IndyCar – State of the Series Rebuttal

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It was just around an hour ago that Randy Bernard and the heads of INDYCAR delivered their State of the Series address. The event was a little bit cheesy but at the end of the day was a fan experience. The main purpose of this address was to layout the very short term goals and accomplishments the series has been able to achieve. I will say that seeing the leadership and some drivers/team owners was a breath of fresh air given the way we left them in 2011. While in recent weeks it has appeared I have adopted the “doom and gloom” mentality, it is rather the opposite. I want INDYCAR as a governing body to succeed and bring American Open-Wheel racing back to a level that has not been achieved since the late 80′s early 90′s. Are we about to hit another golden era? No. I’m afraid that we will never enjoy the innovation and level of success seen in prior generations. We along with IndyCar must realize this and continue to look forward on how we can fix the current situation. I think the true “doom and gloom” group live in that area where they are constantly comparing the series now, to what once existed many years ago. Those are the folks that complain the series is overrun by foreign drivers and needs to resort back to a primarily American based field. I disagree not because I don’t think that Americans can succeed, but because the foreign drivers yield a lot of respect for their skill and are therefore respected and adored by the fan base. It really offers a fantastic challenge to our best and brightest talent.

INDYCAR has made great strides in the last couple years in bringing the IRL and ChampCar together. Has it been a perfect marriage? The answer is clearly no, but bridging the gap never is. Mixing the solid ideologies of both series will lead to some stuff lost in translation as has been evident. INDYCAR for its part has taken drastic steps to create a common operating picture. This has been shown by the development of a new car in the DW12 and also the addition of numerous road and street courses while trying hard to keep a number of ovals (minus the current oval crisis). Unfortunately, with some of the good decisions, bad decisions have been made too. This was shown last year when team owners rejected the aero kits for the DW12. The decision was made for the kits to be implemented this season along with the new chassis and engine package. A decision that was then reversed by the team owners. Excuse me, what? While Formula 1 has the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) that works with the series to shape future policy, INDYCAR does not and should not have that ability given the critical state of the series. The landscape is not ready for that type of organization and by rejecting the aero kits, you have set a dangerous precedent going forward. INDYCAR for its part IS THE governing body. Their decisions are final. If new aero kits are announced for 2012, then teams need to plan around those kits. Here is my assessment of the State of the Series with select quotes and pieces of information given during today’s speech. It is not my aim or objective to slam INDYCAR or Randy Bernard, it is simply to highlight areas that are being made to look nice and glossy in the media. There is a true problem in INDYCAR and it is my belief that the quickest way to re-establish credibility is using a forum like today to address the issues and be up front and honest with your fan base. Here are a few points that surfaced today:

Coverage Moving Forward:

There is no doubt that the coverage moving forward is paramount. Television exposure brings ratings, ratings bring sponsors, and sponsors bring money. The level of IndyCar coverage was better last season with Firestone Indy Lights races being televised and an all around better pre-race show being produced from Vs. Verizon even tried to help with a carrier specific app that bombed out in a heartbeat. The early part of today’s meetings focused on coverage going ahead into 2012. The now branded NBC Sports Network announced the biggest improvement with the introduction of IndyCar 36. A show that will document a driver/team for 36 hours over a race weekend. That is massive news I think on the level of getting these drivers known. Some of the drivers are complete enigmas that next to nobody can relate too. It shows when the driver introductions occur. What NBC needs to do is highlight some of the drivers that do not get air time. In my opinion it is completely useless to highlight someone like Dario or Marco. Many people know these drivers and cheer for them on a regular basis. I think the key target for a program like this is to highlight great stories from those like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway, and Justin Wilson. Sure, the hardcore fan base knows of these drivers, but to a casual fan watching the 500 may not know much about them. It is important to establish an identity of these folks who put it all on the line in the name of speed and precision.

One area that I and many others were let down with is the mobile app from Verizon. A number of racing championships have iTunes/Android apps available to folks on any carrier. The INDYCAR brass has elected to stick with series sponsor Verizon to release the next app. The app will be unique in a feature called “enhanced reality”. During the little snip-it they showed tonight, it will allow for fans to get live telemetry on their mobile device as the race unfolds and other pieces of data. It looked really cool but alas…it is for Verizon customers only. Racing fans as a whole are very keen on following the series on their device. I listen to the World Rally Radio feed via the iRally app every Friday of an event on the way to work. Why should I be punished for not having a Verizon product? True, the app was garbage last year and will take significant work to improve and make sure the new feature work, but INDYCAR needs to realize that app needs to be made available to all fans. I WILL NOT go and get a Verizon phone just for the app, but would like to have it as a fan of the series with up to date news and maybe T/S or other pieces of telemetry. I don’t want to get hung up on the app too much as it was really not the point, the point is that INDYCAR needs to open up these kinds of services to everyone. If you want to make Verizon the official communications and internet company, that is fine. It is extremely short sided however and not forward thinking the least bit when you cut out half of your audience. Especially at a time when you need all the audience you can get. Speaking of ratings….

