Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lance Armstrong, Jimmie Johnson and the Tour De France

Editor's note, I put this together last winter before the proposed double existed with plans to post it this week , So I thank you Randy and Bruton for making this post all the more pertinent. And yes, you may say I am a dreamer...

For me growing up in Indiana for whatever reason meant that summer was spent watching non traditional team sports. Basketball and Football owned the Fall and Winter, but once Spring was upon me the focus shifted, Racing and tennis came to the fore. Go figure on that pair, but then I don’t watch much tennis these days.

The other sport that joined the summer viewing repertoire in 1989 was cycling, particularly the Tour De France. Back in those days, before the channel that Lance built (now known as Versus) existed, ABC coverage was limited to an hour on the tour Saturdays that summarized the previous week and then another hour on Sunday that covered the Sunday stage that would invariably include some sort of key mountain or time trial. In 1989, watching American Greg LeMond climb the great Alpe D’Huez and then riding the greatest time trial ever onto the Champs-Élysées erasing a 50 second deficit to a Frenchman named Laurent, who wore a long blond pony tail and later blamed losing the tour to “saddle sores” (draw your own conclusions…) LeMond did this all with 37 shot gun pellets embedded into his back with two residing in his heart lining. Needless to say I was hooked and have followed ever since.

While LeMond was the first American to win the Tour (3 times), in this country these days the event is associated with Lance Armstrong. It is a funny study in character between these two, both overcame tremendous adversity to climb to the pinnacle of world cycling, but within Europe, and specifically France itself, the two men could not be regarded differently. To this day the French love LeMond, possibly because of the last name, partly because the greatest French cyclist ever, Bernard Hinault anointed Greg as his successor. Whereas, Lance is seen differently. Despite the universal love and respect that he commands on this side of the ocean, in France, Lance is an enigma hated by many If not most. Barry Bonds if you will and similar to Bonds, Lance is widely assumed to be the greatest, sneakiest Doper ever in the history of cycling.

But how did it come to this? That a man who carried out the greatest comeback from adversity to become the greatest cycling race’s greatest winner becomes hated villain? It has to do with the relationship between the athlete and his sport and ultimately which is more important to the fan base that loves them both. Initially, Lance’s success was welcomed by all as the feel good story that followed two Tours tarnished by drug scandal. Sentiment changed however in 2004. Doping allegations against Lance surfaced and public sentiment began to turn. But why 2004? In 2003 Lance won his fifth Tour and showed no sign of stopping.

This did not sit well for a couple of reasons. First, there had never been a six time winner of the Tour. The greats Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain had all won five and no more. So here was this American with an accomplishment in his sights that no European had ever attained, but the issue I think is more complex. Popular American understanding of professional European cycling is the TDF, Period. Sort of like all the Danica fans who are surprised that there are more races than the 500 in the IICS. European cycling has three Grand tours: the Giro d’Italia (May), La Tour de’France (July) and the Vuelta aEspana (September). A triple crown if you will. A triple crown Anquetil, Merckxx and Hinault have all completed. Indurain having won two of the jewels. As for Lance? TDF and TDF only. It is not only a question of winning the other events, it is a question of even attempting to race them. In essence the issue was “Why are you ruining our record books when you haven’t bothered to fill out your own resume???” Suppose Tiger Woods ONLY played the Masters?

To be fair, Lance did race the Vuelta once, as the first race in his comeback from cancer, but once he got rolling, there was never another mention of participation in the other races. Filling this gap in the resume was to be goal one of the current comeback. Lance was to be the team leader for Astana in the 2009 Giro, but a fall and broken collarbone put an end to the plan. By the time Lance was ready to ride again, it was TDF time, but Team Astana had planned to lead with Alberto Contador, the 2007 TDF champ, who had taken 2008 off from the TDF to…….Win both the 2008 Giro and Vuelta and complete the career triple crown. But Lance had not made another comeback to play Domestique to another rider and a battle for team leadership played out during the 2009 Tour. Ultimately the younger Contador won out and Lance was vanquished. To this day, the only American to win one of the other great tours of Europe remains Andy Hampsted, who won the Giro back in the LeMond era.

