The One Single Thing IndyCar Needs Is…
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.