Just Who Is The IndyCar Demographic?

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A couple of weeks ago, Robin Miller caused a justifiable stir when he answered a letter in his weekly mailbag on Racer.com. A reader had suggested that IndyCar should fund a car or cars in the Chili Bowl, which took place this past weekend.

For those that don’t know, the Chili Bowl is an indoor midget racing event that has taken place annually since 1987. It pulls from all midget associations and usually features a Who’s Who in USAC-type racing. It is run each January in the Tulsa Expo Center and is one of the more coveted trophies in racing. Each night is packed with around 15,000 open wheel race fans that are hungry to see racing in January. For the record, this past Saturday night, Rico Abreu won his second straight Chili Bowl title.

Miller’s response was that he had made the exact same suggestion to IndyCar a couple of months earlier, but was told that “…the Chili Bowl crowd didn’t really meet IndyCar’s demographics, so they were going to pass”. He points out that most of those in attendance are rabid midget fans, but they don’t watch IndyCar because they don’t give a flip about the drivers.

I’ll be completely honest. I don’t really follow the Chili Bowl. It doesn’t really interest me. I know some would consider that heresy and that I should turn in my racing man card, but it just doesn’t really do it for me. I enjoy midget and sprint racing whenever I see it on television, but more as a novelty than something to be really passionate about. In 2003, we went to what was then Indianapolis Raceway Park for the “Night Before the 500” and had a ball, but I didn’t know many of the names because I don’t follow it regularly. It was sort of like going to a Triple-A baseball game. There were some stars of the future and older names that I recognized, but it was mostly just a fun event to attend…once. I’m glad I did it thirteen years ago, but I’ve never really been compelled to go back.

But I also know that my opinion on watching sprints and midgets are just that – my opinion. I recognize that there are many IndyCar fans out there that are just as passionate about the Chili Bowl and the “Night Before the 500” as they are about the Verizon IndyCar Series. This is where I think Mark Miles and IndyCar are missing the mark. More specifically, I’m not sure they even know where the mark is.

In the early nineties, I saw a marketing report from CART that I now cannot find or identify, so I’m going strictly from memory – which is a scary thing. But from what I can recall, it stated that CART shared a lot of the same desired demographic as the NFL – adults, mid-thirties, slightly higher than average income and slightly more educated. I think the demographic for the NFL has shifted significantly since then, and of course – there is no more CART.

But what about today’s IndyCar? What is their target market? What is their desired demographic? Who exactly are they marketing to? Do they even know?

Most fans are in agreement that of all the problems facing the Verizon IndyCar Series, their marketing approach (or lack thereof) is most concerning. I’m not sure they know who their target is, nor the best way to go about marketing to them.

It may be that they have a clear and concise marketing plan and they are following it to the letter, but with the bunker mentality that has existed within IndyCar since Mark Miles took over – we’d never know it. My hope is that now that Jay Frye has been elevated to President of Competition and Operations, we may get more of a peek behind the curtain and get a better idea of what is going on with marketing and promotion of the series.

We may not all care for the marketing approach that IMS is taking, but at least they seem to be a little more consistent. I don’t go to Carb Day for the bands, I go because there is track activity going on regarding the Indianapolis 500. It would suit me fine if Carb Day was just about the racing. But I recognize that I’m in the minority there as well. The choices of bands for the last few years of Journey, 38 Special, Sammy Hagar, Poison, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top would indicate that they are trying to go after someone closer to my age group, than the affluent thirty-something. We may not agree with that, but they are consistent.

But IMS is headed up by Doug Boles, who is much more in touch with fans. Boles ultimately reports to Mark Miles; and Miles is more directly involved with the IndyCar side. That’s there where the target becomes more nebulous and hard to pin down.

