Welcome to the IndyCar Round Table! Several times throughout the season, your favorite writers will get together to discuss the latest IndyCar news, rumors and so much more!
*This Week’s Participants*:
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch IndyCar Editor / Michael Annett Driver Diary)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer)
*Tony George resigned his position on the board of Hulman & Company last week. He was part of the effort to buy INDYCAR that had the rumor mills working overtime since May. Does his resignation end the takeover bid and the drama? Thoughts on what is really going on here.*
Huston: I’m thinking it actually increases the likelihood that he tries to put together a group to buy the series. I think it’s a move to get out from under the Hulman family dynamic.
Toni: I’d like to think what happened is they actually gave him the ultimatum leave or we will throw you off and allowed him to save face and that it will signify the end of the drama of the buyout / ouster of Randy Bernard. I’d like to think it was really an effort to rid the series of negative influences and get back to thinking about the business at hand.
Huston: I’d love to agree with you, Toni, but the family just seems not to have any idea of what to do with Tony. He’s kind of existed as a outlier for a while now. It also serves as a way for him to court backing and make it a full-time endeavor.
Toni: On the other hand, it seems too easy and I worry that George has something else up his sleeve and this move is just part of it and it’s not over yet. I can’t figure out why they let him back on the board anyway. It seems obvious, at least now, that it was just a way for him to get a foot back in the door and realize his goal of taking back over.
Matt: Oh, it most certainly does not mean it’s over. He resigned because it would have been a massive conflict of interest, or at the very least a PR disaster, to orchestrate the takeover from a position on the Hulman Board of Directors. By resigning, he is no longer subject to the forces of IMS and IndyCar leadership and he is now free to assemble whatever dastardly plan he has in mind without anyone telling him he can’t do it.
Toni: The sad part is the quote from him where he says he wants what is best for the series.
Huston: Sure he does — that just means him running it.
Matt: In Tony’s eyes, “What’s best for the series” is equivalent to “I want to run the show.” I firmly believe, however, that Tony really is convinced that he is in the right on all issues related to IndyCar.
Huston: The question that lies under this move is: where does he get the financing? Who is backing him?
Toni: I realize it’s hard to see our own shortcomings but, and it’s not a slam as much as it is an honest question because I’m floored by it, can he really not see the truth? First, if he visits any fan forum or just reads some fan comments on the stories out there, he’d see that the majority of fans speaking up say they are done with IndyCar for good if he takes over.
Huston: Fans are typically full of bluster. Those kinds of comments don’t surprise me.
Toni: Second, the series was losing millions and millions of dollars under him. That was the biggest reason for his ouster to start with — the massive losses. Fans were losing interest, attendance was diving… what about his tenure in charge was good? And I don’t think it is all bluster, Huston, from the fans. I have to say I feel the same way.
Huston: First, I think Tony might live in his own vacuum. Second, the owners were complaining that they were losing money with the parts contract this year, so maybe the series always loses money. But maybe many of the owners, read: Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, believe they can control Tony more so than Bernard.
Matt: There have been studies which have shown that some politicians and business leaders are born with a certain ability to literally convince themselves of certain viewpoints all the way down to their cores. It’s believed that is how politicians can convincingly change their position on issues seemingly overnight. I’m more or less convinced that Tony George is so convinced that he is right on the issues that face IndyCar that no amount of facts, logics, or numbers will convince him otherwise. He is like those politicians in that sense.
Huston: To whit, Matt, I believe the adage is: tell a story long enough and it becomes the truth. That seems like Tony.
Toni: And I am firmly convinced letting him gain control would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to IndyCar.
Matt: You nailed it, Huston.
Huston: As far as the fans are concerned, if they put on a good show, most won’t care.
Toni: I don’t think the owners need to be able to control the management anyway. The fact that they can’t in NASCAR is why NASCAR works.
Huston: Like I asked: would Tony be a puppet to the big owners?
Matt: It most definitely would not bode well for the health of the series. The only positive that would come out of a Tony George regime would be an oval-centric schedule, regardless of how well those races sell tickets.
Toni: So the bottom line, though, here is none of us believe that the resignation is the end of the behind-the-scenes drama, is it?
