Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Fond Farewell for IndyCar

For the last 6 months I’ve been having a thought rolling in my mind that I haven’t been able to shake. It was really stewing for me Saturday night; but I wanted to be sure and give it a few more days to make sure I thought it out before putting it in print…

The IndyCar Series and its fans are going to regret leaving Twin Ring Motegi.

It really is a shame that the series may have turned its final lap in Motegi, Japan, because after you slice it up, you see that it was easily a net-positive for the series and its growth. It’s not to say that leaving Motegi is going to crush the series, just that the race was clear and definite positive for the series and fans, and it’s now going away.

Is the series justified in taking it off the schedule? Truly we don’t know that answer because we don’t know the financial situation of this race’s past agreements, but let’s just tackle a few obvious subjects that revolve races and what makes them tick, in terms of what normally kills off a race.

Was there a lack of support?
Fact is, this may have been the most supported race on the schedule outside of Indianapolis. It was 100% covered. The bill was footed to get teams there, put them in hotels, transport them around, and a sanction fee was paid on top of it. You can’t get around the fact that it was Honda’s race; they owned the track, they paid all the fees, and at no point were they threatening to pull support.  

Was there a lack of interest?
Had you looked at the stands of Twin Ring Motegi between 2006-2008, sure we’d suspect that the demand from fans was an issue. But in 2009 the stands began to get fuller, and then after they switched the race date to be later in the year, which meant much better and predictable weather and coordination with a Japanese holiday weekend; the stands were PACKED in 2010, AND 2011. Some sources in Japan estimate that Motegi on race day in 2011 swelled beyond 60,000 people; Motegi’s total population is under 25% of that; and its not like the track is near... anything; folks were traveling to get to the race.

Was the time-zone difference too much for TV?
For starters, the Olympics… and World Cup... and Formula One… and Australian Open and their subsequent ratings in North America would put the argument of time-difference to rest. But let’s push those aside and realize there is something clearer to see. This past Saturday in North America, the IndyCar race in Motegi finished just after the BYU-Utah football game ended, and BEFORE the Arizona-Stanford game ended, both being broadcast live on ESPN and ESPN2.

It’s actually a weekly practice for ESPN to put games on that late into the night, so obviously it can’t be too much to ask race fans to stay up a little later for 1 race out of the year (not to mention its staying up late on a Saturday!). We’re the ratings abysmal? No, over 100,000 people watched the race live on Versus Saturday, and keep in mind that was going against 3 College football games and the Floyd Mayweather fight.

Did it require too much travel time?
The way they planned the race the past few years, you’d think so; but none of it comes at the fault of Motegi’s logistics. Remember that Motegi used to be 1 week before Kansas on the schedule, and they did it multiple times like that, which means they surely could do that again.

Did it require a week off before the race? Likely, but it isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not the only break in IndyCar’s schedule, in fact there are 10 off-weekends in IndyCar’s schedule this year. That might be too many, but doesn't mean they couldn't cut 6 of them out and keep the one in front of Motegi. Is it harder to do a lot of back to back weekends, sure, but making things easy is a real poor reason to not do something, especially when things used to be tighter without catastrophe.

Was it disliked by the participants?
I have yet to ever see a driver or team member complain about Motegi, but more so, it’s never even neutral when it comes to Motegi, instead everyone involved is always ecstatic about the event, and its fans.

Tony Kanaan: "I had a gr8 time hr n Japan with @IndyCarSeries family. Japanese people were so welcome nd supportive. Thanks Japan hope to come back soon."

Will Power: "Nice to be home...but will miss was a great event...sad to not be going back...great fans and good people"

Dario Franchitti: "Jet lag coming back from japan sucks... hope we go back there to race though, amazing fans, packed the place even after all their troubles."

Marco Andretti: "Tokyo is the coolest city. Going to miss all of my friends here. Heading home!!!"

James Jakes: "Early start on route to the airport, back to the states. What an event this was, I'm gonna miss this place."

Does it fit IndyCar’s best interests?
To a xenophobe it sure doesn’t, but neither does Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, undisclosed future China race, or street races, or road races, or whatever… but we need to ignore crazy internet people and some silly media folks for a second. IndyCar is an international racing series, no matter how you slice it. There are drivers from over 12 countries, and races in 4 countries, and they are about to add China (and there’s talk of returning to Mexico).

To thin the series should only be racing in the U.S.A. is incredibly shortsighted of the Series’ potential, not to mention bad strategy. The best way things grow in any market, is to fill voids no one is filling. Why get 25% of a track and fan’s attention because you end up being 1 of 4 races they hold in the year, when you can go to places where no one else is and take 100% of what is to take. 50K fans/ticket sales in Motegi without any competition.

