Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Not Good Enough


It doesn't seem so very long ago when we were all left in stunned disbelief following the death of Dan Wheldon, October 16, 2011.

Maybe it's because it hasn't been that long really. 

Now resigned to the terrible result of another all too fateful moment on Sunday, I finally had to take a moment away from my work duties this morning to read what I wrote in the hours (of shock and disgust with the sport) and days (of 'Indycar family' and hope) following Wheldon's death. 

Seeing the television footage of the helicopter rising from its mid-track perch at Pocono on Sunday was an all too familiar scene and one that left me suspended between disbelief, despair, and hope. 

I told my kids this morning about Justin dying before they left for school. Certainly far from ideal timing but I also I didn't want them to not hear it from me. 

Nick, Justin, Ellie. Milwaukee 2012.
Photo: (c) Lynne Zehr
My daughter is a casual fan who could name several drivers and recognize a few by face. My son has a bit of deeper interest and knows most every car and driver visually. In the case of Justin Wilson, he represents a rare moment that they both shared with him in Milwaukee back in 2012. 

He had just finished a TV report of his riding the Milwaukee Indyfest ferris wheel with a young fan and was heading back to the paddock. We just happened to be walking nearby and asked for a quick photo opportunity with him which he so graciously, and so ridiculously-commonly, obliged. 

That was over three years ago and while my kids have grown so much when compared to the picture, they both remember this moment quite vividly and fondly. Both were saddened to hear the news I had to share with them this morning. 

I was equally sad to have to deliver it.

Having just surpassed my recent "Gurney Eagle/Jerry Karl/Foyt's third entry" birthday, each year seems to bring more energy into my brain for more existential pondering - "what, if any, is the purpose and meaning of life?"

You may have also read my recent post with the same question bent specifically toward the sport of Indycar. Having little remaining hope that Indycar will ever be any sort of genuine 'innovative and working future-thought laboratory' for auto manufacturers as I'd dream, I have finally come to grips that this sport is set-up primarily as an entertainment vehicle which sells thrills and tradition and nostalgia in direct support of the Indianapolis 500 and the benefit of those who own the event and property.

"Duh." might be your response. 

Fair enough, but I bought in early and heavily into the ideals found in automotive innovation found in the golden years of auto-racing (c. early-1960s to mid-1980s). Giving up on that ideal has been difficult for sure as it represents, to me, all that is good about people - the unfailing human desire to achieve and progress - working together to improve the things in our lives and the world around us.

That flicker of optimism found in human nature as reflected in the form of automotive racing has finally been extinguished for me. So what is left is simply a sport as entertainment vehicle. 

What is left is simply not good enough. 

This sport, as we are all too-well aware, is horrifically brutal. There are moments of thrilling performance to be sure, but when things go wrong, it seems it is always in spectacular fashion. I've written before about the 'the long dark thread' woven into the fabric of autosport. Sunday was evidence that thread is long and continuous. 

And so here we are again.

Another death. 

Another widowed family. 

Another horrible event in a long list of horrible events. 

It seems that only numerous, and somewhat random factors, align to produce these darkest of events which often leave us with nothing else to ponder but "why?" Could every single death of every single racing driver and fan have been prevented somehow? Of course, but it's always that strange alignment of wrong thing, wrong place, wrong time. 

In pursuit of something so uncommonly amazing, such as landing a human on the moon, the risks are significant and great and their achievement stands as incredible historical human events. People lined up to be selected for those ridiculously dangerous roles because their desire was so great to risk their very essence to be a part of that history.

For me, Indycars racing around tracks on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon for the benefit of thousands watching in person or on broadcast are not of such gravitas. Likewise nor do I think the similar risk of life is worth the paltry sums of either glory or riches we have today in autosport, and Indycar specifically.

Therefore, I simply find no good, remaining excuse you can give me why the safety of the competitors (and crews and fans) isn't paramount anymore. You may want to argue with me whether safety is or isn't paramount, but following and understanding what has happened in this sport over the last 40 years, I'm of the informed opinion that cost-containment, not safety, is at the forefront. That isn't to say that the current cars aren't amazing in how they protect drivers and fans, but that safety needs to be at the forefront of autosport design now. 

The time for making only reactionary improvements in safety has long passed. These people aren't sound-barrier or moonshot pilots, they're highly skilled drivers of cars for entertainment purposes. I have no desire to see people on either side of the fence get maimed or killed for a paltry bit of entertainment. 

What we have is simply not good enough. 

Justin Wilson knew all too well the risks involved. By most all accounts he also was a very thoughtful and genuine person who spoke often of his concerns for the safety of fans and drivers alike. We know there are significant risks that have existed for several years and still need to be addressed as evidenced by the most recent injuries and fatalities from cockpit intrusion in autosport, and especially over the last seven years. I call for this issue to be addressed now via development of the full enclosure of the cockpit from all manner of intrusions. End of story. It will take nothing away from the sport and it's enjoyment. 

Not just incrementally better but BEST driver protection should be the new hallmark.

No amount of tradition, nostalgia, or perception of danger is worth this. No excuse you can give me for not immediately pursuing, testing, and incorporating designs fully-enclosed cockpits in Indycar is acceptable. Anything short of this is not acceptable and I'll go one further and propose that NO MORE Indycar racing should occur after Sonoma until this is properly done. 

