Distancing IndyCar From NASCAR

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Now that we are almost two weeks removed from the giddiness of the Izod title sponsorship announcement, everyone has had time to let everything soak in a little bit. I’ve made it clear that I was not excited at all in all of the rumors leading up to the announcement. But after it was all over, I was feeling as warm and fuzzy about it as everyone. Now that the glow has subsided and real logic has had a chance to set in, it’s a perfect opportunity for my cynicism to return. But it hasn’t.

A week and a half later, I still feel like this is a tremendous opportunity for the Izod IndyCar Series (I don’t even mind typing/saying it). We’ve all talked and read about the obvious – the immediate influx of cash along with the powerful marketing arm of Phillips-Van Huesen Corporation, the parent company of Izod. But one thing that didn’t strike me at first, but now seems just as important is the opportunity to further the distance between the Izod IndyCar Series and NASCAR.

The differences between the two forms of racing are obvious to even the most casual observers. The line gets a little blurred in some minds when comparing the distinctly different series. I have never been to the Brickyard 400, so I cannot compare the two crowds. However, I went to the Charlotte IRL race in the spring of 1999 and then to the fall NASCAR race at the same track the following October. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn I had gone to two races on two different planets. The difference in the makeup of the two crowds was astounding.

The IndyCar crowd was there to watch the race. The NASCAR crowd seemed more interested in the tailgating going on outside the track. The NASCAR fans had chewing tobacco in their mouths, while the IndyCar fans had teeth in theirs. The IndyCar fans seemed to think it was OK to cheer for more than one driver. The IndyCar fans also pulled for drivers instead of a car-number. I don’t recall dodging chicken bones at the IRL race. Anyway…you get the picture.

Even though these races were over ten years ago, those differences still remain. It may be different in other parts of the country, but here in the south – the heart of NASCAR country – when you tell a contemporary that you are a race fan, they start with the jokes. To most people in the south, racing means NASCAR. Some cannot fathom that there is anything else out there. On Friday morning, I went into my office telling a co-worker about my appearance on Blogger Night the night before. I told her of all the comments on Twitter immediately following of people commenting on my southern accent. My co-worker’s response was "I thought all the NASCAR fans were country, anyway". There is a Tony Kanaan car sitting prominently on the front of my desk. Even though she and I have worked together for almost five years and she has given me no reason to believe she is an idiot – I still haven’t been able to convey that what I follow is not NASCAR.

It’s not that all people in the south like NASCAR, necessarily – quite the contrary. Many laugh at it and make jokes about it. But when they watch the local news around here, that’s the only racing they see. When people in the south go to the mall or Home Depot, all they see are Dale, Jr. T-shirts and Jeff Gordon hats, which are usually adorning a not-so-flattering physique. This is what they equate to being an average racing fan. So when I tell friends and acquaintances that I’m going to a race, they look at me in total bewilderment as if I had just confided in them that I had stolen a kid’s lunch money.

With all of the cool, hip, scowling models that were part of the Izod announcement becoming the new symbol of IndyCar racing – it may not be a bad thing. A lot of newer type NASCAR fans appeared around the beginning of this decade. Partially because FOX initiated a whole new style of broadcasting races which made them seem “cool”, and also because of some curiosity generated by the death of Dale Earnhardt. Once the intrigue wore off, some fans lost interest in the sport because (a) they found it boring and contrived, (b) they found the fans boorish and guilty of reverse snobbery and (c) they found themselves being stereotyped by their non-racing friends. They were intrigued by the speed and yes, the danger…but something about the overall atmosphere of a NASCAR race was sometimes a little too much to bear in one sitting.

We don’t really want NASCAR’s fans. We want new fans. This is a great chance for the Izod IndyCar Series to grab this opportunity to further distance itself from its country counterpart. We’ll let the Izod marketing team handle the image of the fan, but there is also a golden opportunity to prove that open-wheel racing is more genuine.

Until we get more chassis and engine manufacturers along with just a little competitive balance, I won’t be ready to claim that our form of racing is superior – but at least we put an honest product on the track (and yes, from a marketing standpoint – it is a product).

