Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Max Lagod 1969-2011

Most of the folks reading this post have likely never heard of Max Lagod, as he was a race car driver who never hit the "big time" (NASCAR, IndyCar, F1, etc.), but nevertheless, he was one of those guys who I followed whenever I saw results online or in magazines for big bore sedan racing, or on the off chance that a TransAm or SCCA GT-1 race managed to make it on to TV. I never met Mr. Lagod, but he was one of those guys who struck me as a scrappy, underfunded underdog, who was able to drive a race car to the exact speed that it was absolutely capable of. With all of this in mind, and knowing that he was somebody that I stumbled across early on in my race fandom, I was extremely saddened to hear that he died on March 12 of lymphoma.

The first time I was aware of Lagod, he was in the process of absolutely demolishing the GT-1 field at the SCCA June Sprints at Road America, a race that my parents took me to in lieu of a high school graduation party (they gave me the choice; I thought about it for about 0.042 seconds before picking the Sprints). In qualifying for his race, I distinctly remember the track announcer excitedly exclaiming that on Road America's brand new pavement, Lagod had just broken the all-time GT-1 track record. Given the speed and quality of the equipment that this class contains (ex-TransAm cars), I knew that this was no mean feat. Race day was no different. Lagod sped off into the distance, and left the rest of the field in the proverbial fight for 2nd.

So, among the amateur racer set, Lagod was obviously incredibly quick, but was he professional material? As I'd find out a few years later, the answer was definitely "yes". Lagod made periodic appearances in the TransAm series in his family-prepped Camaro over the years, with a little success sprinkled in here and there, but I managed to cross paths with him again at Cleveland in 2003. Most folks will remember this race weekend as being the world's first major road race held at night, but I also remember Max Lagod's run in the TransAm race that year. The race was won by Scott Pruett (who I'm sure said hello to his kids at home afterward), and was notable for Paul Gentilozzi hitting pretty much every car within a mile of Burke Lakefront Airport, but Lagod largely kept his nose clean and finished on the podium, only the second of his career. In such storied company, this was no mean feat. After the race, I took my pit pass and headed toward the padddock to see if I could congratulate Lagod on such a great finish and mention that I'd last seen him race eight years before in that demolition job at Road America. Well, between my crippling bashfulness around real, actual race car drivers and the fact that the ChampCars were being pushed toward the grid before I could spot Lagod wandering around his paddock spot, I never got a chance to say hi.

Anyway, this is a far cry from a real eulogy, and of course, I never even met the man, but I just couldn't let this piece of news go by without saying a little something. Thanks, Max, for giving this race fan some thrills on the track, and Godspeed.

What I Learned While Watching the 1971 Indy 500 On My TiVo

Last May, ESPN Classic ran ten old Indy 500s in abbreviated formats, but each still clocking in at a relatively comprehensive two hours. Since I am a sucker for posts with recurring themes, I'm going to take a periodic look at the races my TiVo captured and recap what I learned. This week (month? year? decade? whatever), I'll be taking a look at 1971.

1) Back in those days, it was totally OK to make non-PC jokes on the air. At one point, Jim McKay made some sort of remark about how somebody had hit a bird on the track during qualifying. He then joked to boothmate Jackie Stewart, "Of course, that's a different kind of bird from what you're used to where you come from." Wow! Can you imagine Bob Jenkins and Jon Beekhuis joking like this today? I mean, Bob Varsha and David Hobbs would, but one of those guys sounds like he's got something other than coffee in his cup (how else would we be treated to the world's best Mark Webber, Alan McNish and Flavio Briatore impressions?) and they'd be making the joke at like 5:00 AM, so nobody would be any the wiser.

2) Safety measures were held to a far lower standard than they are today. McKay remarked something like "that would have been a far worse fire, if it weren't for the space age fuel cells that these cars use" when Mike Mosely's car hit the inside wall of Turn 4. Note that at the time, there was an actual 40 foot tall (my estimate, though it might have been more like 60) mushroom cloud of burning methanol towering over the wreckage in the infield. Um, so this would have been worse somehow without a fuel cell? I guess 50 people could have died or something?

