Random Thoughts On Iowa

The 2017 edition of the Iowa Corn 300 was one of the more memorable races of the eleven that have taken place so far. It will be remembered for many reasons. First of all, Helio Castroneves broke his fifty-five race win drought as he picked up the thirtieth win of his illustrious career that includes three Indianapolis 500 victories. It also gave Roger Penske his first win at the seven-eighths mile oval in Newton, Iowa after ten frustrating losses. Aside from that, I’ll remember this race for the great racing that took place throughout the field.

One of the great things about being a blogger and not a real journalist, is that I’m not required to hide my biases as most professional writers are. It’s no secret that I am a big fan of both Helio Castroneves and Roger Penske, so we’ll set their success yesterday to the side for a moment.

This was really a good race. Not only that, it was a clean race. Although a few drivers said afterwards that the courtesy of lapped traffic was poor, there was no one getting caught up in someone else’s mistake. There were four cautions; one for rain, two for each Foyt car brushing the Turn Four wall and one for Mikhail Aleshin’s spin and hard hit in Turn Two. All were single-car incidents that were not the fault of any other car on the track – a far cry from the melee in Texas last month that saw only seven cars finish.

Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe seemed to carry their feud from Texas into Iowa. They battled pretty much all day, but both played fair and were both able to finish the race in one piece with Kanaan finishing ninth and Hinchcliffe tenth. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal also went back and forth for position all afternoon before Hunter-Reay wound up with a much-needed podium finish, while Rahal settled for fifth.

This race will also be remembered for JR Hildebrand crashing in practice, only to come back and qualify on the front-row and battle with Castroneves for the lead late in the race. But Helio played the lapped traffic correctly and used Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi as picks in order to get back around Hildebrand for the win.

JR Hildebrand has many fans who were disappointed on social media, saying that Hildebrand really needed a win to help erase the stigma of his losing the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in the final turn. I get their point, but Helio Castroneves needed this win also. Not only was this his first win since Belle Isle in 2014, but his win yesterday came against the backdrop of a report by Robin Miller that Roger Penske will move Helio to their new sports car team next year and that Castroneves will be relegated to an Indy-only program similar to that of Juan Montoya.

It’s clear that Helio wants to stay in IndyCar. This will be an interesting drama to see how it unfolds throughout the remainder of this season – especially if Castroneves wins the championship this season. After the race, IndyCar informed the media that Roger Penske has requested that the media is to ask no further questions of Helio’s IndyCar future. Stay tuned.

TV Coverage: I thought yesterday’s coverage was one of NBCSN’s better efforts. It started in the pre-race with a strong segment by Jon Beekhuis detailing what all is involved with teams changing a car over from Road America, a natural terrain road course that happens to be the longest track on the schedule; to Iowa – a seven-eighths mile oval that happens to be the shortest track on the schedule. It was interesting enough for the die-hards to learn something and enjoy, but it was also explained in direct, simple terms for a novice to understand.

Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell continued to show their good chemistry in the booth. Their description of a move that Scott Dixon did late in the race on a pass is something that only very experienced and savvy veterans would have picked up on. Anders Krohn had a very strong debut as an IndyCar pit reporter. Robin Miller has turned the grid-run from a pointless tired segment a couple of years ago, to one that now provides laughs as well as information.

Kevin Lee put another notch in his belt as he bolstered his broadcasting resume with another strong outing as the lead announcer in the IndyCar TV booth. I find him very easy to listen to, partially due to the fact that I listen to him for two hours every week on Trackside and I’m very used to him. But I also know that he knows what he is talking about and he is very passionate about the sport and wants to see the series succeed. Nothing against Leigh Diffey, Rick Allen or Brian Till, but NBCSN needs a constant voice every week on their IndyCar telecasts. Kevin Lee fits that need and should be given the gig fulltime starting next year. He’s earned it.

The dreaded in-car interview: The only real broadcasting snafu involved one of my pet-peeves in racing – the in-car interview. This goes back to the old rule of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. NASCAR’s broadcast partners are famous for trying to talk to drivers during caution periods. I cringe every time I hear Darrell Waltrip say “Hey June-bug, this is ol’ DW. Do you copy?” Most of the time, they don’t work at all, like what happened yesterday when Paul Tracy tried to talk to Graham Rahal during a caution period. It failed.

