NOTE: The below post was typed up and never finished from June of last year. Oops! However, the points are still relevant, and I’ve updated some of the thinking.
This past weekend at the Firestone 550, I had the pleasure of taking a couple to their first IndyCar race. I didn’t spend much time during the course of the evening chatting with drivers or anything of the “media” nature. I spent my time showing my friends around the paddock, answering their questions, and trying to make sure they had a great time. I found the experience to be very enlightening. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what it is like to be a new fan of a sport or just someone checking out something with curiosity for the first time. I’ve never known that feeling with racing because I grew up around racing. Racing has always been second nature to me. So, because of this experience, I’ve had a few ideas in regards to attracting new fans, informing them, making sure they have a good time, and retaining them as fans.
Monica Hilton was kind enough to show us around the Team Barracuda garage area pre-race. My friends were asking lots of questions about the cars, how much certain pieces cost, what was the purpose of something…typical newbie questions. It’s easy to look at an IndyCar and be quite confused because it’s not like a normal car. Other than a steering wheel and 4 tires, not much appears to be similar to something someone drives on a daily basis. This is why IndyCar needs to give garage tours and have “ambassadors”.
First, the garage tours shouldn’t be something that comes with a caveat. You shouldn’t have to sign up for anything special like IndyCar Nation (may it RIP). It should be free to new fans. I know each track controls a lot of that, but if you convert these people into fans, they’ll be paying patrons later down the road. You have to hook them first. But, who should be giving the tours?
Any Jim Bob with a knowledge of IndyCar shouldn’t be giving tours. In these situations, an entity like IndyCar needs someone that is not only knowledgeable, but personable and represents the IndyCar brand. This is the job of an ambassador. It’s not their responsibility to regurgitate reams of facts, but they should be able to relate to a new fan and answer questions in a way they understand. Frankly, no new fan really cares about who won the 1965 Indy 500 or Offy engines. A $30K steering wheel? Now you’ve got their attention.
One thing I learned on Saturday night is that IndyCar liveries are difficult to discern from one another at 210mph+. This never occurred to me because I always know who is driving what on any given weekend. However, to my friends, trying to tell Tony Kanaan’s car from Ryan Hunter-Reay’s and Graham Rahal’s, or Tristan Vautier’s from Josef Newgarden’s was nearly impossible. At speed and under the lights, it was even hard to tell Hinchcliffe from Franchitti’s Belkin livery if one of the cars wasn’t right in front of you. Livery designers need to do more to make sure their car stands out and is unique. Furthermore, the numbers on the cars were no help at all.
“What am I supposed to be watching?”
Good question, right? About half-way through the race when the field was all jumbled up, one friend turned to me and asked that question. It had never really crossed my mind before because there is always something to be watched on the track. But, for a newbie, they may not know what to look for. I told them to find a driver they are interested in and watch them. Or, they could find a group of cars running together and watch the passing taking place. Another option, one I do a lot, is to watch one specific section of the track. From our seats, this would be turns 3 and 4. Watching one specific section of the track allows you to look at the different lines the cars are taking and you can see who’s car is handling well. They weren’t as interested in that option. My female friend liked the pit stops a lot and thought those were really cool. So, I told her to watch pit lane and that when a team sat tires out in their pit box, it meant their car was pitting soon. New fans need to know what to look for…so let them know what you enjoy!
Lights on the Cars
Right at the first caution one of the first questions that I was asked was, “What do the lights on the back of the cars mean?”. I told them that it’s an instantaneous way of letting the drivers behind each car know when the caution flag is out, or when they will be restarting, etc. They thought that was pretty cool. As the race went on and it became very difficult to follow who was leading, where the leader was, and who was a lap down, I had a thought: Why don’t the cars have lights in a more visible spot, like the roll hoop or along the bottom edge, that glow colors? I know this concept exists with Swift chassis’, but this would be taking it a step further. The leaders car could have a blue glow and the lead lap cars could be green. It would be an easy visual clue to those in the stands as to who was leading or fighting for position. This wouldn’t necessarily be as useful on a road/street course or during the day, but for a night race it would be awesome.
How the Car Looks
I asked my friends what they thought of how the car looks. My female friend said she thought it looked cool and that she thought it looked smaller in person that what she imagined. My male friend also said he thought it looked cool, but that he didn’t like the big gap behind the front wheels and the big flat piece with the shark fin. He said that part looked weird. Opposite of his wife, he said the cars seemed bigger up close than on television. Nevertheless, a “cool” and a “cool, but…” answer shouldn’t be ok. An IndyCar should look badass. Period. No other opinion should cross anyone’s mind when looking at an IndyCar. I hope the aero-kits help this problem out. It’s harder to feel a connection with something that doesn’t look familiar (at least a NASCAR car kinda looks like something you drive on the street), so it must look great to draw some kind of strong reaction and emotion.
The engines just aren’t loud enough. They don’t sound mean enough. One of the things I actually enjoyed about the non-turbo V-8 engines was their piercing sound. They sounded fast. They sounded tough. Racing is a sensory experience. It’s sights, sounds, and smells. If you can control some of these, like sound, it should be amped up as much as possible. My friends said, “The engines don’t sound as loud as I thought they were.” They had even bought ear plugs and didn’t even need them.