What we have is simply not good enough.

I'm telling everyone in the positions of power and rule over the sport of Indycar - I will not watch people die anymore for the sake of mere entertainment. 

No reason you can give me, or Susie Wheldon or Julia Wilson or whomever the next is to be widowed by this brutal sport, is good enough.


What we have today is simply not good enough.

 
Right now, this sport is simply not good enough to go on.








Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Alternate Realities, Part II

Back again folks. 

During the in-between days where the luster of the Indy 500 becomes patina and the pomp of season culmination not quite here, I dare to fill that space with something that most other outlets do not - rewrite the amazing and rich history of Indycar's biggest event, The Indy 500.

Knowing that between the fates, Racing Gods, and free will, something amazing can and often does happen. I find it refreshing to not simply rehash and parse history, but to ponder "what might have been".  

Some of the richest lore comes from events that seemed destined for a certain end if not for the intervention of fate's final twist and newest Indy legend born.

I think of some of those events, that nine times out of ten would turn out differently and more predictably, yet didn't, forever changed the future course of the race itself. 

From time-to-time, I'm going to offer some of the most influential twists of racing fate in Indy 500 history. I hope you enjoy this installment of Alternate Realities:



1967 - Something We've Never Seen Before:
The 51st Running of the Indy 500 set for Tuesday, May 30th, 1967 was one of the most historic before any race laps were ever turned. A wildly innovative car was brought by Andy Granatelli to the speedway in 1967 - the STP Paxton turbine. Utilizing a helicopter jet engine and four-wheel drive, the totally purpose-built car incited as much fear as curiosity in the racing community and beyond. While I was not present to observe this car and the reactions of those around, it is generally noted that the reactions centered around one of two - disapproval for how it could affect the integrity of the Indy 500, or wide-eyed curiosity for what it could mean for the future of racing and production automobiles. 


The end-result however was one of heartbreak and disappointment for Granatelli, STP, and all those who developed and supported it. With just under four laps to go, after leading 170 of the 196 laps, an inexpensive but invaluable part failed in the transmission line sending the disturbingly quiet turbine car to an even-more-shockingly silent end and A.J. Foyt into victory lane for his third time, tying Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, and Mauri Rose for most Indy 500 wins.

Now let's engage some imaginative thought; just forget the history as it exists and travel down a new path...


The $6 transmission bearing survives another 240 seconds of use and the incredibly wild, incredibly brightly-painted and futuristic STP Turbine, becomes the latest in a rapid progression of innovative cars to win the Indy 500. Rufus Parnelli Jones joins Milton, Vuky, Ward and Foyt as two-time winners of the 500. With the incredible and dominant win, USAC's attempts to shutter (outlaw) the turbine are met with surprising push-back from manufacturers and fans alike who are excited and ready for jet propulsion as the future of production vehicles. Chrysler, GM, and Ford all rush to begin turbine-powered factory racing programs.  The internal combustion engine soldiers on for another seven years, winning only once more (via the venerable Offy), before going the way of the front-engined chassis at Indy. 

Parnelli goes repeats his wins with two more Indy 500s (in 1968 with the turbine motor and again in 1970, after being recruited by a rival team, ironically recording the Offy's final win) becoming the first person to win four 500s.  Parnelli subsequently retires from racing in Victory Lane only to join STP Granatelli Racing in 1971 as a team partner and overseeing the Chrysler factory NASCAR jet-engine racing program. 

By the mid-1970s, all major forms of motorsport employ various configurations of smaller turbine motors while production vehicle sales for the first turbine passenger cars off the assembly line are staggering. With surprising initial reliability, multiple fuel options, and quick public acceptance, the 'jet-age' is ushered in.  All manner of styling is affected, from clothing to appliances to architecture.



The internal combustion engine soldiers on in rapidly-decreasing numbers in passenger cars but still with primary use in farm and heavy equipment. Never again is the internal combustion engine seen as being near the forefront of propulsion technology.



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Perception Is Everything



"There are things known,
and things unknown, 
and in between 
are the doors of perception"
- Aldous Huxley

With a relatively late-in-the-day 4-hour drive home from the Milwaukee Mile Sunday night, and my fully-tired 11-year-old son asleep in the co-pilot's seat, I had some extended solitude with which to consider my very enjoyable weekend in West Allis, Wisconsin. 

Typically, I'll stay off Twitter while at a race because I am a big advocate of simply filling your senses with the many inputs received during a race.  This beautiful Sunday, however, tweeting while watching the racing as moments allowed, came much more easily than in other recent events (Indy 500). While doing so, following others' comments via twitter confirmed for me my belief that the intake of the product in-person and for those not on-site is different and that those differences are quite marked.  I also noted that even at various locations in this relatively small venue, the experience is different. 

Reflecting during my drive I was left with many positives over those 36 hours, but also two crucial items that I believe strongly Indycar must concern themselves with: what the product is and how to best manage its perception (or reception). Since I've already written about the existential ennui of Indycar multiple times, I'm going to take aim at how it's perceived.

During practice and qualifying, I took a seat near the end of the front straight in the front row, just 15 feet away from the cars at speed. 179 mph trap speeds at a range of 15 feet or less is close to mind-blowing, and especially so when watching them negotiate a seemingly-impossible 180-degree, flat-arc change of direction over the next five seconds. 

