Random Thoughts On Belle Isle
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.