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The paradigm has shifted: IndyCar is a street course series

Hoosier humorist Kin Hubbard once wrote, “T’aint what a man don’t know that hurts him. It’s what he knows that just ain’t so.”  I have no authority or research to show that he was a fan of racing, but the blindness to reality of many IndyCar fans is summed up in that aphorism.  IndyCar has changed…forever.  The time has come to accept that truth.

That’s not to say that change is bad, but it is certainly inevitable.  The fact is that IndyCar, in its current incarnation, is a street course series, and that is not going to change anytime soon.  On the current 18 race Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, eight of the races are street courses.  This number is likely to increase domestically in coming years.  And it’s a simple reality why this is true: it’s more value for everyone.

Before any of my tens of readers respond with Tony George, IRL, IMS, or spec racing rants, let me offer a piece of advice: shut up.  The war is over.  You lost.  And keep in mind that I am a true aficionado of all things oval.  As an oval fan, my choices were to quit caring about IndyCar, which will never happen, or embrace the great racing going on in front of me.  I choose to embrace.

We are a festival society.  We love to go to metropolitan downtown areas and party.  Cities have Irish, Italian, and German fests.  Giant art fairs take place around the country.  We celebrate beer, brats, and ribs.  Music festivals draw huge crowds.  Racing and speed are just other things to celebrate.  Most cities have vast experience hosting these spring, summer, and fall festivals.  They bring people downtown after business hours.  Cities want in.  And it is in IndyCar’s best interest to get in.

The fans that IndyCar needs to court do not care about CART or the IRL.  They do not care about spec cars or Tony George.  They do not care about horsepower or aerodynamics.  They care about getting entertainment value for their dollar.  Currently, the Verizon IndyCar Series is the ONLY racing series making a concerted effort to bring racing to where the people are, in revitalized or revitalizing downtowns.  The series OWNS this.  No one does it better, or for less investment, than IndyCar.  The suggested F1 foray into Long Beach will fail simply because of the vast infrastructure investment required.  IndyCar will race on the course that is there.  That’s value.

Street courses have proven to be good business.  Look at what Roger Penske has done in Detroit, a failing city with a successful race.  Penske made it successful by courting business as his primary way of generating revenue.  The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit actually removed seating to add the much more valuable chalets for business customers.  This business-to-business model works very well in city centers with easy access to hotels, dining, bars, and the racing itself.

Street courses offer the regular fans something not offered on most ovals: on-track action throughout the day(s).  The entire Road to Indy support series can be put in front of spectators, not to mention their sponsors.  Add in the Pirelli World Challenge sports cars and Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks and you have action and value for the fans and the sponsors.  THIS builds the series, not the constant rehashing of past politics and the self-scourging by fans longing for an oval or CART based salvation.

Accept it.  The future of IndyCar is going to include a majority of street courses because that is where the money and the people are.  And by happy chance, the racing is great.  William Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue,” and he’s right.  All the history, politics, bravery, greed, and stupidity have brought us here to this moment.  Embrace the street race!

 

 

Texas Motor Speedway in My Rearview Mirror

Mac Davis, a Texas singer/songwriter had a hit called “Texas in My Rear View Mirror” which had Davis eager to leave his hometown, and after seeing what life was like in the big city, just as eager to return home when things did not work out.   As IndyCar fans look back on the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, the dichotomy that is IndyCar in Texas rears its head once again.

After some acrimony between promoter Eddie Gossage and the IndyCar drivers in past seasons, it was good not to see the sub-tweeting¹ that was evident in recent years as the drivers lobbied for an end to pack racing and a safer fencing system, and Gossage lobbed suggestions that the drivers lacked the courage necessary to drive at Texas.  In interviews this year, Gossage was all smiles and support for the race and the Verizon IndyCar Series.  Somehow, this is worrisome.

In any case, the race played out somewhere in the middle between the “Oh my god, did you see that!” race of 2012 and the rejiggered snooze-fest that was 2013.  For whatever reason, the technical brain-trust at IndyCar decided to change the aero specs after the great race of 2012.  It was swing and a miss resulting in the 2013 follow-the-leader contest.  This year, at least for the IndyCar aficionado, strategy with tire wear became the only strategy that mattered.  Cool if you dig that sort of thing but not likely to engage the much sought after millennial fans out there.  I was engaged because I was able to follow the tire degradation through lap times and to anticipate pit stops.  Then again, I had TV, my laptop, and the Verizon IndyCar 14 app (which works in my house as opposed to at the track) to follow the action.  Most fans do not want to do this.  They simply want to be entertained.

