Brainstorming: Track Promotion

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This is the first in a series of articles on “Brainstorming”, where different subjects that are problems for the Verizon IndyCar Series are tackled with various ideas and suggestions – no matter how crazy they sound. I will take the first couple of topics, but then various guest-bloggers will air their own concerns and suggestions here. As always, readers are heavily encouraged to enter the discussion with their own ideas in the comment section. – GP

One of the things about brainstorming is that you don’t necessarily need to know much about a subject to make suggestions. When seeking solutions, sometimes it helps to get a fresh perspective from someone not that familiar with the problem. It’s possible to be so close to something that you don’t have the ability to take a step back and look at the big picture. What’s the old saying – you can’t see the forest for the trees?

Such is the case for the topic I’m tackling today. There are a lot of areas within the Verizon IndyCar Series that I feel comfortable talking about and tossing opinions around. This is not one of them. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe I’m so far removed from this topic that my simplistic way of looking at it might actually make some sense.

I’m not bragging here, but one of the perks for being an established IndyCar blogger is that I’m invited to participate in conference calls with the media. Last week, I was on the line for the Mark Miles press conference. Robin Miller asked him if IndyCar would ever consider co-promoting some of these races in order to improve attendance. Miles said that he didn’t have any real interest in co-promoting races. Really? Why not?

With all due respect to Michael Andretti and the steps he has taken as the promoter to generate local enthusiasm with this weekend’s race at the Milwaukee Mile; can anyone tell me why track promoters even exist in this sport?

Auto racing is about the only major sport that I know of where the sanctioning body typically relies on a third party, or a “middle man”, to promote an event. The question is…why?

At Fontana a couple of weeks ago, fans in the stands were treated to one of the most exciting races in years. Unfortunately, those fans were few and far between. Yes, I know about the dates that change every year and that it was a Saturday afternoon race in June; but just how heavily was it promoted? I don’t know the answer, since I don’t live in southern California – I’m just asking.

More times than not, the promoter is the track owner. Such was the case at Fontana, a track owned by ISC – a sister company to NASCAR. Although the track does not want to lose money, you have to wonder just how interested a NASCAR-related company is in promoting an IndyCar event.

Where else does this happen in sports? I’ll keep my comparisons local with the Tennessee Titans of the NFL, and the Nashville Predators of the NHL. Both of these teams play in facilities owned by the city of Nashville. I would hate to see what would happen if the Titans relied on the city to do all of the marketing and promotion to get people to go to their games.

Perhaps the Predators present a better example, since the NFL pretty much just has to show up to get people to their games. The NHL is different. With forty-one regular season home games each season, it can be a tough sell to fill up Bridgestone Arena on a Tuesday night in November in a smaller market like Nashville. The Predators have to come up with very creative ways to get people to fill up that building sometimes. That’s why they have a keen marketing department.

To be fair, it is a different situation. The Predators pay rent to the city of Nashville to use their building. The city does not pay the Predators a sanctioning fee to be able to host them in their building. Nor does the city pay the Titans to play their games in Nissan Stadium.

The way I understand it, each track pays a sanctioning fee to IndyCar to come put on a show at their facility. It’s not official, but rumor puts the amount of the sanctioning fee at around $1.25 million per track, although it’s highly doubtful that Michael Andretti is paying anywhere close to that to promote Milwaukee.

Some say that it should be up to each track to promote their race as they see fit, since they have already made the investment to get IndyCar to race there. In this current system, it seems like if IndyCar gets their sanctioning fee – they are happy to put it in their pocket and leave it up to the track to promote the event. If no one comes – so what? They got their money.

To me, this seems like a flawed system. I’ll agree that tracks should help promote the race locally, but it seems to me that IndyCar should be taking the lead in promoting their series. If I were the casual fan that IndyCar is so desperately seeking, and I tuned into that Fontana race last Saturday; the first thing I would notice would be the empty stands. My assumption would be that this is an event that no one cares about, so why should I? I would probably click away before I even noticed the great racing taking place on the track.

Among the myriad of problems facing IndyCar, most agree that the biggest one is poor TV ratings. It’s also the one area that can fix so many other problems. Yes, I’m aware that ratings today don’t mean the same as they did ten or even five years ago. With viewing habits changing so rapidly with different platforms available now, there is no way to compare a 1.0 rating today to a 1.0 in 2007. But when you see that IndyCar pulled a .37 rating at Fontana and NASCAR got a 2.4 rating at Sonoma the next day; that’s significant.

Am I crazy to think that butts in the seats will eventually equate to eyes on the screen? I don’t think so, but I’m the one making the argument in an area that I admittedly know little about.

Let’s live in Fantasy Land for a moment. If I am a TV viewer and I see that IndyCar generally plays before a packed house every race and NASCAR is the series racing in front of empty seats. Given the fact that I have no allegiance to any particular form of racing, which series am I more likely to watch?

Leigh Diffey and Steve Matchett were quite genuine in their enthusiasm during that Fontana race. But a casual viewer might interpret their enthusiasm as over-hype, when they see that there were more people in attendance that were actually connected to the series in one way or another, than there were paying customers.

If I am a corporate VP with a company that has just been approached by an IndyCar team to be a potential sponsor for next year; I will probably tune into the Fontana race to see what this whole thing is about. I may or may not notice that it was an enjoyable race, but the glaring thing that I won’t be able to take my eyes off of will be those empty seats. As a corporate VP that has to answer to my superiors and ultimately to stockholders, I’m likely to spend my marketing dollars elsewhere.

Should IndyCar look at the model that exists in racing where attendance is left up to the individual tracks? Following the status quo is not working, yet Mark Miles has already said that they are not interested in co-promotions. Maybe they should have their own brainstorming session. They could blow up the existing model and approach promotion with a whole new framework.

