The One Single Thing IndyCar Needs Is…

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It’s interesting to hear the various opinions as to what IndyCar should do to dramatically improve ratings, visibility, appeal, etc. to fans and more importantly – potential new fans. Did you listen to Townsend Bell on Trackside last week? He made a strong case for what we’ve heard from him many times. He wants to see a huge performance increase year after year from the engine manufacturers, designers, etc. He recalled as a kid visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, how he was blown away by the speed and how the cars were constantly on the edge as new track records fell on an annual basis.

Bell is quite adamant about this. He thinks that marketing, broadcasting, scheduling is all secondary to the performance on the track. He is quick to point out (correctly, I might add) that when the Indianapolis 500 was pulling in top ratings, close finishes were not the norm. It wasn’t unusual for the third place car to be three laps down. There were not sixty-eight lead changes. While that makes for drama wondering who will be leading at the last lap, it sort of cheapens the previous 195 laps. The race used to boil down to which team and driver could find the delicate balance between utilizing the power available and keeping the car on track while not blowing up the engine. According to Bell, that is what IndyCar needs to focus on to pull it out of its current doldrums.

I found it interesting that in Curt Cavin’s Q&A on Friday, someone mentioned improving the product, Curt said he didn’t think the product needed improving. He thought what needed the most work was the schedule for this year’s Indianapolis 500. I’ll agree that the on-track product is good. Compared to the previous version of the Dallara, which ran from 2003 through 2011; the racing is close and exciting. But is motorsport all about identical cars being bunched up? That’s a rhetorical question that I really don’t know the answer to.

If you read Robin Miller’s mailbag over on Racer.com, you’ll see that many readers think the issue lies with the lack of offseason promotion. More than one reader sites how Formula-E has out-marketed and out-promoted IndyCar with their series which has yet to turn a wheel in competition – ever. Yet they have made sure that everyone is constantly made aware of every move in that series through press-releases and a bombardment of social media. Personally, I am not a fan of the concept of Formula-E; but I am becoming more and more aware of their every move because someone in their PR department is doing a masterful job.

After Andy Granatelli passed away a few weeks ago, he was praised for the innovations that he brought to the Indianapolis 500. But those doing the praising were mostly my age or older – those that were there to actually see those innovations. Does today’s audience care for innovations as much as close racing that produce sensational moments on SportsCenter? After all, if you come up with an engine or chassis that runs away from the field and completely dominates, does that play well to today’s new breed of potential fans?

So, what is the one thing above all else that IndyCar needs to grow like we want it to? Is it increased performance across the board, as Townsend Bell suggests? Perhaps it’s the tweaking of the schedule for the Month of May that Curt Cavin wants. Robin Miller wants better promotion. Is that the top priority? Fans reminisced about Andy Granatelli and the innovations of the sixties. Is that what fans want to see? Is it all of the above or something else?

There is no easy answer. Most would say that it is all of the above, but remember – I asked for the one thing that could take a huge step in fixing what ails IndyCar.

Pretend you are in the shoes of Mark Miles. You have a disgruntled and shrinking fan base. You are trying to recapture your former fans, shore up the currently eroding fan base, while also trying to gain new fans and build the fan base for the future. You need to make a big splash quickly, so that current fans will need to know you are working hard, rather than dealing with the perception that you are focusing on insignificant items while the entire series falls apart. On top of that , your big splash needs to work – not only for the short-term, but it has to have long-term consequences too. That’s a pretty tall order.

I don’t pretend to know what the series needs to do first. Long ago, I learned to value the opinions of Bell, Cavin and Miller. They are all much smarter than I am about the inner-workings of this series and how to go about improving it. I also tend to agree with those that say the Speedway needs to see a return of the innovation that made it so famous in the sixties.

Some will argue that there is still innovation going on there, but the focus has been turned more toward safety than performance. While I am all for constantly improving the safety for everyone involved with the series, including fans – safety innovations don’t sell tickets. Ask the NFL how well their focus on player’s safety is settling with the fans. No one is going to pay $103 for a seat in the SW Vista at IMS to get a first-hand look at the SAFER barrier in operation. While it is noble and worthwhile, it won’t sell tickets or bring new fans.

