Revitalized Month of May at IMS delivers on almost all counts

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What was a test case for the “reinvigorated” month of May, and the new business strategy employed by the new powers-that-be at 16th and Georgetown, has worked.

The 2014 edition was a vibrant, more buzzing Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more days than normal, or at least more than in recent previous years.

Here’s a quick synopsis:

GRAND PRIX OF INDIANAPOLIS WEEKEND

As I wrote at the time, you needed to take a moment to acclimatize yourself to the weirdness. IndyCars… turning right? In high-downforce road course configuration? At Indy? “Sacrilege!” you say, right?

Well, yes, it was weird the first time I stepped out onto pit road to watch. But once you got through the first couple laps watching, and it began to sink in, you started to get the sense this felt like a proper race weekend.

And on race day itself, that message was brought home. Estimates have ranged from as low as 25,000 to up to 50,000 – the truth lies somewhere in the middle, probably closer to 45,000 – but the bottom line was that the mounds and grounds were filled with race fans anxious at the prospect of something new. When you start to add up the dollars of that first round of spectators, with a number easily 10 times more than the same weekend last year, it all starts to make sense.

INDY 500 QUALIFYING WEEKEND

Opted to watch this one on TV from home. The latest evolution of something that’s changed more times than I can remember since 1996 was created as a made-for-TV type of format, and by that standard, it worked.

Each of the two days generated a ratings number higher than the season-opening St. Petersburg race, and the Sunday strategy to bring Dario Franchitti into the booth to call the Fast Nine shootout was a stroke of genius.

The crowds? Certainly less than GP weekend. And the format of which lines cars were going in, and how many points each day generated were, admittedly, a bit confusing.

I’m not one to say that you ditch the two-day format just yet. If another type of entertainment purpose is brought into the track for this weekend, as it was for the following weekend, it could provide added value beyond just the on-track running for qualifying. At the very least, reducing the confusion for media and fans on the format should be the goal for 2015.

THURSDAY/CARB DAY/SATURDAY

There was a healthy crowd in attendance outside the Pagoda for the new Indy Lights car launch on Thursday night, with fans watching as well beyond Mazda Road to Indy drivers, teams, participants and stakeholders.

Come Friday, Carb Day, the perpetual ritual of drunk Hoosiers waltzing all over the grounds continued true to form. There was the usual mix of great on-track action (practice, Freedom 100, Pit Stop Competition and Stadium Super Trucks) and off-track entertainment for the majority of IMS-goers (Sublime and Sammy Hagar concerts). I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t as high a volume as normal of crushed beer cans on my annual Carb Day walk from the media center to the media parking lot, but that meant IMS was on its game in terms of cleanup.

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Photo: INDYCAR

To Saturday, and while the usual public drivers’ meeting and driver autograph sessions were their usual hits, the biggest change came in the afternoon with the Jason Aldean concert bringing in the greatest number of new, paying fans. Leaving on Saturday around 4:45 or so, the grounds were packed.

Figure if you had at least 60,000 for Carb Day and maybe another 40 to 50,000 there on Saturday, and those are two huge additional numbers in terms of extra ticket sales and revenue from concessions.

We haven’t even got to the new “glamping” – or glamorous camping – that premiered this year. Judging by this piece from USA Today’s Chris Jenkins, that was a hit too.

RACE DAY

Indianapolis 500 race morning is the perfect example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The morning buildup, with the Monaco Grand Prix on TV in the media center, then all the pageantry from the bands, to the Gordon Pipers, to the old cars, to everything else just takes your breath away.

There’s the chills from being down on the grid mere hours before 33 men and women prepare to saddle up, racing inches apart at 230 mph. You’re walking on 100-plus years of history, from all the millions who’ve come before you on these fabled grounds.

You head up to cover the race, and you feel it’s your obligation to do it proper justice. The race is older than you, it’s bigger than you, and it will go on long after you depart.

With the rest of the month in 2014 serving as an ample buildup, the race itself remained stellar as always.

IN SUMMATION…

The Speedway doesn’t release attendance figures, but you have to think the individuals involved, from IMS President Doug Boles all the way down, are smiling after this one.

And they deserve it, too, after a packed and revitalized few weeks.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”