Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Charlotte Camera Failure Not First; Could Have Been Worse

Falling Skycam came close to hitting Iowa players
The failure of an overhead camera system during the Charlotte World 600 that injured 10 fans, sending three people to the hospital and damaging several race cars, was not the first time this type of system has failed.  In fact, it was the third major failure of an overhead camera system.  All those involved at Charlotte are fortunate the end result wasn’t worse – much worse.

Called a SkyCam when it was patented about 30 years ago, there are now several versions of the system available, still generically usually referred to simply as a Skycam.  All the systems are similar: a remote camera mounted and operated by suspension cables, all computer controlled.  The Skycam surged to popularity during 1996 Olympics and later became a fixture at major football games, races and even golf tournaments.

The first significant failure of a Skycam-type camera came during a 2007 Sunday night NFL football game between New Orleans and Seattle when the camera made a “controlled descent” to the field according to Cablecam, the camera's operator.  No one was hurt, but the game was stopped for a short  time while the cameras and cables were cleaned up.  Cablecam blamed it on “human error on the part of the operator.”

Another incident took place during the Insight Bowl between Iowa and Oklahoma on Dec. 30, 2011, the camera making anything but a controlled descent.  With a little more than two minutes to play in the game, the camera came crashing to the field, just missing Iowa’s offensive huddle and sending several players ducking for cover. 

I remember walking on the grassy tri-oval area at the Daytona before the start of the 500 a few years back and later at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the Skycam whip back-and-forth while the camera operator practiced before the race.  Probably like everyone else, I wondered what would happen if something came loose.  The pictures were great, however, and I’ve enjoyed them as much as anyone over the years.

Now we know what could happen.  Again.  Give Fox credit, it aggressively covered the story during and after the race, showing repeated replays of the cables coming down, apologizing and taking full responsibility for the problem. 

We may have seen the last overhead shots for a while – possibly forever.  Use of the camera has been suspended indefinitely and an investigation is underway with Comcat into what caused the cables to fail at Charlotte.  Even if the failure is traced to “human error,” I can’t imagine the camera being used again at a race track, at least not in the manner it has been used thus far.  Like all cameras, the ones used now on Skycams are just a fraction of the size of those used 30 years ago, but the damage that could be done by a camera falling on a race car moving at more than 200 mph is unthinkable.

We’ve been warned.  Three strikes and you’re out.   

Monday, May 27, 2013

Indy Smokes Charlotte – Again

Popular Indy 500 Winner Tony Kanaan
Don’t look now, but at the moment, IndyCar is America’s most exciting racing series. 

For the second year in a row, the Indianapolis 500 was clearly a better race than the Charlotte 600 – and it wasn’t even close.  The 500 featured repeated “wow” moments, the type of excitement on the race track NASCAR’s Brain France openly lusts after.  Not a single “big one,” the multi-car accident France’s series seems to have mistaken for wow, marred the 500. 

Indy featured a record 14 leaders, a record 68 lead changes (doubling last year’s previous mark) and the racing was close throughout.  There were only five cautions for 21 laps and it took just 2:40 to run the race at a record 187 mph.  In contrast, Charlotte saw 12 leaders and 24 lead changes and took 4 hours and 35 minutes to run, plus two red flags pushing the elapsed time to more than five hours.  There were 11 cautions for 61 laps. 

It’s been five years since open wheel racing stepped back from the brink of destruction and signed a truce ending its civil war.  It was the second 500 featuring the new spec Indy race car and while I’m still not a fan of the car, it sure puts on a good race.  The 500 followed on the heels of the IndyCar street race in Brazil, considered by many to have been one of the best road races in history and perhaps the best street race ever.

IndyCar was openly hoping for an American driver to win the race, but it got someone even better, Tony Kanaan.  While more than half the fans had long since fled Charlotte Motor Speedway when Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag approaching midnight, many of the 200,000 or so fans at Indianapolis stayed long after the finish, alternately chanting “TK! TK! TK!” and “Tony! Tony! Tony!”  Kanaan’s victory had elements of Dale Earnhardt’s victory in the Daytona 500, with crew members and driver’s from other teams lining up to congratulate him.   Even though the race ended under caution for the second straight year, nary a sole was calling for a green-white-checker, not even the second and third place finishers.

