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Monday, December 27, 2010

Sealing the Cracks That Caused the Split

My good friend Tony Johns over at Pop Off Valve likes to say that bantering over Twitter enhances social media usage by those of us who like to create content for the web. I've always been a little more wary of it.

Part of it is because I always like to have a hard-news-only option (hence the creation of a site account @OpnWhlAmerica), but part of it is because I don't feel like some of the more mundane experiences of my life really merit tweeting about. (I have to admit, I love Graham Rahal as a driver, but following his account isn't particularly enriching.)

This all changed for me over the holiday season.

With no other outlet to express the frustration and comedy of a Christmas Eve dinner gone somewhat awry, I took to the Twitterverse with the story of my 92-year-old grandfather figuring out that he was, indeed, home. One of the more entertaining stories I've ever had to tell, even in its simplicity and lack of two-way dialogue, it opened me up a little more to the idea of using social media to bring people into my life.

Then, in the wee hours of Boxing Day night, I let loose an even more frustrated nugget go: "Never letting longtime dating partners try to work out their shit in my apartment again. Sitting outside wondering what the fuck happened."

Throwing all caution to the wind, three of my closest friends had a small party in my apartment last night, spending an hour traveling to Boston in the midst of a noreaster that has proved catastrophic for any car unfortunate enough to be parked on a public road and most airports. Most of the night was a good time - fun, games, a lot of cathartic stories told between a bunch of people who have known each other for a long time. It would also be a good night for the former couple of two years to spend time with each other in the company of friends, perhaps providing an impetus for them to work out their differences.

Then, of course, things started to go wrong. The differences that caused the couple to split up in the first place, nearly a year ago, came back to the forefront. They tried to be better than one another. They complained about little things. The cracks that caused the split were only widening once again.

Things got heated, with the other friend and I removing ourselves from the room so the couple could do their thing, before we split them up to talk to them individually. The rest of the night was a big mess of awkward, bothered folks who didn't sleep very well or have their senses about them for much of the morning.

We basically concluded this: they need to figure out how to close the book, or at least come to a satisfactory point of renewal, because although things are on the road, they need to tie up some loose ends and get things right. Each side has their strong points and their flaws, but somehow every festering wound needs to be aided, every unplugged crack needs to be sealed, every broken lamp needs to be superglued back together before both sides can be satisfied. Both sides need to respect each other as equals, complete and inarguable equals, and until then, that can't happen.

Now, at the risk of going Roy Hobbson on you all, the question at hand here is simply: What the HELL does this lengthy anecdote have to do with IndyCar?

You've probably heard by now that the sport is finally taking two huge steps to bring it back where it once was. The first, of course, is bringing technology back to the forefront, making it matter, and making higher standards a possibility (if not immediate reality) for a new generation of fans. That's big - it brings back many of the people who bought into the open-development of CART and Champ Car, the technological advances that those series liked to bring to the table, and perhaps our first new track records at Indianapolis since the very beginning of the "split."

But the second step is to finally combine all American open wheel records into one record book. USAC or CART, IndyCar or Champ Car, they're all being brought together officially for the first time. Less physical than psychological, it's just another important instance on the road to complete unification.

For a long time, American open-wheel racing was torn apart by two very distinct schools of thought. One was the Tony George opinion, that the sport should be more like NASCAR, with more ovals and American drivers. Those in power in CART in the early 1990s were greater proponents of bringing in European drivers and fashioning the sport into an American Formula 1. George created the Indy Racing League as a backlash against it, and for 12 years the "split" festered.

When IndyCar bought out Champ Car in 2008, it was only the first, biggest step. There were still hard feelings. Four or five race teams went out of business, and some top Champ Car drivers to this day struggle to land rides. The Champ Car teams, having no more use for their cars, setup notes, and some equipment, were faced with a major competitive disadvantage. Now, they're not so much disadvantaged as they are still viewed differently; generally, owing to their road-course-only heritage, they mostly hire road course specialists, and former IRL teams often do the opposite.

