Kurt Busch gives IndyCar chance to show they’ve learned lesson on promotion

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If you’re an IndyCar Series official, you must be feeling pretty good right now.

For years, you’ve heard fans complain of a lack of compelling, straw that stirs the drink-type personalities on the grid. And now, for your biggest race of the season, there will be three of them.

Past Indianapolis 500 champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are certainly not afraid to ruffle people’s feathers. And the latest addition, Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, is much the same way.

All of them will be part of the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing this coming May, with Busch doing the “500” in an attempt to become the second driver ever to complete all 1,100 miles of the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double.

The only driver to pull that off? His NASCAR boss and teammate, Tony Stewart, who did it in 2001 with a sixth-place run for Chip Ganassi at Indy and then a third-place effort for Joe Gibbs Racing at Charlotte.

JPM, JV and now, the #DoubleOutlaw – all on the same grid. No race fan worth his or her salt would miss that.

But at the end of the day, only Montoya will still be around as a full-time IndyCar driver. Villeneuve’s ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is a one-off. And Busch will carry on with his Sprint Cup duties.

So while all three of them will certainly move the needle for Memorial Day weekend at the Brickyard, only one of them will be looking to do that throughout the season for the series.

And you’ll be stuck with the same problem that has continued to plague your sport seven years after its reunification and the same problem that has frustrated your steadily dwindling core of a fan base.

“Why can’t we promote our stars?”

The question has fallen to the two newest marketing people brought in by the series, Hulman Motorsports chief marketing officer C.J. O’Donnell and chief revenue officer Jay Frye, both hired in November as part of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles’ reorganization efforts.

Neither O’Donnell or Frye are novices when it comes to promotion. O’Donnell had a long run promoting various brands inside the Ford Motor Company, while Frye pulled off an industry-first sponsorship and team ownership package with The Valvoline Company when he was a NASCAR team executive.

One assumes that as new hires, they’ve needed time to get their proverbial ducks in a row and that’s fine. And one assumes that they’ve also been devoting time toward pursuing a new title sponsor for IndyCar to replace IZOD – a sponsor that can activate and engage fans like IZOD did in the early part of its pact with the series.

But sooner or later, they’re gonna have to get to work on pushing the full-time drivers, not just the ones coming in for May.

The good news for them is the cupboard is not bare despite the losses of perhaps the quintessential open-wheel driver, Dario Franchitti, and the possibly Formula One-bound Simona de Silvestro.

Reigning series champion Scott Dixon surely would’ve preferred not to have had those run-ins with Will Power toward the tail end of last year, but they certainly showed that there is a fire burning within his “Iceman” persona. Other veterans such as Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan, and American stalwart Ryan Hunter-Reay also remain bankable.

At the same time, those veterans (minus Montoya, who’s been in NASCAR for the last seven years) have pretty much been the same guys promoted by IndyCar for years now. There hasn’t been a true expansion on the front that includes the newer wave of drivers.

Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, of course, have the family names. Josef Newgarden’s social media savvy is begging to be further utilized in the Twitter/Facebook age. Charlie Kimball has gone beyond “diabetic driver” status to become a legit contender. And James Hinchcliffe pretty much sells himself: A fun-loving goofball that can kick ass in a race car.

It’s not exactly a series of milquetoasts and misfits. You’d think O’Donnell, Frye and IndyCar would be able to work with this.

Again…You’d think.

Let’s go back two years ago, when Hunter-Reay won the IndyCar championship with Andretti Autosport. He became IndyCar’s first American champ since Sam Hornish Jr. won it all for Team Penske in 2006.

Hunter-Reay had battled through multiple obstacles in his career, from underfunded teams to a lack of job security. For a time, he had devoted every ounce of his being simply to keeping his head above water in the sport.

When he clinched the 2012 title at Fontana, it was the ultimate storybook ending. And IndyCar had a chance to do something with it. This was the proverbial ball placed on a tee, ready to be crushed over the fence, David Ortiz-style.

Instead, they had a curveball thrown. A management shake-up occurred and by October 2012, then-CEO Randy Bernard had left the series. As a result, there was no big off-season push for Hunter-Reay, the star-spangled hero that had never given up and had finally reached the top.

These days, Hunter-Reay is a key part of IndyCar’s nucleus. But you can’t help but think he should be a household name right now, too.

Speaking of right now, there are less than four weeks to go before IndyCar’s 2014 season begins in St. Petersburg, Florida. The series recently had its Media Day in Orlando, but nothing truly big was broken there.

Instead, the major news lately has been Indy 500-centric, from Villeneuve and Busch’s rides to entertainment announcements such as country music star Jason Aldean playing Legends Day and world No.1-ranked DJ Hardwell playing in the Snake Pit on Race Day.