Much as you have, I've seen in-car camera views of them going upwards of 235 mph, but being in-person and so close, even at 180, is the best way to really sense how fast they're going. For the race, my seats were near the same point of the straight but within 3 rows of the top. Huge difference in perception! 50' above and approximately 75' away from those cars (see pic - P = Practice, R = Race). The cars look fairly fast yet fairly benign from that location.



Imagine going from standing on a sidewalk proximity to a 7th floor window view across a four-lane street. Sure the overall view is better, it simply isn't the same experience in any regard.  I've always been an advocate of sitting as closely as possible as it seems in direct correlation with how amazing the sensation of the cars speed is.  

Herein lies my point - Indycar MUST be able to give as many fans as possible this experience. Even if not everyone could sit in Row 1 and see them speeding by, to have this in practice gives a new perspective on just how fast these cars are, even at "just 180 mph". 

The perception that the racing isn't very thrilling unless masses of cars are heaped on top of each other goes away quite rapidly when you see just one of these cars ripping by you that closely at speed. You can quite easily see the difficulty of their proposition and to then consider a tightly bunched pack is, in fact, lunacy.

Getting more fans closer access needs to be a priority even in the age of moving fans farther away from the danger. It's imperative that the fan see just how amazing these cars are and as closely as possible. Finding a way to also get that sensation communicated via a camera to a remote viewer is a challenge even-bigger although the in-car cameras begin to approach it. 


I've yet to see the TV coverage from this weekend but I'm sure I'll be quite amazed at how poorly the sensation of speed comes across. Other forms of racing may be suited for the types of camera angles we've seen for decades, but Indycar would do itself much credit to develop an entirely new way of receiving the product for those not in attendance and also figuring out a way to emphasize how being in-person is the best way to see it.

I can't even remember how many times I've said, "TV doesn't do it justice".  Perhaps no other sport I've attended reflects this sentiment quite as much.

Blow up the decades-old methods of visually presenting Indycars at speed from high above and a wide-angles.  

Give us a view and a sensation that is totally unique and amazing.


Editor's Note: I'll have some continuing thoughts on this subject as a guest blogger over at Oilpressure.com tomorrow for the Brainstorming Series.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"I have but one question" - Existential Ennui In The Summer Of Our Discontent



"Now is the summer of our discontent
Made glorious winter by this sun of Anton;
And all the clouds that lower'd upon IMS
In the deep bosom of racing buried."


In paraphrasing Shakespeare's Richard III, I am comparing the rise and fall of not only the oft-maligned leadership of Indycar by Anton Hulman George, but Indycar itself. 

It is interesting to me that nobody is more narcissistic or wants to believe just how fantastic Indycar is more than the sport itself, its fans, and its leadership. 

NO-body. 

Hubris, people... hubris.

A fantastic and wildly unpredictable race on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana Cali-forn-aye-ay, and subsequent social and traditional media storm in the following 48 hours was as exemplary a modern Indycar event that you'll ever see. 

If it were possible to quantify this statement, I'd proclaim the 2015 MAVTV500:
 
the single-best, highest-quality, overall Indycar race ever, that was seen and appreciated by the fewest people in modern (post-1979) history.

Talk about exclusive. For better and worse. 

That's Indycar 'in a nutshell'. 

It's in my nature to be inquisitive. Perhaps to a fault. Maybe I should have gone to journalism school and become an investigative reporter, like this guy who brought down the massive FIFA scandal. Journalism bad-assery of the sports variety at its best, but I digress.

I'd like to suggest that the most important thing we might do to help is to challenge ourselves to take a huge step back and look inward at the sport from the outside. I'm talking big, big wide-angle view of Indycar here.

Imagine you are NOT one of the approximate 500,000 (or 00.0083%) humans on this planet who follow Indycar. If you're reading this, it's quite likely you are a fan already, but please try. 

~ IF we are to take the leap and assume my posit about the quality of this race relative to the total audience worldwide is fairly accurate, my question is, "WHY?"

~ IF Indycar has such great racing (even applauded publicly by much more famous drivers from other disciplines - via Twitter et. al.), why is it not wildly successful and more popular?

~ Why does Indycar struggle to gain any TV ratings of significance (which, as we know, serve primarily to bolster media ad buys, increase exposure and sponsorship for teams and the league, leading to better financial stability and security)?

~ Why does Indycar struggle with ticket sales in such low demand to the degree that venues have little desire or financial incentive to host a race?

Which, therefore, leads me to wonder - does it matter that Indycar exists at all? 

"Why does Indycar exist and for what purpose?"  

Here's where I ask for your thoughts. In the comments please try to step waaaaay back from the sport and clearly, concisely, and honestly illuminate your answer for me in one or two sentences/less than 50 words.

I have a thought in mind already, but I want to see what you say.  No snark, no bile, no humor, just honestly and succinctly answer the question.

If the Indycar ownership could also do that for me, we'd be well on our way to solving some things.




Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Future is Now


February 25, 2017 - Austin, TX

Good morning everyone from sunny Austin, Texas and welcome to the first on-track open test of the inaugural season of the 2018 RedBull Hypercar Series.