AJ Allmendinger, a NASCAR exile, led 14 laps on the way to a seventh place finish.  He is the first driver to move from stock cars to Indy cars in many years, although it wasn’t entirely his idea.  But he may not be the last.  Kurt Bursch tested at Indy in one of Michael Andretti’s cars and defending NASCAR championship Brad Keselowski was obviously impressed with the 500 from his perch on Roger Penske’s War Wagon.  Both have said they’d be interested in running a future 500.

The big question now; can IndyCar keep it going?  Of course not everything is hunky dory.  Only 33 cars attempted to qualify for the 500 – for the 33 starting positions.  One of those teams has already announced it will be shutting its doors.  

Up next is the Detroit Grand Prix.  Last year the race on Belle Isle staged by Penske turned into an embarrassment, with the race being stopped after the track was ripped up by the cars and several drivers openly questioned if the race should continue.  Penske can be expected to have corrected that problem.  The series also is trying something different, breaking up the race into two shorter sprint events, one on Saturday and one on Sunday.    

Longer term, Derrick Walker, who is taking over as head of operations and competition at IndyCar, says one of his goals is to re-introduce more opportunities for technological innovation.  That’s music to the ears of many Indy fans, who believe innovation is what the sport has been missing.

For the sake of IndyCar – and NASCAR – let’s hope it happens.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Put Lorenzen in the Hall – NOW

NASCAR will announce its next round of five Hall of Fame inductees Wednesday (May 22) evening after a day of "discussion and debate" in Charlotte by those privileged with a vote.  I don’t have a vote and since none of the five I urged the voters to choose last year made the final cut, it makes my job easy this year.

Last year Curtis Turner was my top choice, followed by Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Fred Lorenzen.  Smokey Yunick, not on the official ballot, was a write-in candidate.

Those are still my top five.  Only this year, for sentimental reasons, I’m moving Lorenzen, NASCAR’s original “Golden Boy,” to the top of the list. 

Lorenzen was my favorite driver when I first became a NASCAR fan in the early ‘60s.  He was the first driver ever to win more than $100,000 in a season.  In 1963 he finished third in points, despite running only 29 of 55 races.  He missed most of one season during a Ford boycott and then walked away from the sport near the peak of his career (although he made a brief comeback), finishing with 26 wins in just 158 starts.   Despite being a Yankee from Chicago, Lorenzen also was a favorite of southern fans.

But that’s not why he’s my sentimental favorite this year.  You see Lorenzen is suffering from dementia and now lives in a Chicago-area nursing home.  He reportedly has his good days and his bad.

Here’s an opportunity for the powers in NASCAR to make Wednesday a good day for Lorenzen – before it’s too late.

Those returning to the ballot again this year along with my picks are Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Raymond Parks, Tim Flock, Red Byron, Benny Parsons, Jerry Cook, H. Clay Earles, Anne B. France, Ray Fox, Jack Ingram, Bobby Isaac, Les Richter, T. Wayne Robertson, Ralph Seagraves and Wendell Scott.

New to the ballot are Dale Jarrett, two-time Daytona 500 winner and 1999 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion; Maurice Petty, who built more than 200 race winning engines for Petty Enterprises; 1960 champ Rex White; O. Bruton Smith, owner of race tracks and Speedway Motorsports Inc.; and Larry Phillips, a dominate force on NASCAR’s short tracks.

All, I'm sure, belong in the HOF and will be voted in at some point. 

But notice someone not on the list?  Once again Yunick didn’t even receive a nomination.  The nominating committee is heavily dominated by the France family and NASCAR officials and Yunick was never a favorite of those groups.  

Oh well, there’s always next year for Yunick.

Just put Lorenzen in the HOF now.  Before it's too late.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An Open Letter to Darrell Waltrip

Dear DW:

Earlier this week I wrote a blog post headlined: “In Need of a Boogity, Boogity, Boogity Break.”  You can find it after this one, along with more than 50 comments from readers. 