But getting back to Robin Miller’s Mailbag, why on earth would IndyCar purposely snub the Chili Bowl demographic? Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thinking it’s easier to convert a NASCAR, USAC, IMSA or Formula One fan to become an IndyCar fan than it is to snag the occasional channel-surfer and convert him or her into a die-hard IndyCar fan. It can happen and perhaps some reading this had it happen to them. But if you like one form of racing, chances are that you’ll like another form if you are courted and made to feel you are welcome.

But to purposely snub a large segment of the motorsports fan base seems like marketing malpractice to me. This is why IndyCar is considered a sport of elitists and they have a wine-and-cheese reputation. Most IndyCar fans are fans of other forms of racing to some extent. Wouldn’t it make sense to apply that logic to the fans of other sports? Maybe I’m simplifying it too much or maybe it just makes too much sense for IndyCar to do it.

My degree is in marketing. Have I ever really used it? No, and I certainly don’t now in my current occupation. But you don’t really need a degree in marketing to recognize what should be a common sense approach. I think it’s high time that IndyCar started using some common sense to define a clear marketing objective and stop relying on consulting groups to build your business model.

George Phillips

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29 Responses to “Just Who Is The IndyCar Demographic?”

  1. Last season I asked the folks in my local Steak & Shake if they were aware that their company had a sponsored race car in IndyCar. They had no idea. 99% of them also had no idea what IndyCar was until I mentioned the 500 and then several of them were confusing the Indy 500 with the NASCAR race at Indy. One would think that there would be some effort on the part of S&S to show off the fact that they were sponsoring a race car, especially one that would be running in the 500. Perhaps even a collective effort on the part of car sponsors and IndyCar to leverage this advertising oportunity. But noooooo.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      Excellent comment. I have observed much the same and have had similar conversations.

      severe lack of ‘sponsorship activation’

  2. Just a little thought from me, this is a small thing but it shows part of the bigger problem.

    When I go to the local gas station near me, I don’t go often, instide that is. But when I do, I can get a NASCAR little schedule, a Reds Schedule, a Bengals schedule (I live in Cincinnati obviously), never have I seen an Indycar schedule or a standup of a driver tryign to sell me something. I know that is insignificant but people use those things, I see them at work tacked up on people’s cubicles. We all chat about sports around here and we talk about who is playing who next week or which NASCAR race is coming up. Nothing for Indycar though…..

  3. Market Indycar like a local tavern . You always need to be picking up around 15% new patrons every year to keep your doors open . The best years of Indycar the cars sported Beer & Cigarette sponsorships . Present day I would engage the public into sweepstakes prizes from sponsors , Apps . and social media blitzkergs . I am shocked at the lack of spots that should be reminding the world of the 100th Indianapolis 500 .

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    ‘Common Sense’ and INDY Car Marketing ?

    Oil (0W40) & Water ?

    And then there is the fan favorite 2016 INDY 500 Logo that is guaranteed to garner standing room only fans …………….

  5. I could not agree with you more George. I watched the Chili Bowl last night and they specifically referred to how quarter midgets to midgets, to sprint cars used to be one of the ladders to IndyCar but not anymore. They now all go to NASCAR. So there is your answer right there. In my honest opinion, I don’t think Mark Miles and his minions have a clue who they are marketing to. It is obvious to just about everyone and it is so pretentious for them to claim that the Chili Bowl crowd is not a target market for them. Frankly I think its embarrassing. So much so and I will be honest here: Last year I went to IMS and bought an IndyCar Series logo license plate for the front my 2007 Honda Civic SI coupe and I took it off because I no longer felt comfortable with it on my car. How sad is that? I have been an IndyCar fan since I was a kid I am embarrassed by it. There, I said it. The first step in recovery is admittance right?

    I also agree that IndyCar has created this elitist, wine and cheese stigma all on their own and it is just one of many reasons for the decline. Many people are turned off by IndyCar because there are not more drivers like Brian Clauson, Sarah Fisher, Steve Kinser Rich Vogler, to name a few. I would venture to say IndyCar fans are more sophisticated than the average NASCAR fan, but that has also devolved into a stereotype, and is now one of many reasons inhibiting IndyCars growth.

