IndyCar racing in 2013 is far more exciting than NASCAR.
Judging from the ratings, I am in the extreme minority. But that’s not my fault. That’s IndyCar’s fault.
Since the traumatic split between CART and the IRL in the mid-1990’s, open wheel racing in North America has fallen multiple laps behind NASCAR. At the time, it more than the split drove the change.
NASCAR was a more exciting sport. We loved the tire-rubbing, doorhandle to doorhandle, 3-wide racing on classic tracks with classic, archetypal, bordering on stereotypical drivers. The Earnhardt’s, Allison’s and Waltrip’s of the world brought us in.
As NASCAR evolved, it lost much of what made it great. Beyond the departure from tracks like Rockingham and the moonshinin’ vibe from the drivers, the racing has devolved into boredom. I literally fell asleep during this year’s Daytona 500, watching cars form an assembly line for 3 hours.
IndyCar, on the other hand, is fresh and exciting. The cars still race double-wide. The speeds are breathtaking. The drivers do not like each other – the feuds are reads and the sniping words ring like the sweet music of a lost era. Unless you’re Will Power.
Unfortunately, no one is watching. It’s not because of the product. It’s because of the marketing. Here’s how IndyCar can fix this.
1) All Races on NBC
For some reason, IndyCar has levied barbs at NBCSN and blamed them for their lack of IndyCar promotion and the decline in ratings. It’s mind-boggling but a symptom of the larger issue – IndyCar cannot get out of its own way. For almost 20 years, the sport’s leaders have done almost everything in their power to ruin the sport. It’s time to change that.
The biggest problem facing IndyCar is the divided TV contract. While NASCAR has a split contract, it’s clearly and obviously divided between the first half of the year (Fox) and the second half (ESPN now, NBC in the future). You know, as a fan, where to tune in.
The solution is simple, making even more sense now that NBC made its big move for NASCAR. Bring the entire series, the Indy 500 included, to NBC and NBCSN. For the first time, IndyCar will join a network with the other top auto racing series and can piggyback off of that. Schedule races after Formula 1 races, or before NASCAR races, and promoted during both. IndyCar has been ignored by Speed Channel during its entire existence. NBCSN will be the closest thing to a Speed Channel replacement. Embrace it. Let NBC do for IndyCar what it did for the NHL.
ESPN brings no value to IndyCar because IndyCar brings no value to ESPN. Much like I discussed when talking about ESPN not caring about the new American Athletic Conference, the channel is no longer in the business of promoting leagues – only maintaining.
2) Less Street Circuits, More Road Courses
There are only 3 road courses on the 2013 IndyCar schedule. This is borderline criminal. While street courses can be exciting, they are not as exciting as true road courses and frequently create the type of assembly-line driving that so frustrates me about NASCAR.
It’s time to make a change. The perfect IndyCar season, in my mind, is a 20-race schedule with 8 street circuits, 6 ovals and 6 road courses. This year’s schedule has 10 street circuits, 6 ovals and 3 road courses. It’s not fair. It’s not even. It’s not maximizing IndyCar’s potential. And it’s actually a pretty easy fix to reduce the number of street circuits – wait until #5.
3) Overhaul the Points System – Emulate Formula 1, not NASCAR
The IndyCar points system is a mishmash of the Formula 1 system – with points dramatically weighted toward the top – and the NASCAR system – with points to everyone and bonus points for things like poles and laps led.
The NASCAR system works for NASCAR. It does not work for IndyCar. Why IndyCar steals any of the points system from NASCAR confuses me. The Formula 1 point systems works to perfection for that circuit and open wheel racing translates overseas, doesn’t it?
Currently, Formula 1 only awards points to the Top 10 finishers, with the winner getting 25 points and it goes down through tenth-place. I don’t believe IndyCar should swipe this system as is – maybe top 15 works better for IndyCar, maybe top 12, etc. – but that should be the basis.
Not only does this add intrigue to the points battle, it adds an element of intrigue to every race. If you watch Formula 1, you see the thrill of cars battling to get in or stay in the top 10. You know the implications when a points leader crashes and doesn’t register a point. The NASCAR point system is set up to prevent wild swings each week. The Formula 1 enables wild swings.
