What Makes A Lifelong Fan?
In 2003, one of the vendors I do business with gave me two skybox tickets to a Nashville Predators game. It was my first hockey game and since it was last minute, I decided that my obvious “date” would be my son, Eric. After the game was over, his eyes shining with excitement, Eric turned to me and said, “I want to play hockey.” A lifelong fan was born–and I began a life of poverty, while driving to one of Nashville’s four sheets of ice at either 6 am or 10 pm until he got his driver’s license.
He had only been ice-skating three or four times in his life, so his learning curve from being an “ankle bender” (a skating novice) to being the second leading scorer on his team was long and filled with lessons and determination. It was his first love—the thing he would live and die for—the first thing that truly showed his work ethic. As a parent, it is the moment you hope for–the moment that makes you realize that your child is not just a person that sits around like a slug and does the bare minimum to get by. I don’t know what it was about that game–was it the skybox seats, the fast action of hockey, or the fact that for the first time he was allowed to say a marginal cuss word in front of his mother (a hockey tradition shouted as the opposing players are announced), or what, but it left a lasting impression on Eric. The lessons he learned from hockey carry him through to this day. I would not trade a penny of the thousands of dollars I spent for anything. It was the same for IndyCar, just at a different pace.
Also in 2003, I took Eric to his first IndyCar race. It was the Nashville race—it was the “test” race to see if he was interested enough for me to pay the money to go to the Indy 500 the following year. We had pit passes, but I think he didn’t know enough about the sport to realize what was going on. He didn’t know the drivers, but I remember he got mad when the fans booed the winner, Gil de Ferran because he was not the American, Sam Hornish (this was Nashville, after all). When it was over, it seemed like it didn’t leave a lasting impression on him. I asked him if he wanted to go to the Indy 500 the following year. He was slow to respond, but said he would like to go.
What a race that was! Rain delay after rain delay and Buddy Rice was finally declared the winner. Once again, I thought, this will be Eric’s last race. That year there was a tornado as we left the track. He was in elementary school when the massive tornadoes hit Nashville in 1998. Whatever happened at that elementary school that day, left him with a terror of tornadoes. The minute they started talking tornado warnings, he couldn’t get to the car quick enough. It was a race destined to turn off even a seasoned fan.
Later that summer, we tried the Nashville race again. By this time I was determined to show him the good side of IndyCar. We had pit passes and George walked around the pits with us and pointed out different drivers. Some were more approachable than others and Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan were probably the most fan-friendly—always stopping to give autographs and take pictures with fans. He had his eye on Kanaan’s #11 throughout the entire race. Sure enough, he had picked a winner, and a fan was born. We couldn’t get to the winner’s circle fast enough. I saw that shine in his eyes once again.
The Indy 500 was different in May of 2005–he knew who the drivers were and, I could tell, he loved the speed and the danger (as evidenced by the number of speeding tickets he got as a beginning driver on the roads of Nashville). Thankfully, he was still playing hockey and didn’t turn to me and say, “I want to drive an IndyCar.” Dan Wheldon won that year and he was almost as happy as he would have been if Kanaan had won. The hat/die-cast car collection began.
For me, it was sharing the experience with Eric and George. I like to people-watch and IndyCar certainly has more than it’s cross-section of humanity to watch. My first race in Nashville was the year before Eric went—I also picked a winner—Alex Barron, because I thought he was cute. I was not really a life-long fan—yet. My first Indy 500 was the year Buddy Rice won. When George told me that Gomer Pyle sang some song I had never heard, before the race, I was a bit skeptical, but thought “whatever.” When Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana,” goose bumps went up my arms. I realized that I was experiencing something that would eventually change my life.
So what is it about IndyCar that creates life-long fans? It certainly took my son a few races to come around. I think I was hopelessly lost when I asked Ryan Briscoe during a DownForce pre-race event in Nashville if he was married (he wasn’t then), he put his arm around me and asked me “What did you have in mind?” I’m sure he doesn’t remember some middle-aged woman asking him that question, but I sure do. I will forever be a Briscoe fan. What a great guy. I think the drivers have a lot to do with it. The face they present to the fans as ambassadors of the sport is key to bringing life-long fans to the sport.
Last year at Indy, meeting Pippa Mann was one of the highlights of the race for me. She was so friendly and unassuming. You would never know that she was about to step into a car and hurtle around the track in a car that she had only driven a few times. That takes guts. I proudly wear my Pippa shirt whenever I can.
What is that magical combination? Is it the pageantry of the Indy 500? The traditions? The speed and the sound of the engines starting after hearing “Ladies and gentlemen start your engines?” For us it was the accessibility of the drivers and the rest followed. What was it for you? What made you a life-long fan?