MKEWrap

The 2014 Milwaukee IndyFest weekend high on promise, with more positives than negatives

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Several factors need to be taken into play when doing a weekend debrief of last weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest, the third crack by Andretti Sports Marketing in promoting a race at the legendary, one-mile oval.

One, the date changed. Date equity is often one of the keys to a successful event; it’s been something that Milwaukee is readjusting to. For ages, it was the week after the Indianapolis 500, but then it was shifted to later in June upon its return to the calendar in 2011, and then for 2014, switched to August.

Two, it didn’t rain pre-race. Each of the last two years, the Father’s Day Saturday, pop-up showers occurred and had an adverse affect on the walk-up crowd. With a glorious, sun-soaked Sunday this time around, the infield pre-race was buzzing.

Three, there is a general perception that oval attendance looks worse visually than at road and street courses. A road or street course race weekend may get as little as 10 to 15,000 patrons on race day, but if they’re neatly packed into say, three or four grandstands around a two-mile course, it looks like a sellout. But 20 or 25,000 at a Texas, Iowa or Milwaukee looks worse because the grandstand capacity is much bigger – either north of 30,000 on the short ovals or exceeding 75,000 at the 1.5-mile TMS.

So, consider those factors and the fact that visually speaking (top is 2013, bottom 2014), the grandstands appeared to be fuller this go around and you’ll have to say there were more positives than negatives to take away from the 2014 edition of an event that needed a big weekend.

Promotionally speaking, Andretti Sports Marketing had an active city presence for the better part of five months. Various driver appearances and other pre-race elements were chronicled throughout the process on MotorSportsTalk. There were at least some billboards present on the freeways driving up from Chicago/Indianapolis up north.

If there was one complaint I heard during the weekend, and perhaps fairly, it was that the event merchandise selection was lacking. So were the cream puffs for those outside victory lane. But certainly, the entertainment options weren’t. With rides, a Ferris Wheel, various food options, tweet-ups, the National Volleyball League and a concert stage all packed into the infield, there was plenty for families to engage in.

Crowd reports have been mixed. Honestly, I’d peg it a bit as close to 30,000. Robin Miller estimated a lower amount (18,000) in a piece for RACER.com but if event general manager Kevin Healy estimated last year’s at nearer to 28,000 (which seems high), and this one felt busier (believe me, it did) in a piece for the Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, so it should be a little bit higher. And any growth, especially given the above factors, is a good thing. Estimates of 35 to 40,000, as ABC Supply Co. owner Diane Hendricks hoped for, were wide of the mark.

Did the fans get treated to one of the best races of the year? Frankly, no. Will Power checked out in one of his most clutch performances in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and he won with tenacity (he survived an early battle with Tony Kanaan), pace (consistent 150+ mph laps before the tires fell off) and fuel saving (going 62 laps on a final stint).

But that says something more to the quality of IndyCar races throughout the year than it does a lack of excitement with Milwaukee. The downside to the racing in Sunday’s case was that it required a second screen experience – generally the Verizon INDYCAR 14 app or a laptop – to enhance the viewing of the race, and follow the respective strategies and timing & scoring.

Perhaps the tires fell off too fast, and the horsepower isn’t high enough to where it could be. Still, neither Juan Pablo Montoya nor Kanaan blamed anything bad about Sunday’s race on the current package – they blamed it on drivers who were difficult to pass as slower traffic.

The corporate support for this race was up, and that is a big takeaway. Michael Andretti said pre-race how happy he was with the uptick, and considering events need all the local and corporate support they can get, it’s a positive sign. ABC Supply’s presence as title sponsor is a good thing – so is Direct Supply’s, Marcus Hotels, the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, and on down the line. There was a street party on the Friday night, with a charity event for Racing for Kids also well-received.

Seeing news reports that “Milwaukee has just been confirmed for 2015” is erroneous. The race was announced as being locked into a two-year deal last October. The only new news this weekend about the event’s status was its reported 2015 date, initially pegged as August 22-23 (so a week later, but still a week after the State Fair) by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Dave Kallmann.

All told, while there continue to be elements the event needs to improve on, both on and off-track, I think Andretti Sports Marketing delivered another solid event overall.

As always, the fan interest needs to back up the promoter and corporate efforts – and that will remain IndyCar’s biggest challenge on ovals going forward.

IndyCar: Foyt, Coyne, RLL teams begin Sebring test

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Carlos Munoz in his first test with Foyt. Photo: IndyCar
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Three teams and five cars in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series have headed to the happy hunting grounds of Sebring International Raceway’s short course for their first tests ahead of the 2017 season.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, past teammates themselves, were both on track for the first time since a test at Gateway Motorsports Park last October.

