Every successful business
relationship requires two or more parties involved to cooperate and do their
part for the partnership to flourish. Because auto racing is an
entertainment business as much as it is a sport, and, therefore, constantly
in the public eye, it's subject to public scrutiny perhaps more than a
normal business would be. Success is measured by TV ratings and full
grandstands. Failure can't be hidden, it's immediately evident. In this article we examine why some
CART races flourish while others
As a sanctioning body, CART is not only responsible for putting on 'a
good show', they are responsible for promoting their
own product 365 days a year. That product is not only the on-track spectacle, but the
performers themselves. While CART's on-track product is spectacular,
compared to NASCAR, CART has done a woeful job in promoting its product and
As we have written on numerous
occasions, CART has failed to 'brand' its product, make it a household name
like NASCAR has done. CART is invisible to the vast majority of
people. Ditto for its drivers. Most people would not recognize
the majority of the drivers in the CART series. Perhaps Michael
Andretti might be recognized by most because he is CART's biggest
name. But it's not only his name alone that brings him recognition,
it's also the fact that he has been featured in numerous TV commercials over
the years. NASCAR does five times as much promotion of their series, so
much so that 'NASCAR' and 'Winston Cup' are 'branded' products. Everyone knows what
NASCAR and/or Winston Cup are, yet mention the word CART, or Champ Car and you get an immediate, huh?
TV is the single biggest reason
why NASCAR drivers are so recognizable. Many NASCAR sponsors feature
their drivers in their commercials and print advertisements, and while CART
can't force a sponsor to feature a driver in their advertising campaign,
they certainly can make a strong sales pitch as to why they should.
It's CART's job to foster that sort of thinking.
And the drivers must do their
part. NASCAR drivers make more public appearances than CART drivers, a
lot more. One can argue that F1 drivers avoid the public far more than
CART drivers do, but F1 is already branded, it already carries a
'mystique'. Part of that is the result of the press that follows the
F1 circuit. If a driver (or senior person ion a team) opens their
mouth and says anything, ten different media outlets will publish it, dissect
what he said, and make a big story about it, sometimes even creating a
controversy where there is none. Then the newspapers pick up on it and
the 'free' publicity spreads like wildfire.
Since CART drivers don't receive
that sort of 'free' publicity, and given that NASCAR's drivers have worked
hard to connect with the fans, CART's drivers are going to have to step up their effort further, right along with CART doing their part. We have
seen people like Kyle Petty and other NASCAR drivers make short appearances
in local bars just to shake hands and mingle with the crowd on race
weekends. Sometimes they
show up at the same establishment each year for an hour or so, chat with
fans and 'connect'. They don't get paid for these appearances, their
payback comes in the form of merchandising that their fans buy later.
At the end of the day, it's the drivers that fans pay to see. If the
drivers don't connect with the fans, they won't have any fans. The
grandstands will be empty and merchandising non-existent.
Adrian Fernandez connects with
the Mexican fans, he goes out of his way to do so. We have seen many
CART drivers not even acknowledge an autograph seeker, when they are
busy. Making fans doesn't just happen during autograph hour, it
happens every minute you are at the track. If a driver doesn't have
time to sign autographs, it takes a simple smile and a statement, 'sorry, I
can't do that right now I'm really focused on something, catch me in an
hour, or after so-and-so." Every time I see a driver just turn
their back on a fan and not even acknowledge they are there, I say to
myself, 'well that's one more empty seat next year!'
Then of course there's FedEx,
CART's title sponsor. Because FedEx views their CART business
relationship as one of making business-to-business deals, they use the CART
series and its drivers in almost none of its commercials. In addition,
because 99% of FedEx's business is with corporations, it does very little marketing
to the average consumer. Because it's the average consumer that buys
race tickets, CART suffers from the lack of marketing FedEx does to those
If a cola company such as
Coca-Cola or Pepsi were CART's title sponsor, they would market heavily to
consumers, run all sorts of fan giveaways and really engage existing as well
as potential new fans. So while FedEx is certainly a great company,
it's really not the right company to be CART's title sponsor. Perhaps
FedEx should have their name on the Champion's Cup/Trophy, or perhaps it
should be called the CART Pepsi World Series presented by FedEx. A
consumer product company should be CART's primary sponsor and CART would be
wise to get one on board as quickly as possible.
CART is also responsible for
making sure the on-air TV product is top notch. There's no better way
to turn off fans than to produce a TV broadcast that is boring, misses all
the key points and does nothing to make the series seem like a really
exciting, big-time sport.