When they do work, they are awkward and tell us nothing. You feel like the driver has so much more to do at that time than be interviewed while driving. It’s about as awkward as the sideline reporter chasing down the football coach that is headed into the locker room for halftime. You know the only reason he stops for a few seconds is because it is in his contract. I’m hoping this is the last time we see the NBCSN crew attempt this on an IndyCar telecast. End of rant.

Ill-timed commercials: This is not their fault, just plain bad luck; but NBCSN could not have picked worse times to cut away for commercials. Two of the three cautions due to accidents came about when NBCSN had cut away to commercials. Two other times, lead changes took place. Fortunately, they all took place when they still had the IndyCar Non-Stop window showing the action to the side.

Flawed strategy: I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. A lot of times, I won’t understand a team’s strategy until I see it play out. But there was one strategy yesterday that I knew was bad from the beginning and it turned out to be just that – bad. That was leaving Charlie Kimball out on old tires, while the rest of the field pitted. Before anyone in the booth said anything, I knew that he would be gobbled up quickly by those behind him on fresh tires. He was.

Kimball led those ten laps under caution beginning on Lap 174; but as soon as the race restarted, Kimball became a rolling chicane out there. He finished fifteenth – five laps down. I’m not sure who made that call, but their strategy was obviously very flawed. One can’t help but wonder where Kimball may have finished had he taken on fresh Firestones with everyone else.

Some grooming needed: File this under the “Get off my lawn” category, but can someone please give JR Hildebrand a gift certificate to Sport Clips? He is in need of some serious grooming in the worst way. The long, greasy and apparently unwashed hair that he grew in the offseason, is overshadowed only by the scruffy and patchy beard that adorns his face. If that’s the best beard he can grow, he shouldn’t even try. The whole motif suggests that instead of being sponsored by Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka, his sponsor would most likely be MD 20/20.

Date change needed: One thing we have all learned over the past few years is the importance of date equity. One of the quickest ways to kill an event is to keep shifting the date around from June to August to July every year. But you know another way to kill a race? Drop the green flag at 4:40 local time on a Sunday with the temperature at a balmy 91°. Throw in a red-flag for an unexpected shower and you have fans leaving the stands after 7:00 pm on a Sunday night to drive back to wherever. Chances are, those that live four or more hours away from Newton probably decided to pass this year when they learned the starting time of the race. It showed in the stands.

This race needs to be a Saturday night race, in my opinion. It’s a lot easier to convince fans to spring for a hotel in the area after the race on a Saturday night, than to drive home late on a Sunday night and drag in to work on Monday morning. Currently, NASCAR races at Kentucky on Saturday night of this weekend, so IndyCar officials have chosen (with the help of NBCSN, I’m sure) to not go up against NASCAR and race unopposed on late Sunday afternoon.

If going up against NASCAR on an NBC channel is the reason to run Iowa on Sunday, then change the date. Of the eleven IndyCar races run at Iowa, seven have been run in June. The first July date was in 2014, so it can be done. This race used to be packed with fans. I understand that sports in general are suffering ratings and attendance declines across the board, but you don’t want to give your fans a reason to stop attending. To me, having a starting time of 4:40 on a Sunday afternoon is giving your fans that reason.

Championship battle: With points leader Scott Dixon having a sub-par day combined with the win by Helio Castroneves, Dixon’s lead has been whittled to only eight points. The driver in second place is now Helio Castroneves, who is seeking his first championship at any level in his career.

In past seasons, Helio has jumped out to a large point lead at the first of the season, only to see it evaporate as he cooled off in the latter stages of the season – usually ending up around fourth. This season Helio started off with solid and consistent results, but nothing flashy – save for his second-place finish to Takuma Sato in the Indianapolis 500 that really put him within striking distance of the championship. He crashed early in Texas, but had that not happened – Castroneves would likely be leading this championship by now.