Rahal’s No. 15 Honda was adorned in United Rentals primary colors, with other RLL Racing partners such as Steak ‘n Shake, Mi-Jack, Hyatt and D-A Lubricants also on board. It marked a quick change from the all-red livery that was on for the Gateway test. This also presented RLL the first track opportunity to work with new engineering consultant Tom German, formerly of Andretti-Herta Autosport, and a multiple-time Indianapolis 500-race winning engineer.

For Bourdais, his No. 19 Coyne Honda was back in the black-and-green colors of Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality this test, albeit without that signage present. Bourdais, who’s bullish but cautiously optimistic on his return to Coyne for the first time since 2011, had his first day of on-track running with all three of Coyne’s key engineers (Craig Hampson, Olivier Boisson, Mike Cannon). Boisson, like Bourdais formerly of KVSH Racing, was still under contract to KVSH when the team tested at Gateway.

This also marked the first IndyCar test with his new team for Ed Jones, the 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion. Jones tested multiple times with RLL Racing in 2015 and 2016 and like Bourdais, was sidetracked from his would-be first test in December. The team rescheduled that test for these two days.

A.J. Foyt Racing, meanwhile, took to the track for the first time with Chevrolet engines and aero kits. The deal was long in the works for the team to switch from Honda, but was only formalized last week. This also marked the first chance for the team to run with new technical director Will Phillips, formerly of INDYCAR.

This gave new drivers Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz time to get on track for the first time since the end of the 2016 season at Sonoma, and first run overall both with the new team and the Chevy kit. Both drivers were Honda drivers in 2015 and 2016.

The test continues tomorrow; more info on today’s test can be found via IndyCar.com.

Chuck Weyant, oldest Indy 500 starter, dies at 93

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Chuck Weyant in the #41 Federal Engineering Special (KK3000/Offy) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IMS Archives
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One of the rare drivers who’d raced in Indy car racing’s front-engine days, Chuck Weyant, has died at age 93, Springfield, Illinois’ State Journal-Register has confirmed.

Weyant competed in 18 open-wheel starts from 1952 through 1962, including four Indianapolis 500-mile races (1955, 1957, 1958, 1959).

His best career finish was was eighth on two occasions, and his best finish at Indy was 12th in his 1955 debut.

Weyant was born in St. Mary’s, Ohio and resided in Springfield. A video the State Journal-Register did in 2011, the year of the centennial Indianapolis 500, is linked below via the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Twitter account.

Here’s a handful more images, via the IMS Museum and its archives:

Matchett: The end of an era

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 10:  F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone looks on in the paddock during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 9, 2016 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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I’ve played various roles within my near 30-year involvement with Formula 1: Race mechanic, journalist, author, television broadcaster. During these years I’ve witnessed many memorable events, some triumphant, some tragic, and I’ve seen an untold number of changes unfold within the industry, too.

Drivers have arrived in the paddock as unknowns, have won their championships and then faded away; mighty engineering empires have fought tooth and nail to claw themselves to the top, claiming their trophy only to then come slithering down the other side of the mountain. Team principals, engineers, mechanics, hospitality crews, drivers, race venues, tire suppliers, car designs, engine specifications, aerodynamic configurations, on and on and on: all have come and gone, replaced by others.

matchettThroughout all these upheavals, and stretching back years before my time in the sport, there has always been one constant: Bernard Charles Ecclestone.

And his seemingly unstoppable 40-year reign over this mighty industry came to a quiet close yesterday afternoon, around tea time. No cataclysmic boardroom explosions, no ‘he-said-she-said’ slanging matches in the tabloid press; rather his removal from office was signaled via a simple press release, a memo announcing that Bernie is no longer chief executive of the Formula One Group.

The former ‘F1 supremo’ is now ‘chairman emeritus’, a sinecure, an honorary position to the newly appointed three-man group at the helm. And with this announcement the much vaunted Liberty Media takeover of the multi-billion dollar business appears complete.

And Formula 1 will never again be the same.

Nelson Piquet, in the No. 20 Benetton Formula Benetton B190 Ford V8, won the 1990 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

My first interaction with Bernie was back in 1990, my opening year working with Benetton. Strolling across the paddock, returning to the Benetton pits, I noticed him standing near one of our two brightly painted trucks, with Bernie’s expression suggesting he was distinctly unhappy about something. He was looking down the line of parked trucks, two-by-two, team by team, all standing in a uniform line outside the pit garages of their respective teams.

Bernie noticed me and stopped me in my tracks. “This truck is out of line,” he said, “it’s too far forward, get your truckies to move it back an inch.” And with that he moved away, without another word. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t joking. I told one of our truckies what had just happened and he immediately stopped what he was doing and reversed his truck, repositioning it one inch rearward. Bernie’s word was law in the F1 paddock. Everything was carried out to perfection.

