IndyCar Malaise Part 3: The Fix
Part 1 offered the thesis that the IndyCar product was inherently flawed, because IndyCar currently offers no compelling reason for the public to invest their emotional time or energy in the sport. In particular, using analogies of Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps, we highlighted the lack of race-winning American heroes. Part 2 highlighted the flaws of IndyCar itself in addressing the issues plaguing the sport, calling specific attention to what should conceptually be the sport’s most fertile ground for nurturing its next generation of stars, the ladder system.
Now, let’s make a distinction here. The Mazda Road to Indy system may produce race winners and champions at the top-level, but in theory it should produce stars. Note the very key distinction.
And it is the Mazda Road to Indy system -- the platform for training future champions and stars -- that will be the focus of part 3.
To be clear, this will not simply be a matter of "fix the ladder." I am not going to say increase purse money, get a different car, or some of the standard cursory measures often suggested.
Rather, this is an acknowledgement that the ladder system is the feeding ground for the top-level series, the roots for the trees or plants in the garden, if you will. If those roots are not watered, not given proper attention the tree or garden does not flourish.
And as noted yesterday, the MRTI as currently structured does not incentivize teams to conduct business in a manner that benefits not only the top-level series, but the sport overall. Essentially, IndyCar leaves the decisions regarding which drivers to hire, how those drivers are nurtured, trained, and groomed for the top-level, and who, if anyone ultimately hires those drivers to its Road to Indy teams and IndyCar Series teams. It is the hope of IndyCar that bad ass, American, race-winning drivers, who the public finds compelling and engaging, will emerge in the top-level. Rather than relying on hope IndyCar needs to actively create a process that insures the prosperity of its business and the sport.
Below, we will go through the step-by-step process for IndyCar to bring race winning, American heroes to the top-level IndyCar Series.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that any measure will cost money. Knowing that money does not grow on trees we will look within the existing structure in the hopes of making the system ultimately self-sustainable.
The Leaders Circle
I’m going to assume you are familiar with the IndyCar Leaders’ Circle program. As currently constituted The Leaders’ Circle program rewards teams that are regular participants in the championship to insure full-fields and participating. Yes, the Leaders’ Circle rewards showing up.
Well, the Leaders Circle is going to be cut (not entirely) but gradually, over a three-year period with that money reinvested in training young drivers as outlined below:
Also, Part of the system would give teams the chance to earn the money back (more on that later). But for now, and for the betterment of the sport, money will come out of the Leaders Circle to fund the new initiative.
Another thing to consider
In part 2, I mentioned the Mazda money to assist drivers moving up from Indy Lights to IndyCar. This is in theory a good thing, but is that money best used by awarding the Indy Lights champion? Further, does making the allocation of such funds based on winning, place too much of a premium on winning at the expense of development?
Think about it. That money succeeds in placing drivers in race cars. But does it benefit IndyCar, and would it be better used as part of a comprehensive initiative that seeks to benefit the overall health of the sport?
What will the new initiative be?
To start, IndyCar will identify promising American drivers at a young age, as early as 15, which the series will sign as developmental drivers. Having signed the drivers, the series will then own the driver’s rights. This will tie the drivers to IndyCar, and IndyCar to them. In exchange for the training and nurturing necessary to become a champion at the top-level, drivers will commit themselves to IndyCar for whatever duration their contract lasts.
Further, the series will implement specific training for these young drivers, which would be led by a specific driving teacher. Derek Daly is a name that comes to mind, as he has experience training drivers. Also, Daly outlined a very comprehensive strategy for developing young drivers in his book Race to Win, which Mario Andretti referred to as the Bible for young developing drivers. In such a program, not only would drivers learn how to drive under pressure, how to qualify, how to conserve tires, and all the hallmarks of a great racer, but how to talk to the media, speak with sponsors, and present themselves.
Bear in mind, the clear contrast between this, and what we saw in Part 2. Rather than a team merely signing a driver and fielding a race car for them, the series will proactively seek to train bad-ass, race winning Americans who can be champions in the car and have the polish to engage fans and sponsors outside of it.
Instead of hoping such a person merely arrives, IndyCar will invest in and proactively seek to bring the next four-time American Indianapolis 500 winner to the sport.
Where will the drivers come from?
Karting and lower-level formula series.
Also, drivers could be identified at a later age from U.S. F2000 or Pro Mazda. But long-term the goal would be to identify drivers around the age of 15, and enter them into the system, with the goal of them becoming IndyCar drivers at ages 20-22.
What about young dirt track racers?
I’m going to get into some trouble saying this. However, I’ve long been of the belief that racing front engine sprint and midget cars on dirt has been irrelevant to rear-engine, stiff spring, formula cars for close to half a century now. Although Indy Car racing has a heritage that connects back to American dirt tracks the formula has evolved to where what you see at your local dirt track in 2014 is completely divorced from the skills necessary to win at Toronto, Long Beach, and Indianapolis.
