What Are The Answers To Fixing The IRL?

My article on Friday was based on the rumor that Roger Penske might buy the IRL. I concluded that the rumor would more than likely stay just that – a rumor. Still, it generated some interesting comments from readers. One such reader justifiably took me to task for stating; “every facet of the IRL needs an overhaul”, yet I never offered any suggestions how to fix it. Well, he got me. I’ll place the “Legions of the Miserable” tag on myself for that one.

So how would I fix it? That’s a good question that doesn’t have an obvious solution. I guess if it did, someone would have fixed it by now. I will throw some ideas out there, but I’ll throw out my disclaimer that I am no more qualified to solve what ails the IRL, anymore than I am able to fix whatever is wrong with the Titans who are now 0-6 after yesterday’s 59-0 debacle (ouch!). Although I hold a marketing degree, I know nothing of marketing a struggling worldwide sports entity. But recent history will also show that those that have purported to know, have failed miserably.

This is another topic that falls under the banner of winter bench-racing – something that is fun to talk about, just to talk about it. This is nothing that anyone should get too wrapped up about; whether we come up with a seemingly great idea via the comments section, or if I say something completely asinine in the body of an article. I try not to take myself too seriously and I suggest no one else does either, but here goes…

Although we are dealing with a complex problem, let’s try to break it down into the simplest terms possible. If we had to single out the biggest problem facing the IRL, what would that be? I think it all boils down to a lack of fans – and what fans there are seem to be dwindling. If that problem is solved, everything else can be addressed with a lot less urgency. But with an increasingly shrinking fan base, all other problems are shoved to the forefront and are all deemed to be in an almost crisis stage which must be fixed NOW.

If the IRL had NASCAR-like ratings, do you think the IRL would have made the aero-tweaks in mid-season like they did prior to Kentucky? Perhaps, but maybe not. If the IRL were enjoying record crowds, TV numbers and were flushed with sponsorship; they more than likely would have tabled it for the off-season – and then probably would have ultimately done nothing anyway. But with miniscule TV ratings and grumbling among its hard-core fan base, the league felt a sense of urgency to do something quickly.

When things are going poorly, all problems are greatly magnified. The ever-shrinking fan base makes the issue of car count a major concern. The lack of American drivers all of a sudden becomes a crisis, because many want to pinpoint that as the reason why open-wheel racing has become such a fringe sport. The single chassis/engine becomes a lightning rod because there are so few fans left in our sport. The current TV package is a disaster because even though the on-air product is excellent, no one is watching. The Gene Simmons “I am Indy” is labeled a bad song because, well…it IS a bad song.

It all comes back to marketing the product. I’m not sure that the powers that be at 16th and Georgetown really know who they are marketing their product to. After all the years that the IRL has been in existence, I get the idea that Terry Angstadt doesn’t really have a clue as to what demographics he is targeting in order to grow this series and sustain the growth. If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll end up appealing to no one. That pretty well describes today’s IndyCar fan base.

So the thought here is that the commercial division of the IRL needs to identify their target market and then go after it. Is their profile of an IndyCar fan an affluent white American male over forty? Take out the affluent part and that pretty well describes me. Do they really want to simply expand on what they already have?

Perhaps they are banking on the Danica factor finally paying off in bringing in the young female fan in their early twenties. So far, that strategy hasn’t been successful in bringing in sustained new fans. At best, that tactic has brought in a few curiosity seekers each year for the Indianapolis 500, but nothing indicates that they have ever tuned in for other races.

There seems to be a school of thought that the IndyCar Series can piggyback off of NASCAR fans – the thought being that if they are a fan of one, they can become a fan of the other. Based on what I see here in the southeast where NASCAR rules and always has, that doesn’t seem to be a sound strategy. To use another baseball analogy, it’s sort of like the Mets and the Yankees. You really can’t be a fan of both. You tend to be a rabid fan of one and a distant closet fan of the other.