Ever since the purchase of the nearly-defunct Indycar series by RedBull in late 2016 and the subsequent debut of the RedBull X1 chassis as the spec chassis for the new RBHS, fans have flocked to to the internet, track, and television to get their first impressions and follow the development of this amazing "hypercar" powered by a very unique, hybrid propulsion system. 


Fascinated by cutting-edge auto-racing, yet also unhappy with the fractious divides, polarization, and lack of transparency in the governance of F1, RedBull founder Dietrich Mateschitz vacated his teams and money from Formula 1 and devised his own series, and made an audacious offer for the failing Indycar Series that the Hulman and Company board could not refuse.  

The concept for the new series, born out of the twilight of the Indycar Series following the 100th Indy 500, was to open a new outlet for forward-visioning, single-seat, monocoque, single-spec chassis, incorporating a hybrid propulsion of various internal-combustion motors and electrical motor systems. 


Multiple settings will exist for the motors and even can be altered during the race based on strategy and in-race conditions. Teams will be allowed to devise their own fuel of choice prior to the race (from traditional ethanol, methanol, compressed natural gas, or biodiesel) and also their own downforce configurations from the bodywork options as well. 

Paid winnings will also be coupled with a points system including a graduated bonus system for minimal energy input usage.  A baseline for energy units (combustible fuels or electrical storage in the battery configuration) will be established for each race. Teams exceeding the baseline will receive a graduated-scale of reduced winnings while teams staying below the baseline will receive an increasing scale of bonus winnings and points in addition to their placement payout.


The new Redbull Hypercar Series will incorporate sprint and endurance racing, and span two divisions (one each in the South and North American continents) culminating in the Inaugural Championship of the Americas to be held at Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas in October 26-28, 2018. Each division of the Series will contest their own race series. Based on the results of those 'seasons', each division will produce 8 contestants for the final Championship race with a purse of US$20 million going to the winners.

Several existing racing teams from the former Indycar series have shown up for this weekend's testing fielding multiple cars piloted with an illustrious list of drivers for the new series.

In the North American Series, 12 events in the US and Canada will be held on a variety of race circuits, and run from May to late-September. The Central and South American series will see 8 races hosted in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, with the season running from July to September.

The Top 8 teams from each division will contest the final 6-hour race at COTA with the Champions receiving the all-new traveling RedBull Hypercar Cup Trophy.


The inaugural 2018 season will launch in North America at Mazda Laguna-Seca Raceway on May 5th, with stops at Indianapolis on May 27, Road America on June 9. Night races also feature in the North American series including stops at Daytona International Speedway (road course) in late June, and again in Indianapolis for a 12-hour endurance race on the road course in late-August. 

Excitement and interest in an American racing series has not been seen like this for decades. Citing pre-sales of tickets already well-beyond 50% capacity at many of the venues, RedBull expects the inaugural season to be a success with likely expansion of new divisions to Asia and Europe following in 2019.




Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Sex and Genetics of Indycar Fandom


People may be surprised to learn that my blog is written totally off-the-cuff and with no preconceived idea until I get behind the keyboard in earnest. I've always done this intentionally to produce something immediate and genuine. Some posts are half-baked, others fully. Today's post is no different so only you will judge it's bakededness.

I'm going to just come out and say it: I've been enjoying this season of Indycar more than I have in many seasons prior.

The conversations surrounding it, even between previously aligned die-hard fans have become increasingly less comfortable, mostly highlighting more of our very personal preferences and illuminating our differences. It's beginning to remind me of the various levels of discomfort people have in talking about religion or politics or sex.



In professional sports I appreciate intrigue, variety, uncertainty, and urgency, but also a well-ordered game and consistency in fair play. Not easy to find but is why I have a few beloved favorite sports to the exclusion of many.


Aside from the near-panic that Indycar exhibited in Indy after the practice issues with the Chevy cars snap-oversteering at their limits, becoming airborne, pitching/rolling, and leading to a decision to modify both Honda and Chevy kits in the interest of pragmatic conservation of risk (and, in my opinion, unfairly penalizing Honda), I've enjoyed the original concept and subsequent drama and differentiation that has resulted from the aerokits. 

With little drama on the power front, the motors have been prescribed to produce very similar overall power, just slightly different power bands and torque points, but in relation to the differences in aerokits, essentially so similar to not be noticeable.


This season has also added drama off the track for fans (and owners), seemingly producing a significant divide in opinion on the worth of aerokits in relation to the on-track product that we haven't seen in many years. In the case of some newer fans, they've never seen this type of racing atmosphere at all. Love them or hate them, the differences are quite pointed. 

It appears that for people with a marked interest in Indycar racing, you appreciate very specific things: the markers of the distant past - open specs and ingenuity; recent past - single-spec racing (one larger, tightly-bunched packs with minuscule differentiation in performance and aesthetics); or you like more of the current racing - varied-but-similar-spec (multiple, smaller packs with more differentiation in performance and aesthetics).

There is also a longstanding gulf between oval-only fans and those that appreciate some twisties. Sounds like we've got ourselves enough traits to make a Punnet Square (hurray for high school Biology lessons paying off again)! Let's examine what kind of Indycar fan you are..



I'll admit I'm squarely OI dominant with RI as a recessive trait.

Where do you fall in this? 

Are you and your racing mates compatible?  In some cases, I see how those with opposite results might seem suddenly so foreign to us.

