IndyCar racing, most obviously associated with its crown jewel of Crown Jewels, the Indianapolis 500, is an American institution. While lacking the straight line single family monarchy of NASCAR or the unquestioned international prestige maintained by Formula 1, every single racing fan worldwide could be said to have a modest familiarity with IndyCar as a concept. Since the sport’s realignment and rebirth in the 21st century, the quality of the product in most every regard has been improved. The races are more competitive, the cars are more durable while still displaying blinding speed, the drivers are a good mix of home grown talent and international marquee, and fans pack most every track on the schedule. For all these improvements however, the hard line numbers of television ratings have remained lower than expectations. If NASCAR, Formula 1, and IndyCar were to compete in the same broadcast day, on all days besides Memorial Day Weekend, IndyCar would almost be assured of a 3rd place finish. Let’s be clear, an estimated number of eyeballs watching a race doesn’t come close to telling the whole story, no matter what the replies to an Adam Stern tweet would have you believe. Still, for IndyCar being in such a good place in what we think matters most, it’s not translating to success in the manner most desired by precious advertisers. Is there any way to fix this? Hell if I know, but I’m a semi-casual IndyCar fan that watches most of the races, so naturally
I HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. If you’ll give me the time of day, I’d be honored to take a shot at some of it, and hopefully throw out some ideas that can push the conversation beyond getting mad at 6 and 7 digit numbers every Tuesday. Let’s start with the schedule.
When discussing the schedules of major auto racing, there’s usually a handful of crown jewel races or “sacred cows” to take into consideration before making major changes. The good news for IndyCar, is that there is all but one. The Indianapolis 500 is so obviously a sacred cow that it barely even deserves to be mentioned in this context. Almost nothing we discuss here will be a suggestion for the Indy 500. Millions of people watch it, it is the most talked about race event in the world, it is everything IndyCar is built around, and for that we will leave it the hell alone. All that said, the strength of that race is part of the problem for the rest of the IndyCar year. Most casual race fans remain fully unfamiliar with the rest of the IndyCar schedule, and its context is wholly forgotten or ignored once the Indy 500 proceedings begin. This leaves a challenge for the governing body and broadcast partners, as there’s no translatable narrative to carry before or after the 500. A race at the Indy road course just before the 500 proceedings has indeed helped in recent years, but there could be more done after the fact. Many fans that enjoy the high speed oval track racing of Indy, those that could be potential new fans looking to tune into the next race a week later, are served a clunky (if not charming) street race in Detroit, which next year will be running on a brand new and unproven downtown circuit. Certainly, some potential new fans WILL enjoy the track variety, and rightly so, but before you know it the next race is 3 weeks away…or maybe it’s 4 weeks away? I’m not sure, is Mid-Ohio next week? Or maybe the week after? I missed Road America? Crap I wanted to see that one. I also wanted to watch that other race from a few weeks ago, but NASCAR is really good this year. Ok, I’ve been busy this summer but I think I can watch some racing now. The last race of the season is next week? Fuck it, the NASCAR playoffs are on, and football is starting, I guess I’ll just see you next Memorial Day…
The near 40 week stretch of constant racing that’s been cultivated by NASCAR is a wholly unrealistic and unwanted goal, but in that light presents a real opportunity for IndyCar to hitch their wagon to enhance their schedule. NASCAR may not have been in the business of sharing the spotlight historically, but their long standing habits and ideas have never been more up for debate. It may be just a wish and a prayer, but both sides coming together for some combination NASCAR/IndyCar weekends would be great for business. If the television networks put in the effort and the governing bodies make their peace with the change, a weekend at Charlotte, Indianapolis or even somewhere wild like Portland would be greatly appreciated. Around the turn of the century the NASCAR Trucks and IndyCar schedules would overlap and track promoters were able to sell two top-drawer race series on the same weekend. Speaking of wild tracks…
Going back to the sacred cow theory, everything is up for grabs, and new races could be considered without very much historic red tape to worry about. Races like the Baltimore Grand Prix from 2011-2013, while mismanaged at the time, generated a lot of public interest and presented an opportunity for new viewers. One or two year commitments at unique tracks presented with the idea of being temporary (as opposed to phony municipal lifesavers that invite nothing but corruption and poor planning) could shake things up to such a degree that the novelty could result in attracting more and diversified viewers. Rotating proven tracks on a 1-2 year cycle could also generate a similar interest. If two or three tracks in a geographic range would rotate the same place on the calendar (particularly established oval tracks), the schedule could be kept fresh while still keeping a slight amount of predictability. Much of this business with circuits and governing bodies is well out of the control of us mere mortals of course, so I’ll shift back to my own lane, and take my place back on the couch. Speaking of which, I could use a little more during my tv viewing experience…
One thing that IndyCar has had go exceptionally well for them in recent years is the broadcasting. NBC, which originally came into the sport via the old Versus (VS) Network once upon a time, finally gained exclusive rights to the series after several marquee events were still held by the limping choking dog ESPN/ABC coverage that was clearly just filling out a contract. Now, with the whole season from start to finish, and of course including the Indy 500, the flag to flag coverage has been wonderful. I say “wonderful,” however as a lifelong race fan that doesn’t need much explanation and stays pretty well informed between race weekends. The workman style commentary is excellent, but I wonder if more can be done to inform new viewers about what’s taking place. We’ve had this style of IndyCar chassis for a while now and I fear we’re getting complacent on the technical info. For years guys like Jon Beekhuis and Townsend Bell before his booth role would provide in-depth technical analysis on the cars and proceedings that I’m not seeing as much of in the last few seasons. For sake of clarity let me say I do NOT want to see any major sweeping changes to the broadcast and especially not to the booth, but I think NBC is showing a lot of effort on the NASCAR side of things that could be applied to open wheel…well some of it anyway. We could hopefully avoid Rutledge Wood spending several hours at Colton Herta’s hometown VFW hall before blowing the ceremonial foghorn when he wins Laguna Seca, but maybe something about the actual racing with just as much effort.
