Who Should Educate New Fans?

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When we were at Barber Motorsports Park a couple of weeks ago, one thing I wrote about was how a large number of those in attendance for qualifying seemed to have no clue what was going on. When I mentioned it here, there were varying opinions on the subject.

Quite honestly, the situation with qualifying is the same as the problem for the entire IZOD IndyCar Series – it’s a good show that no one understands or knows about.

Susan and I sat in the stands for Fast-Six qualifying at Barber. We both knew exactly what was going on with the strategy of most teams sitting until the last few minutes of qualifying. The problem was – most of the fans sitting around us did not. Fans seemed to grasp the basic concept that there were two groups going out to qualify. Beyond that, most seemed to be sitting there scratching their collective heads as there were long periods where there were no cars on track at all – even as the clock atop the scoring pylon kept ticking. For the final session – what is considered the “shoot-out – most fans around us started packing up to leave with five minutes to go. They all thought it was over.

Clearly, there is a disconnect – but whose fault is it?

Contrary to popular belief, the crowd at Barber is not ignorant. These are not transplanted NASCAR fans who are just passing the time until Talladega. For the most part, the crowd at Barber is very knowledgeable about road racing. They are just not considered to be the hard-core fans that listen to Mike King and the IMS Radio Network every race weekend via the internet for practice times and qualifying results.

Mike King and crew are piped in over the PA at Barber and probably most tracks on the schedule. Although this exposes the crowd to all of Mike King’s weekly gaffes, it doesn’t really explain to the casual fan what the basic rules and strategies are – and it shouldn’t. The IMS Radio Network should not be dummied down so that it is unbearable for the knowledgeable fan to listen to. The broadcasters on the IMS Network do a good job of engaging the hard-core fan during the practice and qualifying broadcasts – to gear it down to an introductory and novice level wouldn’t be fair.

Perhaps the local tracks should take it upon themselves to have a separate person on the PA to educate the fans in attendance to what is about to happen and what they can expect.

The argument is; whose responsibility is it to make sure those in attendance know what’s going on? Should INDYCAR print out an easy to read one-sheet flyer to hand out on qualifying morning that explains the qualifying procedure? They already do this, but it is buried within the fan guide that was readily available at Barber. How much responsibility is on the fan to learn these things? Granted there is some, but fans are lazy.

I go back to my hockey analogy. I can’t count how many Nashville Predators games I have been to over the years, yet I still don’t exactly know what those blue lines mean and don’t even think about asking me to explain icing. I could ask someone to sit down and explain it to me. At the very least, I could Google the rules and have a much better understanding of what I’m watching the next time I go. Instead, I sit there and cheer when the puck goes into the net, but have no clue what everyone is booing about half the time. I just sit there in ignorant bliss and sip on my nine-dollar beer, while munching on my seven-dollar hot dog.

The one thing this series needs more than anything is to cultivate new fans – with “cultivate” being the operative word. The fan that tunes into one race and never come back does the series no good in the long run. I cringe when I hear people say that baseball is boring. It’s only boring because they don’t understand the intricacies and strategies of the game. Is it baseball’s job to go out of their way to educate every fan about how the lack of the DH in the National League affects the strategy on when to leave a pitcher in the game? No, but baseball has major TV contracts in place and is not hurting for fans as much as open-wheel racing is.

Like this one, there are many blogs out there that focus on IndyCar. The problem is, most of them are geared towards the hard-core fan because they are written by hard-core fans. Quite honestly, I have no interest in dumbing down this site on the off-chance that a newbie might stumble across it. Like all other IndyCar blogs, the readers that come here already know the rules and strategies. If this site suddenly became a daily public service announcement for those that need educating about the sport – I have an idea that my tens of readers would dry up quickly.

When I go to IndyCar.com, I want to read news written for someone who knows the sport – not to be spoon-fed as if I am a first-time visitor to the site. However, it might be wise on their part to have a tab labeled “For the Newbie” or something along those lines. There they can develop content intended to attract and educate potential new fans.

So what is the answer? I really don’t know, but they need to do something. It was eye-opening for me at Barber to see fans leaving in droves before the pole position was even decided. Perhaps, representatives from IndyCar should sit in the stands at qualifying and listen first-hand to what the fans are saying. I’m hoping they do that anyway rather than listening to a focus group that studies surveys and hypothesizing what fans are thinking.

For the informed, the Fast-Six qualifying format is very exciting. Obviously, NASCAR thinks so since they have just announced that they are going to a group format for qualifying at their two road course events at Watkins Glen and Sonoma – of course, they’ll claim they invented it along with the SAFER barrier and the HANS devise. But those that don’t know what is happening will continue to leave race tracks on Saturday wondering why they paid money to watch cars sit in the pits. I think educating fans about the sport is a basic and fundamental need and a priority item that needs to be addressed.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Who Should Educate New Fans?”

  1. I understand “Icing” better than I understand the Infield Fly Rule. If I were able to attend qualifying at a track I think I would strive to understand the format so I would know what’s going on. Maybe hardcore fans should try to explain it when they see people near them in the stands who obviously don’t understand

  2. If it’s in the program, announced at the track and broadcast on radio–I’m not sure there’s much more you can do. Maybe the new fan should watch a race (& quals) on television or internet before attending. If not, they (like you at a hockey game) must not care all that much.

