Let’s Welcome Any New Fans
If there is one thing that identifies the city of Nashville, it’s the country music industry. Whether you like country music or not (and I’ll admit, I do), you can’t escape or deny the grip that it holds on our city. There is an IndyCar connection to this, so stick with me.
Yesterday, our local paper ran a story that quoted 78 year-old country music legend George Jones as saying that current country stars Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have stolen country music’s identity. He went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing, that they used country music to break into the music industry and they need to call it something else, because their brand of music is definitely not traditional country music.
So where is the IndyCar connection? Well, aside from sounding like a bitter old man who wants to harken back to another time – Jones sounded an awful lot like the bitter NASCAR fans who claim that the explosion of new fans in the early part of this decade, along with the series branching out into other markets have caused their type of racing to lose its identity.
Many of NASCAR’s old-school fans, owners and drivers have bristled at these interlopers that have invaded their sport and homogenized it. Those complaints fall on deaf ears to IndyCar fans for a couple of reasons. On one hand, we never really seemed to have an identity. But we do have a rich history, but those that are still around that were a part of that history seem to be more willing to try and move the sport forward than do the bitter grumps at NASCAR.
All of the icons from the past; AJ Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and others are still very active and do whatever they can to try and help this sport along. None of them seem content to sit back and grumble about how much better it was “back in the day”.
George Jones offered no suggestions for improving his version of what country music should be. All he did was criticize today’s version and its stars. Although, I appreciate some of Jones’s work, I’d much rather listen to Carrie Underwood blast out “Before He Cheats” instead of Jones’s ex-wife Tammy Wynette’s twangy “Stand By Your Man”.
NASCAR’s old guard criticizes the series moves to abandon their traditional base in the southeast. Historic, yet run down tracks like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro; were abandoned for new modern facilities at Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They were so entrenched in their regional identity that they saw no reason to expand their series and grow. Keep in mind; the southeast is still flush with NASCAR races at Bristol, Charlotte, Richmond, Martinsville, Darlington and Talladega. In my opinion, they maintained a good bit of their heritage while also growing the sport in spite of strong resistance from their fans and the retired drivers and owners. They claim the sport that they helped build has left them behind.
Unlike most of the country music purists and the NASCAR traditionalists, IndyCar fans don’t seem to be stuck in reverse – unless we’re talking about the Indianapolis 500. Then, any and all tradition is sacred. Otherwise, IndyCar fans, owners and the members of its past all seem to in agreement on this issue at least – the sport needs new fans.
Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee held a semi-open forum last week on their show on how to attract fans. Throughout all of the ideas tossed about for two hours, the common theme seemed to be that everyone agreed that the IndyCar Series needed to reach out and get NEW fans. It would certainly help to get back some of the fans they lost, but the sport cannot grow and ultimately survive without a core of new fans.
Vince Welch of ABC/ESPN was a guest on the show and had an excellent point. He said he was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan although he grew up in Indianapolis. He formed his love of the Steelers while he was in school, long before the Colts moved to town. He stated that most passions for sports are formed in the childhood years, not in the twenties and thirties. I remember that I was hooked at the ripe age of six, when I attended my first Indy 500 in 1965. Without ignoring the adult fans, IndyCar needs to put on a much stronger push for the adolescent fans.
My oldest brother will turn 60 next spring. In April of 1966, during his sophomore year in high school – retired Indy 500 driver Bob Christie came to my brother’s school to speak on driver safety. When my brother learned that Bob Christie had passed away a few months ago, the first thing he did was relay the story to me how enthralled he and everyone else was when this former driver had come to speak. That’s how big an impression he left.
Realizing the impact that drivers can have on young minds, the IRL should start a grass roots program to target the fans of tomorrow and help build a new brand identity. But that’s another article for another day. But if and when these new fans arrive at the track, I hope that they will be embraced and welcomed into our sport. I think they will because even though our fan base is still divided over the events of the past fifteen years, there is one thing that we all seem to be in agreement on – the need for new fans.
So if Izod is actually announced tomorrow as the new title sponsor for the series, and they are somehow able to lure new fans with their…um, different styling – don’t shun them like NASCAR does the fans that jumped aboard the FOX bandwagon when they started broadcasting the sport. Instead let’s embrace ANYONE that is willing to give our sport a try. Help them to understand the importance of the rich history of IndyCar racing in a way they can appreciate it – not like some grumpy old has-been griping about the current stars. Although we may have trouble defining IndyCar’s identity, maybe tomorrow’s fans will help build something clearer.