Just as CART/Champ Car did, the IRL is beginning to flirt with targeting the international fan. With an annual race in Japan already on the books, they have visited Canada for the past two seasons. To satisfy contractual agreements with Champ Car, the league visited in Australia last fall in a non-points paying race. Presumably, the IRL will open next season in Brazil – although with less than five months before the green flag is scheduled to fly; the league has not even decided upon a city in Brazil, much less a venue.

It’s my opinion that the league should shore up a North American fan base before venturing to other continents. Otherwise, it gives the impression that they have given up on the fans here and will be content to be seen as Formula One Lite around the world. TV contracts are based on a US market as well as most sponsorship packages. Although some companies, such as Marlboro and McDonald’s, have a presence in these other countries – others such as Target, GEICO and Menard’s do not.

So again, I’ve identified problems without offering much of a solution – other than identifying their target and continuing to focus on North America. But the IRL needs to develop a better strategy of getting more fans in the seats and more eyeballs watching on TV before they can solve their other problems. Without fans, the sponsors will continue to drop off and even Versus will no longer be interested. This will translate into no new cars or engines because teams will not be able to afford them, thereby further disenchanting the hard-core fan base. Then the lesser teams will continue to disappear due to lack of funding and/or interest. Ultimately, there will be no viable need for an open-wheel series as even the aging die-hard fans either move on or eventually die off. It isn’t a pretty picture.

Do I think it will come to that? It’s possible, but I doubt it. But the league needs to come up with some answers and quickly. I don’t have the answers. If I did, I would be sitting in my own office at 16th and Georgetown. The marketing arm of the IRL and CART/Champ Car has been the Achilles heel for the past few decades. The on-track product is far from perfect, but decent enough for now. The major overhaul I referred to needs to take place on the commercial side and should be the top priority of THIS offseason, and not put it off for “down the road”. Otherwise, that there will be no need to fix the other problems later.

George Phillips

21 Responses to “What Are The Answers To Fixing The IRL?”

  1. I’ve said for ever the IRL should become freakishly focused on the fans because as you said, they drive everything. It’s like any business, focus on attracting and retaining your CUSTOMERS and everything else takes care of itself. If the IRL does actual research on its customers I’m not aware of it. That’s the first step to finding out how to attract more and keep the ones you have. Scheduling tracks like Barber because they are beautiful facilities when your current and especially prospective fans do not want more street/road courses makes no sense. Nor does cutting oval races.

    • I do know that in the past the league did to research. I had an opportunity to interview as the MR mgr at the IRL about 10 years ago. I did not feel that my skill set was up to the challenge at the time. I refered the lead onto a friend of mine who did take the job. He was there for about three years. Doing research is easy, but integrating it into the decision processes of an organization can be very difficult. If it is never a key input to decisions, then it becomes an expense that is hard to justify in the long term.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      I agree, of course, with the mandate to find, gain and retain customers. They have money and the ability to draw team sponsors and league sponsors and broadcast sponsors. And you and George and others have written about types of tracks and particular tracks raced on and those not raced on… Does the I.R.L. have a marketing department? Did it just use I.M.S.’s marketing department? Why do we have answers and the Series … is aimless?

  2. walter beach Says:

    which is cheaper, buying the car or making the car?

  3. Cash is the immediate need, a larger fan base is the long term need. Building a fan base is a goal that has a 5 – 10 year horizon, there’s no shortcuts. But even with good strategy there’s no guarantee that without liquidity the league can keep limping along, staying alive long enough to build that fan base.

    The problem is $. Pure and simple. As it stands, to use corporate consultant lingo, the league is an undercapitalized business venture. Those ventures tend to fail, because there is not enough money to ever develop the critical mass needed to create a sustainable stakeholder base (ie fans and sponsors in our case).

    Now that the HG family fortune is out of the picture as a souce of financing the problem has become that much more acute. The league seems so unfocussed because for lack of money, any strategy there is gets thrown out the window to desperately chase whatever dollars are available. Brazil (and if rumors are true) China are opportunities to secure $$ to keep the league going until, it is hoped, a sustainable sponsor and fan base are developed.