Of course, we've made plenty of progress in these past three years. I say enough about Randy Bernard and Mike Kelly and what they do for the sport - while that's important, let's focus on some of the smaller things for a second. Some ex-IRL squads, like Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, have employed road course specialists like Justin Wilson, while Conquest Racing and Dale Coyne Racing have embraced development drivers from Firestone Indy Lights instead of the Atlantic Championship, Champ Car's former development series. The schedule is now an even mix of ovals and road courses. And with the record books being fixed, putting everything in one place, it's just another step forward, eliminating yet another point of contention.

American open-wheel fans are much like the feuding couple in my apartment from last night. Both sides want the same thing - complete unification - even if they may hesitate to admit it. It's best for both of them. Except, of course, each side wants things to go their way and not the other's, so things remain heated and some problems stay unsolved.

But enough time has passed that they should come to some mutual understanding and try to get it right. There will still be some fights and bitterness, but by this point, it's really time to put it all in the past, come back together, and start anew.

Maybe I'm a couple years too late with this post. Maybe not. I still see the dividing line in the sport between the IRLers and the Champ Car folks rear its ugly head now and again. There are still some loose ends to be tied up. Embracing the old sanctioning body's philosophy on car development is great. But combining the sport's record books recognizes the defeated series as the victorious one's equal... well, you can't ask for much more than that internal validation.

That's what the feuding couple needs, and it's what IndyCar needs, too, before things can be completely fixed - for both sides to recognize one another as equals. We're on the way, we're getting close, but we're not there yet.

Like Tony's hashtag said when he tweeted about the combined record books, it's about time it happens.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Refound Perspective

I've been in a bit of a rut as far as writing goes lately. I didn't finish my season review pieces here, even though I got through 17 of them. My readership, I think, has declined. My stuff elsewhere has suffered. The inspiration has been there in fits and starts, but not as constantly as it once was. Even my Christmas wish to you all was pretty lame. Maybe it's just because we're in the offseason.

Instead, I've been relaxing with my friends, Matt and Tom. We've known each other since middle school, at least. These guys are like brothers to me - the brothers I never had. We trade advice, we play video games, we try to make something of ourselves and our unit. But what we do together has nothing to do with my writing. They don't see my passion for motorsports as much as you all do.

We got together for Christmas, just like it was any other night. After a series of awkward family gatherings and decent gifts (especially money, always a necessity for a college student), Tom and I went to Tom's house to wait for our friend, Matt, to get out of his late shift at work. His adoptive father, Big Joseph, is usually up when we get in. We trade stories, we talk sports, we learn from each other. Well, mostly, I learn from him, because that's how it goes with generational gaps, usually.

This particular day we'd gotten to talking about sports, and witnessing greatness. He was 20 feet from Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem at Woodstock. John Bucyk sized his skates as a teenager. He once witnessed Ted Williams talk fly fishing with a friend's father. The point was that, no matter who you are on this earth, you're never nobody - you're always somebody. I heard more stories from him in a night than I'd heard from my father in five years.

I said this to him. I wished - and I do, to this day - that I could hear more of my dad's crazy driving stories from when he was a kid. I wanted him to teach me how to drive a stick, show me how to wheel a muscle car, endow me with the skills that would enable me to pilot a car with confidence and skill.

Thus far, I've had no experience with any of that. My family has a Mustang, but it's an automatic. The limitation of my manual abilities is acquired muscle memory with a Ferrari FXX on Road America in Forza Motorsport 3. Yet I've always wanted to be the next Dario Franchitti - hell, at least the next Marco Andretti. I never really got that chance. I'd be more at peace with it with the stories of his driving adventures. Nothing.

I told Big Joseph this. I said, "There's one quote that stuck with me. I think it was Bobby Knight, if not, somebody attributed it to him and that's the name that stuck with me. But he said that 'Those who can, do. Those who can't, write about it.'"

Said Big Joseph, "Fuck him."

My eyes widened a bit.