These are a few examples of where
CART can do its part to promote its series better so a track owner/promoter
has an easier time selling tickets. Now lets examine the promoter's
The Promoter's Part
The promoter is not only responsible
for providing a world class facility for the performers/drivers/teams, but
also an environment whereby the fans/customers feel as though they have been
somewhere special and want to come back next year.
Here is where a 'street' circuit
promoter has a definite advantage. It's nearly impossible for the promoter
of a 'remote' track to provide the exciting nightlife that is available at a
downtown venue. It's also harder to engage the entire city in a
weekend event when there is no real 'major' city to engage.
Michigan Speedway is a prime
example. For the most part, it's out in the middle of nowhere.
Sure there are many wonderful little towns that surround these tracks, but
nowhere near the population density one finds in a big city. However,
Motegi is able to attract a big crowd to its remote track on the top of a
mountain, and Michigan certainly attracts a big crowd for its Winston Cup
races, so what's the secret?
no really easy answer. Michigan and other remote tracks work well
for NASCAR partially because NASCAR has a big RV camper following.
Families pack up the kids into the RV after work on Friday, and it's off
to the races for a weekend family outing. The kids are fed NASCAR
and the joys of camping at an early age. However, what we have
observed is the camaraderie that develops between the families that are
parked in the campgrounds all weekend. They make friends with their
weekend neighbors and its that camaraderie that gets them through what
might otherwise be boring downtime.
And while not all NASCAR fans
are 'campers,' it can certainly be argued that they are the heart and soul
of NASCAR. From what we can tell, a large percentage of CART's
fans idea of camping out is spending a night in the Hyatt hotel. And
while there is always an exception to the rule, one can argue that this
helps NASCAR races to succeed at remote tracks whereby CART fails.
Recognizing this difference,
what does a track promoter do differently for the CART fan to replace the camaraderie
that is present within the overnight camper NASCAR crowd? There is no
easy answer to this one, but from where we sit, a promoter has to do a lot
more to make a CART fan feel like the trip was worth the price.
Road courses, with their
inherent natural beauty, give the attendee the feeling like they are
spending a day out with mother nature mixed with the sweet sounds of 17,000
RPM engines and burnt methanol. Fans can walk around the circuit,
viewing the action from various vantage points, and break for the shade of
the tree on a hot blistering day. Compare that to sitting in an
aluminum grandstand at Michigan in 95 degree heat all day and it's easy to
see how critical it is to do something extra special for these fans......but
Getting the fan to an event is
one thing. Getting them to come back is a whole different story.
This past weekends race at Michigan doesn't get any better, yet as a fan,
would you want to sit in 95 degree heat for four hours, or sit in your air-conditioned
living room sipping a cold beer watching the race on TV? That's the dilemma
CART and tracks like MIS are faced with.
There has to be more than just a
race to keep the fans coming back the next time. This is where an oval
track promoter has to get creative. If it's a night race, a huge
fireworks display can be done after each days activities. If it's a
day race why not have a really big carnival the week leading up to the race
right at the track, so families from all the surrounding small towns come to
the track each night. The race weekend can be the culmination of the
big week with big prize drawings and the drivers present at the carnival to
sign autographs at night.
Who wouldn't want to try and
dunk Michael Andretti dressed as a clown into the water throwing
softballs? It would be a wonderful way for the drivers to 'connect'
with the fans. Would a NASCAR driver do it? You bet he
would! There are many other examples besides a carnival, one just
needs to be a bit creative.
So instead of the race activities
ending at days end, and the fans scattering too Tim-Buck-Two, the race track
becomes a central focal point for the entire region. The 24-hours of
LeMans is a prime example of successfully mixing a carnival with a race.
Another example of excellent promotion and getting a bang for the fan's buck, Pocono is having a major country star give a concert after both NASCAR races this year.
A carnival is one idea where a
track promoter can actually make back some money spent on promotion.
Promotion, what a novel idea. From what we heard in Michigan, there
was very little promotion done for last weekends CART race. More
promotion happens when the race has a big consumer product company as the
race sponsor. Michigan had none and ISC didn't spend much of their own
money to promote the CART race. Perhaps that's because they have
become complacent from promoting Winston Cup races, which almost sell
Or perhaps ISC didn't really
want CART to succeed at MIS because it wanted to do business with the IRL in
the future. Whatever the reason, there was very little promotion done
and no real reason for a fan to spend $95 for a prime grandstand seat to sit
in 95 degree heat for four hours and then drive an hour to their hotel each
The bottom line is
promotion. Those promoters who spend the money (or their sponsors
money) to properly promote a race, see the return in higher ticket sales,
whereby those that don't, fail. Not only does the track lose money, but
CART gets a 'loser' image running a race before empty grandstands.
It's a lose-lose situation, and one that can be avoided.
