2013: The year that will decide it all

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on November 21, 2012 11:26 am
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I’ve been laying low for the last few days. There’s been a lot of information to absorb.

Many of you have told me over the years that what you appreciate about my writing is that it’s not off-the-cuff and automatically attacking or pessimistic; rather, I tend to look at the big picture of issues and respond to them rationally and fairly. It’s a reputation that I deeply appreciate and take very seriously.

So, with everything that’s been going on lately, I’ve been trying not to be rash. I’ve been taking a step back and doing a lot of reading, absorbing, and processing.

If you haven’t yet read the many exposés released lately on such topics as the rationale behind firing Randy Bernard, Robin Miller’s calling out of the people behind the mess the sport is in today, or the debacle of how HVM got royally screwed with the Lotus deal, you most assuredly should. There’s been a lot more revealed in the last month than we usually get to see on the BS that happens behind the scenes in IndyCar, and it’s been very enlightening.

For my part, I’ve read and considered all of that, and I’ve been following what others have been talking about in the days that have followed, and all of it has led me to one conclusion.

IndyCar is in far deeper trouble than it has ever been in before – and it has very little to do with the firing of Randy Bernard.

Firing Randy didn’t help, of course. He took the heat on a lot of things that in reality weren’t his fault, and the 20/20 hindsight view that we’re afforded now shows that nothing could ever have prepared him enough to do the job he was charged with. That he came into the position with zero knowledge of the racing world and the people who operate within it looked promising from the outset, but the naivety that came with that lack of knowledge ultimately led to his demise.

And at the end of it all, the unceremonious ouster of the most fan-oriented executive IndyCar had seen in years left the sport’s most dedicated more frustrated and incensed than it has been since 1996.

But all the attention on these matters has been nothing but smoke and mirrors. IndyCar has much, much bigger problems on the horizon that not a lot of people have noticed yet.

Numbers were down across the board this year — particularly TV numbers, which are generally taken as the gold standard for the strength of a modern-day sport. Everything stems from the TV numbers: sponsor interest, advertising investment, operating budgets, growth potential.

Randy Bernard was the king scapegoat for this year’s low numbers, with his detractors citing his promise to improve them and his inability to deliver.

But he was given an impossible task. For some reason, few people have connected the low TV numbers to the two extreme factors that changed between 2011 and 2012: a) Danica Patrick left for NASCAR full-time and took a whole lot more fans with her than people within IndyCar anticipated; and b) Dan Wheldon died on track in a heavily promoted season finale — in a way that was often perceived from outside the organization as preventable — and many people never came back.

After 12 months, expecting any one man to be able to orchestrate a rebound in ratings — on a cable network that has a low subscription rate to begin with, no less — is simply asking the impossible.

That’s the TV situation. But what about ticket sales? They’re not so bad, right?

People will always go to Indy. The late ‘90s and early ‘00s proved that. And Long Beach is a pretty safe bet, too. (I’m not convinced that the people who go to Long Beach even care what cars show up so long as they get to drink Tecate and eat smoked turkey legs all weekend.)

But it’s no secret that the reason the smaller ovals have fallen off the schedule these past few years is that people can’t even be convinced to show up for free — hence the oft-lamented leaning on twisties, particularly street courses, to pay the bills.

Unfortunately, I can tell you first-hand that for at least one street race market that’s considered a stronghold, the picture is not pretty there, either.

Take a look at the track map for the 2012 Honda Indy Toronto:

HIT 2012 track map

This layout showed promising improvements over 2011. There was a new grandstand added at turn 9 amid consistency elsewhere. It projected slow, steady growth. A lot of people were at least content with it, if not excited about it.

Now, look at the track map for the 2013 event:

HIT 2013 track map

 

All of the general admission seating is gone. The pit-in grandstand is gone. The turn 1 suites are gone. The grandstands at turn 9 and turn 9/10 are gone and have been replaced with a single grandstand at turn 10 (which is not the ideal sightline for that section of the track by far). We’re being told that some of the grandstands are being enlarged and the infrastructure for them improved, of course. But the upshot is still painfully clear.

This is not a track map for an event that’s anticipating booming growth, folks.

Remember, too, that Toronto is one of the tracks that will be hosting one of those much-anticipated double-header weekends. It seems that Green Savoree isn’t exactly expecting the change to have fans busting down the gates.

Don’t go looking for track maps from, say, 2005, or even 1998. You’ll just get really depressed.

It’s easy to argue that perhaps Toronto is just a dying market for racing. But that’s very, very far from the truth.

The track formerly known as Mosport — now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park — was recently purchased by a group led by Canadian tintop racing legend Ron Fellows. It sits a comfortable drive from downtown Toronto — roughly an hour in decent traffic.