INDYCAR and NBC Sports announced that ratings were up a total of 9% last season. They have jumped up 34% since 2010 as well. This is a positive sign, but not good enough. Any ratings are good ratings, but the drop off from 34% to 9% has to raise some concern. Announced tonight, Randy and INDYCAR are looking to increase viewer ratings by another 15%. I am confident that this goal is obtainable given the new car and engine competition. ESPN and ABC announced they will televise six races for 2012. The season opener in St. Petersburg will kick off the coverage along with Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Toronto, and finally Mid-Ohio. I like the fact that coverage will be on ABC and really hope the crew can pick up as well as they left us from Las Vegas. ABC did a fantastic job with their handling of the tragedy, I just hope that the Indy 500 coverage improves dramatically. People were blowing the twittersphere up with rants over commercials with 5 minute pockets of racing sprinkled about. As our biggest event, a better job of coverage is needed and it is the responsibility of INDYCAR and Randy Bernard to make sure that happens. Advertising space is good, but it must be in moderation. I can only stomach sided by side for so long.

Another great announcement from tonight’s address was the news that 100% of the Firestone Indy Lights races will be televised during 2012. This is massive in my opinion as the FIL brings some great racing to the table. This will give a chance for some of the more casual fans to get to know the young guns that will replace the TKs and Helios in the years to come. I think this also adds some strength to the series that will experience a slightly lower car count this year. As said before, more ratings and exposure mean more sponsors and cars on track. This is a great step forward for the series and I applaud Randy for this effort.

Schedule:


There was nothing earth shattering about the schedule during tonight’s speech given the Milwaukee information was released early. Here is the deal on that race, it is only going to be as successful as the fans make it. If you want it on the schedule, you need to show up. Last year’s 13,000 attendance is a slap in the face. I in no way shape or form can pin any blame on INDYCAR for this one. The fans complained, and then failed miserably to live up to their end of the deal. The Father’s Day excuse and all of that is complete non sense. I understand that the promotional work leading up to the race was poor, but come on. If you want the race, then show up. Plain and simple. Randy will do what he can to make room, but he cannot continue to justify going if the attendance is poor.

One aspect of the presentation involved the attendance figures. Randy wanted 10% increase and only got 9%. A fact that was quickly glossed over in my opinion. He then indicated he wants a 15% growth of live spectators. Understandable, but highly unlikely. What incentive does a fan get from going? I love attending races for obvious reasons, but what are YOU INDYCAR going to do? You have already tried to give tickets away for the season finale last season and the number of folks that actually attended was awful. Tonight I wanted to hear some of the strategy going forward to bring out that 15% increase. I mean the number had to come from somewhere? What is the plan going forward? I will refuse to believe that by switching to a primarily road/street course, you can properly calculate attendance gains. Sure, we lose some of the NASCAR ovals that are massive in seating capacity, but I am hoping the series tries to add more to what we already have in regards to attendance at tracks we already visit to appropriatley calculate the gain.

Partnerships:

There were a few partnership deals announced this evening and I am not going to really get into them. Instead, I will talk about the biggest of them and that was Firestone announcing their extension to 2014. What Firestone has done for INDYCAR as a whole is amazing. Their departure would have been devastating to say the least and I am happy that Randy and INDYCAR were able to secure them for two more seasons. One of the major speaking points I had taken out of this segment was the part the fans played in bringing the deal together. Firestone acknowledged the role the fans had in keeping the company with the series and I think that speaks volumes about the fans impact into this sport. I am convinced that no other sport or business has fans like INDYCAR does and it proved to be money when it mattered. This announcement was BIG news tonight and well received by the audience and twittersphere alike.

Closing:

In closing, I thought the event as a whole was a little cheesy. There were some serious parts, but I was hoping the series would really attack some of the tough issues. I understand no product is going to come out and slam itself in front of investors, but I feel as though that it would actually help if they took a step back from trivia and actually tackled some key issues. I would have liked to hear the progress in regards to the DW12 and its lack of performance on the ovals. Don’t come out and say “we got it wrong”, rather come out and say “we missed a bit on initial engineering and here is what we are doing to fix it”. In my mind that shows very strong credibility and a commitment to the short and long term progress of the series. Announce to me your aggressive strategy in trying to pull that 15% live audience increase in. Again, I am not an INDYCAR doom and gloom personality, I just want to know what the guys in charge are doing to make sure the series thrives for years to come. I want to be able to have a conversation with fans of other series and show my series has credibility as a championship. We have some of the best drivers in the world and the greatest race in the world. All I ask is that you keep us a float. The WRC was on a big momentum upswing very similar to this last year. Now, we have no TV deal, a half ass manufacturer in MINI, and no promoter for our championship. Folks, it can all go away very quickly and there needs to be the fans that make sure the series is held accountable and does not self implode.

I support Randy Bernard and hope him the best in this 2012 season. He said it best in his closing remarks: “2012 is going to be one hell of a ride”. I can’t wait to see history unfold! Roll on St. Pete!

2 comments

  • Sounds like Firestone extension and Indycar36 show were the two real announcements. I too have moved onto realism, accepting Indycar as it is and aiming for the best for the future. Randy has made progress, just keep it up, keep changing until we have millions watching again.

  • I appreciate your rebuttal to the SOTS. Very well done. I agree with the author that more needs to be done to draw in a bigger audience at the races. Aside from the usual concerns (variety of engines, chassis, etc., some of which is being addressed) I would also like to see LONGER races. To make some of the 300-mile oval races into 400 milers and the 225s into 250s certainly wouldn’t hurt attendance. At 200mph, a 300 mile race is a 90 minutes affair — not much value for the buck compared to a three hour football game or stock car race. The cars and teams are already there, just add a little distance to the races and I suspect more fans will show up.