Innovation means someone coming up with a better idea than anyone else to go faster and being allowed to implement it. Usually these innovations cost money – a lot of money. Money that only the Roger Penske’s and Chip Ganassi’s of the world have to make it happen. That would leave the Sarah Fisher’s, Sam Schmidt’s and Dale Coyne’s of the racing world, lagging further behind the curve than they already are. Some say “too bad”, while others say that that can’t be allowed to happen. Racing of all forms has always been a case of the haves and have-nots. But if the disparity becomes too great, the have-nots will simply give up. Does anyone remember 2009, when all but one race was won by either a Penske or Ganassi car? If you’ll recall, there was not a whole lot of intrigue watching two teams battle it out.

Obviously, there is much to be done in a short period of time. There is no single idea that will even begin to fix the problems of the series. But I’m curious – what do you think is the one thing that Mark Miles needs to focus on to get this series headed in the right direction, before moving on to item number two? Sometimes, the best idea comes from the fans. They have more invested in this based on time, percentage of available funds devoted to racing and emotional equity.

I have no idea what the answer is, but I’m not paid to. I have a day job to focus on, while this is merely a hobby. But there are some that are paid what I would consider a small fortune to come up with ideas and see them through. I’m curious to see what the fans who essentially pay their salaries think.

George Phillips

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34 Responses to “The One Single Thing IndyCar Needs Is…”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I believe that the cars need more power and less aero … In my opinion this will help separate the average drivers from the outstanding drivers. I think it may in some cases actually bring the speeds down, but increase the drama from a driving on the edge, driving ability standpoint.

  2. Jack in Virginia Says:

    I think the answer is performance, which naturally includes innovation. The rules need to be loosened to the extent they were in the 60’s – basically limiting the displacement (and aspiration) of the engine, and the weight, length, and width of the chassis.

    Back in the 60’s, designers were almost as popular as drivers, with names like AJ Watson, Dan Gurney, Smokey Yunick, Mickey Thomson, Colin Chapman, etc., all bringing innovative and DIFFERENT designs to the tracks. Fans came to see SPEED, and to see records broken. Sure there were the big name teams even then (remember Granatelli’s “Super” team?), but I remember cars with names like the “Indy on a Shoestring Special”, running a cast of chassis from last year, and somestimes finding a way to make it competitive.

    Today I’ll bet not one fan in 20 can tell you who the designer of the Dallara DW12 is (I can’t). If there were a half dozen good designers coming up with new designs for chassisin the off-seasn, the term “silly season” would never have been invented. There would be more to anticipate than paintjobs and color schemes.

  3. Mike Silver Says:

    I am sickened by the lack of promotion this offseason. The new sports=car series blasted the heck out of their daytona test, and as you mentioned, Formule E has made itself known. IndyCar doesn’t even set up scheduled appearances for its champuion throughout the winter. If i were IndyCar, i’d ask michael Andretii, “Awesome launch. How did you do it?”

    • I agree. Promotion in IndyCar has been horrendous lately. Andretti Autosport does a better job than the whole IndyCar series.

  4. Formula E is going to fall flat on its face. Its a gimmick and they never last.

    You have to treat Indy different from the Indy racing league although parts are related.

    Indy specific: More cars to qualify. If necessary relax the rules from the rest of the season series. Indy is unique. Get the speeds back up to record breaking levels. Bring back the apron. Bring back traditional qualifying with the old happy hour reinstated by leaving the track open another hour. No more shootouts. Have an oval race leading up to the 500. Keep the new road course race but move it to before or after the Brickard 400 – i.e. separate from the month of May.

    Series: Innovation. Move away from spec racing. Where you can. Anyway you can. Relax the rules! That will mean more entrants and more innovation. More ovals. To at least 50% of races. Find away to price and promote them. Nascar has no problem! Promote the drivers. Do what Nascar did in the early 90’s that worked so well. Get the drivers out there to meet the people. Austin Dillon will be at my neighborhood Kroger store tomorrow with his 2014 car. Promoting them does not mean advertising their national flag and promoting foreign products. That is not working. Create a serous feeder series (minor league) and promote it. Another thought, buy out that TV contract at whatever cost and start over.

