The Pursuit Of Speed Records

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Derrick Walker wasted little time diving into the deep end in his new job as president of competition and operations for IndyCar, when he announced a long-range plan of the DW12. He has made it clear that he wants aero kits because he is convinced that the fans want some distinction between the cars on the track Translation: Fans don’t care for spec series. Although teams have a choice whether to run a Honda or Chevrolet engine, the cars sound the same and look identical to each other.

The legacy of Indianapolis 500, and consequently IndyCar, was built on innovation. It’s hard to convince even the most casual viewer that there is any innovation going on when all the cars appear to be identical to each other. The series has lost its audience for various reasons. Part of the reason is that a lot of today’s paying customers simply don’t care about tradition or what their parents have always held dear to their hearts. What was popular a generation ago (boxing, tennis, racing and even baseball to some extent), leaves the new generation cold. They are more about extreme sports, MMA and UFC.

I know my son played many seasons of Little League Baseball, but mostly due to my urging. In high school, he chose hockey over football – much to my dismay. He has attended the Indianapolis 500 twice – in 2003 and 2005. I’ll be shocked if he ever goes back again. Now he seems to have little or no interest in any mainstream sports; and I don’t think that’s unusual for his age group (he turns twenty-four in September). When I was that age, I was glued to any football game I could find. There was not a lot of racing on TV in those days, but I caught what I could. Maybe that’s part of the problem – today, viewers can pick and choose what they want to watch and even when they want to watch it. They don’t feel the need to watch what they can.

But to fans, more important than differentiating the cars is the pursuit of speed records. With all of the analysis on why no one is watching our sport, there is still a large number of people out there, who have the possibility to become new IndyCar fans if they ever sample the product. One of the more believable theories as to why Indianapolis 500 Pole Day attendance has declined is because there is no hope that fans are going to see records broken. There has not been a speed record broken at Indianapolis since May 1996. That’s seventeen years and the longest such stretch in history that a speed record has not fallen. With speeds stagnating between 225 and 230 for so many years, fans have lost interest.

Derrick Walker and company have devised a plan and a timeline to break Arie Luyendyk’s long-standing speed records by the 2016 race. That will mark the one-hundredth running of the race and will also mark the twentieth straight year that the one and four-lap qualifying records have not been broken.

Walker has also ruled out the possibility of aero kits in 2014, but he has worked them into his long-range plans to be ready by 2015. Walker figures that the aero kits, along with tire and engine development will force the speeds through the 237 mph barrier, which was the standard that Luyendyk set in 1996.

Will setting such a goal act to bring attention back to the series? Well, it certainly can’t hurt. Following the Major League Baseball strike of 1994, Baseball was in a massive decline. Fans had been turned off by losing the World Series due to a labor dispute that no one could relate to. Baseball was in the doldrums in the late nineties and needed a shot in the arm. Mark McGwire’s 1998 pursuit of the single-season home-run record of sixty-one homers, held since 1961, captured the nation’s attention McGwire finally broke the record after weeks of public scrutiny. Of course, McGwire’s accomplishments would later be tarnished by scandal, but that’s beside the point.

Nothing captures the attention of the fickle American sports fan like the pursuit of records. I say fickle, because after whatever records are broken – most of those that paid attention will move on to the next item of the moment. But some that sampled the product for the first time will stay. I know that from personal experience.

Growing up as a kid in the sixties and early seventies, I followed two sports – football and open-wheel racing. I never paid much attention to baseball. But in 1974, Hank Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s career home-run total of 714 – a record most experts considered untouchable. As Aaron approached the magical number, everyone at school was talking about it. I figured if I didn’t want to be left out, I’d better start watching so I could be in the loop also. When I started watching as a fifteen year-old, it was the first time I had really paid attention to the game. I found out I didn’t really know or understand the nuances of the game, but I was curious to learn. By the end of the 1974 baseball season, I had become a quick study of the game and a true fan. Unfortunately, they lost me twenty years later with that strike in’94 and I’ve never been that engaged anymore with baseball.

But you get the point. Had it not been the interest in an iconic record falling, I never would have tuned in to baseball back in April of 1974. It turned me into a big fan. IndyCar could possibly enjoy the same resurgence that baseball enjoyed in 1998, if a decades-old speed record is in danger of falling. If you strip just about everything away you know about this sport, the one thing that is left is speed. That is what sits at the core of this sport. Innovation, heroism, endurance, horsepower – they all are indirectly related to speed. Without speed, there is no racing – plain and simple.