Lost in the terrible tragedy at Las Vegas in 2011 was the fact that former CEO Randy Bernard decided that IndyCar would take over the promotion for the race. As I understand it, IndyCar rented the track from Bruton Smith and assumed total responsibility for all the promotion. Now I know that there were still only about 20,000 in attendance that fateful day, but that was only one race. It’s not fair to judge whether or not the idea worked after only one race. Besides, that was only a makeshift attempt because it was done on short notice and known to be a one-time deal. But I thought it was a great idea. Unfortunately, with the way that day turned out – the idea was never even considered again. Maybe it should be.

Remember the rules of brainstorming – there are no stupid ideas. Anything is up for consideration.

I’m always willing to spend other people’s money for them. Therefore, I’m suggesting that IndyCar hire or reassign staff within their marketing department to focus solely on the promotion of every race on the IndyCar schedule. That means multiple trips and meetings in each location to work hand-in-hand with the track to learn the local market. That may even mean engaging a local advertising firm in each city that knows the ins-and-outs of that market. What works in Los Angeles may not necessarily work in Milwaukee. What appeals to fans in Indianapolis, may not be as popular at Pocono.

Track promoters also only know what they do best. While NASCAR continues to be a big draw at Michigan International Speedway, IndyCar attendance was abysmal the last few years they raced there. Perhaps those in charge at Michigan know how to appeal to stock car fans, but no clue how to attract open-wheel fans to their facility. It can be done, but it takes a little extra work and creativity. Simply hanging a NASCAR sign in front of the track twice a summer may work for Cup races, but that approach won’t work for IndyCar. Did Michigan officials go that extra mile and exhaust all possibilities for promotion, or did they just decide IndyCar wouldn’t work at their track with the same amount of promotional effort they put into NASCAR.

Instead of the tracks paying an exorbitant sanctioning fee, could IndyCar either rent each track or heavily discount the fee in order to use their own promotional team? Sure it would cost a lot in the beginning, but it could be what finally gets them where they need to be in terms of attendance, viewership and positive public and corporate perception. Curt Cavin always says that IndyCar needs to be wanted by tracks before they can race there. If IndyCar is paying the tracks rent, why would they not be wanted?

The entire model of the way IndyCar does business would have to be blown up. It would require cash and a lot of it. Hulman and Company would have to make a huge long-term investment and be patient enough to let it work. It would be a work-in-process that would not have overnight success, but it seems to me that a team that does nothing but promote IndyCar would be better suited than a track’s local marketing team that has no idea how to position a different product. And make no mistake – IndyCar is a different product from NASCAR.

Let’s go back to Bridgestone Arena here in Nashville. Not only does the NHL team play there, but it happened to host more concerts than any other large indoor venue in the US in 2014 (this is the Music City, you know). Some of the really popular acts like Taylor Swift or the Eagles are paid by the arena to come play at their venue, sort of like the sanctioning fee that tracks pay to IndyCar. It’s a complicated setup, but to simplify it – the artist gets a cut of the gate receipts, all merchandise sales as well as the up front fee. The venue gets all the parking, concessions along with a cut of the gate. Smaller, lesser-known acts pay the arena "rent" to play there, but they work it out where they get most of the revenue after the arena’s expenses are covered. For a comparison, we’ll call NASCAR Taylor Swift and IndyCar a lesser-known act.

Why would a lesser known act pay for arena rental? For credibility. These are usually up-and-coming acts that are trying to get exposure in order to grow their brand. To say they played in the biggest indoor arena in Nashville says that they are an act to watch. Sound familiar?

Of course, there’s one problem with this idea – IndyCar doesn’t know, themselves, how to promote their own product. Remember, we aren’t too far removed from the laughable “I am Indy” campaign. Few, if any, remain from the regime that took their cue from Gene Simmons on that debacle; but you get my drift. Each year, the marketing strategy for IndyCar changes. The on-track product is great, but they need to come up with a consistent message to promote that great product. Come up with it, refine it and work it down to a science that only has to be slightly tweaked in each market.

That way, IndyCar has direct ownership in attendance and how the entire series is perceived. The landscape in the corporate world is littered with great ideas and products that were not properly packaged, presented and marketed. Likewise, there are some pretty useless products out there that took off simply through brilliant marketing concepts. Care to compare a Hardee’s hamburger to McDonald’s? Most would agree that Hardee’s, by far, makes the better burger. Yet, McDonald’s continue to blow everyone away with better marketing. IndyCar keeps using strategies like the new creepy version of Colonel Sanders for KFC. Does anyone really think that’s going to improve their market share in the fast food industry? Yet some focus group thought that this was a great idea. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.

There are a lot of you reading this that know the relationships between tracks and the series better than I do. What do you make of my IndyCar promotional team idea? Am I totally off-base with this idea? It certainly rocks the boat and upsets the status quo, but is it doable? Could it be done if IndyCar were to ever define their marketing message to consumers? Presumably, IndyCar knows their product better than track owners. What are some of the pitfalls of this idea that I didn’t come up with?

This is the whole idea of brainstorming and this series of articles. Maybe some of the ensuing discussion will come up with an even better idea. One thing is for sure, based on what we saw at Fontana and may see at Milwaukee this weekend – the current way of doing things is not working.

George Phillips

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51 Responses to “Brainstorming: Track Promotion”

  1. Brian McKay Says:

    NASCAR is a big gorilla in part because it has a large, effective marketing department that dwarfs INDYCAR’s communication department.
    I surmise that if INDYCAR has an IndyCar-specific marketing machine that leads cooperative promotion of each race, more fans will be in the stands, the promoters will earn more, the promoters will thus be more satisfied, they will want INDYCAR to return, and more tracks/promoters will ask for races.

