Expect A Thin Crowd Next Weekend

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A week from Saturday, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series champion will be crowned. Between now and then, there will be much debate over who it will be – Will Power or Ryan Hunter-Reay. One question that has sort of flown under the radar is – how many people will be in attendance?

Auto Club Speedway at Fontana is massive. It’s certainly not as big as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it is big nonetheless. It sits on 568 acres of land and has grandstand capacity for 92,000 spectators. Again, that doesn’t come close to matching the more than 225,000 permanent seats at IMS or even the listed capacity of 167,000 at Daytona. But it’s going to take an awfully large crowd to make it look like anyone other than friends and family of the drivers are in attendance.

Last year, the marketing machine was in full-gear for the ill-fated season finale in Las Vegas. There was a full-out promotional effort to create buzz throughout Las Vegas, culminating with the parade of IndyCars down the strip at night during the race weekend. Other than a few commercials during the last couple of races, there has not been a whole lot of buzz for this year’s finale.

There are a couple of reasons for that. First and foremost, promotion and marketing costs money – lots of money. Unlike the revolving door of CART/Champ Car commissioners, Randy Bernard does not answer to the owner’s whims. Instead he is ultimately responsible for the bottom line that he presents to the Hulman-George family and the board of directors of Hulman & Company. With worries about replacement parts from Dallara, scheduling quirks to deal with and potential owner unrest – not a lot gets mentioned about Mr. Bernard’s attention to the bottom line. Hulman & Company is a privately held company, but rumor has it that Randy Bernard has done an excellent job in this regard. That’s probably one reason why the lack of buzz around this year’s finale.

Another reason probably has something to do with the tragic outcome of last year’s finale. With so much hoopla leading up to the Las Vegas race and having it turn out the way it did, most people would be hesitant to go overhype the next season finale.

I think they did a good thing by extending this race to five-hundred miles. Although the significance is lost on the casual fan, hardcore fans know what a leap it is for this series to sanction a race of more than four-hundred miles at a site other than the corner of 16th & Georgetown. I applaud the series for doing that. Having an oval to end the season is also a nod to the traditional fan of the series. Ovals have been reduced to an afterthought these past few seasons, but the series has always finished the season with an oval (except for 2008, when they ran a post-season exhibition race at Surfers Paradise in Australia).

So even though hardcore fans may understand the rationale behind a lack of major promotion – I fear that there will be many exposed sections of vacant seating next Saturday night. With a major promotional effort, last year’s season finale at Las Vegas was estimated to have maybe a little more than 20,000 in attendance. If that’s all that shows up next Saturday – that’ll barely fill 20% of the stands. That won’t look good for potential sponsors looking to invest in this series in the future.

The location of the track doesn’t help. Although it is considered part of the Los Angeles area, Auto Club Speedway is a good fifty miles from LA. Nashville is much smaller than LA, but that’s about the same distance that the defunct Nashville Superspeedway was from Nashville and they wondered why no one ever went. It’s not like on a whim, residents of Los Angeles will suddenly find themselves driving fifty-plus miles to check out the IndyCar race in Fontana. Los Angeles has many, many more entertainment options than Nashville. Fortunately, USC is on the road that weekend – playing at Stanford; but UCLA will be hosting Houston that same night.

So, be warned. There will be empty seats next Saturday night – lots of empty seats. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just a process of slowly building the series. What I like about Randy Bernard is that he has an eye on the big picture and doesn’t get too upset over attendance at one race. He knows what he’s doing and I’m confident he has things heading in the right direction – even if we have to look at a lot of empty sections next Saturday night.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Expect A Thin Crowd Next Weekend”

  1. I understood Auto Club was promoting the race and not IndyCar. I also don’t think national advertising is the smart way to go. Who would travel from Nashville to LA for an IndyCar race that isn’t already a fan and thus would already kno about the race? Do we have any Southern California readers on this blog? Are you seeing any local promotion? That would be much more practical way to get people to the track.

    I attended a Cup race at Auto Club back when I lived out west. I absolutely loved the place. I also attended a driver meet and greet the morning of the race and came away very impressed with track President Jillian Zucker. She introduced herself to everyone in attendence and couldn’t have been more friendly. The crowd of course will not be huge. If given more than just one crack at it, I think this could grow into a successful event. Ms. Zucker wasn’t pleased when she lost one of her Cup dates and you can be sure she wants more than one major race at her track. LA is a huge city. One would think they could get 50-60 thousand people annually in seats if given the time to grow.