If you were to ask a European cycling fan who was the greatest cyclist of all time, who would they say? Probably not Lance, despite being the winningest rider in the sports greatest race, most cycling fans would say Eddie Merckx and his 11 grand tour victories or Hinault and his 10 victories.

So what does this have to do with Racing? Well when this post is published, it will be Brickyard week at the Speedway, the week nascar comes calling to the greatest race course in the world. Nascar is having its own struggles these days, many blame the COT, some blame the series leaving its rural southern roots behind and then some blame Jimmie Johnson. JJ has won four straight Cup championships and is probably well on his way to his fifth championship. While Petty and Earnhart both won seven total titles, these runs were not in a row. Until Johnson, the record for consecutive cup victories was three. Many will argue that Johnson winning five will chase away fans and is a contributor to the ratings and popularity declines that nascar has seen of late. The naysayers are now beginning to say that it is crew chief Knaus who is winning all these titles and that Jimmie is just the fortunate driver at the wheel. After all it wasn’t Lance who won all those TDF’s, it was the drugs. Does the story sound familiar?

A couple years ago ESPN.com created a list of the greatest race car drivers ever. Much to the shock of the stock car faithful, the top spots on the list didn’t include Petty, Earnhart or even Gordon. Likewise, the F1 crowd was shocked to not see Schumacher, Senna or Fangio. The top 2? Foyt and Andretti.

Why? Simple – it was success in ALL forms of racing that placed them at the top of this list. Each completing their own “triple Crown of Racing”. Besides being the first to win 4 Indy 500’s, Foyt’s resume includes wins in the Daytona 500 and the 24 hours of LeMans. Andretti’s resume includes the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the F1 world championship.

It seems to be considered the greatest in cycling or racing, one has to be willing to take on all challenges and be victorious at them. Which brings us back to Jimmie Johnson, what will it take for Jimmie to have a chance at the all time greats? After a 5th cup title, more cup titles don’t add much more to the argument and I think Jimmie knows this. He has begun to participate in champions of racing karting events and now Grand Am events running in the 24 hours of Daytona. But honestly, does immortality require a Grand Am victory?

Jimmie, as you take in sights and sounds this week at IMS, you know which race victory would set you above your peers, above even Petty and Earnhart. Randy Bernard and Bruton Smith are doing their best to make it financially appealing and physically possible. It doesn’t have to be forever, no one would ever expect you leave cup behind. But in 2011 give it a thought, a couple ovals to get acquainted and then during the month of May take a stab at immortality. The 500 is calling.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

2012 The More I THINK the More I LIKE

Editor's Note...I have been thinking about this post all afternoon and as I have finally settled in to pound away on the keyboard, I am listening to the Trackside Podcast. I suppose great minds think alike...

So I was sitting at Quiznos at lunch yesterday (because Potbelly has yet to come to Indy) feverishly updating my Droid’s Twitter app, when the dreaded word “Dallara” began to show up, repeatedly and without the company of Swift or Lola to soften the blow. And I began thinking “What sort of idiots purposefully alienate the last bastion of fans they have?”. To which I tweeted about the production value of the announcement as being “lipstick on a PIG”. Fortunately the twitter stream started mentioning stuff like “Custom Aero Packages” and “open to all interested developers” and the day turned less gloomy. Questions remained, “Is there enough margin in a $70k aero kit to make it economically viable to interest a company in developing in the first place?” “will Penske get back into the parts/car business?” “how do you make sure that an aero kit, as a point of design, does not devastate the wake for the following car” “is the engine stressed?” and so forth.