    Persons have repeatedly suggested that at some venues INDYCAR can partner with ALMS, United SportsCar, SCCA Pro Racing (Trans Am and Pirelli World Challenge), Super Trucks, etcetera.
    Multiple series *and* venue promoters seeking fans in the stands for each
    weekend …

  2. Indy needs to focus on building its brand outside of Indianapolis. Does IndyCar do ANY promotion outside Indianapolis? Here in Iowa they shoot out a driver — James Jakes this year — to do some media and that’s it as far as I know. The rest of the promotion is done by the track or the network, which makes the commercials we see. I think of it as Tide laundry detergent and Walmart. Proctor and Gamble invests cash into national brand building — commercials etc. for Tide. Then all Walmart has to do is advertise “we got Tide.” They don’t have to sell anyone on the value of Tide, just say we got it and here’s the price. That’s the ideal model for IndyCar. If you’re charging $1.25 million just to show up, it starts to be a math thing for the track. They pay $1.25 million plus $25,000 on marketing, that’s $1.5 million invested. You’ll need 50,000 fans at an average of $30 per ticket just to break even. Coffee spew. Not happening for IndyCar outside Indiana. People who scream that the tracks should invest more need to get out their calculators. Investment in marketing on top of the sanctioning fee quickly becomes a “not worth it” proposition. That’s why races without sponsors don’t happen for long in IndyCar. Build the brand nationally which elevates awareness and demand and makes the track’s job of getting butts in seats easier. On the flip side, NASCAR’s TV contract means tracks actually get paid to host a race. They profit even zero fans show up. That’s because the NASCAR brand is very strong.

    • Wow P’Dog, why is NASCAR’s brand so strong? Couldn’t be the drivers are nearly all U. S. citizens (whom everyone in “flyover country” can relate to and understand while being interviewed) and that 34 of their 36 races are on ovals could it? To build the brand nationally would require IndyCar to move away from boring road courses and their required road course trained European style drivers most folks don’t recognize or understand back to ovals and U. S. drivers, it truly is as simple as that.

      By the way, I think $1,250,000 plus $25,000 (per your example above) is $1,275,000, NOT $1,500,000. I think (at least from the math I was taught in INDIANAPOLIS) Iowa Speedway would have to spend $250,000 in marketing to get from $1,250,000 to $1,500,000. Just saying….

      Cue Ron Ford hating on me….

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      Sorry to nitpick here DogDude, but $250,000 plus $1,250,000 is $1,500,000 (not $25,000). But, say, even at $1.3M, that’s still 43,333 at $30 per seat.

      nottagonnahappen.

      And, as ISC continues to buy up the best tracks in the US (Laguna Seca is pending), Indycar will continue to be backed into a corner away from the best American venues.

      Seats were made for butts. I don’t care how they do it, but get them together ASAP.

      • billytheskink Says:

        Technically, ISC is not buying Laguna Seca. They are looking to buy the rights to operate the track and promote the races there. Yes, that means they own the place (for whatever the length of the contract) for all intents and purposes, but it is worth noting that they will not own the facility outright.

        • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

          Thank you for the clarification. Sounds like that would also allow them to make the rules for whom might be able to use the track also?

    • Actually, P&G provides “co-op” advertising dollars to Wal Mart. They also purchase shelf space as does Coke and Pepsi. Target uses some of their “co-op” dollar to fund Ganassi’s IndyCar and NASCAR teams. Huge money in it.

  3. Noticing a theme here as we go along. We can’t have close races it killed Dan, the field size is too big, if more cars show up turn them away, it killed Dan, We can’t promote races, the one time we did Dan died.

    Everyone is afraid to do anything in this sport for it will bring back memories of Las Vegas 2011. That way of thinking will surely ensure the last Indycar race ever will be run in our lifetime!

    We can’t live in this Dan Wheldon bubble forever, especially when we didn’t do it for Dana, Brayton, Renna, Moore or any of the others who passed on.

    I think NASCAR is having this battle after the catch fence issue this weekend and people are doing the same thing. Ultimately, it’s racing, if you go 200-250 miles per hour, nothing can 100% guarantee that the car stays on the groud or out of the fence, head on into a wall or anything else.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      I don’t know what you think NASCAR is battling.
      Spectators love seeing, and television sports news shows directors enjoy showing, non-fatal multiple-car crashes. Easy-to-follow-visually car liveries and car numbers going ’round and ’round before stadium crowds (never out of sight) and crashing spectacularly without grievous injuries is desirable for viewers.
      NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation vigorously market the various series’ races.

    • SkipinSC Says:

      As I watched and re-watched the Daytona race from last weekend, I was immediately hit by two things: First, Austin Dillon is one lucky young man, because had his car not done the extra half roll so as to be “greasy side” against the fence, the likelihood that he survives the trip into the catch fence and the sudden stop at the fence post diminishes dramatically.

      Second, note the difference in the drivers’ reactions top “the big one.” While most were concerned for Dillon’s health, they weren’t talking about how “we can’t do this anymore,” or “it’s too dangerous,” or “they’re not paying any attention to what we’re trying to tell them.” Pack racing, particularly at restrictor plate races, is the rule rather than the exception and the drivers in NASCAR accept it. (Maybe not happily, but they accept it.)

      As a result, I’m inclined to agree with Andrew’s diagnosis of “Dan Wheldon Syndrome,” something that NASCAR, even in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death, never experienced.

      Perhaps that is a result of the influence of road and street racing in IndyCar drivers’ backgrounds. Notably, the guys in IndyCar who did NOT decry the racing at Fontana were, by and large, the guys that came up through midgets and sprints.

      As to the issue of marketing, IndyCar has become the Indy 500 and a lot of races that we hope will break even or at least not lose too much. When you consider the sanctioning fees that IndyCar is asking to bring their show to a track near you and the paucity of fans filling seats, something has to change.

      Because I am known as an “outside the box” kind of guy, I find myself wondering why IndyCar couldn’t select a venue (Phoenix, Chicago, Kentucky, or Kansas, for example) where they no longer race and accept a secondary position to NASCAR’s Cup series as a one-time, one-shot deal. Let’s face it, better numbers notwithstanding, NASCAR isn’t filling THEIR venues either. Sure, they’re drawing a lot better than IndyCar, but they still have a lot of fans cleverly disguised as empty seats.