"Yeah, fuck him," Big Joseph continued, slicing carrots into a chicken soup. "Writers live forever. You come along as an athlete, you set a record in sports... sooner or later somebody's gonna come along and break it. But as a writer, if you can tell a story, you can live forever.

"If you can write - and I know you can write - stick it to 'em. Take your talents to the ice, to the field, to the ballpark, and shine."

I was witnessing greatness. Not the kind of greatness that you see on the sports field, but the kind of greatness that comes from the heart, when you want to teach somebody else a life lesson. It was a motivational speech on par with Herb Brooks in the locker room at Lake Placid in 1980. And it contained the same message - to go out and be the best at what it is you do, no matter what anybody says, if anybody doubts you, if you're not getting any breaks. Just go out and be somebody.

Perhaps the greatest Christmas gift of all was the inspiration to write something again, and it came from Big Joseph.

He said earlier in the night, "What's wrong with things coming by accident? How do you meet the woman you love?"

"By accident."

"Exactly. BY ACCIDENT. I wandered into The Grog in Newburyport, and who walks in but this beautiful brunette that turns out to be Thomas's grandmother. I might have come into the bar a nobody that night, but I was somebody enough to say 'Hey, how you doin'?' You're never nobody."

And I think I'm taking the right message from all of that.

I'm not nobody. I'm somebody. I may just be a mere IndyCar blogger, but you know what? I'm somebody. And so is everybody else in the IndyCar blogosphere. And I may be young, unpolished, and not know when to shut up sometimes, but I'm one of you, just the same. And I'm going to keep being somebody.

If you read me, good. Glad to have you. If you don't, well, you'd better start, because I'm going to come out next year and show all of you that my writing means something. I'm going to be a voice that leads the sport into the future, through ups and downs, peaks and valleys, good times and bad. I promise you no less than that from me, or from this site, from this day forward.

To that end, let me also announce the site's expansion. We're adding writers next year. We're switching from the tried-and-true Blogger format to a more heavy-duty WordPress site, and you're all invited. We'll still be at OpenWheelAmerica.com, but we'll also be on Twitter at @OpnWhlAmerica and attending at least half a dozen races between us next year. Expect nothing less than innovative and interesting content from young, dynamic, and authoritative voices year-round.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all - look for us in the future. See you soon, maybe even with the rest of those season review pieces.


Happy Holidays!

Nothing too lengthy or convoluted here - just a sincere wish from Open Wheel America that you and all of our readers have a happy holiday season. See you soon!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Opinion: Why Is IndyCar On The Upswing?

It wasn’t too long ago that NASCAR was on the biggest power play in professional motorsports. It had all the top tracks, was culling drivers from the best of the rest of the country, and had the most fans (and money) behind it by far.

None of this could make it more apparent than the increasingly silly nature of the sport’s “silly season,” the time of year when drivers started announcing future plans. When I was growing up, usually drivers knew no earlier than October or November where they’d be the next year. Now, stars were signing multi-year contracts as early as May.

It even still borders on the ridiculous, as the concept of signing a contract for “the season after next” still comes into play (Kasey Kahne, anyone?). But the absurdity of the NASCAR silly season has been toned down as the money’s stopped flowing quite as freely through the garage.

During that time frame, IndyCar was on the bottom of the American motorsports food chain. Yes, the Indianapolis 500 still mattered, as it always will. But NASCAR was the top dog, and the Daytona 500 had arguably surpassed Indy. The NHRA had political stability. The split between Grand-Am and American Le Mans was hurting sports car racing, but not as bad as the still-divorced IndyCar and Champ Car hurt open-wheel racing; Grand-Am and the ALMS catered to different niches of sports car racing, and shared a majority of drivers, as they still do.

Most open-wheel drivers weren’t signing contracts until February, right before the beginning of the season. Many had to bring their own sponsorship. Now, we’re in the midst of an offseason that is seeing almost every worthy driver get a ride, and plenty of teams secure funding on their own.

What changed?