Last evening I streamed the presentation and my questions about the uncertainties were replaced by imaginings about the possibilities. Frankly, there are many and they are above and beyond the obvious benefits of some infusion of innovation and variety of car design balanced with cost efficiencies for teams. There is now another platform for sponsorship available in the car itself. Historically, only the engines and tires represented an opportunity for sponsor involvement though the car that raced. The chassis manufacturers were specialized makers of racing gear and as such had no benefit from their products being branded for a wider audience. But now the aero package has the potential to be marketed as a meaningful asset. I don’t however think that the aero packages are likely to be sponsored by car companies. 30 years ago we could possibly have seen a Chevy Engine hidden under an aero package by Fisher, but those days are gone.

The aero package introduces a whole new different list of potential manufacturers participating. The name dropping of Boeing and Lockheed Martin was not accidental but nor do I believe either is a likely participant. But aerospace is the target, and here are a couple entities within the realm of IndyCar’s influence who could be interested.

Bombardier – Historically this company has sponsored the Texas race each year. But given the current state of affairs, the sponsoring of a single race has a pretty short reach and unless you are throwing a party for airline execs in one of the TMA suites, probably is not money well spent. Unless you are talking the 500, a sponsor is going to capture a pretty small number of people with a single race sponsorship, the people who show up to the track and the couple hundred thousand that happen to catch the race on Versus. Whereas if they were to move their involvement to an aero package, their marketing now reaches everyone who attends any one of the 18 races or who watches any of the races on TV. Now they would have 18 races to entertain multiple clients. Most importantly they are involved with the 500 w/o being an official Pagoda or anything for that matter. In addition, for Bombardier it doesn’t even have to be all about the airplanes – Learjet or Canadair – they could use something like the aero package to support something that defies classification like their CanAm Spyder Roadster.

Embraer – The maker of the most comfortable regional jet in the sky (the 175 that is - the older smaller ones –meh..) also happens to be a dues paying member of the Apex Brasil organization. You might recall from the second Apex commercial, where Tony does his “not all Brazilians have rhythm” dance that one of the industries prominently mentioned was…Aerospace. So here’s a question, why would Embraer get involved with a racing series? Simple, in the land of Boeing if a person has the choice of Airline A flying a Boeing 717 and Airline D flying a Embraer 175 familiarity with the Embraer name helps bridge the gap for a passenger concerned about the airplane with the funny name. Here’s another possibility, if Target throws some of their vendors an occasional bone by painting the 10 car with the vendor’s colors, then Embraer could write a check to a team to run their aero package and slap the name “Delta” on the sidepod in order to reward the issuing of a large aircraft contract.

Now do these companies design and make the Aero packages? Do the airplane engineers work on a side project during lunch breaks? Probably not. So who does? Well, at least one of group comes to mind. Bruce Ashmore mentioned that while BAT probably would not be interested in designing Aero kits, his own existing company would be. But he probably has a problem, where do the funds for development come from? Suppose it takes $2m of R and D to create and test the aero package, To simply recoup those costs at $70 a kit, you need to sell 28 kits simply to recoup development let alone cover production of the kit themselves. So how does he come up with those funds? Bruce meet Embraer, Embraer meet Bruce. Likewise, Bombardier meet Swift, Swift meet Bombardier. Or more simply, Swift could support their own Airplane business with IndyCar participation. Much like the racing engine manufacturers badge the racing engines with a production nameplate, the aero packages can now be badged marketing opportunities.

Is all this hopeful thinking? Perhaps. But I don’t think the committee would have gone down this path without some very warm leads for participation. Build it and they will come may work for the movies, but smart businessmen won’t leave such things to chance. I am very optimistic that there will be 4 or 5 available packages by the time 2012 comes along. The Base Dallarra, Lotus Seems interested, an Ashmore design badged as an airplane manufacturer, Swift as themselves or another Aerospace company, at least one team creating something on their own intuition.

Similarly, I don’t think opening the Engine spec’s to include 4 cylinder engines was an accident. Someone is on the hook. Honda, Ford badged Cosworths, and either Mitsubishi or Mazda dropping their existing 4 cylinder racing engines into the mix seems likely to me (next time you see that Mitsubishi ad featuring the Eclipse with the Paddle shifter ask yourself why is that ad running THERE…in such a niche broadcast like an IndyCar race, ad placement is not an accident).

