Random Thoughts On Belle Isle

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The Double-Header era of INDYCAR debuted to mostly positive results. Saturday’s race was fairly clean with only three caution periods, while being completely dominated by Mike Conway. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished a very distant second, while Justin Wilson came in third, giving Dale Coyne two of the three spots on the podium. Yesterday’s race was the exact opposite. There were six full-course yellows in the first twenty-eight laps, with a ten-car pileup resulting from Sébastien Bourdais getting into the back of Will Power on a restart. Power was turned sideways and mayhem broke out behind them, while Bourdais slithered through unscathed. Bourdais did incur a justified drive-through penalty once they returned to green-flag racing.

The only constant between the two days of racing were the first lap, which on both days saw AJ Allmendinger crash out. It was a bitter pill for ‘dinger because this was his last scheduled IndyCar race for Roger Penske, who also happened to be promoting this event. It also didn’t help that the presenting sponsor of the races – Quicken Loans – was on the sidepods of Allmendinger’s car. That’s not exactly the best way to welcome a new primary sponsor to the series.

There was a lot of speculation that the reason that drivers were crashing so often on Sunday was due to fatigue from having raced a full race the day before. Fortunately, Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear both did their best to shoot that theory down. I don’t buy it either. These drivers are extremely fit and I just don’t think they were completely spent. Otherwise, you would have heard more of an outcry from the drivers when the double-headers were introduced last fall. Of course, having never been a driver – what do I know?

I think it’s more of a case of taking it easy on the equipment on Saturday before letting it all hang out on Sunday. No driver wanted to put their crew through an overnight rebuild on Saturday if they could help it. Allmendinger’s crew opted for a backup rather than a complete rebuild. The two Dragon Racing cars of Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra were both repaired overnight. Bourdais had a stuck throttle issue, while Saavedra made contact with the wall.

On Sunday, it seemed that drivers were throwing caution to the wind. Never mind the fact that teams have to travel back to their shops, rebuild, reload and travel to Texas to unload by Thursday for Saturday night’s race. The first third of Sunday’s race was a crash-fest. After the ten-car pileup, things settled down and the remainder of the race was run under green-flag conditions.

It looked as if the second half of Sunday’s race was to be a repeat of the day before – with Mike Conway totally dominating. Yet, things changed on the last stint. Simon Pagenaud built up a big enough lead prior to his last stop that he came back out still in the lead. In the end, Conway had nothing for Pagenaud or James Jakes and settled for third.

TV Coverage: Regardless of what many say, I still think there is some emerging chemistry forming between Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever. Both have a somewhat dry and sarcastic wit, which can be easily lost on some people. Scott Goodyear’s is almost deadpan, where you have to think for a second to realize he’s kidding. When James Hinchcliffe picked up an errant tire from clipping a corner in Saturday’s race, Goodyear noted something to the effect that drivers are allowed only four tires. He then said that the fifth tire was a Firestone “Red”, since said tire had been painted red. Cheever had similar comments that were delivered so dryly that you had to be on your toes to catch the humor.

On the other hand – there’s Marty Reid. His game-show demeanor and plastic hair adds nothing to the broadcast. Marty could stand to learn a new phrase to describe a great sporting event besides the word ”dandy”. His attempts at humor included lame lines like “Mike Conway has been so dominant here, they should change the name from Belle Isle to Conway Isle.” Please.

On the production side, I thought ESPN did a very good job. They had many camera angles, as well as good and plentiful aerial views. Considering this was a double-header, I thought both pre-race shows were adequate without being repetitive. They also showed an excellent IndyCar promo many times, that showed the diversity of the series, while also tying in the Indianapolis 500 as a “Cathedral of Speed”. Of course, they were running it while we were all watching. Does ESPN run it during their other sports programming?

Where’s IZOD?: While at Indianapolis over the last month, we noticed that the lack of IZOD signage and clothing was very apparent. A lot of the IZOD merchandise was on the sale rack, while most of the new apparel had the generic INDYCAR logo instead of that which read IZOD IndyCar Series. Now I notice that the logo used on the ESPN telecasts to go into and out of commercial breaks is the generic INDYCAR logo. I know that IZOD is generally expected to go away at the end of this season, but does the series not have an obligation to promote the brand in exchange for IZOD’s cash? Maybe I’ve missed something here.