I think the crew at NBCSN did a good job of entertaining the fans with pictures of passing back in the running order.  Tire strategy, since it was the only strategy at work, was highlighted in the broadcast and actually had me sitting forward as decisions were being made to pit or not to pit as speeds progressively slowed as tires wore out.  Again, cool for the enthusiast.

Would the race be better if there were more passing like at Indy?  Sure.  It’s a thin line that the rules tinkerers at IndyCar have to walk.  A small change in aero can have a profound effect on the racing.  Add the Firestone tire and how quickly it goes away and you can see how difficult it is to create the perfect recipe for racing.  The chefs at IndyCar are always going to be adding a pinch of aero or a dash of tire degradation to the racing everywhere, but the barbeque at Texas will always be the track where too many cooks can spoil the racing.

Anyone watching the race who understood the strategies in play sat up when the final caution happened.  What would everyone do?  Will Power, stuck in 5th from his speeding penalty, took on fresh tires and made eventual winner Ed Carpenter an algebra problem.  Math dictated that Power would pass Carpenter; the question was when.  That was compelling racing for a hard-core fan.

The Firestone 600 was a great race for the knowledgeable fan; it was the same thing over and over for the casual fan.  I guess the question that the Verizon IndyCar Series has to answer is this: Which fan is most important for the future?  The Firestone 600 and its willingness to promote its product may be the test kitchen for determining the tastes of the IndyCar fans of the future.  Bon appetit, IndyCar.

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¹ Sub-tweeting is posting a message about someone on Twitter where you don’t mention the person’s name but it is very clear to whom you are referring.  It is insulting someone with plausible deniability.

Indy 500 Time Trials: a new day is dawning

Sorry for the turgid prose of the title.  A kernal of truth is in there, but really, “a new day is dawning”?  And I have the gall to write that after a week of rain delayed practice.  I have no shame.  What I do have, though, is a good feeling about how the new Time Trials format at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to play out.  So what if it is hard to understand.  The old formats required a little thought, too.

First a word about Time Trials.  I’m going old-school here and calling this weekend’s activities Time Trials instead of qualifications.  It adds an aura of authenticity and tradition to a month that has recently been described as ignoring it altogether.  Maybe if IMS will dress up the weekend with this moniker, it will help disguise the disgust that some people feel about it.  My mom always told me to wear clean underwear in case I was in a wreck.  There may be a corollary here.  Or not.

In any case, some compelling storylines are attached to the weekend.  The biggest positive from this new format is that the drivers must hang their rear-ends out on both days to make the field.  Truthfully, this both excites and worries me as a fan.  The stories of drivers white-knuckling ill-handling cars around the circuit to make the race are legendary.  And we get to see it twice.  That’s good for the fans.  Having to do it twice, with the inherent risk to both driver and car, is bad for the teams and drivers.  It is simply the price the series is exacting from the teams and drivers to build excitement.  The balance between just enough and too much is mighty thin.  I just hope they never ask me to vote with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a qualifying run.  Too gladiatorial.

The points earned this weekend make Time Trials worth another race to the drivers.  A driver can win points equal to a race, and more, by simply driving fast.  No passing, no pit stops, no fuel mileage calls – just raw speed and iron balls.  That by definition is compelling on TV or at the track.  That is a reason to get after it.  I don’t think the regulars in the Verizon IndyCar Series are going to want any one-off teams to out-qualifying them.  Expect competition, not complacency.

Even though Time Trials have been condensed into one weekend, most of the available track time on Saturday and Sunday in recent years has been taken up by practice.  An aficionado of open wheel might not mind this, but the casual fan, and more importantly ABC, find it less than entertaining.  So IMS squeezed the qualifying times into neat little TV windows to interest the fans and appease the network.  And it is about time.  Now everyone knows exactly when the Fast Nine are going to be on TV.  Will more people watch?  A few.  Will more people know about it?  Definitely.  It’s just one more baby step on the 500′s march to greater relevance.  And as the 500 becomes more relevant, so to will the series.  Hopefully.

The fact is that Bump Day, for all the angst about its demise, just hasn’t been that good, except for the last 30 minutes or so, for a long time.  As fans, we always seem to want what we don’t have.  The last minute jumping into cars has been gone for over a decade.  The lines of cars waiting to take a last shot at making the field had dwindled to a mere handful.  We no longer have the cars or motors to ever bring it back.

