A Great Boost for Indycar- The NBC Deal

Yesterday the announcement everyone knew about became official. Beginning in 2019, NBC will be the exclusive television home of Indycar. Eight races will be on NBC proper, with the remaining races on NBCSN. The Indianapolis 500, of course, will be one of the eight. The others will be announced later.  I will venture some guesses in a bit. This deal is a huge boost to the series. Indycar is at last on a network that seems to care about it and produces a great race broadcast. I like most parts of the agreement.

Another component to the deal is streaming. I am not a techno whiz, but here is what I understand. Some practices and qualifying sessions which are not televised will be on the NBCSports app or NBC.com. MRTI races will be on NBC Gold, a paid subscription app. My understanding is that Indy qualifying will be shown live on television. I hope that’s the case.

NBC will include the Indianapolis 500 in its “Championship Season” promotion along with other major events it covers like The Kentucky Derby  and the Tour de France.

ABC, which had shown Indycar races since 1956, and the 500 since 1965, had shown little interest in producing quality coverage of the 500 or the other races the past several years. It will be interesting to see how they run out the string. Will ABC make their last Indy 500 a great broadcast? Will they produce the same tepid show we’ve seen the last couple of years despite some incredible races?

Back to the NBC package. My main concern is Mazda Road to Indy races being on the pay app. This arrangement does not help help the up and coming drivers establish name recognition and hinders their ability to attract sponsors.  Indy Lights now has a large field one year and a small field the next. More Indycar teams need to run MRTI teams to keep this feeder system viable. Taking this series off broadcast television is not the way to go.

A positive is having a solid network broadcast package should help teams and the series attract sponsors. I could see a company signing on for the eight network races, which gives a team at least a half season of sponsorship, and perhaps lead to a full season deal.

Another advantage of the arrangement is better coordination with NBC’s NASCAR coverage. NBC covers the second half of the stock car season. Does that mean the eight Indycar races on NBC  will be front loaded?  It’s likely the two series will not be on against one another. Will one follow the other? If so, the series that doesn’t believe races should go overtime should be first to avoid bleeding into the next broadcast. Indycar can set the stage for NASCAR.

My guesses for the eight races on NBC are St. Pete, Phoenix, Indy, Road America, Iowa, Pocono, Mid-Ohio, and the season finale. This schedule showcases the diversity of tracks the series runs, and it includes the season opener and the finale. It might provide the impetus to move Iowa to a Saturday night race and move the finale to Gateway.

Overall, I am very excited with this television deal. The next step is a new series title sponsor for 2019. This broadcast package may help that process move more quickly.

 

 

 

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Sebring Recap= Mixed Day for Indycar Drivers; ABC out?

Cool nights and very hot days made the 66th 12 hour race at Sebring an endurance contest for the fans as well as the drivers. It turned out to be a great race with some late drama as usual. The final two and a half hours had some great battles for the lead. At one point after dark, both the Prototype and GTLM classes had three way fights for the lead. IMSA’s restart procedure in which the cars line up in groups helped. It made for exciting action.

Indycar drivers had a mixed day with a couple class podiums, some major disappointments, and some midpack finishes. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the top finisher with a second place overall in the Wayne Taylor car co-driven by Jordan Taylor and Renger Van Der Zande. Former Indycar driver Mike Conway  joined Hunter-Reay on the podium in the third place entry for Action Express. He teamed with Felipe Nasr and Eric Curran.

Other Indycar related finishes:

The Penske team did not fare well, retiring early in the contest. The car of Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud finished 40th overall. Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal dropped out first in 41st place. In general, the number 7 of Castroneves, Rahal, and Ricky Taylor has been the faster of the two. Taylor qualified third.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GTLM machines did slightly better. Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe, and Richard Westbrook finished 4th in class and 13th overall. Sebastien Bourdais dropped out in 39th place, last in class.

Car 55 with Spencer Pigot led late and was in contention for the win. On a pit stop with 41 minutes left, the car would not restart. They finished a lap down, 6th overall.

The best story of the weekend was Michael Shank Racing’s car 93. A brake failure and heavy wall contact in Thursday evening practice destroyed the car. The crew worked tirelessly to make repairsr and presented the car for Saturday’s pre-race warmup. From starting in last place the trio of Lawson Aschenbach, Mario Farnbacher, and Justin Marks led some laps and eventually finished seventh in class.