    Currently those runing the league are doing none of these.

    • The only problem with more innovation is increased expense which , as we all know with IndyCar, is a huge issue. The whole reason for the spec formula is to maximize investment in a painfully, elongated, stagnant economy. Given the economic climate, this formula works as best as it can. The 90’s are gone and will probably never come back so there is going to have to be a compromise. I have to agree with TB on the performance overall. It has to get better, especially in the horsepower area. An IndyCar has to be the most powerful, fastest race car on the planet on ovals and road courses.

  5. Sell the series to NASCAR.

    There I said it.

    Indycar will never have deep enough pockets, or anywhere near enough business savvy to get where we want it to be. If they became a NASCAR property they’d at least have a hope of adding fans, ratings, Network TV coverage, etc…

    I’ve talked about why I think the move would make sense from NASCAR’s side before, so I’ll skip it here. But from Indycar’s side this is there only legitimate hope.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Why not sell the series to Feld Entertainment (AMA Supercross, USHRA monster trucks)? It would be an ambitious and unprecedented undertaking for them, but they are unquestionably successful in their current motorsports promotions.

    • I think there was a time when ISC would have welcomed an open wheel product to its portfolio. But now With nascar for the masses and a united sportscar series for the affluent I imagine the businessmen in Daytona feel they have a complete portfolio. Even IMS as an asset to them is diminishing. Stock cars cars don’t race well there, attracting crowds to buy a ticket for it is an ever increasing problem and to “fix” the track for nascar would essentially mean starting over.

      Unless the day comes that F1 determines it needs a GP2 America series, IMS and IndyCar are on their own to sink or swim.

  6. Small note:

    “While that makes for drama wondering who will be leading at the last lap, it sort of cheapens the previous 195 laps.”

    THANK YOU! This is one of the things I think cheapens the NASCAR experience. It’s also why things like GWC endings and phantom debris cautions are so aggravating to an Indycar fan.

    —–

    Main point: “What does Indycar need to do?” I hate to say this because I want there to be an answer, but I fear that it’s not going to be so simple. It’s going to be a combination of things, and some of those things will be accidental.

    One part is having personalities that resonate with the public. This unfortunately opens a can of worms because all Indycar fans know that the current personalities in the league are some really awesome individuals who deserve way more recognition than what they get, and we all also remember the last time a truly public one came around and was marketed heavily: Danica Patrick. Despite the fact she had been a good, albeit not great driver, I get the sense from almost all sources that her tenure has left a sour impression on fans, and its precisely because of that marketing. Problem is, that ignores the fact that it was nothing more than following what other leagues have done in the past to raise their profiles. Back in the 70s, the NBA was suffering a racial identity crisis and had a raucous but limited fanbase and a negative public impression. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson changed all of that, then Michael Jordan sealed it, and the NBA hasn’t looked back ever since. Major League baseball had been suffering from 1995 strike/lockout, and the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGuire home run record race of ’98 really stoked public imagination and made a lot of fans forgive what happened some years before. And while the NFL hasn’t had a poor period like the other sports being discussed, it’s basically ridden the entire “star player” schtick for a good deal of its existence, reaching as far back as the Unitas days extending through the Joe Montana years in the 80s, Marino’s, Aiken’s, Elway’s, and others a bit after that, through the Brady/Manning years through the Roethlisberger/Rogers and other years that are currently in place. And we even already have the crown princes in the wings, with Andrew Luck, RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson all working towards their spotlight time.

    It pains many fans of sports to see star-driven dynamics at play (especially in football, the sport that thumps its chest over being the most team oriented of all the pro sports), but it’s the reality of the modern pro sports universe. And Indycar may have a plethora of absolutely wonderful people in its ranks – for the life of me, I have no clue why Helio is not more well known in the outside world – but the fact is that none resonate with the public at large. For good or for ill, none have since Danica. And like it or not, that’s one of the necessary ingredients for a resurgence of popularity. Whether that personality will eventually come along and join the ranks, or is already there and simply needs some spotlighting is not a thing I can answer. I’m only pointing out the necessity, not identifying who that individual/those individuals will be.