Will the new format be the vehicle to drive the race to new viewers?  Who knows?  What I do know is that the 33 men and women who take the green flag in qualifying attempts this weekend will risk lives, equipment, and reputations for a chance to be one of the 33 on the grid for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 on May 25.  Isn’t that enough?

 

Figures lie: IndyCar, golf, and sponsorship

The week when the Verizon IndyCar Series races at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is the chance for writers to channel their inner Herbert Warren Wind¹ and wax poetic about the verdant greenways, majestic views, and oddball sculptures of the facility  Some even say it is the Augusta National of the racing world.  High praise, indeed.  Of course, in the racing world, any green grass seems like Augusta National when compared to the asphalt and concrete of a city street course or the dead brown of Sonoma.  Kudos to Iowa for the corn, though.  Not quite Augusta-like but it does have a certain waving-in-the-wind grandeur.

In any case, a compelling storyline exists with the relationship of televised golf and its sponsors and what IndyCar may be trying to do to milk value from what, by any definition, is a small television audience.  Golf succeeds for more reasons than just television advertisers.  The sport has deep-pocketed event sponsors who pay millions to host a single event.  According to an article by Patrick Rishe in Forbes, all 42 PGA Tour events are sponsored for between $6 million to $12 million annually with sponsor FedEx re-upping for $35 million annually to sponsor the FedEx Cup.  Nice numbers, huh?  And that doesn’t include TV money.  The PGA does have the advantage of being on four days in a row each week, but, other than the majors, it does not routinely knock the ball out of the park.  The recent Texas Open final round had a 1.6 U.S. rating the week before the Masters on NBC.  Why does the PGA tour continue to rake in dough from well-heeled advertisers?  In a word, demographics.

The sponsors of the PGA tour read like a who’s who of high end living: BMW, Cadillac, Audi, Bridgestone, CDW, Charles Schwab, Citi, MetLife, Rolex, Mercedes, etc.  Why do these companies pay so much to advertise and sponsor a sport that gets relatively low ratings?  Why don’t they go to NASCAR and the WWE, two properties that regularly ring up much higher numbers?  Simple.  The 1% does not ordinarily watch those shows.  They watch golf.  Numbers may not lie, but they can certainly mislead.  High end advertisers want to go to where the viewers have the most money, not necessarily to the event with the most eyeballs.

What does this mean for IndyCar?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  If you are promoting a niche sport, which IndyCar racing is right now, you need to appeal to an audience that spends the most money.  Glamping at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway anyone?  Want to listen to Hardwell in the corporate Snake Pit with VIP access?  All you need is disposable income.  IndyCar can grow as a property without beating NASCAR’s numbers as long as the right kind of viewers are attracted.  Can IndyCar attract those fans to the races and the television?  The devil is in the details, they say.  City street courses are certainly closer to the high end consumer, which is a great reason to keep them on the schedule.  It would seem to make sense that people who invest money to attend races are the same people who become invested as viewers of the series.  IndyCar and its easy access paddock and personable drivers are a great way to capture the interest, and the hearts, of its fans.

If the answer to creating a successful and financially viable series was simple, it would have been done by now.  The current brain trust at IndyCar/IMS is taking a measured approach to building the series, as it should.  Have they identified their target demographic?  I hope so.  If not, then maybe the PGA tour is interested in coming back to a Pete Dye designed course at 16th and Georgetown in Speedway.  There will be plenty of room for parking.

1.  Herbert Warren Wind was a golf writer who coined the phrase Amen Corner for holes 11, 12, and 13 at Augusta National, home of the Masters.

IndyCar is “Almost Famous”

My mind runs to comparisons.  You name the topic and I can probably list how it is similar to something else.  In fact, this ability to compare unlike things is one of the marks of an agile brain.  We learn new things by seeing them through the lens of what we already know.  So I wasn’t surprised recently when the movie I was watching conjured up images of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  What movie?  I was watching the fictional rock and roll period piece Almost Famous.  Besides being a soundtrack of my misspent youth, it was also telling the story of the current state of the IndyCar Series.