Our biggest race of the season has no guaranteed provisionals – only the fastest cars get in. We would prefer to finish our races under the yellow, than to extend the race into some contrived overtime just to get a green-white-checker finish. We don’t restart the field after a caution with the filed bunched side-by-side like the beginning of the race. Our season points battles are exciting and close enough that we allow the points total to speak for themselves; rather than take the top twelve and mix them all into a hat while leaving the rest of the field as nothing but rolling fodder. About the only contrived thing that the IRL does is the “push-to-pass” button that they stole from Champ Car. Its effectiveness on a normally aspirated engine is debatable, but I still think it ranks as gimmicky

I’ve made my share of negative comments about Brian Barnhart, but I think he is a fair man and is better at enforcing rules and penalties than his NASCAR counterparts. My main problem is his insistence on throttling innovation and choices for the teams. He seems to prefer the spec series formula, which I am totally opposed to.

But if this new marketing strategy that Izod brings helps to bring newer and more affluent fans to the sport, maybe Brian Barnhart will join the new spirit and help to open up the rule book, thus setting our series further away from the series that just launched the Car of Tomorrow which has pretty much turned NASCAR into a spec series as well. With this newer, fresher face for IndyCar, perhaps the new fans will like what they see and stick around beyond the point where Danica Patrick goes out of the race.

George Phillips

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22 Responses to “Distancing IndyCar From NASCAR”

  1. Open-wheel was popular because of the technology and the speed and–frankly–the danger. It was an extreme sport before the term was invented and the cars looked nothing like what Dad drove to work. The driver’s were like astronauts, setting faster and crazier “new track records” each year. And even in those non-marketing days, fans were very loyal to their favorite personality/driver. I don’t think those days will ever be recaptured and I don’t think they’ll compete numbers-wise with Nascar.

    But I do think the Izod deal is a harbinger of good things to come and that the IRL will continue to (slowly) gain popularity. I think they’ll try to sell the IRL on exactly what you said, George–that open-wheel is high-end and sophisticated and hip compared to Nascar’s county fair.

  2. Mr. 20 Prospect Says:

    Redd is right. The drivers of the glory days, guys like Foyt, Andretti, Hurtubise, Jim Clark, the Unser’s, etc… may as well have been Astronauts. The similarity in profile, and danger between the Indy Racer and the guys in the Mercury program is uncanny. I’m not sure when it changed, but somewhere in the 70′s and into the 80′s it did for both NASA and Indy. Don’t think we’ll ever see days like that again when staggeringly brave guys took such risks with their lives on the cutting edge of technology, and I’m not sure we should try. Safety has come a long way in both the SPace Program and Racing, and that’s a good thing.

    However, I do think Indy Car needs to promote the image of the clean cut, intelligent, athletic, good looking, brave open wheel racer to the public. The fan base is different between NASCAR and INDY and that is a good thing, and something they should try to leverage in pursuit of new fans.