The keys here are political stability and room for growth. IndyCar eventually bought out Champ Car, the first action to help bring the sport back together, but just because the two warring factions have unified doesn’t mean that their supporters have done the same. To this day, old Champ Car fans resent the Dallara chassis, calling it a “crapwagon;” meanwhile, fans of the original all-American, all oval Indy Racing League despise the addition of road courses and foreign drivers.

But it was the decision to bring in Randy Bernard as IndyCar CEO that began paying the highest returns. Current fans in the know deify Bernard as the sport’s savior; while one man can’t take credit for everything, it’s easy to understand why.

Before Bernard left Professional Bull Riders, IndyCar was stuck with an outdated car, an underperforming schedule, no marketing charisma whatsoever, a star driver with only one win, and little positive momentum. Since he’s come in, all of that has changed. There’s a new car on the way with multiple manufacturers, some new races with great potential, a fresh look, the potential for some new (and, importantly to some, American) superstars, and things don’t look to fall off track soon.

Clearly, Mike Kelly and the folks at IZOD are to thank for the boost in marketing savvy, and no fan can thank them enough for helping revitalize the sport for other potential sponsors. They’re cool, trendy, and really seem to understand the heritage of the Indianapolis 500 and the essence of what makes open-wheel racing so great. But they can’t be the ones to go around and solicit new engine manufacturers or commercial partners; they are their own entity. That’s the new IndyCar administration’s job, and they do it well.

Compare that to NASCAR, which has seen a whole bunch of bad news under Brian France. The list of problems reads like a nightmare. Declining attendance at overbuilt tracks. Declining TV ratings with broadcast partners who undermine the races with poor coverage or excessive commercials. A divisive racecar that has improved safety at the expense of entertainment. A Chase format that the folks up top still can’t seem to get right. An underachieving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and five-times-consecutive champion Jimmie Johnson. It goes on.

It seems that the only thing that Brian France has carried over to NASCAR from his father’s and grandfather’s leadership is an iron fist, a strong-willed belief that the fans will eventually take what you give them, no matter what. France’s comments at Homestead this year implied that he was woefully out of touch with the common race fan, the people that NASCAR built its success with, implying that the sport was absolutely fine and hinting at even more alterations to the Chase, including a second potential points reset in the final few races to guarantee a big finale every year.

While France tries to impress the media in hope that the fans and sponsors will follow, Bernard has taken the opposite approach. So far, it’s been working out. Fans are beginning to rediscover the sport, and the subsequent new list of partners would make any race fan drool. Witness Chevrolet, Lotus, Mazda, Sunoco, and Verizon Wireless. Witness the addition of a dozen official partners this year alone, from car rental services (Avis) to gourmet popcorn (Just Pop In).

Verizon, shut out of NASCAR due to restrictions on wireless service providers in its Sprint-backed top series, will shift over $10 million to IndyCar sponsorship activation. That’s kind of a big deal.

This just leads to another crucial observation: IndyCar has almost infinite room for growth. “The split” left the American open-wheel world with a bunch of scorched earth and a long regenerative process. But now that the soil is a bit more fertile, and the costs are still relatively low, the sport should be able to support a renaissance.

Again, compare that to NASCAR. The days of 50 fully-funded teams are long gone. Sponsorship costs are so high that most companies consolidate with the biggest teams and share space on top drivers’ cars instead of giving some of the little guys a chance. The sport is overvalued and underperforming, and it shows with the loss of longtime, big-name sponsors like Old Spice, and the minimized roles of sport mainstays like Kellogg’s, Interstate Batteries, and Valvoline.

What’s the result of all of this?

With NASCAR now deemed “untouchable” by many potential sponsors, their funds are shifting over to IndyCar, which is able to welcome them in with open arms and significantly lower prices. The racing may not be much better than it’s ever been since moving to a spec vehicle, but the buzz is infinitely more positive.

It leads to drivers like Tony Kanaan landing on their feet within a month of losing a major backer. It leads to a bonanza of sponsorship deals for Team Penske. It leads to young drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann, and Charlie Kimball getting deals to move up, or at least being considered to. It leads to major funding for Simona de Silvestro, the sport’s biggest overachiever and perhaps its next female race winner.