Huston: No way. I expect it to ramp up and get more asinine.
Matt: The show has just begun, Toni. It’s just the first step in what will inevitably be another power struggle. We just have to hope the current group in charge of IndyCar is resilient enough to stave off George and Company.
Huston: Maybe an alternative question is: How do we think Bernard is doing — and not just in comparison to Tony?
Toni: On the financial front, Bernard is not losing money at the rate of George. From what I understand, but for the China race falling through, Bernard would have broken even this year. However, one of the reasons George lost money was because he bought the cars and the engines for the teams in an effort to try to keep enough cars on track to race. Bernard doesn’t. Interesting, though that the owners now complain about the costs.
Huston: It comes down to whether current owners are willing to divest themselves of the series (which would say a lot) and how big a financial package Tony can arrange.
Matt: Bernard has done C+ work at best. The on-track product has gotten better in certain aspects but not egregiously so, plus TV ratings have been awful during his regime. And don’t even get me started on the horrid scheduling.
Huston: Scheduling — that’s my wheelhouse! Egads.
Matt: Bernard has done a nice job repairing the image of IndyCar and he has a good vision for the sport’s future, but he has failed to execute on a number of key points, at least in my eyes.
Toni: As far as the health of the series, Bernard can’t make people come to races or watch on TV but I really think he’s trying to do things that will bring back fans. Yeah, I know the oval thing, but we’ve had that discussion about at-track attendance and it’s tough to argue against having an event weekend street race that draws three times as many people as an oval in the middle of nowhere.
Huston: Toni, are you making a dig at Pocono being on the schedule next season? But I agree, with regards to the image. He’s getting it right; now, it seems like it’s time to make a big step forward. Too many moves still seem shortsighted.
Toni: No Huston, I love Pocono being back on the schedule and I don’t think it’s in the middle of nowhere at all.
Matt: Bernard’s solution to struggling attendance is to move races away from poor selling tracks to street courses with small attendance capacities that fill up with curious, casual citygoers. I would have more respect for his efforts in the scheduling arena if he actually tried to address the attendance issues at oval tracks instead of trying to remedy it by moving oval race dates away to trendy street courses.
Toni: You know, here it is for me in a nutshell. There was a period in the early-to-mid 2000s where I really thought IndyCar was gaining some ground–and that was under George — and then it went horribly wrong somewhere. The only reason it survived is because CART / Champ Car went _more_ horribly wrong. That’s when the George family ousted Tony. As for Randy Bernard, I think he’s got great ideas and great vision, but he hasn’t always realized those things as well as I think he could have, and for me, it seems to be going more slowly than I’d like. But that might be me being impatient.
Matt: I’m really not sure where it went wrong either, Toni. I think it may have had something to do with a general apathy for American open-wheel racing stemming from the ’90s schism that reached a crescendo in the mid-2000s.
Huston: I think Bernard sometimes doesn’t know how to handle the media and the garage, that’s one of his problems. He needs to stay above the fray. By getting into those skirmishes, it seems to devalue his power.
Matt: I agree, he needs to delete the Twitter account and keep the behind the scenes stuff behind the scenes. Tony George is not done yet; it’s only step one in his effort to retake control of IndyCar.
Huston: Get ready for tabloid-worthy idiocy with regards to this situation. Let’s hope it doesn’t hinder the on-track product.
*Now that the schedule has finally been released, thoughts on 2013 and looking ahead to 2014 for tracks that perhaps didn’t make it on this year?*
Matt: I was incredibly disappointed by the final schedule. It was mostly more of the same from the past two years and the oval / road / street circuit ratio remains completely lopsided.
Huston: 2014? The series looks that far ahead? I never knew. As for next season, already I see two problems, one being the two-day races, and the second being the oval issue. Right there with you, Matt, there are certainly other ovals out there that the series can use, but I heard of no attempt to negotiate to get them on the schedule.
Toni: I had hopes of more different venues, I must admit. Maybe that’s our fault for speculating where there wasn’t anything to really back it up.
Matt: I’m not even sure what to say about the doubleheader weekend garbage. To me, that’s just a massive cop out to get to the magic 20 race number that Randy was boasting about.
