Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Forgotten American

Other than the words “Tony George” it is perhaps the most polarizing topic in IndyCar racing today, the number of Americans in the IndyCar series.  The number is up this year, but a defection is looming as are the retirements of some of the 500 one off drivers. 


For many of the remaining domestic IndyCar fans and the international contingent that follows the series, the count of Americans is not a blip on their radar and it represents an aspect of American Culture they don’t completely grasp or share.  But for the fans that the League insists it is targeting to regain: Racing fans it has lost over the past 15 years, it is a significant issue.  On a Friday night go to any short dirt track running sprint cars, modifides or late models or try the local drag strip and ask the throngs of ticket buying fans the question “Why don’t you watch IndyCar?” the first answer always given is always the same.  “There aren’t enough Americans”.  It is issue number 1 to regrowing the sport if your core acquisition targets are endemic racing fans.
I have commented on the issue before, I tend to fall in line with many of the current IndyCar fans…it doesn’t really matter that much in a general sense.  It is only in the implication for popularity, ticket sales, ratings and ultimately business that the issue concerns me.  My opinion is this, if your core markets are The US, Brazil and Canada, then 2/3 of your drivers must come from those countries in order to be marketably viable in those locales.  The other Third?  I don’t care where they are from as long as the talent is more pronounced than the checkbooks are deep.  It is hard to be world class if the world is not part of your pool of competitors.


If you have any doubt what locally grown drivers can do for race attendence or TV ratings, we need to look no further than the most recent race in Toronto.  Race attendence was up to it's highest level since reunification. Even more, the ratings on TSN were the highest for an IndyCar race in nearly 15 years.  1.2 Million Canadians tuned in to watch a recently relevant Alex Tagliani and the hometown debut of James Hinchliffe.  Canadians turned out and tuned in en-masse to see the largest number of Canadians ever in an IICS race.  Home grown talent matters in Canada and it matters here in the US also.
Though he would probably never come out and admit it is a critical concern, Randy Bernard must understand the issue.  With a glimpse through the driver roster in Indy Lights I think you will find evidence that it is an issue he has tried to address.  While the number of full time Americans is small, 1 to be exact, additional sprinklings of American influence is seen in every race.  What’s more, until this past summer, many of these drivers probably weren’t on IndyCar’s radar, nor was IndyCar on theirs. 
A scholarship was created to find the USAC champion Bryan Clauson seat time for the oval part of the Lights Season.  Connor Daly was persuaded to keep at least a toe in the IndyCar water as he pursues his F1 dreams.  A key player in nascar’s diversity program, Chase Austin, was introduced to Willy T Ribbs and a new lights team was created.  From a year in European GP3, Josef Newgarten returned home to try his hand in an American Open Wheel series.  It may not equate to having Coach K knock on the door of a 6’ 10” 16 year old with ball skills, but I think Randy has been on the recruiting trail.  The names listed above represent his first recruiting class.  His next is to be revealed over the next month and will make their debuts in Vegas.

