The Pursuit Of Speed Records
Derrick Walker wasted little time diving into the deep end in his new job as president of competition and operations for IndyCar, when he announced a long-range plan of the DW12. He has made it clear that he wants aero kits because he is convinced that the fans want some distinction between the cars on the track Translation: Fans don’t care for spec series. Although teams have a choice whether to run a Honda or Chevrolet engine, the cars sound the same and look identical to each other.
The legacy of Indianapolis 500, and consequently IndyCar, was built on innovation. It’s hard to convince even the most casual viewer that there is any innovation going on when all the cars appear to be identical to each other. The series has lost its audience for various reasons. Part of the reason is that a lot of today’s paying customers simply don’t care about tradition or what their parents have always held dear to their hearts. What was popular a generation ago (boxing, tennis, racing and even baseball to some extent), leaves the new generation cold. They are more about extreme sports, MMA and UFC.
I know my son played many seasons of Little League Baseball, but mostly due to my urging. In high school, he chose hockey over football – much to my dismay. He has attended the Indianapolis 500 twice – in 2003 and 2005. I’ll be shocked if he ever goes back again. Now he seems to have little or no interest in any mainstream sports; and I don’t think that’s unusual for his age group (he turns twenty-four in September). When I was that age, I was glued to any football game I could find. There was not a lot of racing on TV in those days, but I caught what I could. Maybe that’s part of the problem – today, viewers can pick and choose what they want to watch and even when they want to watch it. They don’t feel the need to watch what they can.
But to fans, more important than differentiating the cars is the pursuit of speed records. With all of the analysis on why no one is watching our sport, there is still a large number of people out there, who have the possibility to become new IndyCar fans if they ever sample the product. One of the more believable theories as to why Indianapolis 500 Pole Day attendance has declined is because there is no hope that fans are going to see records broken. There has not been a speed record broken at Indianapolis since May 1996. That’s seventeen years and the longest such stretch in history that a speed record has not fallen. With speeds stagnating between 225 and 230 for so many years, fans have lost interest.
Derrick Walker and company have devised a plan and a timeline to break Arie Luyendyk’s long-standing speed records by the 2016 race. That will mark the one-hundredth running of the race and will also mark the twentieth straight year that the one and four-lap qualifying records have not been broken.
Walker has also ruled out the possibility of aero kits in 2014, but he has worked them into his long-range plans to be ready by 2015. Walker figures that the aero kits, along with tire and engine development will force the speeds through the 237 mph barrier, which was the standard that Luyendyk set in 1996.
Will setting such a goal act to bring attention back to the series? Well, it certainly can’t hurt. Following the Major League Baseball strike of 1994, Baseball was in a massive decline. Fans had been turned off by losing the World Series due to a labor dispute that no one could relate to. Baseball was in the doldrums in the late nineties and needed a shot in the arm. Mark McGwire’s 1998 pursuit of the single-season home-run record of sixty-one homers, held since 1961, captured the nation’s attention McGwire finally broke the record after weeks of public scrutiny. Of course, McGwire’s accomplishments would later be tarnished by scandal, but that’s beside the point.
Nothing captures the attention of the fickle American sports fan like the pursuit of records. I say fickle, because after whatever records are broken – most of those that paid attention will move on to the next item of the moment. But some that sampled the product for the first time will stay. I know that from personal experience.
Growing up as a kid in the sixties and early seventies, I followed two sports – football and open-wheel racing. I never paid much attention to baseball. But in 1974, Hank Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s career home-run total of 714 – a record most experts considered untouchable. As Aaron approached the magical number, everyone at school was talking about it. I figured if I didn’t want to be left out, I’d better start watching so I could be in the loop also. When I started watching as a fifteen year-old, it was the first time I had really paid attention to the game. I found out I didn’t really know or understand the nuances of the game, but I was curious to learn. By the end of the 1974 baseball season, I had become a quick study of the game and a true fan. Unfortunately, they lost me twenty years later with that strike in’94 and I’ve never been that engaged anymore with baseball.
But you get the point. Had it not been the interest in an iconic record falling, I never would have tuned in to baseball back in April of 1974. It turned me into a big fan. IndyCar could possibly enjoy the same resurgence that baseball enjoyed in 1998, if a decades-old speed record is in danger of falling. If you strip just about everything away you know about this sport, the one thing that is left is speed. That is what sits at the core of this sport. Innovation, heroism, endurance, horsepower – they all are indirectly related to speed. Without speed, there is no racing – plain and simple.
Each year, there are certain records broken at the Indianapolis 500. This year, they included different leaders, lead changes and record pace. Those are all interesting stats for the hard-core fans. But they’ve already gotten us. We’re not going anywhere. But the one stat that perks the interest of the most casual fan is record speed – fastest lap ever turned. That’s what will get people to figure out how to find your programming.
One of the lamest excuses for poor ratings on NBCSN is that people don’t know where the channel is. I’m not an NBA fan, but curiosity got the best of me Monday night and I wanted to watch the Pacers in Game Seven. I figured it must be on ESPN. Nope. So then I tried ABC. Not there either. Did I give up? No. I looked in the paper, saw it was on TNT and found out where TNT was through my cable guide. It wasn’t that difficult. If people are curious about your product, they’ll figure out how to find it. If you’re counting on people to land on your event just because it’s on ESPN, that’s just sticking a line in the water and hoping a fish jumps on it.
Derrick Walker is a very smart man. He has been at the forefront of this sport, and he has watched it from afar. He knows what makes fans tune in. He was involved in the so-called glory days and he’s been involved in the leanest of times for this sport. He is an innovator. He gave Willie T. Ribbs his shot at Indianapolis as the first African-American to race at IMS. He also brought Sarah Fisher to the sport as only the third female in the 500. But he also knows what cars and drivers are capable of. He knows that jumping through the 237 mph barrier is more than a case of turning up the boost on qualifying weekend. There has to be chassis development, along with engine and tire development. Those things don’t happen overnight, hence the development of a long-range plan to make it happen.
He also knows that none of these things will happen without everyone on board. He has to sell Dallara, Firestone, Chevy and Honda on the importance of this to happen for the long-term survival of the sport. Most importantly, he has to sell the owners; and I can tell you – not all of them are on board.
I credit Derrick Walker for recognizing that there is no quick fix to IndyCar’s problems. He also deserves praise for realizing that there is a problem in the first place – something that the previous regime prior to Randy Bernard failed to ever admit. There are lots of problems and many different ways to try to reach solutions. But drawing attention through the pursuit of speed records will go a long way towards getting IndyCar back to the forefront of the sports landscape.