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Can Bernard Turn Around Indy Racing?

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I think many, myself included, were a little surprised when the IndyCar Series decided to look outside of the racing world to select its new CEO, Randy Bernard.  In fact, Bernard had not even seen an IndyCar race before taking the reins of the series back in March.  The move has certainly raised the hopes of many in the racing community that have longed for a new direction for years now.  The IndyCar Series was formerly run by Tony George since its founding in 1994.  Last year, George retired / was fired by his own mother / up and told the world to pound sand (circle your preferred answer), opening the CEO position up to a fresh face.

Randy Bernard, CEO of the IndyCar Series. (

Randy Bernard, CEO of the IndyCar Series. (

Now, to be sure, Bernard brings some mighty fine credentials to the table.  He helped build the Professional Bull Riders from nothing to its current level of popularity, which bodes well for Indy racing.  But Bernard may be in for one of the biggest professional challenges of his life.  For if George -- who had full access to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cookie jar -- couldn't keep this thing afloat, how will Bernard -- a complete outsider to motorsports -- have the resources and insight to turn it around?

With only two months in, it's obviously impossible to draw any firm conclusions about Bernard's impact on the sport.  All we have to go on are the things he's said and done so far.  From what I've gathered, this has primarily amounted to 1) A desire to re-connect with grassroots racing while fielding the "best drivers in the world"; 2) Learning and absorbing from Indy car insiders (read: the team owners); and 3) An open mind to try new and different things.

Let's look at each of these things individually, starting in reverse.  I pray that trying new things isn't a veiled reference to "The Gimmick".  The Gimmick has been employed hastily over the past couple of years, much to the chagrin of anybody with a sense of dignity and uprightness (think red and black tires, power-boost buttons... ohh I don't know... "Danica Mania!").  These silly superficial things only serve to harm the integrity of the sport (though they do generate a hearty laugh, let's give it up for that).  Please please please no more gimmicks.

The second point is an easy one.  If Bernard is learning the Indy ropes from the team owners, we're doomed.  Remember, these are the very people that drove this sport into the ground over the past three decades.  To them Indy racing is a hobby you do between jet-setting and eating fine caviar.  They are so detached from motorsports reality that the closest they should be to the engineer is in the caboose -- if they should be allowed on the train at all.  (Okay except A.J. Foyt, who can be kept on as Sergeant at Arms.)

And that all brings us to the crux of the matter:  grassroots racing.  And since I feel my blood pressure rising with each sentence I type I'm going to cut to the chase.  The problem with Indy racing is NO FANS.  That's it.  And it amazes me how few people up at the top of the ladder out there in Indiana understand that this is the root problem.  No fans.  (Okay, "few fans" since I feel generous today.)  There are so few fans because there is so little interest in the racing and the drivers have so few fans.  NASCAR drivers have more fans on Facebook than IndyCar drivers have fans in the stands.

Imagine if the New York Yankees had no fans.  What would that look like?  Well the stadium would be empty and the merchandise wouldn't sell and the team would fold up quicker than a cheap camera.  But in Indy racing, the team owners think that as long as they have money they can still go out and race and so what's the big deal?

So why has the Indy racing fan base shriveled up?  Simply because the racing is so far disconnected from American grassroots racing that Americans just don't care anymore.  After years and years of ride-buying and revolving-door drivers the fans have lost interest.  So when Bernard talks about having the "best drivers in the world", I sure hope he's talking about the Jeff Gordons and Tony Stewarts rather than the Milka Dunos or he's going to find himself bucked from his seat quicker than Betty White from Bodacious.

In America, grassroots racing is about oval racing.  Sprints, late models -- all that good stuff.  Dirt, asphalt.  Give us a driver that says, "just one of them racin' deals", and we're all good.  Drivers we don't know and can't relate to riding around a one-lane temporary street course in downtown Baltimore doesn't float our boat.  (Note: Karting does not count as a popular form of grassroots racing.  I'm sure it's a great place for drivers to start their careers, but all across the country fans go to see oval racing week in and week out.)

So why don't American grassroots drivers make it into Indy car racing?  First is they don't have the money or a sponsor.  The second is that their skill -- race cars on ovals -- does not translate well to Indy cars -- which are formula cars on road courses.  And because of that they have so few opportunities.  So instead they're picked up by the NASCAR teams who can easily secure a sponsorship for them since they can both drive the wheels off their cars and easily relate to fans.