Just ponder the title for a moment.  With all the exciting racing and interesting personalities, it seems the series is on the cusp of a breakthrough.  IndyCar is Almost Famous. The big question is how to move past the “almost.”  Many seem to have the philosophy of the character of rock critic Lester Bangs as he describes Stillwater, the rock band being profiled by William Miller in the movie.  He describes the article being written as “…a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with its own limitations.”  That’s been the IndyCar Series for the past few years.  It has absolutely struggled with its economic limitations and its decreasing popularity.  What is there to do?

The lead singer of Stillwater, Jeff Bebe, asks the heavens this simple question, “Is it that hard to make us look cool?”  In the case of IndyCar and the Indy 500, it has been rather hard to look cool.  The series has not had a title sponsor in recent history that has activated its brand.  IZOD rolled out the same tired commercial for a couple of years and then just quit.  The drivers swimming and riding on watercraft looked pretty cool, but it not engage the public.  There was an idea, but no follow-through.  The Firestone commercials connected to a time long past, but did not really connect to what is cool now.  Maybe new title sponsor Verizon will finally make the series cool again by connecting a very real and current technology to both business partners and the public.

Maybe the series can take a lead from the new corporate Snake Pit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  In Almost Famous, William Miller’s professor mother Elaine tells her college psychology class that, “Rock stars have kidnapped my son.”  It looks like the Snake Pit at IMS is making a concerted effort to kidnap a demographic that has been eluding IndyCar for years: the hipsters. Mark Miles has gone on record saying that IndyCar is not trying to capture the NASCAR demographic.  Maybe the demographic he is after wears fedoras and listens to dance music spun by DJ’s in clubs.  The Snake Pit has managed to grow that demographic by bringing in DJ’s like Benny Benassi, Krewella, Afrojack, Diplo, NERVO, and Hardwell.  Names don’t ring a bell?  Who cares as long as they ring a bell in the head of deep-pocketed hipsters willing to return year after year until they finally decide to watch the race.  What?  You thought all those drunks who came back to the organic Turn One Snake Pit of yore year after year were there to watch the race?  They came for the party.  The party’s just moved to the other end of the track.

Want more rock star vibe?  The Snake Pit is now selling “glamping” inside IMS.  If you are willing to shell out the dough, you can spend four nights luxury camping in the infield.  That’s only the coolest thing EVER.  If you have the money, that is.  And somebody does.  You can go to the Snake Pit and channel Almost Famous character Russell Hammond as he shouts from the top of a house, “I am a golden god!”  Well, you can as long as you can pay the freight, anyway.  And let’s face it, we all want to be a golden god.

The most famous line in the movie is probably said by the groupie/Band-Aid Penny Lane.  She cryptically tells William Miller that, “It’s all happening” in reference to the tour of Stillwater.  IndyCar is finally able to say the same thing.  New hires have been made.  A title sponsor has been announced.  Infrastructure construction has been planned.  Social media has been embraced.  New events like the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the vintage car races have been scheduled.  Big time performers have been slated for concerts.  The Snake Pit is grabbing a new demographic. Take a real good look at everything bubbling up in the series.  IndyCar is looking at us just like Penny Lane looked at William Miller and saying, “It’s all happening.”  All a fan can say is it’s about time.

IMS: museum or racing facility?

As I was digging out of another Midwestern winter storm, I encountered the bane of the driveway: a solid layer of old ice that had adhered to the concrete with a tenacity that shovels, salt, and swearing could not surmount.  As I walked away, defeated, the ice became a symbol of the hard-core IndyCar fans that are still left.  They have held on to their beliefs, no matter how outdated, through the long winter of IndyCar’s discontent.  And just like a warming southern breeze will do to the ice what I could not, so to will a modern approach to the racing business of IndyCar and IMS melt away what is left of the hard-core fans’ deeply held belief that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway should be a shrine to a once-a-year event and then close down for the rest of the year.  They want a return to Kurt Vonnegut’s famous definition of Indianapolis: “…the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race again.”

The days of opening once a year are gone.  IMS must be more than an edifice to the history of open-wheel racing.  Don’t get me wrong, if economics allowed IMS to only be open for the month of May, I would be ecstatic.  But the economic reality is that the Speedway and its grounds are the financial engine to the IndyCar Series.  As IMS goes, so goes the series.

The argument against IMS hosting a variety of events always comes down to the history of the Speedway.  It is a specious argument.  Carl Fisher, the founder of both the Speedway and the Indy 500, was more than willing to run multiple events.  He decided to run only the 500 for solely economic reasons.  One big race could make more money than many races, especially if the races all had the same cars and drivers.  That is an important distinction.  IMS is offering multiple series, cars, and drivers.

