As I watched another fantastic race from the Verizon IndyCar series this past weekend, I continued to think about ways to grow the series. The on-track product is fantastic, at least in my mind, but we need to get more folks to watch.
My last two articles here at Drafting the Circuits explored this by looking at the shortened schedule and the television package. Last week, I took a hard look at the road and street races and wondered if they can be a bit too confusing for the novice fan.
As I watched Ed Carpenter, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, take a well-deserved win at the Texas Motor Speedway, I was reminded of comments from a fan who told me that the basic problem with IndyCar is all of of those foreign drivers.
You know, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that. I have never understood how a country that is populated primarily by the descendents of immigrants has become so Nationalistic in the 238 years since we first declared our independence.
Now, I certainly didn’t begin writing today to take a societal look at the mindset of the American citizen, but rather to talk about racing. There is no doubt that, as Americans, we are a proud country and like to see our home-grown heroes do well. Nuff said..
As a matter of fact, IndyCar actually has some pretty darn good American drivers. In addition the the aforementioned Ed Carpenter: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Charlie Kimball, Marco Andretti, Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal are all a part of the series. James Hinchcliffe is a fine driver out of Canada, who could pass for an American if he needed to.
I would throw this out, however. The basic problem isn’t that the IndyCar roster has an international mix, but rather that the average fan doesn’t know who the drivers are, or even what the Series is about.
When Indy Car Racing hit it’s high point in the 1980′s and 1990′s, they had an international roster. IndyCar today has a tremendously talented bunch of drivers, but they will never hold a candle to the star-power that the CART series had during that era.
With former Formula One World Champions on the track like Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell and Mario Andretti, alongside fantastic young talent like Al Unser Jr, Michael Andretti, Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal and racing legends Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr, the CART series didn’t have to go out of it’s way to market the drivers. These guys were all legends, and the name recognition of the drivers sold tickets week in and week out.
So, who do we have in IndyCar these days? The most recognizable driver is undoubtedly Helio Castroneves. However, appearing on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ a highly-rated network television show, for ten straight weeks realistically gained him more exposure than three Indy 500 wins.
Indeed, Scott Dixon, the winningest driver in the series, is but a blip on the radar of celebrity. I have no doubt in my mind that Scott could take Emma and the kids shopping at a Target store, wearing his Ganassi racing polo shirt, with the Borg-Warner trophy in his shopping cart, and remain unrecognized.
In fact, in his Ganassi shirt, Dixon may actually run the risk of being mistaken for a Target employee, as a casual shopper asked him if these curtains are on sale. Yes, it would be fun to joke about if it weren’t so absolutely true.
In today’s world of sanitized racing, and corporate-friendly drivers, it’s become increasing difficult to market the drivers as true personalities. And, that’s not just in IndyCar; that’s across the board, including NASCAR.
The big exception is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has a tremendously vast and loyal fan base. The cultural phenomenon known a ‘Junior Nation’ has more members than many professional sports teams. Couple that with the fact that Junior has been ultra-competitive this season, and its a marketing win for NASCAR. IndyCar doesn’t have anyone that can come close to that. Heck, NASCAR doesn’t have another guy that can come close to that!
These well-groomed, squeaky-clean, Kenseth/Johnson/Hamlin types pale in comparison to the rough-and-tumble good old boys like Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Ricky Rudd, or Dale Earnhardt Sr. In fact, the few guys that do hold on to the ‘bad-boy’ image in today’s Cup races, like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, get a ton of press when they get their feathers ruffled.
Which leads me into my next thought: All sports, including motor racing, thrive off of rivalries. When I was a younger fan, I rooted for my favorite drivers, but there were drivers that I rooted against just as much. Man, I would be cheesed off for days if Paul Tracy beat Michael Andretti.
We have seen some rivalries begin to develop in the IndyCar Series and quickly dissipate. For a while is was Will Power and Dario Franchitti. Last season it was Will Power and Scott Dixon. This season it’s Simon Pagenaud and (you guessed it) Will Power.
With Will Power as the common theme here, I am reminded of another guy that also drove a black car, won a lot of races, pissed off a bunch of other drivers, and often drew penalties from the sanctioning body. NASCAR got a lot of marketing traction off of that guy.
There is a huge problem with this comparison however. With all my apologies to Will Power, he is not ‘The Intimidator.’ Not even close. The elder Earnhardt was the master of this persona, he could care less if he threw Terry Labonte in the wall to win a race. “I just wanted to rattle his cage a bit” he would say.
There are no amounts of Ky Bu’s, Brad K’s or Will Power’s that can hold a candle to him. At the same time, there is a marketing hook in here somewhere. Will Power is often apologetic or aloof following these on-track incidents, making sure he says the right things and keeps the sponsor happy.
Perhaps he should take a page out of Dale’s playbook and stop apologizing. He has that potential to embrace his inner ‘intimidator’ and craft a ‘bad-guy’ persona. Who could forget Power expressing his displeasure with IndyCar Race Control a few years ago when they threw a green flag on a wet New Hampshire track? That got a ton of press, and that is my point.
It seems odd that I would wish I could root against someone. Every good guy needs an equally talented bad guy. Professional Wrestling has been using that formula for years with great results.
Is that the answer? or do we just go ahead and put all of the drivers on ‘Dancing With The Stars?’
I wish I knew the answer, but until then, tune into watch the Verizon IndyCar Series as they hit the track in Houston for the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix in a few weeks.
Coverage of race one begins Saturday, June 28 at 3:00 pm ET on NBCSN with race two coming to you on Sunday afternoon on the same Network. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.