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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.

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.

Mark Miles cooks up a new tradition at IMS

In an interview on Inside Indiana Business with Gerry Dick, Hulman & Co. potentate Mark Miles threw the local media a bone by announcing possible changes to the qualifying procedures for the 2014 Indianapolis 500.  The few hard-core fans who actually remember the traditional 30 days in May practice, qualifying, and race formats had the expected paroxysms of angst at yet another attempt to make the events leading up the the 500 more compelling.  As a die-hard fan of the race, and by extension the series, I look forward to the possible changes.  It is time to shake things up.

Tony Hulman, the man that critics of change like to say spins in his grave when changes are made in the May format, moved the race to Sunday in 1974 for logical reasons.  Memorial Day had moved to Monday on the national calendar, and racing on the day before Memorial Day created a bigger crowd by allowing an extra day for travel and recuperation. Plus, it meant a larger television audience by being in a prime Sunday slot when almost all Americans were home.  In other words, it made financial sense.  At that time of course, the only thing that mattered was the 500.  The series was an afterthought.

Critics can decry the changes that brought the IndyCar Series under the umbrella of Hulman & Co. all they want.  It does not matter. The redheaded stepchild that is the currently unsponsored IndyCar Series is in the house and needs a seat at the table.  And presiding over the feast is the new head chef Mark Miles.  The cupboard may be relatively bare of sponsors, but dinner still has to be served.  Miles has to take the ingredients available and make them palatable to an unruly assortment of guests that include family, sponsors, teams, drivers, and fans.  He is currently whipping up a new recipe for the big dinner in May.

To begin with, Miles can now shop for better ingredients since he managed to get the local food bank, the State of Indiana, to pony up much needed cash for improvements.  The process of improving the facility for racing has already begun with changes to the road course.  I hope he doesn’t forget about some new dishes and silverware for the guests, though.  The old stuff is starting to lose its shine.

Next, Miles whipped up an appetizer never before seen at IMS.  He is using his main ingredient, the facility at 16th and Georgetown, to give the assembled guests a taste of racing on opening weekend.  The Grand Prix of Indianapolis adds racing to the menu at the beginning of the two week period of on-track activity.  I am still waiting on a compelling reason on how more racing is a bad thing.  And simply saying “tradition” will not persuade anyone.  More racing is better.  Do you want one drumstick or two?

But it seems Mark Miles possible menu change struck a nerve with some.  To add more excitement and value, he has proposed all cars on the track for high stakes qualifying action on both Saturday and Sunday of qualification weekend.  Saturday qualifies the top 33 cars.  You are in or you are out.  On Sunday, all the cars that qualified on Saturday are back on the track.  Positions 12-33 will be determined by requalifying on Sunday.  The Fast Nine will go late in the day on Sunday.  Holy cow, how you not like this new attempt to create value for fans?  This will be much tastier than any value meal at Steak and Shake or White Castle.  Hopefully, multiple attempts will be allowed for each car on both days.  These changes would certainly add a little spice to the IndyCar gumbo.

And it seems Miles has finally added the sous chefs he needs to round out his kitchen staff.  With the new entity called Hulman Racing on the marquee, Miles has added CJ O’Donnell as the chief marketing officer and Jay Frye as the chief revenue officer.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that these gentlemen report to Miles and are not under the purview of any other officers.  Suddenly, the racing business at Hulman and Co. is starting to look like a business, and it appears that Mark Miles is firmly in charge.  He knows that too many chefs spoil the broth.

Will the new changes for the month of May and the series be a sweet treat or will they spoil on the spit?  I don’t know the answer, but I look forward to a tasty new serving of racing at IMS in May.

IndyCar’s street cred

IndyCar’s credibility with sponsors, television, and the media is not, as most would agree, at an all time high.  Ovals are an endangered species; potential title sponsors for races are keeping their checkbooks in their pockets; television ratings are in need of resuscitation; and, if some people are to be believed, the mainstream sports media are cackling as they complete their nefarious conspiracy to relegate the IndyCar Series to the margins of sports entertainment.  What does IndyCar need to do right now?  It is obvious that the series needs some street cred.  It’s time for IndyCar to throw down.