The “IndyCar doesn’t have any marketing” thing has been beat to death and is a subject for a whole other post, but IndyCar needs partners. Verizon as the title sponsor should help, but there needs more sponsors that are partners in promoting the series. Sure, having the Florida Lottery on the sidepod of the car is great, but if they aren’t airing commercials, utilizing their participation in the series in print media, and aren’t at the track promoting their product, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, having a car on the track is great, but if the sponsor isn’t fully engaged it really is useless and doesn’t benefit the series.
Marketing the Drivers
On top of the above statement, IndyCar needs sponsors that are going to promote their driver. A driver should be on television, in the media, in advertisements, cardboard cutouts, talking to kids at schools, at trade shows, and auto shows. My friends at the race didn’t know anything about the drivers or who they even were. I managed to get a “Isn’t that guy married to one of the Judd’s?”, a “I think I saw that guy on Dancing with the Stars.”, and “Is that Mario’s kid?” However, these people know who Jeff Gordon is and they don’t even watch NASCAR.
Other than Castroneves, these are pretty much the only 2 names people outside of IndyCar recognize. IndyCar and the series sponsors have got to capitalize on this. There doesn’t have to be any fake or contrived drama drummed up, but make it a rivalry. Show clips of their dads racing each other hard, and how the rivalry lives on. Make it part of the “IndyCar story”. Sure, both may suffer from a little bit of “poor little rich kid” syndrome, but that shouldn’t keep the series from making them part of the relevancy solution.
No Build-Up Pre-Race
The buildup to an IndyCar race at an oval is pretty stale unless it’s at the Indy 500. I mean, it’s a huge track in the middle of nowhere and you show up to sit in the hot sun for a couple hours before the race starts. It’s quite dull. I’m not sure what the solution is, but there has to be a better way to build excitement before a race. I’m not sure if it’s making sure IndyLights is at every race (I know, they don’t race on all ovals because of crash costs, budgets, etc.), but right now a nap is more entertaining before an oval race. Drifting races are cool, and the offroad series with Travis Pastrana is neat, but it’s still not quite right.
Not Much To Do
The IndyCar Fan Village is a great concept. I love the idea, but the execution right now is lackluster. I know part of the growth of the Fan Village should come from sponsors, which are lacking right now, but there are plenty of things IndyCar could do to spice it up. This is especially true if there’s not much happening on track before a race. Here are a few ideas:
First of all, stop calling it a village. A village makes me think of a place leprechauns live, not an exciting place to checkout cool IndyCar stuff.
Second, there should be more simulators. The National Guard tent has an awesome setup. An old Dallara chassis is hooked up to iRacing allowing fans a chance to race a few laps while sitting in an actual IndyCar. We all know there are now lots of old Dallara chassis sitting around collecting dust. There should be 10 of these lined up for fans to hop in and race. The line at the National Guard car is always long, and that discourages participation. Think of how a little kid would feel going back to school and saying, “I got to sit in a REAL INDYCAR and race! I sat in the seat! Look at this awesome pic my mom took of me racing it!” Heck, I even have a couple of pics of me in the car that I think are awesome.
Third, there should be an education tent/area. Have someone explaining parts and pieces of the cars. Have a driver come and talk about front wing adjustments. Let it be an interactive Q&A type thing.
I work doing trade shows now, and an awesome giveaway always resonates. It keeps the product, driver, and series in front of fans away from the track. I have a Helio, AAA lens/glasses cloth that I still use I got at a AAA tent at Texas 3 years ago. IndyCar itself should be passing out awesome giveaways, not just sponsors at their tents.
There should be a DJ. I know a DJ would be expensive, but when fans are at the track there should be something keeping the energy high while in the Fan Village (ugh, that name). No more unknown bands playing. No more “turn on Sirius XM and play some stuff”. Have someone there, interacting with the crowd, spinning upbeat songs. If you want younger fans, you have to appeal to them. Take it from me, DJ’s are cool. Sure, grumpy old guy may not like it, but IndyCar has got to get it’s cool back, and a DJ playing would be one way to be a lot cooler.
Who Should I Cheer For?
My friends, who knew essentially nothing about IndyCar, needed someone to cheer for. Because the drivers were all unknowns to them, they didn’t even know they should pay attention to. Here is a huge problem for IndyCar. Showing up at a track, or watching a race on tv, is only entertaining when you have someone you’re cheering for. I wouldn’t watch a basketball game featuring 2 teams I’m not a fan of, so why would anyone watch an IndyCar race when they don’t have any connection to any driver. Fixing the driver awareness problem is key to fixing IndyCar.
However, as a fan myself, it was kinda fun getting to tell my friends about certain drivers and letting them decide who to cheer for. Pippa Mann was nice enough to meet my friends prior to the race, so they cheered for her, but unfortunately her engine expired at the start. However, anything can be a reason to cheer for someone in the beginning. ”Wow, I love the color of their car.” ”He’s really cute, I’ll cheer for him.” ”I love me some Target, I’d like one of those cars to win.”
I apologize for the rambling, but these are just a few observations and ideas from taking friends to the track with me. You’d be surprised what you learn when you step back and view an old experience as a new one with fresh eyes. That’s something the series needs to look at itself through. Rose colored glasses are not allowed.