The question remains: Will opening IMS up to two IndyCar races, the IndyCar support series, sports cars, stock cars, motorcycles, vintage cars, stadium trucks, and concerts make less money for the owners?  Isn’t the answer self-evident?  The track, through tickets, suites, TV, concessions, and apparel makes a profit.  And it needs to do so.  Those profits, one way or another, support the series that WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT THEM. How tone-deaf do fans have to be to not realize this simple fact?

Can an iconic track with a famous race coexist with other events?  Look south.  Daytona International Speedway hosts the Daytona 500, The Great American Race, every February.  Does hosting the Rolex 24, ARCA, Whelen Modifieds, K & N Pro Series, Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Duel, Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series, Daytona 200 AMA Pro Racing motorcycles, Daytona Supercross, and the Coke Zero 400 tarnish the luster of the ugliest trophy in motorsports?  Hardly.  And all of those are sponsored races, meaning more coins in the coffers.  The Daytona 500 is the race that put NASCAR on the map.  All the other races put money in its pocket.  NASCAR parlayed a facility and its history and status into the most popular racing series in North America.  Maybe there is a lesson to be learned.

I have often compared the IndyCar Series to a starving artist.  He wants to be true to his art, but he needs to eat, too.  At some point, an artist needs to sell his work to pay the bills.  And if that work finds its way into a famous museum, that can only expose the artist and his work to a wider audience where a deep-pocketed patron of the arts may be willing to support him.  The IndyCar Series has just the museum needed to do this at 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis.  All forms of racing are art.  The next exhibition at IMS starts in May and runs all summer.  It’s either that or 364 days of miniature golf.

Dr. Strangerace or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New IndyCar Schedule

The new, shortened schedule of the IndyCar Series has provoked a visceral response from the remaining engaged and invested fans of American open-wheel racing: the vast majority see it as an insult to those who follow the series and a capitulation to the popularity of NASCAR and football.  Pondering the fact of the schedule one night, I was pulled into watching the Stanley Kubric black comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Something seemed eerily familiar, and then it hit me.  The plot of Dr. Strangelove was paralleling the perceived issues of the IndyCar schedule.

I do love black comedies.  In the movie, a rogue Air Force general launches a nuclear attack on Russia that climaxes with a cowboy pilot played by Slim Pickens waving his hat while riding a bomb to earth like  a rodeo cowboy.  And no, the connection to Randy Bernard is not lost on me.  He lost his job before I could use the idea.  But the theme of following a flawed protocol to an inevitable bad end was not lost on me.  It reminded me of the debate on the current IndyCar schedule.

Here is where my argument takes an ironic turn.  I don’t think the new schedule is flawed.  The old one was. While attendance at events is vital to allow promoters to make a profit, it is more important in the long run to increase television viewership to attract sponsorship and provide a means for the teams to make a profit.  Mark Miles, the series’ Dr. Strangelove, is moving in the right direction.

Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, is the President’s scientific advisor and counsels the POTUS on how to deal with the reality of mutually assured destruction.  Similarly, Mark Miles is navigating the politics of making a marginalized niche series, one possibly headed to financial destruction, into a viable money-making proposition.  To do this, he has made, and will make, decisions unpopular with the core constituency of the small but rabid IndyCar fan base.

His first decision was to shorten the window of the North American schedule to avoid the Chase in NASCAR and both college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays.  Again, Miles wants to improve viewership on television to bring in presenting sponsors for both the promoter and the networks.  Everyone needs to eat.  The networks need to sell advertising; the promoters need to sell presenting sponsorship; the series needs to receive sanctioning fees; the teams need to make money…somehow.  The series’ window provides the best opportunity for the networks to generate viewership.  The series’ on-air competition with other sports during the new IndyCar schedule is not quite as stout.  The new series’ window provides the best opportunity for promoters to find presenting sponsors.  Again, the competition is less robust.  And if ratings improve, sponsorship opportunities will improve, also.  The series has some wiggle room with sanctioning fees, but it must have a long-term commitment from promoters and networks to make deals.  Again, the television ratings for the new, shortened schedule will dictate everything.

But what about the teams?  The unfortunate truth is that they seem to come last in the pecking order of who needs to make money.  The history of IndyCar shows that tire and engine makers subsidized the teams while sponsorship made up most of the difference.  No more.  The teams are spending more on equipment and making less on sponsorship while purses at all races except the Indy 500 are too pitifully small to make a difference.  How will Dr. Strangemiles manage to fatten the purses of the teams?  Easy answer: international races.