I wrote that I’d heard too much from you during coverage of the Darlington 500 about how great the Gen 6 race cars were.  I was tired of hearing how much Kyle Busch has matured and how Danica Patrick has improved.  While all three are true (at least I think Busch has matured), I felt it showed a lack of respect for true race fans, the heart of the sport, to keep telling them the same thing over-and-over.  We know a good race when we see one.  We know who’s driving a good race.  Who is getting better and who is showing more maturity.  We’re fans – real fans.  We get it. 

This wasn’t a spur of the moment blog post.  Twice before this season I started to write similar columns but stopped before publishing them.  I wondered if I was the only one who felt this way, that it might be unfair.  But Darlington was over the top.  I kept hearing how great the car and the racing was early on – and it wasn’t.  We were repeatedly updated on Patrick as she fell further and further behind.  Then there was the Busch discussion – about how much more mature he was and how badly Busch felt about crashing Kasey Kahne at Talladega.  That did it.

I was surprised – stunned would be a better word – by the response to my blog.  The 50 plus people commenting were easily more than I’ve ever heard from before.  By a wide margin.  More importantly, these must be considered diehard NASCAR fans, searching the hinterlands of the blogosphere for stories on the sport they love, before stumbling across my blog and taking the time to write a comment.

The vast majority of the comments were respectful (not always the case) and I was struck by the common themes expressed by many.  Like me, some had wondered if they were the only ones unhappy with the broadcasts.  They were tired of the incessant drumbeat in support of the Gen 6 race car.  Many acknowledged the car is a vast improvement (so do I), but it is not the be-all, end-all and we don’t need to be told it repeatedly how great it is.  It’s better.  We expect it will continue to get better.  But it’s not there yet.

Sorry, but it doesn’t look as if the Mikey and Darrell combination is being well received.   Many questioned a possible conflict of interest, given the relationship you and your brother have with Toyota.  I’ve never felt either of you have gone over the line, but others obviously have.  I am surprised that Fox would allow even the appearance of a conflict.  In a situation like this, broadcasters must be absolutely beyond question.

For many of those writing a comment, “boogity, boogity, boogity” has run its course.  Frankly, my original headline was more of a metaphor then a comment on the phrase itself.  To me, the racing season doesn’t start every year until I hear my first “boogity.”  But my wife hates the phrase – and so apparently do many others. 

Finally, please note that many wrote fondly of your days as a driver and even an announcer.  They long for the old Jaws.  They long for a voice.  With NASCAR instituting a virtual gag order on drivers, the sport – your sport and our sport – needs a critical voice. 

You could still be it.


Monday, May 13, 2013

In Need of a Boogity, Boogity, Boogity Break

DW needs to show fans more respect
I don’t know about you, but I need a break from boogity, boogity, boogity.

When Darrell Waltrip isn’t raving about NASCAR’s Gen 6 race car, he’s busy praising/defending Kyle Busch.  Or telling us how great Danica Patrick is doing.  It’s gotten to the point where it is ruining the race. 

Saturday night Waltrip spent the first couple of hundred miles of the Darlington 500 talking about what a great race it was (if you were watching, you know it wasn’t) because the new cars could run low on the track.  Fans know a good race when they see it, they don’t have to be told.  And fans are used to long green flag runs at the start of Darlington. They know the action is packed into the final 100 miles.  But it’s an insult to be repeatedly told what a great race we’re watching when clearly it isn’t.

Then Waltrip and his cohorts went on and on about how much race leader Busch has changed this year, how much more mature he is and how badly Busch felt about crashing Kasey Kahne at Talladega the week before.  And after Busch caused Kahne to crash again, Waltrip spent the rest of the race saying the pair never touched and it wasn’t Kyle’s fault.  Kahne didn’t see it that way.

"He blew that entry into one,” Kahne said after the race. "I was like, ‘Oh shoot, oh shoot.' The car moved and then just spun out. I don't know if he actually touched me or not. If he would have just entered normal like he entered the whole race there would have been no issues and I would have been leading off two. He just didn't want that to happen, so he blew turn one. Whether he hit me or not, he still caused that whole deal with screwing up and just mind fade. He's had a few of them this year when I've been around him.

