Random Thoughts on Iowa

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Many times, pre-event hype far exceeds the actual event itself. Many heavyweight boxing events have been billed as The Fight of the Century, only to last for about a minute and a half before one of the combatants is flattened with a TKO before some spectators have found their seats. Those that remember the Y2K glitch, were assured of impending doom on New Year’s Eve of 1999.

With all of the hype that fans of the NTT IndyCar Series have been exposed to since the schedule came out last fall, regarding the Hy-Vee Double-Header Weekend at Iowa Speedway – one wondered if the actual event would live up to the hype. It did.

By all accounts, Hy-Vee successfully transformed what was supposedly already a very nice race track (it opened in 2006); into a festive showplace. I have heard that Hy-Vee spent around $10 Million in marketing for this weekend. If you saw any of the Peacock broadcasts, you saw the mobile grocery stores on site that looked to be constructed out of either shipping containers or full-sized over-the-road trailers. These contained grocery items that spectators and/or campers might need for the weekend. I’ve never seen anything like that at any race track, but I’ll bet we see some pop up at other tracks over the next few years.

As I said on Friday, Hy-Vee has re-written the book on sponsor activation. Whether a company is sponsoring a team, a track, an event or an entire racing series – they could learn a few things from what we saw from Hy-Vee this weekend. I wasn’t even there – I saw these things from my den, watching on Peacock; but I saw a lot of posts on social media about the weekend and my good friend, Paul Dalbey (Fieldof33.com) was there. He confirmed everything we were hearing regarding the weekend.

Besides the four concerts from A-List acts like Tim McGraw, Florida George Line, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton – there were two IndyCar races that also lived up to the billing.

As many thought (including myself), Josef Newgarden won Race One on Saturday. That prediction didn’t require a whole lot of intelligence or foresight. Newgarden had won three of the past six races at Iowa, including the last time IndyCar raced there in a double-header in 2020. He most likely would’ve won Race Two on Sunday, had something in his rear suspension not broken while he was dominating again. When he hit the wall while leading on Lap 235; he had already led 148 laps. It was a costly hit, not only in terms of repair work, but in points. Had he gone on to win Race Two, He would have left Newton, Iowa as the new points leader. Instead he is now tied for third in the championship, left to wonder what could have been.

Like all drivers involved in crashes, Newgarden was examined at the on-site medical center and subsequently released. After the race had concluded, Newgarden lost consciousness and fell, hitting the back of his head. Due to post-race traffic, it was decided to air-lift him to the local hospital. All scans were negative, but he was held overnight for observation. Hopefully, Newgarden will be fine after what was a very hard hit.

The big winner from Newgarden’s misfortune was Pato O’Ward, who came into the weekend needing a good result. He got two of them. O’Ward had already finished second in Saturday’s Race One and seemed destined to duplicate that result on Sunday. But when Newgarden backed hard into the Turn Four wall, O’Ward capitalized and turned it into a victory and came away with ninety-one points for the weekend.

Comparing the two races, Saturday’s race was much wilder and crazier than Race Two on Sunday. Jimmie Johnson’s spin on Lap 17, where he touched nothing, brought out the first caution on Saturday. I’m guessing almost half the field pitted during that four-lap caution period, setting everyone on different tire strategies. That set the tome early and with everyone on split-strategies, it was really hard to tell who was in good shape and who wasn’t. But you knew Josef Newgarden was, because he led 208 of 250 laps on Saturday. But for those that started mid-pack, you didn’t know if they were headed for a Top-Ten finish or if they were headed for a dismal day.

Sunday’s race was more straight-forward, as there were only two cautions on Sunday, compared to Saturday’s four. The first came when Kyle Kirkwood drifted too high in Turn Two and slapped the wall on Lap 120, The second was for Newgarden on Lap 235. The final fifty-two laps were run under green.

Although Josef Newgarden dominated both races and led a total of 356 laps for the weekend. There were a lot of twists and turns in both races that only short track racing can provide. I am very hopeful that this event comes back next year in an even bigger way. If so, I hope to be there.

TV Coverage: I was pleased with the TV coverage on Peacock and Saturday’s race. But on Sunday, our local NBC affiliate chose to air a nature program instead of the pre-race. Fortunately I have Peacock, so I missed only the first couple of minutes of Sunday’s pre-race show. But if I didn’t have that option, I would have been furious.