    (To be continued…)

    • A second thing I think needs to happen – and that I think frankly is beyond Indycar’s ability to affect – is for the public’s interest in anything automotive to rise again. I’m distressed to observe that a great number of people view cars with the same lack of passion they view appliances. Automotive topics are commodities to the public at large; passion is something that’s no longer a common theme. In fact, I hear too much **negativity** about automobiles, too much criticism about how we drive too much and add too much carbon to the atmosphere (a legitimate complaint, but one which also holds that driving is a net negative… which is something that bothers me), and how things like public transportation needs to take the place of individual conveyance. People who are car nuts – take a look at the British fellows who host the BBC show “Top Gear” as an example – come off as being semi-closeted nerds who indulge in a fringe passion. Even the current car freaks are not seen as mainstream, but rather something that’s worthy of observation as being a different type of person than what one regularly sees.

      This is the most distressing thing of all. It used to be that automotive appreciation was a common thread in American society. Somehow, it’s become devalued. And it saddens me.

      There are pockets of resistence; you never see cars marketed as anything other than exciting, no matter how mundane they truly are. Even the most frugally powered and miserly ecomonical autos out there attempt to have at least some racy looking lines in order to be attractive (the plugin hybrid Chevy Volt, for example, looks a lot faster than it actually is, and that HAS to be by design). And even automotive know-nothings will understand the question “0 to 60 time?”, even if they don’t know the figure for a specific car. The basic “DNA” is there for an automotive popularity resurgence to occur in America; it’s just simply not at the point where cars are held as hobbies to love. They’re instead viewed as expensive appliances to care for. Love for racing won’t expand beyond NASCAR (which I’ve held to be more a personality attraction than an automotive one) until this happens and becomes a common theme to be appreciated. And that’ll take more than influence than all the racing series combined (not just one of them) to occur; manufacturers and the public itself will dictate when and if that happens. So it’s a necessary ingredient, but it’s also something I see as being out of Indycar’s control. At best, they can help influence tendencies when they arise. But they certainly won’t be able to dictate them; none of the racing series will, not even NASCAR or F1 with all their money.

      • I can come up with more, but this is taking some effort to write. The bottom line is that there are multiple factors that would dictate a possible re-emergence to popularity for Indycar, and not all of them are controllable. I don’t know the specifics of what Indycar needs to do. All I can say is that they need to stay flexible enough to react to them if they arise. And hope that the series isn’t dead and buried as an entity by then.

  7. Promotion.

  8. We, as diehards, think the product is great, but our opinion isn’t important. Sorry, but that’s the harsh truth. Promotion isn’t going to help when the core issue is the general public at large doesn’t carr about auto racing. Why? There are a multitude of disparate reasons that are nearly impossible to address–so there’s no magic bullet or single thing that Indycar needs.

    Lots of leisure activities become irrelevant or unpopular over time. Growing up in the 60s, all the adults in our family and neighborhood played bridge or pinochle and had lots of “card parties.” My dad used to hold lots of bridge nights with co-workers. Cheap fun, quick and easy to organize, didn’t involve travel…still, no one I know in my generation plays either of those. Sure, there are diehards that still play, but my sense is that it’s a real niche interest.

    These days, racing isn’t cheap entertainment. For most folks, it involves transportation and hotel costs, (relatively) expensive tickets, and use of vacation days. Add in the irrelvance/apathy factor, and what we are seeing is the inevitable, slow demise of the sport.

  9. First up, I wanted to address what Townsend Bell was talking about on last week’s Trackside (mainly because I found myself yelling at my car stereo as I listened to the podcast the next morning). Mind you, I am a TBell fan. Have been since his Indy Lights and F3000 days (I even remember where I was when he gave Giorgio “Punt-ano” his nickname). I think he’s a great color commentator / driver analyst, and ranks with any guy who has ever held that role. I would love for the cars to have 1,000 HP again, because I am a Car Guy. However, there are no companies who are clamoring to build such engines. And if there were, they would cost triple what the current engines cost (I remember hearing that engine leases in the late-CART days were upwards of $2 million per season). Can anybody afford that kind of power now? And is that kind of power really necessary when the current cars are challenging track records at most of the tracks they visit (Mid Ohio leaps to mind last year, where the DW12 was less than 0.1 second off of the all-time CART lap record)? Also, might it be that TBell is not as blown away anymore by the sheer speed of these cars because, you know, you get kind of numb to things when you’ve been exposed to them day in and day out for 20+ years?

