The Woes Of Change
As much as I chastised the Indianapolis Business Journal for jumping the gun before the Randy Bernard firing, I’ll reluctantly admit that I’ve found myself reading it a lot more lately. Earlier this week, they had another article on incoming Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles that caught my eye. How could it not? The headline read “Miles Eyes Lights for Speedway, Postseason for IndyCar”. Hmmm…
A few years ago, I wrote a post here entitled “Three Things You’ll Never See at IMS”; one of which was lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But when I wrote that, Tony George still ran everything, IZOD was the brand new title sponsor that seemed to be pleased with their investment and all of the buzz was all about the DeltaWing project. My, how times have changed since then.
Those that know me know that I live by the mantra that change is bad. There is nothing that I enjoy better than a good rut. I take refuge in things that resist changing with the times. That’s why I like the Chicago Cubs. They have played in the same stadium with essentially the same uniforms since long before I was born. This is one of the many reasons I enjoy going to the Indianapolis 500. Although the place has been upgraded over the years, it still bears a strong resemblance to the way it looked on my first trip there for the 1965 race. If I were to sit in Stand J, where I was sitting that day almost forty-eight years ago, and stare down the main stretch – things would look pretty much the same as they did then, except for the Pagoda that was built in 2000. I take comfort in such things.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I am not crazy about the idea of adding lights to a facility that has existed without them for almost 104 years. Credit Mark Miles for not settling for status quo. I agree that bold moves need to be made in order to fix IndyCar. But adding lights to IMS and mimicking NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship was not on my list of things needed to address what ails our sport.
As far as the lights go, there is really no tangible benefit to IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500, except for perhaps extending the window to get the 500 in after a rain delay. Those of us who sat through the rain in 2007, remember how dark it was in those final laps prior to the last cloudburst. But I also remember how bright it was sitting in post-race traffic and wondering what might have happened had they been able to wait out another drying period. Had they been able to wait, Dario Franchitti may not have won his first of what is currently three Indianapolis 500 victories (and counting).
The main reason lights are being considered is to help boost the lagging attendance at the Brickyard 400. Uncovered aluminum bleachers in central Indiana in late July are not a strong selling point. Running the race in the cooler evening hours should boost ticket sales somewhat. Fair enough, but is it worth the financial price and the cost of ruining the aesthetics of the facility for one race per year?
I have no way of knowing how much it would cost to install a first-class lighting system for a 2.5 mile oval, but I know it’s not cheap. Then there are the other factors. What about crusty old goats like myself? There are a lot of us out there, especially when it comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that resist any change whatsoever – even if it is a change for the better. For example – when they ripped up the apron after the 1992 race and replaced it with the pit-access roads, it was much safer and a better way to enter and exit the pits. Did I like it? No, because it changed the appearance of the track. It also made the track more narrow where cars could no longer dive down below the white line. Twenty years later, I guess I’ve finally gotten used to it.
When the lights went up at Wrigley Field in 1988, I thought it was a certain sign of the apocalypse. Almost twenty-five years later, I still find it odd to watch a Cubs home game at night. Of course, I understood why they did it. Major League Baseball informed them that they could host no post-season games without a lighted stadium. Except for an understandable desire to increase attendance at the NASCAR race and to increase a rain window for the 500; IMS faces no such demand. I have to wonder what happened to the promise by the Hulman-George family to the residents of the town of Speedway, that they would not turn the hoards out into their streets near midnight. Money (or the lack thereof) has a way of making such pledges forgotten about. I take solace in the fact that this is just talk and has not gotten the approval of the board or the Hulman-George family. It is my selfish hope that the plans for lights at IMS never make it off the drawing board. I’m still trying to get used to rear-engine cars.
The other part of the IBJ article dealt with the possibility that IndyCar may institute an artificial postseason similar to NASCAR’s by the 2014 season. My question is simple: why? If my memory serves me correctly (which is a dangerous statement at my age), the IndyCar championship hasn’t been decided before the final race of the season since 2004, when Tony Kanaan clinched the championship at Fontana with the season finale still to run two weeks later at Texas. Since then, it has gone down to the final event each season. Having an artificial “playoff” does not guarantee that the championship will go to the last race. Although they tried to hype the drama, there wasn’t a lot of suspense in this year’s NASCAR finale between the only two drivers mathematically eligible to win the chase.
The reason that “stick & ball” sports have playoffs is to prevent what happened for years in college football – a voter poll to decide a championship. With separate conferences in professional sports, teams do not all face each other in a regular season – or if they do, it is rare. In the NHL and NBA, teams from the east rarely play teams from the west. In baseball, inter-league play only gets a few matchups between the National and American leagues during the regular season. NFL teams only play four teams from the other conference. You get the idea.
In racing, teams compete against each other every race throughout the season. Points are earned by performance in each race. In a race, the only real goal is to be in first place when the race is over. Anything behind that doesn’t really matter. As it currently stands in IndyCar, that’s the same goal for the season – to be in first place when the season is over. Anything behind that doesn’t really matter. In NASCAR, the goal is to score enough points in a race to be in the top ten in points by the time the season is roughly two-thirds over. If you win a couple of races, hopefully that’ll secure you a wild-card spot. Then they re-sort the point differential, where it’s possible that a big lead that you earned could be wiped away. To me, the NASCAR version comes off as contrived, fake and in some ways – unfair.
Apparently, NASCAR felt they needed something to create some interest in the fall, when NASCAR was going head-to-head against the NFL. Whether it has been successful or not is a matter of opinion. Looking at NASCAR’s declining TV ratings could make one say it hasn’t helped.
There is a school of thought out there that says if NASCAR does it, it must be right. Even though they are the big gorilla when it comes to motorsports in the US, doesn’t mean that they hold all the secrets in how to market a product. Obviously, IndyCar needs help – a lot of help. But that does not mean that they need to sell their soul to the devil and duplicate everything that NASCAR does.
What is so good about IndyCar is that it is different than NASCAR. That’s what sets it apart. The IZOD IndyCar Series is a wonderful product in its own right. The problem is that it’s the best kept secret in town. No one knows about it.
There has been no consistent marketing plan in place. Some of that is directly blamed on IndyCar, while other factors have been simply bad luck. Placing the marketing decisions in the hands of Gene Simmons produced nothing more memorable than “I am Indy”. That was obviously a poor decision laid at the feet of IndyCar. The fact that IZOD parent company Phillips-Van Heusen had a change in leadership to someone that sees no value motorsports marketing, was simply poor timing and had nothing to do with an IndyCar decision. But following a consistent and long-term marketing plan is vital to growing this series
I found it ironic that Mark Miles was quoted saying that “to make a dent in something like this I think three to five years is the absolute minimum.” So now, the board recognizes that fixing IndyCar is going to take a lot of time. It’s too bad they realized this after they gave Randy Bernard only two and a half years to fix a badly damaged product.
I am still a fan of Mark Miles. From what I hear and read, he is no talking head. He is a very well-respected sports executive. He knows IndyCar needs a makeover and he is trying to come up with some new ideas. I applaud him for that. I just have a problem with these two specific ideas. Bad ideas are better than no ideas. New Ideas mean they are original ideas. That means come up with your own and don’t copy NASCAR’s. As for the lights…change is bad!