3) It was totally cool to smoke at the track, and a cigarette could be bummed off of just about anybody (grade school kids possibly included). I learned this when Bobby Unser lit up a smoke as he walked away from his wrecked car after the Mosely crash.

4) David Hobbs was already hilarious. He was incredibly philosophical and even cracked a couple of jokes after Rick Muther's car hit the inside wall of the front straight and speared back across the track and collected a completely innocent Hobbs at well over 180 MPH.

5) People who say that you can't tell the difference between 180 and 220 MPH are full of crap. The cars, while fast, looked like they were crawling in comparison to even the cars from the 1981 race that I watched later (more on that race in a subsequent installment).

6) Chris Economacki was not available to interview Mario Andretti when Mario dropped out of the race (McKay threw down to Chris for the interview), but the guy who was actually standing by with Mario in Turn 3? A guy named Dave Letterman.

7) The commentators were not aware of basically anything that was going on other than what their own eyes and the eyes of their corner reporters saw. No timing and scoring, no instant replays, no video to analyze, very limited pit reporting = two guys saying stuff like "Joe Leonard comes into the pits! We think this is a planned stop, but it might be a little earlier than we'd have thought!" And now people complain that we know too much about fuel strategies, in- and out-lap times, push-to-pass applications remaining and car setup changes made during the race. Go figure.

8) The 1971 McLarens, the first cars to have the huge rear wings, were crazy fast in comparison to everybody else in the race. Al Unser led more than half of the laps and beat Peter Revson handily, but Revson and Mark Donohue were able to pass people wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Only trouble for the McLarens allowed Big Al to win that one, in my opinion.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Online Streaming Fraternity

I've gotten a lot of twitter/comment/email followup on the NBC/IndyCar article mostly asked about the same two issues that I figured we could use an addendum.

1 - NBC already does live streaming for over 100+ Olympic events so they definitely have experience and server capability.

2 - We can all agree that IndyCar fans have been spoiled with free streaming, but those of us up in a stir are not mad because we think NBC needs to offer this stuff for free. We all just know some option needs to exist; whether pay-per-view-streaming or a free but slightly inferior online product compared to TV with sold ad space. Both are revenue streams NBC is ignoring that ESPN and CBS have found a way to make work very well.

Here is a list of all the many sports that I can watch LIVE online as of today:

- Olympics (free via NBC)
- MLB (paid for any game / some free on ESPN3)
- NFL (paid)
- NBA (select games free on ESPN3)
- NCAA basketball (select games free on ESPN3, paid to watch any regular season D-I game)
- NCAA baseball (select games free on ESPN3, paid to watch any regular season D-I game)
- NCAA football (free for a multitude of games on ESPN3)
- NCAA softball (select games free on ESPN3, paid to watch any regular season D-I game)
- NCAA Wrestling (free for select tournaments)
- NCAA Hockey (select games free on ESPN3, paid for most other D-I games)
- ATP Tennis (everything free except champ matches)
- PGA & LPGA Tour (free until final day then TV only)
- American LeMans Series (free qualifying and races)
- La Liga (free / soccer)
- German Bundesliga (free / soccer)
- Eredivisie (free / soccer)
- Serie A (free / soccer)
- FIFA World Cup (free)
- FIFA U20 and U17 (free)
- MLS (free)
- X-Games (free - all events qualifying and final runs)
- Rugby (free)
- U.S. High School basketball & football (select games free)
- NCAA Lacrosse (free)
- Major League Lacrosse (free)
- KHL (free / hockey)
- Race of Champions (paid)
- FIA GT1 World Championship (free)
- Superleague Formula (free)

IndyCar is falling off a list that includes basically every major sport on this earth. For a sport that tries to brand itself as being at the forefront of technology, its about to start looking like its on the cutting edge of the late 90s for fans.