If you have offspring, what will your kids most like?

Insert your tongue-in-cheek, take a little time to be totally honest with yourself, regardless of the environment of the sport today, and think about what you most like, what you moderately like, what you are averse to, and why. 

At risk of making some readers even more uncomfortable, I'll walk out on a limb even further and suggest that what kind of Indycar fan you are based on this punnet square also correlates to the type of love-maker you are. Do you prefer more "strategy" and "set-up" or rather the lowest-cost, lowest-risk route to "victory lane"?  Is high-speed or accel/decel your game? Perhaps a stretch, but without question more research would be needed to examine that hypothesis further.

Regardless, the key to using this tool is understanding yourself, then employing your time to finding joy in what you like. Indycar fandom or otherwise.





Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Greatest 33 - 2015 Post-500 Edition (aka Rambling Indy 500 nerdery alert)


Without deigning to delve into Detroit's drenched driving debacle, this week's post will focus on the update to my Greatest 33, post-2015 Indy 500. If you recall the post prior to the race, I pondered how this might change depending on who won, lead laps, and finished in the top 5. Change it did.

After a few very minor tweaks to the formula prior to the 2015 Indy 500, I had reconciled the slight discrepancy in weight of winning versus the other statistics I use to rate the drivers. It had a very slight effect in that by increasing the value of a win and a pole by approximately 10%, relative to everything else, and decreased a top 5 finish by 20%, winning is as important a criteria as ever. Some drivers who've enjoyed more success in winning poles, received a slight upgrade, versus those who may have won but perhaps lead fewer laps, or managed a top 5 for example. 

As you may recall, I also have my own "Last Row Party" made famous by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation members for the rather dubious honor of starting in the last row.  My last row is a specially designated place for the three best ever to have never won. Essentially, I have a Greatest 30, plus three with careers of significance, but lacking that final turn into victory lane.

Found as the cover photo on @groundedeffects Twitter, here is my Greatest 33 following the 2015 Indy 500 results:






Here's a closer look by groups of Rows...


Rows 1 - 3: Unchanged due to Helio not adding a 4th win to his tally.

Rows 4 - 7: With the slight change in scoring Franchitti gains one spot over Fittipaldi by virtue of an additional win, but still so very close overall (4 points or 00.31%) . Bill Vukovich also gained a spot over DePalma and yet another difference so slight (11 points/01.16%) it's almost a crime either gets the nod over the other. Scott Dixon won a pole, led many laps and gained another top 5 finish. If Dixon had won, we'd be looking at him moving into Row 4 between Mario and Dario. Aside from Montoya, 'the Iceman' made the most gains in places (4) from inside Row 8 to outside Row 6.

Rows 8 - 10: Dixon's upgrade sent Parnelli back into Row 8 and in another quirk of numbers, he also lost a spot to Kanaan who leads by a nearly infinitesimal 3 points (or 00.32%) difference. Assuming Kanaan races in another 500, he will likely surpass Milton, and move out of this group into Row 7. Landing in this group from outside the Greatest 33 is the biggest mover overall and this year's winner, Juan Pablo Montoya. From a non-descript spot among single-winners, JPM vaults up 21 spots into inside Row 9. Jim Clark also loses 3 very closely contested spots with Bill Holland, Billy Arnold, and Jim Rathmann gaining a spot by virtue of the formula modification. 

Montoya's promotion also relegates another driver from the list. Did you notice who it was? Unfortunately for his cadre of fans, the bespectacled and thickly-mustachioed Bobby Rahal drops from the list into the great beyond. Perhaps Rahal the Younger will avenge his family's name and appear once or twice himself. 

Row 11: Unchanged although it is worthy to note that Marco Andretti is the highest rated active, non-winning driver currently. Barring a win, Marco could very likely unseat Rex Mays with just two or three more top 5 finishes or leading another 140 laps. Would two Andrettis cruelly book-ending the futility of the final row be something the racing gods intended?


And my current criteria for selecting these drivers:


Several active drivers were added to my list as they all stand a chance of being part of the conversation should they win a 500. Among the remaining active drivers, Hunter-Reay and Marco are the two leading active candidates who could possibly bump their way into the Greatest 33 grid, the rest will need more than a win to get close to making the top 30.

It's also noteworthy that at this point, two wins basically solidifies you into the Greatest 33, putting Hunter-Reay in the "first alternate" position. One-timers Mario, DePalma, Dixon, Kanaan, Parnelli, and Sneva all seem to be quite solidly in for the time being. There are more single-win drivers (48) that of all other multiples combined (19),a nd only 10 have made the list, so to be a single-winner and make the Greatest 33, requires an outstanding career. 

Let me know what you think about the latest legacy of The Greatest 33..





Tuesday, May 19, 2015

We've Been Here Before (aka Existential Ramblings)

It's Indianapolis.

It's May.

It's the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and all that accompanies it.

Speed. Danger. Thrills. Drama.

This Sunday will be my 28th Indy 500.


In light of the recent uproar regarding the on-track incidents of the past week, (largely from those voices with a marginal or myopic understanding at best of the history of this event), it should also be noted that those who can frame last week from a larger, more historic viewpoint, see this as nothing terribly unusual nor panic-inducing as some in the broadcast media might.