    I’ll have some thoughts on getting to 5 years from now and 10 years from now on my page in the coming weeks. I know that as a group, we bloggers and our audience does represent a fairly accomplished set of professionals. Perhaps if we stage that dialogue as an open forum, perhaps the league would have a source of information and ideas that might benefit them going forward.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      — I’m reminded that Champ Car races in Hawaii, China and Korea never happened, and we’re still waiting to hear about an IRL Rio race…

  4. I agree with everything said so far, and I think the customer focus is key, although it leads to a series of new questions:

    How will the IRL focus on their customers?

    The IRL needs to ask themselves, what makes our product one that customers will want?

    What makes the IRL product unique?

    Who is our fanbase?

    I think the IRL could answer all these questions and build their fanbase by learning from the NHRA and World of Outlaws here – both of them have crappy or no TV coverage and while they have smaller fanbases, the fans are hardcore. Why? I think part of it is the open nature of the series – the way you can walk through the pits and meet any of your favorite drivers. The drivers all hand out those free bio cards that they will gladly autograph. I think that’s big. The IRL might think they are too big to open up like that, but they aren’t anymore. That not only adds something for adults, but look at the kids – there’s nothing cooler than seeing a kid light up after getting an autograph from Ashley Force, Jeg Coughlin, or Steve Kinser. They might be too small to remember the driver’s name, but they’ll be hooked.

    That leads to my next point: If there’s one demographic the IRL needs to target, it’s the families. First off, make the ticket prices affordable – offer family packages, throw in stuff for the kids. The key is getting the parents in the seats, and getting the kids hooked. FOCUS ON THE KIDS. You’ve got a short-term, and a long-term fanbase to establish. Additionally, find as many ways to get the fans involved as possible; One thing that really irks me is the way all racing series insist on pulling some celebrity in to wave the green flag, give the command to start engines, etc. Instead of paying some non-chalant high-priced celebrity who has absolutely no interest in the sport, take that money and turn it into a chance to get the fans involved. The IndyCar website should have a place where ordinary folks can win a chance to be a guest of honor for every single race: let kids/people win a chance to wave the green flag and make it a special all-expenses-paid weekend for them. Maybe recognize some sort of community/charity group for their work by hooking them up with a suite, a meet-and-greet with a driver and letting them give the command to start the engines. Let local school choirs or bands do the national anthem. It doesn’t matter – In every case, give ordinary people a chance to do something extraordinary. It will be cheaper than the celebrity, and it will hook fans for life.

    The IRL really needs to sell themselves on what is unique to their series – they don’t need to be F1-lite. They need to be uniquely IRL. Sell the idea of ovals, even if that isn’t the entire schedule.

    Finally, they need to embrace technology – more fan interaction via the web, including the live coverage feed. Versus should feed their broadcast directly to the IndyCar website, and make the entire show available to watch anytime, like an Internet-based DVR.

  5. JP is absolutely right, but the league needs a coherent marketing strategy to develop a sustainable fan base in the long term. I have some professional experience in a former life as Communications Director for a software company that was the NASCAR of its market, and the competitor that always made the best inroads against us did so by portraying our strengths as weaknesses. Their market share was only ever around 10% to our 50%+, but while everyone else tried to hold on for dear life with brand loyalty, this one actually made waves and grew a little.

    We offered 24/7/365 live support. They said “you pay less with us because we don’t pay people to answer phones on Christmas.” We had software that did absolutely everything you could think of. They said “you only need to do XXX most of the time, so we do that, and focus on it, and do it better.”

    I think there are people who would be attracted to racing as a TV and live spectator sport but are put off by NASCAR. Target them. Some of these folks will be watching NASCAR races, but don’t target the diehards with gaudy numbered flags on their porches. Differentiate. Don’t shrink from what’s made NASCAR a successful enterprise, attack it head on.