That is the risk of having races on network TV. Yes it’s great for ratings, but if the local affiliate thinks a syndicated nature show about birds will generate better ratings that an IndyCar race, they are under no obligation to show the race. I ran into that issue in the nineties. I missed several broadcasts of Long Beach in the late eighties and early nineties, because that race was usually on ABC instead of ESPN. Many years, our local ABC affiliate chose to air the Children’s Miracle Network Telethon, instead of Long Beach. It was a worthy cause and I almost felt guilty complaining about it. I did not feel guilty complaining about the nature program yesterday. I’m glad they showed the race and I was glad I had Peacock, but I started having Long Beach flashbacks to the nineties.

I know it was more bad luck than anything, but it seemed like every time NBC went to a commercial, the caution would flash in the little side-by-side box. At least we have such an item during commercials. Before Versus came up with that idea years ago, we were left to wonder what was on track while we were watching commercials.

I do wish that the producers at NBC would be cognizant that we viewers are staring at a little box instead of our entire screen and not show us views where we can’t tell what’s going on. At Mid-Ohio, they showed us the nose cam. That’s a neat view but not when our picture is only about 20% of its normal size. This past weekend, we got a lot of level shots at the start-finish line as the cars zipped by. That’s a neat view, but in the commercial side-by-side mode, it tells us nothing.

Again, I will praise Kevin Lee for his efforts in the booth. If NBC ever decides to make a move with Leigh Diffey, I hope they look no further than Kevin Lee.

Let Them Race: In the late stages of Sunday’s race, Jimmie Johnson and teammate (and points leader) Marcus Ericsson were both battling for fifth place. As the cameras were following this battle, James Hinchcliffe kept talking about how this was not going to be popular with the management at Chip Ganassi Racing, because by taking away fifth-place – Johnson would be depriving Ericsson of some very valuable championship points that he may need at the end of the season.

This may have been worth mentioning once, but Hinch continued to preach this theme even after Johnson finally took the position.

Maybe my thinking is flawed, but I think Jimmie Johnson had every right to fight for that position with Ericsson, just as Ericsson had every right to try and hold off Johnson from earning his first Top-Five finish since he came to IndyCar. There are five races remaining in the season and there is a lot of racing to be done, before a champion is crowned at Laguna Seca in September.

As far as I know, the only team orders in IndyCar are to not crash your teammate. Johnson was racing Ericsson clean and even Ericsson seemed to appreciate the hard racing that went on between them. Both Johnson and Ericsson are racers. Until we are in the late stages of the final race of the season, there should be no team orders with the championship in mind. Even then, it should be more on helping your teammate against other competitors on the track, and not just rolling over. We are just past the 2/3 point of the season. I’m a little surprised at Hinchcliffe taking that stand. Let them race.

MSR Woes: One of the bigger head-scratchers for the weekend was the poor performance of Meyer Shank Racing. The last time Helio Castroneves raced at Iowa, in 2017 – he won. Simon Pagenaud won Race One of the double-header in 2020, the last time IndyCar raced at Iowa until this weekend. Of course, both drivers were with Team Penske when they collected those wins. Now they are with Meyer Shank Racing, where Pagenaud finds himself in eleventh place, while Helio languishes in eighteenth in points.

Although both drivers have shown some speed at select times, it has not gone well for the drivers used to seeing themselves or teammates on the podium. It all came to a head this weekend as both drivers struggled mightily all weekend. Pagenaud qualified twenty-first and finished twenty-third on Saturday; and started sixteenth Sunday, but repeated his twenty-third place finish from the day before.

Castroneves wasn’t much better. He started a dismal twenty-fifth on Saturday, but worked his way up to sixteenth. On Sunday, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner started twenty-fourth and finished twenty-first. Neither driver has suddenly forgotten how to drive, so the problem must lie elsewhere. Whatever the problem, they need to work it out quickly.

Under Pressure: For Hy-Vee’s sake, I was hoping to see Jack Harvey deliver a good result for his primary sponsor, since they had invested so much time, effort and money into making this a memorable weekend. After qualifying, I thought they might actually get the reward I was hoping for. Harvey qualified seventh for Race One and sixth for Race Two – his best qualifying efforts of the season.

Unfortunately, Harvey delivered pretty much the same results he has all season. He finished eighteenth on Saturday and twentieth on Sunday. Harvey finds himself mired in twenty-second, and continues to make me believe this may have been the worst offseason move for all parties that we have seen in years.

All in All: I think even the most negative IndyCar fan would have a hard time finding something to complain about, regarding the Hy-Vee Double-Header Weekend at Iowa. Maybe the heat, and the fact that both races ran in the daytime could be a legitimate gripe. Again, that is probably a function of being on Big NBC. Probably the only way one or both races would be run at night would be to put the night races on USA Network or Peacock.