      Is there a potential downside to this? Sure. The track in question might decide to insist on a repeat, but what does NASCAR have to lose? Their merch trailers will still be there making money, the promoters will have a 5 star event where normally they have a 3 or 4, the track owners and promoters are happy, the fans have something else to do, IndyCar gets an oval race not named the Indianapolis 500 where there are real fans, and a whole different set of eyes. Who knows what might happen….

      Next, on the subject of sanctioning fees, maybe it’s time to charge a sliding sanctioning fee based on how many “events” can be run at a venue. For example, the $1.25M fee is charged when there’s IndyCar, Lights, and one other “ladder” series race on a given weekend. Too often, we’re asking fans to shell out major bucks to see IndyCar practice, qualifying, and a single race, PLUS we’re asking the track owner and/or promoter to pay out the same fee regardless of how much happens event wise.

      • “Pack racing, particularly at restrictor plate races, is the rule rather than the exception and the drivers in NASCAR accept it. (Maybe not happily, but they accept it.)”

        That is most definitely not completely accurate. Ryan Newman has been a very pointed critic of restrictor plate racing for years (you can probably find a quote from him to this end after every plate race since about 2011), and I remember Jimmie Johnson suggesting that they knock down the banking at Daytona or Talladega a couple years ago. Even Dale Jr.’s comments this past weekend sure didn’t feel anything like an embrace of plate racing, at least to me.

        “Perhaps that is a result of the influence of road and street racing in IndyCar drivers’ backgrounds. Notably, the guys in IndyCar who did NOT decry the racing at Fontana were, by and large, the guys that came up through midgets and sprints.”

        Within current drivers, there’s only one person that that describes: Ed Carpenter. And the former drivers who were talking tough about liking the racing at Fontana…I’d like for them to reflect back on their careers and think about how many times they actually competed in a race that looked like Fontana did last weekend. The reason for that is because when those guys raced (I’m talking Foyt, and basically every ex-driver Robin Miller has quoted in the last 10 days), the field strung out after like two laps. I have a hard time putting a whole ton of stock into their thoughts, since they’re commenting on something they literally have never experienced themselves. Yeah, they’re tough guys, but they never did anything like what we saw last weekend.

        As to your last paragraph, I actually think that’s a pretty solid idea.

    • Vegas 2011 will always play into decisions. Very few racing deaths are such a direct result of so few decisions by the sanctioning body. Dana, Moore and Renna’s deaths weren’t the result of a unique situation that was intentionally created because the series was going for something much more exciting. I didn’t say Brayton. There is a very successful, active driver that was in CART the year Brayton died. To this day he is certain that he would have survived the same accident because he was running with a head restraint that would have not allowed his helmet to make contact with the wall. That safety improvement, like all current year improvements were off limits at Indy that year.

      You can’t live in the bubble forever, but you also cannot ignore the impact of series decisions on the lives of those who actually put their necks on the line to support your sport.

  4. Doug Gardner Says:

    NASCAR is able to promote and co promote most of their tracks because ISC owns most of the tracks. ISC is France family owned as is NASCAR. Thus, it makes it difficult for Indycar to get to these tracks, like Phoenix, Watkins Glen, Michigan etc… Nascar gives Indycar the crappy dates for Fontana. If Indycar owned most of their tracks they could and would promote more. The track owners and promoters want every bit of their tiny pie.

    • Easy on Fontana, IndyCar (Re: Mark Miles) put that race date in a box so Fontana didn’t have much of a choice themselves. That horrible date (as well as the others there previously) is directly the fault of Mark Miles and had nothing to do with NASCAR.

    • I understand this argument but disagree. If ISC tracks could make decent money on IndyCar events, they would host them. I think it’s far more of a dollars-and-cents issue than a NASCAR-hates-IndyCar issue …

      • Doug Gardner Says:

        Maybe in haste I did not express myself adequately. It is not Nascar hates Indycar. Just easier to promote when promotor and series are one in the same. Money from right pocket to left pocket. Very true about making money Nascar vs. Indycar. Mark Miles and The Hulman family do not care about the series. That is painfully obvious by the way business is conducted. Here inside 465. There is very little mention of the other races in the series until raceday or post race. And yes to Phil. Sponsors and Engine suppliers will be disappearing soon.

      • You are very correct here.

  5. Lynn Kromminga Says:

    Mark Miles attitude about promotion is appalling. If series management isn’t interested in promoting their product how can they expect anyone else to promote it.

  6. Bob Butler Says:

    Indycar needs to get more involved with the promotion of their events. Reduce sanctioning fees to get new tracks aboard but with the caveat that the new tracks need to do more than just open their gates. Sponsors also need to courted to get involved in promoting their involvement (see Target, Honda, Firestone). Get them some incentives to do that. One last thing. Burn the Boston Consulting Group report. What do a bunch of MBA’s know about MPH!

  7. SOCSeven Says:

    Agreed that Indycar should do a LOT more promotion. But where?
    I admit to being at a loss for ideas because my children watch none of the media I do.

    Toronto always has an “official” newspaper for the Indy and therefore the other 3 dailies treat the race as something they’ve never heard of. Same with TV. If it Isn’t on your channel, it’s just ignored. The city does nothing and the province does nothing.
    And my children don’t get the newspaper or watch regular tv. They get their news from their iPhones and whatnot. I just don’t know where to start to be able to figure out the permutaions and combinations of options that promoters face in promoting a race.

    I do know this however. I’m going to Mosport (CTMP) this weekend for the TUDOR racing and like every year, the place will be packed…….. and their promotion was very limited indeed. Damned near word of mouth.

  8. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Lynn’s comment is spot on. It IS appalling.

    If you aren’t your own biggest evangelist for your product and aren’t out banging the drum, promoting it tirelessly and incessantly, essentially the message being sent is that the product isn’t worth investing in or promoting.