Regardless of the fact that IZOD changed promotional strategy and their new CEO sees no value in motorsports marketing, IZOD did a good job the first couple of years they were involved in the series. I may be speaking completely out of turn here, because I know nothing of the current business relationship between INDYCAR and IZOD. But if there is bad blood and INDYCAR is engaged in a power-struggle to punish IZOD for pulling out at the end of the season, that isn’t smart. Any other potential series title sponsor eying the series as a possible marketing vehicle, might be scared off by the way an exiting sponsor is treated. If I’m way off base here (which I very well could be), please let me know.

Is the world upside down?: Since last year’s Indianapolis 500, Team Penske has accumulated two wins, Target Chip Ganassi Racing has two wins and so does…Dale Coyne Racing. Not only that, but Dale Coyne drivers occupied three of the six available podium spots this past weekend (with one win), while no drivers from the two “super” teams were to be found. This season; Dale Coyne, AJ Foyt and KV Racing Technologies have scored victories while Penske and Ganassi are winless. According to ESPN, this is the first time that Team Penske has been this deep into the season without a victory since 1978.

The only silver lining at Penske is that Helio Castroneves is tied with Marco Andretti at the top of the points standings after seven of nineteen races.

Who would’ve thought that Dale Coyne could have put a driver in Victory Lane the first weekend they ever worked with the driver? But that’s exactly what happened. Although he refuses to ever drive on an oval ever again, Mike Conway has made a great point for inserting himself as a road course specialist for a team. Are you listening Ed Carpenter?

And I’ll eat some crow elsewhere, too. I never gave James Jakes credit for being anything more than an underachieving driver who had connections to sponsorship and money. He raised a few eyebrows at Indianapolis by consistently outperforming his famous teammate, Graham Rahal, all month. Then he had a breakout weekend by qualifying well for both races and starting on the front row in Sunday’s race. Jakes finished tenth on Saturday and consistently ran with the leaders all day on Sunday, en route to an impressive second place finish. As my wife will tell you – I hate to ever admit I was wrong, but it’s starting to look like I was a little too hasty in my rush to judgment on Mr. Jakes.

Turmoil at Panther: Earlier last week, Panther Racing parted ways with JR Hildbrand as driver of the No.4 National Guard sponsored car. On Friday, Jake Query, of the IMS Radio Network, asked Panther Racing owner John Barnes the following question on the air: “This is a business and business can be difficult. You’d always been a supporter of JR. Take me through the last four days.” John Barnes on-air response was an abrupt “That’s none of your business”.

First of all…I’ll make what I’m sure will be a very unpopular statement; I think John Barnes was completely justified to fire JR Hildebrand. JR is a nice guy and was great at promoting the National Guard. Unfortunately, his results in the car were abysmal. When you saw how agonizingly close he came to winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500, you knew his career would take one of two paths. Either he would use it as a springboard to win a lot of races, or his career would follow the road to obscurity and that little bit of fame from hitting the Turn Four wall at Indianapolis would be it for him. Unfortunately, his career took the latter path. I’m not going to beat up on JR anymore, and I wish him well. But I was a little shocked by all the backlash from fans regarding his dismissal.

But any brief support I may have had for John Barnes quickly evaporated after his exchange with Jake Query. It was a legitimate question and Query would not have been doing his job had he not asked it. It just underscores what a complete and total jackass Barnes is and always has been. It has been widely speculated that John Barnes was the primary rogue owner that worked stealthily behind the scenes to get former CEO Randy Bernard ousted. He is also the same owner who chose to stop paying Dan Wheldon, while he was still driving for him. Wheldon had to sue him and I don’t know if the suit was ever resolved before Wheldon’s fatal accident in October of 2011. Scott Goodyear, Tomas Scheckter, Tomas Enge, Mark Taylor, Townsend Bell, Vitor Meira, Dan Wheldon and now JR Hildebrand – they’ve all driven for John Barnes and failed to meet his expectations. Wheldon won an Indianapolis 500 before and after driving for Panther, but he wasn’t good enough for Barnes.

This smallish team won fans over in the early IRL days when Sam Hornish drove for them and won championships. But the game has changed since Hornish won those championships and Panther did not keep up. Although I don’t fault the move to dump Hildebrand, perhaps Panther and John Barnes need to reexamine their whole organizational structure instead of continuing the revolving door of drivers.

