Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Knight Turns Out the Lights

Disclaimer: I am not usually one to take such strong offense at something that some random person writes on Tha Interwebs that I feel like I have to rebut the entire body of work, but every so often, something so hilariously wrongheaded comes along that I just can not help myself. If you're squeamish about long-winded diatribes against one writer, or you'd prefer to read my usual "kumbaya, can't we all get along?" stuff that I write here or in blog comments all over the place, maybe you should come back in another month or two, or whenever I get around to writing again. This one's a craw-sticker for me, so if you wanna stick around, you'll want to get comfy. You've been warned.

As we march toward the end of another IndyCar Series season, I've taken some time to count my blessings as a fan of my favorite sport. Sure, we have guys from the two behemoth teams, and only those two teams, battling it out for the championship, just as it seems to happen every year, but at least we've got a close battle, right? Sure, guys from those two teams win most of the races, but we've had a handful of surprise winners (including the craziest darkhorse winner of the Indy 500 in a decade or two), right? The cars aren't all that much fun to look at, and sort of put on terrible racing more often than not, but we're getting better equipment next year, right? There aren't a whole lot of young drivers that are in a regular winning position in the Series, but there are a couple of very good rookies in the Series (J.R. Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe), and a few more (Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly, Esteban Guerrieri, Stefan Wilson, Peter Dempsey) coming down the line, right?

Oh, but I'm wrong on this last one. Or, at least I am according to an esteemed member of the IndyCar paddock/"former employee of every racing team and driver in North America, just look at my sidebar for all the names I like to drop"/"smartest guy in the Northern Hemisphere and if you don't believe me, just read one or two of my posts, please". Jeez, given that my idea of what makes for a decent junior formula field appears to differ so wildly from other folks' ideas, maybe we should have a closer look.

“Those are drivers in IndyCar's 2011 Firestone Indy Lights. Lots of household names and ticket sellers there!”

Wait, what? Since when, in the entire history of motorsports, is the lineup of a support series packed with "household names and ticket sellers"? Well, outside of NASCAR's Nationbusch Series, which is packed full of guys from the premier league who are slumming it and beating the hell out of the young, up and coming series regulars, to the point where the average fan can probably only name 2-3 of those top “Nationbusch-only” guys? Isn’t insisting that a support series be packed with household names like going to your local Double-A baseball team and leaving halfway through the second inning because you’ve never heard of anybody on the field?

“No disrespect intended to those guys -- all real racers are appreciated here -- but as a group they symbolize the problems that have plagued this tour since Tony George decided he needed a development/support series.”

Oh, my goodness, what? This is Tony George’s fault? Because when he created the Infiniti Pro Series, there was no way for a sprint car driver (his intended IRL target driver, however right or wrong that may have been, and no, I am not touching that debate right now) to get into a car with wings, slicks and an engine that sat behind the driver and get experience in large, paved ovals. So, Tony should have just said, “well, I know there’s no way to actually attract the drivers I’m trying to get and train them up to get into my big cars, but screw it. I sure can’t spend a couple million dollars extra, create a training ground series where there is none (because Atlantics ran 90% road courses from 2000 to 2007, so rear engine car experience on ovals was basically impossible to get without winding up knocking down walls at Indy or elsewhere) and create an undercard series for people who actually come out to my races to watch while they wait around for the big cars to take the track.” What? Oh, right, every last thing that’s gone wrong with motorsports since 1992 is Tony George’s fault. I forgot about that. OK, as you were, Mr. Knight.

“Here are the champions and their subsequent histories: 2002 -- A.J. Foyt IV (out of racing). 2003 -- Mark Taylor (bombed out of brief stint with Panther). 2004 -- Thiago Medeiros (touted as a potential superstar, crashed in practice at California Speedway, finished 31st in one Indy 500 start, and eventually disappeared from the scene). 2005 -- Wade Cunningham (kicking around trying to make something happen). 2006 -- Jay Howard -- (ditto). 2007 -- Alex Lloyd (part-time IC competitor). 2008 -- Raphael Matos (trying to keep a full-time IC ride). 2009 -- JR Hildebrand (you know his story). 2010 -- J.K. Vernay (TBD).

A pretty thin record book, there."

Hmmm, well, I’ll grant you those early years were pretty bare, especially since talent was also split with Atlantics at the time, but holding up the last 3-4 years of Lights as a punching bag of everything that’s wrong with American Open Wheel’s feeder system seems pretty short sighted. Let’s see...

Cunningham: had a good debut at Texas this year, is running a couple more races, and is trying to find the sponsorship dough to move up, just like most other young drivers in every other feeder series around the world.