Engines…Aero Packages…as fun as silly season can be for drivers, the next 18 months will be a lot of fun for the creation of car combinations. 2012 is looking better and better the more I think about it…

Friday, July 9, 2010

Proud to be the Uncredentialed Blogger...

I’ve been on the fence recently about what might seem the silliest thing. Should I become a credentialed blogger or not? I am sure to most people it seems the no brainer. The league in its quest to play nice with all forms of new media has been handing out credentials to any everyone who might possibly have enough spare time on their hands to set up a blogger page and type a few words that might be peripherally about IndyCar racing. As I have been watching fellow bloggers report from races with their new access gained from credentials, I have begun to wonder if I should go the same road. After all a year ago when I started this I had the dreams of eventually parking in the credentialed lot and getting out of dodge in a timely fashion at the end of events.

Long beach, Indy and now Iowa have come and gone and I have yet to send THAT e-mail to THAT address. I think it comes down to three things really.

The first item was probably summed up best by a tweet Pressdog sent today. “Robin Miller never eats at the Media Buffet, because he doesn’t want to owe the man anything”. Truth be told, that is why the league has been so willing to entitle bloggers, to keep them on good terms. Previous leadership in the league played punitive vigilante with the media that covered the series with any sort of critical perspective and ultimately created ill will that permeates press coverage of it to this day. The league does not want to create anymore Gordon Kirbys or Robin Millers.

For good reason too, once a blogger posts, it is out there in the blogosphere and can be searched and scraped and unless someone deliberately takes a blog down, it does not go away. So if a prospective sponsor doing their due diligence research on the league contracts with a company like Scout Labs (or one of their competitors) to do a blog scrape, they search “IndyCar” and words like “crapwagon” or “Ridebuyer” or worse start showing up in the analytic search results, the sponsor opens their eyes real big and begins to ponder what exactly are they getting themselves into. In a world where scrapes only find “mentions” that are not paired with “hits” a single Hater read by no one counts as much as an objective and fair writer read by thousands. Good relations, hopefully leads to more positive blogging. It’s not that I am that negative of a blogger, but if I want to write “It’s an unadulterated abomination that JR Hildebrand cannot get a full time ride in the IndyCar Series” I’d like to be able to say it unhindered by the extension of patronizing hospitality.

The second reason is this, if I were credentialed, I feel like I would need to treat this endeavor with more respect. I would need to spend more time editing and fully thinking through everything I post. I would feel the need to post more often, all in order to live up to what at least in theory would be a privilege and acknowledgement of respect. Ultimately, hobby and pastime would become obligation. I have a feeling that is part of the reason MyNameisIRL has gone silent. Life is full of enough responsibilities, sometimes we need to manage and prioritize those lists. Right now I need a hobby – not an obligation.

The final thing really relates to the nature of my contribution to the discussion. I initially thought my contribution would be to bring a perspective from the Advertising and Media view of the world to the discussions of the day. Which is probably still a third of what I do (I feel less hurried to do this since I found “The Indy Idea” RP does this well and I imagine must work for an agency or someone who does media research. I work in product research where the view is a little different). The rest is combination Idea generation for thought or promotion and then the final bit, the part I most enjoy are my “Onion – Like” stabs at humor via fake news posts. None of this should require “enhanced access” to be generated on my part. In theory I am a big advocate in differentiating the “what you want” from “what you need” in life and for the casual places in life where I can be pious towards this moral pursuit, this is one such opportunity.

So today at Iowa I was watching my credentialed peers work the event: thinking to myself I am happy where I am and I don’t begrudge them for where they are. Many of them have skills, talents and a work effort that justify their credentialed status. Credentialed blogger or Fan with a Blog, the latter is fine with me. Though of course two months from now when I am shelling out $50 for a pit pass at Kentucky I will casually ponder my position in the world, but I belong where I am, a smart a$$ from the peanut gallery.

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