Won’t China fill this void?
Not even close. For starters, even if you ignore the government difference, the culture and treatment of the events won’t be remotely alike. China is doing this for the same reason they wanted the Olympics, and the Race of Champions, because they want attention. China wants to use the race to show off their city and country, Japan wanted IndyCars because they wanted their engines and drivers to come home so they could see them in person; and they paid the Series for it, they bought tickets to do so; IndyCar support in Japan is no less worthy than IndyCar support in the States. China is also reported to be a street course (rumored to be building an Oval for the future though).

In fact, China getting added actually throws the reason behind leaving Motegi in the wind. The only reason cited by IndyCar and Honda for letting go of Motegi’s race was that it didn’t generate enough profit on either side for them to fight real hard for it… only except the Series will be visiting China now, meaning some scheduling could easily create a situation for both races to split some travelling costs. But let’s ignore hat aside, neither IndyCar nor Honda ever said the race lost them money/exposure... they just said it wasn’t “enough” to worry about compromising on.

Won’t another track fill this void, should it be easily replaceable?
Quick question, what is the only track in the last decade to regularly showcase 4 and 5-wide racing in IndyCar? Texas tops out at 3, Iowa at 2, and 3-wide at Indy gets Marty Reid into seizures; but it’s always been Motegi with its ridiculously wide track, that has drivers trying a million different lines. The front straight at Motegi is so wide, it could probably comfortably fit cars 13-wide.

Aside from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think it’s safe to say that the egg shaped oval of Twin Ring Motegi is the most unique track on the schedule. It’s definitely been the only asymmetrical oval on the schedule for the last decade, and unless IndyCar gets Pocono or Walt Disney Speedway back on the schedule, there will never be another non-symmetrical track to challenge drivers muscle memory. Drivers have always voiced a love of the track because of the demands it had, it wasn’t artificially high-banked to create close racing, but it was so wide and with multiple grooves, than it never prevented passing, it very much encouraged it.

Most of all, the oval is the ONLY oval in the world that was built for AND used only by IndyCars. It was a haven that NASCAR would never penetrate.

Another interesting known fact is that this race was Honda’s, and you wonder if with the recent announcement of the return of Detroit Belle Isle (Chevy’s new home race) if Honda will stand for not having its own home race as well.

Beyond the track, is the fact that the fans of Japan are beyond unique; they have their own style, their own pre-race festivities from blue angels style motorcyclists, to insane aerial displays
But more than anything those things, fans filled the track for practice, for autographs, for anything… period, and they treated all the drivers greatly because they were just ecstatic that IndyCar was coming to their country… There was even an exchange program between schools in Motegi and Indianapolis… sorry but no other track will ever replace Motegi’s unique place as an IndyCar destination.

Though this isn’t the first time that IndyCar has parted with a track without attendance issues, unlike Richmond (promoter failed to secure sponsorship) and Nashville (promoter refused to pay non-discounted sanction fee), it is the first time that they’ve left a track without a foreseeable major issue, and worse yet, it was enjoyed by thousands.. and we’re all going to miss it once we realize it’s gone...

Sadly, since folks are too busy watching the championship or arguing about Brian Barnhart, Motegi was not given the kind of sendoff or thank you it deserves, so I’d like to at least end with 11 things I’m thankful Motegi gave us.

11. This ridiculous wreck
Watch it and think about it for a second. Sure we’ve seen wheel to wheel contact, we’ve seen cars get airborne, we’ve seen spins on restarts… but Jeff Simmons and Scott Sharp take it to a new level giving us all 3 including a high speed impact, with the backs of their cars! 

10. Roger Yasukawa lights it up, literally
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to fish out video of this; but in 2008 Roger Yasukawa had to come to an abrupt stop on the front stretch… because his brakes caught on fire! The strain Motegi put on cars is how you knew it was a driver’s track and not foot to the floor.

9. Egg-static egg-splanation
In case you didn’t know Motegi was shaped like an egg… and even if you did, too bad because Jack Arute Scott Goodyear and Marty Reid were bound to bring it up, or even show you an egg.

8. The advent of online streaming
Twitter, Apps and Timing and Scoring have spoiled the fans, but a small few like myself remember where it all started; as the only way to watch Motegi live. Just one screen and one radio feed, and no fancy anything.