International races are coming.  Period.  Miles has floated the idea and has vast international sports’ experience from his time running the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals).  His membership played tournaments where they could make the most money.  That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?  A short South American series in the spring and another set of rounds in Europe, Asia, India, and/or the Middle East would make sense.  To host these races, the promoters will need to have solid sponsorship and financial backing that will pay the teams’ expenses and put some money in the pockets of the owners.  As much as I want to say it is all about the fans, that is not true.  The fans are an important constituency, but they are not the only one.  As I said before, everyone has to eat.

Before the schedule detractors start jerking their knees, let’s look at the old schedule.  There were massive gaps between events that stopped any momentum the series developed, and everyone complained about it!  That problem has been solved.  The same unhappy fans will say that foreign events are in different time zones.  South America is pretty close in terms of time.  And Europe and the Middle East will occupy the same early Saturday or Sunday time that F1 and Premier League soccer occupy now.  That is still watchable, right?  And if one or two races find themselves in Australia or Asia, then I guess the DVR will be put to good use.  The American sports public records events all the time.  It is not an issue.

The same people will complain about the championship.  How can we care about races that don’t count?  My guess is that any South American races will be run before the series opens at St. Pete and may eventually be points-paying races.  The championship still needs to end on Labor Day, and it needs to conclude in North America to satisfy the fans, sponsors, and television partners.  The fall rounds could be an exhibition series, but I can envision a set of races with a sponsor’s trophy at the end.  Call it the Dr. Strangleove Cup, if you will.

At the end of the day, the fans will be happy because the series will survive and maybe even thrive.  Embrace the changes.  If economic history has taught us anything, it is that a business has to be nimble and able to adapt if it wants to survive.  In Dr. Strangelove, the title character advises the POTUS to move people underground to survive the Doomsday weapon of the USSR.  Likewise, Mark Miles and his new schedule are reacting to the reality of the sporting and economic landscapes.  In the end, the series will survive because someone made hard and unpopular decisions.  Then again, maybe it will be like Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong, riding the nuclear bomb to the ground yelling, “Yahoo!”  In IndyCar’s case, I hope it is not an example of art imitating life.

Truth in advertising: how to market IndyCar

The (your name here) IndyCar Series, by whatever name you want to call it, has a checkered past when it comes to marketing acumen.  In recent years the Indy Racing League and its scion, the (your name here) IndyCar Series, have been second-rate at best in the selling of the series.  The folding of the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sales and marketing departments into a single entity called Hulman Racing will hopefully end years of internecine battles for sponsorship and sales.  Mark Miles smartly hired C.J. O’Donnell as chief marketing officer and Jay Frye as chief revenue officer to work not only for Hulman Racing but for him.  Their marching orders are simple: make us visible and make us money.

Of course the marketing bar for both the series and the Indianapolis 500 have never been set very high.  If not for marketing partners Firestone, Honda, and IZOD, the series would have had no advertising of note in the last few years.  And the Indianapolis 500 has always sold itself in odd ways.  The Gene Simmons “I am Indy” experiment should never have been let out of the laboratory, and last year’s #Indy500orBust Twitter campaign, while trendy, probably did not increase attendance to any great degree.  As a long-time sell out, the 500 never really had to market extensively.  When attendance waned after the split, the 500 found itself having to market a race that was once a guaranteed full house.  I just want to let C.J. O’Donnell knows that New Track Record is here to help.  Allow me to offer some new marketing slogans that highlight the truth about IndyCar racing.

IndyCar – No title sponsor needed.  Just embrace the reality.  This series can stand on its own.  Let people know that pride and history are all that are needed.

The IndyCar Series – Now condensed into a shorter season.  Don’t hide from the fact that the series is afraid to go head-to-head with NASCAR, college football, and the NFL.  Sell that decision as somehow benefiting the race fan by freeing them up to watch other programming.  IndyCar is the series that cares about all of your teams.

The IndyCar Series – You don’t have to worry about what to wear after Labor Day.  IndyCar can position itself as a cutting edge pop culture icon by appealing to the female fan’s interest in fashion.  No longer will someone have to decide if white is acceptable at a race after Labor Day.  The IndyCar Series will make that decision for you.

