(by Steven Cole Smith blog.caranddriver.com 2-2-15)
Because we’re cockeyed optimists (or at least cockeyed), we have to assume there’s a plan percolating somewhere inside the office at 4551 West 16th Street, the Indianapolis address that houses the main offices of IndyCar. Among the highly paid and exceptionally well-dressed executives that work there is Mark Miles, chief executive officer of Hulman & Company, which not only oversees Clabber Girl baking powder and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also the IndyCar Series.
(Pause for a kick-ass piece of trivia: What exactly is a “clabber girl”? Well, prior to the invention of baking powder, cooks used a variety of items to leaven baked goods, including sour milk. Milk was “clabbered,” or soured for several days, so it could be used for leavening. Presumably, then, a clabber girl is a girl who sours fresh milk. Insert your own Rachel Maddow or Ann Coulter joke here.)
Mark Miles looks a little like a younger version of automotive executive Bob Lutz, so he immediately engenders within observers an impression of both competence and mild unease. He has become the face of IndyCar in the aftermath of CEO Randy Bernard being sent packing in 2012. But where Bernard was an unabashed, if initially uninformed, cheerleader for IndyCar, Miles seems more like an uncomfortable custodian there to stem the bleeding. Presumably he has not done a bad job—IndyCar remains the “Number-One Open-Wheel Series In America,” just as Clabber Girl is the “Leading Baking Powder in the United States.” But exactly where IndyCar goes from here is anyone’s guess.
It was Miles’s decision—based on a study he commissioned—to end IndyCar’s season early. In 2014, the last race was on August 30, as the study suggested that, given a choice, it would be unwise to go up against the almighty NFL. This makes sense on many levels. But a 2014 season that began March 30 and ended at the end of August provided just five months of activity and seven months of, well, inactivity. There is no press agent extant who can keep the sport at the forefront of minds and media coverage for seven race-free months.
Arguably, NASCAR’s February-to-November juggernaut of a schedule is exhausting, but there’s a lot of time on the calendar to build momentum in terms of public interest. (And to lose momentum, and to build momentum again.) Yet as IndyCar tries to do the same leading into its 2015 season, two strange things have happened, the first being that the series announced on January 28 that Brian Barnhart, the IndyCar race director from 1997–2011, would serve as race director for 2015.
This is remarkable because several drivers and Barnhart did not, shall we say, see eye-to-eye during his last tenure as race director. In 2011, Helio Castroneves said this: “It’s impossible to accept the decisions of a race director who is inconsistent, who issues different punishments to identical situations, and who is condescending with some and harsh with others.” That same season, an animated Will Power flipped off, with both middle fingers, race director Barnhart on live TV, after the latter had drivers restart a race at New Hampshire in the rain that resulted in unfortunate events.
The move to give Barnhart back his old job also did not go over well with some avid fans on a prominent racing website. One post asked, “Do the people who run IndyCar get up each morning asking, ‘How can we screw up today?’ ” Another response said, in part, “How is this man still affiliated with open-wheel racing? This man couldn’t run an amusement park go-kart track, and every single fan knows it. I’m at a total loss right now.” Amazingly, the website in question is the official IndyCar site, which at least can be commended for allowing a wide-open expression of ideas.
Whether Barnhart is the best man for the job is, frankly, irrelevant. But when his re-appointment results in such visceral reaction from fans who care enough to go to indycar.com, one wonders if there wasn’t someone out there who could do this job and not rile so many people.
Then came the second major blow in less than a week: IndyCar’s heralded return to Brazil, scheduled to be the season opener March 8, was canceled by that country’s government last Thursday. To add insult to injury, apparently IndyCar found out pretty much how the rest of us did: via news reports.
Terracap, a government-run company that owns the Autódromo Internacional Nelson Piquet host racetrack, pulled the plug just one day after the race promoter announced a title sponsor and said that two-thirds of the tickets were sold. The government is in financial trouble and it seems the race became a casualty. While the series is not to blame, it’s nevertheless a black eye for IndyCar and a disappointment for Brazilian drivers like Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. Losing Brazil also means the 2015 season now will open, once again, at Saint Petersburg on March 29, making the 2015 season longer than the 2014 season—by one day.
All this adds to ongoing IndyCar issues, including a lackluster TV deal and a field of competitors that no longer includes well-known drivers like Danica Patrick, Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, and Dan Wheldon. Aside from Castroneves, Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Power, IndyCar is somewhat short on stars.
Having Montoya back in the field after running NASCAR is a positive, but even accomplished drivers like Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay haven’t resonated with the public. And famous-last-named Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal need to start winning to do IndyCar much good, as does James Hinchcliffe, who could be a next-level personality. Further, of the top 10 drivers in 2014, the only Americans are Hunter-Reay and Andretti. Of the 36 who earned points in 2014, 11 are American, and that includes non-full-timers Kurt Busch and Buddy Lazier.
But there are plusses. For one, new aero kits will debut at Saint Petersburg that hopefully will make the cars look somewhat different from one another. Aside from the choice of Honda or Chevrolet engines, IndyCar was a spec series with all teams running the same bodies, chassis, and tires. (Of course, if one of the approved aero kits turns out to be more “aero” than the others, that will become another headache for IndyCar to deal with.)
The main thing IndyCar has in its corner is some damn good racing. It’s damn good on ovals, damn good on road courses, and damn good on street courses. The Indianapolis 500 remains, far and away, the most anticipated race in America. Long Beach is always a success. High-quality competition is, as you might suspect, a key ingredient in creating a compelling racing series.
And despite early concerns, the Dallara DW-12 car introduced in 2012 races very well, seems pretty safe, and the looks have even grown on us. The engines are reliable and the sound isn’t objectionable. In fact, IndyCar president of operations Derrick Walker has yet to really put a foot wrong. Further, now that Dan Andersen has taken over Indy Lights in addition to the other “Mazda Road to Indy” formula feeder series, Indy Lights should actually become something worth being proud of, no longer running eight-car fields and using 13-year-old unbadged Infiniti engines.
So why does IndyCar seem so stagnant, so lacking in forward momentum? Why can’t it seem to capitalize on the continuing and often confounding popularity of Formula 1? We don’t know. But we do now know what a clabber girl is. Hopefully that counts for something.