“He needs to quit. I’ve never touched the guy in my life as far as on the race track.”

I couldn’t tell if the two touched or not.  And I don’t blame Busch for racing him hard.  But I don’t want to listen to Waltrip defending Busch for the rest of the race either. 

We don't know how Busch felt.  He spent the final laps of the race yelling at his crew over the radio as his car slowed, later traced to a cut tire.  The more “mature” Busch bolted afterwards without talking to reporters, leaving it to crew chief Dave Rogers to defend his driver (again). 

“He's pretty tore up that they're racing hard and Kahne tore up another car,” Rogers said. “This is the third time we've been involved in an incident with Kasey and all of us over here have a ton or respect for that program. Kyle thinks the world of Kasey Kahne.

But again, this isn’t about Busch.  He behaved just as we have become to expect him to behave. 

It’s about Waltrip, telling us how the great the racing is and the Gen 6 cars are when it isn’t and they aren’t.  And it’s about Waltrip continuously defending Busch and saying how he’s changed – when he hasn’t.

There are two more races on Fox – Charlotte and Dover – before the Sprint Cup broadcasts move over to TNT beginning at Pocono.  I’m looking forward to more Kyle Petty.

In the meantime, give the fans a little credit Darrell.  They’re smarter than you think.

Monday, May 6, 2013

GoDaddy On The Move – In IndyCar

The new face of IndyCar -- and GoDaddy
At least one of the GoDaddy.com-sponsored racing teams is on the move this year.  And in some ways, the plight of the two GoDaddy teams is a reflection of the series they compete in.

While NASCAR was staging its semi-annual crashfest at Talladega on Sunday, those who rose early to watch the IndyCar event – from Brazil of all places –  and could find it on television (NBC Sports Channel, No. 220 on DirecTV), were treated to one of the best road course races in recent memory and perhaps the best street race – ever.

And there was the GoDaddy car out front at the end, James Hinchcliffe making a stirring pass on the last turn of the last lap.  It was the second win for Hinchcliffe in four races to start the IndyCar season and the Canadian looks to be one of the favorites as the series moves to Indianapolis.

Hinchcliffe, who moved into the GoDaddy-sponsored Indy car at Andretti Autosport last year when Danica Patrick took her GoDaddy sponsorship to NASCAR, quickly became a fan favorite with his light-hearted attitude and social media skills approaching those of Brad Keselowski.  With his skills on the track paying further dividends this year, he has become one of the drivers IndyCar is banking on to help restore the series.

Meanwhile Patrick, who NASCAR has been counting on to help with its revitalization, has a few bright moments to show for her first full Sprint Cup season – topped by a pole position at the Daytona 500 and a strong run at Martinsville – but for the most part she has struggled. 

The IndyCar race certainly had its share of crashing and bashing, with a race-record seven caution flags.  But the final 20 laps were run caution free, with as many as five cars fighting for the win.  The series, which at times has tried to enforce no blocking rules, also seems to have shifted to a new “boys have at it” policy.  Leader Takuma Sato, winner at Long Beach two weeks, put on his best Carl Edwards impersonation, attempting to block everyone making a move for the lead, with only slightly better results.  

Hinchcliffe, however, patiently set Sato up for the last turn pass.  Afterwards everyone seemed happy and patted each other on the back.  Of course it might have been different if Sato had held on for the win.  No one showed patience at Talladega and Patrick was left defending a move by boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, that started the Big One.  Or maybe it was the second or third Big One.  I lost track.

And while the grandstands were packed in Brazil, a testament to the number of Brazilian drivers in IndyCar and the country’s love of motor racing, there were wide swatches of empty grandstands at Talladega.  Certainly the weather accounted to some of those empty seats.  But not all, as many seats were covered with advertising long before race weekend. 

Or maybe fans are just getting smart.  If forced to choose between watching the final 20 laps of the IndyCar race in Brazil or the final 20 laps at Talladega this past Sunday, I’d pick the IndyCar race ever time. 

I'm pretty sure GoDaddy would too.