As it tuned out, it rained overnight after Saturday’s race and the weather was a perfect 83° on Sunday, after being a toasty 99° the day before; so even that gripe is not totally valid.

Kudos to Hy-Vee and Penske Entertainment for making this event a visual success. I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen a daytime crowd that size at a non-IMS oval. Is it sustainable? Only the number crunchers and Roger Penske know for certain. I hope it is and I hope that it can grow from here. World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway) and the Bommarito Automotive Group have been proving for years how oval racing can still work. Now Iowa Speedway and Hy-Vee have upped the ante.

Great racing, great concerts and great sponsor activation produces great events. It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it. Maybe others will finally start following copying this model. I’m thinking if it can work at Iowa or Gateway; why not at Phoenix, New Hampshire, Pocono or other venues where crowd size dropped so low that it was no longer viable to hold a race? Maybe this model can be applied at Texas Motor Speedway on the quest to save and bring back the ovals.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Iowa”

  1. Hinchcliffe’s outrage about Johnson passing a teammate puzzled me as well. Instead of just mentioning it, he sorta went on and on about it. He acted like it was so out of line that it made me wonder if there aren’t more team orders behind the scenes than Indycar lets on. Good races, good track, great job Hy-vee!

    • There’s no constructor/team championship, so I’m with you and George, especially with four car teams.

      Hinch would probably be pretty aware of the issue, given he’s been on both sides of the senior/junior teammate divide.

  2. jvolgarino Says:

    Well George, you got me going with Indycar and HyVee brought me a race weekend just 90 minutes from home aand…wait for it…I loved it.
    Even my dear wife who has endured so many gearhead related events, projects, et al was very impressed. We sat in the very first row about 20 yards off the finish line so we caught all the action up close and personal.
    I’m a fan of good old Iowa dirt track racing where you eat dust all night but sit nice and close so you can see the drivers’ faces, so this was the only place to be.
    Next year I’ll move up a few rows, however. I really want to see turns 2 and 3!
    And HyVee did a bang up job. The company brought in over 1000 of its employee volunteers to man every aspect of the event, from serving food to emptying train cans and making sure the super clean restrooms were kept that way.
    The employee owned company is well known in Iowa and surrounding states with the slogan “where there’s a smile in every aisle”. And they adhere to that in all their efforts. From their incorporation of the Wahlburgers franchise into their stores to their recent move into the Red Box Rx pharmacy, you’re going to see a lot more of their bright red logo in the future.
    This weekend was every bit as fun as the numerous NASCAR races I’ve attended over the years and should HyVee plan to do this again…smiling, of course.

  3. jvolgarino Says:

    Not sure what “train cans” are but that’s what I get for posting on my phone. There was not an ounce of TRASH anywhere with the red shirt volunteers (hey, they own the company too) swooping in to rid every nook and cranny of empty beer cans, plastic bottles and paper plates.

  4. John C. Says:

    Congrats to Hy-Vee and their management that appear to focus on both the food and racing consumer. Like it has been said before in Iowa; “Build it and they will come”. Sounds like they did just that. They built a great racing experience for fans. I’m hoping they open stores near me.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Iowa is such a fun track for pretty much every series that has raced there, but especially so for Indycar. Even dominated races are action-packed with traffic such a constant. Of all of the tracks on the schedule to race at twice, Iowa tops my list. Much thanks and kudos to Hy-Vee for rescuing the facility and here’s hoping for a full-on Gateway-like revival of the track. This weekend was a great start for that.

    Having an on-site store at a race track for the campgrounds has always been a cool idea (though not a really profitable one, I suspect, since they seem to exist only when sponsored). Texas Motor Speedway has had one off-and-on over the years, initially operated by Albertson’s, then Brookshire’s, and now 7-Eleven.

  6. Chris Lukens Says:

    I hope NBC makes a decision on Leigh Diffy soon. For his own health’s sake. I had visions of him spiting out his own vocal cords if he had been announcing Saturdays race.

    I see that Santino Ferrucci has been signed by Penske to fill in for Joseph Newgarden if he is unable to drive next week. Man ! Talk about conflicted. Joseph is my go to guy to cheer for. But I would really like to see Santino in a quality car.

    And I agree with everyone here that Iowa is a great track and both races were terrific.

    • I am hoping Josef is able to race, BUT I too would love to see Santino in a quality ride. And yes, Iowa racing was excellent this weekend. I watched all sessions live and only then watched F1 on tape.

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