7. Formula One Car vs. IndyCar … on an oval … with a standing start! 
As you might guess, considering the current IndyCar wasn’t made for standing starts nor the same amount of power, its beyond ridiculous.

This also wasn't the only time they did this, here's a video from the year before where the IndyCar stays more even

6. De Ferran’s non-spin/spin in 1999
CART was reversing time on car’s spinning out of turn 4 well before Brian Barnhart was even thinking about it.

5. Turn 2 (and 4) – the rookie eaters
Motegi’s turn 2 doesn’t have the storied history that Indianapolis’ 4th turn has, but from a year-by-year percentage, it’s fairly even, it’s a car eater. The one thing Motegi 2 has over Indy 4, is that Motegi often struck in the opening lap(s):

Marco Andretti, Mario Moraes, Kosuke Matsurra and Bertrand Baguette were all recent opening lap Motegi victims. I’m still not sure what is worse, spending all May only to crash in turn 4, or travelling all the way out to Japan to crash in turn 2.

4. The 2009 race – a.k.a. Briscoe loses Championship
A lot of people seem to forget how close Ryan Briscoe was to winning a championship over Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. The 2009 Motegi race was a duel between all 3 drivers, including a lot of hard racing between both Ganassi drivers, until a yellow flag flew just as Briscoe was pitting, which should have given him the race (and locked up the championship)… should have. 

3. Danica’s win
Like her, love her, hate her, it doesn’t matter. Pretending this victory wasn’t significant, is like trying to pretend Barak Obama being the first black president wasn’t significant. But even if you don’t care for Danica too much, Motegi proves yet another thing… their race broadcasters are so much better than ours.

2. The 2003 race
A great race. If you can find it online, watch it. Think about this, Scott Dixon won the pole, Tomas Scheckter ran the fastest laps, Tony Kanaan led the most laps… and Scott Sharp won the race. 

Tons of action between Scheckter, Kanaan, Dixon, Kenny Brack, Michael Andretti and more, and ended with Dixon and Kanaan making contact and Scott Sharp winning.

1. The best command to start engines.. EVER

...and after that I just leave you with this... Tony Kanaan's on-board camera for an entire race at Motegi:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Knight Turns Out the Lights

Disclaimer: I am not usually one to take such strong offense at something that some random person writes on Tha Interwebs that I feel like I have to rebut the entire body of work, but every so often, something so hilariously wrongheaded comes along that I just can not help myself. If you're squeamish about long-winded diatribes against one writer, or you'd prefer to read my usual "kumbaya, can't we all get along?" stuff that I write here or in blog comments all over the place, maybe you should come back in another month or two, or whenever I get around to writing again. This one's a craw-sticker for me, so if you wanna stick around, you'll want to get comfy. You've been warned.

As we march toward the end of another IndyCar Series season, I've taken some time to count my blessings as a fan of my favorite sport. Sure, we have guys from the two behemoth teams, and only those two teams, battling it out for the championship, just as it seems to happen every year, but at least we've got a close battle, right? Sure, guys from those two teams win most of the races, but we've had a handful of surprise winners (including the craziest darkhorse winner of the Indy 500 in a decade or two), right? The cars aren't all that much fun to look at, and sort of put on terrible racing more often than not, but we're getting better equipment next year, right? There aren't a whole lot of young drivers that are in a regular winning position in the Series, but there are a couple of very good rookies in the Series (J.R. Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe), and a few more (Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly, Esteban Guerrieri, Stefan Wilson, Peter Dempsey) coming down the line, right?

Oh, but I'm wrong on this last one. Or, at least I am according to an esteemed member of the IndyCar paddock/"former employee of every racing team and driver in North America, just look at my sidebar for all the names I like to drop"/"smartest guy in the Northern Hemisphere and if you don't believe me, just read one or two of my posts, please". Jeez, given that my idea of what makes for a decent junior formula field appears to differ so wildly from other folks' ideas, maybe we should have a closer look.

“Those are drivers in IndyCar's 2011 Firestone Indy Lights. Lots of household names and ticket sellers there!”

Wait, what? Since when, in the entire history of motorsports, is the lineup of a support series packed with "household names and ticket sellers"? Well, outside of NASCAR's Nationbusch Series, which is packed full of guys from the premier league who are slumming it and beating the hell out of the young, up and coming series regulars, to the point where the average fan can probably only name 2-3 of those top “Nationbusch-only” guys? Isn’t insisting that a support series be packed with household names like going to your local Double-A baseball team and leaving halfway through the second inning because you’ve never heard of anybody on the field?