And now we have 16 drivers and teams locked in before the new year – almost a 25% increase from where we were at this point last year. That will comprise the majority of the field, and that’s a huge step forwards from where we’ve been.

IndyCar has never done things the “NASCAR way,” and likely never will as long as Bernard is in charge. It can’t, and it doesn’t have to. There’s no reliance on the past - just the opportunity to build a better future for open-wheel racing in the States. And with NASCAR's list of problems growing yearly, it may not be as hard as you'd think for the Indianapolis 500 to become the crown jewel of American motorsports once again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Opinion: Captain America a "Charging Star" for IndyCar

2010 was a bleak year for the American open-wheel driver. The only two full-timers confirmed at the beginning of the season were Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, although Ryan Hunter-Reay pieced together a full season on a race by race basis. Meanwhile, 2009 full-timers Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter had to be content with limited schedules, and the development driver pipeline sprung a leak somewhere between Indy Lights and the Indianapolis 500.

Today, we learned that 2010 was merely an aberration.

Panther Racing will unite an American driver with their National Guard sponsorship for the first time in 2011 as J.R. Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, will move up to the IZOD IndyCar Series and compete for rookie of the year honors. Dan Wheldon's replacement parlayed a two-race audition with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing last season and a successful test with Panther at Phoenix earlier this month into multi-year job security.

The goal for any IndyCar team is to hire the fastest and most skilled driver possible. Hildebrand, with his successful Lights experiences and Formula One test at the end of 2009, fits the bill. He's had success thus far in just about every formula he's competed in, and leads an impressive class of young American drivers moving up the ranks - one that also includes Jonathan Summerton, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, and Conor Daly, among others.

But Hildebrand offers something else to the series, something that had previously been taken for granted: a distinctly American superstar.

The IRL used to have Sam Hornish, who won titles for Panther in 2001 and 2002 with the stars and stripes running down the side of his car. But as the CART contingent began to move in, the series moved more and more away from its original modus operandi, the employment of American-born oval specialists. No American has won the title since Hornish did in 2006. This year, Ryan Hunter-Reay finished seventh in points to represent the best finish for an American-born driver; that represents an all-time low.

Hunter-Reay, Patrick, and Andretti have all done their part for American open-wheel racing, of course. Hunter-Reay's wins on the road courses at Surfers Paradise, Watkins Glen, and Long Beach over the course of his career help dispel the notion that only foreign-born drivers excel on the road courses; Patrick has become a household name, perhaps IndyCar's best link to the general public until her NASCAR forays this year; no name better defines American open-wheel racing than Andretti.

But none of those drivers have earned the nickname "Captain America." None of them carry the flag on their car (and while some American drivers do on their helmets, the helmet isn't as distinctive or identifying for the driver as it was in the past). None drive a red, white, and blue car. Hildebrand will do all three in 2011.

Hildebrand's got two other qualities that make him unique. First, he's a racer, pure and simple. You name it, Hildebrand's done demonstration runs in it, from old Formula 1 cars to high-powered street cars. Before signing the National Guard deal, his Twitter background featured a picture of the great Steve McQueen.

Second, he's almost universally liked and respected in the IndyCar community. Patrick and Andretti are occasionally lambasted for their celebrity. Not Hildebrand, who is one of the friendliest faces in the garage. Who else would take to Twitter to personally thank every single person who sent him a congratulatory message? Not many drivers.

For too long, the personable, all-American IndyCar driver has been missing from a series that desperately needs something distinctly American in its identity. It's part of the reason why the series has dropped off so much in the eyes of the American motorsports fan. In fact, any true IndyCar fan should be rooting for Hildebrand to succeed - there's no driver better equipped to solve that problem than he is. He might even replace Hornish as the series' next American champion someday.

For now, Captain America will keep charging to the front - but it won't be long until he's the sport's next star.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Opinion: IndyCar Fans Need To Bring The Hate

Twitter is a fabulous distraction when you're bored - or, alternately, during the commercial breaks of football games on Sunday. It's especially fun to peruse through your follower list and see the strange bedfellows that are made during some matchups, none of them strangers than some of my blogging colleagues (and Indianapolis natives) rooting for the New England Patriots during their matchup with the Chicago Bears yesterday.