No, I am not saying that a talented teenage dirt track racer would be excluded from consideration. I am very much saying that should such a driver enter the proposed program, they would have to completely switch over to formula-car training, as the disciplines have simply become too specialized.
Engaging the public
Remember, our discussion in part 2 about how drivers just “arrive” in IndyCar. If drivers are identified at a young age, brought along and nurtured, the public is more willing to invest in them. While this may be an extreme example think about Tiger Woods, who the public was introduced to at a very young age. Although there are talented Americans in the system now, there are so few assurances they will ever make it to the top-level, and the public has formed little attachment to them.
If the program is successful, people (sponsors, fans, team owners and the like) will be more compelled to invest in it.
There will be money that IndyCar invests at least initially but the goal is for the program to ultimately sustain itself. There are numerous ways this could be done, but one is through a driver competition that could be sold as a reality television show. Drivers could compete for a spot within the program or the ability to advance to the next level and the show could be televised.
The benefits of this are obvious. IMS/IndyCar either sell television time, or incorporate other programming into the IndyCar television package. Drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Scott Dixon can appear on the show as instructors, giving exposure to series sponsors DHL, Verizon, Target, etc. Commercials for the series’ next race at Iowa, Long Beach or Mid-Ohio can be aired.
But the main benefit is simple: the public is introduced to the young American drivers who will theoretically one day be the stars of the sport. They take up favorites. They follow this driver or that driver as they advance through the ranks. The seeds of the emotional attachments are planted early, giving them the chance to bloom later when the drivers make it to the top-level.
Because the drivers are contractually aligned to IndyCar, the series can provide something young drivers, particularly North American drivers, so desperately in this limited era of testing: seat time.
I wrote an article in January outlining how graduates of the MRTI struggle in qualifying relative to their European trained counterparts. The reasoning being this is the fact qualifying is all about finding the limit, and to find the limit, seat time is paramount. American drivers are at a tremendous disadvantage in this regard.
Consider what young drivers entering the sport face nowadays. For example, third-year American IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden is regarded as one of the more talented drivers to enter IndyCar in recent years. But to win in IndyCar Newgarden needs to defeat drivers such as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais and others. And what do all these drivers have in common? They come of age in an era of greater testing opportunity available to drivers. In the case of Dixon, he has long alluded to the numerous miles he was able to run as a de facto factory Toyota driver in the CART days. Drivers entering the sport have no such advantage these days. A talented American like Newgarden is at a disadvantage simply because he entered the sport a decade later than some of his counterparts.
Again, this is an area in which IMS/IndyCar abdicate to others. They allow others to determine who gets proper training and nurturing. If they can make our proposed initiative self-sustaining would provide valuable seat time to the future stars of the sport.
While testing miles cost money, there is old equipment readily available. For example, for drivers at the U.S. F 2000 level looking for seat time in advanced cars, there will be numerous Lights chassis and engines mothballed in a few months. Sure, those chassis are somewhat obsolete but they provide an economical way to give young American up-and-comers valuable seat time.
Where do the MRTI teams fit in?
Good question. IndyCar could fund the drivers with the money from the program. In other words, IndyCar could own/operate the team, sell sponsorship, etc. A greater likelihood would be that IndyCar would farm drivers out to existing MRTI teams.
Now, think about this. If IndyCar can sell sponsorship for the broad initiative, then teams who ran the IndyCar signed drivers would get some of the sponsorship money, and money IndyCar is putting into the program.
What does this do? The teams are now incentivized to train and develop drivers IndyCar wants at the top level. If the team shows proficiency in doing so, the team is awarded by a strong driver that comes with funding attached to him or her. The teams’ interests and that of IndyCar are aligned. The teams compete for signing IndyCar-affiliated drivers. Maybe, even the teams are incentivized by the opportunity for their car to be a reality television show.
Rather, than MRTI teams simply taking a check from whomever to keep the shop doors open, the teams are now competing for the ability to attract top talent. And to attract this talent, they need to differentiate themselves in terms of developing drivers. As things stand now, teams provide drivers a car, engines, tires, mechanics, etc. But teams are not incentivized to develop talent for the top-level. By taking control of the drivers’ futures, looking for ways to make the program self-sustainable, IndyCar incentivizes its ladder teams to act in a way that benefits the sport’s future.
IndyCar Series teams
Cutting funding for IndyCar teams in this era of incredibly tight budgets is sticky business. Also, my intent is not to bleed teams dry. The intent of the program long term is to help the teams by making the sport more viable. Therefore the teams would be incentivized to hire promising, American ladder drivers. For example, let’s say IndyCar has a driver under contract scheduled to make $500,000 in 2020. Because the program is funded and sustainable, an IndyCar team hires a driver with a contract already paid for.