“No disrespect intended to those guys -- all real racers are appreciated here -- but as a group they symbolize the problems that have plagued this tour since Tony George decided he needed a development/support series.”

Oh, my goodness, what? This is Tony George’s fault? Because when he created the Infiniti Pro Series, there was no way for a sprint car driver (his intended IRL target driver, however right or wrong that may have been, and no, I am not touching that debate right now) to get into a car with wings, slicks and an engine that sat behind the driver and get experience in large, paved ovals. So, Tony should have just said, “well, I know there’s no way to actually attract the drivers I’m trying to get and train them up to get into my big cars, but screw it. I sure can’t spend a couple million dollars extra, create a training ground series where there is none (because Atlantics ran 90% road courses from 2000 to 2007, so rear engine car experience on ovals was basically impossible to get without winding up knocking down walls at Indy or elsewhere) and create an undercard series for people who actually come out to my races to watch while they wait around for the big cars to take the track.” What? Oh, right, every last thing that’s gone wrong with motorsports since 1992 is Tony George’s fault. I forgot about that. OK, as you were, Mr. Knight.

“Here are the champions and their subsequent histories: 2002 -- A.J. Foyt IV (out of racing). 2003 -- Mark Taylor (bombed out of brief stint with Panther). 2004 -- Thiago Medeiros (touted as a potential superstar, crashed in practice at California Speedway, finished 31st in one Indy 500 start, and eventually disappeared from the scene). 2005 -- Wade Cunningham (kicking around trying to make something happen). 2006 -- Jay Howard -- (ditto). 2007 -- Alex Lloyd (part-time IC competitor). 2008 -- Raphael Matos (trying to keep a full-time IC ride). 2009 -- JR Hildebrand (you know his story). 2010 -- J.K. Vernay (TBD).

A pretty thin record book, there."

Hmmm, well, I’ll grant you those early years were pretty bare, especially since talent was also split with Atlantics at the time, but holding up the last 3-4 years of Lights as a punching bag of everything that’s wrong with American Open Wheel’s feeder system seems pretty short sighted. Let’s see...

Cunningham: had a good debut at Texas this year, is running a couple more races, and is trying to find the sponsorship dough to move up, just like most other young drivers in every other feeder series around the world.

Howard: has NEVER gotten a decent shake at an IndyCar, and when the top-15 or so full-time drivers stays static for 4-5 years (as it has since 2006 or so), it’s going to be hard to break into a team where you can prove what you can do. Oh, except that Jay did a great job at Indy this year, finally given a better-than-terrible car and looked really good at Texas as well, so maybe there’s a little talent lurking in there somewhere? Nah, you should probably write him off for good.

Lloyd: see Howard, except that we all know that he’s a stud from his RoY season last year (or does that not count, since it’s an “IRL” RoY title?).

Rafa: it drives me crazy when people deride him as being a colossal failure. Let me break this down. 2009: 13th in points, 8 top-10s and no top-5s, finished behind 4 drivers who didn’t drive for Ganassi, Penske, Andretti or Panther (unquestionably the Series’ top 4 teams), while driving for a team that was brand new to the full time grind of the Series. 2010: 14th in points, 4 top-10s, 2 top-5s, finished behind 3 drivers who didn’t drive for Ganassi, Penske, Andretti or Panther, while driving for a team THAT SHUT DOWN AT THE END OF THE YEAR and had to be saved from ruin twice in the last 12 months, so maybe they weren’t all that well heeled to begin with, remember? That is a huge, embarrassing failure? Oh, and he was like top-12 in points with a completely brand new team at the beginning of this year before things fell off a cliff when he DNQ’d at Indy (again, with a completely brand new team, in a year when 40 legit car/driver combos showed up). Give credit where it’s due, folks. Back to the “Lights List of Shame”…

Hildebrand: gee, that seems like a success story, if you ask me. What’s your point again, Knight?

Vernay: yeah, didn’t get the sponsor dollars to move up this year, but Peugeot did hire him to be one of their young test drivers for their Le Mans program, so maybe there was SOMETHING there.

Oh, while we’re here, maybe we should toss in James Hinchcliffe, who finished 2nd to Vernay last year and has been a revelation thus far in 2011. I don’t understand what you’re talking about at all. Are you also saying that the Heisman Trophy is a joke because some of the winners haven't gone on to superduperstardom in the NFL?

