It’s fair to describe the 2012 season as “Jekyll and Hyde.” The racing product, with an unproven car, was almost sublime. An American won the season title. The sport’s marquee event, Indianapolis, was judges by some as the race of the year (certainly better than any Sprint Cup event). The off-track happenings, unfortunately, went way beyond ridiculous, going straight to farce. What, then, might 2013 hold?
The challenges facing IndyCar remain daunting but not, sadly, unfamiliar. Cable ratings remain abysmal on NBC Sports Network. .2’s and .3’s will never give enough ROI to grow the sport. Poor broadcasts could be fixed, but that’s never been the issue on NBCSN (ABC, on the other hand). On the contrary, the NBCSN broadcasts have been professional and very watchable.
Does it boil down to the fact that IndyCar simply has no driver or vehicle that fans can relate to? YHE suspects so, but is this irreparable? It’s easy to blame this sport’s pathetic marketing, and there’s little doubt that better marketing people could take much better advantage of the personalities and storylines that do exist. But stopping at this point only surely hides bigger problems.
Fair or not, the debate over driver nationalities remains a factor. Even if you think the sport needs a “quota” of American drivers, however, there is no clear path to that end. It isn’t just that the skills needed in “grassroots” racing simply do not translate to IndyCar/formula-style racing (a little more horsepower and a reduction in downforce in IndyCar would help but not fix the issue). It isn’t just that the entire sport, from the lowest rungs of the ladder on up costs too much for the ROI involved. And it isn’t just that some owners are “short-sighted” when hiring drivers. These things are all true, yes, but they are mere symptoms of larger issues.
YHE has written about this previously, but the fact remains: The Split, combined with mainstream acceptance of NASCAR permanently altered the balance of power in American motorsports. Why would any sane American kid choose IndyCar over NASCAR? Sure, a few do, but the point remains.
One problem that infects every level of this sport, from fans on up, is the notion that IndyCar’s former glory can return. With NASCAR in perpetual dominance, this is never, ever happening. The mistake that everyone (from the paddock on down) makes is thinking that this means doom. Unfortunately, all of us involved in the sport seem stuck in the past (the only question is what era are you stuck in: The 50’s or the 90’s?). This has been most obvious with IndyCar management.
Randy Bernard was well-liked among the small fanbase for two reasons: One, he listened to them. Two, he seemed to be interested in trying new things. In truth, the former is almost irrelevant (if you start doing what the fans tell you to do, you’re liable to end up amongst them), and on the latter, the record is mixed.
Yes, Bernard pushed for the long-delayed DW12 and tried (or was going to try) things like doubleheaders, primetime network races (Texas), etc. YHE likes the return of the Triple Crown, but let’s be truthful: it’s NOT a new concept. Neither is the Robin Miller-led notion, pursued by Bernard, of enticing young USACers to Indianapolis. It might be a worthy idea (hopeless, but still…), but expending energy on a long-shot fix harkening back to a bygone era borders on madness. Still, compared to anyone else who has tried (and failed) to run this sport for the last 30 yrs., Randy Bernard was an innovative genius. When you combine that with the absurdly unprofessional way in which he was let go (and replaced by a bean-counter), it’s also clear that the Hulman-George family has no business running this sport. Since nothing can be done about it, let’s hope they get lucky this time.
Mark Miles, the new Hulman & Co. CEO, and the man to whom Jeff Belskus must answer, might just be the luck the sport needs. While the idea of an IndyCar “playoff” is silly, at least Miles seems interested in new ideas. That’s a good start, provided it’s accompanied by a change in mindset.
On a practical level, this strikes YHE as a critical evaluation year when it comes to the TV contract with NBCSN. Will the network transform itself, with the addition of Formula One, into something of an alternate racing hub? If so, it might be worth sticking with. If not, it’s time to find a way to get out of the deal, even if that means IMS has to pay to get on better stations.
At some point, though, the series has to find its purpose, shout it and stick to it. It cannot be all things to all people, and it ought to stop trying to do so. None of which means it shouldn’t pursue a middle ground. In fact, IndyCar, properly understood, ought to shout that our champions must do it all. They must conquer the road and street courses (ala F1), along with short ovals and high-speed superspeedways (ala NASCAR). Taken together, along with the fan-friendliness of most driver, and you have a unique and interesting product. Why don’t we start there and then try to fix the other problems?