I was up there this past summer to check out the ALMS race. The place was packed. There were more people there on ALMS race day at CTMP than on Sunday at the Honda Indy Toronto, easily and clearly. And they were a knowledgeable and educated bunch, too. I walked around a good portion of the grounds during the event, and in every conversation I overheard it was clear that the folks there knew their stuff.

Plus, the grand old track is undergoing a boom. The entire pit lane area is being ripped out and rebuilt this off-season, and with good reason: it’s just been announced that the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will race there in 2013, its first time on a road course in 13 years. People up here are going nuts.

And Ron Fellows is patting himself on the back. Getting the trucks up here is the first step toward Fellows’s goal in buying up the facility in the first place. Next, he’ll shoot for the Nationwide Series. If he lands a Sprint Cup race, he’s hit paydirt.

But Mosport built its name on its storied tradition of hosting legendary open-wheel racing in the 60s and 70s. The likes of AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti themselves wheeled around the old girl in Indy cars and Formula 1 cars back in the sport’s heyday.

Is there any interest in renewing open-wheel racing at CTMP? Not likely. The place is a death trap for open-wheel cars in its current state (one look at Clayton Corner and the entrance to the Esses confirmed that for me), and no one’s willing to make the infrastructure investments necessary for no apparent payoff.

If Cup comes knocking, you bet those changes will be built, and you bet that people will come. But for IndyCar? It’s not nearly so cut and dried.

Meanwhile, about 90 minutes to the southwest of Toronto, a brand new facility has just been approved for the Fort Erie region of Ontario: Canadian Motor Speedway, a project that will include a 1-mile oval and a 2.6-mile, FIA Grade 2 road course (which means it’s not rated for F1 but it can host any other category). It will be the largest racing facility in Canada, and it’s scheduled to be ready for racing in 2014.

(Now, that is where you’d want to host a double-header weekend!)

On top of that, Toronto’s International Centre plays host to the Canadian Motorsport Expo each February, the largest event of its kind in the country attended by drivers, industry players, and fans over three days.

So, it’s clear that the problem isn’t a lack of interest of racing in the Greater Toronto Area.

It’s a lack of interest in IndyCar.

And the Toronto market is not the only one that IndyCar needs to get seriously worried about in 2013.

Mid-Ohio has been a massive event for IndyCar over the past six years, but no one knows exactly how much of that has been bolstered by the fact that it was a split weekend with ALMS. IndyCar and the Road to Indy will be on its own in 2013 for the first time in the current sanctioning body’s history. There will be no better barometer on the current state of IndyCar than what happens to that weekend. If I were involved, I’d be very worried.

(The Indy Lights will be back joining them on that weekend, by the way — because they got kicked out of the Grand Prix of Trois Rivières, essentially for breach of contract because the car counts were too low to be considered respectable. Let’s not even get started on just how much that extremely broken rung on the ladder to IndyCar isn’t helping things.)

And on the rest of the schedule, there are too many question marks and not enough stable answers. Will Houston come out to support today’s IndyCar? How about Pocono? Can IndyCar keep the viewer interest and momentum it so desperately needs through those massive gaps in its schedule?

I’ve been following this sport for 23 years now and observed some of the worst political bungles of its century-long history, and I honestly cannot ever remember feeling that things were scarier for open-wheel’s future in North America than they are right now.

***

All that said, it’s not very productive for me to sit here and declare that the sky is falling without offering any solutions. But I think I’ve talked enough for one day.

I’ll be back early next week to toss my hat into the conversation regarding what needs to change to get IndyCar swimming above water again. Here are a few point-form notes to get the brainstorming started:

- The sport doesn’t need cheerleading right now. It also doesn’t need wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. It needs realism. Baseless cheerleading and wailing both breed ignorance; realism provides the tools needed to find solutions.

- The in-fighting has got to stop. This every-man-for-himself attitude that pervades the paddock will be the death of the whole shebang. IndyCar has one of the greatest motorsport communities going for those who choose to acknowledge it, embrace it, and be a part of it.

- The owners, drivers, and Series officials need to stop acting like the paddock is their own personal country club (to quote a comment I saw on pressdog’s site a couple of weeks ago). IndyCar has been walking around for years with this attitude that it’s much bigger and much more entitled than it actually is. It’s time to stop pretending that you’re fooling anyone and start being more inclusive and fan-friendly. Consumers these days aren’t stupid and don’t take well to being treated like they’re not welcome to participate in what you’re doing.

- As Roger Penske himself said recently, what the sport needs more than anything right now is stability at the top. When The Captain talks, people really ought to listen.

Enjoy your turkey, folks. Let’s chat more next week.

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