IndyCar – Quite possibly an international series.  Remember, you can sell not only what is, but the possibility of what may be.  IndyCar wants to be international.  We can just leave it at that.

The IndyCar Series – Family owned and operated.  Markets often use the “plain folks” sales technique.  This appeals to the small town person inside us all.  A family owned and operated business always means folksy advice and values.  We just won’t mention provincialism, shortsightedness, family squabbles, and soap opera stars masquerading as celebrities at the 500.

The IndyCar Series – It’s all about the month of May.  Don’t hide the fact that the series takes a back seat to the Indianapolis 500; embrace it.  I’m sure the glitter of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will sprinkle the pixie dust of success on the series.

IndyCar – What we lack in innovation, we make up for in dysfunction.  If you can’t sell what you want to have, then sell what you do have.  The series has a car that allows little team innovation.  Every garage has the same car and looks the same.  If you can’t sell the tech, sell the screwed-up relationships among the owners, drivers, officials, and the series.  And go ahead and add the fans in the mix.  They’re crazy, too.

IndyCar – Where innovation and technology don’t exactly go hand-in-hand but kind of walk together, not like friends but more like acquaintances or people you know at work.  OK, this one needs a little work.  There’s a kernel of truth in that sentence somewhere, but it might need a little editing.

There you go.  I want C.J. O’Donnell to know he can use any of these.  Consider them my gift to the (your name here) IndyCar Series.  Of course, my marketing slogans may be a little too truthful.  The marketing team at Hulman Racing may have another direction in mind.  At least I hope they do.

In IndyCar, “The Song Remains the Same”

I was excited to note that Spotify, my music streaming program of choice, was finally allowed to offer the song catalog of Led Zeppelin, one of the bands that provided the soundtrack of my misspent youth.  In fact, the band’s music has played on an assortment of radios, 8-tracks, cassettes, CD’s, and MP3′s while I have attended the Indianapolis 500 over the past years.  Good times.  As always, you can count on New Track Record to reference the very best in pop culture as it relates to IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.  This is no different.

As I scrolled through the band’s progression from a blues-influenced group to the masters of heavy metal that they became, I smiled at the name of one of their cuts: “The Song Remains the Same.”  While quite likely referencing some drug-induced peek into an altered reality, it also offered a contemporary take on the new voice of IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.  It seems Hulman Racing has decided to go retro with the familiar pipes of Paul Page, the former radio and TV voice of IndyCar and the 500.  The song of the Indy 500 will remain the same.  And that’s not a bad thing.

The fans of IndyCar fall into two groups: the long time hard-core fans and all the people who do not listen to or watch the series or the 500.  That sums it up neatly, don’t you think.  While Page will not attract any new listeners to the IMS Radio Network, his hiring is a tasty bone tossed neatly to the small-but-noisy set of long time fans gnawing on the leg of Mark Miles demanding a return to roadsters, the Snake Pit, and the way things were in their memories.  One of those memories is Paul Page.  His voice connects us to IndyCar’s past, and I can only imagine the ways that IMS Productions is already planning to use him.

A change in the radio booth was well past time.  Mike King, a decent announcer in a corner or in the pits, had become a joke as the anchor of the broadcasts to many of the fans listening to the radio.  Hulman Racing had a choice: replace him or continue to demonstrate that they did not care about their radio and on-line product.  King went out on his terms, resigning to prevent the ritual press release saying the company had decided “to go another direction.”

While not a big money maker from rights fees paid by radio stations across the country, the IMS Radio Network does make money on selling ads that are broadcast to the listeners on that network, particularly during the Indianapolis 500.  The network is a must-have if the series is going to expand beyond the hard-core fans it now has.  And it must have a recognizable voice to be attractive.  Enter Paul Page.  He brings instant recognition and gravitas.  He knows how to call a race.

The fact is that only the dedicated fans listen to the radio.  The myth of the whole family gathering around the picnic table to listen to the race has been replaced with the reality of hand-held video games and easy access to other forms of entertainment.  By this choice, the powers that be at 16th and Georgetown have tipped their hats to mythology, to history, and to the long suffering fans of a a formerly dysfunctional series that had no idea who their fans were.  This tells us that they now know who those hard-core fans are.  The real problem is figuring out who the future fans of the series are going to be.  And I don’t think Paul Page’s voice can tell us that.