I hear the Indy car is getting a major makeover for the future.  Now is the perfect opportunity to develop something that is not designed for road courses.  Something that young drivers who cut their teeth on American short tracks can hop into and excel with.  Without that connection Indy racing will always be detached from American racing fans and be forced to settle for late-day coverage on the Versus network.  And oh yeah... the last time I checked the Indianapolis 500 was an oval race.  Let's showcase the best oval drivers in the world.

Best of luck Randy!

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Have We Lost Respect?

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The other day I was watching a 2009 World Series recap special on ESPN and during a break a commercial for ESPN's NASCAR Nationwide Series coverage was shown.  The commercial featured scripted (perhaps animated, I can't recall) and dramatized racing action between Nationwide Series cars.  Something about the commercial caught my eye and made me think a little bit.  Well... two things, actually.  The first and less curious thing I noticed is how at various points the commercial paused the action to zoom into a particular driver's sponsor  -- Citi, Toyota, etc.  I guess that's no big deal but haven't NASCAR's media partners gotten the memo about the sport becoming way too over-commercialized?  I mean... an advertisement within an advertisement now?

But that's not important.

The second point was the action itself.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the cars that's racing is airborne and twenty feet in the air flipping over.  Two other cars are side-by-side and taking the checkered flag as the airborne car follows them.  Then the commercial cuts to the punch-line:  "NASCAR Nationwide Series on ESPN".  Now seriously... doesn't anyone else find that a little creepy?

I can understand an advertisement perhaps using a historical crash to highlight the fact that this sport is a dangerous one and that danger is a part of the draw.  It's motorsports -- crashes happen.  But to think that somebody sat down and dreamt up his idea of the "best, most awesome finish possible" and came up with this particular vision is a little bit too weird for me.

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NASCAR has either totally lost its mind or is so deep into the pockets of sponsors, team owners and corporate interests that it can no longer see and think clearly.  I suspect it's a lot of both and the fact that it could barely muster the courage to put Carl Edwards on a measly three-race probation is evidence of it.  Instead of making it firmly clear that NASCAR was in control of its sport, it turned its press statement into an opportunity to express just how concerned it is about the fact that Brad Keselowski's car got airborne after Edwards dumped him.  Safety first, after all!  NASCAR President Mike Helton explained it: "[Keselowski's car going airborne] is a very important element of all of this that I would ask all of us to be reminded of the fact of the car getting airborne was a very serious issue. And that's something that we'll take a look at very quickly and try to figure out how to help prevent that happening in the future."  Way to divert the attention away from the real issue.

And this is where NASCAR's conflicting statements begin.  They want to "prevent" an incident like this from happening in the future, yet they've given the drivers the green light to act like complete morons on the racetrack.  Does that make any sense at all?  Everyone in the racing community is rallying around NASCAR's supposed pre-season pronouncement that drivers are free to "take the gloves off".  Did I miss the press release?  When did NASCAR say that its drivers had free reign to behave like totally reckless maniacs and wouldn't be punished for intentionally causing violent accidents?  If NASCAR thinks that fans are interested in watching their prima donna racers engage in tit-for-tat crashes rather than real racing, then they are even more hopelessly out of touch than I first believed.

NASCAR doesn't understand the simple concept everyone calls "rules".  Is it or is it not, by the rulebook, acceptable to intentionally crash somebody?  And if it's not, what is the penalty, per the rulebook?  Because if the only penalty is a slap on the wrist then Keselowski should be free to send Edwards right over the damn billboards at Texas next month.

Kyle Petty nails it: "I think we took ourselves away from just being a sport to being a sideshow in some ways. We’re not a sport. Sports have rules."

A Tale of Two Carls

Remember last May when Carl Long -- an underfunded driver who was attempting to qualify for a non-points paying race -- blew an ancient and decrepit motor and had it inspected by NASCAR?  NASCAR found the motor to be less than two-tenths of a cubic inch larger than the limit.  Two tenths.  Despite the fact that the violation was almost certainly unintended, they suspended the guy for 12 races, fined him 200 points that he didn't even have, and fined his crew chief $200,000.  Twelve races for two-tenths.

Carl Edwards nearly kills someone and he gets "probation" -- which amounts to nothing more than being under the "watchful eyes of NASCAR".

Consistency isn't a NASCAR trademark.  Consider:

  • In 2007, Robby Gordon was suspended for one race after failing to yield to a black flag that was displayed for aggressive driving in the previous day's Nationwide Series race.
  • Ricky Rudd was fined $10,000 and placed on probation for the rest of the season after intentionally crashing Jeff Gordon in the 1994 Mello Yello 500 at Charlotte.
  • In October 2004, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was fined $10,000 and docked 25 championship points for joyfully dropping an s-bomb in a victory lane interview at Talladega.  The point loss dropped him from leading the standings.
  • At Indianapolis in 2002, Jimmy Spencer intentionally crashed Kurt Busch in what is probably the most dangerous corner in all of American motorsports.  Busch was scolded by NASCAR for "gesturing" towards Spencer after climbing from his car.

