
  • Mario Andetti

Such a selection encompassing drivers from most eras, and a broad smile crossed my face at the inclusion of Zanardi. I’m not sure he’s right for the trophy but it was right that he was nominated. Mario is rightfully included on both lists, the only driver with that honour.

My picks? I reckon the Bill Vukovich Trophy and the Mario Andretti Trophy sound pretty damned good.

HERE is the voting page. Two polls on the page, and you can vote once per day in each poll.

The winner of the vote for the oval trophy will be named next weekend during the Texas weekend, and the road trophy will be named over the Watkins Glen round on the first weekend in July.

Interestingly while these will be named and of course the Indy 500 victor wins the Borg Warner Trophy (or a replica of it), the main series championship doesn’t have a name. Will that be next?

We are at the rebirth of Indy racing after many years of division and distrust. Now everyone is positive and looking forward and coming up with all these creative ideas, and it is such a delight and pleasure to behold. I’m really enjoying it.

Write to the Top

The new CEO of the Indy Racing League, Randy Bernard, will be taking his seat in his office on March 1st.

Let’s send him a letter.

This is the new era of fan interaction. Various different series and teams are paying attention to fans more than they ever have done before, whether by survey or direct interaction via Facebook or Twitter. What’ll get his attention on Day 1 better than a stack of letters from the fans? Okay so maybe they won’t reach him, maybe the PR or marketing people will get them – it doesn’t matter, they’ll note the increase in correspondence and hopefully someone will read some of them.

Bernard appears to have a proven record in growing a sporting property from absolutely nothing to something rather much bigger. The IRL/IndyCar needs those skills, badly. Okay, IndyCar has something of a fan base, it has a history and all the rest – but how much of that does he know? He openly admits he’s coming to this raw, no prior knowledge. Let’s tell him what we like about IndyCar, and what we think may need adjusting. We want to make sure he doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Before you go any further, be sure to remember to be courteous and polite, like not sniggering at his humourous name, nor ranting and raving like a blogger fool. Nobody wants to receive a note that reads like it comes from the middle of a flame war on a forum or a blog. Pressdog wrote some nice guidelines, let’s stick to those. We should welcome him.

Nothing works better than a bit of paper landing on your desk. It’s more personal.

Here’s his address:

Randy Bernard
CEO, Izod IndyCar Series
4790 W 16th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46222

Now, I’m in the UK and I’m not sure whether I’ll use traditional mail (I probably will). But if it doesn’t float your boat, you can always send an email via the website’s contact form:

http://www.indycar.com/contact/

Give it some thought and send him a note. I’m having a think and I will send something in shortly.

*

If after that you are still in a letter-writing mood, pop along to Vision Racing’s Facebook page to see how you can help them convince existing and potential sponsors to back them and resurrect the team for 2010, before it is stood down completely.

And finally, be sure to VOTE on the chassis proposal you favour. I hope to write about those proposals soon but I’ve found myself short on blogging time recently.

Remember, this is the new era of fans being heard, so make the most of it!

Thursday Thoughts: Borrowing Ideas

This week’s Thursday Thoughts question comes from the intriguingly-named Turkey Machine:

What features or regulations from other racing series would benefit F1, and why?


Sounds like my kind of question! Generally-speaking F1 does a good job, yet there are areas from other series it can learn from.

Openness
F1 is notorious for its secrecy. On the one hand it has been an integral part of the game for many years. On the other, we are in a different era now and fans expect a certain degree of openness, and thankfully some F1 teams and drivers are responding, with Twitter accounts and roadshows and so forth. But what at a GP weekend? BMW had the Pitlane Park, and I think it was Indianapolis that pioneered the pitlane walkabout at an F1 race (it having being commonplace in US racing for years).

Other series are still far better at this than F1. I recognise this is semi-deliberate in order to retain F1’s percieved ‘superiority’ and ‘exclusivity’ compared to other series, yet I feel it can be more open while still remaining top of the pile. How?

Let’s have a pitlane walkabout at EVERY Grand Prix, and on EVERY DAY of that GP. There isn’t a packed race schedule at most events (exceptions I think being Albert Park and Silverstone) so time can be found. You can mandate that teams must leave their garage doors open and unobstructed during the walkabout – because as we already know from past walkabouts, some teams put up screens. Some time before an ALMS race starts they line the cars up on the pit straight and allow the fans to walk up and down the straight, taking photos and meeting team personnel and drivers. I’m not necessarily suggesting going that far, but it could be an option.

Then let’s bring in mandatory driver signing sessions in an area outside Bernie’s security wall, with a fine for those who don’t show. This seems to go down very well in IndyCar and NASCAR. I’ve read reports of murmurings from some drivers that ‘extras like this aren’t part of their job’. If any drivers still feel this way, they need to have their attitude adjusting. They are paid millions in order to show their teams and sponsors off to the paying fans, they should give an hour of their time on a Sunday morning to meet them and let the fans get to know them. I argue that if a fan gets to meet their favourite driver they are more likely to associate themselves with that driver’s sponsor/s, whereas if the driver brushes them off that fan may decide to lessen their support or even drop it completely.

Media
HD TV needs to come in and it needs to happen immediately, from Bahrain onwards. No more testing the systems or whatever they are doing. We’ve been promised it every year for the last three or four and the excuses are wearing thin. IndyCar, NASCAR and even World Touring Car are in HD. Admittedly the other series that have gone HD have close relationships with broadcast partners, and F1’s coverage is produced in-house by an subsidiary of FOM – yet surely FOM makes enough revenues to be able to make this investment. I know, because they’ve blogged and tweeted about it, that the broadcasters are pushing hard to have an HD feed released to them – they can’t show what isn’t there. HD channels are currently ‘upscaling’ the standard feed.

The F1.com website needs improving. It is getting there, yet other series sites have tons of photos and videos available, either free or paid-for. Live timing is reasonably good though there’s room to include more information as some other series do.

Consistency of Rulings
Okay, I know you’d be hard-pressed to find a series anywhere that has consistent decision-making when it comes to things like penalties for blocking or running someone off-track. Wishful thinking. It would be nice if they could keep the decisions consistent, whatever those decisions are.

Finally, I’d make the numbers on the cars bigger. Maybe take up the whole rear-wing endplate like in IndyCar. Have you tried identifying drivers by looking at helmets? It’s not always easy.

TM went on to expand to a further question, let’s see if we can answer that as well:

If you can’t think of any that way, what about vice-versa, i.e. what’s F1 got that would benefit other borefests (sorry, motor racing series) around the world?

Certainly with IndyCar and NASCAR I’d bring in the yellow flag rules – don’t throw a Safety Car out there just because a car slowed down for 10 or 20 seconds and cleared the track immediately. I can see why you would do this on ovals where the speeds are so high and laptimes are 25 seconds – on road courses you definitely shouldn’t be going to a full-course yellow unless there’s a car in a dangerous position. It seems both IRL and NASCAR apply their rules to both types of track rather than making adjustments for each, which is a mistake. On a road course you usually have a bit more time and a bit more leeway to let the incident develop and see if it clears itself.

I wouldn’t necessarily take F1’s safety car procedure though, F1 has never really got the hang of when to deploy the car, or run the wave-by.

The producers of the TV feed for most series could probably learn how to cover a race, certainly a road course race, from the FOM crew. The way F1 races are shot is generally very good these days, this has been one of the biggest improvements F1 has made over the last ten years I think and that’s all down to bringing it in-house, not relying on ‘host broadcasters’ as we used to.

Great question. There’s bound to be plenty of other suggestions, feel free to add them either here or in a blog post of your own.