Ryan Briscoe “auditioned” for the job this week. When his ALMS schedule permits, he will get another shot later this season. Barnes says other drivers will “audition” for the full-time job next year throughout this season. Perhaps the National Guard camouflage paint-scheme should be replaced by balloons and a clown nose, because this will become a season-long circus at Panther Racing.

All in all: Initially, I was on the fence regarding the double-header concept. I saw it as a cheap way to say that the series would hold nineteen races this season, while in reality there would be only sixteen events. I was also unsure how I would feel about knocking a chunk out of both weekend days. It worked out fine for me this weekend, because I was a little under the weather on Saturday and it rained here on Sunday. I also understood the concerns of the teams who had the potential to pull all-nighters in case their car was torn up during the Saturday race, as well as the drivers concerns about fatigue.

All things considered – after experiencing the first of the three double-headers this season, I liked it. It was different to be sure. Mike Conway and Dale Coyne only had one day to enjoy their victory, instead of the customary week or two. Helio Castroneves was in sole possession of the points lead after Saturday’s race, but now has to share that lead with Marco Andretti after yesterday’s race. But as a fan, with two full races in two days – what’s not to like? This was much more satisfying than that twin-race debacle in Texas a couple of years ago.

So give credit to Randy Bernard for the double-header idea, even though he never made it to see them play out as CEO. I wonder what John Barnes thinks about them.

George Phillips

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23 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Belle Isle”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Interesting to have races on both days, but Belle Isle is much better suited as a site for roller coasters than Indy cars. And while whatever transpired at Panther with JRH is indeed none of anyones business, John Barnes is no doubt a classless jackass…

  2. The worst thing about the IndyCar/Izod breakup is that I haven’t seen the Izod Girl, the lovely Cameron Havens, in about a year. Seeing her always qualified as one of my race highlights.

    We left home on Saturday morning to meet friends from the Midwest in the Florid Keys for a week of sun and fun (or should I say constant rain!). Although I set the DVR to record both races, I couldn’t help myself…I had to go online both afternoons to get the race results, which were quite shocking…an unusual group on the podium both days, which I think is great.

    I agree with you that it was time for JR to go. I wish Briscoe could have had more success as his replacement, though. I have to agree with the comments on Barnes as well…a classless jerk.

    Ah well, only a short week before the next race. Life is good.

  3. I think the whole key to the improvement in the racing at Belle Isle was due in large part to Roger Penske’s re-design of the circuit, extending the passing zones by making the straightaways longer. (This was an item covered, surprisingly enough, by ABC!) The way the course was configured last year, I doubt that you would have seen some of the dirvers passing half the field to get to the front: There just weren’t that many places to pass.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I felt pretty bad for Allmendinger, especially in race 1. While AJ classily took the blame for the incident, it looked to me like he had nowhere to go when sandwiched between Dixon and Wilson. Wilson appeared to have the best opportunity to back out and prevent contact.

    Cheever usually needles Goodyear during the broadcasts, so it was nice to see Scott give it back to him a little during the race 1 broadcast bringing up an old incident where Eddie ran over Scott’s front wing.
    Marty Reid would be passable if he simply sounded prepared. He did not at Indy, and seemed even less prepared this weekend. Not knowing cars and drivers, stilted descriptions, rough all the way around.

    That “Cathedral of Speed” promo debuted during the 500 broadcast, I believe. It’s a good one, but I believe it is an Indycar promo, not an ESPN promo. It will run where Indycar buys time.
    I’m not sure where ESPN is getting their data on Penske winless streaks.
    – In 1978, Penske won race #7 (Milwaukee) with Rick Mears
    – Penske didn’t win until race #9 (Pocono) with Mears in 1985
    – Penske went winless in 1996, 1998, and 1999

    I hope Hildebrand gets a shot with another team, just to confirm if he’s a bust or not. His struggles certainly justified a move, but after Meira’s 5th place in the 2006, Panther has run between 9th and 15th in the points every year. In fact, among drivers for one car teams, Hildebrand has finished 1st and 2nd in his 2 full seasons.

