Another exciting IndyCar season has wrapped up with mostly the best drivers and racing anywhere. Once again buzzword speakers in the fanciest offices at IMS will trumpet steady attendance and minuscule television ratings steadiness as giant steps forward. Most proclamations about excitement, competitiveness and accessibility ring true. Every event my party attends leads to satisfaction.
As the series moves forward it is wise for leadership to understand and grasp reality, then use that knowledge to shape the sport for everyone else down the road. Most sports and entertainment events these days play to large swaths of empty seats. Television ratings are way down for all but a handful of sports mostly due to a complex fragmentation of product offerings and delivery technology.
The manner in which the oval product of IndyCar is presented today is stale and outdated. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway invented then evolved event presentation. As NASCAR ascended they essentially lifted then customized all aspects of IMS event presentation. They executed it over and over until eventually they were doing so most weekends of the year. It all seems very dated and tired today even for NASCAR.
Presentation must be reinvented. IndyCar is in a perfect position to facilitate that. It is my belief the current mindset of scheduling around television widows to drive up ratings is a dead end. It is also obvious television partners do not understand or even care that much about the product. On NBCSN IndyCar is third in the pecking order behind NASCAR and Formula 1. This is evidenced by a quantified lack of promotion, a merry-go-round of on air presenters and race start times that not only defy objective logic but kill attendance. Instead of attempting to use tiny increases in ratings to drive attendance why not enhance attendance to build buzz that will ultimately drive higher viewing?
Lack of presentation is most pronounced at oval venues. The irony is that the fastest, closest and most exciting racing occurs on such tracks. It does not even matter that IndyCar is occupied by participants married to a non-oval niche that has never enjoyed mainstream popularity in America. As a matter of fact one of the core strengths of IndyCar is its diverse, multidisciplinary approach to venues. Watching a race in person at a track like Barber is just as fun as watching at Texas. The experience and approaches, however, are very different.
Fans who attend non-oval events enjoy discussing the experience, which mostly includes not sitting on large swaths of aluminum. How would IndyCar go about reinventing oval presentation? It is relatively simple but requires partners, investment and dedication. It involves concepts that must be beta tested.
There are two venues at which such beta testing seems natural. The first is a venue that is older than even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As this windy missive is being composed the management of the track in Milwaukee is entertaining proposals that involve conversion and alternate re-use of that legendary facility. That is incomprehensible to legacy racing fans. Milwaukee, even without an IndyCar event, remains one of the highest rated television markets for IndyCar.
The second target is a much newer facility in a geographically desirable area. The Pikes Peak track outside Fountain, Colorado is also ideal for the concept (provided SAFER gets added). Its primary problem is a NASCAR-foisted clause that essentially prohibits anything but club racing at the track for present and future owners. That clause was inserted with anticipation a track for NASCAR could be built near Denver, which is now highly unlikely. Since IndyCar left PPIR Colorado Springs has become one of the hottest growth markets in the country and Pueblo is not doing badly either. The region is large enough to support a new event even with no promotion in Denver. IndyCar fans that live there would make the drive anyway.
What do the tracks have in common? Both have removed most ancillary grandstands. Venues are located in areas that have a potentially high fan base. While Milwaukee and PPIR have a successful history with IndyCar current expectations today are low to non-existent. Perfect.
A repetitive, ongoing IndyCar mantra is that ‘…it’s all about the fans.’ It is probably time for money to go where mouths are.
My entire concept of presentation reinvention revolves around something I refer to as a ‘boutique experience.’ Admittedly the word ‘boutique’ may seem weird when discussed within the context of auto racing, but ‘boutique’ is the key. Creative, variable pricing is also a component but moves away from more shameless nickel and diming, intelligence insulting money grabs that occur at many venues today, especially street events.
The one oft repeated and increasingly sport killing sentiment parroted by participants and leadership of IndyCar is that ‘…ovals are just not popular anymore.’ Hogwash. Those venues suffer at the box office because they are not presented or promoted effectively. It is possible to prevent such prophecy from becoming willfully self-fulfilling with relatively minimal effort.
In reality it does not really matter how well most oval events are promoted or even that the racing fans would experience is the best in the world. Potential fans today, especially younger ones, have moved beyond any desire to sit somewhere in an ocean of aluminum in the summer with no shade to watch three hours of racing. Throw in draconian rules about what fans are allowed to bring with them, not to mention whacko start times (most recently Pocono pre-rainout plans at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon for a 500 mile race) and most casual fans these days will opt out. Fan lack of enthusiasm is compounded when nothing except IndyCars run a weekend schedule with no ancillary events.
This is the first of two parts of this fan-frustrated missive. The general concept knocking around this noggin has been presented and justified. Part Two tomorrow will dive more deeply into how the concept could work at beta venues.