Trying To Maintain IndyCar’s Relevance

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The ever-changing temperature of the sports landscape is a fascinating topic to examine. To compare what was popular and what wasn’t back when I was a kid to now, is an eye-opening experience.

Growing up in the sixties, college football was more popular than pro-football. There were two pro-football leagues that competed for fans, players and TV ratings – meaning both sides suffered (sound familiar?). Baseball was king in those days, along with boxing and horse-racing. Tennis would make a huge surge in the seventies and early eighties.

In the south, hockey was a sport played by Yankees and Canadians. I never recall seeing a hockey game played even on television, until after the ‘Miracle on Ice” game in the 1980 Winter Olympics. It was never available on television in the south – or at least I never found it. Soccer was nothing but a sport played by communists.

Basketball was popular in many areas, but not where I lived. Where I lived – it was mostly football. But in my family, racing was huge.

In motorsports, I was able to see a few taped and condensed versions of Formula One races on ABC’s Wide World of Sports along with the occasional sprint, stock and champ car race that might be found, but that was it. Remember, when I was a kid, we had four channels – CBS, NBC, ABC & Public Television. Choices were limited to what network execs thought we should see.

College football was big, but it had an odd end to its season. Instead of deciding their championship through a playoff like most stick & ball sports, the very best teams played in a few bowl games at the end of the season and voters decided the national championship. In earlier years, the national champion was actually determined before the bowl games were played.

There were four major bowls; the Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange. There were a few secondary bowls like the Liberty, Gator, Bluebonnet, Tangerine (now the Capital One Bowl), Sun and Peach (now the Chick-Fil-A Bowl). Altogether, there were enough bowls to award twenty college teams for an outstanding season. Lose three games or more, and there was an excellent chance your team would stay home for the holidays.

The four major bowl games were played on New Year’s Day. The remaining six or so, were interspersed throughout the month of December. The matchups were usually good and a bowl game was considered “must-see” TV for any sports fan. Four games on New Year’s Day was considered a football bonanza. CBS started things off with the Cotton Bowl around noon, then NBC featured the ‘Granddaddy of Them All” – the Rose Bowl around 3:00. Then ABC and NBC battled for nighttime viewers between the Sugar and Orange respectively.

The early seventies saw the birth of the Fiesta Bowl. It was considered heresy when the Fiesta Bowl joined the New Year’s Day lineup in the early eighties. Somewhere along the way, it surpassed the Cotton in order of importance – in part, due to the much better January climate in Phoenix as compared to Dallas.

Then in the late seventies and early eighties, more and more games started springing up. They came and went. There was the Garden State Bowl in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. My alma mater (Tennessee) has the distinction of playing in the fourth and final installment of that frigid game, defeating Wisconsin 28-21.

Other meaningless bowls that came and went since that time were the All-American Bowl (1977-1990, Birmingham), the California Bowl (1981-1991, Fresno), the Cherry Bowl (1984-1985, Pontiac, MI), the Freedom Bowl (1984-1994, Anaheim), the Houston Bowl (2000-2005, Houston), the International Bowl (2006-2009, Toronto), the Oahu Bowl (1998-2000, Honolulu) and the Sunflower Bowl (1982-1986, Winfield, KS). There are more, but you get the idea.

This year, there are thirty-five post-season bowl games – meaning that seventy college football teams will go bowling this season. Make it to .500 and you’re probably in a bowl. Talk about rewarding mediocrity. To make matters worse, there are four more bowls on the horizon for 2014. If no bowls fold (which is unlikely), that means there could be thirty-nine bowls hosting seventy-eight teams next season, when college football moves to a four-team playoff to determine the National Champion.

So George, is this not an IndyCar racing website? Yes, and I’m getting to that.

If you haven’t noticed by the TV ratings and bodies in the stands, the bowl system has become completely irrelevant and meaningless in today’s sports landscape. This season, you have two teams playing for the National Championship – Florida State and Auburn. All other bowl teams are playing for pride and have no shot at anything other than a nice gift bag and a suntan – assuming they are lucky enough to be playing in a warm-weather climate, no longer a given these days.

The good old boys in loud polyester blazers are too blind to see that no one cares about their games. They are completely insignificant, yet the bowl committees continue to do things the same old way and wonder why they host games in empty stadiums. The times have passed the bowl games by. They have seen their day, just as boxing, tennis and horse racing have seen their best times come and go. They haven’t adjusted to today’s market. Instead, they sat by all fat and happy and thought they could ride the fatted cow into the financial sunset.

To put things in business terms, they have gone the way of Kodak and Blockbuster – companies that were iconic brands that lacked the foresight to alter their strategy when demand for their products changed. By the time they did change, it was too late.

