INDYCAR can’t be racing’s “wild and crazy guys”

by Tony Johns

NBC-Sports-NetworkIt’s almost time for the IZOD IndyCar Series season to get underway, and outside of the hardcore faithful next to no one knows about it.

That’s a sad sentence to read – particularly for those heavily emotionally invested in the sport – but it’s par for the course for INDYCAR in the modern age.

NBC’s buyout of the VERSUS channel to create the NBC Sports Network was expected to change that, at least a little. A channel that struggles to penetrate densely-loaded cable and satellite lineups could only benefit from added network credibility – so went the theorizing of the desperate, because INDYCAR was saddled with a long-term deal on the channel anyway.

And then NBC bought the rights for the Formula 1 World Championship, and thus did INDYCAR become a footnote for a channel that is still a footnote. As if that wasn’t enough to fuel the ennui amongst INDYCAR’s fanbase, there’s a rumor out there that NBC is going to be a player when NASCAR’s deal with ABC is up for renegotiation.

Speaking of ABC, last year’s “package deal” of INDYCAR events on the network – which, it must be stipulated, was a good idea – absolutely failed to bring up the abysmal television ratings which are now the lifeblood of so many sports.

You get to thinking that INDYCAR’s fans are nearly bald by now from tearing their hair out. WHY? they ask themselves. Why is our excellent racing series being ignored by so many?

They point to the drivers. Most of them are friendly, gregarious, and outgoing – a racing fan’s dream. One of them became the first American IndyCar champion in years last season after a couple of seasons of being a journeyman, beating the world-destroying Penske and Ganassi juggernauts to do it. Who couldn’t love that rags-to-riches story?

And the on-track action? Better than ever, say the faithful, due to a technical specification which shifted the emphasis away from the truckloads of downforce that characterized the previous decade. The cars are harder to drive, and a tougher challenge for drivers makes for a better show.

All it takes, then, is to get people to watch or attend, and people will get hooked. It’s inevitable! So goes the reasoning of the true believers. There’s nothing wrong with the product – it just needs to be marketed properly.

All due respect to the true believers, but they are wrong.

Not about the drivers. Not about the on-track action. About the product.

There is something fundamentally wrong with it. INDYCAR is the racing equivalent of Johnny Rockets restaurants. It’s a facsimile of something that existed decades ago, constructed with the hope of accurate replication but somehow failing to achieve it. It exists to appeal to nostalgia.

The Dallara DW12 is a case in point. It was not a product of years of evolutionary thought – it was sketched out on the quick as a slicker-looking replacement for an already-decade-old anachronism. The engine it carries is bespoke, which means that it was created specifically for the car. While it could be said that some of its technical parameters mirror modern thought on smaller, more efficient powerplants, it is still a motor specification mostly divorced from modern automotive design and trends.

In a more general sense, INDYCAR has lost its connection to its purpose for existence. NASCAR was built on the idea of stock sedan racing, and its new Generation 6 cars represent the sanction’s hurried reversal from an ill-conceived idea that fans cared about drivers more than identifiable stock cars. The American Le Mans Series and Grand American Series (soon to become one entity) exist to provide sports cars a place to compete. Even the prototype cars, which are not based on production models, still have relevance due to innovative hybrid technology and forward-thinking engineering.

For decades, IndyCars carved out a niche as purpose-built cars engineered to go as fast as possible on a closed course. Their development ran parallel to the Formula 1 World Championship for so many years that they were considered of a similar, if not identical class – indeed, F1 cars with minor modifications competed in the Indianapolis 500 for years.

INDYCAR fans hate hearing about the Split – I get that. But while IndyCar development had diverged more and more from F1 in the years leading up to the mid-1990s, the “junk formula” that entered service in 1997 was the decisive break from the bleeding-edge thoroughbreds which had drawn so much interest in the past. No longer would speed records be sought at 16th Street and Georgetown – the blocky, sluggish new formula with its NASCAR-sounding engine was designed for a show, not to push the envelope.

Ever since then, INDYCAR’s main achievement has been to struggle to get back to the technical level of 1995. The problem is that while 1995 resonates with those within the circle, for those without the circle that point is as irrelevant as an era nearly twenty years in the past ought to be.

So the purpose for INDYCAR’s existence has narrowed down to one thing – to compete at the Indianapolis 500. That is the only context left in which the sport has real general relevance, and the ratings prove that starkly. And though the city of Indianapolis has rallied to fill the Indy 500 grandstands to greater capacity, the race’s TV ratings have gone the opposite way.

On Saturday Night Live this past weekend, cameo guest stars Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd brought out their Festrunk Brothers routine in a sketch. It went over like a lead balloon. Aykroyd and Martin originated the characters as skinny, skeezy “wild and crazy guy” lotharios on the make with ear-splitting accents back in the 1970s. What popped onto America’s screens Saturday night were a pair of aging, thick-waisted actors who could barely remember how to play their own characters, doing riffs on social mores which were already obsolete twenty years before most of SNL’s target demographic were even born. Some historians in the audience screamed in approval, but mostly what emanated from my TV was a fog of befuddlement from people who weren’t sure why they were supposed to laugh.

I could not help but draw a metaphorical connection.

Putting it frankly, INDYCAR’s drivers do an incredible job with what they have to work with. The racing has, indeed, been better over the past year than in recent memory. But it’s hard to get people to care about it when the sport trades on ideals which were last current back when Bill Clinton was debating the definition of the word “is.”

The recent Boston Consulting Group report to INDYCAR dealt with ways to make the current product more marketable. To me, the best way to make the product marketable would be to not just think outside the box, but to break down and rebuild the box altogether. Relevance cannot be added to an irrelevant product like frosting on a cake. Trying to make an irrelevant product relevant only results in making the product relevant for the wrong reasons – tragedy, controversy, superficiality.

If this sort of screed isn’t positive enough for you, I apologize. Positive thinking is a great asset, but it does not solve fundamental issues as big as these. At some point, positive action must be taken in the interest of the sport.