Howard: has NEVER gotten a decent shake at an IndyCar, and when the top-15 or so full-time drivers stays static for 4-5 years (as it has since 2006 or so), it’s going to be hard to break into a team where you can prove what you can do. Oh, except that Jay did a great job at Indy this year, finally given a better-than-terrible car and looked really good at Texas as well, so maybe there’s a little talent lurking in there somewhere? Nah, you should probably write him off for good.

Lloyd: see Howard, except that we all know that he’s a stud from his RoY season last year (or does that not count, since it’s an “IRL” RoY title?).

Rafa: it drives me crazy when people deride him as being a colossal failure. Let me break this down. 2009: 13th in points, 8 top-10s and no top-5s, finished behind 4 drivers who didn’t drive for Ganassi, Penske, Andretti or Panther (unquestionably the Series’ top 4 teams), while driving for a team that was brand new to the full time grind of the Series. 2010: 14th in points, 4 top-10s, 2 top-5s, finished behind 3 drivers who didn’t drive for Ganassi, Penske, Andretti or Panther, while driving for a team THAT SHUT DOWN AT THE END OF THE YEAR and had to be saved from ruin twice in the last 12 months, so maybe they weren’t all that well heeled to begin with, remember? That is a huge, embarrassing failure? Oh, and he was like top-12 in points with a completely brand new team at the beginning of this year before things fell off a cliff when he DNQ’d at Indy (again, with a completely brand new team, in a year when 40 legit car/driver combos showed up). Give credit where it’s due, folks. Back to the “Lights List of Shame”…

Hildebrand: gee, that seems like a success story, if you ask me. What’s your point again, Knight?

Vernay: yeah, didn’t get the sponsor dollars to move up this year, but Peugeot did hire him to be one of their young test drivers for their Le Mans program, so maybe there was SOMETHING there.

Oh, while we’re here, maybe we should toss in James Hinchcliffe, who finished 2nd to Vernay last year and has been a revelation thus far in 2011. I don’t understand what you’re talking about at all. Are you also saying that the Heisman Trophy is a joke because some of the winners haven't gone on to superduperstardom in the NFL?

"The Bosch Super Vee series, which was contested from 1971-1990, really didn't have the engine horsepower needed to provide a full training ground for Indy. But taking a look at the list of some of its champions showed it served a most useful purpose:

Bertil Roos (highly respected racing school operator); Elliott Forbes-Robinson (sports car winner); Bob Lazier (CART rookie of the year); Geoff Brabham (IMSA champion, longtime CART driver, IROC race winner); Al Unser Jr. (double I500 winner); Michael Andretti (CART champion); Arie Luyendyk (two I500 wins); Didier Theys (sports car winner)."

Oh, my, we’re going to pine for a support series that’s been dead long enough that kids who were born during the last season are now old enough to drink legally? Let’s take a close look at those drivers while we’re at it.

Roos: so, we get to count something that a driver does after his active racing career is over as being the element of success that sets him over the current crop of young drivers? Boy, that doesn’t seem fair at all, especially if Mark Taylor becomes the next Skip Barber in 15-20 years somehow.

EFR: if we’re going to count “sports car winner” as a “Super Vee success story”, shouldn’t we wait to see if Howard, Lloyd, Rafa or Vernay win Le Mans like 6 times or something? Or are we just talking about later IndyCar success, of which EFR had none?

Lazier: OK, CART rookie of the year, but how many career wins did he have in CART? Or top-5s? Oh, zero and three, respectively, i.e. about the same numbers that J.R. and Hinch are tracking for this year?

Brabham: um, son of a 3-time World Champion, so I’m thinking he might have found his way to the top, regardless of what junior series he picked.

Al Jr. and Michael: see Brabham.

Arie and Theys: wait, are you claiming that those guys were “household names and ticket sellers” in the days when they won the Super Vee title? I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about that. Seems to me a touch unfair to not wait until we see if any of the current Lights guys pan out before deeming them as all sub-Theys talents.

“The most legendary of the training tours was, of course, Formula Atlantic. It had a great run from 1974-2009. No explanation is needed when listing some of its graduates: Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve, Tom Gloy, Johnny O'Connor, Richie Hearn, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Barron, Buddy Rice, Jon Fogarty, AJ Allmendinger, Simon Pagenaud and Matos.

CART's minor league, first known as the American Racing Series, was started by Pat Patrick and went from 1986-2001. Competitiors who went on to bigger and better things included: Theys, Jon Beekhuis, Mike Groff, Paul Tracy, Bryan Herta, Robbie Buhl, Greg Moore, Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Cristiano da Matta, Scott Dixon and Townsend Bell.”