Next year Sebring will be interesting. After IMSA runs the traditional 12 hour race, the WEC will have its own 12 hour race about 90 minutes later, beginning at midnight. This sounds like a logistical nightmare to me. Exchanging pit equipment, podium ceremonies, pre-race for WEC, all in less than 90 minutes might make for a more interesting show than the race. The response from the fans will be interesting as well. I talked to several fans at the track about it. Most are not sure how this will work. There is a lot of skepticism about this idea.

ABC Out of Indycar?

A tweet sent out Saturday by a weatherman in Macon, Georgia, said that 2018 will be ABC’s final year covering the Verizon Indycar Series. The tweet was taken down and Mark Miles said it was a little premature. If true, it means that NBC will be the sole carrier for Indycar next year.

ABC has covered the Indianapolis 500 for 50 years. Since their new deal with Indycar that split the races between ABC and NBCSN, their coverage has been rather weak. There is no chemistry in the booth, they seem to always have the wrong camera shot on screen, and worse, it seems like they care very little about their product. Even their 500 broadcasts, which should be one of their crown jewels, has not been great.

I will have more to say after an official announcement. I’m thinking it will come just before or during the Phoenix race weekend.

Servia Enters the 500

There was an announcement that slipped through the cracks St. Petersburg race weekend. Veteran Oriol Servia will enter the 500 in a car in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan stable run by Scuderia Corsa. Corsa has an association with Ferrari and runs sportscar programs in the US and Europe. I don’t see any interest beyond the 500. It’s nice to have some more international flavor to the race.

Sebring Preview- Penske, Ganassi Look to Recover from Difficult Rolex 24

The second part of the 36 Hours of Florida takes the green flag at 10:40 am Saturday morning. The 66th 12 Hours of Sebring is the second race in the IMSA Weather Tech Series. Like the Rolex 24, several current  Indycar drivers and a handful of former Indycar drivers will participate. Indyccar  team owners Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, and Michael Shank also have full time teams. This is Penske’s first full year in this series.

The Penske and Ganassi cars had a rough start to the season with various mechanical issues and a crash pushing them out of contention. Helio Castroneves nearly won the pole at Daytona and his number 7 Acura prototype was in the hunt for the first half of the race. Ganassi’s Ford GTLM machines had a variety of issues that kept them from challenging for the podium.

I’m looking for both teams to be among the top challengers this year. In the prototype class, Penske will have a tough battle with the Cadillacs of Wayne Taylor Racing and the  Action Express cars which dominated at Daytona.

In GTLM Ganassi’s Fords will have to fend off the Corvettes in a fight between American manufacturers. The Porsches and Ferrari also could be in the mix. GTLM is the most competitive class due to its smaller field.

The GTD race is wide open as always. Ferrari usually does well at Sebring. I’m looking for one of the Shank cars to be on the podium here.

A list of Indycar drivers, both current and former, and what car they’re driving this weekend. Current full time Indycar drivers in bold:

Prototype-

#6- Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud

#7- Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal

#10- Ryan Hunter-Reay

#31- Mike Conway

#38- Pato O’Ward (IndyLights)

#52- Sebastian Saavedra

#90- Tristan Vautier

GTLM-

#25- Connor De Phillippi

#66- Sebastien Bourdais

#67- Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe

GTD-

#64- Townsend Bell

#86- Katherine Legge

The race will be televised on FS1 and FS2. The finish is on FS2 from 6-11 pm.

Back with a wrap-up next week.

 

A New Car That Works; A Repeat Champion

The victory may have gone to Sebastien Bourdais for the second year in a row, but the winner at St. Pete was Robert Wickens.  After a brilliant run to grab the pole on Saturday, Wickens drove an excellent race, leading 69 laps and had the race well in hand. Alexander Rossi pursued him relentlessly all day, but couldn’t quite get to him.

Two late cautions put Wickens’ lead in jeopardy. The last one set up a restart with just two laps to go. Oddly, the lights on the pace car did not go out signaling a restart. Was Wickens unaware the green was coming? Rossi pounced at the flag. He pulled alongside Wickens in turn one. Wickens had put his car in a good defensive spot. Rossi going inside but he put his right side wheels on the curb, causing a collision with Wickens. Rossi recovered to finish third, while Wickens could not continue. It was a tough ending to what had been a great day for the rookie.