The above was my previous post idea in process for today and I've since changed my thought process in light of the particularly graphic description by this Racer article that was released today describing the injuries sustained and the subsequent life-saving treatment by the Holmatro Safety Crew of James Hinchcliffe yesterday. 

In times like these when circumstances violently remind us that our racing heroes are in fact mortal, my thoughts seem gravitate to one inescapable truth of auto racing:

No matter how dissonant our love of the thrill, and our dislike for the inherent danger required at the highest levels, auto-racing, and more specifically, Indycar racing, is a brutal sport. Nowhere is it more glorious or more brutal than at its most hallowed ground - The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A curiosity surrounding the spectre of death seems to be an integral part of the human psyche. There are many forms of auto-racing but it seems at the grandest of "Cathedrals of Speed", Indycars racing at Indy have a way of most-markedly forcing us to confront this dark part of our psyche. 

Speed, thrills, crashes, injury, and death represent the long dark thread woven into the otherwise colorful and vibrant fabric of auto-racing. That long dark thread also serves to remind us all that despite machinations otherwise, there is a delicate fragility to life and shockingly so when juxtaposed against those brave ones who inspire the rest of us by risking life and limb. Their risk traded for mere glory and riches. 

I believe I understand the need or near-fixation of many to participate in that arena, but let's also not forget that they do it, ultimately, because we pay to watch them do it. 

James Hinchcliffe is another in a very long list of those who have exhibited the appropriate skills, weighed the consequences, and assumed the risks in trade for our money and adulation.

"Hinch" is now another in a very long list of those who also have traded sinew, tissue, blood, bone, mental faculties, and life essence in trade for our money and adulation.

Culpability begins at home. 

Culpability begins in the family car, the RV, the Bus, driving to the ol' Speedway, wearing specially printed shirts and 51-weeks-pre-paid tickets in hand. 

We cannot, as willing witnesses to the immense inspirations of their glory, also selfishly turn a blind eye in their darkest of moments. Drivers, crews, families, and fans are all bonded by the acceptance of these non-negotiable terms.

After all these years, I think only in the last year or two have I reconciled my feelings of immense guilt and culpability when the awful things happen with the immense satisfaction and joy when things go so very right in this sport. 

This Sunday, in Speedway, Indiana, I'll accept that I'm there to see something amazing and satisfying with the knowledge that I could also, at any point, in any turn, by any driver, see things go horribly wrong. I don't revel in that thought, but I do accept it. Just as I am there to see amazing, so are the drivers there from a desire to produce it.

Perhaps that is why the reverence for this cathedral and those who've chosen to compete there grows in me with every passing year. I feel a sense of duty to return, and to toast with a drink, in celebration of the courage of these racers in their grand success and to exhibit proper reverence in their moments of pain.

May this Sunday be filled with celebration.





Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Where Amazing Happens / Alternate Realties

One of the most enjoyable parts of the Indy 500 is not only the amazing and rich history of the event, but knowing that each year is an opportunity to see something amazing. 

Some of the richest lore comes from events that seemed destined for a certain end if not for the intervention of fate's final twist and newest Indy legend born.

I think of some of those events that nine times out of ten would turn out differently, more predictably, yet didn't, forever changing the future course of the race itself.  Over the next few weeks, I'm going to offer some of the most influential twists of racing fate in Indy 500 history and offer some alternate histories:



1987 - Mario Is Slowing Down:
The 71st Running of the 500 should have been the most uninteresting of modern history. Dominating the entire month's practice speeds through qualifying and even the Carb Day pit stop competition, Mario Andretti looked poised to finally shed the "Andretti Curse" and win his second Indy 500. Leading from the drop of the green flag, Mario led 170 of the first 177 laps of the race, losing the lead only briefly during pit cycles. On Lap 177, Mario was cruising to a seemingly easy victory when an electronic fueling malfunction occurred forcing Mario to the pits. His car never recovered and from there we know the rest, Roberto Guerrero assumes the lead after being over a full lap down to Mario, only to stall in the pits on the final stop allowing a further lap down Al Unser, Sr., to assume the lead.  'Big Al' hangs on to win his fourth after being rideless just 13 days prior.

Now let's engage some imaginative thought; just forget the history as it exists and travel down a new path...


Mario wins the 1987 Indy 500 in a runaway victory. He and Michael go on to finish 1st/2nd respectively in the points title for different teams. Newman/Haas, seeing the extreme value in having the two together, expands to include Michael for 1988, driving Lola/Chevrolets for 1988. Struggling initially, they hit their peak at the 1988 Indy 500 with Michael defeating Mario via a late-race restart and becoming the first (and only to date) Father-Son pair to finish 1-2 at Indy.

Kraco Racing (Michael's previous team), starts the 1988 season with Al Unser behind the wheel and has predictably steady results due to the combination of the March chassis, Cosworth motor, and Big Al's tempered hand on the wheel. Near the end of the 1988 season, Kraco Racing is absorbed by Rick Galles Racing forming yet another formidable father-son team combination with Al Jr. for 1989.  The Andretti-Unser "family feud" begins and runs through the 1992 season when Mario, Al Sr., AJ Foyt, and Rick Mears all retire.

These 'Legends of the Brickyard' leave a massive hole in the sport with their retirements - AJ with 4- 500 wins, Mario and Al Sr. each with 3, and Mears with 2.  Mario comes out of retirement for the 1993 Indy 500 and finishes second to Michael again.