As a group, I think they have solid potential.  Most need more than this year to be ready for the big cars.  Newgarten and Daly have made their presence known with victories.  Josef looks to be the series champion at this juncture and will have Road to Indy $ in hand to look for a ride in the IICS proper next year.  Clauson has kept it clean and has been top five in all three races he has run.  Austin is climbing the highest mountain, his racing to date is in cars as different to an IndyCar than anything thing out there sans a dragster and he is driving for a new team that still doesn’t know where all the parts fit on the car.  Nonetheless, Chase has kept it clean and pointed in the right direction.
But there are other Americans that should not be forgotten…Drivers for whom Randy should rekindle an interest in the sport and make potential sponsor support visits on their account.  I can name a handful, but for me one stands out a little more than the rest. 
On Opening Day in May I was wandering through Gasoline Alley and I caught a strange logo on the back of a fleece jacket.  A1GP apparel is quite the rare sight anywhere these days as the international off season series went defunct a year and a half ago.  In the Jacket – Jonathan Summerton.  A credible and deserving driver, a member of the Handful mentioned above.  But in this case he was a reminder.  The second reminder came later that day.  It was a short session for the IndyCar teams, but in Virginia the Grand Am Series was racing and as the results came in and IndyCar drivers began to tweet about it.  My thoughts went to “I wonder How John Edwards did today?”  What was unfortunate…I don’t think Edwards was even racing that day.
A lot of hoo haa surrounds the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system and well it should, it is a vital tool for IndyCar to organically grow Drivers, owners and team members.  From 2007 – 2009 Edwards competed in the Mazda sponsored and powered development series, but back then it had ceased being the Road to ChampCar and was not yet the Road to Indy.  It was simply the Road to Nowhere.  In 2007 at the age of 16 Edwards competed in the Formula Atlantics series, he finished 9th in the standings.  Some older but more familiar names participated with him.  Raphael Matos was the series champ, The Canadian dynamic duo of Wickens and Hinchcliffe finished 3rd and 4th.  Jr Hildebrand placed 7th and Simona DeSilvestro 19th. 
In 2008 with no funding, Edwards, still only 17 stepped down to Star Mazda, missed the first race and then dominated the rest of the season, becoming it’s champion and earning a scholarship ride back in Formula Atlantics for the next year.  Formula Atlantics limped through the 2009 season and never answered the call for the 2010 season.  2009 was dominated by Edwards, Summerton and Desilvestro each claiming 4 victories apiece.  The season is primarily remembered for the exploits of Simona.  But when Simona received an assisted DNF at Laguna Seca in the season Finale, Edwards was the champion. 
But as the champion of a defunct series, he had nowhere to go.  Mazda paired him with 2009 Star Mazda Champ Adam Christodoulou in one of its factory GT cars in the Rolex series for 2010.  The pair won at Lime Rock and unfortunately for the life of me I cannot find where they finished overall in the championship. 
In 2011, that ride lasted for the 24 Hours of Daytona only.  After sitting several races out, Edwards is now schlepping around the middle of the field for a non factory mazda team.  It’s the racer’s story told 1000 times over:  Plenty of talent, no cash, no opportunity.  Many fans have liked drivers who fit this description.  Jonathan Summerton, Joey Miller, Jonathan Bomarito, Joey Hand, Andy Lally or Frankie Muniz all Americans with more talent than cash or sponsorship. 
At the end of May, Mike Kelley, President of Izod Declared that Simona DeSilvestro would be the face of the Izod brand in racing going forward, many speculate that means she will replace Ryan Briscoe at Penske next year.  Way too early to ponder any of the dominoes, but if Entergy looses its driver to Penske and Izod, I wonder if the Nuclear/Entergy Brass will remember that Edwards won an Atlantics Championship with their name on the side of car?
Born in Louisville, now living in Cincinnati, The youngest ever winner of a formula open wheel car race in America, Red Bull Driver Search winner, Star Mazda Champion and Formula Atlantics Champion.  Everything it would seem that Randy Bernard and IndyCar could want or desire in a young American driver. 
If you turn in to a Grand Am race and see a Mazda RX7 with Sahlen’s (yeah the cold cut people) on the side of it, that could be Edwards.  I wonder if his dream of driving an open wheel car still remains?  Does he remember the IndyCar series?  I don’t know, but it does seem the IndyCar series has forgotten him.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tenderloins on the Menu at Spago