  3. It is absolutely offensive to compare Indy drivers to “astronauts” in our space program on the Space Coast where I live….and have lived for 20 years. Racing cars used to be an avenue of applying technology and innovation from the track to the street…when the owners raced cars on Sunday and sold cars on Monday. Being downwind from Daytona raceway, about 50 miles is very nice because the NASCAR fans and the France Family aren’t dominating the Space-coast the NASA engineers rule in this neck of the woods…otherwise it would be “red-neck girl” country for sure. Certainly the Space Program may have contributed to success in racing, but that success does not extend into a reciprocal relationship. What has Indy done for the Space Program? Maybe entertainment for the astronauts who all love SPEED and risky extreme sports. (Some of the Indy drivers might make great astronauts…maybe they should intern at KSC on their off time and get some college credits with Embry-Riddle in Daytona…The kids who are driving Indy should be encouraged to continue with their education, just like the astronauts, that would also increase their professionalism. Some of them might acyually learn some real professional business skills as well to mange their finances and their investments, as well…Too many times you see celebrities loose their shirts or fall short on their taxes because they rely on others for management. Self reliance is a good thing for youngsters. (We don’t have any astronauts with just a High School education…they all have extensive training and it would be great to see that for the younger kids in racing. In fact, on the space coast, we don’t even have driving instructors for drivers ed. without a college degree or teaching certificate.
    Since Indy is now owned by an apparel company it seems that the advertising aspect of Izod apparel will be very important (probably not so important to the Indy-racing fans .
    I can picture many charity golf events with celebrites and maybe an awesome antique auto show with all of the different open-wheel race cars, some from years gone by with some of the older drivers on hand to answer questions and the art of conversation will be expanded to more than a fast hand shake. Champaigne on the lawn, like the Polo club in Vero Beach, …next to the Space coast….Tiger Woods, maybe?
    I can see our Tim Tebow and the entire Gator nation wearing Izod clothes and maybe watching a race … not the MTV crowd, so much. Can’t you imagine Taylor Swift (my personal choice for the 2010 I-zod girl ) and RHR drivng in the MAcy’s day parade signing autographs by the hundreds right in front of the store in NYC..along with Helio and DWS crowd. …If you get Taylor you get hundreds of kids and maybe Reba, also with the Judds? Thinking of Ashley and Taylor on the float waving..
    The Indy cars seem to all be very uniform, too equal and dangerous on some tracks….the automotive engineering could be inspired by some of the older, fashionable open-wheel race cars. Totally need a change-up and some newly inspired differences on the track to make it interesting and challenging for
    These fans probably won’t want the PB “twins” around their children at Macy’s;since their is no accounting for taste, the Izod girls and HRH will dominate. The new Izod swagger will be in full force around college campuses and since they will be competing with Polo Ralph-Lauren, Ambercrombie and Fitch, Aroepastel, etc….Izod will probably looking for style changes in their racing vehicles also. People normally like change and variation which would be great because it is not safe for these drivers anymore to be driving over 200 mph on vehicles that are so equal. …it seems like a death trap some of the time and no one wants that! It is unacceptable in 2010 to have soooo much risk for these drivers. Fast and furious on the track, but safety always comes first and needs to be addressed at Indy. Fire safety included, (Big safety program at KSC for the astronauts, who are too important to loose at any cost!) Life and death are not “casual as usual” here where our finest risk their lives when they “blast off.” Maybe some fire safety research for helmets, gloves and sprinkler systems? Thinking of TK in a recent race where he was badly burned, too scary for the drivers and they should all be protected!
    It will be great to have the race car drivers out playing golf and mingeling with some fans who want to talk to them on days other than just race days, when they are working and can’t really “stop and chat.” Who wouldn’t want to play golf with RHR, and Milka Duno?
    The new Izod clothes will sell themselves in the box-stores and in the outlet stores across the world….The new message will be “Enjoy Motor Sports responsibly”.
    The question is what new kind of beer will be served at the Indy 500? Heineken?

  4. George/redd/Mr. 20, right on with all of the above. IndyCar shouldn’t be afraid to position themselves as the “anti-NASCAR”. There are plenty of people out there, both current NASCAR fans and non-fans, who are looking for motorsports alternatives. The League could make a pretty good run, simply by taking the policy of doing the opposite of whatever NASCAR’s doing right now.

    MARS…
    Lady, weren’t you “done” with IndyCar about a week ago? And then, didn’t you claim that you were “kicked off” this site, which would have precluded your posting here again, wouldn’t it? Or maybe you weren’t actually kicked off…?

    Where are you getting the idea that nobody here (this blog and the commenters found here, I presume you mean) or in the League takes drivers’ lives seriously? Fire safety research? Isn’t that what racing sanctioning bodies and safety equipment companies have been working on for 35+ years now? Or did I black out again, and three-layer Nomex suits and underwear aren’t mandatory anymore?

    I think you make a couple of salient points in that six-page comment that was only tangentially related to George’s original post. But, your hit rate is not very high. Could you pick one or two ideas per post and just talk about those, instead of the current “buckshot approach”? Might we be able to request that you look into a proofreader and maybe a copy editor from here on out? Because you’re sort of clogging up this “tube” of the internet…

  5. I didn’t mean to insinuate that there was a direct correlation or working relationship between automobile racing and the space program–more of an indirect “right stuff” sort of thing.

  6. Every point you make is completely valid, George. My view is that IndyCar really needs to distance itself in every way possible from NASCAR. From the cars, to the drivers, to how it treats it’s fans, IndyCar can learn a lot from how NASCAR has done things as an example of what not to do. Hopefully the infusion of capital from IZOD can help bring about those types of changes.

    Redd and Mr. 20 Prospect are both right as well. IndyCar was one of the first extreme sports and right now, it doesn’t engender anywhere near that level of passion and excitement outside of the die-hard fans. Can that be changed? Yes it can. Will it be changed? That question is still to be answered.

    MARS-I’m done trying to reach you.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      George’s is so enjoyable, even in the off-season, and I enjoy reading cogent comments from Indycar fans such as you.

  7. Trick Dickle Says:

    “The League could make a pretty good run, simply by taking the policy of doing the opposite of whatever NASCAR’s doing right now.”

    Isn’t that what has gotten Indy Car Racing in the pickle its in, right now?