Now, being a Boston native, I found this hilarious. The Patriots and the Colts, despite the odd geographic combination, comprise one of the best rivalries in all of sports right now, up there with Yankees-Red Sox, Steelers-Ravens, LeBron James and Brett Favre-the world, and so on. These are intensely polarizing matchups; each side's fans paint their team as a group of heroes, while the other side is rendered as villains worse than Kim Jong Il.

Seeing some of these diehards jump ship for a day, if only to root against a team they somehow hate even more, is humorous and interesting at the same time. Sports psychologists could probably write a book on it.

But it brought me to an important realization: we don't really have a "bad guy" in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

NASCAR has Kyle Busch, the mercurial wunderkind who carries himself with all the grace of a raging alcoholic. Busch has a checkers-or-wreckers attitude that frequently gets him into hot water with his competitors; it's hard to walk through the NASCAR garage and see somebody who hasn't been pissed off by a Rowdy Busch outburst or daring move in the final laps of some race.

That hatred sells, though. Because of that strong contingent that loves Busch, me included, his souvenir sales are among the tops in the business. He's handsomely paid, or at least paid well enough to have started his own Truck Series team. And because of all the boos he garners week in and week out, he's a constant media presence, one of the few drivers in the sport that is always in the middle of a story.

It's not the nicest thing to say in the world, but let's face facts. We sports fans love to hate. Colts fans hate the Patriots. Celtics fans hate the Lakers. As a lifelong Boston Bruins fan, I despise the Montreal Canadiens organization with all my heart for their dirty play and tendency to employ thugs. Pick a sports team, any sports team, and ask one of their fans about a hated enemy, and see if you hear anything different. Hatred - and the necessity of subjective analysis - are the two things that separate sports from the other major news subjects of the world. (That would explain why so many sports blogs exist.)

But what do we have in IndyCar for a true rivalry? The closest thing that's come up as of late is Danica Patrick-Tony Kanaan, and that's got too many issues with it. Open wheel lifers love Kanaan; he's been a full-timer since 1998, has won championships, and is a friendly (if intense) guy. Patrick brought in an entire new fanbase to the sport, and while she may draw the ire of more fans in this rivalry, she can't be the villain per se because of how much marketing money is spent on her. It just doesn't make marketing sense to paint your most popular driver as the bad one, does it?

The closest thing that we have right now to hatred is our dislike for the dominance of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Many bloggers refer to them, somewhat derisively, as the "Red Cars" or the "Death Star." It's a start, I suppose. But of the five drivers on those two teams, there's nobody with a really abrasive personality. Helio Castroneves is one of the sport's most popular drivers, rarely caught without a smile on his face. Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe are generally personable. IndyCar fans are still getting used to Will Power. Scott Dixon is comically neutral, at least if you read the old Silent Pagoda posts on him.

It's the wrong kind of hatred. We can't just have everybody rooting against the concept of domination, because it happens in every form of racing. But what else do IndyCar fans really have to hate? ESPN, particularly Marty Reid and/or Nicole Briscoe? The International Speedway Corporation? Danica's threat to jump ship to NASCAR - even though some of us want her gone?

Maybe I'm focusing on the wrong thing here. It is pretty cool that a newcomer can step into the sport, pick just about any driver as their favorite, and share a mutual respect for the rest of the field after watching a race or two. Maybe that's part of what makes us unique. But I'm not so sure.

Somebody's gotta step up and become that universal villain, much like Kyle Busch in NASCAR, to take us to the next level. They need to be just as talented on the track as they are abrasive off of it, they need to get under people's skin, and most importantly, they need to win races, or challenge for the championship.

Could it be a reinvented J.R. Hildebrand, as a hotshot rookie with Panther Racing? Could Marco Andretti live up to his family name? Could it be Alex Tagliani, Mario Moraes, or Paul Tracy? Hell, could it even be Danica? There are plenty of possibilities.