I don't imagine ESPN, CBS and CBS-C are eating huge losses to keep those many streaming options alive, some of them are on their 4th or more year. That list is also only based on U.S. availability, I'm sure other countries can add more to it.also send me anything you think I missed.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

NBC Missing the Boat, Taking IndyCar With It

NBC/Comcast hasn’t even yet aired a single race of the IndyCar Series since their merger, and yet they already seem committed to their first monumental mistake...
“Because of network TV contracts, live streaming video of IndyCar Series practice (outside of the Indianapolis 500), qualifying and races won’t be available this season.”

To say this development is shocking would be a lie; NBC is the same organization that thought it was a good idea to cut away from the 2010 Winter Olympics closing ceremonies so they could show the pilot episode for “The Marriage Ref.” A tactic that backfired, not only in tons of anger in social media but also negative big-media press, plummeting ratings and the show seemingly disappearing from air anyway.

Even as this decision to kill off ANY race related streaming in IndyCar goes, it’s not a new concept; we’ve seen this exact tactic before:

In 2008 at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, SPEED committed itself to 16 hours of live race (including 30 min post/pre) coverage of the race. During the 9 race hours off of TV coverage, fans were able to log into Grand-Am’s website and access three live track cameras with audio simply picking up the track’s PA system. The cameras never moved, in fact their positionings were awful. It wasn’t anything you could actually watch, but die-hards and off-site media like me were able to stay up all night and hear a few developments be announced over the track PA.

When 2009 came around, it was gone, and it very quickly became evident why. Enter stage right is The Racer’s Group team, who had an epiphany, let’s bring a little attention to ourselves because SPEED focuses a bit much on the DP class and not our GTs. So to give a little something extra to their fans, they mounted a webcam in their pit-stall. It did not pan or zoom, it had no announcing and it was clearly just a $0 setup web-cam staring at their pit-box. The idea was that when it came time for pitting, fans could go to their site and watch them perform a pit-stop, nothing more. Only, the stream never lasted to the first pit-stop.

TRG (who kept fans up to date via a chat box) noted an ongoing struggle with SPEED who shut them down. SPEED cited that it interfered with broadcast rights (which it did). But in the agreement they came to, TRG would be allowed to go back live once the race was off the air… only it never did. SPEED actually instead made sure TRG never went live again, threatening legal action, even though SPEED wasn’t showing the race or any coverage at all during those 9 hours. All TRG could do was change it to a refreshable picture from the pit-cam. Thusly fans got NO INFORMATION about the race except from Grand-Am’s (much underrated) timing and scoring application.

Now it’s 2010, and TRG was still trying to be at the forefront of technology and fan-connectivity, so they devised an idea that shouldn’t go against SPEED’s broadcasting rights. TRG’s plan: set up a web-cam not showing the track in any way. This year instead, the webcam faced a table and 2 chairs with a white background showing their team logo. the video was crap, and the audio wasn't perfect either, and if it weren’t for hearing cars in the background you’d never know it was at a track. In one chair sat one of TRG’s PR reps on a headset, and all they did was answer questions in a fan chat box embedded in the page. It was nothing short of great fan interaction.

Occasionally they let fans know updates about the team like “we’re coming in to pit next lap” or “we’re in 6th place now” information that could already be garnered from timing and scoring or twitter or TV broadcasts. They’d occasionally pull TRG’s drivers into the 2nd seat and let them answer fan’s questions in real time. It was great, while it lasted; as once again there was a struggle with SPEED, who again cited broadcast rights even though TRG weren’t showing anything race related. After what one assumes was a pretty interesting debate, TRG and SPEED came to an agreement and TRG was allowed to go back live, but with 50 corporate logos of SPEED or TaxSlayer all over the white tarp backdrop. Because neither company had anything to do with TRG’s web-cam, all it did was gave SPEED more bad publicity with fans.

Now in 2011, SPEED has cut their broadcasting back by 2 hours, meaning they give fans even less coverage. TRG, meanwhile does the same awesome behind-the-pit webcam, bringing in drivers to talk directly with fans during the race, and in no way attempting to cover the on-track action, and they do it for the FULL 24 hours and it’s great.

