The Education Of The IndyCar Fan

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Did you see this little nugget from this weekend? ESPN.com ran an article on a rather scientific poll that examines the changing tastes of American sports fans. There was nothing remarkable to report in the main findings and premise of the article – the NFL is king and is growing in popularity. While most people say pro-football is their favorite sport (35%), baseball has lost the most people that boast that it is their favorite (14%). No huge surprise there. I don’t follow baseball near as closely as I did before the strike in 1994 that canceled the World Series.

The only real surprise in the whole poll was that auto racing (7%) outpolled the NHL (5%), which was almost twice as popular as college basketball (3%).

But then, for some reason, the article had to end with this little jab; “…while those with a high education or less tend to gravitate to auto racing”. Talk about creating a stereotype. I’m not sure if the data showed this or if it was just an editorial comment or opinion inserted just for kicks.

My question is – so what? I know that marketers like to know the demographics of their audience, but other than that – what does it matter? Some of the most passionate IndyCar fans I have met at races may not have graduated high school. Does that somehow make them count less? Hardly. These people are the backbone of our sport and the ones that marketers should be going after.

My degree is in marketing, yet I am a career counselor to help people navigate their career path, which is a scary thought. I no longer use my degree. My day-to-day duties require me to fall back on my experience and to utilize common sense, rather than anything a professor taught me from a book thirty-five years ago. I know a lot of over-educated buffoons, while some of the wisest people I know lack a high school diploma. I can’t help but think that the last line of that article was meant to scoff at those of us that like motorsports.

The MBA snobs that tend to look down their noses at us and label us uneducated and not important, are about as out of touch as a politician. I have long said and thought that potential sponsors are missing the boat by overlooking IndyCar in favor of NASCAR. The vast majority of racing fans here in the south are NASCAR fans exclusively. I know many of them quite well, yet not a single one of them exudes the passion for their preferred form of auto racing as IndyCar fans do for theirs.

Sure, you’ll see some Dale, Jr. decals on trucks and every now and then you might see a Tony Stewart t-shirt on a fan. But other than showing their pride for a driver, they don’t seem to be that enthusiastic for their sport as a whole. If their driver goes out of a race early, a NASCAR fan is likely to turn off the television and go do something else. I may be wrong, but I think an IndyCar fan is a lot more likely to stay with a race to the finish, regardless of which driver has fallen out.

Maybe it’s because we want to keep following and make sure all drivers make it through without injury. Perhaps it’s simply because we love the sport and appreciate good driving when we see it no matter if it is “our driver” or not. It doesn’t require a framed sheepskin on a wall to appreciate good driving or to be passionate about a sport that requires so much skill.

Maybe that’s the real rub. As I wrote about a few weeks ago – non-race fans don’t understand the intricacies of this sport. They view it as mindless and shirtless rednecks sitting in stands, chugging beers while cheering on a demolition derby. They think we only watch to see the crashes. They also perceive the skill level and athleticism to be that required to navigate the normal morning commute.

After riding the two-seater at Fontana last fall, I can assure you – these drivers must be athletes to sustain the almost constant lateral g-forces involved on every lap. I was hardly able to move my hand, much less be able tomake the calculated movements on the steering wheel in each corner. Any pro athlete that doesn’t consider race car drivers to be athletes needs to take a few laps in the two-seater. They will come away with a whole new appreciation for what these men and women do – that is if they’re not too busy throwing up.

As far as marketers and potential sponsors go, there are two traits that I think are most important about IndyCar fans and neither of them has anything to with how educated a fan is. Those two traits are passion and loyalty.

Although we IndyCar fans can be a cynical bunch about our series at times, that cynicism stems from passion. The fact that we stay through the ups and downs that this sport has given us over the past few decades speaks to how passionate we are. Throughout all the turmoil and drama, we stay. All is forgotten on opening weekend at the beginning of the season. When the month of May rolls around, we don’t dwell on the politics of the sport. Instead, we focus on the history and tradition that makes our sport so unique.

We are also a very loyal bunch. We may gripe about some of the things in our sport we don’t care for, but when someone outside of IndyCar says something demeaning, we all take offense and rush to the defense of our sport. And it has been well-documented how the hard-core fans support the products of the sponsors that keep the sport going. I drive a Honda. My closet is filled with clothes from IZOD – and not just racing related apparel either. For the past few years, my refrigerator was stocked with RC Cola and Sun-Drop. When they were a sponsor of Team Penske, Mobil-1 was my motor oil of choice.

You get the idea. I also know I’m not the only one. Most IndyCar fans I know go out of their way to support the sponsors that support IndyCar. The problem right now is that there just aren’t enough of us.

Maybe the IndyCar fans I know do not give an accurate representation of the typical IndyCar demographic. But as I said earlier – does it really matter? The fans I see at races are what I call real fans. Unlike college or pro football games where people go to see and be seen, the race fans I see are there out of pure love and passion for auto racing. I don’t look at them and wonder how far their education went and I don’t think they do it to me either.

