Indycar-Zen and the Art of Relevance

Hooray for sinus infections. I’ve had one for the better part of this week. Instead of suffering through another day at the office, I elected to stay home and rest up a bit. On the tube right now is a replay of the Daytona 500. Undoubtedly, NASCAR is the benchmark of motorsports here in the United States. I can remember a time not so long ago when Indycar drivers were the household names and NASCAR was pretty much a regional series. Now things are pole shifted; NASCAR drivers are widely known while your average American probably could not name a single Indycar driver.

Mike Kitchel, PR Director at Panther Racing, recently put out a call asking for fans to give input on how Indycar can improve their product. I’ve spent some time thinking about this, but watching this replay of the Daytona 500 sparked some new thought. I believe we all have known for quite some time that Indycar has suffered a crisis of confidence. We’ve been devoid of strength in leadership positions. Fans are pessimistic about development. TV ratings are poor compared to other forms of motorsport.

The funny thing about it is all this comes on the heels of one of the best Indycar seasons since the pre-split days. The Championship came down to the last turn of the last lap of the last race with an incredibly photogenic American born driver taking the title. The 2012 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race also came down to a thrilling finish as Takuma Sato attempted a move evoking memories of Foyt, Andretti, Mears and Unser by attempting a dive bomb pass on Dario Franchitti. In the end, the Savvy Scot would come out on top, but Takuma-Kun won over many people by showing a sense of bravado rarely seen anymore. The DW12 by Dallara proved to be a very racy chassis, capable of performing on every type of circuit the series presented. Chevrolet/Ilmor and Honda HPD answered the bell with two very distinct engines with their own strengths. Newcomers Simon Pagenaud, Katherine Legge, Rubens Barrichello and Josef Newgarden brought interesting new personalities to the paddock, supplementing traditional favorites like Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon. In 2012 we brought closure on mourning the loss of our friend Dan Wheldon by donning white sunglasses on laps 4, 26, 77 and 98 of the Indianapolis 500, but we witnessed the coming-out party of the only person capable of stepping into Dan’s shoes as a personality in James Hinchcliffe.

By all accounts, we should be going into the 2013 season with our heads held high, ready to seize 2012′s momentum. This year Honda and Chevrolet are back with a year’s worth of data, ready to have another go at the Manufacturer’s Cup. Indy Lights Champion Tristian Vautier moves up into a ride at Schmidt-Peterson-Hamilton Racing as he attempts to become the first Indy Lights champ to win an IZOD Indycar Series Championship. We have true doubleheader weekend this year; races on both Saturdays and Sundays at select events. To make things even better, those events also have standing starts.

The only problem is much of the focus remains on outside struggles. Randy Bernard was dismissed/resigned as CEO of Indycar back in October and has not been replaced on a full time basis just yet. Rumors continue to circle about series ownership. There’s cashflow issues for teams and drivers. Fans seem apathetic at best. How does Indycar as an organization get things back on track? As I said, Mr. Kitchel…I’ve been doing a good bit of thinking. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Strength in leadership
Watching NASCAR reminds me of what made NASCAR grow like it did. NASCAR has always had strong central leadership from the top down. Bill France Sr and Jr were both men willing to listen to people’s ideas and opinions, but in the end they did what was best for the sport. Staring down the barrel of a threatened driver strike in 1969 at the opening of Talladega Superspeedway, Bill France declared there would be a race, and he found enough drivers via the Sportsman(Now Nationwide) Series. After France proved the track was indeed safe, the regular drivers came back. There have been no threatened strikes since then. Bill France was a man who put his money where his mouth was. Indycar hasn’t had one of those since Uncle Tony, and he died in 1977. Even in CART days, there was never a central leader who stood head and shoulders above the rest. I honestly think we may have one of those in Mark Miles, but only time will tell.  Indycar needs a leader, not someone who will make promises that are never delivered on.

2. Strength in finance
Part of the reason the IRL split away from CART was to secure financial stability for teams. I was a CART fan mostly during the split years, but even I have to admit that costs were rising at an astronomical rate in the early/mid 90′s. Here in the post-reunification days, we’re looking more and more like early 90′s CART again, except with better cost controls for teams. We’re at the point though where we have to start balancing technological innovation with cost control. At some point we absolutely have o bring in the whole aero kit thing. What concerns me is how owners are fighting the plan by using the $60,000 cost of the kits as an argument. If we’re at the point where $60,000 breaks a team’s budget, then fiscal health must not be very good at all. Meanwhile, we’re using the Leaders Circle program to prop teams up. (For those of you new to Indycar, Leaders Circle is a program where the top 22 full time entrants into the IZOD Indycar Series receive a guaranteed $1,000,000 from the league as opposed to running for more-traditional purse money. Those not in the Top 22 receive purse money based on their finish amongst non- Leaders Circle entries.) What if the league used that $22 Million to assist teams and drivers to find sponsorship? It actually wouldn’t even take the entire $22,000,000 so some of that money could be put into traditional purse structures, marketing and promotion. There will always be haves and have-nots in racing. By eliminating Leaders Circle, teams are forced to live or die by their own merits.