But until somebody steps up, I guess we have to focus our disgust on corporate entities. That'll totally get us somewhere.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Opinion: IZOD and Penske a Good Fit?

There's no question that IZOD is the biggest marketing power the IndyCar Series has ever seen. Since taking over title sponsorship of American open-wheel racing's top category in 2010, IZOD has done more to raise awareness of the sport than any other sponsor ever has, from driver meet-and-greets in big cities to the primary sponsorship of Ryan Hunter-Reay's ride at Andretti Autosport.

Today, however, we've seen a major, surprising shift in their strategy. IZOD will leave Hunter-Reay, their lead spokesman for the sport since 2008, and Andretti behind for a new, multi-year deal with Team Penske and driver Ryan Briscoe. The deal will involve primary sponsorship in a handful of races, including the Indianapolis 500, and is the second major IndyCar deal for Penske this week, following Shell's commitment to Helio Castroneves.

Now, it's no question that any alliance with Roger Penske is a significant upgrade in the ownership department. I'm simply concerned with two things: whether or not Briscoe is going to be an upgrade from Hunter-Reay, and how healthy it is for the sport when sponsors abandon the smaller teams for the big ones.

For the past two years, Hunter-Reay has been the undisputed face of IZOD in IndyCar. The series' best American driver (a key selling point) has done more than his share to promote the brand, looking just as good in commercials (including last year's "Race to the Party" campaign) as he has on the track (winning last year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach). He developed as strong of a brand association as pairs like Tony Kanaan and 7-Eleven, Scott Dixon and Target, and Danica Patrick and GoDaddy.com, in a fraction of the time. He was undoubtedly one of the catalysts that got Philips Van Heusen marketing head Mike Kelly interested in primary sponsorship of the series in the first place.

Now, IZOD will put their money behind Briscoe, an Australian driver who's developed a bit of a reputation for choking since blowing the points lead at Motegi in 2009. Last year, he threw away what could have been easy wins at Sao Paulo and Indianapolis by overdriving the car into the wall, and there were even rumors that his seat was in question for 2011. Some sources suggest that Hunter-Reay would have been headed to Penske as part of the deal if Andretti hadn't exercised an option on his contract, but that's a moot point now.

The other issue is sponsorship consolidation. Undoubtedly, the companies that are interested in marketing through motorsports want to be with the best teams, usually utilizing a lesser team to get their feet wet before jumping up the ladder. They're completely within their rights to do so under a free market.

But how good is it for the sport when your top teams are simply poaching sponsors from the lesser ones, forcing them to be the ones to attract new money? This is the second ex-Andretti Autosport backer, Meijer being the first, to defect to the Captain's organization this year. That leaves Michael Andretti in a massive sponsorship hole, even though he has the third best team in the sport.

It's similar to the issues plaguing the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where sponsors almost invariably head to JR Motorsports after a year or two in order to work with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver. It's not important that Earnhardt Jr. only drives in one or two races for that given sponsor per season. The point is that these sponsors get to say they're endorsed by Earnhardt Jr., and it's the same way with Penske's new sponsorship coups.

Of course, at least we're not talking about a team like Dale Coyne Racing losing its sponsor. Were it a smaller team than Andretti, we might have seen one fewer car on the grid in 2011; at least we had already known for a while that Hunter-Reay was going to be back with Andretti, and the IZOD primary sponsorship deal on that car was going away. Their commitment had gone above and beyond the previous stated goal of six to eight races anyway, expanding all the way to 15 events. That won't have to happen at Penske, who can certainly bankroll all three of his cars for the full season if he so chooses.

It's a shame, though, that it will have to come at the cost of the brand's relationship with Hunter-Reay, who had the two most important characteristics necessary for marketing success in American racing: be American, and be able to win. One wonders what RHR would have been able to do in Penske equipment. One also wonders if the brand's campaign will be as successful with Briscoe in the driver's seat.

