Vegas challenge presents INDYCAR with marketing options

IndyCar commentary — By on February 24, 2011 12:14 pm

Is five drivers really enough?

As we know, Randy Bernard announced on Tuesday that a $5 million prize is on offer to any non-IndyCar driver who can show up to the Series finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and beat the entire field of Series regulars.

So far, a decent amount of interest has been expressed publicly by drivers from a variety of disciplines. If all of these takers pan out, INDYCAR could have a near-impossible task at hand in having to narrow the list down to five challengers.

The decision hinges on what INDYCAR’S goal is with this initiative. Clearly, the overriding aim is to generate headlines and get people in motorsport circles talking about the Series, which so far seems to be working. But depending on the participants chosen, there are two distinct directions in which INDYCAR could take this.

The first option is to fill the slots with some of the retired former open-wheel drivers who are talking about tossing their helmets into the ring. Al Unser Jr. has publicly stated that he plans to check whether he would be eligible, and he’s also mentioned that his dad might be interested. Mario Andretti has posted pictures of himself on Twitter in the IZOD firesuit he wears when driving the two-seater claiming that he’s ready — possibly jokingly, but one can never be too certain. And Marco says he’s trying to talk his dad into suiting up as well.

For my part, having the opportunity to see Big Al take on Mario with my own eyes or to see Little Al and Michael dicing it up on the track one last time is enough to convince me to get to Vegas at all costs. Hell, I’d eat nothing but bologna and cereal for months if that’s what it would take to be there (particularly if Big Al was on the bill as I’ve never had the opportunity to see him race in person). Mind you, INDYCAR isn’t after me — I’m already here.

But giving these guys a shot at it seems like a surefire way to recapture the attention of the fans from the late 80s and early 90s who drifted away after the split — the nostalgia factor is undeniable, and only the most hard-hearted of gearheads would be able to resist at least tuning this in on TV (provided enough work is done to ensure that those gearheads know this is happening in the first place, which is a matter worthy of its own discussion). This could be exactly what’s needed to remind those one-time fans that INDYCAR exists, has been reunited, and currently appears to be on the upswing. When those fans realize that they recognize other names in the field as well, perhaps they could be enticed to stay.

On the other hand, INDYCAR declared during the State of INDYCAR presentation that it’s going directly after NASCAR in its marketing efforts, which seems to be more in line with the aim of this promotion. Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Robby Gordon have expressed interest, and it’s only been two days — more are likely to come out of the woodwork as contracts are reviewed and team owners consulted. This would undoubtedly make headlines and draw the attention of NASCAR faithful.

But once the Cup drivers have gone back to the tintops, how does INDYCAR convince those fans to keep watching open-wheelers? This deal puts all of the marketing eggs in one basket — if the Vegas race ends up being a total snoozer, very few of those viewers can be counted on to tune in again.

Plus, USA Today said yesterday that this deal might be enough to convince some Cup drivers to “step down” to INDYCAR to try for the money. What if a Cup driver shows up for a one-off and actually wins the thing? Wouldn’t that end up backfiring on INDYCAR massively? It would give NASCAR all the ammunition it needs to claim that INDYCAR is less challenging and undermine the credibility of the Series for good.

Of course, the odds of any of these drivers actually winning this thing are extremely low. But in terms of choosing only five drivers to pit against its best, INDYCAR has several options available. And the selection committee definitely has its work cut out for it.

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