    COPYING much of what made NASCAR so popular with American folks in the 90′s and much of the 2000′s, might be a start, to getting Indy Car out of the gutter.

    • Mr. Dickle,
      I’m not saying that IndyCar needs to abandon oval racing, “being the opposite of what NASCAR does”. I’m saying that the stuff that George and Redd and Edward and Mr. 20 have suggested should be embraced and promoted by IndyCar. People are starting to tune out NASCAR. That’s a fact. Check their TV ratings and ticket sales numbers. Both are down every year for the last 2-3 years. Why are they doing that? Well, if you can believe the columnists that I’ve read, the commentors that I’ve seen in various places, and the variety of semi-sober callers to Wind Tunnel, it’s for a number of things: contrived Chase championship system, purposely making all of the cars look identical, vanilla drivers, the same 3-4 guys winning 75% of the races, abandoning long-time tracks for places with no previous racing heritage and no built-in fan base, etc. I’m probably even missing a few issues, too. IndyCar has addressed several of those things already, can address several more in the coming year or two with a lttle effort and better promotion, and can address the rest in the coming years with the new car.

      All I’m saying is that there’s unrest over on the other side of the fence. With some quick action and a real focus on the strengths of the League, IndyCar can pick up some real momentum.

  8. tim nothhelfer Says:

    IndyCar….er Izod IndyCar only needs to offer itself (PROMOTE) as an ALTERNATIVE to NASCAR.

  9. I think the Indycar Series has a lot to gain from the fact that the races are much shorter than NASCAR. This past year I took my best friend, who isn’t a big racing fan but knows a good number of the drivers, to the Brickyard 400 and I flew to Miami with my girlfriend for the Indycar season finale. My friend was bored out of his mind and fell asleep about 30 laps into the 400 and I don’t blame him. It was a terrible race with no passing and was so long, there was no way for it to keep his attention. On the other hand, my girlfriend really enjoyed the Indycar race, even though she doesn’t really like racing at all. No, the race in Miami wasn’t the most exciting ICS race I attended this year (Kentucky), but she was able to keep her attention because it only took an hour and a half to run. That Brickyard seemed like it would never end.

    So I feel that having much shorter races is something that Indycar needs to capitalize on and market. My generation has no attention span so the shorter the races are, the more attractive they could be.

  10. This is epic truth. You and I agree on many, many things. Well said.

  11. Dickens (Mike Murphy) Says:

    The choices in your multiple choice question were difficult to answer. Actually, all three responses are not exclusive and can help to move the IZOD IndyCar Series forward.

    The demographic for Indycar is to aim at and even above the fans and not to have a low regard for them. To do this, we need to be more welcoming and provide insight and introductions that are widely available to the sport.

    Stay away from the pretend yellows and treat the fans as grown ups. When a team wins in a real contest, it is always a surprise and deserved. WHen a race ends with a close finish, it is so much more exciting when it was not contrived.

    Innovaton is equivalent to excitement and generating interest. However, some open and fair rules are needed to prevent one team from simply buying a win from technology only.

    IZOD has a great image to bring to the track and should be a great fit.

    It is OK to get excited again!

  12. “We don’t really want NASCAR’s fans. We want new fans.”

    I’m not sure about that either. Lets start with getting ChampCar fans back who never even engaged with IndyCar or the IRL. Then go after the fans who gradually fell away as US open wheel racing became increasingly irrelevant over the last decade. THAT is your core base and from there you can think about converting casual fans into ‘new fans’.

    I say that both as a professional marketing man and a IndyCar fan.

  13. I agree with your assessment of the differences between the two types of race attendees (note: I was careful not to say fans). When I’ve been to Indy events people have been unfailingly polite and friendly. But I was at a Nascar qualifying event once and the crowd actually cheered when Matt Kenseth wrecked because this meant that Dale Jr would benefit as he was a contender for the championship. This was a pre-Chase event. That kind of foul fan behaviour turned me off right away.

    • I went to the first NAPCAR event at Homestead, the Craftsman Truck Series race, outta curiosity. That was the only NAPCAR race I’ve seen in-person. I have had many opportunities to see races at Daytona each February and July *free-of-charge,* but I refuse. I have gone to GrandAm races in July and gone home rather than staying overnight for NAPCAR crashfests. In Florida, I can relate to SO much of what George wrote about self-identification as a race fan in the South. Like George, I do not fit the ‘image’ of NAPCAR fans in the stands.

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