In the end TRG has increased the amount of behind the scenes coverage they do each of the last 3 years, Twitter has boomed meaning fans can follow all the drivers, teams and media for real-time updates, JustinTV and many other illegal online streams have boomed, and things like GrabBagsports’ very own Blogathon give fans immediate information and analysis of 24 Hours of Daytona.

The way SPEED (and now NBC) act/react to new technology mediums, you’d think it’d be the death knell for the broadcasts… well apparently not:

In 2010: “In total, 2010 Rolex 24 viewership was up 22 percent over 2006,”

In 2011: “SPEED's coverage racked up some impressive TV viewership numbers, with an average of 443,000 viewers tuning in - a four percent increase from 2010.”

You can’t fault the IndyCar regime; most TV networks require the all-inclusive broadcast clause, in-fact give props to them for breaching the contract for the last 2 years to continue their online offering. But IndyCar better be trying to change NBC’s mind, because the world is changing and NBC clearly isn’t paying attention.

This Thursday/Friday will see millions (yes, millions) across the globe watching multitudes of college basketball online as the NCAA March Madness tournament begins. CBS is smart, rather than allowing the NCAA or illegal streams to take charge, they take care of this rebroadcasting themselves and they sell advertising for it.

In fact, here’s just a quick list of sports I can currently watch LIVE online (some free, some paid): National Football League, Major League Baseball, NCAA basketball, NCAA baseball, NCAA football, practically every professional soccer/futbol league in the world, professional rugby, the Olympics, NCAA track and field, The X Games, all events on the ATP Tennis World tour, PGA and LPGA Golf, and now the American LeMans Series.

There are some serious heavy hitters in there, and I bet you they aren’t worried about hurting Nielsen Rating’s points. Instead they’ve realized that they can capitalize on the advanced level of advertising and specified/reliable statistics the internet brings. They can tell advertises exactly how many people clicked/watched their ad (not hopeful estimating like Nielsen), they can tell exactly where the viewers are geographically, how long they watched for, what they watched, what they clicked, how they go to the stream, where they went after the stream and more.

By not jumping on the technology and continuing to do their own stream, IndyCar/NBC will not create a ratings boost; that’s just as silly as the RIAA’s thought that suing/killing Napster etc. would boost music album sales. Instead, international and non-Versus able fans will simply find their way to illegal streams. This means it’s now a lose-lose for broadcasters, not only do ratings not go up, but they also don’t reap any advertising revenue.

Why NBC/Versus/ESPN3(ABC) wouldn’t take the opportunity to sell more advertising to IndyCar fans is beyond me as a marketer. The cameras are already monitoring the track, there’s already a radio feed, so the only extra person to pay is the one combining those and sending the feed to the internet; and frankly advertising revenue should more than cover that.

CBS has been doing this for the basketball tournament for over 5 years now, ESPN is starting to throw any sport they have onto ESPN3 and yet their ratings rise every year on TV. Clearly online streaming is a net positive; not only for the bottom line, but in finding, converting and increasing the fan base.

As to the possibility Randy Bernard laid out for trying delayed online broadcasts...

At 1:11pm today, I found out via twitter and ESPN that Kurt Busch had been eliminated from the NHRA Gatornationals. Any opportunity for people to view this (outside of attending) won’t occur for more than 5 hours later on ESPN; and Kurt Busch, NASCAR and driver cross-over fans won’t be watching; we'll already be over it and NHRA loses potential eyeballs to convert into fans.

Sports are not scripted, people don’t watch to see how an ending was set to happen, they watch to see a contest bdecided at the moment it is being decided. It’s all about real-time action and results, it’s why we watch; its why there are 3+ 24-hour live news networks. Newspapers aren’t dying because people stopped needing news, it’s because we the consumer found a way to get news with the same accuracy quicker and within a more relative time-frame.

IndyCar fans have already tasted and feasted upon live real-time practice and qualifying and they know how great it tastes; they won’t go back to tape-delay; they’ll just go elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Well, That Changes Everything

This just in: IndyCar owners vote to keep Firestone in as tire supplier in 2012!

In related news, my wife and I had a vote at our house as to whether or not winter should continue. We voted unanimously that it should not. We expect 80 degree temperatures to commence tomorrow.