Each year, there are certain records broken at the Indianapolis 500. This year, they included different leaders, lead changes and record pace. Those are all interesting stats for the hard-core fans. But they’ve already gotten us. We’re not going anywhere. But the one stat that perks the interest of the most casual fan is record speed – fastest lap ever turned. That’s what will get people to figure out how to find your programming.

One of the lamest excuses for poor ratings on NBCSN is that people don’t know where the channel is. I’m not an NBA fan, but curiosity got the best of me Monday night and I wanted to watch the Pacers in Game Seven. I figured it must be on ESPN. Nope. So then I tried ABC. Not there either. Did I give up? No. I looked in the paper, saw it was on TNT and found out where TNT was through my cable guide. It wasn’t that difficult. If people are curious about your product, they’ll figure out how to find it. If you’re counting on people to land on your event just because it’s on ESPN, that’s just sticking a line in the water and hoping a fish jumps on it.

Derrick Walker is a very smart man. He has been at the forefront of this sport, and he has watched it from afar. He knows what makes fans tune in. He was involved in the so-called glory days and he’s been involved in the leanest of times for this sport. He is an innovator. He gave Willie T. Ribbs his shot at Indianapolis as the first African-American to race at IMS. He also brought Sarah Fisher to the sport as only the third female in the 500. But he also knows what cars and drivers are capable of. He knows that jumping through the 237 mph barrier is more than a case of turning up the boost on qualifying weekend. There has to be chassis development, along with engine and tire development. Those things don’t happen overnight, hence the development of a long-range plan to make it happen.

He also knows that none of these things will happen without everyone on board. He has to sell Dallara, Firestone, Chevy and Honda on the importance of this to happen for the long-term survival of the sport. Most importantly, he has to sell the owners; and I can tell you – not all of them are on board.

I credit Derrick Walker for recognizing that there is no quick fix to IndyCar’s problems. He also deserves praise for realizing that there is a problem in the first place – something that the previous regime prior to Randy Bernard failed to ever admit. There are lots of problems and many different ways to try to reach solutions. But drawing attention through the pursuit of speed records will go a long way towards getting IndyCar back to the forefront of the sports landscape.

George Phillips

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23 Responses to “The Pursuit Of Speed Records”

  1. Brian McKay Says:

    No aero kits in 2012, 2013, and 2014 … brilliant

  2. In casual conversations with NASCAR fans, the one thing that they see Indycar racing offering that NASCAR doesn’t have is more speed. I always refer to NASCAR as “Slow Car Racing”, but they’re not that much slower than Indy Cars. We need to go faster.

    I think 237 is a nice target, but I’d like to see the real goal being 250. During the magic decade of the 1960’s we saw the record broken many times, going from about 148 to about 175 (I’m sure George knows the exact numbers, to three decimal places), or an average of about 3 mph per year. I don’t expect that kind of progression but I dislike stagnation, and that’s what we have right now.

    • Here is the problem: Once, the goal was to get to 150, then 175. When does it stop? We should all be excited because at some point there will be a new track record and then the following year, probably another. But eventually they are going to hit the ceiling and then the track record draw is gone. They have to slowly step this up and milk it for as long as they can and that requires careful planning. The good ole days of 210 and then 220 the next year are gone! And what I mean by that is you may see the track record broken by only 10ths for the next ten years. A 250 MPH average speed would be ludicrous and dangerous and would likely result in setbacks that the series and track would never recover from. They have to be methodical and baby-step this. If they try too much too fast and only gain a small amount of fans rather than gradually build their fanbase with careful, strategic planning, then IndyCar will not get a 2nd chance. I believe that in 1994 and I could be wrong but the Penske cars were hitting 252 trap speeds and I am no math whiz so maybe someone here could tell us what the trap speeds would be for a 250 mph average.

  3. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    It can’t hurt but actual innovation not a manufactured effort on the part of the league and buy in by all teams and manufacturers is what IC really needs. The guys/teams that broke speed records years back did not seek buy in, they developed the equipment, built better power plants, improved mechanical and aerodynamic grip in search of the extra mph… As long as the league controls engine design, boost (with rev limiters….????) aero packages and tires. Breaking speed and lap time records will be more of a corporate stunt than inspired racing innovation.

