Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Wednesday: Blown Calls, Great Racing, and Marketing 101

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/NHRA Pace Laps)
Matt Stallknecht(Frontstretch IndyCar Writer/NASCAR’s Four Burning Questions)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer/Happiness Is)

2014 IndyCar Iowa Kanaan leading
Lots has happened in the world of IndyCar since our last round-table discussion. What was your favorite moment?

Toni: Last time there was nothing, this time there are many things to talk about! Partly thanks to four races since the last time we were here. And good ones too.
Huston: It’s been that long? Wow.
Toni: It’s really pretty much hustle and bustle from here to the end of the season now. Well it’s not so much that it’s been that long–but we met last right before Houston which was a double, and then we had Pocono and Iowa too.
Matt: So much happened this past month. So, so much.
Toni: And like Matt says, so much happened over those three weekends. So we have Houston and those two races, the spectacular racing, whether Aleshin should have been racing so hard while lapped, Andretti not heeding the move over flag, the really wild results and the rookies. And we have Pocono and the attendance thing and the return of Montoya. And maybe Power’s brainfade block. And we have Iowa and the tire wear and the remarkable win by Hunter-Reay. So. Where do you all want to start?
Huston: You brought up one of my issues…Marco and the flag at Houston.
Matt: Montoya’s performance this past month has been a big standout story for me.
Huston: Not to be daft, but are we truly surprised that Montoya has now gotten up to speed?
Matt: With how slow he started, his sudden jump in performance was a tad bit shocking.
Toni: See, I’m not shocked.
Huston: I can,q see that a bit, but I always thought it was inevitable.
Toni: He’d been out of American open wheel since 2000 and it’s not even really the same thing as he primarily ran CART and even the IndyCar series is different.
Matt: Part of me maybe thought Montoya was perhaps past his prime. Boy was I wrong.
Toni: I thought people were being a bit hasty expecting him to be on the podium right out of the box. He gained on it steadily over the season.
Huston: The fact that he’s won may be the most surprising aspect, but for him to be near the front of the field was something that was going to happen. You can question if he may have lost it a bit, but he’s still got some skill and was going to get there.
Toni: I don’t think what? About 8 races is an unrealistic span to expect him to take to get back in the groove. You have to keep the chemistry thing in mind too. New group working together there–not just Montoya.
Huston: Good call Toni. The fact that it took him only 8 races actually shows how good he might be.
Matt: Montoya definitely seems to have his old “competitive fire” back.
Huston: I liked being reminded that his guy on top the pit box also came over from NASCAR.
Toni: I liked that too. I also liked how Montoya now speaks in NASCAR terms and has a guy up there who actually understands that.
Matt: You have to think that’s a boon for chemistry.
Toni: Shall we return to Marco and the flag at Houston? I’m interested in what you all have to say about that. I had the recap so I hit on it there.
Huston: Just brutal. Such poor officiating. And it ruined the race. I felt contempt for IndyCar after that one.
Toni: You mean for leaving him out there to block for that long?
Huston: Exactly. Amateur hour.
Matt: Are we all really shocked that IndyCar found itself in another officiating snafu?
Toni: Yeah. And I know they threw the black flag, but they waited until he’d taken away a 4 second lead to do it. Essentially they penalized him with that and the subsequent penalty, but after the fact. After the damage was done and there was no way to undo it.
Huston: What made it worse to me was the later disciplinary action…probation and $2,500. Laughable. He stayed on track for a number of laps after being given the black flag.
Toni: Yes, he did. Until he’d finished doing what it was he was really trying to do. And it wasn’t trying to stay on the lead lap. He was blocking for Hinch pure and simple.
Huston: The penalty didn’t fit the crime.
Toni: I can’t be the only one who thought it was obvious.
Huston: But yet, they’ve been doing a good job going after Power. It’s hilarious to me. That’s not to say Power hasn’t been at fault as much as they’ve made sure he gets nailed. Andretti skated away with that one.
Toni: Power totally deserved the call at Pocono. That was blatant. I’m not complaining that they did make that call.
Huston: Totally. Wasn’t saying Power didn’t deserve it. But Power noted he’s been nailed a bunch of times this season. Andretti should have been further admonished for not listening to race control
Oh well, Andretti name, right? Pretty much killed the first race at Houston for me.
Matt: I’ve already spoken at length about how incompetent INDYCAR’s officiating is/was, so it’s like beating a dead horse to me at this point. There is no consistency to their calls. But of course, their contemporaries over in NASCAR and F1 aren’t much better.
Huston: Actually, I find F1 to be somewhat decent. As for NASCAR, feel free to throw a yellow any time there’s a dust particle on the track.