After looking up words in the Urban Dictionary to give this post a “street” flavor, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only can I not use any of those words without sounding hopelessly like an aging hipster, I can’t even use them ironically without sounding like I’m trying too hard.  Sometimes it really stinks to be so Midwestern suburban, yo.  See what I mean.  That’s the last time I throw in any urban argot, I swear.  In any case, IndyCar is beset on all sides by critics and reality.  The only thing to do is fight back.

Mark Miles started the IndyCar response by announcing that IMS would be hosting a road course race, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.  He had on his Breaking Bad Heisenberg pork pie hat throwing up IMS and IndyCar gang signs to the audience saying, “If you ain’t down with a road course at Indy, then you ain’t down with IndyCar, yo.”  Sorry.  I said I wasn’t going to that again.  That’s wack.  Anyway, Miles is doing what he can with what he has. He HAS the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  To have an opportunity to use the facility, make a profit, and be on network television is money in the bank.  Hopefully that interest can be parlayed into more sponsorships and more races.  To many fans of the series, the down side to more races is that it may include more street courses.

While I’m still waiting to see how a hotter-than-the-hinges-of-hell Houston in June race plays out next year, the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston had two things going for it: the names of Shell and Pennzoil in the title.  Any race, no matter where it is run, will be on the schedule if it brings the Benjamins.  Was Benjamins too hipster?  Sometimes the line between hipster and doofus is a little blurry.  In any case, IndyCar can only race where it is wanted, and it is only wanted where there is a chance to make money.  Just like a great athlete trying to come back from an injury, IndyCar has to rehab and train if it wants to compete at the highest level again.  If racing in a parking lot around the Reliant Center in Houston gives the series the exposure it needs to garner interest from Road America and Watkins Glen, then do it.  For the series, money is the name of the game.  And IndyCar needs to get back in the game.  How about that?  Was a The Wire reference to the game street enough without sounding all I’m-trying-too-hard-to-be-hip?

IndyCar really is the most diverse series in the world with its ovals, street courses, and road courses.  This IS the point that IndyCar needs to hang its pork pie hat on.  The series will never again be an all oval or mostly oval series.  That ship has sailed, and the taste of the fans has changed.  IndyCar has a great product for which it needs to find an audience.  An engaged title sponsor for the series, relentless selling by the yet-to-be-hired commercial director for IndyCar, and creative marketing by the series and race promoters are first steps to show television and sponsors that the series is a viable platform for investment.  If more street cred means more street races, I say bring on Providence, Rhode Island in two years.  As Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really.  Get busy living or get busy dying.”  It seems IndyCar has started to make its choice.  And I’m down with that.

The magic Miles at IMS

Admit it. You saw it coming, didn’t you? When Mark Miles first broached the subject of IndyCar racing on the road course, it was a fait accompli, a done deal, money in the bank. There was NEVER any doubt that the cars in May were going to go the wrong way for the right reasons. And all those reasons come back to one thing: money.

Miles is not the first person to see that. The much maligned Randy Bernard knew from his first go-round in IndyCar that filling the coffers at 16th and Georgetown was his most important job. That he failed to wrangle the dollars needed to keep his job was not the only reason he was bucked off the boss’s chair at IndyCar. If he had managed to rope a few more promoters willing to pay sanctioning fees and a few more sponsors willing to invest in the series, he might have had a little more support in his battles with owners and drivers. Remember, he floated the ideas of double headers, IndyCars on the road course, and racing in Europe that people now see as coming on stone tablets from Moses Miles.

And I am not criticizing Mark Miles. His work with the ATP and the Super Bowl give him just a little more gravitas with the people who control all those purse strings that IndyCar so desperately needs to open. Bernard was seen as a hick and a huckster by the people that IndyCar needs to schmooze. Miles is seen as a smooth operator who speaks their language. And he does speak their language. The man is good at what he does.

The addition of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is an absolute no-brainer. Racing now bookends the month of May with both IndyCar races on ABC. I’m guessing that ABC might be doing a little more promotion of its racing properties, particularly with NBC/NBC Sports cornering the market with its multi-series platform. In just over two weeks in May, IMS will host six races, two days of qualifying, and the debauchery that is Carb Day. Rumor has it that IMS is looking at a concert on the Saturday before the race. All of this certainly promotes IndyCar, IMS, the Mazda Road to Indy, and public drunkenness, but what it aims to do is make more money for everyone involved. And I have no problem with that.

