Monday, March 1, 2010

IndyCar Season On The Brink: Barber Test Done - Brazil Next

Indycars have completed their only open test of the pre-season, conducted last week at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and are now aiming for the season opening race in Brazil in less than two weeks. The usual suspects led the Barber test but there were some surprising names near the top of the charts as well.
Team Penske sported new black and red livery and its three drivers led the way in combined testing results for the two-day run at Barber. Quick Aussie Will Power was followed by teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. It's good to see Power back up to speed after his horrific crash at Sonoma last season! Target Ganassi took Scott Dixon to fourth quick time but defending IRL champ Dario Franchitti's test was cut short after he found the barrier on the second test day. Justin Wilson surely buoyed the spirits of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing by slotting in fifth quick with former F1 Honda driver Takuma Sato in sixth for KV Racing Technology. That is good news for the Wilson and Sato teams as Justin brings a race winning heritage and Takuma brings funding from Honda. The teams head to Brazil next for the first race of the season March 14th.

The Brazil race should be a very interesting event and could serve as a springboard for the IRL in popularity this year. I have been an IRL supporter from the beginning but I have the sense that this year is critical for the Indy Racing League. Here's a few reasons why I think so:

New Leadership. The end of the Tony George era has been well documented and now that Jeffrey Belskus runs the Speedway and Randy Bernard is the IRL kingpin, how will that play out this year? First impressions are meaningful and with the former-PBR founder & CEO taking on the IRL, his first day on the job is March 1st so what will he be able to bring to the table? My concern would be that if he doesn't make a splash immediately, his tenure may be limited like so many other IRL leaders in the past. With the NASCAR juggernaut seemingly regaining its momentum early this season, this is a crucial season for the IRL and results will need to come quickly and be evident to everyone involved: teams, sponsors and fans alike. If Belskus keeps the financial screws tightened up so much that the Speedway and the IRL can't effectively market themselves, then sayonara to this leadership group and hello precipice.

New events. The first Indycar race in Brazil will now start the season on the international stage. The bad news is the Formula One opener is the same day. Diehards may watch both (like I will) but newcomers may still be confused about the differences between the series. I can almost hear them now: "Those cars all look alike. Don't the grand prix cars always run on road courses?" Differentiation is going to be the key to grab new fans for the IRL so I hope Versus and the IRL are buying ad time associated with Speed's F1 coverage and every NASCAR telecast where Danica will race. The Barber race in April is also a new venue and helps tip the scales in favor of road racing for 2010. If these events can showcase some good racing and not be follow-the-leader parades, then perhaps they can develop some history and staying power for the IRL. If they are just quick paydays and go by the wayside when current promotion contracts expire, then I don't think the IRL has gained much of anything. How many fans from Brazil are going to travel to another Indycar race this season? Or how many from Alabama, for that matter?

Versus. This is the second season of the Versus/ABC television package and unfortunately, DirectTV subscribers still cannot see the IRL events on Versus. Danica even went so far recently as to suggest that the IRL needs to be on ESPN so viewers can get their racing fix with the IRL in the mix. Searching for Versus or paying for upper tier cable or satellite channel feeds cannot be a good thing for the IRL long term. Comcast needs to get its act together and push the DirectTV issue to a solution and get Versus in the standard packages for cable and satellite.

New chassis spec for 2012. From what I can gather, the Delta Wing concept just won't fly. Even Danica, the IRL's most recognizable personality, has made comments that aren't exactly flattering. I've beat this drum here before so it goes without saying that the next chassis spec could make or break the IRL.

Abbreviated Indy 500 schedule. Sure the teams and IMS will save a lot of money but will this really result in greater fan interest during the lone practice week? With only two days for qualifying, rain could be the biggest nemesis for Indy this year and the disappointing crowds at the last few pole days could vanish altogether if qualifying gets washed out to the "next available day" when everyone is back at work. Obviously the television coverage will suffer as well with programming to fill rain delay time never as interesting as pole or bump day qualifying drama. If time for the teams gets squeezed even further, then the pressure to get in the race builds and you can bet there will be drivers who find the fence in desperation rather than setting quick lap times.

Danica. ESPN2 seems to have become the Danica channel lately since she is running the Nationwide Series. The IRL people have got to get in the mix and play off of that publicity. They need to have an IRL show car at every stock car race Danica runs, offer ticket promos, race weekend package contests and other goodies to get the stock car nation out to see the IRL product on race weekends. GoDaddy can certainly do more than just flashing Danica's face on the screen or in the email marketing. Show both cars - Indy and stock - in every ad. Get Mark Martin on board to help since he has Go Daddy money for his Sprint Cup car.

Penske & Ganassi Dominance. Can anyone else step up and challenge either of these teams? Andretti Autosport has the most to gain with Michael Andretti as the sole owner now, but they also have the most to lose, and Danica outran her more seasoned teammates in 2009 so it will be interesting to see how Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti fare as the season goes on. It's good to see Ryan Hunter-Reay get rewarded with a seat for a limited schedule with Andretti, although with IZOD behind him and the series, I would think more could be done for him. And IZOD, will you please update that commercial? It is just so tired. Finally, what will become of Newman Haas-Lanigan? Hideki Mutoh took his Formula Dream money to NH-L and will run the #06 car but I don't see him as a front runner. And why on earth can't Graham Rahal get some backing for the #02 NH-L car? Losing Rahal from the series makes absolutely no sense, especially when the IRL is already short on American talent behind the wheel.

Fans. This is the most important element for the Indy Racing League this year. Will fans come out to the races and find the IRL on television? I was a race fan long before I became a motorsports photographer, so I am anxious to see what kind of crowds come out to places like Chicagoland and Kansas for comparison to the NASCAR craowds at the same venues. If the Indianapolis 500 has a larger crowd than the Brickyard again this year, then the IRL may have turned the corner with fans. And if wheel to wheel photo finishes, and a season championship fight among mulitple drivers at the Miami Homestead finale once again, don't get your racing juices flowing, then I don't know what will.
This is not your father's Indycar series; it never will be again. A series with so much promise and potential is at the axis of change in 2010 and this season on the brink will go a long way towards determining whether change means growth or decline. My belief is that growth is coming for the most competitive high speed series in the world of motorsports. I'll be at the tracks as often as possible. How about you?

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