The Woes Of Change

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As much as I chastised the Indianapolis Business Journal for jumping the gun before the Randy Bernard firing, I’ll reluctantly admit that I’ve found myself reading it a lot more lately. Earlier this week, they had another article on incoming Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles that caught my eye. How could it not? The headline read “Miles Eyes Lights for Speedway, Postseason for IndyCar”. Hmmm…

A few years ago, I wrote a post here entitled “Three Things You’ll Never See at IMS”; one of which was lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But when I wrote that, Tony George still ran everything, IZOD was the brand new title sponsor that seemed to be pleased with their investment and all of the buzz was all about the DeltaWing project. My, how times have changed since then.

Those that know me know that I live by the mantra that change is bad. There is nothing that I enjoy better than a good rut. I take refuge in things that resist changing with the times. That’s why I like the Chicago Cubs. They have played in the same stadium with essentially the same uniforms since long before I was born. This is one of the many reasons I enjoy going to the Indianapolis 500. Although the place has been upgraded over the years, it still bears a strong resemblance to the way it looked on my first trip there for the 1965 race. If I were to sit in Stand J, where I was sitting that day almost forty-eight years ago, and stare down the main stretch – things would look pretty much the same as they did then, except for the Pagoda that was built in 2000. I take comfort in such things.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I am not crazy about the idea of adding lights to a facility that has existed without them for almost 104 years. Credit Mark Miles for not settling for status quo. I agree that bold moves need to be made in order to fix IndyCar. But adding lights to IMS and mimicking NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship was not on my list of things needed to address what ails our sport.

As far as the lights go, there is really no tangible benefit to IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500, except for perhaps extending the window to get the 500 in after a rain delay. Those of us who sat through the rain in 2007, remember how dark it was in those final laps prior to the last cloudburst. But I also remember how bright it was sitting in post-race traffic and wondering what might have happened had they been able to wait out another drying period. Had they been able to wait, Dario Franchitti may not have won his first of what is currently three Indianapolis 500 victories (and counting).

The main reason lights are being considered is to help boost the lagging attendance at the Brickyard 400. Uncovered aluminum bleachers in central Indiana in late July are not a strong selling point. Running the race in the cooler evening hours should boost ticket sales somewhat. Fair enough, but is it worth the financial price and the cost of ruining the aesthetics of the facility for one race per year?

I have no way of knowing how much it would cost to install a first-class lighting system for a 2.5 mile oval, but I know it’s not cheap. Then there are the other factors. What about crusty old goats like myself? There are a lot of us out there, especially when it comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that resist any change whatsoever – even if it is a change for the better. For example – when they ripped up the apron after the 1992 race and replaced it with the pit-access roads, it was much safer and a better way to enter and exit the pits. Did I like it? No, because it changed the appearance of the track. It also made the track more narrow where cars could no longer dive down below the white line. Twenty years later, I guess I’ve finally gotten used to it.

When the lights went up at Wrigley Field in 1988, I thought it was a certain sign of the apocalypse. Almost twenty-five years later, I still find it odd to watch a Cubs home game at night. Of course, I understood why they did it. Major League Baseball informed them that they could host no post-season games without a lighted stadium. Except for an understandable desire to increase attendance at the NASCAR race and to increase a rain window for the 500; IMS faces no such demand. I have to wonder what happened to the promise by the Hulman-George family to the residents of the town of Speedway, that they would not turn the hoards out into their streets near midnight. Money (or the lack thereof) has a way of making such pledges forgotten about. I take solace in the fact that this is just talk and has not gotten the approval of the board or the Hulman-George family. It is my selfish hope that the plans for lights at IMS never make it off the drawing board. I’m still trying to get used to rear-engine cars.

