Admit it, if you have been a fan of North American open wheel racing dating back to the days of Danny Sullivan starring on Miami Vice, at some point since the split and reunification you have disgustedly sat down and started cranking out solutions for all of the problems facing open wheel racing today. Playing CEO of Indycar has at times been a secret obsession of mine. In fact could that be a viable mobile app game*? (*note to self to research). I have to admit when I read that the Hulman Board spent millions of dollars for the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a study and devise a new business model for the series I felt a little cheated. Surely some of my crumpled notebooks collecting dust under my bed could have provided a better vision for the future? I should bundle my notes from over the years and ship them off free of charge to the Hulman sisters.
I have to confess that I thought Randy Bernard was doing an excellent job running the series and had things heading in the right direction. The current on track product is solid. Yes the cars are not beautifully sculpted machines and the engines are too quiet and lacking grunt, but more grunt = more dollars and there are no dollars until there is network television. (more on the noise issue later). The current crop of drivers is a solid group of professionals. Knockout qualifying, option tires, double file restarts and push to pass all spice up the show. Beau Barfield makes sound decisions in race control. Standing starts are on the way and the return of Pocono and a Houston parking lot race further make the series the most diverse in racing. Honda and Chevy are engaged in a powerplant fight and the advantage seems to tilt back and forth every race. The elements for on track success are in place. But I’m a hardcore racing nut who could get excited over two lawnmowers having at it so in the eyes of the Boston Consulting Group’s statistical gurus I’m the guy flattening the bell curve and messing with the standard deviation. In other words, it’s not me who needs to be impressed.
So we are back to the old issue of TV ratings. No ratings = no marketing budget = social obscurity. Do you remember when FedEx had a national advertising campaign where one had the option of selecting “DeFerran” for the uber fast service? Or how can we forget the Target ads where Vassar and Zanardi were always up to something fun and Zanardi uttered the line in his Italian accent that will forever float around in my head, “Words cannot describe how I feel about Jimmy.” These guys were on the national stage pitching products now reserved for Peyton Manning, LeBron and Jimmy Johnson. In fact ESPN used to run a Sportscenter ad featuring Michael Andretti as the on site guy to get you someplace fast. When the public thought of drivers, Indycar guys came to mind first. Even the Beastie Boys and EPMD, seminal NYC hip hop pioneers, dropped Mario Andretti in records recorded in the late ‘80’s.
So why can’t Indycar gain any traction back since the split in 1996? Did the explosion of the internet open up so many new entertainment avenues for people that car racing has suffered? Does Indycar need better mobile apps and a stronger social media presence to get their story out to Generations Y and Z? Should cool guys racing fast cars, like kick-ass big hair arena rock, just be viewed as exorbitant relics of the end of the 20th century? People still watch NASCAR and F1 is huge on the global stage. Somewhere in hibernation exists a market for road/street racing in the the good ‘Ol USA. I do believe men are still born with testosterone and women are still attracted to wealthy playboys in racing suits. It’s in our DNA to push machines to the limit and marvel at those that risk death to beat the competition. So what gives?
This was my mindset as I attended my 24th Long Beach GP a few weeks back. My intent was to try and comprehend where the connection has failed. It doesn’t seem that long ago when Grandstand 40 was twice the size and packed full of adoring fans of Mario, Michael, Little Al, Danny, Bobby, Tracy, Zanardi, etc. People had a genuine emotional connection to their favorite driver and these were household names.
What I quickly noticed was besides the odd foreigner showing support for a countryman, the stands were basically devoid of team or driver allegiance. There was absolutely no passion on display. Winning the pole generated a few golf claps from the half full stands and my estimate is 90% of the people in general admission could not have told you which car the current American born and raised series champion was driving. There was still a nice paying crowd roaming the grounds but the on track Indycars were just a part of the scenery. Something that may command a short pause for a few minutes before moving on to find that next beer and check out the Tecate girls in the expo center.
