Is NASCAR the only viable savior for IndyCar?
Now, before you vilify me and curse my very existence, let me make something clear. This is not an article I am thrilled to write. I am not a NASCAR apologist, I am not a NASCAR fan, nor am I part of the legion of IndyCar “haters,” in the media. If anything, nothing would please me more than seeing Indy car racing thrive. After all, a thriving IndyCar would enhance the very endeavor I am performing in this space. Simply put, I want nothing less than the absolute best for a sport I have loved dearly for years.
Further, I do believe the series has made strides in the past 3 years under the stewardship of INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard. Bernard, who has his critics, inherited a miserable television deal, miserable technical package, an incompetent staff, and a sport that had been poorly managed for decades. In 2 years, he has made significant strides in a number of areas, forged ahead with his plan in the face of criticism, and in my opinion has improved the overall product.
But here’s the problem: that’s my opinion; the opinion of a diehard follower; not the opinion of someone representing the 62% decline in the television audience over the past 4 years, nor the opinion of someone who use to buy a ticket, but no longer does. Yes, IndyCar remains appointment viewing for me, and if you’re reading, you’re probably the same.
On the contrary, many, many others have been leaving in droves over the past decade and a half. Whether they've fled to NASCAR, sports car racing, MMA, or taken up other activities, I don't know. I do know, however, that Indy car racing has consistently seen declines in ratings, attendance, coverage and overall interest since 1996. And is there a single metric anyone can point to indicating this trend is reversing?
Worse, I believe the combination of Indy car racing's decline and the growth of its greatest rival, NASCAR, has created an enormous chasm; a chasm that makes the possibility of a thriving Indy car series in this current environment, impossible.
For example, INDYCAR can put on an amazing series finale in prime time on NBC Sports Network and only draw a 0.2 rating. NASCAR can draw fifteen times that just by people bumping into one of their "duller than watching paint dry" races on FOX or ABC. Yes, INDYCAR loses even when they win. And while the proposition of the France family purchasing INDYCAR is by no means an ideal one, I believe it may be the only one that can save the sport we love.
Of course, this whole saga is a long, depressing story that has been told over and over and over. Nevertheless, on March 11, 1994 then Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss, Anton “Tony” Hulman George announced he was forming the Indy Racing League (IRL). George indicated the IRL would begin in 1996 as an all-oval series, and in competition with the then well-established Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).
Despite a reputation for infighting and poor management, CART had done a successful job in building a viable series, flush with corporate sponsorship, an international presence, manufacturer involvement, and name drivers. After all, that very day George announced his IRL, CART was in Australia, where one future and 3 former World Champions were competing. While some will snicker at this, CART at its peak was, by any metric, the most successful open wheel racing series in American history. Apparently, however, George thought he had a better idea.
Dissatisfied with CART's owner-based governing structure, George embarked on a plan to build his own Indy car style series. With more than a hint of arrogance, and a more than downright condescending tone, George and his legion of mouthpieces played hardball with regard to CART. Then-IMS vice president Bill Donaldson even went so far as to flippantly tell the late Bruce Barnes, they could run golf carts around IMS and still fill the place.
However, such idiocy, was nothing compared to many of the things George actually did. Perhaps, worst of all, George orchestrated the single most self-destructive act in the history of Indy car racing: the 25/8 rule. Yes, to help get his fledgling IRL off the ground, George reserved 25 of the 33 spots in the 500 for IRL regulars. In essence, George leveraged the sport’s most sacred event, on its most hallowed ground, into a pawn to gain the upper hand in his battle with CART.
And on May 26, 1996, instead of Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Al Unser, Jr. and Paul Tracy, we got Joe Gosek, Racin Gardner and a 54-year old Danny Ongais, who by the way finished seventh in that year's race. Indy car racing, and its most sacred event was forever changed.
Over the next few years, without the Indy 500 to sell sponsorship, CART continued to decline. While the IRL had the sport’s showcase event, it lacked the sport’s top stars, and overall, both sides suffered. CART went into bankruptcy in 2003, before re-emerging the next year as Champ Car. While the IRL added top CART teams and engine manufacturers Honda and Toyota, both sides continued to see declines in interest, before merging in 2008.