The Apple Falls Far From the Tree

Unfortunately for NASCAR, Brian France does not seem to be able to command the kind of respect his father and grandfather garnered from its participants.  The limp-wristed, "well we're not really sure if that's over the line" approach doesn't exactly exude a sense of strength on NASCAR's part.

It makes me remember a time in 1990 when Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine were wrecking each other consistently until Bill France, Jr. stepped in.  The intervention was recalled in the film Days of Thunder.  France had lunch with Bodine's then car owner Rick Hendrick and explained:  "Rick... If you can't control your drivers any better than this... then maybe you should stick to something you can control.  ... Like selling used cars in downtown Charlotte."

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NASCAR Needs to Step Up

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For all it's boasting about safety it makes me laugh how much insanity NASCAR's drivers get away with on the racetrack.  The sanctioning body is like the wrestling referee who's off watching something else while a guy is bashing his opponent over the head with a steel chair.

NASCAR needs to grow a set, step up, and start sitting drivers who can't contain themselves down for a week or two.  This whole fascination with "intentional crashing" is a black eye on the sport and really calls into question the legitimacy and integrity of NASCAR racing.

And a special thanks to Carl Edwards for ruining for the fans what was shaping up to be a great and dramatic finish between Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya today at Atlanta.  The race ended up taking a back seat to Edwards -- who was 156 laps down -- and his pouting match with Brad Keselowski, who was running in the top five with just three laps to go.  Television cameras caught Edwards attempting to and then finally successfully crashing Keselowski at the fastest part of the speedway.

To his credit, Edwards admitted to intentionally causing the crash, but seemingly expressed surprise that it ended so violently, with Keselowski's car getting airborne and smashing the wall roof-first, crushing the driver's side roll cage.  Not to be Captain Obvious here, but what else would one expect on a superspeedway with speeds reaching 195 mph?

Can we please get this kind of crap out of NASCAR before something bad happens and the national spotlight shines on yet another ugly aspect of our sport?  It's really getting embarrassing.

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Wings Clipped, Spoilers Back

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So NASCAR's dumping the wing -- a primary feature of the Car of Tomorrow -- and bringing back the spoiler, eh? I guess when NASCAR announced that the Nationwide Series new "Car of Tomorrow"-like car would have a more traditional spoiler, the writing was on the wall for the wing.

The wing had a couple of problems. First, the obvious problem, is that it was ugly as all get-out. I don't think anybody really liked the look of it when it was first announced (okay, except maybe Brian France). The second is that its bulky appearance made it difficult for drivers to see out the rear window.

Johnny Anderson blows over at Daytona 1981.

Another controversy that developed late last year was the idea that the wing was contributing to blowover crashes, such as those by Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman at Talladega. I don't know that the wing is any different in this regard to the spoiler. Blowovers have become pretty common since Detroit and NASCAR downsized the cars in 1981. (Watch Connie Saylor blowover at Daytona 1981.)

As of now, the new spoiler will be tested at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the early part of the season and adopted for the circuit probably by the end of March. To me, the move brings two things to mind: 1) NASCAR is willing to make changes to address complaints, and 2) NASCAR is still stuck in an IROC mentality.

Why do I make point 2? Simply because NASCAR has said that the spoiler will be produced by an independent manufacturer and all teams must purchase their spoilers from said manufacturer. The spoiler will be an aluminum blade 4 inches (!) tall and at a fixed 70° (!!) angle. Fixing the spoiler angle is what tees me off the most. The 70° angle is, of course, "all about safety", and realizing that no crew chief worth a damn would be raising it above that, they probably figured they might as well make it fixed.

I remember the days when the teams could adjust the spoiler as a means of setting up the car. Not just during the weekend, but in the middle of the race as well. It was considered another variable the crew chief could work with -- finding a good balance between downforce and less drag, depending on the track. In the 80s teams could even lay that thing all the way back to 20° if they dared to.

Not anymore. Everyone runs the same spoiler now.

Same spoiler.

Same cars.

Same tracks.

Same drivers.


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Should NASCAR Races Be Shortened?

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I was reading Ernie Saxton's column at and he brought up some good points about how the current length of NASCAR Cup races could be detrimental to fan interest. The topic of shortening races has been brought up in the past and, in fact, Rockingham and Dover had both trimmed their 500-mile races by a hundred miles in the mid- and late-1990s.