Al Unser, Jr., never makes it to victory lane in 1992 and never utters those famous words, Emerson Fittipaldi never becomes reviled as he was for drinking orange juice in 1993. Andrettis go on to to place three different family faces on the Borg-Warner, totaling 6 wins, Mario 3, Michael 2, Marco 1.  

 


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Legacy of 'The Greatest 33'


I am, perhaps, quite predictable. 

I can't possibly know this, however, unless evidenced by others. 

For those that know me well, they register only faint surprise when I produce one of two sports-related anecdotes; one that employs use of comparative statistics, or one that reflects my nostalgic nature.

Today's post is a little of both.

As a nostalgist, a willful tethering to the past is standard operating procedure for better or worse and when it comes to the subject of Indycars and the Indy 500, I am tethered thusly. So on a day like yesterday, that deep spring day when the cars begin their first ovoid circuits of The Track in May, I eagerly recall familiar places and things past from the greatest of all speedways. 

One such thing was a website that silently orbited the internet, maintaining its critical function for only a few years, until it was taken down, it's original mission essentially complete. IMS produced an interesting site for the 100th Anniversary race in 2011 called The Greatest 33. While the site his since been taken down, it produced much fodder for Indy 500 fans and I also participated in assembling my own 'Greatest 33'.

The process for doing the original was enjoyable and so I've been fairly diligent in maintaining a spreadsheet with the formula I used and data entered to make my selections (only active drivers with wins or with many years of experience need updating). Every year around the start of May, I open it again and review it for 'accuracy'. In other words, I ponder whether I feel that the formula used is still fair and producing 'accurate' relative rankings. I've never been one to rely on totally subjective feelings and thoughts when considering something of this magnitude. Mine is perhaps quite the opposite. I rely first and foremost on the statistics of performance as this is my personal preference for assessing the Greatest 33.

One exception I made to the hardness of the numbers was a play on the "Last Row Party" made famous by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation members for the rather dubious honor of starting in the last row.  My last row was to be made a specially designated place for the three best ever to have never won. Essentially, I have a Greatest 30, plus three with careers of significance, but lacking that final verse of the turn into victory lane.

Here is my Greatest 33 following the 2014 Indy 500 results:

Rows 1 - 3:

Rows 4 - 7:

Rows 8 - 11:


And my criteria for helping select these drivers:


As you can see, emphasis is weighted heavily on winning the race, with additional consideration for Top 5 finishes, Poles won, Laps lead, and making the race. Michael Andretti, Ted Horn, and Rex Mays are the three highest rated non-winners at the expense of Buddy Lazier and Sam Hanks. 

For 2015, I am considering tinkering very slightly with the amounts of weight between these categories and also have given an intangible additional consideration for those who've also held track records or currently own a track record. 

I'm actually quite happy with this list although I think fair arguments could be made for other drivers in the one-win and no-win positions. This is how I choose to delineate my "Greatest" from the "merely great" or "very good". 

What is of most importance and most exciting to me now is seeing what changes from year to year with the active drivers moving in the list. 

Will Helio, Dixon, or Kanaan, gain an additional win and move them each into the most rarefied of air in my Greatest 33? 

Can Carpenter, Marco, Hunter-Reay, Montoya, or even Lazier move into the discussion based on their results this year? 

What do you think of these cold, hard, numbers that marginalize the likes of Lloyd Ruby, Dan Gurney, Gary Bettenhausen, Jules Goux? 

These are things I enjoy pondering and makes following along consistently much more interesting. 

Let me know what you think about the legacy of The Greatest 33..




Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gordon Moore's Law and Indycar

It's been over 50 years since those heady days of the 1960s science and technology boom in the US. Electronic (vacuum) tubes were soon to be replaced by an interesting, solid-state device, known as an integrated circuit board. (What was it about the 1960s that made it so damned amazing anyway?)

Gordon Moore was one of three scientists and partners who came to be known as the founders of the company Intel.  They developed their ideas, leading also to the development of solid-state memory devices (i.e RAM chips) and many other advances, which in turn, also begat the rapid advancement of not only computing machines, but also the manufacturing processes that were developed to create these amazing technological tools. April 19th, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of a paper released by Gordon Moore which later became more widely know at Moore's Law.

Still not ringing any bells? 


Don't worry, I didn't hear any bells either until I read this Economist article today regarding the 50th anniversary of Moore's Law. Moore realized in 1965 that the microchip with all the capabilities of it's solid-state integrated circuitry stated that the technology to produce microchip and to continually shrink the transistors would then allow for a doubling of transistors per unit of space in regular intervals (he settled on every 18 months or so), leading to an exponential increase in the ability of those circuit boards in addition to the decrease in cost to produce them. Largely his prediction held true, not for the 10 years as he foresaw, but nearly 50 years, longer than most ever agreed his "Law" would last.  

Eventually the increasing limitations of physical space lead to what is now being seen - a reversal of the decreasing per unit cost to produce to achieve that same or declining rate per area of microchip. (This is where the Indycar light bulb went on for me). 