Remove Texas from his season resume and his lowest finish is ninth at Long Beach. For the season, Helio now has a win, a second and a third to go with two fourth place finishes and a fifth over eleven races. Not too shabby for a forty-two year-old driver who happens to be the second oldest driver in the paddock. With Simon Pagenaud only thirty-one points behind Dixon and Will Power fifty-three points back – it should be an interesting summer to watch.

All in all: The Iowa Corn 300 reminded me of why I will always prefer oval racing to road and street courses. While I have learned to appreciate the talent it takes for drivers to master a road course like Barber, Mid-Ohio or Road America – oval racing was my first love, and it’s just hard to beat the Verizon IndyCar Series on a short oval like Iowa Speedway.

The racing was intense, but did not have the fearful consequences some feared at Texas last month. Yesterday’s race was nothing but hard, clean racing. It also emphasized how versatile IndyCar drivers are. Two weeks ago, they were racing amongst the steep elevation changes of the more than four miles of Road America. Yesterday, it was the seven-eighths mile oval in Iowa that had to be tamed. Helio Castroneves won the pole at Road America and won the race at yesterday at Iowa – two totally different tracks that require a completely different skill set. Helio conquered both tracks. Guess who I’m pulling for in this championship.

George Phillips

25 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Iowa”

  1. What, George, you don’t like the way JR Hildebeast looks these days?

    You kinda sounded like my grandpa when he saw The Beatles on TV all those years ago, lol!

    • Virtually my thoughts exactly!. I could almost hear my dear old Dad back in the 70s “son, get them whiskers cut, please!”

    • S0CSeven Says:

      George read my thoughts exactly. Hildebrand looks like a street-person without the shopping cart. Maybe not the right look for a vodka sponsorship……..
      If you want to attract sponsors (a racers only job these days) you’re doing it WAY wrong dude.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      I suspect that the main reason that George like Helio so much is because Helio’s hair is ALWAYS purrfect, much like that guy on “One Take Only”.

  2. JR has too much hair, cost him the win, haha.

    I am a Penske fan but telling the media not to ask Helio questions is a bit of a prissy move to be honest. A 20 year vet is going to be asked about retirement. While the media sometimes beats a story to death ad nauseam, you have to expect the questions on that topic. Personally, I hope Helio beats Dixon and rides into the sunset, it’s time.

  3. I see the plan that killed the race at Kentucky being implemented in Iowa. It appears to be starting to work. It has to be deliberate. They can’t be that dumb.

    • Chris Lukens Says:

      They also did the same thing in the final years at PPIR.

    • This is an argument that makes zero sense.

      • I don’t know. Based on additional comments here, I would say it makes sense to quite a few.

        • If three guys put their heads together in an online forum for space exploration and decide that the most likely composition for Saturn’s rings is caviar and mouse fur, does that mean that it’s the correct conclusion? What’s going on here is what George talks about in his post. The Iowa IndyCar race has landed (through several years of schedule stability) on a weekend when NASCAR has decided to hold a race on Saturday night. So, the options for IndyCar (in the role of the smaller series that has to react to what NASCAR does) are as follows:

          1) move the race to a different weekend (while avoiding all of the other IndyCar weekends that are already spoken for, and also losing the date equity that they’ve built in Central Iowa)
          2) elect to broadcast the race live on CNBC at the exact same time that the Cup race is on (thereby losing many of the folks who would watch both, if given the chance, and also losing the folks who might stumble onto a race on NBCSN but never dream that CNBC shows anything other than reruns of Shark Tank or whatever)
          3) do like they do a couple other times a year (like this coming weekend) and run a tape delayed broadcast of the IndyCar race on NBCSN right after the Cup race (except that it wouldn’t start until well after 11:00 PM Eastern)
          4) run a tape delayed broadcast of a Saturday night race on Sunday afternoon (which would both look weird, and also have the disadvantage of coming 15 or so hours after it actually occurred, which will also lose you some viewers)
          5) do exactly what they’re doing now