Bernie has worked tirelessly to turn grand prix racing into the highly successful, highly respected, military-type operation we see today. The professionalism of the teams, their own standards, and their own orchestration has visibly improved every year over the past decades. For an extreme example of this, compare an image of an F1 pit garage from the mid-1980s (the start of Bernie’s rise to prominence) with an image of a pit garage from 2016. In terms of cleanliness, the latter shares more commonality with a hospital’s operating theatre than a temporary trackside place in which to rebuild a race car.

Beyond his obvious entrepreneurial skills, his well-reported ability to strike phenomenal business deals, Bernie’s greatest attributes are to be found in things kept out of sight; those operational skills often overlooked by those who do not live inside F1’s microcosm. For example, take the unending international air transport of the race cars and the tons of freight that need to be moved around the world from venue to venue. The cars and equipment must arrive in their next destination on time. Each time. Every time. No hassles with customs; no cars missing from Sunday’s grid because their engines or transmissions are not scheduled to be released from border inspections until the Monday following a race. Bernie makes it happen. Every race. It was his job to make it happen. Until now.

Permane on the pit wall at the 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

On hearing yesterday’s news, Alan Permane, Sporting Director to Renault’s F1 team said this to me: “I’ve worked in Formula 1 for 28 years now, and I’ve seen the sport continually grow due to Bernie. I will be forever grateful to him for making the sport what it has become during my career. I’m sure he will be missed but we must now look forward and embrace a new era.”

As to this new era, I have no doubt whatsoever that F1’s new boss, Chase Carey, along with his two managing directors, Sean Bratches and Ross Brawn, are all perfectly capable of leading F1 into the future. All three men have experienced remarkable success in their respective fields.

Personally, I’ve had no dealings with Carey or Bratches but I have worked alongside Ross Brawn, Benetton’s technical director for five years. Ross is one of the most respected engineers, one of the most successful strategists in the history of Formula 1; a winner of multiple world championships, and yet he remains a firmly grounded individual, an approachable leader.

Alan Permane has also worked alongside Ross Brawn: “I don’t yet have details of what Ross will be doing in his new role but if charged with looking after the Sporting and Technical side of the Championship then these aspects are in very safe hands, and I certainly look forward to working with him again.”

A brave new world, then, and one that is all but guaranteed to better exploit social media and the ever expanding digital world, aspects of the industry that Mr. Ecclestone never fully embraced, seemingly never wanted to.

Some may suggest that Chase Carey should have cut all ties with Bernie: out with the old and in with the new. All new. Personally, I believe he has done right in making the sport’s ex-supremo available as a consultant. The first time the sport’s new management receive notification that fifty-thousand tons of F1 equipment is sitting on a runway in Paris, Texas, not in its intended destination of Paris, France, that decision to keep Bernard Charles Ecclestone close at hand might well pay dividends.


Alex Lynn joins DS Virgin in Formula E as reserve driver

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© DS Virgin Racing
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Recent GP2 race winner and Williams Formula 1 test driver Alex Lynn has joined Formula E outfit DS Virgin Racing in a reserve role.

Lynn, 23, won the GP3 title back in 2014 before spending two years in GP2, balancing his racing commitments with a test/development position at Williams.

Lynn announced in the summer that he would be exiting GP2 after 2016, and angled for a drive with Jaguar’s factory Formula E operation ahead of its on-track debut in October.

Despite testing for Jaguar at Donington Park, Lynn missed out on the seats to Adam Carroll and Mitch Evans, prompting the Briton to look elsewhere for a drive.

On Monday, DS Virgin Racing announced that Lynn would be joining as its new reserve and test driver on a multi-year deal.

“Formula E is arguably the most competitive motor racing championship in the world, with the highest caliber of drivers,” Lynn said.

“As a driver I want to be competing in the top series, which is why I’ve been trying so hard to get into Formula E, and DS Virgin was my first choice. So I’m delighted to have signed a multi-year deal with DS Virgin Racing.”

Lynn’s arrival comes at a time when DS Virgin Racing is braced to possibly lose both of its drivers for at least one event in 2017, owing to clashes with the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Sam Bird raced for Ferrari’s factory GT team in the GTE Pro class of the WEC last year, and could be forced to miss the New York Formula E race due to a clash with the 6 Hours of Nurburgring.

Jose Maria Lopez is yet to enter the WEC, but is widely expected to be signed to a factory Toyota seat in the LMP1 class for 2017, putting the Argentine in a similar quandary.

The Mexico ePrix also clashes with the pre-season WEC test at Monza on April 1, but it is thought that drivers with clashes would split their duties between the two series – and two continents – over two days.