    ISC and SMI tracks will certainly never have much incentive to do much of anything for Indycar while the steady flow of NASCAR $$$ keeps things running.

    I’ve always been leery of ISC (and to a lesser degree, SMI) once they started buying up ovals. When Penske sold his 5 tracks to ISC, I feared we’d no longer race at any of them. Indycar gets maybe one of them a year.

    Ultimately, when I step back and wide-angle this sport, what Hulman and Company consistently show me is that they are satisfied with IMS (and related events) being the focus, while the sport of the Indycar Series is to survive on least amount of resources.

    Wherever you put your resources shows where your interest is ALWAYS.

  9. Jim Peabody, Colorado Springs Says:

    A vacuum in dynamic leadership is lacking in the series. Mark Miles is an arrogant, insulated from the true fans, glorified bean counter. No charisma, no confidence in anything he says. The schedule this year all but seals the fate of Indycar as a sub standard racing entity. George, your thoughts are spot on! And those expressed by the others here too. Our beloved sport is being slowly strangled by the void in a clear, COMMITTED vision, by a decisive leader. I’ve never been a big Team Penske fan, kinda like rooting for the Yankees, but if you listen to the things Roger Penske has to say about all matters pertaining to the sport; safety, budgets, competition, marketing, and promotion, you find solid, insightful direction the sport should take for not only its survival, but to grow and prosper. I vote ” The Captain” for Indycar Czar!

    • In a way Penske HAS been the IndyCar czar for 35 years! Who do you think brought us European road course drivers? Who do you think brought in road courses for his road course drivers to drive on so they wouldn’t crash into walls and cost him vast amounts of money in repair bills every week? Who do you think was one of the three “biggies” (Carl Haas and U. E. “Pat” Patrick were the others) who formed CART and split from IndyCar racing because he had a better idea of racing on 12 road course/street road courses while racing on 6 ovals (or less) every year? Who do you think first brought in computers, “engineers” and wind tunnels into IndyCar racing? For you youngsters out there who don’t know that would be one Roger Penske!

      Penske is the LAST man I would give control of IndyCar to because he would eliminate every oval save the Indianapolis 500 (because ironically that’s where his sponsors INSIST he races, and THAT’S why he came back to the IRL in the first place) and we would be treated to one boring parade after the next, and then our series actually would die a horrible death.

      I know George is a big fan of his, but you fans need to actually go read some of Penske’s history and learn where he came from, what he raced in his lifetime (yes, he was a clubby sports car driver in the ’60s who never even sat in an Indy Car or a Stock Car, let alone drive one at speed) and who he actually brought into open wheel motorsports in the United States when he started in the late ’60s. Then you will be on the road to understanding what has happened to our beloved series ever since.

      • ” Who do you think brought us European road course drivers?”

        The only “European road course driver” that Roger Penske employed full-time before 1998 was Emerson Fittipaldi (who he didn’t hire until 1990, at which point, Emmo was already an Indy 500 champion). Unless you believe that the downfall of the sport started in 1990 or 1998, you’re going to have to find some other folks to blame for the introduction of “European road course drivers”. Oh, but the man did actually own FOUR oval tracks up until 1999. We’ll leave that aside for this debate.

        “He was a clubby sports car driver in the ’60s who never even sat in an Indy Car or a Stock Car, let alone drive one at speed.”

        Awesome. Let’s boot him. Using that same criteria, then we’re also booting a bunch of teams/owners from NASCAR as well (Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs leap directly to mind). Let’s get on the phone with Daytona Beach and get this rolling.

      • Jim Peabody, Colorado Springs Says:

        Penske is an ultra successful, multi faceted business man, who is passionate about the sport. He’s a “big picture ” guy, while Mark Miles is one dimensional, only worrying about the short term P&L he was hired to address, NOT the growth of the sport. Remember: my opening statement was that I was not a fan of Penske, but I do respect what he has to say currently and what he has accomplished not just in racing, but as a titian of industry. The Czar doesn’t have to be Roger. But there needs to be a Czar, with a love of the speedway, open wheel racing, and an understanding of the history of the sport. Maybe we have a viable candidate on board already in Doug Boles. He already is a great advocate for Indycar. Turn HIM loose!

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Certainly Mr. Penske’s accomplishments in racing and in business pale alongside those of the legendary Phil Kaiser.

  10. Back in the day races were held at state and county fairs and, for the most part, were a feature on the day’s fair ticket or just a few dollars more. Chris Economaci started his career as a barker for the races. Back then it was pretty easy to be a featured event at the fair.

    The circus would send “advance men” and throw up their tents upon arriving into town with much fanfare. They don’t pitch a tent any longer, but they now rent arenas. The still have advance men. Same with the WWE. Also Monster Jam. Monster Jam has no sizable presence on television and, as far as I know, is a time buy. But yet, they are sold out every January here in Nashville and their toys are always big sellers. Like Barnum and Bailey, they are owned and operated by Feld Entertainment.

    Look up Jerry Weintraub. He started his concert promoting business by getting Col. Parker to let him promote an Elvis tour in 1972. Today, all of the big concerts, like the Stones for instance, has, off the top of my head, AEG(?) promote their tour and sell the tickets (mainly to the resellers but that is a story for another day). So, IndyCar could enjoy and should enjoy a corporate arm that handles all of the schedule.

    • You make a great point John. And what did those racers at the State Fairs race on? OVALS! Nary a road/street course in sight for 60 years, and they were packed! I used to walk the three blocks to the Indiana State Fairgrounds in early September every year (back in the day, lol) so I could see Foyt, Andretti, the Unsers, Rutherford et al ROCK the oval dirt track every year until Penske got with USAC and took the oval dirt tracks off of the National Championship Trail, and attendence fell precipitously. So did interest, unfortunately.

      Ahh, those were the days….

  11. Brian R Says:

    Re: TV

    1. Consistency. In F1, you get the same 3+1 guys EVERY race. All are very knowledgeable and entertaining personalities. You look forward to hearing their introductions when the show comes on. Something lacking week to week in IC.