So, George – what do college bowl games and failed companies have to do with IndyCar?

Actually, this has everything in the world to do with IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 in particular. Regular visitors to this site know that I am an IndyCar die-hard, an Indianapolis 500 purist and that I despise change. Nothing would please me more than to have the Indianapolis 500 feature the innovations it did in the sixties, or for the IndyCar Series to have the appeal that CART had in the early nineties.

But I’m also a realist. I understand that if IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 don’t move forward and evolve with the changing times, the race (and series) that we have all grown to love for decades will continue to lose its relevance and go the way of the dodo. Some consider it blasphemous to think that we could ever live to see the day where the Indianapolis 500 is just a memory. I consider it a real possibility and it has been for some time.

Twenty years ago, who would have thought that daily newspapers in large metropolitan areas would be on life-support? Well, today they are and have been for some time. Many are already gone. Those left employ about one-fourth what they did in the nineties. When it is all said and done, the only newspaper organizations left will be those that had enough foresight to see that they had to completely change their business model for survival. If they didn’t lay the groundwork years ago to become an internet media company, they have doomed themselves to certain extinction. For many papers still in existence, if they have failed to adapt to the current and future needs of their customers – it’s now a question of when and not if they go under.

So, not to be so “gloom & doomy” at this festive time of year – but this is why I am not as opposed to some of the changes that Mark Miles and Company are proposing for the Indianapolis 500, as some are. I don’t like the changes, but what is currently being done is not working. It works for me, but they’ve got me. I’ll keep coming until they bulldoze the place and so will a bunch of others like me.

But in twenty years, I’ll be seventy-five and possibly too feeble to continue basing my entire year around the Month of May. How will they replace me and the die-hards like me? The series and race have become so insignificant and irrelevant that an entire generation is growing up that has never even heard of the Indianapolis 500. I know there are many hard-core fans currently in their twenties of thirties, but there just are not enough to sustain the product.

This is why whoever replaced Randy Bernard was so crucial to the future of the series and the 500. Three months ago, I was trying to decide if Miles even had a pulse himself, much less if he had the pulse of the fans. Now that he has surfaced with some fairly radical changes, he is seeing a lot of pushback from fans.

It pains me to tell these fans that the roadster, Silent Sam and Sid Collins aren’t coming back. I wish they were, but they’re not. We are in survival mode against an unprecedented wide field of entertainment choices for fans. Things are going to have to change to maintain what we are so passi9onate about. As much as I live by the slogan that “change is bad”, sometimes it is necessary. Remember what Will Rogers said; “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

Mark Miles is not paid to just sit there.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Trying To Maintain IndyCar’s Relevance”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I think the road course race at IMS is a great idea.. Very disappointing that 500 qualifying coverage will be reduced… As I have said, open wheel racing as we know it is glacially vanishing. So, I plan to enjoy for however much longer it can be seen.

  2. That brings back some memories. I’m a little older than you, if that’s possible! I grew up in Easton, PA. The first time I saw an Indycar was back when they first opened Pocono. Sunoco gas gave away free tickets for qualifying if you bought a fill-up.

    We were just a stones throw from Nazareth, the home of Mario Andretti, so naturally I became a Mario Andretti fan. You know how it was, if you liked Andretti, you hated Foyt, and vice-versa. Heck, I still don’t like the guy, lol. I did speak to him briefly a few years ago in the lobby of the Hilton in St Pete.

    I can remember on Saturday nights in the summer, they had dirt track racing in Nazareth. We were probably 7-8 miles away, maybe more, but if the wind was right, we could hear the noise from the track in my back yard.

    College football WAS king, as was baseball. I was a Phillies fan, until I finally got tired of them always losing. Then I convinced myself I could be a Yankees fan, because it would be OK to have a favorite in each league, right?

    I like the Colts because of Johnny Unitas, but when they unceremoniously dumped him, I never watched another NFL game until Roger Staubach, my favorite QB from Navy, started playing for Dallas. When he retired, I stopped watching, except for an occasional few minutes here and there.

    By the way, soccer is still only played by communists. Who ever heard of a game with a ball, where use of hands wasn’t allowed. And the score? Yikes. Awful sport. They tried to hook us on that back when I was a senior in high school, so it’s taken that long for it to finally catch on here.

    I don’t much care for change either, but you’re right, it is absolutely needed if we want to continue to have this wonderful sport we all love.