Again, fella, you have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight when looking at those names (and that one guy’s name is O’CONNELL, by the way). There’s nothing that says that Rafa, J.R., Hinch or even Charlie Kimball can’t be as big or bigger than any of those guys, simply because they graduated from Tony George’s Terrible and Evil Indy Lights Championship. And if we’re really gonna play this game, then shouldn’t we be asking whatever happened to Steve Robertson (1994 Lights champ, who later became Kimi Raikkonen’s manager, but never raced anything beyond touring cars after he won the Lights championship), Dave McMillan (1982 Atlantic champ), Dan Marvin (1984 Atlantic champ), Michael Angus (1985 Eastern Atlantic champ), Ted Prappas (1986 Western Atlantic champ), Steve Shelton (1988 Eastern Atlantic champ), Dean Hall (1998 Western Atlantic champ), Jocko Cunningham (1990 Eastern Atlantic champ), Hiro Matsushita (1990 Western Atlantic champ, and considered by many to be one of the worst CART drivers in the entire history of the sport), Lee Bentham (1998 Atlantic Champ), Hoover Orsi (2001 Atlantic champ), and Charles Zwolsman (2005 Atlantic champ)? Or the 5-6 Super Vee champions that never won a race in anything bigger than a showroom stock series race after their champion years? Do we get to count those guys toward your list of junior formula champions who are beyond reproach?

“Point made. Something for Bernard to ponder before his next news conference about the "Road to Indy."”

Point made? How so? And besides, what’s Randy Bernard supposed to say when talking about the current crop of young drivers? “Gee, our Lights guys are all talentless hacks, who have won zero IndyCar races, while Mike Knight’s list of past Atlantic, Vee and ARS champions won roughly 3,567 races and collectively came up with a cure for Appalachian ringworm. I’d implore all American, Eurpoean and Japanese companies to stay far, far away from any driver who has graduated from our current feeder ladder or from any team who wants to come run here. What a black hole of talent. Why do I even get out of bed in the morning?”

Look I’m no Tony George defender, but this is clearly an attack on a holdover TG institution, only for the sake of it being a holdover TG institution, and for no other reason. Hey, Mike? How’s about you just stick to drag racing, if everything is so beyond broken in the IndyCar world?


Anonymous said...

And now, the roles are reversed!!! But really, you're right. Indy Lights isn't that bad. Lloyd and Cunningham are good drivers and Pegeuot has picked up Vernay so he's doing alright. Hinch and Hilebrand are successful and Pippa made the 500 ahead of RHR or Conway.

Although I can't say it's a strong field or a lot of fun to watch either, we need it to succeed. It's a lot better to get Lights graduates into Indycar than random GP2/GP3 drivers. On the plus side I think Hinchcliffe, Hildebrand, and Simona (I know she's atlantics) can help justify American Open Wheel Feeder series. I mean, all three are talented and all three are able to get good results. But they need a better car and they need some real sponsors. The fact they're getting TV time on Versus again should help a little.

It's also a little hard to expect Indycar to be too focused on Lights while the main series is in the state it's in.

Anonymous said...

A great rebuttal, a masterclass in how you right a /proper/ rant. :) You can't really compare development/junior series in the way he did because every series has champions who amount to nothing (often through little fault of their own). And you can't take guys from the last 2 or 3 years and compare them to storied legends who later went on to greatness simply because there hasn't been enough time yet.

I don't like Tony George or what his actions did to racing and I'd happily stand in line to kick a steel toe-capped boot up his backside, but this wasn't a bad decision from TG, once his own series was established he was absolutely correct to start its own development formula to bring on talent.

It is sad to see frontrunners not being picked up in the main series, or not for long. That's down to the teams and their sponsors.

Lights does have a weak field and that needs addressing. That isn't necessarily the fault of Lights - there are plenty of junior series with a field size problem due to the economy, including Formula 3 and nobody can argue F3 is a bad proving ground. Lights does need.. shall we say a 'less agricultural' car and I hope that will attract more drivers (and sponsors). Once the main series car gets sorted I hope this is the next priority for the technical staff.

Vernay raced for Signatech-Nissan in LMP2 at Silverstone's ILMC/LMS round, they were leading until they had to make repairs.

By the way, I stopped paying attention to Knight some time ago, back in the midst of the Twitter PR boom when he dismissed it as a passing fad rather than a valuable tool to get your PR message directly to fans who want to listen, bypassing the middleman. As a long-time PR man himself I was amazed he could be so short-sighted and that made me question his wisdom.

Also he doesn't allow comments which makes me believe he doesn't want or like to be questioned.

And his blog is bright orange.