Who’s Driving This Car, Anyway?
American auto racing is precariously hanging on for its very existence. Crowds are down in IndyCar, NASCAR, and, I assume, on Saturday nights at the dirt and pavement ovals where people see racing every week. The economy has tanked, and with the corruption that is rampant in Washington, no dawning of an economic miracle is poking over the horizon. People are hanging onto their money. Pricey ducats to big time events are a luxury, whether it’s pro sports, concerts, or racing. No worries exist for the big events; Indy, Daytona, the Super Bowl, and the BCS Championship have nothing to worry about. Although not recession proof, these are “bucket list” events; a crowd will always show up. But with money becoming tight, who pays the freight for auto racing in America?
The answer, of course, is sponsorship. Whether it’s the ads on TV, the livery on the cars, or the beautiful people in the suites, business pays so that we can play. And they are beginning to swing a pretty big stick. Kyle Busch is the current poster boy for NASCAR kowtowing to the sponsorship dollar. Ten years ago, would a sponsor have taken its livery off his Cup car for the last two races of the season after his bad behavior in the truck series? Ten years ago, would NASCAR have reacted so quickly to public pressure? The answer is no on both counts. But now is not then.
Ten years ago, Facebook was not a marketing tool, Twitter was not even a dream, and bloggers were in the shadows. Corporations gave their money to racing teams, entertained their clients, and figured some back-end metrics to justify writing the checks. The relationship had to make sense from a marketing standpoint, but the product on the track was not necessarily a reflection of the corporate ethos. No more. We have changed all that. Life is immediate. The world can track our every thought and movement. Going to Starbucks? Tweet it. Sampling a new restaurant? Check in on Facebook. Don’t like the decision of a race steward? Crucify him in a blog. And it all adds up. Mars, a maker of candy bars, reacted immediately to Kyle Busch’s race rage incident and took its name off his car for the last two races. Social media, as well as print and TV, jumped in and jumped on. And Mars listened. Do you think a little tremor went through all of auto racing? Daddy Warbucks just cleared his throat and the room got quiet.
NASCAR sanitized its product for its sponsors and paid a price. Ratings and attendance fell. Then “boys have at it” came along to spice things up again. And the characters were back. The aggression was back. But NASCAR forgot about the sugar daddy who has an expectation of a return on investment. You can play on his dime, but he gets what he wants when he wants it. If Mars said they couldn’t live with Kyle Busch, do you think JGR sticks with its boy or sticks with its money?
And poor IndyCar. In the racing family, IndyCar is like the brother who decides to follow his dream of being an artist while his younger brother NASCAR goes into business and makes a pile of loot. IndyCar has a certain level of historical and cultural respect, but he has trouble paying the bills, while his brother NASCAR lives in a McMansion and looks down his nose at his poor sibling. Starving artists have always longed for a patron to support them. And IndyCar is starving right now. The sponsors need more than a Memorial Day blow out. And it’s too bad. IndyCar has a lot to offer.
IndyCar is a great series with compelling personalities, great street venues, exciting ovals, and TV ratings that are abysmal. Sponsors can’t sell when an audience isn’t available to be sold to, and sell they must. And lurking in the shadows is what compelled Mars to jerk the chain on Kyle Busch: the possibility of their product being associated with tragedy. Sponsors want ratings. They want excitement without danger. Society wants excitement without danger. And IndyCar is a very dangerous proposition right now. Pollyanna, disguised as a dollar bill this time, is out to sanitize auto racing. And we don’t want that. My advice? Buy IZOD clothing, drink Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka, and figure out what ABC Supply sells. As Pogo said in the comics years ago: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”