    Look at today’s alternatives…cable TV with hundreds of channels, MMA, which young people seem to love, movie theaters all over the place, theme parks, casinos in just about every state, beaches, computers, video games, skateboarding, surfing, fishing, NASCAR, dirt tracks, sprint tracks, drag racing….just to name a few. Heck, there’s so much to do now, kids don’t even seem to have any interest in getting a driver’s license. it would require them to leave the video game.

    So, whatever changes Miles wants to make are fine with me. I thought the idea of the road race at Indy was fantastic from a fan’s viewpoint. Cheap for the teams, since they’re already there anyway.

    I’d like to see more races, and I’d like to see the season start earlier, maybe with California races and something in Miami or Ft Lauderdale, etc, like they do in the PGA. Now that I’m retired, I intend to go to four or five races this year, instead of my normal one or two.

    Sorry to run on so long, but it’s your fault. Great column, George!

  3. I’ll take a contrarian view. I think it’s change that has hurt Indy car. For Indianapolis, nothing killed Pole Day more than slowing the cars down. The chance for a new track record was gone. The move to spec racing led to rising costs, and those rising costs are what made bump day irrelevant as fewer entities could field teams and cars.

    The move to increased road races, which began to really make it self felt in the early 90′s, and again the last few years, lead to decreased popularity. Increased road courses has led to the ride buying of F1 wannabees rather than American drivers from traditional American open wheel venues, further decreasing interest in the sport.

    None of the changes being done by current Indy car management fixes any of these. Trashing tradition is doing nothing positive. Change is not always good. Positive change would be to undo some of the bad changes of the last few years, not to muck it up further. In my opinion most of the recent changes are almost universally bad. Do we have to kill the patient in order to save him? Folly.

    • I’d argue that the move to spec racing–as unpopular as it is–has actually controlled costs. As far as a new track record every year, I’d guess that even if they had continued that pursuit–there would have physical limitations and that we would have reached some maximum possible speed years ago. (High speeds are also off-set these days by an increasing insistence on safety for both fans and drivers.) While I also am dismayed by the lack of ovals on the present schedule, Indycar has done better economically on twisties and that won’t change all the fans that want ovals actually start attending them.

      Everyone seems to agree that Indycar needs to change from it’s present state. So do we look to the past or the future for answers? I think we need to look ahead. They don’t have to kill the patient, but they do have to perform some surgery in order to save him.

      • please insert an “until” between “change” and “all” in that stupid sentence in the first paragraph I just wrote. sorry.

  4. I LOVE Bowl games. I will watch as many as I can and will probably go to the Belk Bowl while visiting the in-laws in Charlotte over X-Mas. Unfortunately, I cannot find a buddy to make the 17 hour drive to see the Buckeyes in Miami. I have made similar efforts for IndyCar races in the past, there just isn’t enough races to attend.

    Why do Bowl games succeed financially? ESPN. They make them profitable (not always for the schools) because of the money they make on ratings. See where I am going with this?

    • billytheskink Says:

      In addition to television revenue, bowl games generally require schools that accept their invitation to buy a block of several thousand tickets. Once they have their matchup set, 10,000-20,000 tickets have already been purchased. Practically all bowl games also carry something so many Indycar race promoters covet, title sponsorship.

      College football bowl games may not be the cultural phenomena they once were, but their financial model continues to prove its success in the vast majority of cases. It is why we continue have so many “insignificant” bowl games featuring 6-6 teams, the money really isn’t drying up all that much.
      Indycar race promoters would LOVE to be in the position most bowl game promoters are in.

      On another racing note, there’s a Bowl in Tulsa every January that does fairly well…

  5. It’s all been going downhill since foreigners started winning the race.

    Kidding. (Jules Goux – 1913)

    I think they need to change to stay relevant. (Actually, become relevant again.) I just hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    The problems that got us here took place over the course of 20 years. I’m afraid that finding solutions will take just as long.

  6. A tweek here and there. I like this next year’s Month of May and hopefully it will show some increase in viewers. Let’s see.

  7. Another forgettable bowl game was the Toilet Bowl in Flushing, New Jersey. Most of them seem like that now.

    Change throughout society happens so much more quickly now, mostly driven by technology. The wristwatch computer with a kazillion apps is a long way from the Lone Ranger secret decoder ring in a relatively short period of time.

    It is unfortuante that IndyCar is apparently locked into a cable TV contract that will not allow it to stream races on the internet. The cable TV industry has lost 5 million suscribers since 2010. Advertisers, of course, are following that trend closely and adjusting where they spend their money accordingly.

    The Indy500 is an iconic event that can survive change as long as there are cars if it is managed carefully. I am not looking forward to a Jim Nabors app.