I don’t blame Rossi for going for the win. That’s what racers do. He did put his car in a bad spot to maintain control and cost another driver the race. No driver had gone on the curb all weekend. A little background, though. In Friday afternoon’s practice Rossi once waited until the apex of the turn to brake and kept the car under control. Perhaps he as trying this move out. However, he didn’t have his wheels on the curb. So I put the blame n Rossi for the incident. He usually doesn’t make mistakes like that.

The race overall was great. After a caution filled first 40 laps, things settled down to some excellent racing. Wickens and Rossi battled for first all day, and there were battles for positions in the top 10 constantly. Sometimes on street course the cars can get strung out so far you never see two cars at once. That wasn’t the case yesterday. It was an outstanding way to start the season.

Notes

I haven’t seen the ABC broadcast yet, but I’m not hearing many compliments about it.

Scott Dixon had an awful weekend with his qualifying mistake and his collision with Sato in the race. His avoidable contact penalty was compounded with a pit violation. Despite all that he still managed a 6th place finish.

One thing I noticed about the new cars- I realize how easy the old cars were to drive. These cars are a handful. We are going to find out who the really skilled drivers are this year. Bring on that extra horsepower.

Last is becoming the place to start at St. Pete. Bourdais won from last place in 2017 and Graham Rahal fought through some early issues to finish second this time around.

It took me awhile to get it through my head that Helio Castroneves wasn’t in the Hitachi car. Then I realized it couldn’t be him because the car had the number 1 on it.

The fans in the turn 1 grandstand rose as one and gave Robert Wickens a long loud ovation when he got out of his car after the incident with Rossi.

Entry to the track was smoother this year. Security has streamlined their procedures. They could use a no bag line, though.

As an event St. Pete continues to grow. There was more signage downtown on the street and in stores. Newspaper advertising was more extensive including front page wrap around on Thursday.

Rookies Came to Play on Pole Day; Wickens Nips Power at St. Pete

At the star of the weekend the big question was how would the Indycar rookies fare against the strong veteran field in the opening race at St. Petersburg. The answer is, “Very well, thank you.”  Three rookies made the Fast Six in a slippery, wild qualifying session. The pole and a new track record were both claimed by newcomers.

The first round saw Marco Andretti dropped from the final transfer spot after a penalty for impeding another driver. Alexander Rossi received the same penalty which kept him out of  the Fast Six. Then the sprinkles came. It wasn’t a hard rain, just enough to make a slippery turn one even more slippery. Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud nearly collided at the end of the runway, with Dixon just squeezing around the stopped Menard’s car. Pagenaud later brought out a red flag as his engine stalled after another spin in the same area.

Dixon failed to advance as well. He started round 2 on blacks while everyone else was on reds to get in a lap before conditions worsened. Another surprise was Josef Newgarden not making it out of the first round. His car has not looked good all weekend. All the havoc provided openings for the rookies.

The Fast Six had three Hondas and three Chevrolets with six teams represented. Will Power, Takuma Sato, Robert Wickens, Matheus Leist, Jordan King, and Ryan Hunter-Reay  fought for the pole. In round 1 King set a new track record with a lap of 1:00.0476, another strong statement by a rookie. Power took the early lead and appeared to have yet another St. Pete pole in hand, but Wickens, the last driver on course, beat him on the final lap by 7 hundredths of a second.

Qualifying is one thing, racing is another. Several rookies have never done pit stops or managed fuel. Wickens said in the press conference he needs to make sure he knows the start procedures for tomorrow.  Several fast cars are starting mid pack or worse. They should come to the front. It should be quite an entertaining race tomorrow. Back Monday with a race recap.

 

Fearless (and mostly wrong) Predictions for 2018

Please remember to check out my new column on wildfireadiosports.com tomorrow morning.  I will be posting there most Fridays and maintaining this blog on either Tuesday or Thursday. The post should be up between 6-6:30 am. I have some track to get to.

The IndyCar season is finally here. It has been one of the busiest off seasons in a long time. It was great to see all the positive news, but it doesn’t replace seeing cars on track. We get some answers this weekend to some questions that remain: How will the new aero package race? Will there be more passing? Can a smaller team fight for the title? Will the longer braking zones make racing better? We should know the answer by turn 1 Sunday.

Here are my predictions for the season, subject to change of course.

