Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

There is an axiom that floats about the business world, "people will tell you what they want, if you just listen to them". The most successful salespersons and businesses shut up and listen, examine that information, and then figure out how to best provide it.

Today the Formula 1 drivers Association also took their concerns to F1 via an open letter to the ownership and directors of that sport, expressing a desire to see better stewardship of the sport with regard to long-term vision and plan. It all sounded so familiar. I even mentally inserted "Indycar" anywhere the words "F1" appeared with very little difference in consistency with issues known in Indycar for decades.

I thought to myself, 'here's yet another example of how Indycar has lead the world of autosport by 10 to 20 years'. We've been dealing with a sport whose organization can be characterized by the public as insular, short-sighted, lacking vision, and reactive since the late 1970s and especially so since the mid-1990s.

The good news for Indycar is, that is a bit farther up the road in dealing with a business 'contraction' than F1 or even NASCAR. The bad news is that the progress has come in fits and starts and is always much slower than the customer would like to see. It also comes at a time when it competes with ever-more diversions for the public, never less.

So how is it then, that a company can be perceived to be so aloof, especially when the lifeblood of its existence (sponsorship and broadcasting rights monies), is based on having eyeballs and ears on the product?

As we draw ever-nearer to the incredibly massive landmark 100th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, we again are reminded so vividly of a sport that has been extremely adept at holding up it's super-speedway, golden era (early 1960s to mid-1970s) as the hallmark of it's existence and implying a parallel with the modern day. 
Those who have lived long enough to have seen those days with our own eyes and ears, always bristle at the comparison and rightly so. The sport today resembles so little of that Golden Era. The fact that we STILL gush more about the innovation of 1961 Cooper Climax, or the 1967 Paxton STP turbine, a full 50 years later than we do about the one that won just 11 months ago, or even two weeks ago, I've always found to be quite telling.

F1 has also been good at holding itself up as the pinnacle for newest and most innovative technologies for decades. It some ways it actually has, but as for the management of the sport, it's still shows a heritage with the Draconian-types of the industrial age. 

At one time, the production auto industry used autosport as a working laboratory for development of better machinery to be translated into the passenger vehicle. Now it appears a new day is dawning in the automotive industry where technology is rapidly changing the mobility vehicle and how we engage with it. Likewise, there is an opportunity to examine those changes and see how autosport can incorporate them into their future.   

I'm reminded of that famous phrase, uttered in front of a shiny, new 'K-car' c. 1981.

I'm not sure if he originated the phrase, but I recall quite clearly for well over 30 years now, Lee Iacocca, then President of Chrysler, making that quote famous via his television ads for the 'new Chrysler Motor Company' - "In this business, you lead, follow, or get out of the way." 

At the time, the car company was attempting to emerge from a terrible recession and bring a new philosophy, optimism, and ambition to the fore. It was a successful campaign in many ways although it didn't solve all of the ills that plagued the company or the industry as a whole.

Autosport is still a reflection of that industry in many ways, especially by being tied so closely to the worldwide auto industry for obvious reasons, but I think the future will hold that the sport who was able to show the ability to listen to all voices of interest (not merely a few select ones), establish a forward-thinking and relevant vision, a clear plan to achieve it, and provide the product that people will demand in the future, will be the most successful. 

Even at it's relative nadir, Indycar can still be a player in that game. Once the celebrations, revelry, and nostalgia of the landmark 100th Indy 500 end, I believe strongly that a new era must begin. One that is bold, exciting, invigorating, and isn't afraid to be something innovative.

"Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free" is the promotional tagline from one my favorite movies, "The Shawshank Redemption", which was adapted from Stephen King's Different Seasons group of novellas. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption represents the season of Spring and is also subtitled, "Hope Springs Eternal".

The character of Ellis "Red" Redding in that story cautions the reader (through a dialogue with the optimistic protagonist Andy Dufresne) that "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane". Later, however, in reply, the character of Andy Dufresne states, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies".

I still hold out hope that Indycar can be the pinnacle of modern autosport it was.

I hope I'll be able to make it to that day.

I hope to be there and shake my Indycar friends' hands. 

I hope that Indycar will be as incredible as it has been in my dreams.

I hope.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

There, Now Don't You Feel Better?

I don't know about you, but I always feel better after the first Indycar race of the season. 

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has really grown on me as the season opener. The first Indycar race is always an indicator (especially here in Northern Indiana) of the impending warmer days and excitement to come.

Even just seeing the race logo is a warming and welcome sight after surviving another 'character-building' season of a Great Lakes winter.  