Ten Worthless Opinions: Thanksgiving Edition

One of the problems of being a “columnist”¹ is coming to grips with the fact that your opinions are all you have.  I have no Rolodex full of IndyCar movers and shakers, no behind-the-scenes intrigue and gossip, and no discernible credentials to support anything I say.  It is that lack of valuable information that makes writing during the off-season so difficult; I have to just make things up as I go.  Many of my regular readers would say that is no different than in-season.  So what does an opinionaire like me do?  One simply attaches a few hundred words to whatever event is handy.  So here it is, New Track Record’s “Ten Worthless Opinions: Thanksgiving Edition.”  These are ten things about IndyCar for which I’m thankful, or at least they don’t make me want to bang my head on the wall.  Thankfully.

1.  Everyone realizes that the entity known as Hulman Racing now controls both IMS and the IndyCar Series, right?  Mark Miles being in charge of all things IndyCar is something for which to be thankful.  He does not seem to have someone looking over his shoulder, and he has quietly consolidated his power by putting his people into key positions.  In the struggle among IMS, the IndyCar Series, and the Hulman family, previous bosses were never seen as totally in control.  No more.  For better or worse, Miles is calling the shots and all the parts report to him.  It may take time, but at least he has a long term plan.

2.  The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis made the news and will most likely add some life to a moribund month of May in Indy.  The crowd will likely be local, but who cares?  The locals and the out-of-state visitors were not coming out early in the month anyway, so changes were in order.  Look at it this way.  I had a favorite pair of jeans that I wore so long that they fit me perfectly.  I loved them.  Unfortunately, they wore out.  At some point I needed to break in a new pair.  That’s the month of May in Indy.  It’s worn out.  And it’s going to take some time to break in a new schedule.  Just look at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis as a new pair of skinny jeans.  Sometimes fashions change, and it takes time to get used to the new styles…and the chafing.

3.  NBCSN (NBC Sports Network) has made IndyCar a priority.  The pre-race interviews and features were tightened up.  It looks like the interns were finally told they could no longer produce this segment of the broadcast, other than Robin Miller’s grid run, which still has the monkey/football aspect to it.  The booth of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. works.  They are intelligent, excitable, witty, and fun.

4.  ABC Sports and its overlord ESPN finally decided to do something about the broadcast booth at IMS and in the IndyCar Series.  I’m not sure Marty Reid was the only problem, but at least it appears the network has turned its eye to improving the product.  I assume ABC knows that Dario Franchitti is available.

5.  Speaking of Dario Franchitti, every fan of open wheel racing needs to thank Dallara for building a solid car.  The car did its job at Houston.  It may be ugly, but it’s racy and saves lives.  If there is a problem with the racing, it is not the car’s fault.  It works.

6.  IndyCar fans should be thankful Juan Pablo Montoya is coming back to the series.  He is a real wheelman who has the ability to run up front, win races, and piss off owners, racers, and fans.  The series needs villains, and JPM can certainly fill the role.  Truth be told, he has done more globally than Franchitti and has more world-wide fans, as evidenced by his 777,000 Twitter followers as compared to Franchitti’s 115,000.  He is NOT over-the-hill.

7.  Quite frankly, I’m thankful for the nuts who follow IndyCar racing.  Disturbed?  Take a stroll through TrackForum sometime.  These people are opinionated, argumentative, angry, and necessary.  The series absolutely needs to find a new demographic to assure the future of open wheel racing,  but the hard-core traditionalists will need to be brought kicking and screaming to whatever new paradigm is developed.  And listening to those crazy bastards always makes me smile.  Rage on!

8.  Although it seems like a death wish for the series, I’m thankful for the right-sized schedule…for now.  The series has contracted the number of dates and shortened the calendar to avoid football.  Now the series can build the schedule slowly and methodically, adding races, venues, and dates that fit with the strategy that Mark Miles and Hulman Racing have developed.  Smart businesses have both long-term and short-term goals that fit with a strategic vision.  Right or wrong, Hulman Racing now has a plan.

9.  A special thanks to past, current, and future sponsors of teams, venues, and races.  I will buy your vodka, wear your underwear, and ride on your tires.  There is value in the series, but the businessmen at 16th and Georgetown need to sell it.  So go sell it.  I really hated to see IZOD leave, though, because I really liked their pocket t-shirts and socks.  They were my fashion statement.

10.  Finally, a thanks to the drivers and teams in the series for putting on the best show in racing.

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¹ I realize I’m not really a columnist.  I write a blog about a niche sport.  It’s fun to pretend, though.

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