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Archive for the tag “Bernie Ecclestone”

Horses for courses at the Indy 500

Tribalism runs deep in motor racing, with the disregard and mockery of rival series a cottage industry among fans and journalists alike.  The decision of F1 champion Fernando Alonso to skip the Grand Prix of Monaco to race in this year’s Indianapolis 500 is a case in point.

After the announcement, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton said Alonso would be the best driver there.  Former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said he would have worked to stop it.  Red Bull’s Christian Horner said Zak Brown of McLaren was “barking mad” to do it.  I assume Honda just wanted to prove they had a competitive engine in a top series somewhere.

Is it important to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 to have Alonso in town for the 500?  Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles was effusive in his praise of Alonso and McLaren coming to Indy in May, as was Zak Brown of McLaren.  AP writer Jenna Fryer’s recent article indicated that Alonso to Indy is just not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.  Andretti Autosport certainly likes it since it brings cash and notoriety to the team.  Twitter, of course, is Twitter.  Whatever opinion you have is vindicated there if you need that sort of approbation.

Here’s the truth: everyone is right.  Perspective is what perspective is, and we can’t really change the lens.  F1 finds it a mockery.  IndyCar considers it a huge get.  Andretti considers it a gift.  NASCAR fans are asking, “Who dat, bubba?”

The winner here is the Indy 500 and IndyCar for the simple reason that people are talking.  Mark Miles did not say that Alonso coming to Indy was a game-changer.  He basically said it was pretty cool.  Which it is.  Everyone else wants to analyze it from where they sit.  Where will that kind of thinking lead us?

Is every decision made by IMS and IndyCar expected to be the most important decision ever, subject to dissection and discussion?  Horses for courses is an old British adage meaning the right people in the right situation.  Alonso certainly seems to be the right F1 driver at the right time for the Indy 500.  Is every decision at IMS expected to do more than  generate publicity?  Must these decisions appeal to a certain demographic’s ticket buying proclivities to be acceptable?  Are there really courses for all horses?

With Fernando Alonso, is IMS going after not only current F1 fans but expatriate Spaniards with a fondness for former Ferrari drivers, too?  One can only assume that the announcement of Chicago Blackhawks “National Anthem” singer Jim Cornelison to perform “Back Home Again in Indiana” was IMS vying for the elusive hockey fan who has not seen the 500.  Or maybe it was to find the even rarer opera aficionado with a taste for speed, baritones, and Jim Nabors.  Singer Keith Urban was obviously selected to inspire Midwestern Aussie’s with a taste for country music to make the trek to Indy.  Where does this demographic rabbit hole end!  Not every decision is vetted through marketing to ascertain its value before being made.

Without discounting them, maybe it’s not all about marketing and ticket sales.  Maybe IMS was not doing a “deep dive” into demographics.  Maybe they weren’t trying to “move the needle.”  Maybe the Speedway and Andretti Autosport simply saw the opportunity to bring one of the greatest racers of his generation to Indianapolis to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  After that, of course, fire up the hype machine and flog away.  There has to be an unexploited demographic somewhere.

 

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Millennials and the future of auto racing

Imagine a future where the whole concept of a car culture shifts.  A future where the youth of America are not overly concerned about muscle cars like the 60’s and 70’s or the rolling status symbols of the 80’s and 90’s.  A future where youth culture is concerned about environmental issues like CO² emissions, climate change, and the depletion of fossil fuels.  And don’t forget about a future where technology rules and everything is “on demand.”  Now imagine how that all gets rolled into the auto racing fans of the future.  Those fans, better known as Millennials¹, are here now.

Crusty old Bernie Ecclestone at F1 has made it clear that he, and by extension F1, are not interested in creating new fans since young people do not have any money.  Bernie has always used himself as F1’s target audience; he’s only interested in other rich guys.  So while he is waiting for all those types to spring into existence, he has alienated his European promoters and allowed his teams to sink under the weight of enormous costs.  Over at NASCAR, the one-time American racing bully and its partners have been pulling seats from all of their tracks to make tickets more elite.  Well-managed but sometimes tone-deaf, the series is slowly moving away from the mainstream and back to its guns, camouflage, and beer Southern roots.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  They know their core audience and go after it hard.

All of this begs the following question: Is auto racing too expensive and elite as in F1 or too rural and redneck as in NASCAR for the Millennials to follow?  Whatever series captures this demographic while simultaneously keeping their own core fans will be the one to assert their dominance.