3. Strength in vision
This is the part where the fans come into play. Because of issues in the leadership roles, fans have less confidence than ever in those placed at the top of the company letterhead. One reason fans latched onto Randy Bernard like they did was because he made them feel involved in the process. Randy had dialogue with the fans, so the fans felt like they actually mattered for a change. When Randy was dismissed/resigned, they felt as if their only link to having some control over something they hold dear vanished. Fans somewhat believed in Randy’s vision for the series. I have to admit that while being skeptical of some of Randy’s methods, the series did see more positive growth in his tenure than it had in quite some time. I believe Mark Miles is the right person at Hulman & Co to institute real reform with business sense. Bringing in Robbie Green at a more prominent role is also very good. The important thing is making sure fans stay connected to the overall vision of the series. Utilize Indycar Nation to do this. Indycar Nation needs to play a very prominent role as a liaison between the series and the fans. There doesn’t need to be (and honestly, shouldn’t be) dialog on the level that Randy Bernard tried, but fans need to know their thoughts and concerns are being heard by the powers-that-be.

4. Strength in marketing
I’ve always felt this is where the Indycar Series drops the ball most often. Our series has some amazing drivers with amazing stories to tell. How often is Ryan Hunter-Reay on the Today Show talking about the significance of the number 28 on his car? When was the last time Indycar.com linked to one of Alex Lloyd’s awesome articles about racing? Why hasn’t James Hinchcliffe hosted Saturday Night Live yet? Josef Newgarden’s not in Teen People? Teenage girls across the U.S. would love to know about him. There’s no crossover marketing done with other NBC properties. There’s no ads in Sports Illustrated. There’s zero effort to reach new demographics. Why not have guys like Oriol Servia and Sebastian Saavedra reach out to Spanish-Speaking audiences? Pippa Mann is an amazing ambassador for the series. Even if she’s not in a car, the series can hire her to do community outreach as a speaker. With the movie “Turbo” coming out this year, Indycar has an incredible opportunity to capitalize on exposure. I can only hope the marketing department does their best to put Indycar in front of the American populace as often as possible with this chance.

5. Strength in confidence
That brings me to my last point. One thing both teams and fans suffer from is strength in confidence in the series. How long were we told new chassis were on the way before the DW12 was implemented? We were told aero kits would be used in 2012. Now it’s 2013, and we’ve been told they’ve been put off yet again. The new Indy Lights chassis has been put off again, further shrinking the Lights field. There have been so many instances recently of Indycar saying one thing and then backtracking, it really makes people take a “wait and see” stance instead of a “ZOMG! SO EXCITED!!!!” stance. How are Indycar fans supposed to help get other people excited  if they don’t know if the sanctioning body is going to follow through for sure? Much of this goes back to my first point of lack of strong leadership, but it’s something the series has to fix with time. Say you’re going to do things and deliver. That’s the only way to fix this problem. If you do that, the fans will come back, and they’ll bring their friends and pocket books with them.

Indycar is on the precipice of becoming a quite healthy and entertaining series. What we have to do is create something to capitalize on last season’s successes while building a solid plan to move forward. Indycar really has to integrate the fans into their future plans while developing a strong leadership circle at the very core. Without building a viable, modern business structure instead of continually looking towards the past, Indycar will never reach its full potential. Without creating some sort of stability for the teams while helping to reduce the somewhat-welfare state the series currently operates on, teams are faced with no incentive to perform, thus watering down the product. Without properly marketing all the awesome things happening in the series, the fan base won’t expand, and without an expanded fanbase, new sponsors won’t come into the series.

So, that’s pretty much my take on what Indycar can do to make things better. Oh, how about free beer on racedays? That’ll bring plenty of people in!

3 comments

  • I agree with you on eliminating welfare payments (“Leader’s Circle” money for teams which are never “leaders.”)
    Reward excellence with prize money.
    Don’t shoot self in foot by closing Los Angeles office and by dismissing Mr. Shunck and Mr. Bernard.
    Rather, aggressively promote the sport, the racers, and the races.
    WIDELY distribute IndCar 36, qualifying and racing shows on television, and have TV partner(s) enthusiastically promote viewing of the shows!

  • Well, paragraph 3 of Brian’ s comment is already done, so no real sense crying over that now.

    I agree with virtually everything you wrote, Kevin. I’m going to focus specifically on your #4 point because I agree that this is where INDYCAR has the most room to improve and improvement could happen the quickest.

    I am not privy to INDYCAR’s marketing efforts, but from a way outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t seem to be nearly enough.

    If I were involved with INDYCAR marketing, here is what I would try to put in place (in addition to copying/aping/stealing your ideas!)

    Have the drivers come into the market where the race is early in the week. Have them have meet-and-greets at Chevrolet and Honda dealers, depending on the team. Have the drivers blanket local media; get interviews with every radio station, TV station and newspaper in the market where the race is. Get the drivers to make public appearances at schools, businesses, the Rotary Club-if they still exist-or at other sporting events in the area. (For example, with the race at St. Petersburg, if the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lighting are at home, have one of the drivers do a ceremonial opening faceoff before a game or, if you have a driver with a good singing voice, have them do the national anthem) Require the drivers to do autograph sessions after every practice, qualifying, and race session. Bring show cars to races so people can see the cars up close and personal.

    INDYCAR has a great opportunity with the movie “Turbo”. Have the drivers attend the red-carpet premiere of the movie. Encourage Jay Penske-who owns the Hollywood trade publication Variety-to promote the movie and the drivers and series in the various forms of media that Variety is involved in.

    INDYCAR-as much as those of us who love the sport don’t want to acknowledge this-is a niche sport. As such, I do not feel that it can continue to try to do what it seems to do-show up and hope people come. I’m not saying that my ideas are a panacea, but at least I would hope that something like what I have suggested would make things somewhat better than they appear to be right now.