  4. madtad1 Says:

    Put me in with the “that may help, BUT” group.

    I have two reasons why teams should be *allowed* to develop and use aerokits *now*, whether all the team owners want them or not. One is vaguely conspiracy theory-ish and the other is practical. Notice I said “allowed”, not “forced”!

    Practical: it gives all teams, especially low budget ones, time to tinker, play with, and design their own kits to give them their own “unfair advantage”, a la The Captain. “How can they afford this?”, comes the cry, “It’s so expensive!”

    Simple, really. No one, but me, is thinking “outside the box”, or garage, in this case. 8-)

    People, I can solve this by asking you one very simple question. I will ask it here in a second, and you will smack your foreheads and pronounce me a genius! Ok, maybe not, lol. (Btw, if you want to make people smack their foreheads ask them how, if he died all alone in room, did anyone know Citizen Kane’s last word was “Rosebud”?)

    Here is my question: how many colleges/universities in the US have aeronautical engineering programs?

    The answer is over 50! How many of them can get research grants or money to design aerokits for IndyCars? Especially if all the world would hear: “Tony Kanaan wins the Indy500 in his Chevy powered Hydroxycut car, with the Embry-Riddle engineering designed aerokit!” Think any university wouldn’t jump at a chance for that kind of exposure?

    Those colleges have all the expensive computers, software, windtunnel access, and, most importantly, talented people to take on this challenge. “well son, how did you get your PhD?” “I designed the Indy500 winning aerokit for 2015.” “You’re hired.”

    Conspiracy theory-ish: I cannot possibly be the only person who thinks the real reason the “big” teams don’t want to roll out aerokits quickly is because they are already working on them in secret so that, when the time comes, they will have their “unfair advantage” by having spent all this time on development while everyone else didn’t bother!

    Myself, I hate conspiracy theories, and the fact That I came up with this one. However, it does make some sense. There’s no reason why the kits should have been delayed like this. The teams were never told that they had to buy the kits, only that they would be allowed to develop and buy them. Why put off something that could bring more interest to the series?

    Look for the simple answer. You give yourself more development time over the…foolish other owners.

    IMOHO, YMMV

  5. Doug in Indy Says:

    I agree something has to be done. I agree that the new generation really could care less about tradition. The pursuit of records will attract a few for a short time. The biggest thing that worries me about the aero kits is the cost. Speed is directly related to money which would lead to the big teams dominating again. We have ridiculous depth in the field now. I too would like to see different looking cars sounding different, but as soon as someone figures out the combination all that can afford it go for it and they will all be the same again. Plus NASCAR is successful not because of differentiation but because of marketing. They have told the general public they are the best and beaten into the heads of flock and thus people believe it. The media should just tell all, that the economy is fine and keep repeating it , thus the populous will believe it. It is on tv and the internet so it must be true.

    • Don’t count out the new generation. Indy, like baseball, is all about tradition. It is what in the end keeps you there. Trust me, they will figure it out.

      I have said for quite a while that what is hurting Indy, especially on Pole Day, is the lack of the opportunity for a new track record. And overall Nascar’s speeds are approaching Indy car and that is not a good thing. Innovation has always been part of Indy car and needs to come back. Even many Nascar fans have a problem with spec racing, and here is Indycar’s opportunity.

      Aerokits and track records are a huge positive step. Because of Las Vegas, Randy Bernard probably would not have been able to take this step. Now we need to get more power in the hands of the league and out of the control of the owners.

      As for the marketing, Nascar has done a good job. But Indy car is not F1. Nothing turns my stomach more than to see the drivers names listed and the flag of their nationality. And I am not alone in that. Leave that to the Europeans. As we can get more and more American drivers into the league, with backgrounds in American open wheel, the easier it will be to promote. I would even argue that some of the most popular Nascar drivers came up in go-carts or sprint cars before going to Nascar. A mix of foreign drivers will always give the league some spice, but domination by foreign drivers as we have now is a promotion disaster, as we have all been witness to.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I think it’s great to see a well-thought out and publically viewable PLAN from Indycar management. Not that I expect less than that from Derrick Walker, but such things have not been common.