About 5 years ago a friend of mine decided to open a restaurant.  She wanted to bring fine dining to Rushville.  If you know Rushville, then you know that the citizens of Rush county aren’t known for their sophisticated pallet.  The local chamber of commerce thought it might help lure new industry to the area, so they egged her on and she opened up in the Big, abandoned building that used to house a family restaurant on the south side of town. 
The menu was fancy…a variety of pasta selections the locals could not pronounce, round white things called scallops that weren’t potatoes and finely seasoned and marinated steaks.  Initially locals flocked the restaurant, but upon reviewing the menu, were at a loss to find something they were familiar with or could afford.  Eventually people recognized the word “Steak” and would order one of the four cuts off the menu.  When they were served, back to the kitchen they went.  Medium in Rush county doesn’t involve Pink flesh or blood in the juice.  Well done means crusty layers of ash on the outside of the steak.  People ordering the Tuscan Ribeye were heard saying “What the hell is this green crap (pesto) on my steak?  Take it back and cook it decent and bring me some ketchup for it too”
Business diminished quickly.  There were a handful of people in Rush county that appreciated the menu and made regular visits, but the building had a big footprint and the restaurant needed more than 20 tables on a Saturday night to keep the kitchen busy, waitresses tipped and bills paid.  After some agonizing over what to do, my friend decided to change the menu up.  With the building she had inherited the recipes from the Family Restaurant that been there for 50 years before closing 5 years earlier.  It had been famous for Pork Tenderloins and Fried Chicken.  So those items were added. 
BOOM.  The lunch crowd doubled, Friday and Saturday evenings it was hard to get a seat.  It looked like the restaurant might just make it.  But my friend was discouraged, she had opened the restaurant to bring healthy cuisine and fine dining to Rushville, not simply be a place for massive portions of greasy fatty home cookin’.  The dream was compromised and over time her interest waned.  She found other pursuits to focus her passion on and began to spend less time in the restaurant.  The employees were left to run the shop on a regular basis.  Corners were cut, money disappeared, food and service quality dipped and soon the customers weren’t returning.  After three years in business, the doors were closed and locked.
“What the hell does this have to do with racing?” you ask.  Nothing directly, but based off what we saw in Texas and Toronto, we can draw some symbolic comparisons. 
I admit, I was entertained by the race in Toronto.  Was it the greatest example of skilled racing to be found, no. But entertaining with a number of compelling story lines coming out of the event. 
During the race and then soon after the “Purists of the Sport” let loose on blogs and twitter with all available guns.  it was truly difficult to comprehend how low the quality of competition had sunk”, “Needless to say it was an embarrassment to the sport as a whole” and “I feel like I need a shower after attempting to watch the Festival of FUBAR masquerading as a race in Toronto today.” Were some of the blog reactions to the race.  Twitterers were drawing comparisons to the skilled and talented drivers competing at Lime Rock in the ALMS race at the same time.
Then on Monday, a funny thing happened… the initial overnight ratings came out…and they were good.  The Purists were appalled, “We finally get a decent rating and put on a show that scared them all off”.  I wanted to talk about the rating but I didn’t understand it well enough to comment.  Was this rating the result of momentum built from a stellar oval race two weeks before in Iowa, or were people watching the race, enjoying it and then texting or calling their friends to watch it as well?  If the rating was strong to start and then diminished through the broadcast it was the former, if the number improved as the broadcast went on, then it was the latter. 
The final number was released today.  A .5, the second largest rating ever for IndyCar on Versus and It was higher than the overnight and it increased through the broadcast.  More people liked what they saw and encouraged others to join than turned off offended by the “low driving skill Level”.  Apparently what the purist demands in motorsport is less popular than Fubar.  It should be noted that the ALMS race that purists were raving about, was not covered on live on TV, it had to be streamed over the internet.  Not Only did no TV exec want to PAY for the ALMS content, but the ALMS itself doesn’t have the sponsorship funding in place to BUY live time from a network.  Apparently the number of purists in America for the sport aren’t in large enough supply to fund a series that meets the taste of the racing purist.
So the choice is to spicen up the menu and serve some tenderloins and fried chicken or close the doors and go home.  It is also funny that the most watched race ever on Versus this year was Texas, the two step with the game show in between, because it also brought with it a firestorm of criticism about sanctity vs spectacle.  IndyCar “Had gotten drunk and put a Lampshade on its head”. 
The message here I would suggest is this, Not everyone is like YOU.  Not everyone has the same tastes in racing as YOU.  There’s not enough of YOU to support budgets for the kind of racing YOU like to see.  So if you want to see racing with a sustainable future, you may need to adapt to meeting the tastes of the people who aren’t watching the sport currently. 
What kind of racing might that be?  Well I firmly believe that this year’s Iowa race with the high speed knife fight between Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan or the 1993 New Hampshire race featuring the duel between Nigel Mansell, Paul Tracy and Emerson Fitipaldi is as good as oval racing gets anywhere.  As for road racing, I suspect most Americans expect to see something akin to the car chase scenes from A Bourne film.  So if that means on occasion we turn into a race and Toronto breaks out, don’t have a conniption, it would seem that someone somewhere really digs what is happening and their eyeballs draw with them sponsors that will help fund the Iowa/Milwaukee’s and (hopefully) Watkins Glens/Road America’s of the schedule. 
Truthfully, Long Beach could be Toronto as well – short, tight, bumpy urban concrete canyon, but since LB is early in the year and everyone sans the second car at Coyne is still in the title hunt, LB participants are on their best behavior.  By the time Toronto rolls around, championship bubbles have burst for most and drivers are racing for individual wins and podiums.  In Toronto, desperation carries the day and that desperation breaks up the follow the leader seen in LB.
Oddly enough after our friend changed the menu at her restaurant, we went even more than we had before.  We could now get a dinner with a $60 bill or a $25 one depending on our mood and budget.  Will the team owners lament the compromises made and close up shop and go home?  I doubt it, they want the league to be successful not just their dream of pure racing. 
SO I guess the question is for you…can you live with some fried Chicken and Tenderloins in order to keep racing in business or will you pine away until more people buy in to the “Purer” aspects of the sport…the engine's sound, entry and momentum through the curves or the racecraft of a successful “non competition enhanced” pass. 
For me I know there is a limit for me, it involves competition yellows, tandem drafts and animated ducks and rodents.  Randy’s not there yet, but I am sure Eddie may tell him how to get there…

