Expect A Thin Crowd Next Weekend
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.