Miles has taken a measured approach to growing the series. There are no quick fixes. The new Grand Prix of Indianapolis is not an example of an itchy trigger finger; it is a measured response to improving the month of May for the fans and the track in the long term. Once again, money. The schedule for 2014 does not contain any great new venues or opportunities. That a schedule is not yet out shows that Miles is learning the same lesson Randy Bernard did: the dotted line has to signed before an announcement can be made. But the focus Miles has on the 2015 schedule is another example of his slow and steady approach. Want more? With all that tax money in hand to make a splash, IMS has chosen to improve the road course to make a better show for IndyCar and MotoGP. I would guess the unpronounceable acronym that is sports car racing in America will benefit, too. But why no lights? Instead of adding a benefit that would get headlines, Miles mentioned the words that are honey to marketers and sponsors; the lights did not give a good ROI or return on investment. I wish my broker was that thoughtful with my money.

While cowboy Randy Bernard was wrong from the day he started work in some people’s eyes, magic Mark Miles can do no wrong. Looking at it closely, the main difference is really style and expectations. And of course, money. Let’s hope that the future of IndyCar with Mark Miles is not just smoke and mirrors. IndyCar doesn’t need any more illusions. It needs real magic.

The third time was not the charm in Baltimore

I probably should not be making a pun about the Charm City since the organizers of the Baltimore Grand Prix unceremoniously dumped the IndyCar series last week.  No title sponsor and the loss of Labor Day weekend pushed this well-attended street circuit off the IndyCar schedule.  Once more, the lack of sponsorship money continues to marginalize a series that desperately want to swim in the mainstream.  It was another telling body shot to an already fragile series.

Frankly, all hard-core fans are half nuts, myself included.  We long for the way it was or the way it should be.  We debate on Twitter, in coffee shops, and at the tracks about what the IndyCar Series needs to do to be relevant.  More ovals!  More natural terrain!  More street circuits!  More international races!  Better promotion!  A better TV contract!  None of those alone will solve the problem.  Only money will.  Mark Twain said, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.”  As far as IndyCar is concerned, they are living in very evil times.

I don’t care how many races are on ovals, road courses, or street circuits.  The percentage on each means nothing.  Other than the family subsidized race(s) at IMS, all the other circuits need to have a promoter who turns a profit.  To do that, a race needs a title sponsor to feed the bulldog.  That title sponsor needs a return on investment.  Sadly, great racing and entertaining personalities are not the return they need.  Sponsors need eyeballs at the race, on TV, and in print.  To make all that happen, a promoter needs a series with a strong TV contract and a willingness to help as a partner.  And the promoter needs a little cash-in-hand to get people to attend the race as well as pay off any necessary graft.  I may have been joking about the graft, but a promoter spends money on the front end expecting to make his profit on the back-end.  It is always a gamble.  And Baltimore just rolled snake-eyes.

The IZOD IndyCar Series needs races like Baltimore.  The race was on the East Coast, was well attended, and had exciting wheel to wheel action.  It should have become one of the “can’t miss” events on the schedule instead of a fading memory.  IndyCar needs strong community allies.  The politicos of the city pushed through the necessary funding on their end.  They quelled any uprising about a failing city supporting such a massive money and personnel drain.  They ignored the angry citizens who did not appreciate losing mobility on a holiday weekend.  The city was a perfect partner.  The promoter just needed a Mr. S. Daddy to step up to the plate to keep the wheels turning around Camden Yards.  But just like Casey in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s famous poem, the powers that be have struck out.

All is not lost, though.  Even though Baltimore is off the schedule, rumors of interest from Providence, Rhode Island persist.  It ticks all the same boxes as Baltimore.  Unfortunately, the lack of a title sponsor would probably sink that race, too.  Mark Miles, the big Kahuna at Hulman & Co., continues to say all the right things.  He knows that the promoters need help, either with promotion or sanctioning fees.  He also knows that hiring the right commercial director to work with promoters and help them be successful is the key to the long-term success of the series.  In other words, when your promoters and tracks are on the run, your first priority needs to be keeping the ones you have happy and successful.