  8. George, I think this might be one of your best efforts! Like you, I detest the changes to the qualifying weekends at Indy. Hell, it was tough for me to take when they knocked qualifying down from two weekends to one. But, also like you, I know that the qualifying schedule they’re running currently is about as popular (in terms of butts in seats) as a rainy practice day USED to be. (And I’ve spent a few of those there, back in my misspent youth.) I applaud Mark Miles for trying SOMETHING different to stir interest, even if I would rather things be as they once were.

    I do take one issue however, with your view on soccer, maybe because I played all the way through junior high and high school and, if not for knee issues, might have even played in college. Soccer to me wasn’t a game played by Communists; It was, however, a game played by kids like me whose parents were “scared” of the injury prospects of, or who were too small to play football (never my problem.) And, while I never had a poster of Pele on my wall, I knew who he was and watched whenever he appeared in a match on TV, (usually ABC’s Wide World of Sports.) I even remember World Cup ’66, (when England defeated Germany), which I thought (at the tender age of 13) was the greatest game ever played.

    In fact, it was in 1964 that the first high school soccer game was played in Indiana, between my eventual high school, Culver Military Academy, and the “hated” Dragons of Argos High. There are now boys and girls teams playing at hundreds of Indiana schools, something I never could have foreseen back then. Now, every town has a youth soccer program starting with kids who are just barely able to walk. Has it transferred to the professional level? No, but even here in the south, I see lot more soccer being played on Saturday mornings than football. With the recent discussions of concussions, that trend may well continue, even though you can certainly sustain a concussion playing soccer.

  9. Appreciate your thoughts as usual and thanks for the memory lane moment re: only four bowls on New Year’s Day. Since you’ve said you’ll go to the Indy 500 no matter what, it seems your choices are to be OK with the changes (or at least give them a chance) or be one of those crusty old pissed off people who go to the race every year yet do nothing but bitch about it. Glad you’re going with the former. Change is needed for the reasons you mention. Also, very little that’s being changed now — tweaks to rules, qualifying formats, etc. — can’t be undone later. I’m in favor of trying new stuff to see how it goes.

  10. As early as the late 1940s, the production-based racing machinery found at the 500 gave way to purpose-built racing ‘specials’. ‘Special’ and ‘Specified’ machinery differ greatly in both design and cost. The former is expensive, being original, secretive, and exciting. The latter is cost-conscious, limited, and totally lacking diversity.

    I happen to be in the camp who believes for Indycar to survive it needs to be radicallly opened to the ingenuity and people with ridiculous FU money to create amazing and unique vehicles that can bee seen nowhere else. I use the recent America’s Cup as an example.

    The boats were incredible, super-expensive, and in being so, I felt like we were witnessing something truly special. I watched and followed the final races with great interest. How they could maximize their travel through the simple elements of wind and water was astounding to me.

    Until Indycar can have the temerity to blow open the rules and encourage real innovation, not kowtowing to the cabal of American race team owners who draw all the AOWR water currently, I believe it will continue to starve itself of money until the body of Indycar shuts down.

    My suggestion for years now has been a basic platform for a series with the ultimate goal of making vehicles that reward optimizing speed and energy efficiency within a very basic set of parameters:
    1. A mandated driver safety cell and wheel tethering system as supplied by the league at a fixed cost, required for use in all vehicle designs.
    2. Minimum and maximum exterior dimensions and minimum gross vehicle weights without fuel.
    3. A limited maximum of total allowable energy (measured in Joules or Ergs or whatever the supersmart-engineer types would deem equitable, converted from several energy sources/forms of propulsion) to complete a given race distance for each venue.
    4. Maximum recorded acceleration, deceleration, and lateral G-force allowances (in keeping the ability for the driver to be conscious and lucid at all times).
    5. Minimum average speed and maximum top speed thresholds for each venue.

    I realize this sounds waaaaaaaay out there, but I believe if this were able to be done, there would be enough interested parties in the world who would be attracted to this type of open competition and be SO unique and innovative that the public would clamor to see it by the millions.

    Is this type of thing an immense risk? Of course, but I have to believe the goal for motorsports in the near future is to create something the public hasn’t seen, is forward-looking, and is a ‘CANNOT MISS’ event.

  11. One of your best blogs ever George. You absolutely nailed it.

  12. turkeydance Says:

    +1. it’s sports/entertainment now. Looking Good on HDTV.
    the NFL has even given up on its antiquated “blackout” rules.
    IndyCar must obey TV first…regardless and in spite of attendance.

  13. Its such as you learn my mind! You appear to grasp
    a lot about this, like you wrote the ebook in it or something.
    I believe that you simply can do with a few p.c.
    to drive the message house a little bit, however other than that, this is great blog.
    An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

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