    2. Too many different voices. Especially for the Indy 500 (pit stops in particular). Makes it very hard to follow for newcomers. (see point 1)

    3. Indycar needs to hire Bob Varsha to call every race, full time. He is the American voice (read: accent) the broadcast calls for. I see this as a top priority that will drastically improve the show.

    4. More 360-in-car views! Their liberal use during the Fontana race really ratcheted up the tension for the home viewers, and made it personal.

    Re: Social media

    IC does an amateurish job at best. Did you know they have a fantastic smartphone App? No? Well, they do! Invest some $ in advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. Hire a social media team of 18-25 year olds, fresh out of college or high school to handle this.

    • Are you talking about IndyCar 15 or something else? I have IndyCar 15 and find it a mouthpiece for IndyCar, not updated regularly and not much info I can use. I was very excited about it when it was rolled out last year but it is boring to me, but then I’m in my 50s and need reading glasses to see the content so what do I know, lol?

      • Yes Indycar 15. During the week, it highlights their social media weaknesses, but shines during the race with multiple in car camera angles and broadcast options.

        It’s a mouthpiece for sure, but it should be!

  12. jpindycar Says:

    I agree that Indycar needs more vertical integration It removes moving pieces from the list of stakeholders whom need to be stroked and demand a,slice,of profit from a pot of cash that is,too small,to be cut into too many pieces. But truth is any chance for that happening disappeared when Penske sold his tracks to ISC during the split. Indycar owning promotion is a poor man’s alternative to the ideal situation. But each event promoted by Indycar would require a year round staff of people,with an on site presence for their particular event. It is easy to ask for blood from the turnip when you aren’t the turnip. I suspect this decision is not a Miles,position so much as is an ownership decision informed by a board of directors.

  13. It sure sounds like we are talking about non-IMS ovals. Road and street courses do not seem to have attendance problems though there is always an exception. Weather is always a cruel variable.

    I assume we don’t want to give up on ovals in this series. What I have always wondered is can IMS/IndyCar/Hulman/George make money by buying up tracks. Nashville, Rockingham, Memphis, and Gateway (Are Nazareth, Pikes Peak, and North Wilkesboro destroyed?) are all tracks that are or have been available in recent years. Can any of these tracks make money with IndyCar, Mazda Road to Indy, Busch Series, Truck Series, and K&N Pro Series racing at each track so you get 2-3 events weekends each year? If yes, buy the tracks and promote your own events in their respective markets.

    TRK & ISC don’t seem to want more money than they already have or they would welcome IndyCar and want it to succeed. For whatever reason, their shareholders do not want more money.

  14. billytheskink Says:

    This is probably the aspect of Indycar that I feel most comfortable discussing. The closest I’ve ever been to being “behind the scenes” in auto racing is knowing folks involved in promoting the Houston Indycar race. I’m also well acquainted with a fellow who operated a local asphalt track for several years, and my father worked in advertising for 30 years and was involved various degrees of motorsports sponsorship during that time. This does not make me anything close to an expert on race promotion, but I think it makes me somewhat familiar with the issues that race promoters face.
    I am going to type far too much about this and I apologize, so feel free to ignore if you don’t want to read what amounts to a whole other blog post. I am going to roughly respond in order to what you wrote, George, before I offer my suggestions.

    First, race promoters exist in the sport, at least partially, because they always have. Tracks themselves were responsible for getting a field of cars to show up and selling tickets long before there were series and sanctioning bodies offering points and money to encourage a season’s worth of participation. That the practice continues today is not necessarily vestigial, it is a model that has a long history of working well for tracks, promoters, series, and participants. Ideally, it allows all of those groups to play to their strengths, the strength of a race promoter being selling tickets and sponsorships for a racing event.

    George, your later comparison of Indycar to concert promotion is more apt than the earlier comparison to Nashville’s stick-and-ball teams, but I think the stick-and-ball comparisons can work on some level if you match the organizations involved properly. In this case, Indycar is not the Titans or Predators, they are the NFL and NHL. Like race promoters, the Titans and Predators are largely responsible for promoting their games as live events and selling tickets and sponsorships. The NFL and NHL provide the Titans and Predators with events to sell by giving them a schedule of quality and known opponents (and the Jaguars…) much as Indycar provides tracks with a full-time field of ostensibly quality, popular drivers and cars. The comparison starts to break down after this (who pays who and for what is quite different), which is why the concert comparison is a much better one, but there is a level at which promotion of the sports is not so different. More obvious “middle-men” are not so uncommon in major American sports either; as I understand it, golf and tennis tournaments do not operate on a significantly different model than most auto races. So too, College football’s bowl games and new playoff are operated and promoted by those outside of the NCAA or any conference.

    If the current situation is a “flawed system”, then I do not think the flaw is really with the traditional model of race promotion. You say that Indycar should take the lead in promoting the series, which I agree is quite true. How well they do that is a debate that, while related, is separate from the question of whether Indycar should play a major role in promoting individual events in lieu of or in addition to race promoters. You discuss this in the last several paragraphs of the post, but I do not intend to address it here beyond saying that I think most would agree that they need to do a better job promoting the series as a whole.
    As you point out, Indycar can and has rented tracks and promoted events themselves. The series’ sister company, the Speedway itself, is a race promoter as well. Another example of a series promoting a race directly was CART in 2002, which took over promotion of the race at the Chicago oval in order to keep it on the series schedule (where it occupied a critical CBS time slot) after the original promoter bailed. So we know that racing series can pay tracks and promote their own races, but we also know that few series do this. I think in most cases, it is simply easier for the series to leave promotion of the event to the (hopefully experienced) race promoter rather than tackle the same tasks and take on the same risks themselves. I expect this model is more appealing to the tracks themselves too, as simply renting the facility out puts a ceiling on the amount of money they can make from an event and may compete with other events that they promote. This is not to say that Indycar cannot promote races themselves, just to suggest that they might not be best suited for it.