Toni: The racing in that second Houston race though was stellar. Did you all notice that Sato and Castroneves went out in just about exactly the same accident? Only difference was Aleshin was lapped and Bourdais wasn’t.
Huston: Indeed.
Matt: That was definitely a strange coincidence.
Huston: Thought the second race at Houston was decent. The one thing they maybe could do is to make the track have a few more passing zones.
Matt: I actually thought about that the other night when they were showing race highlights during the Iowa race.
Huston: Seems way tough to do so there.
Toni: Yeah, and more irony, Aleshin took out Sato again in Iowa. That phenomenon where you have a run in and then just can’t seem to stay away from each other.
Matt: I can’t really decide where I’m at about Aleshin. He seems like an EJ Viso kind of driver to me, albeit with more upside.
Huston: That incident sucked. Poor Sato. That dude can’t buy a break this year and I think Foyt was going to go nuclear on the young Russian driver. Aleshin. He’s got the skills but not the experience.
Matt: I suppose that’s a fair assessment Huston.
Toni: Aleshin strikes me as an odd bird.
Matt: He’s definitely talented, no question there.
Toni: He is all out, and doesn’t seem to take any responsibility for the consequences.
Matt: He needs to be reined in a bit.
Toni: He’s not going to make a lot of friends that way but I am not sure he really cares.
Matt: I don’t think any honest to goodness racer really cares that much about on track friendships
Toni: On the other hand, it gives him the luxury, if you want to call it that, of making a huge mistake on a Saturday and then going out without giving it a thought on Sunday and running second. So I don’t know.
Huston: Well, maybe not about friendships, but certainly the idea of keeping the peace is there.
Toni: Yeah exactly. You don’t have to have dinner together but it makes life a lot easier if the other drivers are willing to give you a break now and then because they don’t dislike you.
Matt: There’s a fine line for sure.
Toni: If you run them over regularly without so much as an “I’m sorry,” then life can be hard down the road for you. OK, you know we have to talk a bit about Pocono attendance. We can’t not hit on it. I think it’s interesting. Yes, attendance was lower than last year for Pocono, but Huston and I seemed to be a bit sunnier on it than Matt.
Matt: Well, let’s call a spade a spade: neither Pocono race was all that exciting and the race was not all that well promoted. Y’all can connect the dots from there. It speaks volumes that neither Pocono race thus far has had a title sponsor.
Toni: I think perhaps they should really consider a bit of a date change next year. OR give it a huge push as a big July 4 deal. Because if the holiday weekend was an issue this year, it will be next year too. They cite that as one possible issue.
Matt: For what it’s worth, I thought Iowa’s attendance was pretty solid.
Toni: I think the traffic snafu last year is another factor. There were some commenting last year they would not be back because of it and we saw it happen to Kentucky in NASCAR so don’t discount it.
Huston: For starters, attendance seems down at all race events in this country. That’s not a scientific analysis as much as the stands just look a bit empty all around.
Matt: The reality of the situation is that Brandon Igdalsky, the head honcho over at Pocono, pretty much did everything except explicitly say that Pocono would not be back on the IndyCar schedule next year.
Toni: It is. Across all series.
Huston: No idea what people in IndyCar are doing to sell their race dates. They’re just not getting people to the track.
Toni: Igdalsky admitted he made the strong statements in advance as an effort to “shake trees” and make a last ditch attempt to boost attendance. So I wouldn’t necessarily go entirely on those comments. After he did say that it was down but they’d have to look it all over and make their decision from there. He softened his stance somewhat. Still not saying it looks greatly positive. But better maybe.
Huston: The question about all this is whether or not the racing is actually decent.
Matt: I read somewhere that one of the big reasons as to why NASCAR really took off in the mid 90s was because of the absolutely copious amounts of tobacco money that went into funding the promotion of the sport. The way I see it, ANYTHING, and I mean ANYTHING can be popular these days if enough money and effort is spent on promoting it. And from what I can tell, there is not enough money or effort being spent on promoting this series. Good racing can only get you so far these days.
Huston: Well, a number of factors went into NASCAR’s growth, but certainly the ducats behind it at the time was big.
Toni: Sadly Matt is right. IndyCar has had some absolutely brilliant racing this year, it’s been buzzed about in the Twittersphere, and yet it doesn’t translate to more butts in the seats. Iowa had a decent crowd but they always have. The test is what will Milwaukee do.
Huston: I don’t feel confident about Milwaukee.
