Perception of sparse Brickyard 400 crowd not necessarily reality

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Sunday’s 21st running of the Brickyard 400 is in the rearview mirror, we’re once again likely to hear significant griping about “did you see all the empty seats at Indy?”

Like they’ve done after the last five editions of the Brickyard, critics and so-called experts will once again lament about the poor crowd, how it was a poor show, how passing is virtually non-existent and how NASCAR doesn’t belong at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – even though Sunday will be the 21st time it’s been there.

Admittedly, since the embarrassing Goodyear tire debacle in the 2008 race, the Brickyard 400 has never been the same, seeing substantial drops in attendance in each subsequent year.

There were probably close to 125,000 fans at that 2008 race when a bad batch of Goodyear tires caused NASCAR to call numerous mandatory competition cautions after every 10 laps or so, allowing teams to switch tires over and over and over.

No matter what NASCAR officials did that day, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. They could have cancelled the race, but that would have been a move of last resort, and likely would have been an even bigger mistake than what ultimately transpired. Could you imagine NASCAR and IMS refunding ticket costs to each and every race fan if the race was cancelled?

They could have postponed the race to the next day (Monday) and had a couple truckloads of new tires brought in from the company’s Akron, Ohio headquarters. But you can’t make Sprint Cup tires overnight, and to have enough of the type of compound and quality needed to run on the very gritty pavement at IMS would have taken time to produce – time that NASCAR didn’t have.

NASCAR could also have cut the race short, but that would have been just as bad as canceling it.

So the sanctioning body went ahead and got through the day as best as it could, knowing the outcome could have been a lot worse.

Thousands of fans screamed and booed at the conclusion of the technology-hampered race in 2008. Many, if not most, vowed to never return to Indy for another NASCAR race – and it would appear that the majority have indeed lived up to their word.

The following year, 2009, there were maybe 90,000 fans (IMS and NASCAR never announce exact attendance figures, so reporters are left to best-guess estimates).

And since then, the numbers – at least looking at the stands – have continued to decrease until they’ve leveled off around the 70,000 level the last couple of years.

In addition, the economic downturn over the last six-plus years has also had a major impact on why more fans don’t come to IMS to watch NASCAR. Airplane flights, hotels, rental cars and food costs have just become too prohibitive for many individuals, and even more difficult for families to want to pick up and head to central Indiana — even those who may live in-state.

But the critics and pundits seem to forget one very important thing:

One of the biggest reasons why the Brickyard’s attendance the last several years has been disappointing isn’t necessarily the crowd itself. When you have a facility that holds an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 seats, 70,000 makes the place look only a quarter-full … which is indeed the case.

Put 70,000 fans at Martinsville, and you’ll have standing room only.

Put 70,000 fans at nearby Chicagoland Speedway or Kentucky Speedway and you’ll have a near-sellout.

Put 70,000 fans at Sonoma and you’d likely set track records for road course race attendance.

Put 70,000 in Bristol and it will look half-full – which is still a lot better than IMS looking only a quarter-full.

Attendance at IMS has become a matter of perception over reality. It may look near-empty – when the fact of the matter remains that it’s a bigger crowd than on game day when the NFL’s Colts play a home game.

It’s a bigger crowd typically than the Final Four brings in, a bigger crowd than any World Series game.

So when “fans” start complaining about how empty IMS will be on Sunday, they should take pause and reconsider their assessment.

It’s not necessarily NASCAR’s fault that IMS doesn’t fill up.

Rather, it’s more that the place is just so darn big.

Face it, we’ll never see the 250,000 or so fans that streamed through the gates of IMS for the historic first Brickyard in 1994. It was a unique event at a legendary venue.

It was the place to be if you wanted to be part of NASCAR and motorsports history, the first “foreign” series to race at the fabled IMS in its history.

Sure, while 70,000 or so on Sunday won’t necessarily look all that good on TV, the fact remains that 70,000 filled seats at any professional sports venue is still a big success any way you slice it.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”