    Which leads back to your very apt comparison of race tracks to Bridgestone Arena’s concert promotion, especially the reasons that lesser-known acts rent the facility. Renting a track makes sense for Indycar, if it provides them an opportunity to build credibility and exposure. The question then becomes whether or not renting a certain track could build enough of both to justify the costs and risks. In Indycar’s case, the credibility and exposure that would justify a track rental would probably come from a potentially prime television slot.

    So, finally time for my (hopefully) realistic suggestions:

    – First and foremost, remove specific restrictions on when races can be held (the end by Labor Day plan). This is one of the few things I really really harp on Indycar about because it is one of the few things I am 99%+ sure they are wrong about. Obviously, you cannot give promoters any date they want, but being totally inflexible on scheduling past a specific date does absolutely nothing to help promoters. Perhaps it provides other benefits to the series (I would argue how significant those are), but we are talking about live, in-person race promotion here today. We have seen this have a significant and terrible effect on two Indycar promoters in particular in the past two years. It is an unnecessary hurdle for promoters.

    – Engage promoters and find out how the series can help them. Let them bring ideas to you. Connect the track with local Verizon retailers and Honda/Chevrolet dealers for some kind of promotion. Bring in drivers that tracks think are best suited to promote the race locally. Etc. Etc.
    Some of this may already be done and promoters may ask for things the series cannot provide, but there needs to be a commitment from the series to helping promoters. Too much tells me that there presently is no such commitment.

    – Be flexible with the sanctioning fee model. List what the series provides to the track for the standard sanctioning fee and allow tracks to take over some of those functions as they see fit, lowering the sanctioning fee in correspondence. This excludes the actual grid and the safety team, of course, but perhaps tracks would be interested in taking on responsibility for prize money, merchandising, and such.

    – Look at track rentals and series-promoted events only when they might provide an otherwise unattainable draw, likely via television. Think weekday primetime or ABC time slot-potential races. Perhaps COTA, Road America, Phoenix, Michigan, Eldora, or the Daytona road course (among others) could provide value to Indycar beyond the financial success or failure at the track level.

    – This one is more for the Hulmans than Indycar, and is probably wholly unrealistic. Look to acquire tracks to bring into the existing track operating and promoting group at IMS. Nashville is available. Gateway and Memphis were recently sold at very affordable prices. Other tracks may be available too. We know these folks can sell tickets to Indy, perhaps they can sell tickets elsewhere too. Actually owning the tracks in question would give them a much greater incentive to do so than any track rental would.

    I would challenge Speedgeek to top my word count here, but I’m terrified that he might actually take me up on that…

    • Incredible post, ‘skinky. I only wish I’d have gotten to see it before I started writing my reply, because I might not have let you outscore me 1,328 to 570 in the word count game.

      Whatever the case, there’s some great stuff in there.

    • Mike Silver Says:

      Love your ideas. I have always thought tracks like Gateway and Nashville should be bought by IndyCar or the Hulmans. Owning more tracks means incentive to promote. Ending by Labor Day is one of tthe most wrong headed move ever.

  15. I’ll add onto JP’s thoughts just a couple comments above mine, since he headed in the direction I was wanting to go.

    First up, what we are talking about here is improving promotions for 13 venues (16 total races, two are at Indy, and Detroit is a double dip, and I’m basing this off of this year’s calendar since next year’s is still unknown). Let’s pretend that you can load up a single staffer with being the sole person in charge of coming up with and executing a promotional strategy for TWO events (say, give one person St. Pete and Toronto, another Barber and Mid-Ohio, another Detroit and Long Beach, another Milwaukee and Pocono, another Iowa and Fontana, another Sonoma and NOLA and another for just Texas, so that they can spend most of their time answering calls from Eddie Gossage…though you’d want to divvy this up more evenly so that nobody has their two events separated by less than 6-8 weeks, so that they can do them both justice; I’m just doing this off the cuff here). I’d bet that two full events is more than one person can handle, but for the sake of this lowball exercise, that’s what we’ll pretend. Each of those people has quite a bit of responsibility on their heads, so I’d bet that nobody would work for less than $60k plus full benefits (another, what? $10-15k each for healthcare and retirement?). At this point, we’ve got a staff of seven people working for about $70k each, for a grand total of roughly $500k (I’m rounding here, and remember, the actual value is probably significantly higher than this). The first billboard hasn’t been bought yet, the first TV ad spot hasn’t been purchased, the first on-site visit by any of these people or any other emissary (driver or otherwise) hasn’t been set up (and those will run in the ~$1000 each per person range, with flight, rental car, per diem, etc.). We’ll now chunk in another $100k per event for all of those things (again, the real value would probably be WAY higher than this). Times 13 venues, that’s another $1.3 million, for a running total of $1.8 million.

    At the same time, we’ve yet to do anything to actually increase current revenues (all these things serve to increase FUTURE revenues, in the form of future sponsorships and ticket sales). How does one balance the books right this second? All of the current sanctioning fees are apparently only just able to balance them as they sit (putting on these races is not cheap, with all of the equipment and staff that IndyCar already has, remember), so where does one find this $1.8+ million? You certainly can’t do all of this while also cutting sanctioning fees. The suggestion might be to ask Hulman Racing to ante it up, but again, their current direction to Mark Miles is to at least break even (which, to me, doesn’t sound like the craziest direction for a business to take).

    Look, I don’t mean to crap on George’s or anybody else’s point here. But it’s really easy to say “IndyCar needs to increase promotion!” I know, I’ve done it plenty in the past myself. But once you get down to the nuts and bolts (and nickels and dimes and Benjamins) of how to actually do that, it’s not easy. Thank goodness it’s not my job to figure it out.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      Typically one needs to spend money to earn money. INDYCAR ought to have two million dollars.

