Wednesday, November 30, 2022

They Did It Again

I've been a sportswriter for more than 20 years, and when I was just getting started I covered a lot of high school sports, including football.

Of course, back at the turn of the century, there were a few "old school" coaches still roaming the sidelines, and I enjoyed speaking to them because while they didn't always say things in the most correct of ways, they were always entertaining and fun to talk to.

One of those was a guy named Mike Curry. He had been coaching since the mid-70s and had won two state football championships in 1981 and 1986. He stepped down from coaching at Aurora Central Catholic High School in 2009 but stayed on to teach social studies -- in fact, both of my sons had him as a teacher while they were at ACC.

After a game, Mike would have you follow him to the equipment barn where he'd light up a smoke and tell you the truth about the game. If they played badly he said they did, and vice versa.

Once after a particularly tough game, I asked him about his team's turnovers that night, and his reply was something along the lines of: "we shot ourselves in the foot so many times tonight that we ran out of bullets".

As a fan of IndyCar for more than 43 years, that quote has come to mind many times over the years, when the series does something that shows that they were unable to get out of their own usual.

This quote resurfaced again last week when the Iowa Speedway weekend schedule was released. It was so glowing! Carrie Underwood, Zac Brown, Kenny Chesney and Ed Sheeran are going to be there! It's going to be even better than last year!

And in the small print? Oh yeah, there will be cars on track. Oh, and another thing, tickets are going to cost more than last year. A lot more.

As expected, there has been a lot of pushback. I know social media represents just a slight piece of the IndyCar fanbase, but from what I've read there leads me to conclude that many people who bought tickets this year will not be returning in 2023.

I truly believe that the 2022 Iowa experiment was a successful one in terms of fans and fans enjoyment, but in the back of my mind I always wondered how they were planning on paying for it. I now have my answer.

Marshall Pruett covered a lot of the bases of this topic, and you can read his piece here. I'm not going to say I disagree with many of the points Bud Denker brings up in their reasoning to move in the direction they are going. But my question are these: how does this grow IndyCar? How does it truly bring in new fans? How does this not feel like a music festival with races as the in-between entertainment?

As a race fan, it feels that way. It reminds me of back in 1998 when I went to a Cincinnati Reds game on Beanie Baby Day. A large segment of fans waited in line to get their Beanie Baby, handed over their ticket, got their Baby, then turned around and walked out. They got what they came for, just like people who pay to get into a movie, watch a trailer for a future blockbuster, and leave.

For what they are bringing in, yeah, the cost is a bargain. However, that's not IndyCar's niche. It's always been about great racing for a low price, kids getting in free and some of the best access to the people who make the sport great.

That's what most of us want! Put it one way: I love EDM (Electronic Dance Music) and so do both of my sons. During the Indy 500, some of the biggest names in the genre play during the race in the Snake Pit. I listen to the replays on our way home the next on Sirius XM, and they are incredible shows. 

Combined minutes myself and my two sons have spent in the Snake Pit to see these great acts: Zero.

We aren't there to see EDM acts, we're there to see the Indy 500. I don't begrudge anyone who feels the other way around, either. As much as I love football, if I were to go to a city during the Super Bowl and they were having a huge EDM show during the game, the show would be my choice instead of the game.

But the Indy 500 doesn't make very many people EDM fans, and EDM fans rarely become fans of the Indy 500. In the end they are two standalone events. And that's OK, because the race is the star of the show, everyone knows it, and because of that fact both can coexist peacefully.

I think what they are doing to make Iowa a big deal is nice, but at the same time I find it an insult to race fans, and IndyCar fans who have been loyal to the series. With no massive media, content, and money resources like NASCAR, this series has to be about the fans, and they should be the main piece to every decision.

Some may argue that maybe some of these people will come to the track and become race fans. Sure, but what is the rate of return on that? I've seen soccer games in Europe, they are amazing and a lot of fun. When I return to Italy next year I'm probably going to go to a couple more. But at the same time, I have a Major League Soccer team that plays an hour from my house and I have never gone to a game.

