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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.

 

 

 

Adios, ovals. It’s been good to know you.

History is replete with species that didn’t make it:  the passenger pigeon, the dodo, Dragon Racing.  You can add ovals other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series to the list of auto racing endangered species.  And like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and Dragon Racing, the reasons for the potential demise are human .

Automobile oval racing is inherently an American product.  The county and state fairgrounds’ horse tracks allowed racing to be brought to the masses.  Indianapolis may have received the publicity, but oval racing came of age on dirt all across the country.  As for-profit board tracks and dirt ovals started popping up, fans had accessible and entertaining racing.  Life was good for many years.

But dirt gave way to pavement.  It was faster, cleaner, and modern.  Fans flocked to see the stars of their day drive in circles in open-wheel race cars.  The modern rear-engined IndyCar has its roots in F1 and road courses, but they were also designed for ovals.  The specs of the two series diverged.

The current DW12 is a robust beast that handles road and street courses well and is extremely competitive on ovals if the series gets the aerodynamic rules right for a particular track.  Let’s face it; it was designed for Indianapolis.  Even de-tuned, it is close enough to as fast as anyone wants to go there.  Recent Indy 500’s have had edge-of-your-seat racing and piss-your-pants passing.  That’s good, right?

Well, with that kind of action, why are ovals drying up like autumn leaves in October?  We can rehash the old reasons like the stubbornness of CART, the willfulness of Tony George, the ascendancy of NASCAR, and the ineptness of IndyCar management.  All are true, to one degree or another, and have led us to this point.  This point being one where no one wants to host and promote an oval and, apparently, no one wants to watch a race on one either.

People want to be entertained.  IndyCar may have the best on-track product of any major racing series, but they do not put on much of a show at an oval.  A road or street course will have on-track action throughout a weekend with the likes of three Mazda Road to Indy series, the Pirelli World Challenge, the Tudor Series, and Robbie Gordon’s Stadium Trucks as well as a circus-like atmosphere at street courses.  Indianapolis gets away with race day because of the tradition, pageantry, and debauchery, but even Indy has lost the shine on qualification weekend.

The Indy 500 is moving in the right direction, though.  Concerts and glamping helped this year.  Other venues need to follow suit, and the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to help.  Promoters are treating ovals like the toxic money-loss that they are.  IndyCar needs to pack up its own circus, support series, and musical performances and take them on the road.  Once an oval is popular and profitable, the series can wring more money for its services or allow the promoter to do his or her own thing.

If the series really wants ovals on the schedule, it has to do something.  If a business has a supply that no one want, they need to manufacture the demand.  That’s promotion.  IndyCar has made a big splash with its recent hires and series sponsorship. Now it needs to perform.

William Shakespeare wrote that “What’s past is prologue.”¹  If you don’t mind a moment of existentialism², we are always in THIS moment.  There is no other.  It doesn’t matter what brought ovals here, it only matters what the series does now to save a vanishing breed.  Let’s hope they find them worth saving.

 

1.  The quote is from The Tempest.  In the play, it helps justify murder.  That seems excessive.  I’m just looking for a little promotional help from the series.

2.   existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.  I think IndyCar fans should have a strong vocabulary.  It makes it easier to insult NASCAR fans and run away before they figure it out.

 

 

 

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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