  6. Our friend Pressdog has often observed that the disconnect between most dirt track/midget/sprint fans and Indycar has a simple basis: when it comes to motorsport, the US is an overwhelmingly oval-racing nation with a niche group of road-racing fans, unlike the rest of the world where oval racing is a curiosity. If Indycar remains a twisty-focused series–and there is nothing to suggest that will change–the only potential link that the dirt track fan base will have to the series is the Indy 500. What’s the likelihood of a win from a one-off effort by a dirt tracker these days, which as far as I can see, is the only sort of watershed event that would change the situation?

    Robin also likes to comment about how the fans pack certain Indiana short tracks, but if you take a look at seating capacity, that might mean 4000 fans. No offense intended, but that’s not something that “moves the needle” when it comes to teams gaining a real selling point for sponsorship.

    • Both salient points, Steve. That second paragraph is kind of a pet peeve of mine. Robin loves to talk about “all the short track fans out there”, but basically every single short track event I’ve attended in the last 10 years (and, mind you, I haven’t been doing any of the big events at Knoxville or Eldora, or any of the big series like WoO) has had a grandstand that was well under half full. Short track fans are out there, but I don’t think they’re quite as common within the American public at large as Robin Miller would have you believe.

      • This bears out the point I made earlier. I consider myself an IndyCar die-hard, but traditional short-track midget/sprint racing just doesn’t hold my attention very long. I appreciate the skill set involved, but I won’t go out of my way to watch it very often. I know that is blasphemy to some, but I’m being honest.

        But I still think IndyCar is painting with an awful large brush to say that short-track fans don’t fit their demographics, if that was actually said. – GP

        • billytheskink Says:

          George, would you be more apt to watch a midget race if drivers you knew and rooted for in Indycar were participating?

          Perhaps not, but I do think many racing fans will pay additional attention to whatever types of racing that drivers they are familiar with are participating in. I mean, I began paying more attention to ARCA (I’m serious) when a driver from the local asphalt short track began competing there.

          Indycar has very little connection with any of the relatively popular forms of grassroots racing in the United States. If they want to connect with those fans, they need participation by drivers those fans are familiar with. That goes for fans of dirt and pavement, open-wheel and fendered, short ovals and road races, auto-cross and karting.

        • And I think conversely, Indycar–even ovals–might not hold the attention of a diehard short track fan as it did when fans did follow both. At a short track, you get lots of action in heats, trophy dash, semi-feature and feature/main races, each of which is fairly short–and as far as I have seen, it pays for any driver to charge to the front as quickly as possible. Compare that to attending the 500, where you can’t see all of the track from any seat, and as Robin has personally admitted to me: “It’s a 500 mile race, OF COURSE the middle couple hundred miles are often kinda boring!”

  7. I think there probably should be some vetting on the side of confirming what was actually said to Robin Miller when he had his little “chat” with whoever in the IndyCar front office regarding advertising at the Chili Bowl. I say that because I’ve noticed a startling tendency by Robin in his mailbag columns over the past 2-3 years to run a question by a reader, then post a reply that hammers away at one of his pet peeve topics while completely missing the point or the question in the original e-mail from the reader. That leads me to believe that there’s a decent chance that he’s misquoting or misconstruing whatever was told to him, because Robin wants to believe that IndyCar cares not one whit about the short track fan (which is sort of true, but then again, IndyCar.com did run a story about Sarah Fisher’s efforts in Tulsa last week).

