When I wrote in one of my Monday posts that the only way to save Indy car racing was to turn it upside down, I wasn’t being facetious. There has to be some serious thinking outside the box for this form of open wheel racing to survive and eventually succeed.
Twice this year, the series and its CEO, Randy Bernard, have been embarrassed beyond belief. The crowds in Milwaukee and this past Sunday in New Hampshire were jokes. Anybody who believes that there was any promotion whatsoever for either of those two races is so gullible they deserve pity.
And it’s not just those two oval races. The IndyCar series came to Canada this year for two street races that maybe drew 50,000 customers between them. Bernard told me just before the Toronto round that he’d been told "the numbers will be off the chart" for the Honda Indy. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he said that.
Bernard, by his own admission, knew nothing about auto racing when he took the job as CEO. Unfortunately, the people who have his ear (one or two inside IndyCar, a very colourful journalist and a couple of hundred rabid fans in IndyCar chat rooms) seem to have convinced him that if he just turns back the clock, everything will turn out all right.
So the series went back to Milwaukee and it was close to being a disaster. The series went back to New Hampshire and it was a disaster. (There was nobody there. That speedway is less than 100 miles from Boston and the turnout was unbelievable because there wasn’t one.)
Now IndyCar is going back to California Speedway, which was a disaster before and will be again. There is pressure to go back to Phoenix and Road America and Chicagoland Speedway. Why?
I can tell you this: if they go back to Phoenix, they could save time just before the race starts by introducing the fans to the drivers instead of the other way around. That's how much potential there is at that place.
IndyCar, at the moment, doesn’t seem to have a plan to save the business. Management seems to be taking a scatter-gun approach: any promoter who shows up and makes all sorts of wild promises and offers up a sanctioning fee gets a race. And then great drivers go out and put on great races in front of thousands and thousands of empty seats.
If IndyCar wants to keep telling the world that it’s drowning, it couldn’t have done a better job than it did in New Hampshire. (And if anybody wonders why the league re-signed with ABC/ESPN rather than entertain offers from other networks, it’s quite likely that there wasn’t any interest from any other network.)
Here’s what IndyCar has to do.
Canadian hockey fans hate NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for insisting on trying to sell the game in the U.S. southern states but at least he’s had a plan and has tried and tried to make it work.
So IndyCar has to decide, geographically, where it wants to be in order to attract sponsorship and build the business. It has to map out a dozen or so key markets (other than Indianapolis and Long Beach) where it wants to be and then, if necessary, promote the races itself.
Even if there are promoters, the league will still have to take a leading role in marketing and promotion. I know, I know. That ain't the way it's supposed to work. Well, it's not 1958 any more, either. It's 2011 and if you want to succeed at just about anything these days, you pretty much have to do things yourself.
IndyCar has to decide if city street races (other than Long Beach) are worth fighting for any longer. The mid-80s was the perfect time to take the racing downtown. It worked wonderfully in Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland and so-on. But those days are gone. The timing might now be ripe to go back to road courses like Road Atlanta and Mosport. (Look at the crowd that packed Mid-Ohio two weeks ago and compare it to New Hampshire and then decide where you’d rather be racing.)
And Bernard has to stop listening to the car owners. This isn’t CART. If the owners want to play, they have to pay themselves and not depend on some kid from Colombia or Switzerland to show up with a cheque.
IndCar has to get the message out that it is the Big Time and there is a plan and only committed professional car owners need apply. Bernard and the Hulman-George family (whose members are still very, very involved in this) might be very pleasantly surprised to see who shows up.