  7. Do people want to sacrifice the competative series we have now just to put up a big number? These “records” are IndyCar just records. They are not faster than the NHRA guys and gals. They are not faster than the latest test at Bonneville. The public knows this. I used to think faster was better, but I do not really buy into that anymore. The 220’s at Indy are fine. Would 250 amaze me? Not really. We are not there right now because we choose not to be. Plus we have to worry about vertigo (rememer CART at Texas?) What I would love to see is doing the Indy 500 at 220 on one tank of fuel. That’s modern innovation.

    • “What I would love to see is doing the Indy 500 at 220 on one tank of fuel.”

      Seriously? Why?

      • Have you not noticed the higher MPG trend in the auto industry the last decade? People are buying more efficient road cars. Part of it is for money reasons but there is also environmental reasons. Not to turn this into a political issue, but not being dependent on oil is something this country should strive for. Why shouldn’t IndyCar be the face of it?

      • billytheskink Says:

        It does not appear that USAC is itching to bring back the Mobil Economy Run…

  8. The best part of all of this is seeing that there is an actual long term plan for the sport. As a business person I know firsthand that everything starts with a strategy based on a vision. It’s nice to know that Indycar has one. Will aerokits or speed records, or American 500 winners, or ESPN telecasts save the sport? Maybe not on their own, but they are all steps in the right direction.

  9. Speed is one thing, but the reason for more speed has always been to win. With that said there will come a point when you just can’t go any faster. For me, it would be interesting to see the series go beyond 230mph, but racing at 224 is still a huge turn-on.

  10. Indycar has to be aware that–unlike the old days of carnage and craziness, of risk and destruction, of innovation and tragedy–the general consensus these days is that injury and death is not “acceptable” as a side-effect of automobile racing.

    I love the aero kit idea as a semi-affordable way to increase competition and make brands distinctive, but I highly doubt that owners will go along with it. The best that will happen is that it will again be delayed.

    The more I think about the lack of tv viewership of Indycar, and how far off the general sports fans radar it is today–the more I think that Indycar is moving in baby steps when the best thing it could do is totally think outside the box and completely remake the series. I have no idea what that might be but it needs to do something big to attract public attention and what they’re planning–while seemingly big to die-hards–is not going to move the needle with the unwashed masses.

    • If you have to totally change the product to attract people, what is the point?

      As Joe Garagiola used to say “What got you here will get you out of here” meaning do what got you to the pinnacle in the first place. The decision to go for records is the first smart thing they have done since they slowed the cars down in the 90’s. As innovation closely follows that, you have improved indycar in two areas immesurably.

      For the first time in many years, I am beginning to feel that Indy car is going in the right direction.

      • I guess my point is that I have little faith that Indycar as it is will ever speak to a new generation of fans (and viewers.) That the popularity of open-wheel racing in the US probably peaked before the split and the audience went to a newer form of racing (and marketing) called Nascar. And that Indycar–if it wants not only to survive, but flourish, needs to come up with a racing series that is distinctive, marketable and new. A series that could not only compete with Nascar, but beat it. A series that is the height of technology and innovation. That is competitive, marketable, fast and yet safe. A series that could attract groups as disparate as “stick and ball” fans, drifting fans, X-game fans, monster truck fans, sports car fans, Speed Racer, Fast & Furious, Delta Wing and yes, Nascar fans. Like I said, I have no idea what it is but I think “doing what got you here” is a path that will continue the downward slide of Indycar popularity. I know I probably sound crazy, and I’m exaggerating a little bit but there’s another saying that defines “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

      • I agree with you but those two things should only be the start. I know there are a lot of people against there being another race at IMS, but could you imagine a 400 miler under the lights in July! New attracts people and even if it only draws a crowd for the first 7 or 8 years, you are certainly going to draw new fans to grow the sport. I think a night race on the oval at IMS would be sexy as hell and would generate buzz, good or bad!

    • Aero-kits are going to happen because the engine manufacturers want them. They want to differentiate a Chevy from a Honda and while the teams may not want them, I believe the engine suppliers will make them part of the engine lease. The other reason it will happen is that Penske and Ganassi have had a bad season to this point. Winless! Unacceptable to these two owners. I guarantee you should Chevrolet test an Aero-Kit with Penske and it give a decided advantage, the cost factor will suddenly not matter. Same with Ganassi. They are also going to start letting teams make modifications and I think you will see teams essentially building their own Aero-Kits or several teams going in together to have, say, Lola develop an Aero-Kit for use exclusively by the teams who funded it to be researched and developed. Parity will only last so long with a new car until a team owner that is used to winning is just another team and then he will open the checkbook for whatever it takes.