"The Bosch Super Vee series, which was contested from 1971-1990, really didn't have the engine horsepower needed to provide a full training ground for Indy. But taking a look at the list of some of its champions showed it served a most useful purpose:

Bertil Roos (highly respected racing school operator); Elliott Forbes-Robinson (sports car winner); Bob Lazier (CART rookie of the year); Geoff Brabham (IMSA champion, longtime CART driver, IROC race winner); Al Unser Jr. (double I500 winner); Michael Andretti (CART champion); Arie Luyendyk (two I500 wins); Didier Theys (sports car winner)."

Oh, my, we’re going to pine for a support series that’s been dead long enough that kids who were born during the last season are now old enough to drink legally? Let’s take a close look at those drivers while we’re at it.

Roos: so, we get to count something that a driver does after his active racing career is over as being the element of success that sets him over the current crop of young drivers? Boy, that doesn’t seem fair at all, especially if Mark Taylor becomes the next Skip Barber in 15-20 years somehow.

EFR: if we’re going to count “sports car winner” as a “Super Vee success story”, shouldn’t we wait to see if Howard, Lloyd, Rafa or Vernay win Le Mans like 6 times or something? Or are we just talking about later IndyCar success, of which EFR had none?

Lazier: OK, CART rookie of the year, but how many career wins did he have in CART? Or top-5s? Oh, zero and three, respectively, i.e. about the same numbers that J.R. and Hinch are tracking for this year?

Brabham: um, son of a 3-time World Champion, so I’m thinking he might have found his way to the top, regardless of what junior series he picked.

Al Jr. and Michael: see Brabham.

Arie and Theys: wait, are you claiming that those guys were “household names and ticket sellers” in the days when they won the Super Vee title? I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about that. Seems to me a touch unfair to not wait until we see if any of the current Lights guys pan out before deeming them as all sub-Theys talents.

“The most legendary of the training tours was, of course, Formula Atlantic. It had a great run from 1974-2009. No explanation is needed when listing some of its graduates: Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve, Tom Gloy, Johnny O'Connor, Richie Hearn, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Barron, Buddy Rice, Jon Fogarty, AJ Allmendinger, Simon Pagenaud and Matos.

CART's minor league, first known as the American Racing Series, was started by Pat Patrick and went from 1986-2001. Competitiors who went on to bigger and better things included: Theys, Jon Beekhuis, Mike Groff, Paul Tracy, Bryan Herta, Robbie Buhl, Greg Moore, Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Cristiano da Matta, Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell.”

Again, fella, you have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight when looking at those names (and that one guy’s name is O’CONNELL, by the way). There’s nothing that says that Rafa, J.R., Hinch or even Charlie Kimball can’t be as big or bigger than any of those guys, simply because they graduated from Tony George’s Terrible and Evil Indy Lights Championship. And if we’re really gonna play this game, then shouldn’t we be asking whatever happened to Steve Robertson (1994 Lights champ, who later became Kimi Raikkonen’s manager, but never raced anything beyond touring cars after he won the Lights championship), Dave McMillan (1982 Atlantic champ), Dan Marvin (1984 Atlantic champ), Michael Angus (1985 Eastern Atlantic champ), Ted Prappas (1986 Western Atlantic champ), Steve Shelton (1988 Eastern Atlantic champ), Dean Hall (1998 Western Atlantic champ), Jocko Cunningham (1990 Eastern Atlantic champ), Hiro Matsushita (1990 Western Atlantic champ, and considered by many to be one of the worst CART drivers in the entire history of the sport), Lee Bentham (1998 Atlantic Champ), Hoover Orsi (2001 Atlantic champ), and Charles Zwolsman (2005 Atlantic champ)? Or the 5-6 Super Vee champions that never won a race in anything bigger than a showroom stock series race after their champion years? Do we get to count those guys toward your list of junior formula champions who are beyond reproach?

“Point made. Something for Bernard to ponder before his next news conference about the "Road to Indy."”

Point made? How so? And besides, what’s Randy Bernard supposed to say when talking about the current crop of young drivers? “Gee, our Lights guys are all talentless hacks, who have won zero IndyCar races, while Mike Knight’s list of past Atlantic, Vee and ARS champions won roughly 3,567 races and collectively came up with a cure for Appalachian ringworm. I’d implore all American, Eurpoean and Japanese companies to stay far, far away from any driver who has graduated from our current feeder ladder or from any team who wants to come run here. What a black hole of talent. Why do I even get out of bed in the morning?”

Look I’m no Tony George defender, but this is clearly an attack on a holdover TG institution, only for the sake of it being a holdover TG institution, and for no other reason. Hey, Mike? How’s about you just stick to drag racing, if everything is so beyond broken in the IndyCar world?