Honestly, I just have no real desire to.

Sure, the people who come to the concert may enjoy the race, and may come back in 2024. But how does that help the series? How does it help sell tickets, get TV ratings and sell merchandise? I feel like the weekend will help make more new fans of the musical acts rather than the other way around.

If this were the goal of every race weekend, as the great Ragin' Cajun' himself James Carville said in the movie Old School: "Have at it, hoss", I'd get it. But when it's cheaper overall to go to other races, where do you think people are going to go? When airfare, hotel and race tickets are cheaper to go to sunny St. Pete in the wintertime than the Iowa green desert in the summer, what's gonna be the choice?

If this were being done in Long Beach, St. Pete or Nashville, it would be killer. It would be the perfect combination of racing and music, something I would buy into in a heartbeat, because I'd come to town a day earlier or a day later and enjoy the local scene. It would be worth it to me.

But putting on concerts and saying: "hey, stick around for the IndyCar race!" just doesn't sit with me.

I've been beating on this drum and I'll beat on it until the head breaks. Then I'll put on a new drum head and beat onto it some more: this isn't it.

To grow the sport you need access, and you need to appeal to younger fans. It's gotta be done through social media, eSports, access and content. It's gotta be an aggressive approach from the top to the bottom, from the series to the teams to the drivers, and it's gotta be done with everyone getting on board. And if you aren't on board, someone will get on board for you.

My wife works for a company that makes restaurant and residential cooking equipment, and they have the belief that the company needs to be re-invented every several years. So they do it. It's time for IndyCar to re-invent itself, and that's been needed for quite some time.

Every IndyCar-related activity should be open to the public, or somehow get the public involved. Everything needs to be streamed, and every decision needs to be made for what is best for racing fans. Because in the end, your product is racing, and your most important people need to be your fans. 

Make everything big, then make it bigger. Did you ever see the movie The One Hundred Foot Journey? It's a total chick flick, but I like it, so shaddup. In the movie, when the Indian family opens their restaurant, no one comes in. But when they add lights and music, and the father dresses up in traditional Indian wear, makes his restaurant seem like a big deal, and stands outside coaxing people in, they discover that they love the place, and its popularity reaches or even exceeds the stuffy, Michelin Star establishment across the street.

Which says something. I've eaten food prepared by a Michelin Star's so good it's mind boggling.

Papa knew what he had inside was amazing, he just needed to get people inside to try his food. He didn't need Bollywood stars, or Yo Yo Honey Sing, Benny Dayal or Arijit Singh to be there, because they weren't the star of the show, his food was. That's even hammered home with Hassan's story arc, going to Paris and becoming a big star, then coming home because he wanted it to be about the food.

In the end, IndyCar is about the racing. The racing should be the star of every weekend, not a sideshow. I'm all for doing what it takes to get racing fans new and old through the gates, but not like this.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Ovals, Ovals, and More Ovals

For as long as I can remember, IndyCar fans have clamored to have more ovals on the schedule.

Hey, I'm for it too, so don't look at this post as a dive into Negativetown.

But this conversation comes up a lot, and here's what usually happens: 

1) Everyone wants ovals.

2) IndyCar puts an oval on the schedule.

3) Nobody goes to said oval, TV ratings are bad.

4) Said oval falls off the schedule.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It's obvious that Roger Penske wants more ovals on the schedule, because it is written about often, including this piece from yesterday. But the question(s) that also need to be asked include: How is that going to be done? and...What are we going to do differently this time? And perhaps a third great question: What is a viable oval that will become a great partner with IndyCar?

The last point is the most important. Right now IndyCar has what it spent years looking for, and that is date equity with great tracks and great partners. Just adding a track for the sake of doing so won't work, because the needs of the consumer are different than what they were years ago.