    –Steve K

    • Oilpressure Says:

      Good point. You’re right – the series took over all promotional efforts for Las Vegas last year. As far as national advertising, there was still a lot more buzz on the web last year. Maybe ISC and Auto Club Speedway have flooded the SoCal market with advertising, but I haven’t gotten that impression, – GP

  2. bentwickerbill Says:

    Unfortunately, this will not be the first race of the season where there was light attendance. I also think that with proper promotion more folks would drive the meager 50 miles from LA, as driving 50 miles to an event in that part of the country is a walk in the park, with people routinely driving back and forth to Las Vegas (280 miles one way) for the weekend. Personally, I would be overjoyed to be able to attend race that was a mere 50 miles away as I would drive to Miami, St. Pete and Barber for IC races nearly every year from Melbourne Florida.(205, 166, 612 miles one way respectively) )

  3. George, your prediction for light attendance is, I’m afraid, spot on. The series is not at the point (yet) where we can expect much more than 20K at any event other than Indy or maybe Texas, oval-wise. Like you, I believe that they have “soft pedalled” promotion of this year’s finale in large part due to the happenings in Vegas last year.

    Even with the giveaway of seats for LVMS last year, we still saw a LOT of exposed tin, the tragic events notwithstanding.

    I also concur trhat Randy Bernard has much bigger fish to fry than worrying about attendance at this point. The parts issues, the engine contracts, trying to better balance ovals and road/street courses, and building a workable schedule for next year are the priorities at this time and should be. They are a much more immediate threat to the series than light attendance at the few ovals we have left.

    Also consider that Michael Andretti has proved that the series CAN outsource race promotion with his efforts at Milwaukee and Baltimore. Personally, I think that is the way to go in the long term future of the sport.

    Much of the future of the sport, as well as much of the future of the country is going to depend on how well whoever is elected in November is able to get the economy re-started.

    Our NASCAR brethren are seeing (on a lesser scale) the same attendance issues we are, but they have “Cadillac” television contracts, unlike the one under which IICS is operating. Face it, if there’s NASCAR on ABC and IndyCar on NBC Sports Network, it’s always going to be much easier to find NASCAR. Until we can close that gap, I fear the attendance gap will continue.

  4. Again, George, I suspect this will be a race with lots of corporate hospitality areas and suites set up. As it is the season finale, championship finale and also the oval championship finale (something that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle) many sponsors, etc are going to be there. Those people will not be seen on tv as they most likely will not be sitting in the grandstands.

    To me this has been , to steal a sport’s euphamism, a “rebuilding” season. Overall I think Randy and IndyCar have done well; definitely at least a “B+”. Now, they need to kick it in high gear and start growing the sport. My suggestions:
    1. Release the 2013 schedule ASAP. Frankly the following season’s schedule should be set annually at the beginning of the new season, which leads to…
    2. Try to help venues build attendance by keeping dates as close to the same as possible, allowing them to pre-sell tickets to the following years event at the current event.
    3. IndyCar needs to help grow its viewership. I think it is time for them to produce their own ads for IndyCar and buy some airtime. Yes, it is expensive, but so is failing to get enough eyes on the product, vis-a-vis attracting and keeping sponsors, teams, and butts in the stands.
    4. In line with #3, IndyCar needs to up their game with regards to social media and their own website. I dont know how it is currently being done, but they need someone to be working fulltime just on constantly updating the website. Right now it is very basic, tough to navigate, and, frankly, not very interesting. They have IMS productions available to them to generate video content, why not take advantage of that? Ditto having a great historian to generate content and, literally, a century of photos to add pop to the site!
    4a. IndyCar drivers, with their tweets, webpages, and Facebook content are the best ambasadores out there, and they are doing a better job of promoting right now. IndyCar needs to see what the drivers are doing and then do it even better.

    • Tad, an excellent comment and one that I agree with. This year has been a rebuilding one and we were given a terrific year as well. The new car, a great week at INDY, ect.. Now, it’s grow the viewership time and I believe the ground work is now there for that. The INDYCAR sales story is the best it has been in a long time and that makes It time for pitching/bringing in new sponsors as well as the ones who are seriously considering signing up.

  5. Couple things
    I was in the stands at Vegas last year and this 20K in the stands estimate I see bandied about strikes me as Curt being Grumpy Curt. I would peg that crowd at ~30k if you include all the people in the 200 hospitality suites. That crowd shows up at Iowa or Milwaukee and everyone gets a stiffy.

    While it is far away from downtown LA, it would be a misnomer to place Fontana in the middle of nowhere like Nashville or Kentucky. ACS in the area known as the “Inland Empire” which in it’s own right is a major metropolitan area. Within 30 minutes of ACS is a population base as big as many of the markets IndyCar races in. That population skews blue collar working class and somewhat Hispanic. It should be interesting to see if in the long run, if the latin presence in IndyCar appeals to that fan base longer than nascar did.