    • I’m with you, redcar. It’s not difficult to follow. It’s always explained in the program, and it’s a very simple process. If you’re going to spend money attending, pay attention and learn. It will make the experience much more enjoyable.

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    Tracks could show a brief video on their screens explaining qualifying and the strategy involved. I think this could be done simply and inexpensively.

    • billytheskink Says:

      This is a good idea.
      Most tracks that I have been to play the simulated “Lap Around (insert track)” video from indycar.com prior to practice, qualifying, and the race. I’m pretty familiar with most of Indycar’s tracks and I still enjoy these videos.

      A seperate video explaining the qualifying format prior to the session would probably help more than additional printed materials or further explaination over the PA.
      All they really stand to lose would be a minute or two of commercial time… at Barber, that would have meant seeing Fuzzy Zoeller kill that bird only 998 times instead of 1,000.

    • yep. good idea.

    • Savage Henry Says:

      This is exactly what I was thinking, Mike. A fast-paced, high production value video that played at the start of qualifying would go a long way to informing people. In fact, they could break it up and run it before each session so people are able to follow along. Maybe those could be even shorter to cater to the short attention span crowd.

  4. Here is an idea. Be consistent from year to year. Qualifications are changing or being revised at various tracks every year. Lets try to be consistent.

    With one caveat. Get rid of the shootout on Pole Day at Indy. It’s an abomination.

  5. This is all up to IndyCar! They are the responsible party to educate the new fans as well as the next generation of fans. As for the Preds and the NHL, I didn’t know much about the strategy either, but listening to Pete Webber and Crispy call the games while explaining it as well was very benificial. They had their hands full, too. The team was cultivating all of the Detroit fans who moved down here for Nissan as well as the fans who never saw a hockey game in their life. They didn’t and haven’t dumb down the broadcasts either. I remember Bobby Unser explaining situations and strategy on the ABC Indy 500 broadcasts and there was not a better teacher.

  6. First, the answer to your title question is: IndyCar. Who should educate consumers on the benefits of buying Tide? That would be Proctor and Gamble (makers of Tide). Second, don’t play Mike King et al on the track PA during qualifying. Frankly they ramble and are disjointed and I, Mr. Hardcore, don’t listen to them at all. Also, he’s speaking to a whole different audience as you noted, George. Either King & Company should assume their audience has no idea what is going on and proceed accordingly to explain it OR have the track announcer do it. As others have said, it’s a relatively simple process. A skilled announcer/broadcaster can mix in enough basic info to keep newbies engaged while not making it worthless to the veterans. Use the PA to inform all the fans, not just hard cores. It’s not either-or.

  7. Wow; eight comments already … Another good blog post, George! I allege that the race owner, which is profiting from admitting spectators, and hopes that spectators return for the next event, ought to entertain and inform its customers. The race owner/promoter can inform the fans via the public-address speakers and the fan guide if it cannot control the video screens.

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    I think that racing is a bigger challenge than other sports. Probably most people learned the ins-and-outs of the sports they follow by actually playing the sport. In racing, very few people have actually raced at any level, so extra effort is required to get the information out.

    I see this as additional proof of a glaring need for an excellent IndyCar video game. I’ve learned so much more about racing and driving from online racing than I ever could have otherwise. I’m much more hardcore since I bought my race wheel. If IndyCar develops an awesome (even revolutionary) video game and it becomes popular, then automatically they are educating an entire new generation of fans.

    Aside from that, it is ultimately IndyCar’s responsibility to educate the fans. Just publishing the rules in the program isn’t going to get it done. People buy the program for the photos and nobody is going to read the rules. Multimedia presentations via the video boards and kiosks at the track are absolutely necessary. They would of course make them available on the IndyCar website, youtube, etc.

  9. It is IndyCar’s product and they should need to do everything they can to grow interest in the sport. If they are relying on Mike King to keep the spectators informed and interested, then that is their first mistake. I am a life long IndyCar fan, but am always confused and worse off for listening to one of his broadcasts. If there are video boards around the facility, can/do they not show timing and scoring information for the qualifying session in real time so the fans can follow what is happening?

  10. Are you kidding me? If fans don’t have enough initiative to figure it out on their own, then they’re not fans. Case closed. The NFL doesn’t do anything to explain the rules. They figure fans already know them. They provide loud music and other distractions for those that don’t know what’s going on, but they don’t waste time trying to “educate” them. Good grief!

  11. I was once so bored on a flight to Australia I asked the Canadian sitting next to me what the A was on a hockey jersey, and what the +/- thing meant.

  12. The fix is easy… quit trying to cook up false drama that culminates in more arbitrarily assessed penalties and reinstate the basic time trial format.

    I’ve never seen the IMS stands mostly full for this new abomination of a format.

    It has also taken all of the stress and crucial decision making out of the format… When you had one chance at a checkered flag per entry and pulling it meant retiring any chance of running the car in the event, it meant something.

    Now every lap is just one more of many.

    Why be surprised that most people don’t care enough to watch or show up… much less understand what’s going on.

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