CART should not sign any
contracts with a track unless a solid race sponsor is onboard. There
is a direct correlation between having a big race sponsor and having a
successful event. Here are some examples of good and bad CART race
sponsorships. Not that any sponsor is bad, but it's one thing to say
you are sponsoring a race, and quite another to really go all out and do it
Monterrey -- Excellent --
Long Beach -- Excellent --Toyota/Texaco
Nazareth -- Fair -- Bosch/none
Detroit -- Poor -- Tenneco Automotive
Cleveland - fair to poor -- Marconi
Portland -- Very good -- G.I. Joe's/Budweiser
Toronto -- Excellent -- Molson
Chicago -- Excellent -- Target
Michigan -- Poor -- Harrahs
Japan -- Excellent -- Honda/Firestone
I think you get the picture.
Where does CART go from here?
Like everything in our
lifetimes, there are always some difficult choices to make and sometimes it
appears no matter what decision you make, someone won't be happy. It's
at those times it's best to follow some simple advice - "When in doubt,
always do what's right." As CART strengthens its series by
jettisoning its weakest races and adding more popular ones, it has some hard
choices to make, and in the end of the day, some people are not going to be
happy. In general, many people don't deal with change very well, and
we don't consider that a virtue.
At no time in its history has
CART had to make so many hard choices on particular venues. Does CART
keep on racing at tracks with tradition like Michigan, Detroit, Nazareth,
etc. where crowds are poor, the local fans have no interest in a CART race and
the promoters are losing their shirts, or do they go to venues like Miami,
Mexico City, etc that will have stellar crowds, fans who are really into the
race and promoters who are actually willing to promote a race like Molstar
does in Toronto, Vancouver and soon to be Montreal?
Although we likely won't make
any friends with the Michigan folks, we will tell it like we see it
- having seen the lack of promotion by ISC at Michigan Speedway
for years, and the lack of the 'party' atmosphere and poor attendance, CART
should kick up their heels, brush the dust off their boots, and move
on. Sunday mornings Toledo, Ohio Blade had an interesting observation in their MIS
souvenir edition - "The growth of open-wheel racing at Michigan has
been stagnate, with the exception of 1996, when CART initiated the first
and last US 500 to compete against the Indy 500 on the same day.
That crowd was announced at 110,879. According to CART car owners
and other devotees, it was the only Indy car race at Michigan that was
properly promoted. Crowds since have averaged in the 50,000 to
60,000 range [and this year down to 40,000]." After you finish
reading this article, we urge you to read this Autosport article
by Gordon Kirby whereby he gives example of just how poorly ISC promoted
their CART race at Michigan. It's rather alarming.
We saw the same lack of heavy
promotion by ISC at Nazareth and Homestead, and although if you talk to the
PR folks from the tracks they will tell you we did a lot. In fact,
having talked to people who live near Michigan Speedway, Nazareth,
Homestead, and before that New Hampshire, Phoenix and other races that have
not worked for CART, inevitably lack of serious promotion always comes up.
If any promoter wants to see how
to promote a CART race well, we suggest they pay a visit to Toronto in the
weeks leading up to the Molson Indy Toronto. Molstar promotes the race
heavily throughout the Toronto area and when you arrive at the circuit you
know you are at a great event. The atmosphere is electric.
Although we won't mention any
names, there are other existing CART races that don't deserve a race in our
If a F1 promoter did that poor of a job of promotion, Bernie Ecclestone
would have given them the boot years ago. In fact, Bernie would give
them the boot for other things as well, including poor media facilities,
lack of safety, tardiness, and garage amenities.
However, it's not always the
promoters or CART's fault. Sometimes a market is totally over saturated with too
much racing or too much of sports in general. In that case sometimes
it's just better to move on. There are plenty of other venues where
CART can draw a huge crowd with a great atmosphere, some begging for a CART
date. On the horizon are Washington DC, New York City, Malaysia,
China, San Francisco, Miami, Sebring, Road Atlanta, Montreal, Denver, Mexico
City and more.
CART is in a very good position
now to pick and choose its venues carefully. CART should never sign
any agreements with tracks unless a big sponsor is part of the deal to
ensure the money is there to properly promote an event. The contract
should spell out the minimum to be spent on race promotion. In
addition, the promoter must have the wherewithal to really promote a race
and CART should help them as much as possible. To see a spectacular race
like CART's Michigan 500 fail, due in part because of CART's failure to
promote its own series, and ISC's almost complete lack of serious promotion,
is a travesty of great proportion. Shame on both sides!
As they say, it takes two to
tango. The CART community had better start doing its part, and race promoters had better start doing theirs. There's really no secret to
success in any business, it usually comes down to hard work, creativity, and
just plain old common sense.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
to discuss this article