Several years ago, written in my now-defunct personal all-purpose blog, I noted how much I enjoy this time of year, not only for the budding and greening of my environment, but also with a great run following the sports that I enjoy most - Indycar season opener, the NCAA basketball tourney, more Indycar, The Masters, The Kentucky Derby, and the Month of May all together is really a great way to emerge from the hibernation I've been in most of the winter months (especially when I'm also quite busy with my kids who are competitive swimmers and their season runs from September through March).

At any rate, I found this latest version of Indycars racing at St. Pete was quite satisfying.

Like a sort of homecoming - seeking comfort in experiencing a range of emotions from seeing all of the things that you've come to rely upon every year:
- ABC performing up to their typical levels (with Bestwick well-exceeding that standard despite being under the weather).
- A-bumpity-tip-tap we go through turns 1, 2, and 3 of lap one.
- Somebody suffers a cut tire on lap one.
- A solemn nod to Dan Wheldon.
- Somebody makes Turn 4 into a confetti-shower of carbon fiber.
- Marco unsuccessfully divebombs someone into turn one and ruins his own day.
- Penske dominates the first race weekend.
- Fans watching on TV are reminded how many damned ads they'll be seeing even in side-by-side mode.
- Some drivers take umbrage with other drivers because of something on track.
- Ultimately drivers and fans all getting their race-legs under them for the season.

In a typical year, I'd have made predictions for the season by now. This year, I don't feel the need to prognosticate. I'm just going to sit back and see how it all unfolds. Last year gave us a great deal of (mostly) on-track drama. Too much on the injurious side however, so here's to hoping for a much safer 2016 season that gives us the racing action and drama that we all crave.

Oh alright, fine. I'll make one prediction with a big qualifying statement - Indycar, provided that management stays unobtrusive for all of the right reasons, will enjoy another year of solid growth and the racing gods will see to it that the 100th Indy 500 will give us something rather spectacular and remind us again why we endure the hardships of this sport.

(c) 2016 Indycar

OK Phoenix, you're next. I couldn't be happier about you hosting Indycars again.

Let's see what you've got...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Last Of The Mohicans

In the second book of James Fenimore Cooper's 5 novels comprising The Leatherstocking Tales, the character of Uncas is known as the last full-blooded member of the Mohican tribe of Native Americans who becomes allied within other tribes through marriage and also becomes a valued ally of the British forces in their skirmishes with the French over land in what is now known as Connecticut of the American colonies. Eventually as we know, the Mohicans as well as the other ancient tribes of America were killed off or assimilated into the new world.

With the recent news about the financial contractions of the CFH Racing team in this article, it revealed to me that team owners Carpenter and Sarah Fisher remain the last active team/driver link to the Midgets and Sprint Car connection to Indycars. The last few of the once native and productive link from the small tracks of USAC to the top level Indycars.

It pains me to see this 'last Mohican team', backs to the wall, with massive odds against them, fight to survive. Their brightest driving talent, Josef Newgarden, will also perhaps struggle with results from a team struggling to merely pay the wages.

Much has been made of that once direct pipeline to the biggest race in the world having been essentially severed with the competitive malfeasance of USAC and the advent of CART.  The glory days of running sprints, midgets, and Champ Cars (Indycars) is only a memory for those old enough to also recall a time when Indycars first sprouted wings or when Richard Milhouse Nixon occupied the office that many candidates currently seek. I'm loathe to admit that I am old enough to recall those things and yet I'm merely at the tail end of that generation.

Indycar, and the last vestige of it's Golden era connection to the mighty USAC river of talent that rushed forth with names like Vukovich, Ward, Foyt, Bettenhausen, Rathmann, Jones, McCluskey, McElreath, Kinser, Kenyon, Leonard, Johncock, Rutherford, Unser, et. al., is on the verge of being just a tiny stream that finally dries up.

For me, I'm honestly sad to see it come to this, but on the day that USAC and CART finally and terminally agreed to disagree, I suppose this day had to come. Many have spoken about the fear of a significant drop in attention to this sport after this season. Perhaps fitting that the grand 100th Indianapolis 500 mile race may be the last that actually includes that long link to the past.

So when considering someone to cheer for this year, I challenge the fans not to change your support from your favorite as before, but let's also keep a positive thought and cheer for ol' number 67 - Josef Newgarden - and his team owner, the last of the Mohicans, Sarah Fisher.

Edit: and just hours after posting the above article, it was publicly announced that Sarah Fisher's and Wink Hartman's ownership in the CFH racing team has been absorbed into Ed Carpenter Racing effective immediately. Newgarden will drive the Number 21 and Carpenter the Number 20 for ECR for 2016. 

Fare thee well Sarah. We'll miss you and the 67 in Indycar.