The other part of the IBJ article dealt with the possibility that IndyCar may institute an artificial postseason similar to NASCAR’s by the 2014 season. My question is simple: why? If my memory serves me correctly (which is a dangerous statement at my age), the IndyCar championship hasn’t been decided before the final race of the season since 2004, when Tony Kanaan clinched the championship at Fontana with the season finale still to run two weeks later at Texas. Since then, it has gone down to the final event each season. Having an artificial “playoff” does not guarantee that the championship will go to the last race. Although they tried to hype the drama, there wasn’t a lot of suspense in this year’s NASCAR finale between the only two drivers mathematically eligible to win the chase.

The reason that “stick & ball” sports have playoffs is to prevent what happened for years in college football – a voter poll to decide a championship. With separate conferences in professional sports, teams do not all face each other in a regular season – or if they do, it is rare. In the NHL and NBA, teams from the east rarely play teams from the west. In baseball, inter-league play only gets a few matchups between the National and American leagues during the regular season. NFL teams only play four teams from the other conference. You get the idea.

In racing, teams compete against each other every race throughout the season. Points are earned by performance in each race. In a race, the only real goal is to be in first place when the race is over. Anything behind that doesn’t really matter. As it currently stands in IndyCar, that’s the same goal for the season – to be in first place when the season is over. Anything behind that doesn’t really matter. In NASCAR, the goal is to score enough points in a race to be in the top ten in points by the time the season is roughly two-thirds over. If you win a couple of races, hopefully that’ll secure you a wild-card spot. Then they re-sort the point differential, where it’s possible that a big lead that you earned could be wiped away. To me, the NASCAR version comes off as contrived, fake and in some ways – unfair.

Apparently, NASCAR felt they needed something to create some interest in the fall, when NASCAR was going head-to-head against the NFL. Whether it has been successful or not is a matter of opinion. Looking at NASCAR’s declining TV ratings could make one say it hasn’t helped.

There is a school of thought out there that says if NASCAR does it, it must be right. Even though they are the big gorilla when it comes to motorsports in the US, doesn’t mean that they hold all the secrets in how to market a product. Obviously, IndyCar needs help – a lot of help. But that does not mean that they need to sell their soul to the devil and duplicate everything that NASCAR does.

What is so good about IndyCar is that it is different than NASCAR. That’s what sets it apart. The IZOD IndyCar Series is a wonderful product in its own right. The problem is that it’s the best kept secret in town. No one knows about it.

There has been no consistent marketing plan in place. Some of that is directly blamed on IndyCar, while other factors have been simply bad luck. Placing the marketing decisions in the hands of Gene Simmons produced nothing more memorable than “I am Indy”. That was obviously a poor decision laid at the feet of IndyCar. The fact that IZOD parent company Phillips-Van Heusen had a change in leadership to someone that sees no value motorsports marketing, was simply poor timing and had nothing to do with an IndyCar decision. But following a consistent and long-term marketing plan is vital to growing this series

I found it ironic that Mark Miles was quoted saying that “to make a dent in something like this I think three to five years is the absolute minimum.” So now, the board recognizes that fixing IndyCar is going to take a lot of time. It’s too bad they realized this after they gave Randy Bernard only two and a half years to fix a badly damaged product.

I am still a fan of Mark Miles. From what I hear and read, he is no talking head. He is a very well-respected sports executive. He knows IndyCar needs a makeover and he is trying to come up with some new ideas. I applaud him for that. I just have a problem with these two specific ideas. Bad ideas are better than no ideas. New Ideas mean they are original ideas. That means come up with your own and don’t copy NASCAR’s. As for the lights…change is bad!

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “The Woes Of Change”

  1. Whether you are for an IndyCar playoff or not, the problem is the schedule is so short that the “Chase” would only be three or four races long. Nevermind the street, road course, or oval make of the thing. Get a thirty race schedule and we can take the idea a bit more seriously.

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Sounds like a couple of cut and paste solutions to a much larger long term problem…

  3. The Chase idea is one best left to NASCAR. Attempting to dodge both NASCAR and NFL in the fall is an iffy propostition at best. Additionally it is ONE thing to have a 26 race schedule leading up to a 10 race “Chase.” But how do you divide a 16, 17, or 18 race schedule to do such a thing? (Not to mention that huge gap at the end of the season.) Maybe, if IndyCar got to the point of a 24 race schedule, you could do an 18 race regular season followed by a 6 race playoff, but until you build the series to that point, I just don’t see it. And, once you get to THAT schedule, haven’t you solved enough of the problems as to make such an enticement meaningless?

