EP-140339916Last week I posted an article that looked at some of the deterrents to building the fan-base of the Verizon IndyCar Series.  Specifically, I pointed to the television package and the short schedule.  I spent some more time reflecting on what I consider to be good and bad about the series, and I had some interesting thoughts pop into my head.

I always contended that the on-track product is excellent, and that if more fans would just tune in, they would get hooked.  The marketing of the series has always ben the problem.  Then again, I’m pretty biased because I love the sport and I understand it very well.  As I watched the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit this past weekend, I had a revelation.

I need to step off of my pulpit, and try to see this thing through the eyes of a casual observer.  Any one that follows racing knows that the race isn’t always won on the track.   Sometimes the race is won or lost on pit road, and oftentimes the race is won in the race strategists’ laptop.

05-07-Rahal-Pitstop-Action-StdThis is often the case in street or road races.  We will see a number of different pit stop strategies employed, and then fate takes over.  The intricate strategies often require one of two things happening.  A: The crew is hoping for a caution.  B: The crew is looking for the race to stay green.  Once your strategy is set, you live or die by the cautions.  The team and driver could end up a hero or a zero on any given race day.

Again, I understand this very well and I have been watching it for years.  In Detroit’s race one on Saturday we saw cars that made three pit stops end up ahead of the cars that only made two stops in the closing laps.

On paper, that doesn’t even seem possible given the extra time on pit road.  However, the timing of the cautions, and the relative track position of the cars during said caution play a major factor in the outcome.  Indeed, it can become a bit confusing.

Here was my revelation.  If sometimes it is a bit confusing to a life-long road racing fan like myself, how can it make any sense at all to someone watching for the first time?

Jack HawksworthIndeed, the television broadcast team does an excellent job of explaining this and keeping the viewer up to date with the various pit strategies through the field.  But, I thought to myself, if I was a Detroit resident and I had shelled out a couple hundred bucks for tickets, parking, food, etc to take my family of four to see IndyCar for the first time,  what would I have thought of it?

Without the benefit of the television commentary, and unable to see the entire track, I could see how one can become confused and wonder how the dominant car in the early part of the race ends up mired mid-field.  Maybe I’d be disappointed and never come back.

At the same time, I can also see the first-time fan becoming swept up in the sights and sounds of the sleek IndyCars negotiating the tricky turns of Belle Isle and wanting to come back and understand more in the future.

Hmmm..it’s interesting and I really don’t know the answer.  I do know that changing the racing is not the answer.  I recall the CART series trying a short-lived experiment with mandatory pit-stop windows.  In my mind, that only serves to dumb-down the product and rip the heart out of the essence of road racing.  I would never recommend something like that.

IndyCar Iowa Auto RacingI would however, recommend looking at this schedule that is much too light on oval racing.  In my interaction with the DTC fans, I come across a lot of folks who just don’t like road racing.  Some even refuse to watch their beloved NASCAR drivers when they hit the road courses at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.  I get it and I see their point of view, oval track racing is uniquely American and has a rich history with both stock cars and open-wheelers.   Over the years the IndyCar Series has produced an amazing amount of thrilling finishes on oval tracks.

In fact, the early Indy Racing League began as an all-oval series in response to a CART Series that became more and more reliant on street and road races.   So, how did we come to this 2014 schedule that features only six oval-track events in its 18 race schedule?

There are a couple reasons for that.  Through the 2000′s IndyCar experienced a decline in oval track attendance.  The racing was fantastic, but there were more empty seats each year.  In my mind, this is a marketing issue that can be dropped in the lap of the disenchanted series sponsor, Izod.  At the same time, downtown street races like Detroit, Long Beach and Toronto produced big crowds because of their festival-like atmosphere and proximity in large population centers.

dan-wheldon-indy-car-325Secondly, the 2014 schedule is still reeling from the ripple effect of Dan Wheldon’s tragic accident at Las Vegas in 2011.  The general consensus following Wheldon’s death was that 1.5 mile oval tracks are too dangerous for the IndyCars.  While there may be some truth in that statement, the fact is that IndyCar produced thrilling races for years at venues like Kentucky Speedway, Chicagoland, and Kansas Speedway and everyone lived to tell the tale.   Las Vegas hosted both ChampCar and IndyCar six times prior to 2011 without a major incident.   All of those tracks are now absent from the schedule.

In retrospect, removing these venues feels like a knee-jerk reaction to a major tragedy.  I would also throw in the fact that the current chassis, the DW-12, named in Wheldon’s honor, is a stronger and safer chassis and well-suited for oval racing.

If the Verizon IndyCar can swing the pendulum to a more even mix of ovals and road courses on the schedule, and market the heck out of the series, I believe they will be well on their way to prominence.

Of course, the marketing has always been suspect, but I have high hopes with Verizon communications taking the lead there.  Join me next week as I will explore how the series can more effectively market the drivers in the series.

The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action this coming Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway: one of the great oval races left on the schedule.