    What’s made NASCAR successful? Driver personalities? IndyCar has its own (Scott and Ryan, you guys go entertain yourselves elsewhere for a little bit, please) and a greater, let’s say variety than NASCAR does. The “sexier drivers” thing touches on this and is a good idea.

    Side by side racing? Jostling, bumping, physical feats? You should see side by side racing at 210 MPH. And no, IndyCar doesn’t have the brutish physicality of NASCAR, because people get killed when really fast cars bump. That’s a selling point.

    Accessibility for non-gearheads? Maybe the solution here is to market the technology, engineering and science of IndyCar. At least it would help position the league as the more serious, more innovative one.

    Just some examples. NASCAR has shown how a racing circuit can gain wide popularity, but the flip side of that is that it has opened the American consciousness to the viability of racing as a sport. That work’s done. Don’t try and do it over again. IndyCar just needs to tell people why they should watch it instead of NASCAR, and it needs to do that by differentiating itself from NASCAR’s strengths.

  6. In my opinion, the IRL very clearly reflects a juncture to which many forms of auto racing have come: Is it’s primary purpose to entertain the public, or to return to the roots of the sport, which consisted of live testing laboratories for automotive technologies?

    I maintain that the very reason Indycars became so popular was the fact that they weren’t racing what you could buy in the showroom, they were racing elements of what you might see in the showroom 5 years from now.

    The beauty of the Indycar racing as it exists today is that it has an excellent formula by which a close finish (less than 3 seconds) is nearly guaranteed every race and by which the most teams racing a full season can survive. Having said that, it becomes apparent by a somewhat stagnant fanbase that despite the fantastic finishes to which we’ve all grown accustomed, this alone is not enough to grow the sport.

    I hope the reason that the specs for the next wave of engines, chassis, and tires, has been delayed is to allow for newer technologies and ‘stuff of future’ thinking. I hope we can return to the days of ingenuity and risk. It certainly isn’t going to be the easiest or least expensive way, but I have to believe that with some careful forethought and the long-term view in mind, it must be the best way.

  7. Matt and David have got some great thoughts up there. NASCAR’s been driving away fans of late, with its contrived “Chase” format, spec-car CoT, lack of driver access and just general oversaturation and dumbing down (Digger, anyone?). IndyCar can go 180 degrees the other way on all of that, with not much work at all.

    Get the drivers out in public at every chance. Speeches at schools are a good one here. The late Stan Fox came and spoke at my high school in 1994, hideously ironically, about highway safety. I was likely the only person present who’d heard of him before, but he was greeted and mobbed like a freaking rock star, and I know that there were more kids that tuned into that year’s 500 as a result (they also brought along a Menard show-car; it was a Wisconsin-state sponsored thing, but the IRL could do all this for cheap all over the midwest). Put Tony Kanaan or Graham Rahal or Helio in a similar situation, at a school, in front of some other semi-captive audience, or just in some shopping mall handing out autographs, and I guarantee you’d generate new fans. Get them out there, make their Twitter accounts known to everybody, and people will get interested in the personalities.

    Technology: NASCAR is deluded in thinking that it’s high-tech. Most of what they’ve got is updated 1950’s era technology Pushrods? Carburetors? In a 2009 race car? Really? IndyCar needs to embrace the sub-F1 level of technology that the ALMS is having to go away from due to manufacturers temporarily moving out of sports cars. There are a lot of car guys out there. How many people subscribe to Car and Driver, Autoweek or Road and Track nowadays? Every single one of those guys is a car guy, by definition (unless they’re a dentist, filling their waiting room magazine bins). Give them something interesting, that resembles either what’s currently in their car or could become available in 5 years, and people will tune in. This doesn’t have to be expensive. Limit the use of carbon fiber in the next car to just the tub and some body work and replace it with aluminum and aluminum honeycomb for the wings and the rest of the body. That’ll slash the price of parts by 2/3rds. The current engine lease price for a Mazda 2.0 liter turbo engine in ALMS is under $100,000. So, target a full-season lease program at $500,000 to ensure that you’re attracting high-tech solutions and lateral thinking on energy sources. Presto, Audi, Honda, maybe Mazda, plus probably one or two other makes are going to be interested, a complete turnkey car costs under $750,000 and your car guys are on board.