For a sport like IndyCar trying to rev up enthusiasm, wild swings are a good thing. Go for it.
4) Tighten the Schedule: Start Earlier, End Earlier
I took another look at the IndyCar schedule before I went to write this and I shook my head. It makes no sense. There is a race on Labor Day weekend in Baltimore – and not another until October. There is a race almost every weekend in June after the Indy 500, but only 2 in July and 2 in August, when the sports world offers up little in the way of competition. What gives?
Here’s one indisputable fact – IndyCar cannot deal with football. NASCAR is 100x more popular than IndyCar yet has found its ratings crippled by NFL and college football in recent years. Why end in the season in October? Not only are you facing football, but also the MLB playoffs and the beginning of the NHL and NBA seasons. If there is one month you would not want to compete in, it’s October. So of course, Indy Car has 3 races that month – more than July & August – including the
Time to change that. The season needs to end on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day – that is the last pre-NFL Sunday of the year with little to no competition, except the stray college football game, the first weekend of the US Open tennis tournament and the third round of a PGA Tour event. In short, it’s perfect.
Working back from that, the season needs to be loaded up in July and August, where there is no football, minimal interest in baseball before the pennant races heat up and the NHL and NBA have long since finished. There should be at least 3 races in both July and August, if not 4.
Although the season has only 3 races in October that, in theory, need to be moved into the schedule, the season should start earlier than late March. There’s no reason why there can’t be races in Florida and Long Beach – traditional early season races – in February and early March. Though college basketball dominates March, February is another light month of sports after the Super Bowl and the IndyCar series could easily carve out a weekend – maybe the week after Daytona – which they could try to lock in as a traditional season opener.
5) No Doubleheader Weekends
Is this amateur hour? Doing 2 races at the same track on the same weekend is an admission of defeat. They couldn’t get to 19, or 20, legit races so they doubled up. Stop it. It’s not major league. Would Formula 1 or NASCAR run two races in two days? Of course not.
Furthermore, it could be dangerous. As I was watching the second of the Indy races in Toronto, the announcers discussed the impact of driver fatigue from two races in two days. Ultimately, there was no repercussions from that statement. But in a sport as dangerous as IndyCar racing, why in the world would you eve risk that? If you want to grow the sport, go to more places. You want to give Toronto two races in a weekend? Fine, but do it another way…
6) Promote the Indy Lights Series Better
Did you know that IndyCar had the equivalent of the NASCAR Nationwide Series? Unless you’re a diehard fan, you probably didn’t. The Indy Lights Series exists. Sort of. The races are rarely, if ever televised live. They are never promoted. They are never given their proper due.
We have seen the success of the Nationwide Series, ever since the glory days as the Busch Series in the mid 80’s. Every IndyCar weekend should include an Indy Lights Series race that should be televised live by the rights holder, which should be NBCSN. There is no downside. NBCSN gets more, precious live sports. IndyCar gets to promote its younger drivers and future stars. Every track and promoter on the series gets another event to sell tickets too. The team owners get a more prominent avenue to develop talent. And sponsors get more exposure.
7) Focus on North America. Forget the World.
IndyCar seems to have given up on some of its global domination dreams, but I need to put this here to cover my bases. One race in Brazil? Can’t hurt. Asia? Stay away. A new race in Italy? Dumb idea.
Formula 1 is the world’s most popular motorsport. An IndyCar race in a global venue, in a place like Japan or Italy, will inevitably be viewed upon as a minor league event, whether that is accurate or not.
8) Make Juan Pablo Montoya & Sam Hornish Return
Two of open wheel’s biggest stars have been languishing in stock cars for too long now. Hornish failed in the Spring Cup and is currently fighting for a Nationwide Series title. Montoya has shown flashes of brilliance but never put it together to make a Chase for the Cup.
It’s time to bring the stars back. The IndyCar Series has stars, but Montoya and Hornish – both before and after their NASCAR stints – are more recognizable than any except for Helio Castrosneves. Make them a big offer. Get them back in the fold. Start fighting back against NASCAR.
Will IndyCar ever return to its status, last held 25 years ago, as the biggest motorsport series in the United States? Maybe not for another 25. But that doesn’t mean they can’t try.
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