Bless my own heart for finally deciding to address a few items that have been on my mind regarding IndyCar of late. Instead of a long prologue about why I’ve been silent so long, let’s just cut to the chase.
First, let’s review a few items. Since the introduction of the DW12, the racing in the IndyCar series, especially on the road and street courses, has been better than ever. It has been a vast improvement over the old Dallara chassis. The DW12 was developed to help contain costs by selecting specific suppliers to provide parts at agreed to prices. Honda and Chevy joined the series as engine suppliers, both sponsoring races and doing promotion while bringing competition back from a strictly spec series. Aero kits were finally introduced this year to create differentiation between the manufacturers and foster development. There has been an American series champion with Ryan Hunter-Reay. RHR also won the Indianapolis 500. There have been American race winners including oval specialist Ed Carpenter and young gun Josef Newgarden. Versus switched over to calling itself NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) leveraging coverage such as the NHL, Tour de France, Olympics, the Premier League, and now NASCAR to raise its image to compete with ESPN. Not to mention, the dud of a series sponsor, Izod, was replaced by media telecommunications giant Verizon Wireless.
It would seem like all of that would be a recipe for success, addressing concerns fans have had for years. The series has great racing, costs under control, technological competition, visual differentiation, winning American drivers, all on a growing network and a high-profile series sponsor. Going into the 4th year of the DW12, IndyCar should be rocketing to success, right? Not so fast.
Television ratings have sagged and stagnated after the 2011 season (not that they were really any better pre-2012) resulting in a compressing of the season to end by Labor Day to eliminate competition with the NFL and college football. IndyCar happily gloated that television ratings were up in 2014, which is true because ratings were “up” for the races that had been up against college football and the NFL the previous year. However, those ratings were still poor and only equal to a normal race on NBCSN. In my eyes, that’s a zero net gain. Basically, IndyCar attracted no new eyeballs and proved that ~100,000 would rather watch football than IndyCar if there’s a choice. What flies in the face of the football argument, is the perfect example of the race at Toronto. Fans hailed that the race was one of the best of the season, yet it received the lowest television rating of the season drawing roughly 196,000 viewers. It can be argued that IndyCar was racing the same time as NASCAR and LeMans was the same weekend as well. However, IndyCar can’t simply avoid everything. It has been proven time and time again that if essentially anything (PGA, the Olympics, NASCAR, Football) is on TV at the same time…IndyCar ratings will suffer. The series has to go against the competition and find a way to win eyeballs. Trying to avoid other sports is like saying, “We’re scared and small so we will just run away and avoid any conflict because we aren’t good enough.” Otherwise, the series will be running at 2AM on a Tuesday opposite of a Shiwala Wash infomercial to avoid anything that may take eyeballs off the series.
Due to the compressing of the schedule, tracks have had dates shuffled numerous times, been given terrible dates, and interested tracks will not get a shot to host a race because there’s no empty spot to fit them in with agreeable weather. Even if Road America could support an IndyCar race, there’s nowhere in the schedule to put it without taking away another race. The much hailed return to racing in Houston, America’s 4th largest city with a huge Latino population (a demographic win), was a huge blunder despite having Shell/Pennzoil as race sponsor. In year one there was an issue with the track due to a 1-week construction schedule. The second year, due to the overall compressed series schedule, the race was moved to the end of June when the only place hotter than Houston is Phoenix and maybe Death Valley…or the face of the sun. In a shock to no one, attendance was poor, no other acceptable date could be found, and the race is now gone. Baltimore left the schedule after 3 years of teetering on the edge. Texas is not long for the world as attendance has declined year after year, not to mention everyone loses their collective shit each time someone mentions the track (pack racing!) despite the fact that Indianapolis has proven to be a far more dangerous place to race than Texas and pack racing hasn’t existed at TMS in ~8 years. Poor Fontana has had a different date every single year, and last year’s date attempted to melt the few brave fans that showed up directly into their seats. After constantly screwing with the schedule each year, no locations for an earlier start to the season in the US due to weather, and the failing of the races that have been wiggled into the compacted schedule, IndyCar is negotiating international money-grab races to start the season. One was scheduled for this year in Brasilia, but it was canceled not long before the season started. That follows on the heels of the Chinese race debacle years ago. And now, we learn that the new-for-2015 Grand Prix of New Orleans owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to Andretti Sports Marketing (the race promoter) and will most likely not return. Another one and done. Lest we forget other tracks that are gone like New Hampshire, Phoenix, Michigan, Portland, Richmond, Chicagoland, Kentucky, Kansas, Nashville, Las Vegas…and the plethora of street races that have come and gone through the decades.