It would seem Formula E would have an edge here.  This electronic series, described as having forklift motors and Formula Ford chassis with bad tires, certainly checks some boxes of the Millennials: it’s green, technologically relevant, and cool.  The racing, while slow and quiet, is really pretty competitive when you get past the lack of sound and speed.  The fact is that Millennials might not know the difference.  Plus, they have some big name sponsorship with BMW, DHL, Michelin, TAG Heuer, and Qualcomm.  What series wouldn’t want that?  What it does not have is an existing core fan base.  It’s starting from scratch.

Which brings us to the Verizon IndyCar Series.  This is the series best positioned to connect young fans to old fans and begin its ascent to greater popularity.  The series certainly brings a rabid, albeit small, fan base.  Unlike F1, it is not sinking under he weight of outrageous cost.  The argument can be made that it was sinking under the weight of less-than-stellar management.  No longer.  Technology giant Verizon markets the phones and data that Millennials desire.  That checks another box.  The racing is superb, which trumps the slo-mo action on the Formula E circuit.  The Verizon IndyCar Series’ willingness to race on any type of circuit gets it into places that F1 and NASCAR cannot go: city centers.  IndyCar can bridge the past to the future.

Need more?  The introduction of the new aero kits has been big news from the non-traditional media as well as the racing media.  Articles appeared in Wired, The Verve, DesignBoom.com, Fox News, USA Today, and Jalopnik.  Okay, Jalopnik is a car site but it’s not a racing site.  The article there is outstanding.  IndyCar has some buzz going on about things that are not the bad news of recent years or Indy 500-centric.  Just as yellow flags breed more yellow flags in a race, good coverage breeds more good coverage in the media.  At least IndyCar fans hope that is true.

IndyCar promoters should look to the Indy 500 and IMS for lessons on how to hook Millennials while keeping their core fans.  At the corporate Snake Pit in the infield at the 500 this year, Millennials will pulse to the beat of world-class EDM (electronic dance music) DJ Kaskade.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who this is.  The Millennials do.  And it matters if you want to hook them.  Can you imagine this at Daytona?  IMS caters to its other demographics with rock and roll on Carb Day and a top flight country show on Saturday.  This stuff matters!  If a race fan doesn’t care about it, great.  Just go to the race.  You are an important demographic, too.  Quit being so stuffy about it all.

The ascension of the Verizon IndyCar Series is under way.  Real business people are running the show, real research is being done, and they have a real product to sell.  As the character of Penny Lane explains so well in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous, “It’s all happening.”  Be there or be square.

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¹ Millennials are the demographic group following Generation X.  Birth years of this group range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.  These are the coveted money spenders of the future.

Does IndyCar get the joke?

Well, it seems that all the major racing series are chasing the same off season quarry right now.  By that I mean that seasons are over, and PR people and auto racing writers are scrambling for anything that has the remote scent of fresh copy.  The Verizon IndyCar Series may need a bloodhound to sniff out a compelling story.

F1 is always in the news with the richest teams refusing to share wealth with the struggling backmarkers, backmarkers going into receivership and auctioning off assets, and Bernie Ecclestone saying that F1 does not need social media or young fans.  Every one of those topics is comedy gold, baby.  Maybe the receivership thing is not quite as funny since it involves people losing their jobs, but Bernie is always able to find more suckers investors to replenish the back of the grid, so new opportunities may crop up.  And since Bernie will be dead by the time young fans become older fans, it makes complete sense that they mean nothing to him.  He won’t be able to profit from their future interest.  In any case, stories abound.

Of course NASCAR stories always exist since that series NEVER ENDS.  One season just rolls into the next while hidebound corporate elites masquerading as good old boys figure out changes to make the series more profitable compelling.  Really, it’s just Duck Dynasty on wheels.  Again, comedy gold.

And there is the TUSCC or is it Tudor or is it IMSA or is it ALMS sports car series with professional, gentlemen, Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze drivers. Yeah, none of that is confusing is any way.  And the series is sponsored by a watch, that as far as I know, no one wears or has even seen.  It sounds like something someone with a monocle would wear.  The series begs to mocked.

That brings us to the Verizon IndyCar Series off-season, where stories go to die.  Oh, for the dysfunctional days of yore when race directors were objects of scorn, season schedules were always almost complete, backstabbing the series boss was an off-season art form, and vendors were threatening to walk away from the series.  Those were the halcyon days of satire and mockery.  It was my season.

But those days are over, replaced by a much tighter-lipped corporate structure that has a plan and is sticking to it.  Sure, we have the new aero kits coming on line, but the manufacturers have gone all state secret on them.  Other than some grainy spy shots and the rumor of F1 style front wings, we have seen next to nothing.