          Given those choices, I get why they’re taking #5. Meanwhile, as Pressdog points out below, the Iowa sanctioning fee has the advantage of being subsidized by an ongoing sponsor: the Iowa Corn Growers. Therefore, it is possible that their sponsorship means that the track can actually break even with only something like 10k tickets sold (I have no idea, as I don’t get to see the books, but there’s got to be a reason the race is already solid for 2018). This is an advantage that Iowa has over most of the other ovals on the schedule, but I do hope that the other ovals (plus maybe a couple more) do parlay IndyCar’s increasing cost effectiveness vs. NASCAR (IndyCar team budgets are reportedly about 1/3rd those in NASCAR, while the relative TV rating gap has fallen from a 10x difference between the two series a few years ago to more like a 4-5x difference, and it continues to close with every passing year) into more sponsorships and more oval races. IndyCar generally puts on great shows on the short ovals (and many big ones, too). I’d like to see more of them.

  4. Peter B Says:

    Exactly right about the late Sunday start. I live in Chicago and was ready to make the 5-hour drive, but being on the road until midnight changed my mind. Broke my heart to see all those empty seats. I fear that they’re doing to Iowa what ended up killing the Milwaukee race — moving the date and the time all over the place.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Ament to that! (From someone who could hear from my home the IndyCars-or the “Big Cars” as we used to call them-practicing at the Milwaukee Mile.

  5. Kyle F. Says:

    I had a hearty chuckle at your comments regarding JR Hildebrand, George. I’m only 33 but every time he comes on screen my wife and I laugh at his facial hair/ head hair attempt! Some men can pull off long hair and some can’t, file JR in the “can’t” category.

  6. tonelok Says:

    Iowa Corn 300 start time reminded me of the last race at the Milwaukee Mile. You start a race that late on a Sunday in the middle of Iowa? Who in tarnation do you think is going to show up? Its suicide IndyCar! Do you honestly think you will sell out a race that starts in the heat of the day on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of July? Are they trying to kill off the Iowa race? Its difficult to create a buzz for an Sunday afternoon race. Lets face it – Sunday’s suck anyway, being the day before Monday, so why make attendees suffer with difficulty with that kind of start time? What is IndyCar thinking? Hell, you can’t even drink beer at the race because you have to drive home. I am becoming more and more irritated with IndyCar moving race dates and start times around. It’s like they are purposefully creating this moving target of a schedule more difficult for people to follow. I don’t want to sound critical but IndyCar deserves critique because I saw a lot of shiny metal stands yesterday.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      What he said. Thank you Dan.

      • I stopped trying to gauge attendance by how many you can see on TV long ago. I would confidently bet the heat (to your point about afternoon start) had more to do with any impact on crowd than it being on Sunday. This race has always drawn a mainly local crowd. I would be surprised it 1000 people traveled to see it. There was a massive music festival downtown and Knoxville with TonyStewart racing on Saturady night, so a race then probably would have had fewer attendees. The Saturday afternoon before was a great weather day. It’s a big dice roll on afternoons in Iowa in July. Time works fine for locals. Get as hammered as you want, have the designated driver take you home, you have from 9 p.m. until morning to get sober.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t think it would have changed the final result of the race, because Helio was faster than JR on the final stint, but I was disappointed in Rossi for the move that slowed Hildebrand and allowed Castroneves to make the winning pass. It was not deliberate, Rossi was battling Marco Andretti, but he was doing so in an attempt to unlap himself, and was not fighting for position. Nevertheless, that is a minor quibble with what was otherwise excellent racing. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Rahal and Hunter-Reay’s Hondas could effectively battle most of the Chevrolets, I had feared a similar finishing order to Phoenix.

    As for the quandary that is the date/start time/attendance… It was thought that NASCAR coming to NBC was going to be a good thing for Indycar, and it has been in many ways. However, what I feared when that announcement was first made has come true, that NASCAR would crowd Indycar out of preferred time slots from time-to-time. This week it pushed the race to Sunday (which to be fair was the case last year as well, so this isn’t quite like Milwaukee). Next week, it will push the Toronto race to CNBC (with a tape-delayed broadcast on NBCSN after NASCAR). Finding time slots for races that are ideal for both television and the local crowd will be a real challenge for as long as Indycar shares a network with NASCAR or any other costlier property that has similar scheduling needs.