St. Pete- Graham Rahal

Indianapolis 500- Will Power

IndyCar season champion- Alexander Rossi

Rookie of the year- Zach Veach

Number of race winners- 10

. Back tomorrow with a qualifying summary. Enjoy the race. It’s great to have IndyCar back.

 

 

Season Preview Part 3- Big Teams Will Still Contend

This is likely the group from which your 2018 Indycar champion will emerge. It won’tbe easy. I see as many as seven contenders from this group, with two teams having multiple contenders. Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud could stage one of the greatest title fights Indycar has seen. Each team won  at least one race last year. I expect that to be the case again.  A reminder- the order I talk about the teams does not indicate any prediction of season results.

Team Penske

Another year with this team in the championship hunt. Penske drivers should again dominate qualifying on the road/street courses and will probably do well at some ovals, too. Defending champion Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power will  each win races. I don’t think they will win as many combined as they did in 2017, but they should win nearly half of the events. The key is where thel finish in the others that will determine their title hopes.

Newgarden will not relinquish his title willingly. Pagenaud, who had a strong title defense in 2017, will be a threat to win at every road /street course. He showed huge improvement on ovals last year as well, winning Phoenix and nearly winning Gateway. Power lurked near the front all season but early DNFs doomed his chances. He has had to fight back from low finishes at St. Pete the last two years.

The new aero packages should favor the Penske cars. The question is, will the new package allow other teams to catch  them? I think there will be a closing of the gap.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

RLLR has been the best of the smaller teams the last three years. A single car team until now, they usually have one dominant weekend a season and have another race fall their way. In 2015 Rahal left Mid-Ohio just nine points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya. This year could be even better.

Finally, Graham Rahal gets a teammate to help with setups. Not just any teammate, but defending Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, who is known to be very good at helping his team in that department. Rahal has been in the top 5 or just outside it for the last three years and has won races for three consecutive seasons.

Sato was fastest at the Phoenix Open test. Rahal also showed speed. The first part of the year is where this team has struggled. If Graham can have success early, he can make a real run toward his first Astor Cup. Sato won the 500 last year and a pole. He still needs to be more consistent and stay out of trouble.

I think Rahal will be in the top four at season’s end. I’m not picking him for fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing

The addition of sponsor PNC full time on Scott Dixon’s car and downsizing to two cars put the Ganassi team in great shape for another title run. Dixon is the only driver holdover from 2017. Tony Kanaan is now with A. J. Foyt Racing, and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton now are teammates at Carlin Racing. Ed Jones will be Dixon’s teammate in the NTT Data car.

The contracted operation allows more focus on Dixon and should help Jones as well. The main goal, however is putting the 9 car in victory lane more than once and bringing the title back to CGR. Their chances are good.

Jones will have a steady season and could help his teammate by taking points away from some of Dixon’s chief rivals.

Andretti Autosport

The armada is coming. Look out for these guys. Two strong title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi will be frequent visitors to the podium, including the top step. Promising rookie Zach Veach will lead a strong rookie class. Marco Andretti has renewed hope to improve his results with the new aero package.

Hunter-Reay should return to winning after a drought that seemed to begin with the manufacturer’s aerokit.  He is one of the early favorites to win his second Indianapolis 500. Huner-Reay sounds very enthusiastic about the new configuration.

Rossi is on the verge of a very special year. He came on strong at the end of last season, capped by a strong performance at Watkins Glen. He will win well before Labor Day this year, and likely more than once. Fans will need to pay attention to where he will finish at Sonoma. This could be his championship.

Veach has waited a very long time for his chance to be in Indycar, and I expect him to take full advantage of it. He is more ready than any rookie ever has been. Veach should have many top 10s and possibly a couple of top 5s.

Marco and his crew chief Bryan Herta have displayed a lot of excitement about the coming year. We have heard this before from Marco, but the results have never matched his preseason optimism. Will this year be different? I think they might, but what is the bar? What will constitute improvement? I would like to see better qualifying performances- 2nd round on road/street courses consistently with an occasion Fast 6 for starters, and more race presence with results in the top 10 becoming routine.

This will be a very good year for Andretti Autosport. Rossi will rival Josef Newgarden for attention and points.

Tomorrow, a season preview with my rock solid predictions. That means my picks will be dropping like rocks by Long Beach. Thanks for reading this week. Look for my posts on Wildfire Sports in a day or two. I will let you know when they are up.