One figures IndyCar will have the promotional engines going for the #DoubleOutlaw saga in May. But whatever they learn from that, those lessons need to be applied to the series as a whole.

The Indy 500 will always be its greatest asset and it’s safe to say the world’s greatest race has regained a lot of the luster it lost during the Split years. But now, everything else around it needs to be bolstered.

IndyCar racing may never completely regain its former glory here in North America. That’s simply down to the fact that they’re battling with a bigger array of entertainment options than there were two or three decades ago.

But it can be better than what it is now. Motorsport as a whole is better with a stronger IndyCar.

And it all comes down to IndyCar effectively showing the world what they can do.

FIA replaces ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking for 2017

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Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting has confirmed that the ‘Verstappen rule’ regarding moving under braking has been relaxed and simplified ahead of the 2017 season.

Following complaints from a number of drivers regarding Red Bull driver Max Verstappen’s aggressive defensive moves through 2016, the FIA clamped down on moving under braking ahead of the United States Grand Prix last October.

Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to fall foul of the new rule, losing his podium finish in Mexico after moving under braking when defending his position from Daniel Ricciardo late in the race.

In order to streamline the race stewards’ efforts to officiate the race, Whiting confirmed ahead of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix that the rule had been simplified and turned into a ‘catch-all’ regulation.

“I think there will be a small change in some of the incidents that we’ve seen last year they’ll be handled quite differently simply, because the so-called ‘Verstappen rule’ is gone to the effect that before we said any move under braking will be investigated,” Whiting told reporters, as quoted by crash.net.

“Now, we have a simple rule that says effectively that if a driver moves erratically or goes unnecessarily slow or behaves in a manner that could endanger another driver, then he will be investigated.

“So there’s a very broad rule now but we’ve done after Austin last year in response to some comments from drivers, we used the existing rules to put notes on how we’re going to interpret the existing rules.

“The interpretation simply was that drivers shouldn’t move under braking. That’s what gave rights to the incident in Mexico, that’s what gave rights to the penalty in Mexico.”

Whiting said that the move came after teams requested the stewards trigger less snap investigations during races and focus on possibly dangerous incidents.

“What we were requested to do, which we think is a more general way of approaching things, is to give the stewards one rule to work with,” Whiting explained.

“It’s an all-encompassing rule.You can do more or less anything with that. That was the request from the teams, they wanted less investigations and only in cases where it was clearly dangerous would they take action.

“We had a meeting yesterday with all the stewards and we reviewed all the controversial incidents from last year to see how they would be dealt with this year under the so-called new rules or the new approach. It was quite interesting. I won’t go into it now, but it was quite interesting.”

The revised rule will get its first try-out in this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, live on NBCSN from 12am ET on Sunday.

Alonso downbeat as McLaren prepares for bleak Australia weekend

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Fernando Alonso cut a downbeat figure on Thursday as media commitments for the new Formula 1 season got underway, with the McLaren team looking poised for a bleak first round in Australia.

McLaren entered 2017 looking to build on an encouraging campaign last year as engine partner Honda resolved a number of issues and produced a power unit more capable of matching its rivals.

Honda looked to make more gains ahead of the new season following the removal of the restrictive ‘token’ system for engine updates, opting to redesign its power unit to mirror that of pack leader Mercedes.

Pre-season went horribly for McLaren-Honda, though, with a number of issues forcing the team on the sidelines and preventing it from completing more than 11 consecutive laps in Barcelona. Alonso was vocal in his criticism of Honda, saying its power unit offered “no reliability” and “no power”.

Alonso faced a grilling from the media on Thursday in Melbourne, and made no secret of McLaren’s uncertainty over where it stands in the F1 pecking order.

“We have only done the testing period, so I think the first race now will put things a little bit more clear. It’s a question mark also for us where we exactly are,” Alonso said.

“We were not able to push the car to anywhere close to the limit at any lap on the testing, due to different problems. Let’s see. If we can have a good first weekend, see a little bit more of the potential of the car and hopefully see where we are.

“But yeah, still a long way to go for us and a lot of work to do. The team is always working to improve the situation, to work as hard we can, to identify the problems and to improve those areas.

“I guess everyone did the maximum in the last three weeks and let’s see what we can find tomorrow on the track.”

There were a couple of occasions in the press conference when Alonso’s exasperation over the situation was more clear, the first coming when all of the drivers were asked for what changes they would like to see in F1 under new owner Liberty Media.

After seeing rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton say they wanted V12 engines to return to F1, Alonso added: “I agree! Equal engines for everyone!”

Daniel Ricciardo chipped in with “but not electric!”, before Hamilton quipped: “And not Honda. I’m kidding…” Alonso laughed it off, but the truth in the comment will have stuck with him.