Now, many declared George the victor in the Indy car civil war. After all, George accomplished what seemingly was his goal all along: putting CART/Champ Car out of business, as his IRL absorbed what was left of the CART/Champ Car carcass. But let’s face it: George’s victory was, as Steve Levinson and Mark Cipolloni each wrote on AR1 years ago, “a Pyrrhic one.” The real winner of Indy car’s civil was, of course, NASCAR.
Yes, while George was spending nearly 3/4 of a billion dollars killing CART, Indy car’s actual enemy NASCAR, was unified, focused, and growing by leaps and bounds. The series not only moved into markets beyond its traditional southern base, but markets that were once Indy car strongholds. Along the way, they likewise picked up many of the sponsors that fled Indy car, no doubt frustrated by the declining interest brought on by the senseless civil war.
NASCAR, in essence, grew so exponentially that the term NASCAR, which is actually a sanctioning acronym, is now part of the vernacular, and synonymous with racing in America.
While George was instrumental in putting Indy car racing back together in 2008, unification has not brought about prosperity. Television ratings continue to sag, race attendance has declined at many venues, and the series' national exposure is near non-existent.
And while NASCAR has witnessed declines in attendance and television ratings in recent years, NASCAR’s problems must be judged relative to their enormous success. See, people will say for example, NASCAR’s attendance is down 10% at a certain venue. However, that may mean they have 135,000 people rather than 150,000. Whatever you want to say about NASCAR, the series still draws on average 100,000 spectators 30 plus times a year to watch taxi cabs drive in circles for 4 hours. That is nothing short of a monumental America success story.
Still, there are limits to NASCAR’s growth, which we’ve seen in recent years as a result of the USA economy. There are only so many tickets to be sold; only so many Truck races, ARCA races, Nationwide races, Sprint Cup races, etc., the market will support. Whereas the local economy may support one NASCAR weekend in a given year, two are becoming very difficult in many regions. With nearly ninety races between three series, NASCAR has clearly oversaturated the market with its product.
Clearly, NASCAR has hit its peak domestically. But NASCAR has always had aspirations for growth beyond America. They've established racing series in both Canada and Mexico. However, significant growth in both of those countries will likely be difficult to achieve, with what is essentially an American phenomenon: saloon racing.
This is where INDYCAR comes in. INDYCAR would essentially diversify NASCAR's portfolio, if you will. NASCAR would have sports cars, stock cars, and now open wheel formula cars. And remember open wheel formula style cars are the most popular racers on earth, by and large everywhere, except America.
And in those places that are struggling to attract a crowd for a truck race or Nationwide event, well, how about pairing them with Indy cars? That might help the gate at Kentucky, Chicagoland, Fontana or wherever else. Sonoma, for example, where IndyCar and NASCAR both race, could be a tremendous show with both series. NASCAR would stand to benefit, as INDYCAR would give NASCAR another product to market.
Getting popular Sprint Cup drivers to drive some IndyCar races would bring instant exposure to their vast fan bases. Sprint Cup drivers compete in the Truck and Nationwide Series for that very reason.
Plus, keep something else in mind. Formula One (F1) supremo Bernie Ecclestone isn't going to live forever. While the most popular form of racing on earth has witnessed unprecedented success under Ecclestone's stewardship, what happens when Bernie moves on is anyone's guess. With a legitimate open wheel series, NASCAR can position itself to potentially rival F1 down the road, like CART did before Tony George destroyed it all.
Of course, all this discussion becomes moot if Hulman and Co., insists on keeping the series. For now, everyone at 16th and Georgetown are putting on a good face, insisting everything is business as usual, and there is no indication the series is on the market. And I suppose the series does provide something of a moat around the Indianapolis 500.
However, one has to wonder a) why these buyout rumors won't go away and b) how long will Hulman and Co., be willing to write off losses for the series? Judging by history, not very long.
Remember, the Hulman-George family has by and large never sought to actually grow the sport of Indy car racing. Remember, Tony Hulman, the savior of the Speedway, was fabulously wealthy in his own right. He purchased IMS in 1945 after World War II, saved "the 500." But Hulman, classy, dignified and likable as he was, was essentially was not interested in the racing business, per se. As an Indiana native he saw himself as the steward of the Indy 500, and his work an act of civic duty.