Only one thing is for certain: IZOD wants to be the best and classiest in motorsports sponsorship. And there may be no better way to do it than to ally with the one of the best and classiest teams in motorsports.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Opinion: A Quantum Leap Back Towards Legitimacy

Those of you lamenting the recent unqualified ride-buyer trend in the IZOD IndyCar Series, take note.

IndyCar's TEAM program - which allocates about $1.3 million to full-time teams in lieu of purse money in 16 of the series' 17 events - has been restructured to accommodate 22, instead of the previous 24, teams.

Those sitting on the sidelines? The second cars of Conquest Racing - which saw five pay drivers take the reins this year - and Dale Coyne Racing, who employed the relentlessly mocked and embarrassingly slow Milka Duno.

With that single step, IndyCar drew a hard line in the ground between who deserves to be there and who doesn't.

Granted, the reality is slightly more complex than that for Conquest. They started the season with Mario Romancini and added Bertrand Baguette in a second car after missing the series' first two events. As the season went on, Romancini yielded to other drivers with more money, and Baguette became the team's lead driver, the two cars' numbers - 34 for the lead car, 36 for Baguette - swapped in reflection. But in the end, the 34 (now Baguette's team), the more deserving team, got paid, and the 36 didn't.

Of course, it seems like a slap in the face to longtime owners Dale Coyne and Eric Bachelart, ex-CART drivers and Champ Car owners. And in a way, it is. These guys have their own side of the story - neither are big-time owners with multi-million dollar sponsorship contracts like Chip Ganassi or Michael Andretti. Neither can afford to employ too many drivers that don't bring at least some money with them.

But, at the same time, they chose to bring on drivers who were clearly miles off the pace. Duno drew the ire of competitors for her consistently slow times, as she has since joining the series. Meanwhile, Bachelart brought on the previously unknown Francesco Dracone, who wasn't much faster in his brief audition with the team, and followed him with Tomas Scheckter and Roger Yasukawa.

Understanding that drivers like this weren't going to cut it if IndyCar ever wants to approach NASCAR again in legitimacy, Randy Bernard and Brian Barnhart had to act quickly. They started by putting Duno on probation over the summer and threatened not to renew her license for 2011; she's not likely to be back. Now the TEAM parameters have been adjusted to penalize the two owners most guilty of hiring unqualified talent last season.

Don't think the rest of the sport isn't taking notice.

While Jimmy Vasser is attempting to retain all three drivers from last year's horror show at KV Racing Technology, he's also talked enthusiastically about putting Paul Tracy, the 2003 CART champion, into a full-time ride after two years of limited schedules. Panther Racing is looking at J.R. Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, for their lone seat. Chip Ganassi appears poised to start a two-car satellite team out of ex-drag racer Don Prudhomme's shop with young American standouts Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball.

And perhaps best of all, after a dismal 2010 that saw the team suffer through poor runs with Hideki Mutoh and only employ Rahal for five races - a long way to fall from their seventh place performance in 2009 - Newman/Haas Racing is testing 2010 Lights runner-up James Hinchcliffe and longtime Champ Car stalwart Oriol Servia at Sebring International Raceway in mid-December with the intent of bringing both to the series in 2011.

There's not a single driver on that list that doesn't have the confidence and respect of the majority of the IndyCar paddock. Most have taken victories in IndyCar, Champ Car, or Indy Lights. The only one who hasn't, Kimball, had four runner-up finishes in Lights this year.

That's a huge jump forward from Duno, Dracone, and Mutoh, and an even bigger jump forward from past backmarkers like Marty Roth, Kosuke Matsuura, and Enrique Bernoldi.

It also puts potential sponsors in a bit more of a pressing position. It's still a free market, under which they can shift money to whomever they please. But in order to tap into IndyCar's highly populated markets, desirable fan demographic, and recent positive momentum, and to make sure that the team they work with gets paid at the end of the season, they have to hire a driver with the chops to put on a good show and not stink up the back of the grid.

And, like it was in the sport's heyday, the only ones lamenting will be the ones who aren't fast enough to make the cut.