Thursday, July 7, 2011

App Happy in IndyCar Land

IndyCar the tech savvy, social media pioneering racing league continues to expand the use of modern social platforms to reach customers in new ways.  Launched this year, the official IndyCar app for Android distributed through Verizon has been very popular with fans of the sport.  The app allows users to access timing and scoring info and a bevy of multimedia content wherever and whenever they want.  Fans such as Ima Corngrower at the most recent race at Iowa Speedway raved at how it enhanced their racing experience.  “Sometimes, it gets confusing to know who is in the lead, who’s pitted and who is a lap down, the timing and scoring is real blessing”
Not to be outdone by the league, Individual drivers are also developing apps for their fanbases to download to their mobile phones.  The first driver to make such a service available was Pippa Mann.  The Pippa app, is offered as a standard part of the Nov.us celebrity social media service.  The app allows Pippa’s fans to access biographical and multimedia information from Pippa’s website more conveniently than through a normal mobile browser.  The app also consolidates all Pippa’s social media messages from Facebook, twitter and Nov.us into a single stream.
But the Pippa App doesn’t plan to stop there and simply be a feed director, the Pippa II app due out at the end of the month plans to integrate additional hardware functionality of the user’s own phone to create a true interactive Fan experience.  “I’m really excited about the Shoe Sister functionality” said Mann.  “It will allow my fan girls and Pressdog, to take a picture of a shoe they are considering buying or wearing and then the app will provide commentary in my voice offering my honest thoughts about the fashionability of the shoe and what kind of outfits it would look smart with.  It will help all my fans keep up with Pippa Style!”
Another driver who has recently released an App is James Hinchcliff.  The custom built Hinchtown app has the customary feed redirects, but also features a Tim Horton’s Proximity alarm.  Whenever the app senses that the user is within a specified distance of Hinch’s favorite donut shop an alarm featuring Hincliffe’s voice will sound “Mmmmm Tim Horton’s EH?”
“It’s really simple how it works” said renowned app designer David Craske.  “If the GPS functionality of the user’s phone is turned on, the app takes the Longitude and Latitude readings from the phone and using stored coordinates for Tim Horton’s locations, calculates the Euclidean distance the user is from each store in the Tim Horton’s chain.  If a calculated distance for one of the stores is below a user set threshold, the alarm sounds.”
Taking the GPS enabled functionality even further, two independent development teams, one for Marco Andretti and the other for Tomas Schekter, are vying to be the first drivers to feature the “Hotties I’ve Had” feature in their apps.  The HIH functionality will feature two apps, one for the Hotties, that allows the GPS in her phone to act like a beacon, tracking her ever changing location and then the Fan app that will calculate the fan’s distance from the hotties.  When in range, the fan app will offer up commentary from Marco or Tomas about their liaisons with the in range Hottie.
Fortunately, not all driver apps are quite so Big Brother – ish in nature, many are ingeniously functional.  The AJ Foyt app for instance transforms the user’s mobile device into a blunt force object that can be used to pound on objects such as cranky race engines, laptop computers, Luyendyks and Robin Miller’s head.  The Danica app will allow users to access both a semi nude Pictorial collage of Danica and over 1,000 of her favorite cookie recipes.
Even Bloggers have gotten in on the App Development frenzy.  The Oilpressure.com app allows its users to access an impressive historical racing database.  With it the user can access 35 paragraph summaries of every single lap in every single open wheel championship race ever run.  More eventful laps will have longer summaries of course, but the user merely needs to provide lap#, track and year and the app does the rest.  Using the Phone’s camera  capability the Oilpressure.com app will allow users to take a picture the race surface of any track and will conduct and asphalt matching scan to identify the track and exact location on the track that the user is standing.
The JPIndyCar app features the JRHildeFan functionality that renders the app user invisible whenever he is within 100 feet of JR Hildebrand, assisting the user in circumventing various restraining orders that may have been issued against them.
“It’s an exciting new time” says Social PR Maven and Visionary Pat Caporali.  “And as always, IndyCar is leading the way.”