Today's IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines
1. Unification produces strong first half of season commercially
2. What they're saying
3. Pros-G.I. Joes battle yields phone reunion
4. Duel Dilemma: Two races in one day poses unique challenge
1. Unification produces strong first half of season commercially: The IndyCar Series opens the second-half its 2008 season this weekend at Watkins Glen International, and after four months and nine races, the unification of open-wheel racing under the IndyCar Series banner is a success both on and off the track.
By all accounts and measurements, the on-track product featuring an average 26 cars per week has been a success and could reach 29 at select races later in the season.
Off-track the IndyCar Series continues to show business momentum.
"We could not be happier with what we have seen over the first half of the unified IndyCar Series season," said Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the Indy Racing League, the sanctioning body for the IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights. "Key areas like attendance, ratings and sponsorship are all pointed in the right direction, and we anticipate further growth and momentum headed into the second half of the season."
With attendance, league officials are impressed with what they have seen everywhere the schedule has stopped to date in 2008. Tracks have reported increased attendance numbers, and the in-market and at-track "vibe" has been noticeable. Reports from tracks on the second-half of the schedule have been even more positive.
Since unification, the series has introduced a number of new sponsors including DIRECTV and Coca-Cola, and this weekend at Watkins Glen the league will formalize a new partnership with IZOD. Efforts to secure category sponsorships and entitlement of the IndyCar Series are in full swing. The league's sales efforts have increased dramatically and now include an individual whose sole responsibility is working directly with teams to assist in their efforts.
IndyCar Series races have shown ratings increases in six of nine races to date, and ratings are up across the board on ABC (+4 percent), ESPN (+61 percent) and ESPN2 (+42 percent). Overall viewership is up 17 percent season to date compared to 2007.
Merchandise sales are way up with at-track sales increasing by 70 percent compared to 2007.
"Unification has been wonderful for the sport, and there's a real buzz around the IndyCar Series," said Angstadt. "Our focus now is to continue to work hard and build a broader sponsorship base for the teams, venues, media and the league."
2. What they're saying: Halfway through the 2008 IndyCar Series season, the drivers talk about the unification, the transition into the IndyCar Series and their season to date:
JUSTIN WILSON: "It's great. We've got everyone back together and we've got everyone working in the same direction. It's great to race every weekend, especially if you have a bad weekend you don't get a chance to dwell on it."
ED CARPENTER: "I think it's awesome. Everywhere we go, it's super competitive and there is a lot of good racing. It's a better series for everyone now."
WILL POWER: "I think what's good about this is you've got the best teams and best drivers all in one series."
RYAN BRISCOE: "Great. I don't think it could be better. I think this year there are some compromises. Not everyone's happy. Some guys are getting a bit more testing, some less, but I think if that's what it takes to keep everyone on board and to keep everyone together then that's the way it's got to be. I think next year it's going to be the best it's ever been. It's going to be a level playing field next year. We're going to know all the tracks. It's so competitive."
BUDDY RICE: "It's been great. You can see by the number of people showing up that's it great for the sport, the teams and the sponsors. I'm glad to be a part of it."
HIDEKI MUTOH: "The good news is there is very high competition. It's the highest championship in America, so that's good."
MARTY ROTH: "I love the unification." I'm a Canadian and we don't have to explain the differences between Champ Car and the IndyCar Series anymore. I love it."
Transitioning from Champ Car World Series to the IndyCar Series:
ORIOL SERVIA: "Every race we are just trying our best. Some races come out better than others. I'm quite happy. We are still trying very hard to catch up with the other guys."
MARIO MORAES: "It's quite tough for me. I'm working out a lot."
BRUNO JUNQUEIRA: "It's been good and difficult. It has been a big challenge for us. We're getting better every race."
Thoughts on the season up to now and any "surprises" of the season:
WILL POWER: "This year our strengths are on the road courses, but we're catching up on the ovals. We seem to be running more competitively. I think the second half of the season will be good for us."
ED CARPENTER: "Graham Rahal is obviously going to be a very good driver. Hideki Mutoh is coming out strong as a rookie, but he's with a great team."
RYAN BRISCOE: "I'm pretty happy. My goal has been from the start to be in the top five consistently. It's tough. It's so competitive; it's difficult to be in the top five every race. We recovered well from a couple of non-finishes early in the season. Now, we've got to keep the momentum going, keep racing at the front."
DANICA PATRICK: "It's been challenging, not as good as I expected. I think it would've looked a little bit better if I would have had the finishes at Kansas and Indy. I think they both would have both been top-fives."
VITOR MEIRA: "So far we have done very well. We came from a very difficult year last year. The Delphi National Guard car really stepped up this year, mostly from Indianapolis on."
MARCO ANDRETTI: "It's been up and down, but we've been able to be in the top five every time we've finished. Maybe a bit snake-bitten, but we've got to keep working."
A.J. FOYT IV: "The start of it was good and then we hit a couple rough spots. We're starting to turn it around with a top-five (finish) at Iowa."
TONY KANAAN: "There have been a lot of ups and downs this season, people trying to tear down our team, but we sat down and we're working well together. This is a good team effort."
MARTY ROTH: "I've had a horrible season, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Starting up a new team, you don't think it plays on you, you think you can clear your head and just drive, but it wears on you a little bit. We've been doing a lot of tapping the walls lately. Hopefully we've climbed over that hump."
