Monday, May 30, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Cutting Ties

Alexander Rossi won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. Lewis Hamilton is back on top in Formula One. There was a photo finish on Carb Day. A complaint was filed and denied at the Nürburgring. Unfortunately, there was a terrible accident at Lime Rock Park and our thoughts and prayers are with Andrew Palmer and Jorge de la Torre. Rain plagued the Super Formula race. Domination occurred at Charlotte by a driver you wouldn't expect it from. The Brits defended their house in World Superbike. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Cutting Ties
ABC has broadcasted fifty-two of 100 Indianapolis 500s and are contracted to show the 101st and 102nd Indianapolis 500s. The network has been the home for dramatic moments from the finishes in 1982, 1992 and 2014 and some controversial moments in 1981 and 2002. ABC stayed through the split even when the names Andretti, Unser, Penske and Newman-Haas were elsewhere. Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart filled the living room on Sunday nights and they paved the path for Paul Page, Bobby Unser and Sam Posey live on Sunday afternoons. ABC won Sports Emmys for their Indianapolis 500 broadcasts and was even nominated for Outstanding Live Sports Special as recently as 2012.

Despite some mistakes, ABC has been a terrific partner for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. That is why it is time for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 to move on from ABC after 2018.

All things must pass. ABC has made strides but the series needs a television network to commit for more than a handful of races and care about the other 15 races. ABC never mentions the other races outside of the five the network broadcasts. The NBCSN races are rarely mentioned outside of the final 30 seconds of a race broadcast when 90% of the viewers have moved on.

NBC would be the natural partner for IndyCar but NBC's plate is full. While ABC aired the Indianapolis 500 yesterday, NBC aired the French Open. Last year, the Premier League season ended on Memorial Day weekend and ten NBC Universal networks showed all ten matches that ran from 10:00 a.m. ET to noon ET. The Indianapolis 500 has started between 12:15 p.m. ET to 12:30 p.m. ET in recent years meaning the race start would likely have to move back should NBC take it on and have to jam it in after the Premier League finale. These are things that could be worked out in future years. While the Indianapolis 500 isn't drawing a World Cup Final or NBA Finals rating, it is still a respectable number and something a network would make time for.

One fear about leaving ABC is leaving its partner ESPN but what would IndyCar lose? The series is rarely featured on SportsCenter as it is and SportsCenter ratings are down. Not to mention NASCAR still gets more airtime on ESPN and it isn't even partnered with the network anymore. Some point out that NASCAR is doing just fine and has had multiple television partners for decades but think about NASCAR for a minute. NASCAR is on 36-plus weeks a year. No network would commit that much. Fox has MLB and the NFL in autumn. As much as Fox likes NASCAR, they aren't passing up NFL or MLB playoff ratings.

Other sports have done well since leaving ESPN. The Premier League ratings are higher than ever and the Premier League is solely on NBC. Formula One ratings are at its highest levels in twenty years and the series is solely on NBC. The NHRA ratings have improved drastically since leaving ABC/ESPN for Fox. IndyCar won't explode in terms of television viewers and race attendance by getting into bed with one television partner but the status quo has not done the series any favors the last fifteen years.

If NBC took on IndyCar full-time, there would be a lot of things to work out, especially to get races on network television. Besides the French Open, the Premier League and Formula One, NBC has golf, the NHL and the NFL, not to mention NASCAR to live with from July to whenever IndyCar ends its season. NBC's house might be crowded but IndyCar could benefit from squeezing in.

Post-Indianapolis 500 Thoughts
In addition to the first impressions, here are some things that couldn't make the field of 33, if you will.

1. Can we widen the pit lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway? There were three incidents of unsafe releases and all three involved contenders and one took out two. I know unsafe release comes down to a team being observant and patient but the pit lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is almost inadequately narrow. The pit lane couldn't be expanded to the right because that would make an already tight front straightaway pretty much into a one-lane road. Expanding to the left would require removing some seats and while that sounds bad, it isn't the end of the world. Many of those lower seats in the Tower Terrace have gone unsold in recent years and those seats could be made up with temporary grandstand along the back straightaway or somewhere else around the racetrack.

2. Watching Carlos Muñoz afterward made me think he realizes his time with Andretti Autosport is coming to an end and this was his last great shot. Andretti Autosport stalwarts Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti aren't going anywhere. Alexander Rossi just cemented himself in the team for as long as he wants to be there. Dean Stoneman appears to be on a championship run in Indy Lights. Muñoz is on the verge of being without a chair when the music stops. It is a shame considering he has finished second, fifth, 20th and second in his four Indianapolis 500 starts and has completed 800 out of a maximum 800 laps.

3. Looking toward the championship, it is still Simon Pagenaud's to lose despite him finishing 19th. He has 292 points and is 57 points clear of Scott Dixon. Hélio Castroneves is 11 points behind Dixon with Josef Newgarden on 211 points. James Hinchcliffe rounds out the top five with 205 points and Rossi is two behind the Canadian. Muñoz is four points behind his teammate Rossi. Tony Kanaan has 192 points and is three ahead of Charlie Kimball. Despite finishing dead last, Juan Pablo Montoya on 187 points, nine ahead of Will Power.

Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay tumbled down the standings to 12th and 13th respectively with 173 points and 162 points. Takuma Sato and Sébastien Bourdais are tied on 134 points. Marco Andretti has 130 points. Mikhail Aleshin is three behind Andretti and five ahead of Max Chilton. Conor Daly has 108 points while Jack Hawksworth rounds out the top twenty with 91 points with J.R. Hildebrand on his heels with 84 points.

It's hard to tell how the championship will play out over the next few races because all the front runners prior to the Indianapolis 500 have no momentum going to Belle Isle and Simon Pagenaud still has a firm grasp on the lead. Penske gags when it comes to closing out a championship but someone is going to have to be superb in the final ten races to have a shot at Pagenaud.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Alexander Rossi and Lewis Hamilton but did you know...

Martin Truex, Jr. led 392 of 400 laps on his way to victory in the Coca-Cola 600. Denny Hamlin won the Grand National Series race on Saturday.

The #4 Team Black Falcon Mercedes AMG GT3 of Maro Engel, Bernd Schneider, Adam Christodoulou and Manuel Metzger won the 24 Hours Nürburgring.

Dean Stoneman won the Freedom 100 by 0.0024 seconds over Ed Jones. Pato O'Ward continues to win in Pro Mazda. He was victorious at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Anthony Martin won in U.S. F2000.

José María López swept the WTCC race on the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

Álvaro Parente swept the Pirelli World Challenge GT races from Lime Rock Park. Lawson Aschenbach and Jade Buford won in GTS.

Hiroaki Ishiura won a rain-shortened Super Formula race from Okayama.

Tom Sykes swept the World Superbike races from Donington Park. Kenan Sofuoglu won the World Supersport race.

Artem Markelov and Nobuharu Matsushita won in GP2 at Monaco.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar runs two at Belle Isle.
IMSA joins IndyCar at Belle Isle.
MotoGP returns to Spain for a round at Barcelona.
NASCAR heads to Pocono.
DTM will be at the Lausitzring.