OP-Ed – The Role of a Series
The Indianapolis 500 made good gains this year in both attendance and viewership, but the rest of the season hasn’t been as rosey. This got me thinking, what makes for a successful series? What standards should we use? When I think of various series throughout motorsports that are perceived to be successful, Le Mans and ALMS come to mind, as does Formula 1, SCORE, IndyCar (in its various forms AAA/USAC/CART/IRL), and NASCAR. However, what makes those series memorable isn’t the whole sequence of races that make up the series, but the one marquee event of the year. For Le Mans, its their namesake event, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, and for ALMS, its the 12-hours of Sebring and Petit LeMans. Formula 1 has Monaco, and SCORE has the Baja 1000. Even NASCAR has its one marquee event, the Daytona 500. Of course, American OpenWheel Racing in its various forms over the decades has always had as its standout event, the Indianapolis 500 Mile International Sweepstakes, or simply the Indy 500. …don’t let Donald Davidson catch you calling it that, though! Ask your average Joe/Jane on the street about these races and most will recognize them instantly, and perhaps even have watched them this year. Ask them to then name one other race that series went to this year, and you’ll likely get a lot of staring at the skies, much ummm-ing, and finally a resigned shrug of the shoulders.
So I ask again, what makes for a successful series? First and foremost, it seems that a series must have one really outstanding event that EVERYONE wants to win. Formula 1 is perhaps a bit different in this respect in that yes everyone wants to win Monaco, but the event isn’t an open event. Indianapolis, the 24 hours, Daytona, and Baja are all open to anyone who wants to submit an entry, and for those events, you see the grid swell far beyond what you see for any other race during the season. Its these huge, historic, filled with tradition events that make money for both the series and the competitors. That doesn’t mean that the other dozen or two dozen events of the series are meaningless, but if the marquee event fails, the series will fail. For this reason, the IndyCar Series needs to be very careful about how it markets and runs the Indianapolis 500. Right now, its a very restrictive near-spec race in which everyone has the same chassis, the same engine, and the same tires. That may work out fine for the series (and that’s a whole other discussion), but it doesn’t make for a great marquee event. When you go to Circuit de la Sarthe or Road Atlanta or Sebring for the Le Mans and ALMS races, you will see a great diversity of engineering and technology put on the track by many manufacturers. The same is true for Formula 1, and the Baja 1000. Back in the day, it also used to be true of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Every year, we all waited to see what crazy machine someone would bring out next. Parnelli Jones strapped himself to a jet engine and nearly won the race in the late 60s but for a $5 bearing that went bad. Wings started appearing on cars, and Dan Gurney stunned everyone when his simple addition of a small thin spoiler on the trailing edge of the wing yielded amazing results. Equally stunning was Penske’s performance in 1995 with their new engine, or perhaps lack of performance is more appropriate as the legendary team failed to qualify. Since those times, we’ve seen the number of manufacturers involved in IndyCar racing, both for engines and for chassis, diminish until now there is only one of each. Because of that, the Indianapolis 500 has lost a lot of what made it such an amazing event. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that the 500 is one of the greatest sporting events in the world, but I think it could be so much better, and benefit the rest of the series events so much more.
So this brings me to the point of this long dissertation. How does the league move forward in a way that will enable the teams to and league to grow and prosper? Above all else, focus on making the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race the absolute pinnacle of motorsports in the Western Hemisphere and therefore take steps to reaffirming the event as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. As of right now, its hard to say that distinction still belongs to Indianapolis. The 500 needs to be an event in and of itself rather than one race amongst many others throughout the season. The rest of the season should be seen as the “Indy500 Road Tour,” support races for the 500 if you will. Open up the rules for the 500 and allow teams, including one-off teams, to come in a really show their engineering and design prowess. The tech rules don’t necessarily need to be the same for the rest of the races of the season. Its fine if the league wishes to tighten down the rules for the non-Indy races, but don’t take away from the event that can make or break your financial success. Can the series continue to survive with TV ratings that are sub 1.0? I say if and only if the premier event of the season, the Indianapolis 500, once again becomes that event that all sports fans tune in to watch and come out to see each Sunday on Memorial Day Weekend. If the 500 becomes the greatest motorsports event of the year, then the rest of the season will be successful as well as fans come to the races of the rest of the season to see the star and cars of Indianapolis. I’ll write another essay later during the off-season explaining exactly how the IMS and IRL leadership should go about achieving this objective. Agree with me? Think I’m full of crap? Let us know in the comment section below.
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