Mario Has Spoken, But Do We All Agree?
This past weekend during the US Grand Prix, Mario Andretti sounded off on a couple of subjects regarding the IndyCar Series. Regardless of your allegiance to Mario in the sixties, he has earned the position over time that whenever he opens his mouth on a subject – you would do well to take note, shut up and listen. You can decide later on whether or not you agree with him, but one would be foolish to not listen to what the man has to say. After all, he is one of the legendary names of all time and at the age of seventy-three – he is still extremely active in the sport. So you can’t write off anything he says by saying he is out of touch.
That’s not to say you have to agree with everything the man says. He is fallible, just like the rest of us. There was an article that made the rounds earlier this week, quoting Mario on a couple of subjects. I vehemently disagreed with him on one topic, while strongly agreeing with him on another. Mario was quoted on his displeasure on next year’s IndyCar schedule ending in August. He also uttered his disdain for Mark Miles’ idea on an International “mini-series” to be run in the offseason.
Those that visit this site regularly know where I agree and disagree with the 1969 Indianapolis 500 champion (whose win I watched in person, by the way). Andretti pointed out that IndyCar could never be taken seriously, unless their season ran into November like Formula One and NASCAR.
The way the calendar works out, it is true that the IndyCar season ends in August. Labor Day is Mon Sep 1 – the earliest it can ever be. The finale at Fontana is scheduled for Saturday night on Labor Day weekend – Aug 30.
I have been beating the drum for some time to end the IndyCar season on Labor Day weekend in order to avoid getting crushed in the ratings by the behemoth that is the NFL. I will concede that there is something psychologically wrong with wrapping up the final race while the calendar still says August. On the other hand, for Mario to say you can’t be worried about going against football is a tad bit naïve or in denial of the condition of this sport. I have no way of knowing, but I wonder just how much the IndyCar legend follows football. Sometimes, those so ingrained in one sport have no idea just how big other sports have become.
Keep in mind that when Mario Andretti was the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1965, there was no such thing as the Super Bowl. There were on Thursday night, Sunday night or Monday night games. Mercifully, Fantasy Football did not exist. The NFL only had fourteen teams, while the upstart AFL had eight. There were only three TV channels. Those clamoring for sports only watched what they were given. There were few choices.
Today, the NFL is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It long ago supplanted baseball as the nation’s number-one sporting obsession. Just look at the numbers. In August, a pre-season Titans game will pull a local rating in the twenties. IndyCar does well to pull close to a 1.0 on a national network telecast, while averaging around a 0.2 on cable. It is estimated that only 160,000 people watched the Sunday race of Houston’s double-header on Oct 6. That’s 160,000 nationally, not local. That same day, the Titans played the Kansas City Chiefs in losing effort in Nashville. Based on the ratings, almost twice as many people in the Nashville market alone watched the mediocre Titans, than the national number that watched the IndyCar race that day.
I consider myself a die-hard IndyCar fan, yet I set the DVR for the Houston race while I watched the Titans live. Some die-hards will exclude me from their club for that admission. They will say only a true racing fan will ignore the stick & ball sports and pay attention only to Motorsports. To acknowledge that baseball, basketball or football is interesting, is traitorous to the sport we love. To that, I say “Baloney!”
I think most racing fans think like me. We like both football and IndyCar. More than NASCAR or Formula One, the demographics of an IndyCar fan is closest to the typical NFL fan. To say that football is inconsequential is to bury one’s head in the sand.
As much as it pains me to say it, IndyCar is not currently on the same level with NASCAR and F1. NASCAR ratings drop significantly once the NFL season starts. Although their ratings have dropped in recent years, they still are strong enough to withstand a drop in the fall. Formula One simply doesn’t care that much about the US television market. Ratings are what will make or break IndyCar in the future. Advertisers that see numbers like the October Houston race will run, not walk from the bargaining table. Sponsors will cite those figures as reasons why not to sponsor a team or why they will only offer a fraction of what a team is seeking.
Although I have been chirping to end the IndyCar season by Labor Day, I’m altering my stance just a little. Have a couple of races run in September after the Labor Day weekend. Perhaps one on Labor Day Sunday, then two more on Saturday nights to late September. That avoids the NFL. College is so regionalized and fragmented that they don’t pose as big of a ratings threat. It also prolongs the season for a few more weeks and thereby shortens the offseason.
I still think that the IndyCar season should start earlier than it does – either late February or the first weekend in March, not the last weekend of March as will be the case in 2014. But just because NASCAR and F1 run their season into November does not make it right. I think the NASCAR season is laboriously long. It limps to a merciful end each year, sort of like the NBA does in late June.
And just because Mario Andretti says it does not always make it right, either. I say see if the ratings improve by avoiding the NFL. Try it and see what happens. If the ratings improve, keep it there for a few years and continue to build momentum before trying to tackle the NFL head-on. If they don’t improve, well – it was worth a shot.
But please don’t think I disagree with everything the former USAC, CART and Formula One champion says. As I said earlier, his opinion carries a lot of weight. Andretti also went off on the International Mini-Season that Mark Miles has proposed. I fail to see what can be accomplished by it. Sure, it may help balance the IndyCar checkbook, but at what price? What does it do for the teams or the drivers?
As we have seen recently in Brazil and China, foreign governments can be difficult to predict. No one can foresee how a change in governmental leadership or policy may suddenly make a race disappear. The Canadian races have worked out well for IndyCar, but racing in some potential countries may have completely different outcomes.
Plus, I don’t see an offseason as a bad thing – so long as it’s not seven months. An offseason gives drivers and teams the opportunity to push the re-set button. Drivers are human. Even though they love what they do, they need a break. Drivers need vacations too, whether it is to visit some exotic locale or to spend time with their families and attend a few Colts and Pacer games. Send drivers and teams all over the globe for a couple of months in the offseason, and they are suddenly racing year-round. Some drivers spend their offseason racing in other disciplines; whether it is to race karts, Brazilian stock cars or drive in the Rolex24. The Mark Miles plan could minimize or completely eliminate that.
Not that he needs me to validate his opinion, but I agree with Mario Andretti – the International Min-Season does not need to happen.
As I’ve stated many times over the years – in the sixties, you were a fan of either AJ Foyt or Mario Andretti. You could not be a fan of both. As a child, I picked AJ Foyt as my guy and he is still my favorite all-time driver to this very day. But as I’ve grown older (and older), I’ve learned to appreciate the greatness that is Mario Andretti. We fans are lucky because two of the biggest names from almost fifty years ago are still heavily involved in this sport. When either of them speak, we would all be wise to listen to every word they say. But we don’t always have to agree.