      • I (and you, I presume) haven’t seen their books, though. It would appear to me that they don’t actually have that much dough laying around, otherwise they’d be cutting another Leaders’ Circle check to some team or cutting sanctioning fees somewhere. I haven’t seen their books, so I can’t make any assumptions like that. And again, I think the price tag for the scenario that I was laying out is probably well in excess of $2 million.

        • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

          On that thought (Leader’s Circle), seems the original intent was as a temporary solution to teams to assist in their ability to field cars. I had hoped this would be slowly reduced and weaned off so that money be used in a more directly productive manner with events. Eliminate just two LC positions and you’ve got your $3Mil plus. Even if car count was directly reduced by two because of this, I wouldn’t care if it meant more full-time, fuller-scale promotion of NON-IMS events

    • Lets not forget the primary reason to have the tracks or partners responsible for promotion is to eschew the risks. Indycar passes risks off to their partners by accepting the dependable revenue of the sanction fee. Indycar has no upside, but they have no downside either.

      The recent history of promoters who no longer wish to deal with Indycar, involved in lawsuits over Indycar events, etc should be all anybody needs to know.

      If Indycar wants to self promote it had better be ready to take the financial hits that the partners have been absorbing.

  16. Marketing is Product, Pricing, Distribution Channels and Promotion. Promotion is last for a reason. You cannot operate a thriving business if you don’t have a product that the market wants to consume, delivered to the market at a time, place, method, etc that the market wants to consume it, and a price they are willing to consume it.

    If you are lacking on either of the first three, odds are that promotion will not only be unsuccessful, but it will be lighting a fire to cash.

    Indycar does not understand the marginal cost of production concept when it insists on having x number of races on the schedule. The schedule is riddled with events that cost more to run than they return in revenue. Those events serve no purpose, are bad business and seriously hurt the product.

    Promotion needs to follow the same marginal cost of production concept that Indycar ignores with it’s schedule. If writing a $1,000 check for promotion is likely to yield only $900 in additional ticket sales, that promotion should not occur.

    Does anybody here believe for a second that Fontana could have tripled their promotional spend and increased the draw by 3x? As it is they were underwater with the little promotion they did.

    You hire a professional electrician to rewire your home if you have a problem, you don’t go in with no experience and add a 240v service to your home. The tracks are in the business of promotion. They know what to spend and what impact it will have on attendance. Indycar has little experience and, while they could arbitrarily increase promotional spend, there is little chance that they will see any ROI.

    Instead of worrying about the apparent lack of promotion by Fontana, remember that Fontana knew they were up against a wall when they agreed to run a June date. The people in charge of operations at the track were already going to lose money on the deal and were generous enough to agree to the deal. Now Indycar fans want to complain that they didn’t lose even more by spending on promotion that was going to cost more than it would yield in attendance revenue?

    The greatest promotional tool that the Indycar series has is the Indy 500. That event reaches more eyes on TV and in direct attendance than any promotional spend any track or series could dream of producing.

    The result of Indy 500 as a promotional tool: Over 90% of viewers nationwide never watch another race. Over 95% of Indy 500 viewers in California never watch another race that is not run in California.

    Within the California viewing market the two most highly rated races are Fontana and Long Beach.

    The promotion by Fontana is enough to significantly boost the ratings for the event within the local market, but not bring people to the stands.

    The break down is not with promotion, but with the other areas of marketing within which the sport is failing.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      I didn’t read any complaints that Auto Club Speedway should have lost more money.

      Those are four aspects of sales – a service or product to sell, its price, its placement, and its promotion (marketing).

      The Indy 500 is not a promotion but rather one of INDYCAR’s products or services.

      For promotion, INDYCAR can emulate other winning organizations by hiring more employees to communicate to current- and prospective customers or can hire a marketing agency.

      Regarding ‘tools,’ I say that INDYCAR’s marketers could, ideally, communicate via its partners’ media, ABC and ESPN television; ESPN magazine, and USA Today to drum up attention, interest, and desire many months of the year.

      If Hulman and Company only cares to keep its speedway profitable, …

      • Marketing is not promotion. Promotion is just a subset of marketing. Marketing applies to every strategic aspect of taking any product to the market. If you’re going to price the tickets where Indycar does, you’d better have a better product than Indycar does. If you’re going to place your product in 100 degree heat, then you’d better have a better product than Indycar does.

        While the Indy 500 is not a promotion, it does more to promote the series than anything else out there. Nothing else the series does has anywhere the reach or ability to create brand awareness.

        If a person watches the Indy 500 and does not come away with any interest in either watching or attending a race in Fontana, then what do you think a radio/TV ad or billboard are going to do? “Well I saw your big race and I didn’t give a darn about watching another race… but I just saw the cardboard cut out of a driver at the grocery store. I’M IN!!!!!”

        If a new beer company gives me a free six pack of beer and a coupon to get another for half the price of my usual beer, yet my next beer purchase is still my normal beer at twice the price, what does that say? It says I tried your product and I’d rather spend my money elsewhere on a product I like better.

        Indycar could triple the promotional dollars spent by this year’s race promoters. It would do nothing. That kind of money wouldn’t come close to the reach that the Indy 500 has in brand and product awareness.

        If you’re going to price the tickets where Indycar does, you’d better have a better product than Indycar does. If you’re going to place your product in 100 degree heat, then you’d better have a better product than Indycar does.

        One of the most important aspects of promotion goes along with the “easier to keep a customer than get a new one”. If you are going to spend money on promotion instead of product, you’d better have a good retention rate. If people are sampling your product and not going back for more, all promotion is doing is helping you lose more customers that you will likely never get back.

  17. Bruce B Says:

    There are a lot of good points/views made here. However, I have noticed that as a whole, our younger generation have little interest in motor racing period. F1 is on a decline…as is NASCAR…and Indy car racing. It hurts me to see this but I don’t really know long term a good solution. You have to have a rock concert at the track just to get them to come……sad.

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