    And finally, while I enjoyed Power’s “used to be a champ, now he’s a chump” rant, I was hoping he’d call him “Secrashtien” Bourdais…

    • In 1985, Danny Sullivan won the Indianapolis 500 (race #2) driving for Roger Penske. I agree with you about ESPN’s announcers; good driver analysts, bad lap-by-lap announcer.

      As if I needed another reason to dislike John Barnes…

  5. madtad1 Says:

    Well, lemme fire up my BB Playbook here in Brasil and render my “learned” opinions (lol). I agree with you, George, that, sadly, JR’s time had come. His extremely poor showing at the 500 sealed his fate. It is possible he could rehabilitate himself as a driver if some small team were willing to risk it, but, since he brings no money with him, his chances are slim and none, and Slim left town. It was almost as if his driving skills regressed.

    Regarding “The Big Three”: it is refreshing to see that throwing, er, having lots of money behind you does not equate success any more, i.e. You can’t buy victories any more. Despite the complaints that IndyCar is a “spec series”, it might be more accurate to characterize it as a “driver’s series”, where driving skills are as important, if not more important than wind tunnel testing, etc. Yes, race setups are still critical, but having the right people even more so.

    KV Racing is not known for their developement and testing program like Penske and Ganassi, yet they got their first (and TK’s first) 500 win this year by concentrating on the basics at the track go find he right *race* setup and foregoing the less important Pole Day setup. It obviously worked as Tony, a known finicky racecar setup driver, pronounced the car “perfect” on raceday and had no changes made to the setup during the race.

    On tv coverage: this was my first time watching Formula Indy in another country, in another language. It was a different experience in more ways than one. First, all the ads came at the beginning and end. During the race, they handled it like soccer, with sponsor logos in the top corner of the screen and the color man reading the ad copy.

    They do not give a lot of analysis and detailed pitstop analysis was nonexistant. On the other hand, they were faster to analyze crashes and report on results of them. The announcers demeanor is very calm, with little shouting or arguing. Interestingly, unlike coverage of a certain, former driver, it was not 20 seconds of racing and ten minutes of Tony Kanaan driving in the pack. ;-)

    Final thought, Randy Bernard has been vindicated with the success of the first double header. I enjoyed both races and they definitely satisfied. Hopefully the next set will not have the drivers in the second race driving like “Fast and Furious IndyCar” edition,

  6. I liked the “Duels” and I thought that Belle Isle looked great on television. What I liked is after Saturday’s race I had another race on Sunday to look forward to and see how the field would shack out. I also appreciate how fit the drivers AND teams (yes, let’s not forget the crews) are to deal with the pace and pressure of two races on the same weekend.

  7. Gurney Eagle Says:

    For sure, this is not your father’s Belle Isle. Two very enjoyable races but I will wait for Toronto and Houston before passing judgment.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    The race layout and track surface was much improved, so props to the Captain for that. Some of the driving seemed a bit amateurish, but a few of Conway’s moves reminded me of Greg Moore.

    I thought the camera work by the ABC/ESPN crew was consistantly excellent and what’s not to like about Jamie Little and her pit posse? As long as the camera work gives us a good visual experience, I have no problem with Marty, Scott, and Eddie. After all, this is not radio. You want them to be prepared, you want them to fill in the blanks for what we cannot see, but do we really need the constant amped up excitement that we get with the NBC guy?

  9. Props to the Captain for the $$$ he dumped into making this race work. After last year’s debacle he really put things right.

    While I don’t fault him for dumping JR, I agree Barnes is a complete tool. I wonder what sort of behind the scenes political crap he’s going to pull about the new aerokit plan.

    As justified as he was in dropping JR, I think the National Guard would be even more justified dropping Panther. They’ve stood behind him for years as the revolving door of drivers came through without producing results. In that time KV, Coyne, Foyt, etc… have all found a way to win. If I were the Guard I’d take my sponsor $’s to a class act like Penske before I’d sign on for another year with Barnes. Seriously, the Guard put some serious $$$ into putting Hildebrand into their TV spots, and now they have a whole season’s worth of awkward TV breaks to look forward to.