  11. Savage Henry Says:

    I think this is going to help to bring old fans – maybe some of the people that walked away during the split – back into the fold. Having differentiation and increased speeds will remind people of days gone by. And that’s great – we need those people back for sure. Those people are mostly outside the demographic that IndyCar wants to appeal to. I’m not sure this is going to do anything to interest people that have never followed it and are in the target demographic.

    I do think that it will do a lot to keep current fans engaged. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m as hardcore as anyone – I watch all of the races, read George and the other Indycar bloggers, listen to the Trackside podcast every week, etc. I was on the fence whether I was going to take my son out to the Indy 500 this year. I had tickets and a (free) place to stay, but it was going to be an 11-hour drive each way and it seemed like a pain. I ended up not going and rationalizing it by saying that it would be like last year – same cars, same engines, same speed, etc. Better to wait until next year when they’ll have aero kits, higher speeds, and there would be something different. Now no aero kits until 2015.

    Introducing changes to the cars, increasing speeds, and changing the racing would keep me coming back to the track. Rolling out the same cars in the same configuration year after year probably keeps me at home. I’ll still watch on TV but it isn’t the same.

  12. I think Derrick Walker & Co.’s thinking and goals are inline with most race fans but I do not think a new track record will bring back the masses.

    First of all, I get sick of reading about ratings, ratings, ratings. I understand that, foolishly, a lot of fans and even businesses look at ratings as a sign of the health of a sport, but factored by itself, it is not. I get so sick of hearing about CART’s great ratings. Think about the last highly rated CART race. How many channels were available then? How many are available now? There are also smart phones and tablets and high speed internet on the go where a fan does not have to be glued to the T.V. to keep up with the race. Even saying that the Indy 500 ratings are down compared to 20 years ago is not a fair comparison. Even people that were not race fans watched the 500 20 years ago because they had a choice between that, a 15 year old movie of the week, or an infomercial. There are simply more choices out there and unless you are at a minimum a fan of racing, you can always look up the results on the internet.

    Second, there are huge generational divides beginning to form. It used to be that if your Dad was a race fan, you were a race fan. Now kids are caught up in computers and video games and barely want to go outside and play or play sports let alone watch anything that has to hold their attention for more than an hour.

    The split hurt. It hurt a lot. It divided fans, teams, sponsors and by time unification occurred, there was a lot of bad taste in fans and sponsors mouths and NASCAR had positioned itself to be America’s racing series despite the fact that most of the time the racing was not that good.

    The economy has not rebounded. Gas hit 4.25 a gallon this week. Who can afford to load the family up and drive any more than 50 miles and buy a ticket or make a weekend of it? The average fan can barely make it from paycheck to paycheck.

    IndyCar has been it’s own worst enemy. There has been very little stability in the series from leadership to schedule to all the drama that goes on behind the scenes that they drag out into the public.

    All that being said, the racing is better than it has been in a very long time. Passing, speedy….not break neck fast….but speedy. The field is deep with more name drivers than the series has had for a long time.

    Stop bagging on it being a spec series. So what. Yes, I like sexy cars but sometimes in the past, sexy cars proved to be dogs or just were not plain racy. I agree with most that Speedway trim is starting to look pretty good. The more important thing is that the cars are safe, consistent, and racy as hell!

    The engines while not likely to break the IMS track record before 2016 have provided reliable racing. When was the last time you saw your favorite driver go out of a race or championship points battle decided due to an engine failure?

    Can’t say enough about Firestone tires!

    And now with Derrick Walker moving things in the right direction and having a clear cut strategy and plan and letting the fans know what they are doing and where they are going, how can it do anything but get better?

    The series is on the right track not because of aero-kits or because of an intention to get the speed records up but because the right people are in place and the racing is the best anywhere in the world right now regardless of how sexy the car is or how expensive it was to build it!

    • You hit the nail on the head, my friend, particularly concerning the many choices available now. I recall back in the 60’s, we didn’t have the opportunity to decide which football game we wanted to watch. If we were lucky, there was one game in the afternoon, and one at night. Now, it’s a heck of a lot more difficult to build an audience.

  13. I have been going to Indy for over 30 years. There are no new fans. No young people. It’s only going to get worse. It is a wrap real quick folks.

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