    That being said, to the original point of this post, I think there is also something to be said for IndyCar focusing its effort where they are most likely to bear fruit. Let’s look, for example, at the crowd at the Chili Bowl this last week (and mind you, I am not looking down my nose at those folks…I love short track racing, I go to the “Night/Day Before the 500” show at IRP every year and I sincerely hope that I can make it to Tulsa for a huge chunk of the Chili Bowl week next year). Robin touts that there are 15,000 people in attendance every year. That is probably true, but who is in that crowd? Is it people who are blissfully aware of the existence of something called “IndyCar”? Or is it people who are aware of it and A) are too busy doing their own thing in the short track world to follow or attend events, or B) people who feel “snubbed” by the fact that the USAC-to-IndyCar pipeline has been broken for the majority of the last 35+ years (which, anybody who feels this way is liable to be 60 years old or older, unless they grew up with somebody who felt snubbed)? Because I’m willing to bet that of the 15,000 people at the Tulsa Expo Center, probably 10,000 or more are well aware of IndyCar and what it’s all about. So, are you just trying to raise awareness with those 5,000 people who are not aware of IndyCar? Because if that’s the case, then IndyCar is far, far better off spending its money chasing the 1-2 million people who watch NASCAR every week who don’t yet watch IndyCar. That’s called “maximizing your investment”. In addition to this, I’m also willing to bet that a large number of the folks in attendance in Tulsa are from the greater Tulsa area (like, for instance, our sheriff friend who decided to yell insults at Tony Stewart and is now a short track racing pariah). I have done some rather extensive research on this topic, and I can tell you that Tulsa is a 4 hour drive to the CLOSEST IndyCar race (that’d be at Texas Motor Speedway), and like 7 hours to the second closest race (that’d be Iowa Speeway). Now, if you’re advertising for an event of any kind, how much return on investment do you think you’ll see if you hang up billboards in some other state 4+ hours away? Probably not much.

    So, demographics of age, education, income or whatever aside (these things are obviously open for debate), I think that IndyCar probably did some quick math about what it’d require to sponsor a driver at the Chili Bowl (probably some $20-30k or more) or even just staff up a booth in the QuikTrip Center (possibly upwards of $10k, when you remember that you have to fly people out there, put them up in hotel rooms, feed them, then have posters/fliers/schedules/whatever printed up to hand out, etc., etc.) and decided that they wouldn’t make that vig back in increased ticket sales or TV viewers. I’m hard pressed to insist that they’re wrong.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      From my perspective I guess that I equate the situation (the INDY – IMS decision makers conclusion not to advertise at the Chili Bowl or other venues) similar to farming.

      First one must plant a seed before one realizes the fruits/harvest of your rewards/investments ………..

      Or from an alternative perspective, we hear the sage advice that the hardest part of any journey is the ‘first step.’

      Have the INDY – IMS decision makers begun to crawl yet?

  8. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’m a fan. I’m not a demographic.

    When those that create the product focus on nurturing and cultivating their fans, those numbers of fans will thrive and grow. When those numbers of fans grow, they’ll also produce more fans.

    Let me repeat, I am not a demographic,

    I.
    Am.
    A.
    Fan.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    I can believe someone from Indycar management said something to Miller as tone-deaf as what he reported, though I’d be willing to bet that what he reported was paraphrased or taken without additional context from a curt statement made by someone at Indycar who is tired of fielding Miller’s calls about getting Brady Bacon into the 500.

    The real reason that Indycar did not have a “presence” at the Chili Bowl, I suspect, lines up with what Speedgeek says above. It is probably fair to describe the resources of Indycar’s marketing arm as “limited”. They may not always be the best steward of their limited resources, but they undoubtedly often have to say “either-or” instead of “both” when it comes to spending their budget. Such may have been part of the case with the Chili Bowl, which fell on the same weekend as the beginning of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where Indycar did pay for an exhibitor’s space.