  10. I loved the doubleheader format, especially with the races being 70 laps each – the more races the better for me. I will admit to being a bit confused with the qualifying format though. I also thought the coverage was great – I may be the only man in America who actually likes Marty Reid. He is not the greatest but seems to be a likable guy to me. Of course after listening to a Nascar race on Fox – ANYTHING else sounds wonderful. I’m not a fan of Nascar anymore but will watch occasionally when nothing else is on – those clowns make my ears bleed. They sound like carnival barkers on crack.

  11. Outside of the 500 mile races on the schedule, I would be for double header races at every track. It really gives the fan much more value to their weekend away. It also gives the TV networks more inventory. The teams won’t have to pay any more travel expenses. The only raise in cost I can think of is a destroyed car (Allmendinger!), tires, & fuel.

  12. Carburetor Says:

    I may be the only one, but I am less than impressed with ABC’s broadcasts. And referencing ESPN is a bit of a misnomer since you never see anyting on SportsCenter or even their screen crawl referencing IndyCar. They cannot touch Jan Beekius’ technical explanations (do they even address technical issues?), and Snider is no match for Diffey’s enthusiasm for open-wheel racing. But the real kicker is all of the commercials you are guaranteed with at ABC. It’s like watching 8 minutes of commercials followed by 5 minutes of racing action. Nothing quite deflated the enthusiasm for watching like getting to see endless commercials. Evidently that is the price we pay for getting on the network….

    I thought it was great to see Dale Coyne’s operation occupy 3 of the six podium positions for the weekend–hard to think of any team that gets less less respect, yet they clearly were the class of the field in Detroit.

    I would concur with the disappearance of Izod(!) Wonder what happened there? I’m speculating that Verizon may want to step up–it would be a nice counter to Sprint’s involvement elsewhere–and would be good for the series in my opinion.

  13. So Honda and Chevy want aero kits but Miles says they’ll only do it if owners agree?

    So much for that.

  14. The less said about John Barnes and his team, the better. But JR did himself no good by crashing out twice in three years at Indy. A Carpenter/Conway team-up would give that team a chance to show off and work towards adding a second car to run for the championship. This has been one of the most competitive seasons since The Split, and a lot of it is due to a year’s development in the DW12 and all the teams being a lot more familiar with it. Can’t wait to see what happens the rest of the year!

  15. Mrs. Oilpressure Says:

    I am curious about the next driver for the National Guard car. I saw a press release a few weeks ago that said Dollar General was coming on board with some sponsorship of this car. As we know, they have big dollars to lend sponsorship. Dollar Gen is on a big promo for servicemen–am curious how a non-American driver will impact this sponsorship.

  16. The biggest complaint I have about the ABC broadcast is the (lack of) promotion for IndyCar. Twice on Sunday, they had promos for next Saturday nights Nationwide race on ESPN2 with big, full screen banners superimposed over the image while they talked. Twice on Sunday they “mentioned” the Texas race next Saturday night. I’m not sure if the first time there was no caption or I just overlooked it as on the second mention, I finally noticed the bottom line of the hat scroll said “Firestone 550 – Next Saturday on ABC”. I do not understand the logic of ABC/ESPN making absolutely no effort to “sell” their IndyCar broadcasts and even going so far as to heavily promote a competing program. Makes you think the black helicopter guys may have a point and NASCAR may actually be paying ESPN to NOT promote IndyCar.

  17. Ballyhoo Says:

    I too enjoyed the doubleheader and hogged the TV both days. Kudos to Dale Coyne’s team for a great weekend. Mike Conway was fantastic!! I too think pairing Conway with Ed Carpenter would be a good match for Ed’s team. Just read on Speed.com that Oriol Servia will be in the Panther car for Texas and Iowa, but just those two events. Some mention of Briscoe for additional races that don’t conflict with his other commitments. I do feel for JR, but his running over Power under caution was inexcusable, let alone his crashing out of Indy.

    Oh, George – Pippa Mann will run for Dale Coyne at Texas in the #18 Cyclops Gear car.

  18. Ron Ford Says:

    Regardless of what you might think of John Barnes, I thought your comments and those of some of the others here were a rush to judgement. If you were to listen to the full interview you would see that John did not cut off Jake Query ala Kurt Busch. The interview continued. Perhaps he could have phrased things a little better, but John Barnes is correct: Personel matters are indeed “none of our business’ whether it is racing or any other business.

    While I like Randy Bernard, his comment was over the top. He should get rid of his twitter account.

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