    A couple years ago at Long Beach, we noted several young college intern types from ACS, official polo shirts to prove it, had bought GA tickets and were cruising the LBGP fans handing out coupons to the fall cup race at ACS in an attempt to boost attendance for that nascar date. Talked to one and they said they weren’t officially there but that since LB was such a love in, they weren’t expecting resistance from the man. But herein lies another vital part of what needs to happen to make this event successful in the long run. These two events need to cooperate and cross promote, perhaps even offer a season ticket deal containing both events. If you can get Harbor/LA types out to the empire during the fall and get empire types into the Harbor during the spring, it is a win for everyone.

  6. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    Well, you shouldn’t expect more than about 40,000 for this race as it is because, if you go to ACS’ website and check the ticket map for this race, they’re only opening about that much of the stand. That will help the track meet a bottom line with a smaller crowd since they don’t have to open all the concession stands or bathrooms or whatever, but it will look like crap on TV (like a Jacksonville Jaguars game or NASCAR at Dover)

  7. I have really noticed the difference between the radio and TV promotion for this race compared to anything NASCAR related here in the area. In fact, I’ve seen no TV spots. The location of the track, I’ve always thought, was perfect in that getting it away from the LA area makes it more desirable for people from a broader swath of So. Cal. Riverside, the High Desert area, LA and us down here in San Diego (I’ll have about an hours drive to get up there…and we in CA love to drive LOL). What my hope is having this race here, keeping the LBGP going and the possible addition of Indy-cars back in Phoenix will build up the open wheel base from days of old when the races held at the Ontario Speedway (located about 10 miles from the Fontana track of today) and the sadly closed Riverside Int Raceway always provided full grandstands and fun times. That’s gonna take some time and better marketing…but is very doable. Even moving the race up in Sonoma to the Fall would help, when tourism in that area is at its peak; in stead of as late in the summer as it is. That’s a beautiful track when it’s all greened up :)

    The good news is…I’m a big guy LOL the space I take up will easily look like two people to the cameras :) And I’ll be there with bells on and camera loaded and ready to go at 7:00am Friday morning when the gates open :)

    • billytheskink Says:

      To be fair, the track has run TV spots during the last 4-5 Indycar race broadcasts. This probably qualifies as preaching to the (small) choir, but they have done something.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I’m puzzled by the pessimism surrounding the attendance for this race. Not that there is any reason to expect it to be especially good, but that it is such a point of focus for so many. Cavin and Kevin have been especially down about it on their radio program, not once, but several times over the past few months.
    It’s realistic to expect a small crowd, but I think it is unnecessary to bring it up repeatedly and more prominently than the other Indycar stories heading into the final race. (This is not a dig at you, George, but at the message board crowd that brings this up in every other post.)

    Every indication I’ve gotten is that Fontana believes they can successfully promote two major racing events a year and they all but approached Indycar about hosting a race again. This is not something that can be said for many oval track promoters over the past decade.
    I find this encouraging, and I hope the attendance and corporate support is enough to keep the track committed to hosting Indycar. Small crowd or not, I think this is quite possible.

  9. Going to Fontana Says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. I’m in my earlier thirties and have been a fan since my dad took me to Laguna Seca in the 4th grade (Rocket RIck won the 500 and Danny Sullivan won the PPG Cup that year). I also live in near the LAX airport. As mentioned above, aside from the ads during the IICS telecasts and on ACS’ facebook page, I haven’t seen many billboard ads around my part of LA nor have I heard any radio spots on the local FM radio stations. It seems to me that many LA folks are excited about the new USC/UCLA football season, the Galaxy/Chivas soccer teams, and the Dodger/Angel baseball playoff push for wildcard spots. In addition, many folks can’t wait for the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, and Ducks to get back underway. We also have Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town, Def Leppard, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Roxette, and Gladys Night performing on either Friday or Saturday night of race weekend. As mentioned early, LA’s suburban sprawl offers many entertainment options.

    That said, I’m trying to do my part. I’m taking my dad to ACS and am bringing a buddy of mine. Last time I was there for a race was when we lost Greg Moore =(

    Anyhow, we’ve all got Saturday grandstand tickets, scanners, and pit passes!

  10. I still cannot believe Baltimore claimed 100,000 went to that race. I watched it and I don’t believe there was more than 10,000 there. With about 15,000 at Toronto and a similar number at St. Pete, this league has more concerns than just ovals.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I believe they claimed 100,000 for the weekend, not race day. Judging crowd sizes on television is among the most inexact of the sciences…

  11. I was at Baltimore and the crowd was much larger than it appeared on tv. Fans spread out around the track and infield and were constantly switching viewing areas. They crowded around the fences taking pics and looking for different places to watch. I did notice they had less hospitality areas set up, but more larger ones as wellzm

    The fan zone and venders were crowded and seemed to be doing quite well.

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