    I think any discussion of lights at IMS must first take into account wishes of the residents of Speedway. I can certainly think of several years when lights would have allowed the 500 to be run to completion (or even started) on the scheduled day had there been lights. However, turning loose 300,000 people of questionable sobriety at 11pm or midnight (or even the 150,000 that might attend the Brickyard) is to me an invitation to a tragedy. (I’ve spent the night before the 500 out at 16th and Georgetown on several occasions, and that’s plenty enough crazy for me.)

  4. Carburetor Says:

    I despise change and love being in a rut as well, however every time I look in the mirror I am reminded that change is inevitable (where did all my hair go???). Lights at the speedway do not bother me; an artificial playoff system for racing is beneath IndyCar in my opinion. The Chase at NASCAR is phony hucksterism as far as I am concerned–especially with a season/schedule that is far too long to begin with. A better move would be to get the IndyCar schedule up to about 21-24 races and strengthen fan awareness of the oval and twisty sub-championships as these help distinguish IndyCar from other racing series.

    It is good to hear some new ideas from the top guy however, because the current rut doesn’t look to lead somewhere favorable…

  5. Change is good. Embrace change. If your not changing to meet the evolving tastes of your customers you’re dying.

    • Of course change is not always good (G.W. Bush comes to mind) The specific changes that George is referring to would definitely not be good in my opinion. Perhaps I am not evolving. As someone suggested here, if lights were added to the speedway you can predict with absolute certainty that sooner rather than later some TV suit will push for the 500 to be run at night. The only change that is always good would be underwear. I can embrace that.

  6. Wrigley Field is a dump

  7. I don’t see the benefit of a “chase” for INDYCAR nor adding lights to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. First, the series doesn’t have anywhere near the races that NASCAR does and our chase happens when the green flag drops. It works well, too. As for the lights, that is for NASCAR and NOT the 500. The reason NASCAR isn’t getting the fans is because their race is a bad one and the “Goodyear fiasco” is STILL remembered by the fans (as well as me).

    There is no place to catch a game like Wrigley Field. I like the lights, too.

  8. Playoffs–in Nascar–are just a way to artificially insure competition instead of rewarding excellence or domination. Playoffs–in Indycar–are unnecessary. If anything, just simplify the points system they have. There are plenty of areas where Indycar needs work more than concentrating efforts on playoffs.

    As far as lights at IMS. Not against it, although budget-wise it seems like an enormous expense. And sooner or later, some TV guy would want to schedule the 500 at night and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

    Tradition is good. Change is good. Balance is tricky.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    What I think is interesting is that NASCAR’s Chase has not consistently tightened up the championship, but it has made mid-season races more compelling (perhaps artificially so). Jeff Gordon was a complete non-factor in the Chase, but his second place at Richmond became important because it qualified him for the “playoffs”. This is the one positive I find in a “chase”/post-season points format.

    NASCAR’s silly “playoff” is, at the very least, better than the absurd system the NHRA now uses…
    “Three drivers with a chance to win the championship at the final event? We cannot allow this to happen! Change the points system so that a maximum of two drivers can win the championship at the final race. Brilliant!”

  10. I have no problem with lights. Sometimes, change is good. If I lived there, I might feel differently. But, the speedway was there before any of the current residents, so they knew what they were getting into. It’s like living near an airport. If you buy a house there, you know you’ll be having a lot of noise. I agree that it does sound very expensive.

    As to the chase idea, bad, bad, bad. As has been mentioned, the season is too short as it is. There’s no need to cut it into regular season and then the chase. Also, IndyCar is very exciting, and the goal is to win as many races as you can. We don’t need no stinkin’ chase!

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