Fixing IndyCar: an introduction

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on November 27, 2012 11:30 am
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Last week, I painted a fairly grim picture of IndyCar’s immediate future.

As promised at the end of that article, I sat down over the weekend to start hammering out some thoughts on what IndyCar needs to change to bring itself away from the brink and turn things around.

But I ran into a snag: when I started making notes, I found that I was writing… and writing… and writing. By the time I was done, there was far too much content to cram into a single article.

So, instead, my humble list of suggestions for how IndyCar can improve itself has turned into a multi-part series.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll take a deep dive (ahem) into number of areas in which IndyCar could make significant improvements — many of them simple and inexpensive to implement — that would improve the health of the IndyCar Series both with immediate effect and for the longer term.

Here’s a preview of the topics I plan to cover in the coming days.

- IndyCar needs to heal its identity crisis and carve out its own relevance in the sphere of motorsport worldwide. When I envision asking people within the organization why IndyCar exists, I have a hard time coming up with what the response would be. That shouldn’t be the case. IndyCar needs to know and be clear about how it defines itself before it can successfully sell itself to others.

- IndyCar needs to find a permanent resolution for its internal politics. The self-centered in-fighting that has defined open-wheel racing for the past 30+ years must be brought to an end through any means necessary. It’s been allowed to create diversions and impede progress for far, far too long.

- IndyCar needs to turn its drivers into heroes again. In an age where death on a racetrack is no longer deemed an acceptable by-product of the sport by the general population, this is no easy task. But it can be done. It just requires some fundamental paradigm shifting in the ways that certain things are approached.

- IndyCar needs to create an environment that allows casual fans to get more emotionally invested. Currently, emotional investment from fans is more often met with annoyance than appreciation. A closer look at what drives fan interest might help to change some philosophies and approaches within the organization.

- IndyCar needs to do a better job of doing right by the fans it already has. There are some corners of the paddock that do an excellent job of being open and engaging with the existing fan base, but there are others that constantly get it wrong. A few very simple changes could get things moving in the right direction.

- IndyCar needs to know how to measure progress and identify that these goals are being attained. More butts in the seats and in front of TVs is the obvious desired outcome, but there are other, smaller measures that can be used as checkpoints as well. Identifying how to know that these changes are working is key to maintaining focus.

By the end of this series, my hope is that people on both sides of the fence will have considered and openly discussed some of the positives and negatives, the celebrations and frustrations, that have brought IndyCar to the state it’s in today and how they can be set right to allow for future growth.

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Before diving into all of that, though, I’d like to take a moment to flesh out in more detail exactly why what happens now is so critical in deciding the future of IndyCar.

After all, people have been predicting IndyCar’s demise in every off-season in recent memory, right? What makes this year any different?

There are a couple of things.

For one, 2012 was meant to be IndyCar’s breakthrough year — the year that the new car was going to change the face of the Series and bring it roaring back into the public consciousness.

And there’s no question that the racing was significantly better this season than it has been in IndyCar in years.

But the disappointing attendance numbers, the dropped race in China, and the disastrous television ratings (which, by the way, were reportedly down 27% this year over 2011 and a sobering 62% since 2008) tell the complete story:  No one noticed.

Sponsors were signed on the promise that 2012 was going to be a year heralding change and growth. New events were wooed onto the schedule with it.

Now, with no promises left to be made, selling sponsors on where exactly their return on investment is and convincing tracks to spend millions of dollars on sanctioning fees is more difficult than it has ever been.

Meanwhile, IndyCar is too busy dealing with its Caesar and Brutus, he-said-she-said dramas to focus on how quickly the ship is taking on water.

But those who have been around for a while may find this to be the most distressing part of all: during The Split, all of the challenges and fears that saddled both sides always seemed slightly tempered by the fact that if one series were to fail then the other would be there to fall back on (as unappetizing as the notion may have seemed at the time).

Now, though, there’s no safety net. There’s nothing to fall back on. If this iteration of North American open-wheel racing fails, there’s a very real possibility that it will be the last. Sure, some owners might try to resurrect it, but at the current cost of running in IndyCar even the best-lined pockets will run dry eventually, and what sponsors would invest in a new series after the way the previous one was driven into the ground?

People who dismiss that notion or think that IndyCar is too big to fail are kidding themselves.

I’ve put together a rudimentary diagram to offer a basic demonstration of how cash flows within IndyCar.

IndyCar cash flow diagram

This is highly distilled, but it works to prove the point. There are a lot of people who like to claim that the fans will always get the short end of the stick because they’re not where the bulk of the money comes from. The sponsors write the checks to the teams and the tracks write the checks to IndyCar, and that’s where the majority of the income that keeps the series running is found.

The problem is that if there are not enough fans supporting the Series to justify the money the sponsors and tracks are spending — i.e., if they’re not gaining attention and earning profit from their participation — then those entities no longer have a reason to give those bigger checks to the teams and Series to keep the whole thing going.

Everything in any sport — everything — starts with earning fans and keeping them engaged and happy. And that fact was lost in IndyCar long ago.

We’re well past the point of rallying the troops. There simply aren’t enough of us left who have stuck it out. Word-of-mouth is a great tool in plum times, but that yellow section in that diagram up there is laughably small right now. That group needs to get a lot bigger fast, and grassroots tell-your-friends movements are no longer going to cut it.

2013 may not be the final year of IndyCar, but it’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that the state of the sport by the end of 2013 will decide whether IndyCar ultimately lives or dies.

The changes that need to happen within IndyCar right now need to come from within. And the best way that the fans who are left can help make that happen is to generate ideas and hope they permeate the walls at 16th and Georgetown well enough to make a difference.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but if I can contribute one or two ideas and help to generate some more then the exercise will have been worthwhile. I hope you’ll join me in the discussion as I present the first of those ideas later this week.

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