If technical info doesn’t get the motor running for new or returning viewers, IndyCar’s historical information could do just as well. IndyCar has over a century of history at its disposal in one way or another, and more references to any of it would be welcomed in my opinion. NASCAR’s dictatorship allows for a more proud remembrance of its past, most simply because the same people have controlled the narrative for so many decades. IndyCar (and we’re using IndyCar as a complete umbrella term to this style of open wheel racing) tends to be much less proud of its past, and for very good reason many times. Whenever Scott Dixon or Helio Castroneves moves up a marker on one of the all-timer lists, we mention it briefly on the broadcast and quickly move forward, but I’d like to see more. I want us to talk about Trenton Speedway, and USAC, and even the unspeakable split of the 1990s. With names like Foyt, Rahal, Penske and Andretti still competing, winning, and even owning most of the damn sport, we are more than capable of having this as a relevant piece of the experience. It’s interesting, it could help during the broadcast, and despite the many many black marks on the records, I think more fans would be attracted to discussing the old days within moderation among the exciting present of the sport. Hell, could you imagine the buzz a throwback IndyCar race a la NASCAR’s Darlington style could create? The merchandise alone has my eyes spinning like an old timey cash register, and that’s a market that could use a serious boost.
Part of what keeps racing on the lips of fans all the year round is the merchandise. Nearly every form of motorsport consumed in North America (and abroad for that matter) has an extensive apparel empire. F1 teams can charge 90 damn dollars for a hat with a manufacturer logo, and thousands of fat in the hip consumers are throwing their money at those billion dollar companies with both hands. Short track racers in the United States nearly all believe in the importance of racing t-shirts and decals, but very little of that importance is in terms of money. Exposure for these operations in the stands and away from the track is what makes the difference to most. Try to picture an IndyCar t-shirt in your head. Are you struggling to picture one? Has it been a while since you’ve seen one? The apparel exists, to some extent, but the reach and availability has been lacking in recent decades. Super fans I’m quite sure have their Josef Newgarden shirts and/or Ganassi apparel, but there’s been very little penetration into the casual market. Thousands of additional walking billboards for drivers and of course their sponsors could benefit Indycar immensely in regards to the viewership problem.
The last idea for IndyCar is the one that’s going to take the most work, and no amount of smug snark from yours truly will make one bit of difference. It all comes down to the sponsors. IndyCar is in dire need of more Blue Chip sponsors that could swing every bit of favor in the sport’s direction. It’s alarming how competitive teams are relying on the unstable crypto currency market to make races, and while the creativity is admirable, there’s so much more that could be done. IndyCar personalities have become fantastic ambassadors mainly due to how thin IndyCar sponsorships can be, and as such would be a great time to stick them in some big ticket commercial ideas. It would be pollyanna to sit here and scream at you about how Tide Detergent should spend 50 million dollars on a Josef Newgarden commercial and car campaign which would be a work of art and would increase the visibility of the sport across the continent…but quite honestly all the pieces could fit if they wanted them to. Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe are known by millions of people that have never seen a motorcar race thanks to Dancing With The Stars, so it’s not like we’re opposed to this exposure as a concept. In times like these I think back to the classically horrible movie Driven, and how among other things, every CART car in that movie had a blue chipper on the side pod. When Max Papis was sent into low orbit at the end of that movie, he did it in a Miller Lite car. When that Memo guy was thrown into a lake 500 feet off the track because his wife talked too much…I think he did it in a Nextel car. If Motorola could sponsor that quarterback from Remember The Titans, we should still be able to give Ed Carpenter a product that has some staying power. It might be the faintest of dreams at this point given the economy, but the people involved could be household names if we let them.
For this race fan, there’s no fix needed for my IndyCar experience. I love the races, the current crop of tracks, I’m pleased with the driver roster, and I think the prestige of the series is finally being felt internationally. I wish I could get 3 million of my closest friends to watch each race when it comes on, but it seems harder and harder to get eyeballs on the screens in a way that translates to rating metrics. For that, I’m sure the powers that be will get to work, and I hope they work on what really matters, and keep this potential golden age of racing thriving.
If nothing else, just sell me some more t-shirts.
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