Fixing IndyCar, part 1: Defining the sport

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on November 30, 2012 9:13 am
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Fixing IndyCar: An introduction

*

When a tree is sick, the first thing to suspect is a problem at its roots.

Similarly, many of IndyCar’s problems lie at its most base level, at its very core.

On a global scale, motorsport has been a niche sport for some time now. The demonizing of the automotive industry, both economically and environmentally, has taken its toll.

Once upon a time, resource-guzzling racing machines and the death-defying heroes who piloted them would take to racetracks to make names for themselves by being better and faster than everyone else, and that was considered not only acceptable but good fun to watch.

Today, people expect more, and they ask more questions. Are these pursuits worthy of the finances it takes to run them? Of the environmental cost?

And, on the whole, people don’t really have a desire to watch their heroes defy death anymore. In fact, many of them would rather not even consider the possibility.

Plus, there are far more places for the average Joe to spend his sport spectating dollar these days, and there are far fewer dollars go to around.

So, how does motorsport find its place in today’s world?

The answer, it seems, is that each category has eked out a definition for itself — a reason for being that paying customers can accept, embrace, and enjoy.

In simplistic terms, Formula 1 can be billed as the proving ground for the world’s most talented road racers and most innovative automotive technology. (And the world’s biggest drama queens and deepest corruption, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

NASCAR is The American Series. It doesn’t hang its hat on its cars, but it doesn’t need to. It’s done such a good job of convincing people that watching NASCAR is the American Way that it doesn’t really need to concern itself with being anything else.

Similarly, V8 Supercars is The Australian Series.

ALMS took an interesting shot at billing itself as The Green Series and being a proving ground for earth-friendly technologies. (Apparently that wasn’t quite enough to keep it afloat on its own, though, since The Rich Guy Series swallowed it up. But it was worth a try.)

Where does IndyCar fall within this spectrum? How does IndyCar define itself? What does it consider to be its reason for being?

As someone who follows the Series quite closely, I should know the answer to this question without a doubt. It should be trumpeted at every turn. But it’s not.

If I don’t know the answer, then curious casual fans or potential sponsors don’t know, either. And how can they be convinced to invest in the sport if they don’t know what they’re investing in?

Randy Bernard tried, at least, to bill IndyCar as The Fastest Race in the World. The major issues with that were that a) no one was really sure what that meant, and b) it wasn’t true. (The Indianapolis 500 hasn’t been the Fastest Race in a long time, and drag racing is faster, anyway.)

He also took a shot at calling IndyCar the Most Diverse Racing Series in the World, pointing at the schedule of short ovals, superspeedways, permanent road courses, and street courses to which the Series lays claim. But there’s going to be a pretty big issue with that one very shortly, too: with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series going to both Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Eldora next season, IndyCar no longer has a very firm hold on that statement, either.

When current fans of the sport discuss what IndyCar should be, the response that’s given most often relates to technical diversity. People think back to multiple engine, chassis, and tire manufacturers and dream about the return of the glory days. One would like to think that this is a long-term goal of Series administration — and if it isn’t currently, it most certainly should be (and it might calm some fans down if that was explicitly stated and a plan was outlined) — but it doesn’t take much number-crunching to conclude that this is not at all a feasible immediate solution to IndyCar’s woes. It costs a lot of money to produce race car components in lower than full-field quantities, and the money that sponsors are willing to put into the sport right now simply won’t pay for it.

There are some people who would like to see IndyCar billed as The Indianapolis 500 Series. These people think that the strength of the 500 is such that all technical regulations and marketing efforts should hinge on it and that the rest of the schedule should be a footnote. (And, to be truthful, there’s an argument to be made that this is, at least in part, the way that things are already being run.) There is simply no way to make this work. Formula 1 didn’t get to where it is today by being The Monaco Series. NASCAR was never The Daytona Series. Those are legendary and sought-after jewels on their calendars, but those series recognize that their best events are nothing without a solid series and schedule to back them up. If IndyCar goes out of its way to convince people that the only thing that’s good about IndyCar is the 500, how could it simultaneously convince someone it would be worth their time to buy a ticket for Iowa?

To my mind, the only path that makes sense for IndyCar going forward is to shape it into The Most Challenging Series in the World.

It’s a bold claim, and being able to make it would require a few changes.

The calendar is already in place to support claims of the diverse skill set that’s needed to be competitive.

The cars, though, are largely perceived as being not particularly difficult for a professional race car driver to pilot.

Note that I didn’t say they aren’t difficult. I know they’re difficult because I follow the sport closely enough to know the nuances of it. But for a casual viewer tuning in to IndyCar for the first time, the challenge isn’t as easy to spot.

When a curious channel-flipper tunes into a race on television, they should see in-car camera views of drivers wrestling with their cars, balance them on the raw edge within inches of the walls and each other. It should look like what they’re doing is really hard.

Right now, it just doesn’t.

Oddly, the problem lies in the fact that today’s field is so exceptionally talented that they can’t help but make it look easy with the equipment they’re being given. IndyCar drivers are well-tuned athletic machines. They kick these beasts around all types of racetracks for hours at a time with no power steering to help them. Not nearly enough is made of this.

There’s another step that could easily be taken to seal the deal, and it’s one that every single one of the drivers is constantly begging for and that can be done essentially overnight: Give the engines more horsepower, especially on road and street courses.

This should be done in close consultation with the drivers, of course. IndyCar needs to treat them like the professionals they are and trust that they’ll know when the right amount of power has been reached. (Or, they could expect that drivers, being the way they are, will ask for just a little more than they can handle and dial the final number back just a touch from what they request. That would work, too.)

At any rate, agreement appears nearly universal that the number should be at is well above where it is now.

The goal is to give the drivers a car that they have to wrestle with more, that will make the skill needed to pass and to win more evident, that will allow the cream of the grid to rise to the top more often, and that will have the drivers climbing out of their cars winded, sweaty and drained every single time they race.

Right now, being a professional IndyCar driver looks too easy to the casual fan. And if IndyCar is too extravagant and too expensive and not particularly innovative and too easy, then what on Earth is the point of rolling it out 19 times a year?

If IndyCar can bill itself as The Most Challenging Racing Series on Earth — and can back it up with evidence that’s easy to spot — then the whole operation is instantly given purpose and has something worth selling to the world. It would have a grid full of drivers who today’s general public would be able to perceive as heroes.

That would be something people would go out of their way to tune into and that sponsors would want to pay to support.

***

In part 2 of Fixing IndyCar, we’ll take a closer look at the importance of making heroes out of IndyCar drivers and some other strategies that might contribute to that goal.

In the meantime, please join the discussion. In your view, why does IndyCar set up shop on 16 weekends of the year? What’s its reason for being? How should it define itself on the world stage? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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