Teams are more cash-strapped than ever since the introduction of the DW12. By eliminating all competition and fixing prices, teams are under a barrel when it comes to items such as spare parts. They can’t get something cheaper even if they wanted…because that’s the proven model that has led to the economic vitality of the United States…eliminating competition and price fixing. A new front wing alone costs well over $10,000 (if I recall from a television broadcast at St. Pete the sum is more like $20K). I’m sorry, what? That’s ABSURD for a series that can barely muster 300,000 viewers on any given weekend. So, teams basically rely on their IndyCar welfare check (Team/Leader Circle money) to make ends meet. The cost of entry is so high there haven’t been any new teams entering the series, and existing teams have folded or consolidated. Just this year Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter’s operations merged. Since 2011 we have lost Dragon Racing, HVM Racing, Conquest Racing, Newman/Haas Racing, Michael Shank Racing (which never even turned a single lap), Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (which now fields 1 car for the Indy 500…it fielded 4 in 2011), and Panther Racing. 3-cheers for the cost-saving DW12!
Competition in the series has been lauded as an example of how amazing the series is. And, I agree, the on-track product has been excellent for the most part; it is essentially because the series has operated like a spec series despite having engine manufacturer competition. 11 different drivers won races in 2014 because Carlos Huertas is driving the same thing as Indy 500 winner and former champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. The times are close in practice and qualifying because, well, the cars are all basically exactly the same. I don’t see that as a good thing at all. If you are a reasonably decent driver, you can hop in a car with zero testing and be within a half a second of a series champion. Honda even went from running a single-turbo engine to a twin-turbo, the series changed the engine rules to only allow twin-turbos, so the engines are…essentially the same. Now that the manufacturer aero-kits are in play, Chevy has shown an advantage. This is what competition does. Someone will be better. Now, Honda is mad, Honda teams are mad, and the bitching is at all-time highs. “I’m sorry, we thought we were a great team because we were competitive, but now since we aren’t driving the exact same thing, you’ve exposed the fact our team is not as great as we thought. So instead of working harder, we are going to complain until we get the exact same thing again.” And yes, I know, teams can’t do a ton about it. IndyCar painted Honda and Chevy into very tight boxes with how often they could redesign aero-kit parts…and they had very limited testing…because they don’t want one manufacturer spending lots of money and beating the other…but what’s happened is now the manufacturer with the disadvantage (Honda) can’t really do much to close the gap. Instead of having these faux technologically advanced racecars with semi-differences and engineered “competition”, why not just give teams Toyota Corolla’s, cut the fenders off, call them open-wheel cars, and turn them loose. In reality, what’s the difference in that and what the series has been doing since 2012? If you aren’t really researching, developing, competing, improving, making changes, evolving, getting better, pushing limits…then why are you even racing?
Fans complained for years that one reason IndyCar had lost viewers was because there weren’t enough American drivers and American winners. That isn’t the case anymore. Americans are winning. However, having Americans winning championships, the Indy 500, and other races hasn’t moved the needle one bit. For heaven’s sake a blonde haired 20-something from Tennessee won a race in Alabama driving a Chevy…and you would’ve never known it. He even won at Toronto too! If it were NASCAR, they’d still be parading the kid around like a show pony. Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indy 500. There are pictures of his little blonde-haired boy crawling on the yard of bricks and the racecar. It’s literally marketing gold…and nothing happened with it. The perfect family with the perfect stories at the perfect venue winning the perfect race and we got crickets. If IndyCar can’t market that and turn that into something useful, everyone at 16th and Georgetown should be fired on the spot.
