IndyCar must not lose sight of its roots

IndyCar commentary — By on November 12, 2009 6:20 pm
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(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

Let’s expand on the parting thought from my last post.  With IZOD’s title sponsorship aiming to reach a younger, more urban potential fan base, what does the series need to do to ensure that it doesn’t inadvertently disconnect itself from its most faithful?

Specifically, we’re talking about the group of fans that believed in Tony George’s vision:  an open-wheel series with an American focus that concentrates on oval-track racing.  These are the people that have supported the IRL from its infancy, and these are the people who are going to feel the most wronged if this new title sponsorship takes the sport in directions to which they can’t relate.

It’s fair to conclude that this group of fans hails largely from the Midwest, the birthplace of this form of racing.  These are the good, hard-working folks who spend their Saturday nights at their local short tracks supporting up-and-coming racers, and they would ideally like to follow those drivers up the ladder and into the IZOD IndyCar Series and the 500 (as opposed to into stock cars, which is far more often the case these days).

(As an aside: the fact that the IRL started out as an ovals-only series stems directly from this influence, and this subject is worthy of a post all its own.  For the purpose of this discussion, though, it suffices to say that a 50/50 oval/twisty split in the schedule seems to more or less satisfy people on both sides of the fence.  (Though if I hear one more fan point out that the 2010 schedule falls one race short of 50/50, I’m going to scream — we were supposed to have Milwaukee, folks!)  Whether that level of satisfaction can be maintained — and whether we’re at the right ovals to achieve that goal at the moment — is a longer and much more convoluted subject, but an interesting one, to be sure.  Let’s get into it another time.)

So, let’s carry on with the assumption that this group of fans feels their needs are being met with the current schedule.  The other need that has to be satisfied is that these fans must continue to be given ways to identify with the on-track product.  There are two obvious aspects to this:  the drivers and the sponsorships.

The drivers are the most important point.  People keep screaming that more American drivers are needed in more competitive rides, and there’s no question that this is true.  However, this in itself may not be enough.  If all of the American drivers in the series fit into the IZOD-wearing, cosmo-drinking, beautiful-people stereotype, it still doesn’t necessarily give the average Midwesterner something they can relate to.

In other words, Sarah Fisher’s stock just went way, way up.

No offense intended toward the other Americans in the series — this seems to proclaim them not American enough for the populace.  This clearly isn’t true, as every one of these drivers has a healthy fan base.  But if we break them down, we have: Danica, who’s essentially a Hollywood-level celebrity and gives the impression that she bathes in money every night; Graham, Marco and Ed, who are from racing families and are thus also assumed to be well-off relative to the masses; and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who’s probably the closest of this bunch to the point being made here but is currently being groomed by IZOD to be the poster boy for their target demographic, which seems to steer him away from the crowd under discussion.

But what sets Sarah apart is that everyday fans can relate to her directly.  She comes off as being about as close to an average American as a professional athlete can hope to be.  She talks like an average American, she dresses like an average American, and she lives like an average American.  She works for herself and she works hard at it, and she seems to be gaining success as time goes on.  She’s a woman, but she’s never tried to use that to her advantage, and she retains an unassuming, girl-next-door sort of charm.

In short, she’s a role model that parents can confidently offer to their children.  People can relate to her and everything she does — right down to carrying Dollar General sponsorship on her sidepods, an everyday American sponsor if ever there was one.

And the sponsorship angle of this isn’t an insignificant point.  As much as sponsors want to know that they’re being put in front of fans who identify with their products, there’s another side to this that doesn’t come to mind as often: fans want to see sponsors on the cars that they recognize because it helps them to identify with the racing.

One stellar example in particular comes to mind here.  A woman took the microphone during Sarah Fisher’s Q&A session at the tweetup at Chicagoland this year.  She appeared to be middle-aged, most likely a mother, and she certainly didn’t appear to be wearing any designer clothing.  This fan declared — to the delight of the crowd — that every time she goes into Dollar General, she makes a point of telling them she’s there because they sponsor Sarah Fisher.

This is the kind of thing this group of fans needs — a way to feel connected with the drivers and sponsors that it sees as being part of them — and more of this needs to take place.  If sponsors like Dollar General can be shown that this fan base exists and is hungry to throw its support behind the businesses that support their rising stars, then those sponsors have the potential to become heroes to a large swath of the country, nearly on par with the athletes they support.

And as the primary focus of the series shifts toward gaining new fans, it’s critical that this level of interaction with the existing fan base not be allowed to fall away.  The group that we risk losing if this isn’t done right is the same group that felt that Indy car racing wasn’t serving its needs in 1995.  And if there’s one lesson we can take away from those fateful 12 seasons, it’s this:  it is absolutely essential that such issues never divide our sport again.

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