    Yes, I would also dearly love for the rulebooks to be thrown open again, such that you could run just about whatever you brung. I think that possibly the #1 thing that could interest the “average American” in IndyCar again would be to innovate with all manner of new technology, be it new materials, new powertrains, hybrids, engines of varying sizes and aspiration, electric, hydrogen, whatever. I think that this is a good chunk of the reason that Formula E is getting…ahem…traction (though it sure doesn’t hurt that most of the people involved there have long histories in motorsport, which is the main reason that I think it could very well be more than a 3-4 year time period oddity). Folks (and by that, I mean “folks who aren’t necessarily watching F1/IndyCar/NASCAR” now) want to see how this new, shiny thing is going to work. If IndyCar tried to incorporate Formula E and possibly Le Mans/WEC technology into the 500 and or the Series, they would probably get a big short term bump in interest, which might translate into a good medium term gain in interest.

    Here it comes, though…BUT, all of that stuff costs money. A lot of it. The days when a team could bend some tubes into a chassis, hang some fiberglass on it for a body, copy some other team’s front and rear wing designs, grab a Hemi or a small block Chevy or a well used Offy from somewhere and throw the thing out on the track are long gone. Heck, the days when a successful business man like Andy Granatelli could go buy a turbine from Pratt & Whitney, plug it into a chassis that he’d commissioned for a hundred thousand dollars or so and then to test the car once at Phoenix one time before heading to the Speedway, those days are long gone. Nowadays, true “innovation” would require untold millions of dollars of development. In the days when “innovation” was the hot ticket at the Speedway, there was no such thing as a 7 post shaker rig, or a coast down tunnel, or a shock dyno, or even much in the way of wind tunnel testing. There were no laptops, no data acquisition systems, no simulators, no composite shops, no CNC machines, almost no time spent on an engine dyno. 90+% of the teams didn’t have a single person with an engineering degree (whereas almost every team in the paddock now probably has 5-6, if not more). You took a guess as to what was going to work, threw it out on the track, and then did your best to make it work (and if you were lucky, you had a great driver who could tune the thing and/or drive around its shortcomings). This isn’t the case anymore, not in this day of data and engineering.

    All that stuff costs money now. And nobody in IndyCar has enough of it to make that model work again (you could, I suppose, throw open the rulebook for a year, but Chip would come up with something and test it to death in his coastdown tunnel, and Roger would come up with something that he’d spend a zillion hours on at the Windshear tunnel and on a shaker rig, and then everybody else would finish 20 laps behind…which would probably be the last IndyCar race any of us would ever see because every other team would go out of business overnight). About the only feasible thing that IndyCar can do now is to try to get their name (and drivers and cars) out in front of as many new eyeballs as possible (most of America hasn’t rejected those things, they just have no idea that IndyCar and its drivers and cars exist), and then hope that something catches the zeitgeist of the sporting public. Everything else will break the bank.

    And in the meantime, Steve (sejarzo) is exactly right up there. People are not as into cars as they were even 15 years ago, and therefore, they’re not as into racing. Times change. It sucks to say it, but it’s true. I hope that IndyCar can come up with a model that allows them to operate with less than a million people watching, because that’s probably the absolute ceiling from here on out.

  10. Savage Henry Says:

    I think that the general public’s attention span is too short for racing now. To fully appreciate the race you need to know what’s going on with the cars, strategies, etc. That takes effort to learn about it, and you have to be engaged while viewing the race itself. There are just a lot of details in a 2-4 hour race. Are new fans making the investment? No

    So how do you tap into an attention span regulated by 140-character bursts? Nascar and F1 are going into full gimmick mode. I don’t think that cheapening your product is the way to go.

    I agree with Townsend Bell, Indycars shoud be BEASTS! It is humiliating that the pace car had more horsepower than the cars in the main event at Indy last year. That should never happen again.

