Could $20 million actually work?

IndyCar commentary — By on May 18, 2010 11:25 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

I’m sure everyone who follows the IZOD IndyCar Series has heard the news that Bruton Smith of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard have reached some sort of agreement to offer a $20 million bonus to any driver who can win both the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day. The logic behind the deal is obviously that cross-pollinating drivers between the IZOD IndyCar Series and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will bring greater attention to both, but I have to wonder how much this is really going to be of benefit to the nation’s premier open-wheel racing series.

Let’s ignore for the moment whose idea this $20 million thing is because really, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Rumor is that Randy Bernard approached Bruton Smith with the idea, but with an ego the size of Smith’s, there’s no way that he was going to let the “new kid on the block” take credit for it. The point is that Bruton appears to be claiming this idea as his and as such seems to think that he will gain the upper hand in bargaining in front of the public. In all reality, there is a pretty slim chance that any driver can actually win both of these races in the same day (or same weekend), but if someone is going to win both, history indicates that it will be an IndyCar driver stealing a win in Charlotte, not the other way around.

The list of champions of the Indianapolis 500 is a who’s who of open-wheel racing, and only the best of the best find their way to victory lane. The Coca-Cola 600, on the other hand, doesn’t hold quite the same prestige. Certainly it used to, but in recent years, just about anyone seems to have a chance to win at Charlotte. In fact, after Jimmie Johnson rattled off three consecutive victories from 2003 to 2005, the list includes Kasey Kahne in 2006 (his fourth career victory), Casey Mears in 2007 (his only career victory to date), and David Reutimann in 2009 (in his only career victory as well). By contrast, prior to Buddy Rice in 2004, one would have to go back to Buddy Lazier in 1996 (and Arie Luyendyk in 1990 before that) to find the last drivers to win their first career open-wheel race at Indianapolis.

My point isn’t that NASCAR doesn’t produce quality drivers (such an argument really is quite ignorant, though I do believe that a stock car driver would have a tougher time adapting to IndyCars than vice versa) but that the Coca-Cola 600, because it often turns into a fuel-mileage race, lends itself to a surprise winner much more than does Indianapolis. As such, if anyone is going to win this $20 million bonus, the more likely scenario is having an IndyCar front runner stealing a win at Charlotte and cleaning house at Indianapolis.

From a logistics standpoint, I truly feel that, for this thing to work, the races need to be held on separate days. Each race needs the sole attention of the sporting media, and sharing the Sunday spotlight doesn’t help either cause. Never mind that there is only so much room on SportsCenter for highlights (especially given that the NBA and NHL playoffs are still happening at this time); these are two great races, and each should be given full coverage by the media. By competing this challenge over two days, both events are enhanced. Furthermore, asking viewers to sit in front of their TVs for 1,100 miles of racing over the course of about 10 hours is a lot to ask of the combined fan bases. We Americans are not known for having the longest attention spans, so breaking the challenge into a Saturday night and a Sunday afternoon helps keep a lot of the fans focused.

If Bruton Smith is sincere about this challenge enhancing both events, it behooves him to move the Coca-Cola 600 to Saturday night. Why move the 600 instead of the 500? First of all, the Indianapolis 500 is still the greatest race in the world and doesn’t need to bow to anyone. I don’t care how down people will want to claim the Indianapolis 500 is, there is still no race in the world, save Monaco and Le Mans, that matches its stature in the pantheon of great automobile races. From a more practical standpoint, there are many activities that surround the Indianapolis 500 that make moving the event a logistical nightmare. I’m not sure what ancillary events surround the Coca-Cola 600, but I’d be surprised if they match the spectacle that surrounds the 500. Moving the 500 to Monday is a possibility, but then the build-in rain date is lost, and Lord knows that Indianapolis needs all the help it can get from a weather standpoint.

When assessing the situation purely from the standpoint of which race stands to gain more, relatively speaking, you have to think it’s Indianapolis. If Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Robby Gordon, and maybe one of the Busch brothers make an attempt at Indianapolis (and don’t kid yourself for one second that Dale Jr. or Jeff Gordon would actually give it a try), the ratings gain for the 500 would be much greater than if Brisoce, Dixon, Franchitti, or Castroneves take a shot at Charlotte. That’s not a disparaging shot at Indianapolis; that’s just the way it is. More NASCAR fans means that more of them would help Indianapolis in greater number than the allegiant IndyCar fans would help NASCAR. Plain and simple.

I think the idea of the major bonus has merit to it, but the way the races and calendars are currently structured, it will never work. Both races and organizing bodies will need to make concessions to allow drivers who wish to compete in both races not only the chance to race but also to adequately prepare for the races. Both NASCAR and the Indy Racing League will need to allow drivers the opportunity to test their new race cars adequately and not force them to just show up and expect to have a chance to win. More importantly, the dates of the races are going to need to be separated so that there is actually a viewership increase to make the promotion worth the time and money. NASCAR isn’t known for being the most flexible sporting organization, and the fact that this idea is partially borne of Bruton Smith and therefore is of more benefit to his SMI empire (as opposed to NASCAR’s ISC conglomerate) means that NASCAR may be even less willing to play nice with two of its rivals (SMI and IndyCar).

Nonetheless, if the Coca-Cola 600 can be run on Saturday night and the Indianapolis 500 run on Sunday afternoon, plenty of people will tune into both events and make the effort worthwhile. Will any driver ever win both? I think it’s pretty unlikely, but a select handful have a decent opportunity which, if nothing else, will make for some new and compelling storylines.

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