Alonso was also asked whether driving an uncompetitive car would detract from his enjoyment of driving the new-style models in 2017, which offer greater cornering speed and are more challenging to race.

“I think all sportsmen, we are competitive. When you arrive to race like we are doing now in the first grand prix of the year, you know that joy is together if you are competitive,” Alonso said.

“Let’s see how competitive we can be this year. At least when you are driving alone, you are enjoying.

“Then when you have a car close to you and they go much faster than you, that’s a little bit less enjoyable…”

The new F1 season begins in Australia this weekend, and is live across NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: St. Pete, Sebring wrap, Melbourne prep

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Veteran driver and manager Stefan Johansson has posted his latest blog, which recaps the last two race weekends in Florida as the Verizon IndyCar Series tackled the streets of St. Petersburg and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship completed the grinding Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

In his latest conversation with Jan Tegler, Johansson looks back at these couple events while also looking ahead to this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, which kicks off the 2017 Formula 1 season.

At St. Petersburg, while Sebastien Bourdais won, Scott Dixon among others was caught out by the timing of a yellow flag which closed the pits. Dixon eventually rebounded to third in the IndyCar opener, but it was a result short of another possible win thanks to the bad timing.

Johansson writes this will continue to be an issue as long as this rule is in play, but hailed Dixon’s comeback.

“Every time you have a closed-pit rule when there’s a full course caution, you’ll end up with the same problem,” he wrote. “The race often falls into the lap of guys who started at the back or are running at the back as they have more freedom to roll the dice in a situation like that, and the guys up front are basically screwed. It’s just part of the game in IndyCar or any other series using the same rules. On the whole though, it tends to even out over the course of a season.

“It’s frustrating at the time for the guys who get caught out, and especially if you know you have a winning car, which was definitely the case for Scott. His car was really fast all weekend, in every session and the race. None of the guys who were on the same strategy as him finished in the top ten positions. Interestingly, no one – not even the media – seemed to notice but I think he drove one of his best races ever. He had to save fuel for most of the race after the second caution and his first pit stop to get onto a different strategy. As usual, he managed to stretch his fuel for a lap or two compared to the other competitors and he was still passing cars along the way. He literally drove his way back up to 3rd, by going faster than the guys in front.”

Sebring also took place; Dixon’s team finishing just off the GT Le Mans class podium in fourth after contact on the final lap while the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 team (Christina Nielsen, Alessandro Balzan, Matteo Cressoni) finished second in the GT Daytona class.

“Overall, I think it was a very good race. The new prototypes definitely look great on-track and they sound great. The Cadillacs were good and their teams are very good and definitely make a difference as well.

“With the Ferrari (Scuderia Corsa) we had a pretty decent race finishing 2nd. It looked like we could win it for a while but we didn’t quite have the pace of the Mercedes there at the end either.”

For Melbourne this week, Johansson says Ferrari looked strong in testing, but also ponders why the regulations were changed as they were.

“Predictably, as we mentioned before the launch of the cars, they all look pretty much the same with minor variances here and there. That’s just the way it is now because the regulations only allow teams to work within in a small window.

“When you look at these new cars and the new rules, you have to ask, why? Was it really necessary to have these new rules? The cost of creating these new cars is mind-boggling for every single team. I’m not sure what the exact reasoning was for these new rules to be put in place to begin with and I’m not so sure anyone else really does.

“Was it because the racing was not exciting enough, did they think the old cars were too slow. Did they not like the look of the cars? Were they too easy to drive?  Whatever the reason, I don’t think these new rules have been particularly well thought out. They feel like another band aid solution to some knee jerk reaction based on a few minor issues rather than a big picture solution to the complete philosophy of what a modern F1 car should be.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

A 2016 archive of Johansson’s blog posts is linked here.

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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It’s a new Formula 1 season in 2017 and with it comes a new season of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, which comes to you following the Thursday at Melbourne ahead of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. Full times and details for the race, where coverage begins at midnight ET on Sunday on NBCSN, are linked here.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales take you into the paddock and beyond. With it being the first race of the season, inevitably there are a mix of high hopes and extra media activity that come along with it.

In the first part, Buxton checks in with the Mercedes AMG Petronas pair, as Lewis Hamilton now has Valtteri Bottas alongside, while also speaking to Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo.

In part two, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon describe their expectations for Sahara Force India, Carlos Sainz Jr. breaks down Scuderia Toro Rosso’s hopes, and Romain Grosjean looks to repeat success in Australia for Haas F1 Team after coming a surprise sixth last year.

The third part sees Buxton catch up with Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll and McLaren Honda’s Fernando Alonso. Times come at you for this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix at the end of the clip, and in the below link as well.