    The future of the race rests, as it always has, with the title sponsor. The Iowa Corn Growers Association pays the freight at Iowa Speedway and, while they would not have filled all the empty seats yesterday, thousands of folks were in and around their hospitality tents in both turns 1 and 4 making the crowd a bit larger than it appeared. If they continue to sponsor the race and bring out a significant portion of the crowd, as they have from the beginning, the race will continue. It should, of course, continue with a Saturday night date.

  8. Chris Lukens Says:

    A very, very good race. Maybe not an all time great, but a very good race for all the reasons George pointed out.

    I still can’t understand why Jon Beekhuis is not in the booth. Although I don’t know who they would move out. NBCSN suffers from the unique problem of having TO MUCH talent ( as opposed to ABC which has NO talent ) in the booth.

    And I had to laugh when Helio was almost at loss for words after his win. I think he was overjoyed not only for the win and breaking the streak but also the very loud message he sent Roger.

  9. Good stuff. There were more people there than you could see, including many in the MASSIVE sponsor tents in Turn 1 and under the grandstand, and in the trackside tent bars, similar to how people kind of seek shelter when it’s a million degrees at Indy. The most important thing to keeping the race here alive is to keep the title sponsor happy. Without them, attendance doesn’t matter. It’s possible an afternoon race is preferable to them since all the Corn Growers are local. IndyCar should never go head-to-head with NASCAR on TV. I’d have to know just how many people travel for the race before I’d move it around based on that. If it’s 1000 (I would guess that would be on the high side) out of 25-30k, it doesn’t make sense to move it to accommodate the 1000. Saturday night races compete with Knoxville just down the road, and Knoxville draws several thousand a night, probably the same fan base. I like the night race as much as anyone, but I see some value in promoting a Knoxvillle/Iowa Speedway double dip weekend.

    • Bill nails it here. Bottom line: if IndyCar and Jimmy Small (the President of Iowa Speedway) are both happy with the attendance, then I’m happy.

      • pressdog Says:

        I just read something (in Racer, so it must be true) that indicated 2018 will also be Sun. afternoon. Is what it is. I can guarantee you that we all appreciate anyone who comes to the race, and appreciate the positive words about the race itself. If the race next year coincides with huge, regional music fest, 80/35 in Des Moines, y’all should check it out. If you live within three-ish hours driving distance from Des Moines … well worth the trip.

  10. S0CSeven Says:

    I don’t care when the race is run. I’ll DVR/PVR any race and watch it at my convenience within 12 hours of the running. Any race fan who watches NASCAR and Indycar (is there such a person?) will do exactly the same thing. I’m getting a little tired of the old who is up against who or what on any given day. It’s 2017 after all.

    The race time and date should be for the paying fans in attendance …… everyone else will cope……gladly………. with no problem.

  11. S0CSeven Says:

    And a tape delayed broadcast is OK too. Much like watching F1 from Australia, it just,doesn’t matter when the race is run.

    • Watching a tape delayed race is no big deal in my opinion. That’s how I watch all a Formula One except for maybe Austin. I’m just not getting up at 4 am for anybody anymore. So, I agree with others that scheduling should focus on the fans in the stands. I won’t even go near Fontana because I know you’re all tired of hearing my opinion on that fiasco of 2015.

      I don’t care if J. R. Hildebrand wants to grow his beard and hair to look like he’s auditioning for ZZ Top. If he’s driving well, the more power to him. I’d really like to see him have a good season and keep his ride for 2018. My big congratulations goes to Helio for winning for the first time in ages. I hope it’s not the last win for this season. I’d be thrilled if he won the championship this year.

  12. Britindycarfan Says:

    Prefer ovals to street tracks any day off the week but I do put most road tracks above ovals ……… I also think the fact that oval races get called off in light rain never mind heavy rain and non-oval races don’t (and often have better racing in the wet) is a big factor on attendance difference. Lack of support racing and Indy aside ovals should not be longer than 300 miles/ 2 hours also turns away many young 50/50 indycar fans who enjoy over sports to watch worst case or best case go to the road courses instead.

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