In fall 2011, (maybe you were one of my tens of readers then) I wondered out-loud about the limitations and diminishing returns from increasing costs related to producing a leading-edge Indycar. Indycars (always in search of that next big idea to win the Indianapolis 500) were the working experiments in the laboratory of auto-racing which included design, manufacturing processes, and performance technology. From the early 1960s, steadily increased performance came with astounding regularity (and increasing budgets) until the early-1990s when it became no longer economically viable to build these amazing machines.  

The cost to produce a winner was becoming highly prohibitive to all but those who could be counted only on a bad-shop-teacher's handful of fingers. Even the "unlimited" strata of F1 has hit a ceiling where costs and technology are outrunning those who would put resources to them.


So when considering how Indycars could be much better, don't forget that at some point, power, speed, efficiency, technology, AND economic input per unit ALL reach a point that simply cannot be overcome. We found it in Indycars much sooner than with microchips. 

There was a time when the automobile was still new, out of the ordinary, looked upon with fascination and reverie. I grew up in the era when computers, for all their lack of personality, were also these amazing, cantankerous boxes that did increasingly amazing and streamlined tasks. 

So in better understanding that these are the times in which we reside, the current Indycar is quite serviceable for me, adequately and fairly delivering a racing product of enjoyment for those who partake. Short of blowing up the whole paradigm and having a totally unlimited format (including budgets), this is our Indycar, post-Boomer world.

Four generations since the automobile saw rapid development, and two since the computer did the same, the luxurious showroom shine is well and truly off the 'Apple' and we'll likely see neither automobile nor computer with quite such fascination again. 

I can't even imagine what the next big thing will be. 

Please just don't let it be artificially intelligent android/robots. 

They're simply WAY too creepy for me. 






Tuesday, April 21, 2015

J.W. von Goethe and the Ever-Esoteric Indycar

There have been several treatises written by many much more skilled than I dealing with the sturm und drang surrounding Indycar and it's TV ratings (which is oft used by media and advertising folks to indicate its relative popularity in our culture, and, in some cases, to indicate relative worth in the commercial marketplace) so I shall not attempt to add to it.

Oh, wait. I already have. Back in 2012, here. Another one of quality by our long lost comrade in Indycar arms, Pressdog, can be read here. Read those in your free time later. For now, just understand that we've covered much of this ground before, and reference the continually, relatively small TV ratings outside the Indy 500 as a backdrop to this post.

Today's Indycar Word of the Day is: Esoteric


esoteric adjective es·o·ter·ic \ˌe-sə-ˈter-ik, -ˈte-rik\

1 a : designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone (a body of esoteric legal doctrine — B. N. Cardozo)
   b : requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group (esoteric terminology); broadly, difficult to understand (esoteric subjects)
2 a : limited to a small circle (in esoteric pursuits)
   b : private, confidential (an esoteric purpose)
3 : of special, rare, or unusual interest (esoteric building materials)


For this writer, attempting to express ideas through words are typically a source fun and 'esoteric' is among the most enjoyable for me to throw out in conversation or print. Regardless, I find this word especially useful to frame what I saw as a very good race at Long Beach last weekend. 
For a sport that is already quite esoteric, to continually heap upon the negative comparisons to the glorious past of 50 (or even 25 years ago) serves no good.

You may think you're doing the sport a great service, but you're not. It is pure folly and unfairly shackles the sport to something it cannot possibly be. It reminds me of a younger sibling who becomes a freshman in high school, only to continually suffer the unfair comparisons by possibly more glorious elder siblings' friends and teachers. To have these comparisons and judgements awaiting you, before you have a chance to develop your own identity, would be highly infuriating. Perhaps you were just such a sibling and can identify with this feeling, but I digress...
My point to all this can be summed up by a quote I came across yesterday attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - influential writer, statesman, and all-round free-thinker from late-1700s/early-1800s Germany. The english translation of his quote is,
"the hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes"

What is currently (and has been for a few years) in front of our eyes is the gilding of a new group of Indycar legends. 
Yet nobody seems to care.
Scott Dixon scored his 36th career win in Indycar at Long Beach last weekend, surpassing the golden-era legend Bobby Unser, and moving to 5th all-time, a full year quicker and in 17 less starts that 'Uncle Bobby'.  
Let that sink in for a bit.
I'm not going to attempt arguments which bring in subjective comparisons based on the sport or vehicle history - only the hardest, most basic statistics. We can certainly view them all through the lens of their time but I find it increasingly hard to say one era is better than another based on conditions of the time. Liars figure and figures lie, correct?
We are in a time when new legends such as Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais recently retireds Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy, ALL are in the top 15 in career wins.
These drivers, some of whom are permanently gone from the cockpit, or likely soon to be, are legends in their own right, yet most often we only hear and celebrate the voices of those who continually lob mortars at the sport's façade, quite unfairly damaging this current generation of legends. The worst thing, the absolute WORST we do as fans is depreciate their status.
(c) Jeff Gritchen - OC Register
I'm making an concerted effort to eliminate the unfair comparisons with the sport's past. The drivers of today are legends in their own right, living in the shadows of the sport's earlier legends, yet they've earned the right to be treated as such. 
The subdued congratulations from TK and Helio on Sunday, seemed akin to a knowing nod that despite the weight of golden-era legends and their esoteric, nostalgic fans before them, they do understand their place in the sport's pantheon.
If only more Indycar fans did as well.