Exactly what is it that makes the Verizon Indy Series so interesting? It’s a hard question that seems to elicit only more questions. A number of factors are in play here:
One is that it is America’s only home grown open wheel racing sport that the Europeans bother giving any attention. It’s America’s equivalent to Formula 1. It draws an international field of drivers and it combines a traditional oval track style of racing with road courses and temporary street circuits. Also, it’s been around longer than any other open wheel sport in the world.
This should mean that it would attract all sorts of fans form all four corners of the globe, but does it really?
I think most of all, the IndyCar series is famous for one race that, even if you aren’t a fan, you have probably heard your beer bellied Uncle Charlie talking about, the Indianapolis 500. The Indy 500, which is exactly 200 laps, takes place at an squared off oval track called the Brickyard, a name given it as it was originally created with a brick surface, which still lies beneath the surface used today.
IndyCar has been racing there since 1911, a staggering 104 years, and has seen its fan base ebb and flow. But why hasn’t America paid closer attention to the series outside the “500”?
We’re in one of the ‘ebb’ periods at the moment, however, this isn’t unique to IndyCar. Motorsports across the globe are suffering a decline. Hopefully it’s a temporary condition.
There are verifiable reasons that IndyCar has taken the hit that it has. A perfect storm of negative circumstances, if you will, hit the series in a chronological fashion.
USAC (United States Auto Club) was the sanctioning body of the series, which wrapped itself almost entirely around the Indy 500, suffered a tragedy.
Key officials of USAC were killed in a plane crash opening the door for team owners to intimate what amounted to a Coup d’état forming CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). The team owners took control over their disagreement with how USAC ran the show.
Without delving into a historical treatise on the subject, suffice to say the insane were now running the asylum, and the rapacious nature of the owners, ultimately, became their downfall.
Tony George, grandson of Tony Hulman, decided that the owners had far too much power in which teams were able to access and allocate to lesser teams, manufactures engines, chassis and sponsorship.
In a controversial move to take away that power, George broke away from the CART series and formed the Indy Racing League (IRL). This move may have been well intentioned, but it proved to be the rapid decline of both series.
NASCAR was in a position to pick up the pieces and the fans, along with many baseball fans that had suffered a partial and post season strike. It has never recovered despite proving to be an ultra-competitive and diverse series.
I had always thought growing up that Indy was all about oval racing, so did George, whose IRL series was run strictly on ovals. The problem was that during this period of chaos, NASCAR gladly and shrewdly took that fan base over. IndyCar was now in the unenviable position of having to diversify. Clawing back lost fans is no easy task.
IndyCar is now predominately a road racing series with only five oval races on the 2015 schedule. I have talked with many Indy fans and writers that hold the view that IndyCar racing wasn’t meant for one type of circuit racing, they were meant to be combined equally.
You can agree or disagree with this ideology, but one thing is for certain, ovals are now scarce in IndyCar racing. This season there were rumors about the series removing the Iowa Indy Corn 300 from it’s schedule, thankfully it has stayed in the series due to fan participation and close racing. I will be among those attending.
So why is the Indy series such a small market? It’s difficult to go from ‘Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained’ when the fight for America’s sports leisure dollars are at an all-time high. NFL, Baseball, NBA, Curling—you name it.
America’s fans have less discretionary income than they had in the halcyon days of the 1990’s and they are very careful how they spend it.
Lest anyone think it’s only IndyCar with this dilemma, bear in mind that all sports are fighting to keep their luster and fans. The economy and it’s condition are a source of constant debate and is definitely a factor, however the younger fans, and even to a great degree, the 40 something’s have a lower threshold for loyalty and a greater ability to use digital media as a source of entertainment.
There have been rumors, and so far that’s all they are, that NASCAR could be a suitor for the IndyCar series in the future thus creating one larger market that could be integrated on different race weekends. It might seem like a reasonable idea, but chances are that NASCAR has enough to deal with in it’s own series as well as it’s IMSA Sports Car series.
In short, there is no easy answer. The world and the sports world has become a complex arena where money and attention rules. How much money can we get and how long can we hold your attention.
No matter how interesting, competitive and diverse IndyCar is, it’s going to be a long hard slog that the core fans will have to take on as a mission to bring more attendees to the seats and viewers to the airwaves.
Are you ready to take up the mantle?