Friday, October 30, 2009

An Open Letter to Trackside

For last night’s Trackside show, Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee solicited ideas for increased visibility for the IndyCar series. What they asked for were quick, sound-bite-y ideas, but anybody who’s read even one of my posts knows that brevity is not my strong suit. Big thanks to Cavin and Kevin for reading the Cliffs Notes version of my ideas on the air, but for anybody who might be interested, the full text of my letter is below.

Many thanks to you and Curt for opening up the “what does IndyCar need to do?” debate for your show listeners. Hopefully, we’ll get some good ideas out there, and maybe some high-up folks will get something to carry forward. I’ve banged on about some of this on both my blog and others’ blogs (George Phillips’s Oilpressure blog, for instance), but I’ll try to do some show-friendly nutshell ideas here:

1) Possibly the most important: increased driver visibility. The most visible people associated with the League are the drivers, so let’s get them out there more. Autograph sessions and Tweet-ups at the tracks are a good start, but the people attending those are likely already fans, so that’s not necessarily enough to bring in new fans. What’s needed is getting the guys (and girls) out in front of some new eyes. There’s plenty you could do here, but I’ll confine my idea to just the following. As an example, the late Stan Fox came to my high school in Wisconsin back in the early ‘90s (’92 or ’93, I think) to speak about highway safety. I’ll not elaborate on the horrible, horrible irony involved there, but I know for certain that between his visit, the short IndyCar video that was played before his speech and the Menard’s show car they displayed outside the gym, there were some very interested (impressionable) minds turned toward the 500 and the IndyCar series the next season. What I’m suggesting is an IRL-sponsored highway safety campaign, done in cooperation with high schools who are either local to IRL races or just scattered around the Midwest, for ease of displaying a show car along with the driver’s speech and Q&A. If every driver could be required to do five of these per season, that’d be 100 or more events per year, times several hundred kids per event. I’m sure that somebody could work up some quick numbers for the break-even point of appearance costs versus additional ticket sales, but I’m thinking it wouldn’t be more than a couple thousand extra seats total for the whole year (and this doesn’t even include the potential increase in TV viewership, since that’s harder to nail down). As a residual effect, sponsors would also be displayed to new audiences, through footage on an associated video and through what the drivers wear to the event (be it race suit, polo shirt, Geico gecko or Ronald McDonald costume [ha!], or whatever), so there is value added for them as well.

2) Holding down costs in order to attract more teams and potentially increased competition. The next generation of cars needs to be made cost effective so that existing teams can afford to ante up for new equipment and so that new teams can be persuaded to come over from other forms of motorsport (Lights, Atlantics, GrandAm, ALMS, etc.). This can be done by standardizing the design of the carbon fiber tub among the chassis manufacturers, but also by limiting the amount of carbon fiber that’s used through the rest of the car. Aluminum and aluminum honeycomb are nearly as lightweight as the carbon equivalents, but less than half the cost. And, as carbon is used more and more in other areas (aeronautics, mainly), it’s not getting any cheaper. Limit the use of carbon fiber to the tub, the sidepod covers and the engine cover, aluminum for everything else (floor, wings, etc.). More teams in the series and the reset in chassis data for all teams (especially Penske and Ganassi) that comes with a new car means more teams that are potentially able to compete at the top of the leaderboard. That’s good for fan interest.

3) New manufacturers will bring more eyeballs to the series, through increased interest from domestic ALMS and F1 fans, and through the increase in advertising that the new manufacturers would likely bring (newspaper ads, TV spots, etc.). There does not need to be a huge escalation of cost with the addition of new manufacturers. First, and with the consultation of the potential new manufacturers, commission a standardized engine control unit with a limited scope of engine control. F1 has recently done this with McLaren Electronics and GrandAm recently accomplished this with Bosch. In both of those cases, the standard controller effectively outlawed traction control, so this would achieve the same for the IRL, along with a turbo boost limit, a limit on the number of engine maps (thereby ripping out the fuel knob, as Pressdog likes to say), etc.. With this in place, engine manufacturers can still attempt to show their technological superiority through means that are expanded from the current spec-engine format, but in a more limited manner than the wide-open late-‘90s. As a side note to this, I understand that a full-season engine lease deal for a Mazda 2-liter turbo engine for the ALMS is under $100,000, and that’s with them using their own ECU and only two cars in the series (i.e. basically no economies of scale). If that’s the case, then why can’t IndyCar set a target for a season lease for a similar engine with a standardized ECU from all of the new manufacturers at $500,000-600,000? That would be 50-60% of the current one, wouldn’t it? Between this limit and making the chassis more affordable (see item #2), you encourage new teams to enter the sport while addressing the financial concerns of all of the current teams by bringing down the price to play. Meanwhile, new manufacturers bring their advertising budgets to the table, along with their activation and increased fan interest.