However, Hulman did not concern himself in the day-to-day affairs of Indy car or Champ car racing. Hulman did not take over tracks like the France family did. Hulman did not seek to expand into different forms of racing or to build ladder series. Hulman was concerned with the Indianapolis 500……Period.
Now, some will object to this idea that the Hulman family has never sought to build the sport, referencing George. But as stated earlier, George’s goal all along was to kill CART. George didn't try to build tracks, or bring other racing organizations under the Speedway's umbrella. No, George just wanted CART dead. And shortly after CART was dead, George was removed, and the voodoo economic spending spree used to kill CART, by and large, stopped.
In short, the Speedway has never actually operated as a racing organization. Their concern has never been building a series, rather theirs has always been, and will always be, the Indy 500. If a series is necessary to help the 500, so be it, but the series is not the primary concern.
This, one could argue, has been the great failure of the sport’s most hallowed institution. Despite all its resources, and all its largesse, the Speedway has never properly integrated a viable series surrounding it. This remains the case today, as the Speedway does not aggressively seek to grow INDYCAR or build the series.
Now, they say the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result. While Bernard is trying to change things up with doubleheaders, standing starts and the re-introduction of the Triple Crown, I fear it will all be in vain. The sad reality is that the Izod IndyCar Series is a distressed asset; a victim of gross mismanagement, and the inability to see who was exactly was the enemy all along.
This failure to see who the enemy was, has created a situation where the enemy got too powerful. And now, the enemy is the only one who can save them.
It’s a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless. Of course, rumors abound regarding current IndyCar series owners buying the series, but that is a scenario that makes no sense. Ironically, George, was the center of a rumored buyout earlier this week, that included Michael Andretti, Roger Penske, and Chip Ganassi to purchase the series. This rumor has been repeatedly denied, and for good reason: buying the series does the owners, no good.
See, for all their vast resources, Penske, Ganassi, et al, do not represent the best chance for INDYCAR to thrive, as they do not possess the might to fund INDYCAR competing with NASCAR. They do not own race venues; NASCAR does. They do not own a multitude of top level racing series; NASCAR does. They do not have contracts with major television outlets; NASCAR does. They do not control a vast pool of sponsor contracts and relationships, NASCAR does.
Simply put, NASCAR has the branding, marketing savvy, and resources INDYCAR could only dream of. Becoming a NASCAR property would instantly make INDYCAR a more valuable, relevant sport. In an instant, the vast reach of NASCAR’s television partners, TNT, ESPN/ABC, and FOX, become available to helping INDYCAR.
However, should INDYCAR to continue on its current course, the road to getting that level of exposure is decades away. In other words, for INDYCAR to simply gain the exposure NASCAR comes by accidentally is an enormous task. Further, there is no indication the Hulman family intends to remove the handcuffs from Bernard and let him dig into the family coffers to build the series.
But if INDYCAR is sold to NASCAR it instantly becomes a more valuable property. It instantly becomes part of the NASCAR marketing machine. Its sponsors immediately have exposure at NASCAR tracks, NASCAR media outlets and NASCAR publications.
In conclusion, the France family purchasing INDYCAR is by no means an ideal option. However, because NASCAR has become so dominant the chasm between NASCAR and INDYCAR has become so wide; because the current owners of INDYCAR will do little to help it grow, it may be the only option.
Brian Carroccio is a regular contributor to AutoRacing1.com. He developed an appreciation for motorsport at a very young age attending SCCA races with his father, a longtime SCCA crewman. Over time, Indy car racing became his first love, and he considers Al Unser, Sr., and Paul Tracy his favorite all-time drivers.
Personally, Brian is a former college baseball player, who does not feel comfortable sharing his career win-loss record on the mound publicly. He is a diehard fan of the Washington Redskins, and considers Robert Griffin III something akin to a divine gift. He also roots for the Washington Nationals, Manchester United (kind of, a long story) and Cal football (a really long story).
Brian lives in Rockville, MD, with his wife Allison, daughter Stella and son Walter.
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