You guys ready for round 2? I know I am! This weekend, the IndyCar Series heads to the West Coast for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. 2014 marks the 40th running of the street circuit race and has the potential of making history for a number of drivers and teams, depending on the outcome this Sunday.
Will Power is the big story coming out of the season opener, where he drove to the checkered in St. Petersburg, continuing his winning streak with victory number 3. His podium-topping finishes at Fontana and the 2nd race of the Houston double-header last season were the beginning of this roll that he seems to be on. Power has to feel pretty confident coming into this weekend – he’s found himself in the P1 position, one way or another, here in Long Beach for 5 out of the last 6 years… winning it in 2008 and 2012, and earning the pole position in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Last year he did not win the pole or the race, uncharacteristically finishing in 16th, so he is certainly back this season with something to prove.
Power and his team at Penske Racing absolutely have the determination and focus to turn his current winning streak total into 4 and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if they ended up doing so. That’s not to say that he won’t have competition in Southern California though – there are 22 other Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that thirst for that victory; however, 2 of them seem most likely to challenge him for position.
Takuma Sato, in the #14 ABC Supply Honda for A.J. Foyt Racing, comes back to Long Beach as the defending champion. He found victory last year after an abundance of yellow flags in the race, even completing the race under one of them. It’s no secret that drivers and fans alike prefer a legitimate “race to the finish” so hopefully we will get that in 2014.
Sato won the Verizon P1 Award at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 2 weeks ago, and will surely be a contender for the title of polesitter when the series sets their starting grid on Saturday afternoon – be sure to log on & listen to IndyCar Timing & Scoring in order to keep track of qualifying results in real time, starting at 4:15pm (EST) and then catch it later that evening on NBC Sports at 6pm (EST).
The other individual that I think Power and Sato should be keeping an eye on, as should the fans, is Mike Conway. His first race in the #20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet with Ed Carpenter Racing was certainly one to remember. He made some incredibly impressive, yet “under the radar” maneuvers to move from 12th all the way up to Leader during the St. Pete’s competition and if it weren’t for a miscommunication error, I believe he could have given Power a run for his money. At the very least, Conway could have easily ended up on the podium. That breath of fresh air at the front of the pack has to feel pretty amazing. You’re not looking at the back of any other DW-12’s, you have nothing but clean air to cut through and you’re forging your own path. It’s understandable why leading a race is such an addictive experience and one that these drivers strive to repeat over & over again. It’s a high… a rush.
Conway experienced that winning sensation most recently at the 2013 Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit, where he clinched the win in the first race of the double-header on Belle Isle, while driving for Dale Coyne Racing. Coincidentally, his only other IndyCar series victory was at Long Beach in 2011 as a driver for Andretti Autosport. Out of the 23 entrants to this year’s Grand Prix of Long Beach, only 2 have multiple wins at the circuit: Will Power, as previously mentioned with 2 wins & Sebastien Bourdais with 3 wins in Long Beach, all of which occurred in sequential seasons, starting with 2005. Certainly, Conway is looking to add his name to that list and Ed Carpenter Racing is looking for their first road course/street circuit victory.
Now, to be completely honest, I believe that anyone in the collection of current drivers is more than capable of winning this weekend… or any weekend of 2014 for that matter. The level of talent is pretty astounding in 2014. Across the board, I feel like the series has raised the bar, creating a culture of exceedingly impressive racing teams, drivers, engineers, and even fans. Everyone carries a focus and intelligence that rivals “the next guy”… reconstructing teams and reimagining what is possible seems to be pushing everyone towards bigger, better, safer and smarter. Those last two are very important for teams on their own, not to mention the sport of motorsports in its entirety. What you might not immediately relate those terms to are the people walking around the paddock with their hero cards, diecast cars, and plastic merchandise bags… THE FANS.
The fans are the ones that keep this sport alive. Take a moment to talk to them, you might be surprised by how invested they are, how much they care, and how much they can match wits with you! Most importantly, fans are the ones that create the demand for entertainment, personality and accuracy that one can only find in IndyCar. Without that demand, these drivers wouldn’t be able to continue doing what they love. In fact, I see a lot of parallels between IndyCar and the music industry when it comes to attention and profit. Music television and physical versions of music (records, CD’s) have gone by the wayside in the past decade and a half. A musician’s livelihood is VERY much determined by the amount of touring they do, and level of success they have in said livelihood is based on the standard to which they execute their live shows and in many cases, the ways in which they interact with their fan base.
Using that as a comparison, I believe that the IndyCar drivers are incredible with their fans… probably some of the most personable & accessible professional athletes around nowadays. That said, IndyCar itself needs to put more focus on bringing fans out to their race weekends (in larger numbers and more consistently), as the tv ratings simply do not reflect positively on the series. The numbers, in the words of one of my all-time favorite drivers who shall remain nameless, “…are hateful.” He’s right… they are. And that’s sad because this series is SO much more than a television broadcast.
It’s no secret to anyone that knows me personally, that two things I cannot get enough of (and my bank account balance could prove this statement) are live music concerts and IndyCar race weekends. In the same breath, as much as both of those “events” are like oxygen for me… breathing life into me and giving me an inexplicable feeling of happiness, excitement and pure joy… I don’t get any feeling CLOSE to that when I see my favorite band or an IndyCar race on TV. It’s simply not the same.
That is why I can actually understand why the TV ratings are so low. If someone has not experienced an IndyCar race in person, it’s nearly impossible to explain it to them. There is absolutely no way to interpret the sounds, smells and feelings that come with being at the racetrack.
I apologize for this analysis of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach somehow getting turned into my own commentary about the IndyCar series’ ratings, but it just came to my mind and felt natural so I didn’t see any reason to fight it. I truly hope that the IndyCar series marketing team will continue to work on creating fans in person and getting people to come to the race weekends this season and for many seasons to come. I think this method is the only way to guarantee new generations of fans and “lifers”. I know that for me personally, the infatuation had (and has) nearly nothing to do with the TV broadcasts. Granted, I am extremely thankful for them, as I am not financially capable of attending every race weekend, but I fell in love with IndyCar at the track – Indianapolis Motor Speedway to be specific. I was 3 years old. IndyCar is a love affair that has lasted 28+ years for me and I am very confident in saying that it’s not going anywhere… and neither am I.