Friday, April 28, 2017

IndyCar makes strides in the right direction

2009 Indianapolis 500
IndyCar won't recover from The Split.

I've said it over and over in talking about the state of the sport. It's not some hot take but likely a pretty common opinion, I would guess. The Split refers to when the powers that be (aka, Tony George) decided to split the world of open-wheel racing into two branches: The Indy Racing League (IRL) and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). It happened at a time when NASCAR sped off in popularity, plus other forms of entertainment started to appear. The internet started up, too.

Fans took sides and the sport floundered from its popularity in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. IndyCar merged back together in 2008.

While I still think it's true the sport won't fully recover from that move in the 90s to split, IndyCar is rejuvenated the past couple years. The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 no doubt brought some needed excitement and publicity to the sport.

I'm not sure what it is. Racing fans are a lot like hockey fans in some ways. They know their sport and they're passionate about it. There's just not much middle ground. Either you're a rabid racing fan, or you're on the outside thinking all it's about is cars turning left with drivers who aren't athletes behind the wheel. Casual race observers aren't as prominent, which is fine.

Building off the 500 
This season, the Indianapolis 500, wanting to make a splash to build off last year's 100th momentum, announced the Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso will compete. He'll drive for his team Maclaren and the Andretti team. Folks in the racing world know that this move is a big one. Alonso is giving up driving in one of F1's premiere events, the Monaco Grand Prix, in order to run Indy. (F1 is another can of worms.)

If there is one race people might pay attention to all year, it would be the Indy 500. Anything to help boost the support for that race is a good thing.

The growth of the sport is the competition itself. As recently as a couple years ago, it was standard to expect race winners to come out of two teams: Team Penske and Team Ganassi. These perennial championship teams are multi-car teams always starting up front and winning races. Team owner Roger Penske has 16 Indy 500 runs as a car owner. Ganassi has been to the Indy winner's circle just four times but is always a contender for series championships and race wins.

More variety in the winner's circle
But other drivers from other teams have emerged to win races, providing a little variety. American driver Josef Newgarden got a deal with Penske in the offseason because of his success. Newgarden got the first Penske win under his belt with a victory on the road circuit in Alabama last weekend. Even the Andretti team has won a couple of Indy 500s, which is a huge deal in the karma circles.

Then take the excitement the 2017 season has already given us. It started in St. Petersburg for the street circuit (that I still have to get to soon). Sebastien Bourdais came all the way from the back of the field to win the race. He crashed in qualifying, failing to register a time for his 21st starting position.

In Long Beach, James Hinchcliffe added another chapter to his comeback story as he won the race. He nearly died during a crash in practice for the 2015 Indy 500. He came back to win the pole for last year's 500 before getting his first win since the accident now in Long Beach.

Bourdais drives for Dale Coyne Racing. Hincliffe is with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. Those aren't the powerhouse teams. Bourdais was a ChampCar (formerly CART) driver in the 2000s during the split years and was a four-time series champion. Like many drivers, he's fought to find a full-time ride in IndyCar. He followed up St. Pete with a runner-up finish in Long Beach.

Hinchcliffe's story writes itself. He almost bled to death at the brickyard. He recovered and came back for more. He's still looking for a win at the Indy 500. Both Bourdais and Hinchcliffe have Honda engines, which means two victories in the Honda-versus-Chevrolet battle in IndyCar.

A growing fan base?
The competition is exciting. Instead of just a couple teams competing for wins at each event, the field is much more wide open. Another sign things are going well for the sport? Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara all signed multi-year contract extensions.

One of the challenges IndyCar faces is a generation gap in fans. Sure, the Baby Boomers got to enjoy racing at its peak moments and many have stuck around. But what about younger fans? Are kids tuning in to watch racing? If their family members aren't, then probably not. They might opt for the X Games or Crashed Ice instead. (Not my cup of joe.)

The hope is that the more momentum from the Indy 500 last year and this year, the more interest it will create within a newer fan base. It's still a tough task. Just remember that IndyCar racing is more than simply driving. And it can't be said enough that television does not do those cars justice. Go see them in person if you get the chance.

It's hard to see IndyCar getting back to the popularity it once had a couple decades ago before The Split, but things have vastly improved, which is reason enough to have those rabid IndyCar fans smiling.

Friday, April 7, 2017

March was definitely madness

Time to catch my breath. I know that may sound a little weird now that the 162-game baseball grind just started this week. I guess that shows how busy I was for the past six weeks or so during tournament time, probably the busiest time of year in the sports world, especially if you keep up with prep sports.