Think about it. The team has been incentivized (to the tune of a half million dollars) to hire a ladder driver, as a self-sustaining program is paying the contract. The team hiring the driver also strengthens the Road to Indy because the ladder system is further validated as a platform to the top-level series.
Further, the team gets a driver who has theoretically been trained to be an IndyCar driver. The driver has been travelling to St. Pete, Long Beach, Iowa and Mid-Ohio for a few years and knows the lay of the land. He has witnessed others speak to sponsors and the media. He is ready to be an IndyCar driver, ready to be a champion.
Right now, IndyCar is not incentivizing its teams to pay attention to what is potentially its greatest pipeline: the feeder system. If anything, the Leaders’ Circle further encourages teams to hire drivers that fulfill the team’s budgetary concerns.
But part of the plan would provide incentives for owners who do hire drivers targeted by the initiative. The incentives could come in numerous forms, from everything to a cut on the tire bill to greater purse money. However, the goal is for IndyCar to invest in its future, make the program sustainable financially, and ultimately reward all constituents within the sport by placing drivers in the top-level, preferably with top teams.
What about international drivers?
One issue I’ve been concerned about throughout this three-part series is the perception of bias against international drivers. To be clear, there is none. For example, NBC Sports Network anchor Leigh Diffey offered the diversity of the series as one of IndyCar’s assets during the Barber pre-race telecast, and personally, I agree with Diffey.
Also, many of the international drivers in IndyCar are examples of the compelling human interest stories we have discussed. They have achieved their dreams by competing in a top-level racing series. And sure some have enjoyed funding which assisted them to the top-levels that others may have not. But make no mistake: they are professional IndyCar drivers, and did not achieve their place by accident.
Further, while many fans will sometimes direct their anger at “ride-buying insert driver name here from insert random country not the United States here,” that is not what this is about. Simply put, drivers are people like you and me trying to advance in their given profession. No more, no less.
However, we’re talking about broadening the appeal of the sport in a nation where it runs 16 of its 18 races. To do this, race-winning, iconic, American heroes worthy of the public’s time and emotional investment are not an option, but a necessity to insure the prosperity of the sport.
I’ll concede a flaw with this piece could arguably be the lack of any near-term proposal to improve the fortunes of the sport. In essence, what I’m proposing here is a solution which may not show tangible results at the top-level for a decade.
However, let me also say this. The lack of a long-term vision (that may not have been the best word choice) for the sport, it has created a lack of purpose in near-term measures. In other words, no sense of the end, creates paralysis in the present.
Well, now we have a sense of the end game. Still, there are a few things that can be done in the meantime to begin propelling IndyCar’s surge forward.
Let it be known that there are already numerous talented, young Americans who raced and excelled in the MRTI system or are currently doing so. Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot, R.C. Enerson, Sage Karam, Zach Veach and others would fit this description. Even J.R. Hildebrand is still only 26 years-old.
And while I’m not going to sit here and proclaim this individual or that individual to be some Messianic figure all the above have shown the ability to win in the junior categories. Sadly, however, IndyCar leaves the decision entirely to others regarding who enters into the sport.
Having identified the importance of race winning, American heroes, IndyCar needs to play this up. Americans are like other people in that they will rally behind coming to see their own compete and defeat those from the rest of the world. Any sort of mechanism that IndyCar can market which taps into people’s sense of national pride can only be a positive.
While people will point out that Nations Cup ideas and the like have been done before, I’d argue they were never really seriously tried. For example, let’s say IndyCar had a system which awarded points as follows:
Yes, IndyCar already has Americans doing well in its series. Yet, it is failing to capitalize on the stories of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden, Charlie Kimball; failing to build compelling storylines about national pride.
Keep in mind, channeling national pride does not merely engage the American audience, but those from other nations with drivers in IndyCar.
We’re approaching 8000 words here, and if you’ve been with me the whole way let me say thank you. Second, you possess something of a working knowledge of the fundamental problem plaguing the sport, the failure of those within the sport have of understanding it, and have been presented a solution seeking to address it.
Now, in signing off, I’m not going to leave you with any dire apocalyptic the-world-is-about-to-end type scenarios. For the record, I don’t believe that the IndyCar Series is on the verge of imminent implosion.
My greater fear is the sport will continue moving ahead in its diminished state with reduced expectations. Such sentiment has been apparent this week, as people have expressed hope there will be thirty-three cars in the Indy 500, or their encouragement over the fact the series scored a 0.3 TV rating rather than a 0.2.
With such short-sighted thinking over matters that are ultimately symptomatic anyway, any romantic notions of a shining city on a hill can be banished forever to the ash heap of history; not so long as tactical fixes, take the place of strategic solutions.
Sure, the sport can limp along, and undoubtedly will until at least the 100th Indy 500 in 2016. But if this great sport wants to celebrate many more noteworthy anniversaries, something will need to change.
Brian Carroccio is a columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com
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