Why 500 Miles?

Somehow or another NASCAR eventually evolved into featuring primarily 500-mile race distances, or something similar (such as 500 laps at Bristol). Like running, motorsports has a diversity of race lengths aimed to test different strengths. For example, a 400-meter sprint emphasizes the runners' power (strength and speed). The most analogous form of motorsports to a 400m sprint would be what we typically see at our local short track. A marathon run, on the other hand, tests the runners' endurance -- like auto racing's 12 Hours of Sebring. A NASCAR 500-miler is more like a 5K run -- requiring a mix of both speed and endurance.

In other words, it appears that NASCAR wanted the element of attrition to be a factor in its races. It's not enough to be fast... the driver has to be fast over a long haul.

In previous decades, attrition was a major player in NASCAR races. Five-hundred laps at a place like Bristol must have been hell without power steering. And 500 miles at Talladega before restrictor plates was probably just as hellish on engines. But in today's NASCAR, attrition isn't quite the element it used to be. Mechanical failures are not nearly as common as they were years ago, and driver fatigue is almost unheard of. About the only thing that doesn't last anymore are Goodyear's tires.

Without attrition, is it really important to run 500 miles anymore?

Shorter Races = More Excitement?

So will shorter races be more exciting races? I remember when Dover trimmed its race distances from 500 miles down to 400. For the most part, everyone was on board with that move. (Though many ticket holders wondered if the prices would be trimmed by a fifth as well. They weren't.) So... is Dover any more exciting now that it's 400 miles? Well... I think it's safe to say that there's 100 laps less of boredom, so maybe that could count for something. I mean -- the pain is over quicker, so yes in that sense it's better.

And the Cup series does have a handful of 300-mile races (Phoenix, Loudon). I'm not sure that they're any more popular than the others. Of course the Nationwide series regularly runs 200- and 300-mile races (and with all the Sprint Cup drivers to boot), and there isn't a lot of viewing interest. Likewise, the Indy cars run 200-mile races and... well... we don't even have to go there.

What's the Primary Problem?

NASCAR needs to understand that "race excitement" isn't sufficient for their product. They need to re-generate excitement for their entire Series -- "the big picture". They could have a 50-lap race with a thousand passes and it won't cut the mustard if people aren't interested in the drivers and the drama of the circuit.

Most fans don't tune in just to see passes and crashes. I remember watching four-hour races on television every week just to see if Davey Allison could hold on to the point lead... or to see who Dale Earnhardt was going to wreck next... or to see if Rusty Wallace really would retaliate for being taken out at Bristol.

Between vanilla drivers, cookie-cutter tracks and the "Race for the Chase" format, NASCAR has pretty much flushed those concepts down the toilet and taken much of the fans' interest down with it.

At this point, does it really matter how long the races are?

Tidbits to Ponder

Here are some interesting facts from Fox Sports (via

  • After Dover, Cup races were averaging a caution period every 40 miles of racing. In 2008 the average was one every 45 miles. In 2001, one every 63 miles. In 1999, one every 72 miles.
  • Through Dover, Cup race speeds had averaged 118 mph. In 2008, race speeds averaged 124 mph. In 2001, 128 mph. And in 1999, 130 mph.
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Weatherman For Hire

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I find it interesting to see how often drivers are able to "steal" a victory of sorts by gambling on the weather. Oftentimes it's the teams that can afford to actually take the chance (e.g., those that have little to lose) that actually go through with it, but it's not unusual to see a team successfully pull it off once or twice a season.

With the modern advances in both weather and computer technology a team is capable of making much better judgments about the changing weather conditions than, say, 10-15 years ago.

Weather radar can now be brought down to street-level precision -- more than enough to identify a race track on the map. Precipitation is displayed real-time with both direction and speed, allowing for one to determine whether the shower is going to affect the track and if so, exactly when it should arrive. Furthermore, rainfall rates and duration can be analyzed to determine if the shower is going to just wet down the track, or be enough to wash out the remainder of the race.

Now I'm not necessarily suggesting that each team go out and hire a certified meteorologist (though I wouldn't be surprised if teams had them already, perhaps to predict the weekend's forecast to help the crew chief with the car's setup), but in these large teams that have 50, 100, or 200+ employees, you'd have to believe that they would have 1 or 2 that are weather enthusiasts that are sufficiently equipped to find and interpret weather data.

If rain is forecast for race day... wouldn't you want such a person in your pit area?

John Calla is a professional meteorologist. He has over 15 years experience watching The Weather Channel and 25 years experience shoveling snow. He also took an introductory level meteorology class in college. Mr. Calla will work for food.

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