Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Indycar: A Manifesto, Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts about what I think Indycar needs to do in order to grow and thrive. In this entry, I've laid out the problem. Subsequent posts will deal with what should be done about it. I hope you enjoy the reading, and please post your own comments and suggestions!

One of the by-products of Indycar's current niche market/narrow fan base is a sense of ownership felt by the close-knit fan base. Every one feels that he knows what's best for Indycar and what, exactly, should be done to grow the fan base and take the sport back to its former glory. (This was exemplified by the outcry over Randy Bernard's ouster last year. How often does a CEO's firing cause fans to declare en masse that they'll no longer consume said product?) I'm no different. While I understand that I don't own the series, call any shots, or have any say (beyond my race-going and sponsor product-buying dollars), I do have ideas and suggestions.

To begin, the question "How did the sport get into its current state?" must be answered. The easy answer is the 1996 CART/IRL split. I'm of the opinion that the split dealt a crushing blow at exactly the wrong time. The early 1990s saw several things happen nearly simultaneously. First, all of the hugely popular old-time heroes retired for good within a few years of one another: AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser Sr, and Mario Andretti. Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears also hung up their helmets in that timeframe. Second, American open-wheel racing became a stepping stone on the way to or from Formula 1: Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Christian Fittipaldi, and Jacques Villenueve fall into this category. (For that matter, 12 of 19 CART/Champ Car champions from 1989-2007 had come from would be F1 drivers.) It's hard to market your series and its drivers as the best in the world when they have their eyes elsewhere. Finally, an ascendent NASCAR was gaining serious traction on its march into the mainstream.
Just as open-wheel racing faced these challenges (whether realized or not), it was split into two antagonistic, competing circuits. Overnight, the experienced fan realized that his series was now two, both run by people who appeared to be more concerned with their own bottom line than what the fans wanted. New and would-be fans were faced with confusion that would take at least a 5-minute conversation to even begin to understand the issue. I was able to relate much better after a personal experience: I was a big Formula 1 fan in the late '90s and early '00s. Sunday mornings I would make an effort to wake up early and watch the races. As Ferrari and Michael Schumacher's dominance grew, it became more and more difficult to justify rising early to watch a race where I knew who the winner would be. Eventually, I made the effort only to tune in to see who was on the podium. As my obligations and responsibilities changed, it was easy to allow my Formula 1 enthusiasm to wane to almost nothing. It just wasn't worth the effort with other demands on my time. Since 2003, I've watched only a handful of F1 races. Even when I had more time, I didn't go back to watching full-time. I think 1990s open-wheel fans faced a similar situation: they were given an excuse to turn their attention elsewhere, and they did. They won't be back. Even now, when a former race fan learns of my enthusiasm for Indycar, the almost universal statement is, "yeah, I watched until the split and never got back into it." Why would they now? They have other hobbies and interests that don't threaten to insult them.

Next: Solution #1.

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