Toni: Here’s what I think it comes down to. IndyCar has a solid devoted fan base. Maybe much of it is international too if you ever noticed the multilingual Twitter posts. It even has a decent casual fan base–it seems a good number of NASCAR fans tuned in on Saturday night. The problem is that it’s not necessarily a large fan base. Like many motorsports, it’s a bit of a niche. Where that gets to be a problem is tracks have to have a certain number in ticket sales or they lose money and they aren’t going to do that just because they like IndyCar.
Matt: Perception is a funny thing. If you could get a savvy marketing team that was able to convince people that IndyCar was the hottest thing on the block, people would start following the sport in droves. Take the NBA for instance: the product in that league is absolutely pitiful and it has been for almost two decades. But guess what? Everyone and their grandmother has started following the NBA the past 5-10 years because ESPN spends an absolutely inordinate amount of time covering the series for no reason other than that they have the TV rights to the league.
Huston: Totally different take Matt. There’s Coca-Cola. There’s Pepsi. And there’s RC Cola. Sometimes you just need to realize your spot and embrace it. If IndyCar is RC, just be RC, but be the best damn RC out there.
Toni: I haven’t started following NBA. Doesn’t matter how much money ESPN spends to push it on me either. I can’t stand basketball and I’m not tuning in for anything.
Matt: IndyCar actually has a good product. If someone actually were to take a chance on the series and put the kind of inordinate amount of time, money, and effort into promoting it like ESPN and other outlets do the NBA, this sport would be healthier than ever. But for reasons that are too hard to explain in this space, IndyCar is not in a position to capitalize on such things.
Huston: Gonna disagree again, Matt. I don’t follow the NBA, but the people I know who do, claim that it’s been a good product the past few years. And you’ve got that LeBron guy who is supposed to be pretty good. IndyCar has no LeBron, no Jimmie Johnson, no Vettel, no Tom Brady. They’ve got Castroneves, but he hasn’t won the championship year after year. All that being noted, IndyCar is an excellent product.
Matt: I’m telling you guys, if ESPN were to all the sudden start hyping up Will Power or Ryan Hunter-Reay like they do LeBron James and Kevin Durant, people would start caring about the sport. It’s extremely sad but it’s totally true: the masses will essentially follow what they are told to follow when it comes to this stuff. If ESPN tells people the NBA is the greatest thing ever, in due time a huge chunk of the audience will start to believe it. “Why else would they hype it up so much?” They might say. Well…the answer is that they fabricated the hype to begin with and the vicious cycle continues.
Huston: So how did hyping that Indy 500 thing work out then?
Toni: Sorry Matt, I don’t agree either. I don’t really know who Kevin Durant is and if I have to hear one more thing about LeBron James I’m going to throw something at the TV. It doesn’t pique my interest or make me want to follow or see what the hype is about because I have zero interest in basketball and never will. If anything, it annoys me and makes me more determined to avoid it at all costs. Not saying I’m typical, though.
Matt: That’s the thing: the hype for the Indy 500 was miniscule compared to what the network puts in to the sports it really cares about. Did you see any of the personalities discussing and dissecting the race for a month? Did you see 6-7 sidebar headlines in a row about IndyCar? No? That’s what a sport needs these days to gain any traction with the masses. You or I might not think this way, but the vast majority of “casual sports fans” do.
Huston: Toni, you nailed it. Look at the reaction to some of my comments about the World Cup. A few readers seemed none too happy that I even bothered to mention it.
Toni: But I’m just saying if people don’t have any interest to start with, I don’t think any amount of money will make them have interest. I think it’s a better plan to target those who are interested in motorsports more directly, even if it is a smaller audience. Convince them why they should watch IndyCar instead of say, Nationwide. And the reason is because the IndyCar race at Iowa was worlds above the Nationwide race this weekend. That’s the point you need to get out there.
Huston: That’s where I am. They would tell you about it more if the interest was there, but it’s not. The things that are getting the clicks, the audience, and the radio listeners are things like Manziel, the NFL, and James or whatever the hell else Skip Bayless is babbling about.
Matt: Yeah, but you guys are missing the point. The vast majority of our readers are extremely hardcore racing fans who generally aren’t swayed like “casual sports fans” are. Casual sports fans will capitulate to whatever the cool new thing is. For awhile it was NASCAR, right now it’s World Cup, a few years back it was golf, etc. And the thing is, you need those casual fans to fill the stands out and inflate TV numbers. That is what this sport is missing, because some of those casual fans will become hardcore fans, you just have to draw them in somehow.
Huston: Iowa was worlds better than the Cup race too
Toni: Yeah if we’re honest it was. Best race of the weekend.
Huston: Matt, totally get the point. What is interesting about what you state however, is that it was the people in the sport as much as the sport. Golf:

