Fixing IndyCar, part 2: Creating heroes

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on December 4, 2012 1:05 pm
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Fixing IndyCar: An introduction

Fixing IndyCar, part 1: Defining the sport

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In part 1 of Fixing IndyCar, we began to look at the importance of IndyCar’s drivers being perceived as heroes as an element of growing the sport’s fan base.

This is no small task, and getting the balance exactly right is critical. IndyCar drivers push their bodies and machines to their limits and take their lives into their hands every time they strap in. This is something to acknowledge and advertise but not to sensationalize — where such palpable danger is concerned, being respectful is paramount.

But on the other hand, the job of today’s driver looks ridiculously easy — unwittingly, and to the detriment of the sport as a whole. Making the challenges of being an IndyCar driver more obvious to the general public — in such a way that it’s evident on its own without being rammed down people’s throats via advertising — would go a long way to convincing people that IndyCar is worth watching.

There are a few different factors that contribute to the erroneous perception that driving an IndyCar is something anyone could do.

One key element comes from the technical side: giving these professional racers a car that they actually do find challenging to drive is the place to start. The first article in this series discussed some of the ways that IndyCar could alter the technical formula — a change much longed for among driver ranks — so that these racers are pushed hard enough that the challenge is easier for a layperson to spot and relate to in real time.

Because ultimately, that’s at the heart of why many of us tune into motorsport, isn’t it? The people who watch in the stands and on television are either not fit enough or not good enough or not rich enough to do it themselves, so they watch professionals do it to live vicariously through them.

And this leads to the other major disconnect in having racing drivers be perceived as heroes (and this goes for all of motorsport, not just IndyCar): their sound bites and personalities have been so heavily sanitized that very few common fans can truly relate to what they’re going through in the car anymore.

In the last 30 years or so, the face of racing has changed dramatically. Long gone are the days when a fierce on-track battle resulted in post-race pit lane fisticuffs, when racers were so obstinate and passionate that they would ignore black flags and team orders because they’d rather risk punishment than lose positions, and when the sweet taste of victory meant rushing to victory lane to leap out of the car and into the waiting arms of a jubilant crew.

Today, drivers aren’t allowed to be true to their emotions. Make no mistake: today’s crop is fundamentally no different from those characters from the 60s and 70s. But now, any comment on any situation needs to be filtered through a public relations rep before being released for public consumption. Sponsors must be named one by one before experiences in the car can be discussed. Questions about obvious on-track tangles are met with responses like, “I don’t want to call anybody out. We’re all friends here.”

And when a driver wins a race, any excitement he or she may feel is immediately squelched by barked instructions about how to get to pit lane and the proper procedure and which media obligations will need to be fulfilled. Heaven forbid that a driver consider getting out of the car in victory lane before a commercial break is over, the confetti is flying, and the cameras are running again. Hell, even the burnouts look scripted half the time.*

It truly boggles the mind that no one seems to have yet figured out that all of this media training and scripting the drivers are put through is killing the very essence of what connects people to motorsport in the first place. If every opportunity is stripped away for the general public to share in the physical and emotional roller coaster of what a racing driver goes through on track and off, then of course no one is going to watch. What’s the point?

We could put 26 cars on autopilot and turn them into extremely fast billboards, and the effect would be essentially the same.

With the right background work and an innovative culture shift, IndyCar could capitalize on an opportunity to differentiate itself from the rest of the motorsport world by changing its tactics.

Let the drivers loose. Make it clear to them that they can say whatever they want about whoever they want as long as it’s related to competition and that there won’t be consequences for doing so. (The possible exception to this would be comments regarding IndyCar’s administration — which is a topic I’ll cover in part 3.)

Educate the sponsors. Help them to understand that letting their drivers put black hats on sometimes in no way reflects poorly on them as companies. In fact, it helps to draw interest and attention to the sport as a whole in a way that benefits everyone.

Tell the television partners that the drivers won’t be treated like automatons anymore. They might sometimes say and do things that the on-air folks may find challenging, and they would be well-advised to be prepared. And when drivers pull into victory lane, they’re going to get out of their cars while they’re still wickedly excited and sweaty and out of breath, and we’re going to let them celebrate in their own ways. When you really dig down into it, it becomes obvious that it’s in no one’s best interest to attempt to put the heart of sport on hold for television or anyone else.

The vast majority of the potential fan base IndyCar needs to reach may not be able to tell a shock from a piston, but they can tell when a person is being pushed to their limits for the love of what they do. Taking these simple steps will go a long way toward reminding sports fans everywhere that these aren’t androids driving these race cars — they’re real people with demanding jobs that tax them in every possible way. The desire to share part of the human experience with those more daring than us could be IndyCar’s greatest commodity, if only they would stop hiding it and start embracing it.

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In part 3 of Fixing IndyCar, we’ll take a closer look at the steps that IndyCar needs to take to stop the internal squabbling and heal from within so that can everyone can focus on the things that truly matter.

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* (Apologies to my co-editor, Paul Dalbey, for swiping a topic that he expressly told me he wanted to cover in an article of his own.)

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