The Charm City will be missed on the IZOD IndyCar schedule.  Let’s hope it’s not the first domino to fall.

What IndyCar Fans Want

In the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays a womanizing advertising executive accidentally gifted with the ability to read women’s thoughts.  This allows him to tailor his advertising proposals to a core female demographic that had eluded him.  If only the elite at INDYCAR and IMS had the same gift.  The Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway certainly sparked debate on not only the core demographic, but also on the product itself.  The issue facing the IZOD IndyCar Series could be made into a movie: What IndyCar Fans Want.

In an interview with Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star published on June 10, Mark Miles, Hulman & Co. CEO, acknowledged that the Indianapolis 500 needs to provide more entertainment during the month of May than is currently offered.  Whether that means more on-track activity, concerts, or other entertainment options was not clear.  What was clear is that something needs to change to attract more fans to the venue.  The rub is determining exactly what those changes need to be.  It is also clear that the racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series suffers from a similar public perception issue.  What do IndyCar fans really want?

One type of IndyCar fan abhors the fact the series has spec cars.  This fan absolutely knows the solution is to open up development.  This open development would allow the teams with the most money to spend their way to victory.  In the good old days of packed venues, these rich teams dominated the podium race after race, often winning by wide margins with only two or three cars on the same lap.  In this fan’s mind, it makes perfect sense.  If the series goes back to the way it was, then the crowds will follow.  This post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) argument connects crowds to differentiation.  Of course, running all the small teams out of the series because they cannot afford to be competitive in the current economy may not be the best course of action.

Another category is the hard-core fan.  The mantra is always the same.  If everyone worshiped at the altar of history, and the series and IMS promoted how wonderful the roadsters were, then fans would flock to see the modern incarnations of Bill Vukovich and Wilbur Shaw.  I fit in this category, and as much as I love the timeline of auto innovation that the history of IndyCar racing gives us, it is not enough to interest a new generation of fans not weened on the car culture of my youth.  Cars may be cool to them, but the history of cars is not.  History is full of martyrs who were willing to sacrifice all to prove a point.  The hard-core fans need to open their eyes and see that neither history nor martyrdom will save the series.

Lets not forget the fan who says the series almost has it right.  We just need a few tweaks here and there.  If only aero kits were adopted, then it would create a difference, both aerodynamically and aesthetically, that the fans would love without breaking the bank for the teams.  The downside could be racing like we saw at Texas Motor Speedway recently when Helio Castroneves had a lead of half a lap with no competition.  Now that’s racing like it used to be: a few cars on the lead lap with very little passing for the lead.  Derrick Walker, the new president of competition for the IZOD IndyCar Series, just tweaked the aero rules a little bit at Texas and changed the racing completely.  These fans need to remember the law of unintended consequences.

Some fans and owners say that all the series needs is a better TV package with more enthusiastic announcers.  They believe the broadcast partners need to promote the venues, TV productions, and the series better.  Maybe the movie Turbo with its action figures and video games will be the catalyst that brings more viewers to the broadcasts and allows IndyCar to reach a new demographic.  Without a doubt, the TV ratings drive investment in the series.

A set of fans believe that races need carnival barkers, amusement rides, and the assorted freaks and geeks that go along with this.  Maybe it is the local promoters who need to succeed for the series to grow.  If the races make money for the promoter, then the series can worry more about the myriad of other issues that it faces.  Even though the racing in the series is as good as it has ever been, the consumer at the venue demands to be entertained at all times.

Another fan screams that it is all about the future.  This fan says find out what someone needs to become a new fan and do that thing, tradition be damned.  They use the quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”  IndyCar has certainly had plenty of that.

The movie What Women Want follows a typical romcom storyline.  Mel Gibson’s character acts selfishly, loses true love, repents, and gains the love of his life.  Like most movies of this genre, it has a predictable happy ending.  The saga of the IZOD IndyCar Series may not have the same story arc.  Mark Miles, who seems to understand that change is needed, has not been given the gift to know what all IndyCar fans, current and future, are thinking, yet he must decide the course of the series for years to come based on his perceptions.  After he is through with the fans, maybe he can figure out what the owners, drivers, sponsors, and TV partners want.  If he can do that, then the Academy Award is his.

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