    So my 2-step plan is to turn the cars back into beasts (blalance the cost by putting much less emphasis on aero and direct that money into hp), and then promote the hell out of it. Every other series is dumbing-down their cars. Go the other way – that’s your differentiator.

  11. Get ready for the big sexy: IndyCar most needs …. market research. IndyCar needs to 1) identify the customer (fan) it wants. 2) do research into what will attract those customers (fans), 3) make and execute plans to do that. Without that info, everything we all talk about here is interesting, but really pretty academic.

    • My wife used to work in market research. There were times they were told what to “discover”. Did not go over well with the market resarchers but its perfect example of garbage in-garbage out. I would not trust current management to be impartial.

    • yeah, I thought that was what the Boston Consulting group was paid for???

    • dzgroundedeffects Says:

      I believe you’re pretty much right on here ‘Dog, and I also agree with TBell as I’ve been harping the same for years.

      I don’t buy the ‘innovation will cost too much’ line, IF in fact that is what the market research finds that people will watch. The fact that we STILL talk about the 60s and 70s over five decades later I believe is very telling.

      Everything is a gamble and the pockets around and at 16th and Georgetown, prefer a prix fixe menu, eliminating as much risk as possible. Risk and reward are always correlated, “so you git what we have here today, which is the way he wants it… well, he gits it.”

      At the very least, I suspect a main theme that would come out of good, thorough market research would essentially say, “give us something we’ve never seen before, something amazing, something wild”. If that doesn’t recall the essence of 60s/70s Indycar, I don’t know what does.

      • dzgroundedeffects Says:

        I also believe an essentially great product goes a long way to selling itself. Ideally, you have one that is so good, people will trip over themselves to see it and be involved. Those people will also gladly carry much of the promotional baggage as well.

        That’s my dream for Indycar: to become a product that people and businesses will go enthusiastically out of their way to be involved with.

  12. The people who are the most successful in my business are good at many things, but masters of promotion. Their income, working from home, is well into six figures, and for some, multiple millions per year.
    Promote, promote, promote.
    Nobody is interested in something they never heard of.
    Nobody is interested in something they don’t see any value in for themselves.
    Promote what you have and why it brings value to the public.
    That is what successful people and businesses do.

  13. I like the close finishes. I like seeing a team pull it out with a minute left or in the last inning. A close finish does no disservice to the previous 199 laps and validates the team’s work throughout the race. Also, innovation costs money, lots of money and because of that you won’t see much of it if any. So, promotion and parades down Main Street is what I come up with as well as adding Nashville to the schedule.

  14. I get the idea of more promotion, but promotion has to move beyond public relations. PR;s goal is to attract news attention. Promotion is way broader than that, and requires the investment of money, which IndyCar seems very unwilling to do. Whether they just don’t have the money, or would rather focus it elsewhere (like on IMS), or what, I don’t know.

  15. I don’t understand why nobody brings this up, ever. The sports that are popular are the ones that are easy to bet on. What’s the point spread on the Super Bowl? Show us what Vegas is giving for odds on each race/driver. Put it on the interweb. I never gamble on anything except publisher’s clearinghouse, but almost everyone I know does.

  16. A good alarm clock and some coffee for the IndyCar promotion team.

  17. It’s all been done before. That is my opinion. Formula e excites me because high performing cars that do not burn fossil fuels hasn’t been done before. I also feel that will get old quickly. Seeing cars go 230 MPH just doesn’t get the average person excited anymore. That was cool 20 years ago but not now. Would landing on the moon again fire anyone up? NASA popularity would sky rocket, right? Start with the Formula e idea and innovate from there. Oh, that brings us to the other problem. Big Tobacco isn’t going to fund it.

  18. They should pay $10 Million dollars to win the Indy 500 and open up the rulebook to attract more competitors and drive innovation. Make it a 1000 mile race and give each team 50 gallons of fuel…try something different. The original allure of the Indy 500 was in part due to the grueling nature of a 500 mile race. Come up with a formula that forces competitors to actually be creative with the technology in order to be competitive.

  19. More Emma Dixon

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