It's not just about the race anymore. People want (and expect) more from their experience than just one race. Gas, hotels, race tickets -- they all cost money, and that cost is rising exponentially faster than how people are making it. They want more for their dollar.

Natural road courses have found their niche. People go to those races because they can camp and enjoy a weekend that offers plenty of action on the track in a laid-back atmosphere where people can go watch the action anywhere on the property. 

Street courses have found theirs, too. Just like road courses, there is plenty of action on track with several different series and types of cars participating. You can wander around the course, and when everything is done you can head out to bars and restaurants with your friends and continue the celebration.

What do ovals offer? Most are out in the middle of nowhere, so you drive to the track, watch the cars go around, and go back to your hotel and watch TV. Sure, those tracks offer camping too, but it doesn't seem as popular as it is in different venues.

Ovals seem to be more for the die-hard fans, and the rest are for both the die-hards and the people who have fun when the circus comes to town once a year. Because IndyCar is a business, they have to accommodate both groups.

Lord knows they have tried. I went to the Milwaukee race the last few times it was held, and Michael Andretti did his best, and probably lost a lot of money in the process. So did Pocono, but honestly, until they get serious about some of the safety issues they have, there's no good reason to go back.

Did Iowa Speedway find the holy grail last summer? It seemed like it, with plenty of activities and sponsor activation from HyVee, the weekend was a rousing success. It also probably cost a ton of money, which if HyVee is willing to write it all off that's fine, but what other partner is willing to do the same? So far, none have stepped forward to make that commitment, although WWT Raceway is a great IndyCar partner and I have no problem with how they do their thing.

Not to mention that adding races adds costs to the teams. I don't know the exact costs to put a car on track per race, but I'm going to guess it's well into six figures. Adding events means more money needs to come from sponsors, and more possible expenses to the team, especially on ovals when crash damage can become very expensive. 

This isn't the days of alcohol and tobacco sponsorships, when money flowed from the spigots like cold, hard, green water. Back then, all of that could be covered with no problem. And yeah, for the big teams, that money can come from somewhere. But the big teams don't even cover half of the grid, what about everyone else?

Of course, everyone would find it, because racers race, and that's how it's done. How that helps the overall viability of the series is something worth the debate.

Look, we have good things right now, which is the first for the IndyCar universe in a long time. More cars are being added to the grid. More people are making an investment into the sport. We have date and venue equity for the first time in a long time. The paddock is full of talented drivers who have a passion for racing and for IndyCar. The series is better off than it has been in a long, long time.

The next step, though, is a big one. Our end is simple: go to the races, and if you don't go, watch it on TV (or Peacock, and quit crying over something that is $5 a month). Buy merch, encourage others to give IndyCar a chance, just be an overall good steward.

For IndyCar? Total rebuild. If we as fans are committed to them, they have to commit to us. Better social media, better online content, better marketing, better merch. Expect more from promoters. I covered the Texas race last year and the promotion and local marketing was awful. If they aren't willing to do that, then self-promote the race and do the hell out of it.

Overall, commit to doing more. As I blogged about last year, a Drive to Survive-type series would be great, but there are more pieces involved. DTS doesn't work without a total buy-in from everyone, including a massive buy-in on social media and a commitment to eSports.

Just thinking "more ovals" like it's 1995 won't work. Just like the apron at IMS, it's gone and it's never coming back. 

I love IndyCar, which is why I do what I do, and why I keep coming back. But a new step needs to be taken. Put it this way: it's Tuesday and social media is still talking about Ross Chastain. And for good reason, I might add.

How often does that happen with IndyCar? It needs to be after every event, because at every race something worth talking about happens. I'm saying this because it needs to be said: it's time for IndyCar to stop expecting the drivers, teams and fans to be the voice of the series. They need to do their part too.

I think the small-but-mighty fanbase has made it clear. We are all-in. Is IndyCar ready to do the same, or are they going to keep having the same discussions, over and over, resulting in the same things, over and over.

Your move, guys.