Yes, we have A.J. Foyt on the mend from his life example that bacon and ice cream may have long term consequences and news from Russia that Mikhail Aleshin cannot get his hands on the sponsorship money to race this season due to Vladimir Putin’s friendly overtures to the Ukraine.  Those are stories to be sure, but they do not have series wide consequences to consider.  In a word, the Verizon IndyCar Series long off season has been boring.

And that is really the problem, isn’t it? A short season followed by very little real news about the races, the cars, and drivers is not enough to build interest.  And those three items ARE the series.  The Indianapolis 500 may the worldwide portal for entry, but the success of the series must rely on those other three.  As much as I love sarcasm and mockery, they are useless if racing fans do not have the facts so they can get the joke.  So step it up, IndyCar.  I’m not saying a return to dysfunction is needed, but can’t an owner or driver say something really stupid?  Can’t a corporate executive roll out an extremely idiotic plan?  Can’t someone post a completely ill-advised tweet?  Missing those, couldn’t IndyCar at least give us something newsworthy?  Otherwise, the joke may end up being on the series when no one cares enough to laugh.

 

 

 

The long dark winter of IndyCar

Ah, IndyCar.  You had a great season last year: multiple winners, a great come-from-behind champion, an Indy 500 for the ages, and fantastic racing at every kind of circuit.  The only thing left to do was capitalize on the energy and momentum.  Sure, the TV ratings were stagnant, but good things happened.  Now all that was left was to use that on-track success to build up to the new, compressed season on the horizon.  Ready, set, wait a minute.  Where did that energy go?

It seems every form of autosport is using the offseason to, at the very least, make some sort of news.  Good or bad, it is the responsibility of the series to put its face in front of the public.  Let’s review the news for some of the popular racing series:

  • F1: The new cars, which will once again be ugly as dirt, are soon to be revealed.  And although this was not a PR move by the series, Bernie Ecclestone’s travails with the German judicial system led to his resignation from the F1 board.  Even the change at the top of McLaren with Ron Dennis replacing Martin Whitmarsh is noteworthy for the series.
  • NASCAR: Stock cars even make the news when they have no news to report.  According to the Charlotte Observer, NASCAR is considering changing its points and Chase protocol to create a “game 7” experience.  This decision has not been made, but social media BLEW UP at the possibility of the change.  The testing at Daytona with tweaks to the drafting rules was televised.
  • TUDOR United Sports Car Championship:  Even with the most unwieldy of names, this series has stayed in the news, albeit with questions about classifications, cars, and licensing.  The benefit to this series, like with NASCAR, is that they open their season in February with their biggest race.
  • IndyCar Series: *crickets*

Now, that is a completely unfair comparison.  News has happened in IndyCar.  Three time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced his retirement from racing.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a road course race at IMS was confirmed.  A significant change in qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 has been floated and will most likely be announced soon.  Do you notice any connections among those three items?  The focus of all of them was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Yes, Franchitti was a series champion but will forever be known as an Indianapolis 500 winner.  Yes, the series has another race, but it is inextricably linked to the 500 and IMS.  Yes, the change in qualifications at the 500 will put the action, and the series, on national television, but it is still the 500.  The big question is the value of the 500 vs the value of the sponsorless IndyCar Series.  The IndyCar Series is what has to worry about crickets.

Off-season promotion of the series has been relatively non-existent.  As was the case the previous year with Ryan Hunter-Reay, series champion Scott Dixon has been next to invisible.  Why is this the case?  When the 2014 season ends on Labor Day, will the series go dark for six months.  I don’t think hibernation is in the best interest of the series.

As always though, things are happening behind the scenes.  The new sheriff at 16th and Georgetown is C.J. O’Donnell, officially in charge of marketing, communication, and social media for both the IndyCar Series and IMS.  He accepted the job in November, and we can only assume that gears are grinding in the shiny blue headquarters in Speedway.  In O’Donnell’s defense, he has had only two months to evaluate employees, strategies, and programs in all three areas under his purview.  When that is finished, he will need to map out a strategic vision for both the series and IMS.  Even with all the grumbling about the direction of the series and the perceived lack of promotion during the off-season, it is still a little too much to ask for everything to happen at once.

Yes, IndyCar has been abysmal at promoting the series the past two years.  That is a reflection of leadership and vision at the highest levels.  At this point and at this time, the series should be given a pass on the lack of PR for the upcoming year.  Any change of leadership and philosophy brings with it an institutional inertia that cannot be avoided.  Change, and the difference it brings, takes time.  But the fact is IndyCar fans are getting just a little tired of waiting.  You are on the clock, Mr. O’Donnell.

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