Huston: The doubleheader thing has the chance to be a total mess. How many cars does a team have to bring to the track? Will the fans really care to watch the same race twice? And yeah, Matt, it’s a total crap ploy to get to the magic number Bernard wants. Though the problem with that is Bernard’s number is actually a good mark to hit — just not like that.
Toni: I think there are a few tracks that were in discussion that didn’t make it to 2013 that are still in play going forward. And from what I understand, now that NASCAR has dropped Montreal, they are interested, but it was too late to get it done for next year.
Matt: I know for a fact that Kentucky just barely missed the cut, and Michigan is very keen on getting a date for 2014. The Italian track Mugello is also very deep in discussions with IndyCar for 2014, so if they can nab those three tracks it would be a huge step in the right direction.
Toni: The Italian track is a fascinating development, I think.
Matt: But considering the fact that Randy was only able to nab one of the reported five ovals he was courting, I have little faith that it will get done.
Huston: Right there with you. And why go to Michigan when it’s the same freakin’ track as Cali? I thought the goal was to get some variety. Hadn’t heard about the Italian track — that would be interesting. Maybe add another track in France or England and make it a European swing, which would be a solid move.
Matt: Also, don’t hold your breath on this one, but there’s a rumor that Monza, the F1 track, might be a part of a package deal with Mugello if all that comes to fruition. If Monza were to happen, it would instantly become the best and raciest road course the series visits.
Toni: I don’t know. It almost sounds like 2013 is almost a placeholder year, with the double-headers a stop gap and that 2014 is the year to look forward to.
Matt: That’s what they said about 2012, Toni, and look what happened.
Huston: The problem with using F1 tracks is that Indy risks its own identity by trying to be too much like the monolith. I’m actually happy Indy has avoided the Austin track thus far, even if the Houston move is lame.
Toni: I actually agree with that, Huston. I don’t want to be viewed as subordinate to F1.
Matt: The one huge positive from the 2013 scheduling is that with the addition of Pocono (which is arguably the best new track to grace the circuit in over a decade), IndyCar finally has a Triple Crown again. Having three major, marquee events is a huge deal for this sport, and the manner by which they promote these events will play a huge role in the series’ success over the next half decade or so. I absolutely cannot understate how important adding Pocono and retaining Fontana was.
Huston: Good move on Pocono. Not real thrilled with the rest of the schedule. And the month-long break late in the season will do the series no favors — they don’t need to race into October.
Toni: I agree, but they need to step up and hype that Triple Crown — give it the big promotion.
Matt: I agree completely, Toni; those races need to be treated with at least 75% of the hype given to Indy. If the Indy 500 is The Masters of IndyCar Racing, Pocono and Fontana are the U.S. Open and British Open of IndyCar Racing. Let’s treat them as such. NASCAR needs to step up their game where major events are concerned, too, but that’s a story for another day….
Huston: I won’t hold my breath for the IndyCar hype machine — they haven’t really nailed that component much lately.
Matt: I’m not holding my breath either, but there’s no doubt that it needs to happen.
*Feeder Series. Most people have no idea what the feeder series are, what the progression is, or who any of the drivers running in them are — what can INDYCAR do about this situation? Should they even be worried about it when they have their own publicity issues, or would building on these levels help at the top too?*
Matt: It’s a shame, really when you think about it. IndyCar has by far the best and most organized feeder system in all of motorsports, and it is absolutely hidden from the general public.
Huston: My issue with being concerned about the feeder series is that the big series doesn’t even have mass interest / coverage. It’s hard to get wound up about who might make it to the show, when the show isn’t that big either. I think Indy Lights coverage could be better — there seems to be a relative dearth of info in that regard. And that’s the final stepping stone.
Matt: So much of it is out of INDYCAR’s control. Until the main series can make a bigger splash in mainstream circles, there’s just no room to fit the Indy Lights stuff in there.
Huston: My hope here is that with NBCSports taking on the F1 contract and keeping INDYCAR, I am hoping they devote a good deal of time to their investments and start showcasing different aspects of racing. They could move into being the new SPEED channel (now that it’s supposedly going away) or, at least, a kind of SPEED, Jr.