There’s plenty more that can be done, I’m sure, but these three things are my pet ideas. Upon re-reading all of that, it looks a little long-winded. Please feel free to edit as necessary for brevity, or simply hang onto all of that for posting on The Fan website if you prefer.

There you have it. Any thoughts on any of this? Anybody?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

NASCAR = Nitwits Against Safety; Crashes Are Rad!

Is there a faction within NASCAR who have decided that safety is about the sixth or seventh priority for their drivers, crews and fans? That would be sixth or seventh behind profit, "entertainment" value, profit, column inches written, profit, and maybe t-shirt sales?

Five weeks ago at New Hampshire, A.J. Allmendinger spun out of turn four when coming to the white flag. NASCAR allowed the entire field to run nearly the entire lap before half-heartedly throwing a caution flag when the leaders were coming out of turn four. The "reason" given for doing what they did was that NASCAR wanted to give Allmendinger a chance to restart and get going again. This is absurd. The leaders were all separated by several carlengths, and Allmendinger getting restarted would likely have given very few drivers a chance to take a shot at the driver in front of them on that last lap. Meanwhile, Allmendinger barely got rolling again amid a huge cloud of tire smoke, the field packed up accordion-style coming out of turn four and NASCAR got away lucky with just a couple of cars with bent sheetmetal. Let me repeat that: NASCAR got lucky. Can you imagine what the result would have been if Allmendinger hadn't quite gotten going, then somebody had come down the front straight, unsighted by the cars in front of him, and plowed at full speed into Allmendinger's driver side door?

After the lessons "learned" at Loudon, I'd have thought that that scenario would not play out again for quite some time, if ever again, even if NASCAR seemed to fail to understand that they'd done something wrong when they made statements about the situation in the press. I was wrong. For the second time in the last six races, NASCAR failed to throw a caution flag on the last lap of a race while a car sat stationary on the front straight, boradside across the track. This week at Martinsville while coming to the white flag, John Andretti spun coming out of turn four with a little help from a couple of other cars. Yet again, NASCAR allowed the entire field to run the full lap, at a track where the leaders would be arriving on the scene in 10-15 seconds. This is not a time or a place to trust that a driver is going to get a hot race engine restarted in a time-effective fashion. The only difference this time is that NASCAR never did throw a yellow flag, though they yet again got lucky in that the only result was some bent sheetmetal by cars packing up while trying to avoid the stationary Andretti.

I am certain that the "reason" that will be given for both of these events is because NASCAR wants races to finish under green flag conditions. I understand that, though I've made it patently clear in this blog on several occasions in the past that the desire to finish the last lap, or last half of a lap, or last turn at the expense of drivers' safety is idiotic. I remain convinced that a Green-White-Checkered finish will kill a driver, or worse yet, a fan or several fans, at a restrictor plate race sometime in the near future. We have had huge accidents on the last laps of the last two restrictor plate races at Talladega and Daytona this year, one with a car getting up into the fence and injuring several fans and the other with a car coming dangerously close to doing the same.

What has been NASCAR's response to these accidents? Nothing. Not "no more black and white decisions about yellow line infractions" and not "no more blocking allowed". Nothing. NASCAR is simply crossing its fingers that the accidents that we've seen are the absolute worst case scenarios and that nothing bad will ever happen again.

There is no question that the first priority for racing sanctioning bodies should be the safety of the fans, followed by the safety of its drivers. Failure to ensure that your fans are safe from flying race cars is an invitation to be bankrupted by a litigous group of families who have had family members who have been killed at one of your events. No disclaimer that's printed on the back of a ticket stub will prevent a talented prosecutor and a sympathetic jury from relieving a sanctioning body of tens of millions of dollars. Or, prevent congress from instantly stopping all of your activities, should they find that there was something that could have been done to prevent the massive loss of life of patriotic taxpayers.

It's not 1950 anymore, NASCAR. It's not enough to put SAFER barriers on all of the walls of your tracks and come out with a car that's marginally safer than your last one and then call it a day. Unless you continue to take action to ensure the safety of all of your participants, you deserve any bad things which come your way in the future. Here's hoping that I'm wrong and that you're right in your inaction, but I doubt it.

Let's see what happens at Talladega next weekend...