As a result, I haven't blogged in a while. That doesn't mean I haven't been writing; I just haven't been writing on this platform. I covered girls' section hockey, a couple boys' and girls' section basketball games, all four days of the girls' state hockey tournament for the Star Tribune, all four days of the boys' state hockey tournament for Cold Omaha/Zone Coverage, followed the Gophers men's basketball team through the end of their season in the NCAA tournament for, watched Wild games and wrote weekly columns about the team for Cold Omaha, covered two full days of boys' state swimming for the Star Tribune and along the way wrote a few feature stories for various other outlets.

It was a very busy month of March, but it's great at the same time. There's nothing better than covering some of these state tournaments, especially boys' hockey. It's the best state tournament in the country. Still, it's also nice to be done and get a little break, too. Working 80+ hours in one week is kind of a lot.

I had two weeks in between tournaments and the Twins season, so I headed to Fort Myers for a few days in the sun (OK, so I worked a game, too.) Then last week, I still did some Spring Training game work from home. I really felt like I took it easy, almost that feeling of not knowing what to do with yourself when you get some down time. I still worked 40 hours, which felt like about 20. It's easy when so many "work" hours are spent watching sports and writing/Tweeting about them.

All the sports 
Anyway, for those that keep up with me on social media, I kept my networks updated with Tweets and story links for all the work I was doing. The boys' hockey tournament didn't offer any dud games this year, which can often happen with quarterfinal blowouts. It was a great tournament from start to finish with plenty of upsets right away, an overtime thriller in the Class 1A championship and just lots of good hockey.

Section final hockey is also fun. The atmospheres are often better than the state tournament, because playing to get there is such a big deal to these high school kids. Swimming isn't one of the most popular sports around, but thanks to my brother's time on his high school swim team, I have no problem getting excited about the meets. The Gophers went on a great winning streak this season before fizzling out at the end in the Big Ten Tournament, then losing in the first game of the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 seed. I selfishly say it wasn't all bad because if they would have advanced, that meant I was going to have to watch and write about them on my vacation.

Nothing beats a break in The Fort
Fort Myers was great. We really hit the jackpot with the weather. Sure, the winter here wasn't dreadful, but it's hard to be temps in the 80s and sunny skies every day. I got to take in a Twins game from the stands, a rarity for me the past couple seasons. If you don't need to be close to the action, go for the drink rail seats in the outfield. That's the best way to watch the ball game.

The Twins lost that game to the Phillies after a bullpen meltdown. I returned at the end of the week to work a game in the press box doing social media. The result against the Orioles was a tie, something the Twins did four times this spring. Ties in spring training make complete sense, but it's still a little weird and anticlimactic to see the teams just walk off the field at the end of the 9th (sometimes 10th) inning without a winner.

Now that the calendar has turned to April, it's time for the 2017 Minnesota Twins season. It's really hard to believe another season is here already. This past offseason went by much quicker than the year before, mostly because I had a lot more sports reporting freelance work. That's definitely a good thing.

A new season, a fresh start for the Twins 
It's no secret last year left much to be desired for the Twins, a team that lost 103 games. The good news? That's a pretty tough task to repeat again, so there's nowhere to go but up from there. The Twins have new bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine in the front office looking to turn the ball club around.

There's already been some uneasiness from fans that the duo didn't do enough in the offseason. Brian Dozier is back with the Twins when many thought he'd be gone in a trade. The price must not have been right for him. With catcher Kurt Suzuki gone as a free agent (with the Atlanta Braves now), the Twins signed Jason Castro, known for his pitch framing and likely a better choice for throwing out runners trying to steal. Through three games, Castro is known for taking walks; he walked four times in one game the other day.

Patience has been the key for the Twins lineup so far, with 23 walks in the opening series. I mean, Eddie Rosario walked twice Thursday. That's a big deal. Patience will also be the theme for the Twins organization as Falvey and Levine work toward bringing the club back to its winning ways that fans grew accustomed to in the early 2000s.

As you know by now, the Twins started off with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals at Target Field. It's the first time they've had such a good start since 2007. They also broke a streak of eight consecutive Opening Day losses. They've had clutch hitting, strong starting pitching and the bullpen is tossed 10 scoreless innings. The only hiccup so far through the small sample size is Byron Buxton at the plate with plenty of strikeouts. But perhaps he made up for it with his center field defense.

It was a pretty fun opening series; much better than the 0-9 start of 2016. After all the stories, sports and busy tournament-time schedules, I'm definitely ready to turn the page to baseball for the summer. Play ball!