On a race weekend, we are all there because we share one thing – the love of IndyCar racing. No agendas. No social-climbing. No back-stabbing. Just the common bond of motorsports and the joy of bench racing is all that’s important to share. At a race track, what else really matters? Certainly not a college degree.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “The Education Of The IndyCar Fan”

  1. I guess ESPN must not think it takes much brains to keep up with race strategy, particularly in road course racing an especially over the course of an endurance race. I’m proud to say that I’ve met so incredibly bright folks in the ranks of motor sport fans and I’m proud to share my race weekends with them over social media, etc.

  2. I mentioned this perception in response to an earlier post of yours. It is very real, unfortunately. Its the people who attend to party that give the sport that reputation. Most are not even real fans.

    I enjoy indycar and nascar. But open wheel racing has always been the best. Thats why the rear “bumpers” on the current car makes me sick. The problems in Indycar are very fixable if only the owners and powers that be quit trying to make it F1 Lite. And return speed records and innovation to the sport.

    Baseball has always been my favorite sport, but much like the changes to Indycar, what they have done the last 20 years has driven me away from MLB. No more pennant races. The adulterous practive of interleague play. Crazy salaries, especially in NY.

    The NFL appears to be heading down, not up. The crazy ideas about rule changes is going to hurt the sport. There are so many rule changes every year that the average fan may not even know about that changes the sport. I’ve gotten sick of them. Such as the clock stops on out of bounds but starts again when the ball is set unless you are within the last six minutes of the half, or is it eight? If the moon is full vs. a new moon then its ten? What is holding this year? How can they tackle. Where do we kick off from? Its nuts.

  3. With due consideration to the combined education level at 16th & Georgetown, and yet no 2014 title sponsor announced for what is called the INDYCAR Series with how many days before the 2014 season commences?

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Is it really a shot, or are Darren Rovell and ESPN reporting something that was a particularly interesting result of the poll? Tough to say without more in-depth information on the poll, which can be found here:

    http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/1136/Default.aspx

    It is not the complete results of the Harris poll, but it does contain a table titled “demographic variations in favorite sports” that shows the top and bottom 3 demographics for the top 4 sports polling.

    Auto racing’s top 3 demographics were:
    16% – Those who live in rural areas
    12% – Those aged 65+
    11% – Education of high school or less

    So the demographic variation that ESPN highlighted was actually the 3rd most common. It probably was not the fairest point to make, especially given that high school diplomas are less common among all adults over the age of 65 than in other age groups. It also fits the redneck race fan stereotype, though really, so do the other two top demographic variations. I would be curious to see how auto racing fared with people who have families/children. I’ve long thought that to be an area the sport has done well in.

  5. I know of some really stupid people that love watching football. The dumbest football fan I have heard about is the Alabama fan who poisoned the trees at Auburn. The guy barely got out of high school and never spent a moment on Alabama campus as a student. He got caught because he bragged about on a sports talk show. Those buffoons who think they have a say in the hiring and firing of a college coach when all they do is watch the team play on TV is laughable.
    By the way, go to an NFL game sometime and you’ll see your fair share of people with questionable education. Maybe not in Chicago, but in every other NFL stadium.

  6. I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!

  7. 1) I didn’t see the inclusion of the education thing as a “shot” by ESPN. I found it to be interesting information. 2) When you say “My question is – so what? I know that marketers like to know the demographics of their audience, but other than that – what does it matter?” You answered your own question. It matters because marketers want to know this kind of info. Other than that, it doesn’t matter much. At least not to me. Apparently it matters to you hence the big post about it. Third thing I found interesting from the ESPN story is it shows how HUGE the number of NASCAR fans is. People constantly underestimate the size of the NASCAR fan base, IMO. The study presented empirical evidence that the NASCAR fan base is bigger than NBA and NHL fan bases. (You can go ahead and read “racing fans” as “NASCAR” since NASCAR fans make up the huge majority of “racing fans.”) NASCAR has plenty of issues and they are fighting to maintain their audiences just like every non-NFL sport, but they’re still HUGE. And the huge fan base, in my opinion, is the #1 reason the vast majority of people in NASCAR are actually making money.

    • billytheskink Says:

      It should also be encouraging that auto racing (NASCAR and the seven dwarves) has polled at 7% and above every year in this century while never polling above 6% from the 1980s through the mid-1990s.

      What this survey really fails to show, I think, is where the various sports rank on the average sports fan’s radar. Few people follow only their favorite sport, so what are people “casual fans” of? I suspect auto racing may struggle in relation to other sports when it comes to who is interested beyond the die-hards, but it would be nice to have some research to let me know how wrong I am…

  8. I have to wonder if sports on the whole, as we know it today, will see a steady decline over the next generation (20 yrs). My kids never sit down to watch a sporting event unless I invite them and maybe they’re interested. Frequent complaint is ‘too many ads/boring’ for them (and me) and their attention is lost. Can’t say I would argue with them. There are only two sport events I will sit down to watch live and non-stop: Indycar and Futbol/soccer.