    While I don’t wish to dismiss the dedicated race fans who pack the Tulsa Expo Center, the NAIAS is:
    – In a market with an Indycar race
    – In a market within fairly reasonable driving distance of IMS
    – In a market with a much larger population than Tulsa
    – Attended by a much greater number of people than the Chili Bowl (perhaps not as many race fans)
    – Attended by a very large number of automotive media members
    – A major, major showcase for two of Indycar’s most valuable partners (Chevrolet and Honda)

    Was this truly the case for Indycar this past weekend? I don’t know for sure, but I think it is fairly likely. Frankly, if I was Indycar and faced with picking between these two events while having the budget and staff for only one, I would probably pick the NAIAS too.

    P.S. Since we all give ABC grief when this happens, MAVTV missed showing Rico Abreu’s race-winning pass on Bryan Clauson live. A disappointing lowlight to an otherwise solid broadcast.

    P.P.S. Not getting MAVTV through my provider, I watched the Chili Bowl at a Buffalo Wild Wings. The folks working there had no idea their company was sponsoring Clauson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the race, but they were happy to turn to the broadcast on one of their many televisions and sell me some very expensive soft pretzels.

  10. Mike Silver Says:

    I’m old enough to remember when Indycar drivers also drove sprints and midgets when there wasn’t an Indycar race. I went to to short track events then, but hardly ever go now because I don’t know many of the drivers. I really dislike this age of specialization where most drivers compete in one series exclusively. This is why I think short tracks are not as well attended as they used to be. The Indycar stars aren’t there. Speedgeek makes some great points about Indycar marketing strategy.

  11. It says something-I’m not sure quite what-that you felt the need to explain what the Chili Bowl is to your gathered audience of open wheel racing rans.

    I love the Chili Bowl and all open wheel dirt track racing for that matter. If you were to offer me free tickets to the Chili Bowl or to a IndyCar street race, it’s “Take Me Back to Tulsa” for this ol’ boy. During the warm season you can find me each Sunday evening having a brat and a beer in the stands of the Angel Park Speedway in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin watching the Badger Midgets ride the cushion.

    Regardless of exactly what was said to Robin Miller regarding IndyCar having a presence at the Chili Bowl, the bottom line is that there was no IndyCar presence there other than Sarah Fisher (bless her heart!). What a wasted opportunity to expose IndyCar to drivers and race fans from all over North America, particularly with a race in Phoeix back on the schedule.

    It was very interesting to watch the Robin Miller interview with Chris Dyson. Chris strongly believes that his dirt track racing helps his sports car racing skills and he enjoys both immensely.

    Demographically yours…………………….

  12. I’ll soon go spectate at the 24 Hours At Daytona. I’m quite looking forward to seeing the big IndyCar trailer and tent staffed by knowledable ambassadors/evangelists and housing two IndyCar chassis that persons can slide into, an engine on a stand, informative videos looping on screens, a race-highlights video looping on screens, and three racing simulators (cockpits + screens). Oh, and a merchandise trailer beside this pavilion ..:

  13. The Chili Bowl may be a long distance from any Indycar event but the TV audience isn’t. You don’t need a presence as much as a few commercials for the TV watchers. Whip up the interest so to speak for general race fans.

    Apologies if this was mentioned above and also apologies ’cause I can’t get the Chili Bowl coverage in my part of the world.

    • My point exactly (the TV audience). Tulsa is a long way from home for me, but someday I will be there and for the entire week if I can swing it. I taped the entire night and will probably watch highlights later this week. MAV-TV also now has an app, I believe, and a subscription streaming service. So they at least know how to market in order to build an audience.

      I saw on Racer.com earlier this afternoon that IndyCar has a new sponsorship consultant dealing with media analysis and tracking the brand. I will be curious to see what it comes up with and how it advises Miles and Co.

      And as DZ so succinctly wrote, I am a fan not just a demographic!

  14. Many great comments. But if the Chili Bowl fans are part of a demographic Indy car is not trying to attract, what “fans” are they trying to appeal to?

  15. Wow, I was reading Susan’s comments about how you stress over ideas for columns in her previous post here and I thought to myself “Well, I just gave him two ideas for columns a couple of days ago.”

    Glad to see you used one…. 🙂

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