Toni: I don’t think it’s all out of their control. For instance, I went to look up info on that series on their own website. News is not too difficult to find, but trying to find info on the drivers and the points wasn’t obvious.
Huston: Toni, that’s the problem. You had to look for it. It should be pushed rather than just sitting out there, hoping someone finds it. NASCAR pushes Nationwide and Trucks.
Toni: That’s my point, Huston. I went in search of it — and I didn’t give up until I found it.
Huston: Seems like work.
Toni: Yes, and when you go to NASCAR.com it’s easy to find Trucks and Nationwide. I would say that even fans who really only follow Cup could at least name a couple of Nationwide guys. Maybe even a couple of Truck guys. I would say when those guys move up, fans have at least a vague idea who they are.
Matt: The focus at this point really should be on Indy Lights if they want to promote the Road to Indy stuff at all. Star Mazda and US F2000 are very small, quasi-regional series that would be of little interest to mainstream viewers no matter how well they are promoted. Indy Lights, however, could be very interesting if it is promoted correctly. With Indy Lights, they need to make sure they have a companion race with the big show every weekend, boost the TV production quality, and do a better job of marketing the up-and-coming superstars.
Toni: Cup fans know who Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is even if they don’t watch Nationwide. Quick — who won the Indy Lights championship?
Huston: Some guy.
Toni: Tristan Vautier. I would guess most fans have heard of maybe three guys in that series. Maybe. Saavedra because he’s raced IndyCar. Bryan Clauson because he was in the 500 and raced NASCAR. Maybe Chase Austin because he looked at NASCAR, but only diehard NASCAR fans might get that one.
Matt: Here’s what it really comes down to: the only way Indy Lights will gain any traction is if some kind of Joey Logano-esque phenom makes a big splash in the series. I’m talking about a marketing sweetheart like a 16-year-old kid with uber talent or something along those lines. It has to be someone that just is so extraordinary that the general public takes interest.
Toni: Here’s a thought — yeah, I know the top series needs to really get a foothold but look at the stars of IndyCar right now.
Matt: If you can even call them “stars”…
Huston: Same stars, same story — it seems for the past couple years.
Toni: They are not getting any younger. No one heard of Josef Newgarden until he showed up in IndyCar this year. Those guys in Indy Lights, whether thy are Joey Logano-esque or not, are the future. And IndyCar is going to have a big personality problem — or lack thereof — in a few years when all the current stars start retiring. I think you can call Castroneves or Franchitti stars, Matt. But those guys are late 30s or 40 something.
Matt: Exactly. So one of the Indy Lights guys needs to be spotlighted and earmarked for big time future success. I almost think it would have to be a minority who is very young for it to make any sort of mainstream splash. I was just being facetious Toni, but I agree with you. There’s going to be a dearth of star power in a few years, and there’s no one who appears to be able to fill the void.
Huston: There’s the rub — the series needs that mainstream splash, a driver that the GMA crowd will care about, much like Jeff Gordon when he started winning. One could argue that much of the rise of modern popularity of NASCAR began with Wonderboy — Indy needs that kind of situation.
Matt: Exactly, and at this stage of the game it would have to be someone like a Danica Patrick or a Darrell Wallace, Jr. You need that Tiger Woods figure who can reignite interest in a sport whose mainstream shine has long been dulling.
Toni: Do you mean Chase Austin? Because if you look at the Indy Lights rundown, he is what you are describing. If you recall, NASCAR courted him as part of their diversity program.
Huston: Right. Despite the criticism, Ms. Patrick had a lot to do with Indy gaining eyeballs. That’s type of marketable commodity to get the series into the mainstream.
Matt: He would have to start winning with some frequency, but he is a possibility. I was thinking more along the lines of a super young gun, like a 16-year-old kid that the mainstream could kind of “get in on the ground floor with” so to speak, much like what happened with Tiger Woods. I’m just not sure IndyCar is in a place where they can effectively boost the clout of their minor league series.
Huston: If the concern here is trying to hype the feeder series, INDYCAR would be wise to just focus on trying to push Lights a little more. Make sure the races are televised and re-aired. But in reality, the focus still needs to be on the Izod Series. They haven’t done a good enough job selling that one to actually overextend themselves into Lights at this point.
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