    The primary reason I enjoy watching futbol/soccer is down to 3 primary reasons:
    1. 45-48 minutes (x2 halves) of uninterrupted play.
    2. The increasing tension of watching opponents trying, with little pause, to impose their style of play on the other. That slow-burn, but growing tension is broken by the expected success from the superior side OR the underdog scores against the run of play.
    3. The commentators are intelligent and do little to get in the way of the broadcast as a whole.

    My enjoyment of sports (and most other programming) on TV has been dwindling as a whole for many reasons, but years ago, the three reasons listed above used to be nearly verbatim for my enjoyment of Indycar. Now with the plethora of ads and the loss of the mechanical story as part of the sport’s intrigue, I have to give the nod to Futbol as my favorite sport.

    I cringe when I’m somewhere that has sports on TV anymore. From the incessantly overt announcers and graphics to the innumerable advertising breaks in viewing, I’ve totally rejected watching most sporting events at all. I doubt that’s what the advertisers are looking for.

  9. I think it is a mistake to over-stereotype racing fans. For example I am currently an Undergradute student who’s going to go to either Law or Graduate school. Outside of some marketing and promotions aspects the education level of fans should not matter much. Indycar (and all racing) needs to appeal to as many people as possible. Period. I also think this poll shows that Indycar has got to try and get a few of the NASCAR fans to watch Indycar. That’s why Montoya and especially Busch running in Indycar is a big deal. Some cross promotion involving National Guard would be nice too.

  10. I thought it a nasty slap from ESPN. I don’t care where people went to college or if they did or didn’t. I have met great people at the races I have attended. I also encourage my students (and former students) and staff to attend races with me. Was surprised that racing outranked the NBA in the survey, although I do not watch as much as I used to. Now the NFL is another story.

    Are we the last of the diehard racing fans? I hope not. Can racing gain new followers from the younger generation? More importantly can racing keep them interested?

  11. Very well stated George…. Many of the minds that built this sport, didn’t even graduate High School. (George Bignotti and Smokey Yunick come to mind) Racing is not just an athletic event, or a competition, it is much the same as dancing, an art.

  12. When publishing opinion Poll results, often the error margins to the percentages are not published. For the low percentages in the single digits, the relative error tends to be higher than thatfor the higher percentages, so the latter are more reliable than the former.
    Hence, NHL might still be more popular than auto racing but this polling institute just might not have been able to resolve it properly. To hide technical details like this which might speak against using one polling institute for the next poll if the media people who ordered the poll don’t know about statistics (which they usually don’t or don’t care as long as there is a headline in the numbers), the error margins are usually not published.

  13. The article was written by some schmuck named Darren Rovell, so ESPN shouldn’t be blamed for the comment. He needs a flying lap in the IndyCar 2-seater (stand on it, Mario!), or a trip to the woodshed (have at him, AJ!). Darren seemed to imply that auto racing appeals to people with low intellect, which is as unimaginative and re-recycled as implying that someone who disagrees with the 44th President is racist. He’s obviously being inciteful; why else would he choose to include that?

    I’ve commented on attention span before on this blog. I believe the longer attention span required to watch a race proves how intelligent we are. We don’t need the race to be stopped after 10 seconds of action so the field can have another immediate restart. Some of us watch the TV screen AND the laptop, viewing the action AND timing & scoring. Who’s fast, who’s pitting: oh my God, who spun?! A race gives a spectator so much more to absorb than a stick-and-ball game, and so many more competitors are fighting to win. I still couldn’t care less, but wouldn’t the Super Bowl be more interesting if Colorado and Seattle also had to defeat San Francisco, Green Bay, Baltimore, and a dozen more teams?

    In summary, Mr. Rovell is too unintelligent to understand auto racing, so he feels compelled to belittle it. Our sport throws him a curve because more than 2 teams compete at the same time.

    And we all know that everyone in the stands at a football stadium is Harvard material… ;)

  14. I get my Law degree in May. Does this mean I can’t watch mortorsports anymore? Would an AP writer please tell me?

  15. And yet, no matter what any “poll” says, to this day and for over one hundred years the largest single-day sporting event IN THE WORLD is still the one and only Indianapolis 500 Mile RACE! Not “Futbol;” not the NFL and its Super Bowl (still 18,000 seats left over for this year’s version); not MLB or the NBA; not the NHL; not the Olympics; not Formula 1 and not even the Daytona 500; not any other sport anywhere has A DAY when near a quarter of a million people fill the stands which comprise the largest arena ever built in the world to watch an event. ONLY an auto race has done that year after year for longer than any of us can remember. And it still does, after all of the changes and bickering. We shouldn’t let these uninformed geniuses bother us so much when they really don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, you know?

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