That night over dinner and observing the Pine St bar scene I noticed that every establishment had the latest X-Games on the TV. It got me thinking that extreme sports is likely beating out car racing for the crucial 30 and under demographic. Let’s face it when you see a guy 100ft in the air on a skateboard wearing a tee shirt and jeans it makes a 100mph corner in an Indycar look like child’s play. No doubt about it, racing is no longer the most dangerous game in town. X-sports is also tailor made for the short attention span man of today. While driving, texting, chatting and listening to the new Vampire Weekend release at the same time, it’s easily feasible that one can view the entire winning skate ramp run while stopped at a traffic light and still have time to fire off a Tweet about it and post the video on Facebook. Who has time to sit through a two hour strategic car race? And while I’m at it, who has the budget to get started in serious karting? If a kid today wants to be cool all he/she needs is a GoPro and a death wish to become the video king of the block.
On Sunday morning we sat and watched the 9 car processional Lights race with about 47 other people and again I couldn’t stop thinking about the days of 25+ Lights fields and 25+ Atlantic fields. Is this minuscule field still the direct result of the great 2007 recession or do young drivers no longer aspire to become Indycar drivers? GP2, Formula Renault 3.5 and GP3 all look to be thriving in Europe. I was thinking that maybe it is time to pull the plug on the whole business until Robby Gordon saved the day.
While strolling the grounds and taking in the scenery that is unique to Southern California (think ink, silicon and harbor seals), our little band of buzzards decided to go stand on the side of the track to see what the Robby Gordon truck demo was all about. In his heyday Robby had the talent and car control of any man alive but may have been lacking the part of the brain that wins point championships. He was a maniac but oh how Indycar could use a Robby Gordon in their field today!
Within 20 seconds of the Gordon trucks being unleashed I knew we had something special on our hands. These machines were flat out beasts. Twice the size of an Indycar, twice the noise of an Indycar and yes, they also set up jumps on the track and were going by us 10 feet in the air. This was brilliant stuff. I was immediately pushing for the best vantage point and noticed that every person in sight dropped what they were doing and and had their cell phones at the ready. I have always loved everything about 900+ BHP pumping out of a V-8 and these trucks released the testosterone and brought me right back to high school I was suddenly hearing Eddie Van Halen kick into “ Unchained” and felt the “wow” factor that is becoming more and more elusive after 30 years of buzzardry.
On the spot I came up with my two conclusions for road/street racing. Indycar needs more noise. They don’t need to spend billions to sound like an F1 car but they need to blow people away. Plain and simple. The deafening noise will make the cars appear faster and bring a sense of urgency to the whole affair. When Takuma Sato goes back to the power exiting a corner I want to feel it in every nerve and fiber in my body. I want to hear the cars coming before I can see them to fuel my excitement. I want the to see the rookie at the track look at his buddy and yell “Holy Shit” the first time he hears an Indycar roar by at speed. It’s the noise that creates the emotional buzz that serves F1 and Nascar so well. To steal a Public Enemy song title, Indycar needs to Bring The Noise!
Secondly I think that Indycar should look at shortening the races. At LB I see people start to lose interest by lap 20 and start thinking beers over pit windows. Our grandstand started clearing out after 30 mins and was 30-40% vacated by the checkered flag. Nice to stretch out for us hardcores but probably not too good for repeat business. After 20 laps of green flag racing the casual fan likely could no longer pick out the car leading the race. I would like to see a one hour sprint race where only 1 pit stop is required. Package all the excitement of a race into an hour and leave the people wanting more. In other words, adopt more of the MotoGP model. Put the “Road to Indy” on display and have a Formula Mazda race from 10-10:45. Then roll out the Lights cars and have them race from 11:15 -12:00. Then fire up the festivities and have the Indycars race from 1-2. Shoot off the fireworks and come up with a better podium ceremony. And to top off a weekend, roll out the Gordon trucks and let them go wild to send everybody home satisfied.