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Can you smell what IndyCar is cookin’?

I attended the State of IndyCar at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis last Monday.  It’s a very staid, old-school opera house, and the car out front added a certain “wow” factor to the proceedings.  The welcome to the hoi polloi (of which I am a card carrying member) was decidedly less than enthusiastic.  The teams, sponsors, and other well-heeled types loitered in the lobby sipping wine while the rabble – sorry, I mean the fans – were herded – again, my apologies, I mean were directed – to the balcony seating.  And not just any balcony seats, mind you, but the upper balcony.  The lower balcony seats were reserved VIP seating for fan club chumps – once again, sorry, I mean to say fan club members – who paid to have a better bad view.  It was exactly what I expected.

Let me be honest.  I am a fan first and foremost.  I enjoy inflicting my opinions on others as a blogger, but that is not my raison d’etre.  I like racing, and I am happy IndyCar let the general public see behind the curtain a little bit.  Gracias, amigos.  You didn’t try to see how the event fit with your business plan.  You didn’t try to monetize it.  Other than parking and dinner downtown, it was a freebie.  But the truth is we were there as seat fillers, as extras on a movie set.  Our attendance made the special people feel more special.  Would it have killed you to have a few signed pictures to hand out?  How about a sponsor keychain or two?  Heck, you could just put brochures and sponsor stickers in a bag, and we would have wet ourselves.  Yes, I know, it was FREE, but I am reminded of the immortal words of Carl Spackler in Caddyshack: “ ‘Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” [1] Thanks, IndyCar. I guess just being allowed to mingle with the upper crust was our reward.  It’s nice to know we have something going for us.  Which is nice.

But that’s enough about my very minor negative observation.  The lights went down, the smoke machines purred, and the show started.  Trophies were awarded in multiple categories. The champion was introduced.  The “Fearsome Five” were trotted out as the ones chasing the champion this year.  Here came the American drivers, ready to wrap themselves in the flag and win one for Uncle Sam. Something was starting to look familiar.  I had seen this all before somewhere.  And then I knew.  This marketing strategy was taken from one of the most successful sports entertainment brands of all time, a brand that fills arenas weekly and whose big PPV’s rake in millions of dollars.  IndyCar is becoming the WWE.  Randy Bernard, please let me introduce you to Vince McMahon.

It’s all there.  In the WWE you have multiple championships and belts.  RAW has the WWE Championship and SmackDown has the World Heavyweight Championship.  IndyCar has the AJ Foyt IndyCar Oval Championship and the Mario Andretti IndyCar Road Championship.  In fact, I think a championship belt is way cooler than a trophy. Can’t you see Scott Dixon and Will Power walking through Gasoline Alley at Indy with those big honking belts around their waists?  Those two guys would rock it just like C.M. Punk and John Cena.  They would just need a little intro music to spice things up. The  WWE really knows how to brand and sell.  I’m glad IndyCar is looking to them as a model.

WWE has a monster event called WrestleMania that parallels the Indy 500.  We’ll call this one a wash.  This is WWE’s big payday, but Indy has a little more cachet.  Maybe IndyCar can teach the WWE something about brand loyalty since it has been around a little longer.  If you stop and think about it, the two brands are probably going after the same crowd in Turn 3 and on Carb Day.  I’m guessing that Lynyrd Skynyrd appeals to the same fans, too.  Looks like a shift in demographics to me.  Let me be the first to start the rumor: IndyCar has partnered with WWE for its marketing.  Before you dismiss this as impossible, let me say two words: Gene Simmons.

Do you need more proof that IndyCar is turning into the WWE?  Something the WWE has always been able to do is create controversy and adversaries.  They are famous for the “worked shoot.” [2]  In wrestling something “worked” looks real but is really just part of the show, like the conflicts between the various stables of wrestlers.  A “shoot” is something unscripted and real that happens.  A worked shoot is something scripted that is made to look unscripted.  In other words, confuse the fans; blur the line between real and fake.  IndyCar did a a bang-up job with its worked shoot when they brought the Fearsome Five onto the stage.  It was like a Steel Cage Death Match.  These five drivers – Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, and Oriol Servia – became a stable of “faces” trying to bring down the prima donna “heel.”  For those of you not familiar with wrestling argot, a face is a good guy and and a heel is a bad guy.  These roles often flip, with wrestlers changing from face to heel in a week’s time.  The IndyCar brain trust has decided that for now, Dario Franchitti is a heel.  We need to pull for the faces that are chasing him.  At least pull for them until one of the faces flips and becomes a heel.  I assume this will happen at St. Pete when one of the drivers punts somebody and acts like it wasn’t his fault.  You have to change the narrative if you want to keep the fans interested.  Another lesson learned.

If all of that doesn’t prove that the WWE is pulling the strings for IndyCar, then this should: IndyCar had all the American drivers come out on stage to challenge the foreigners.  Holy jingoism, Batman!  Talk about creating something out of nothing.  The drivers looked embarrassed to be out there.  They don’t want to win for America; they want to win for themselves.  Worked shoot, indeed.  Wrestling has always created foreign heels: the Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, and Yokozuna are some recent examples.  These are people we love to hate.  IndyCar has ripped this page right out of the WWE business plan.  IndyCar is creating a new storyline that plays right into the xenophobic hysteria of the far right.  So far, IndyCar is following this worked shoot to the letter.

The final bit of evidence was Randy Bernard’s rant at the end of the show. His script was a perfect take on WWE boss Vince McMahon standing at center ring with a microphone putting down the law.[3]  He told the crowd that he had a job, the series had a great year financially, the drivers had a new car, and the schedule was getting better.  Now, that was not a worked shoot.  And if it was, he had me fooled.  As the Rock, a staple of the WWE for years would say: “Can you smell what IndyCar is cookin’?”  And if you don’t like it, then Marco Andretti will rip off your arm and beat you with the wet end. [4]

1.   For your viewing pleasure, here’s Bill Murray doing Carl Spackler.  True story:  The other actor in the scene did not know that Murray was going to improvise the pitchfork.  Check him out; you can see the fear in his eyes.

2.  Need a wrestling vocabulary lesson?  Here’s a link to all things WWE.

3.  Here’s a video of Vince McMahon being a heel.  Classic.  Is this Randy Bernard’s model?

4.  This a quote from my all time favorite wrestler, Dick the Bruiser.

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