3. Pros-G.I. Joes battle yields phone reunion: A media stunt Thursday with IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights drivers at the Corning Museum of Glass created an opportunity for a Rochester, N.Y., couple to speak with their son in Kuwait.
Jim Thaden fielded three phone calls from his wife in Rochester before and after he spoke with their son via an Internet hook-up with Camp Virginia in Kuwait.
"He looks and sounds great," Thaden reported back home. "I told him when he comes home we'll do some fishing. I did have to hold back the tears, though, a little."
PFC Kevin Thaden of the 101st Airborne Division was among U.S. Army personnel, including Sgt. Filberto Reyes from the Tenth Mountain Division based at Fort Drum (N.Y.), flown to Camp Virginia from Baghdad to participate in the Pro vs. G.I. Joe Challenge.
The event - the first of its kind pairing servicemen stationed in a combat theater with IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights drivers in a theater at the Corning Museum of Glass - utilized the Halo 3 video game for Xbox. The servicemen had the decided advantage; they had been practicing for hours.
"Hey, next year we'll use a racing game," said Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing's Justin Wilson, who competes against drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger often in an online auto racing game.
The driver lineup, which also included Graham Rahal, Vitor Meira, Brent Sherman and Dillon Battistini, played in front of a live audience with a real-time, large-screen video and audio hook-up to the troops at Camp Virginia. Before the competition, the drivers hand-crafted (with considerable assistance from the Corning Museum of Glass staff) glass flowers to be included in a gift package sent to the Army participants. All will be competing this weekend at Watkins Glen International.
"I can see the longer you play the game the better you become," said Sherman, a U.S. Air Force veteran whose Firestone Indy Lights car for Panther Racing is sponsored by the National Guard. "Maybe I'll have to buy an Xbox 360 and start training for next year.
"Obviously they have a mission over there but this is a perfect opportunity to raise the morale of the troops over there. There isn't much to do over there other than fight the war. When you have something to do on your downtime, it builds morale. This is a benefit for them."
Autographed IndyCar Series hats, "i am INDY" flags and other items will be included in the care packages to each of the participating servicemen. They also will receive an autographed Xbox game.
"It was cool to connect with these guys," said Rahal, whose video game of choice is Tiger Woods Golf. "It's great to give back in any way we can. They are the ones who allow us to go out and put on a good show every week."
The connection remained open after the friendly competition for the Thadens to catch up, with Kevin wishing everyone in attendance a happy Fourth of July.
"Obviously, we won't have fireworks over here," he said.
"I appreciate this opportunity to keep in closer contact," said Jim Thaden, who drove from Rochester after a 12-hour overnight shift at Eastman Kodak. "I do send packages and talk to him on the phone occasionally. It's an opportunity to see that they get to relax over there.
"The guys who are driving have a tough job to do, too. I grew up with the Foyts, the Mears and the Andrettis and have followed the racing ever since. A race team is a lot like what they guys face over there. You have to learn to work together."
4. Duel Dilemma: Two races in one day poses unique challenge: A standard doubleheader weekend on a road course is a test for most Firestone Indy Lights drivers and teams. What limited track time there is, is usually spent trying to perfect the car for the races and there is little margin for error.
This weekend's Corning Duels at Watkins Glen International may be more like a trial by fire as the scheduled is compressed into two days. The future stars of the IndyCar Series racing will race twice on July 5 on the 11-turn, 3.4-mile road course. The goal for most drivers may be to survive the first race, but finish up front so you have a chance in the second.
"I expect the races to be quite challenging," said Team E driver Bobby Wilson, who won at Watkins Glen in 2006. "You have to make it through Race 1 so you can make it to Race 2. If something bad happens, you're going to be sitting out. It's a crucial point in the season. It's an area where you can make big gains, but you could also have some big losses."
Big losses are what most drivers will be trying to avoid during the twin 29-lap races. With 56 points separating the top-five drivers in the point standings, the races could go a long way in determining which driver will see their name inscribed on Firestone Firehawk Cup as the series champion.
"It's going to come down to how quickly you can get a feel out what everyone else is doing," said RLR/Andersen Racing's J.R. Hildebrand, who trails points leader Dillon Battistini by 40 points. "You can't afford to lose points in the first race just to make sure you're going to be there for the second race. I have every bit of confidence in the guys on the crew and myself that we can put together a good package and be battling for the win in both races.
"As competitive as this series has been so far, I don't think anyone is going to be holding back in the first race just because we have another one in a couple of hours."
And competitive is what most drivers expect the races to be, though the aggression level may be turned down a notch. Smart driving and patience may be the key to success this weekend over outright speed.
"The cars are very difficult to setup for all conditions, so you need to get a good balance to be strong for both races," said James Davison, who drives for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. "I think the big thing will be if you're running fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. Not knowing where the grid will be reversed, you may have to play it safe and not try anything stupid."
The 2008 IndyCar Series season continues with the Camping World Grand Prix at The Glen July 6 at Watkins Glen International. The race will be telecast live in High Definition at 3:30 p.m. (EDT) by ABC. The race will air live on the IMS Radio Network. A Spanish-language telecast of the race will be carried by ESPNDeportes. The IMS Radio Network broadcast also is carried on XM Satellite Radio and www.indycar.com. The 2008 Firestone Indy Lights season continues with the Corning Duels same-day doubleheader on July 5 at Watkins Glen International. The races will be telecast at 2 p.m. (EDT) July 10 on ESPN2 and live on www.indycar.com.