I know this horse has been beaten to pieces, but does the series have any clue how to market itself? I mean, the only commercial this year is essentially a nostalgic sounding crash reel that flashes a couple of driver names on the screen and vaguely ponders why drivers like speed. It would be like a commercial of overflowing washing machines with someone saying, “Why do we like laundry soap? What is the point of laundry soap…are clothes even necessary…what is life? TIDE… American soap.” So wait, why should I tune in? What is the series about? You said speed, how fast are you going? Who the hell is Ryan Hunter-Reay? Why should I cheer for him? I saw him for like 2 seconds. What is an IndyCar? Where are you racing? What makes this cool? What makes the drivers cool? And literally all over Twitter you just see #IndyRivals. WHAT RIVALRY?! Francesco Dracone has a rivalry with what? That’s not how you market and promote yourself when nobody other than 300,000 diehard fans know what in the hell you are or what you even do. An IndyCar goes over 230mph at IMS. The fucking Concorde supersonic jets takeoff speed was 220mph, and a normal commercial jet takes off at 150+. That’s what you should be telling people. That’s cool as hell! I can’t for the life of me understand why stuff like that isn’t promoted and marketed. You want the young folk interested, talk about speed. Talk about how the car makes so much downforce it could run updside down. Talk about how drivers experience up to 3g’s in a corner at Indy up to 800 times making 150lb driver 450lbs. Hello. Is anyone listening? Do I need to keep going? It’s just so difficult coming up with things to say about how cool an IndyCar is and all the awesome things it does. (Insert shady, eye-rolling emoji here.)
And then there’s Verizon. Heralded as one of the keys to better, higher-level series promotion that would bring in a slew of new, younger, hip, tech-savvy fans, Verizon was seen as a bit of a savior. Well into the 2nd year of series title sponsorship, ratings and attendance aren’t any better than they were 2 years ago, the series profile is as low as it has ever been, and there’s been little to no real promotional changes. My personal opinion is Verizon has only been in IndyCar because they were locked out of NASCAR. With Sprint going away as title-sponsor for NASCAR’s top level, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Verizon jump ship if the door opens for it to.
So, I say all that to get to this. It seems so many people have their head in the dirt with the entire series. People want competition but not the consequences of it. American winners are desired, but when they win little or no promotion is done. We want the series to be affordable for teams but cheaper options are eliminated. More races are desired, but every time one is put on the schedule it’s bumbled up each year, if it’s lucky to survive more than once, until it ceases to exist. Furthermore, who knows what the series is doing to try and gain new fans. It’s certainly not by marketing the series better. And, although many forms of racing are struggling, Global Rally Cross and Formula E are both 2 examples where new concepts and fresh ideas are creating growth in the racing world. Both series are finding new partners and expanding their fan bases and races while IndyCar can’t keep what it has on the schedule.
I can’t think of a business that has continually made such terrible business decisions for almost 30 years and continues to exist. In the real world, IndyCar would’ve ceased to exist 15 years ago, if not earlier. It’s getting so bad that it’s hilarious a business entity can be so poorly run from top to bottom. It’s comical. A 3-ring circus is less haphazard than IndyCar these days. That’s why I say it’s time. It’s time to take the old horse out back and shoot it. Put it out of its misery. Stop the madness. Fire everyone. Take a few years off. Take the time off to come up with fresh and exciting ideas. Do lots of research with fans and people that have never been IndyCar fans (they’re the ones that hold the key to how to attract people to the series, not current fans). Run the 100th Indy 500 and end it. Sell the rights to the series to a new group. Let someone else try their hand at it. It’s obvious that nothing is working and the only hope is 180 degree, drastic change. Fire every damn person working for the series. No more Derrick Walker who is just a pawn pandering to team owners and his own interests. Sack Brian Barnhart and his haphazard, inconsistent officiating. Rip up that damn Boston Consulting Group report. Escort Mark Miles and his money-grabbing, shallow plan off the premises. Actually, I take that back. Miles doesn’t and hasn’t had an actual plan other than following the Boston Consulting Group plan. I don’t want to give him too much credit. I mean really, has the man accomplished anything since taking the helm?
Here’s an idea. Talk to the fans. Better yet, talk to the people that aren’t fans. They’re the ones that hold the keys to the future. Instead of making decisions based upon placating whomever is bitching the loudest that day, talk to the ones that pay your bills and allow the series to exist in the first place…the fans. Ask NASCAR and F1 fans why they don’t watch IndyCar. Talk to random people that only watch football what would make them tune in to a racing. Build a long-term plan and stick to it.
Nevertheless, enjoy the product today. Soak it all in. I’m not sure how much longer IndyCar will be around for you to enjoy. There’s a certain…CART/Champ Car smell in the air. Bless its heart.
Ross Bynum (@therossbynum)