What was the best race of the weekend? If you ask this staff, it was definitely the race in Iowa.
What was the best race of the weekend? If you ask this staff, it was definitely the race in Iowa.

Tiger. NASCAR: Earnhardt, Wallace, Gordon. Basketball: Jordan now James. You need a person(allity) to hang the hat on.
Matt: Huston, since you mentioned Manziel, I’ll use him as an example. I would hazard a guess that there is a sizeable portion of extremely casual sports fans who talk about Johnny Manziel and act like he is the greatest thing ever despite never even watching one of his games. People care about him largely because ESPN cares about him.
Huston: ESPN does care about Manziel, but as soon as he doesn’t get clicks or viewership numbers, they’ll move on.
Matt: Long story short, good racing can only take this series so far. Promotion of the sport is the only thing that can take this fine series to the next level.
Toni: But hey, if this past weekend is any indication, and some others this season, we’ve got the good racing nailed down!
Huston: So change of pace…the next race is in Canada. Will the people of Toronto care more about IndyCar then the fans in America?
Matt: Toronto has always been a “pillar” event for the sport.
Toni: The residents of Hinchtown will. Even if he is having a dismal season. Canadian fans have always been absolutely devoted to their drivers.
Huston: Does Hinch keep his ride at the end of season? Another question we didn’t address.
Matt: I think Hinch is safe.
Toni: I think he is too.
Huston: I’m leery.

About the author

A writer for Frontstretch since 2002, and editor since 2006, Toni heads up the NHRA coverage for the site. She’s responsible for post-race coverage in the weekly Pace Laps multi-series round-up along with the weekly Nitro Shots column featuring news and features from the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. An award-winning former writer for the Presbyterian Church, Toni works in web design and freelances with writing in North Carolina.

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