    Lastly, and Matt said this better than me, but don’t be afraid to position yourself publicly as the anti-NASCAR. No Chase necessary! The drivers aren’t cardboard stand-ups! It’s dangerous (though we hard-cores know it’s not the death defying ’50s anymore)! The cars are cool! You can get actual autographs and a real-life handshake from the drivers! You can come into the paddock and onto the grid and take all the pictures you want (another change they should make, like, yesterday)! The races don’t take four hours to run! And on and on.

  8. The biggest problem for me is the racing. If I wanted “push to gas to the floor and un-hood the brake cause it ain’t getting used”, I’ll go to the local Putt-Putt Family Fun center and run on the go cart track with the metal guard rails. That isn’t racing, it’s an excercise in engineering. The cars must have more power; they need to at least back off each and every corner and even perhaps brake. Reduce downforce if necessary, but please, no more point and aim “racing”.

  9. IndyCar.com’s article, “Build it for the long term” reads, “Activities throughout the day – from a concert by Better Than Ezra to a classic car corral and an assortment of concessions – complemented the Firestone Indy 300” What?

    A week AFTER the season-ending race, IndyCar tries feebly to spin a feel-good story about the health of the Series?! “A concert” is an activity for fans wilting in the heat, hiding in the shade? “A car corral” is an activity? “Concessionsis” are an activity for fans?!

    Americans stayed away in droves (the heat? the economy?the sport?) and some couldn’t tune in to satellite TV or cable TV.
    Much bluster about championship, championship, championship, championship … No mention of Grand-Am racing on same day, one mention of the heat in Homestead and much trumpeting two WEAK sponsors, Apex and Izod, who had a volleyball game and fashion show — not at the speedway and not for IndyCar fans — and an ethanol sale at a fuel station one day. Wow; what sponsorship activation (not!).

  10. Everyone has made some excellent points, although I disagree with Pressdog saying that the current and prospective fans don’t want more street/road course events. If you make a comment like that, please provide factual basis to back that up.

    Now, on to what I would do. Some of which I’m rephrasing what others have said, so I apologize in advance.

    1. Promotion. We live in a society where anything-even something unpleasant-can become popular with the right amount of marketing. Does IndyCar even have a marketing department? There are ways to do promotion without spending a whole bunch of money. Some were already mentioned. I would add to encourage/make the drivers do what politicians do-shake hands and kiss babies. Have the drivers-different ones each week-hit the market where the race is going to be and hit every radio and television station, newspaper and media outlet. Send the drivers out to the local Honda dealers to make appearances. Meet and greets with Tony Kanaan at 7-11, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti at Target, Graham Rahal at McDonalds. Have the drivers go to schools, community organizatons, the rotary club, anyplace they can to promote the race. I would also have a show car at each appearance. I’m not a NASCAR fan, but it was very cool when NASCAR has it’s annual year-end banquet here in New York where I live to get to see a real life NASCAR “stock” car-Jeff Gordon’s DuPont Chevrolet #24, and Matt Kenseth’s DeWalt Tools Ford #17 were the two cars I’ve seen and touched. That is a great way to get people interested.

    It would also help to market someone besides Danica Patrick, who is one of the most polarizing figures in sports. It seems to me that she repels as many people as she attracts. While some of that isn’t her fault-some of the emnity is based solely on sexism-some of her actions also turn people off as well. One problem with promoting other drivers is the constant turnover each year in the driver lineups. It’s one of those chicken and the egg things. You need more sponsors to have more stable drivers, but you can’t get more sponsors and money without doing other things to get it.
    2. Schedule more shared weekends. While it is clear that some tracks ALMS and Grand-Am race at are not suitable for IndyCars-and vice versa-it can’t hurt to hopefully get your product in front of another audience.

    3. Provide a platform for the automakers. Use IndyCar racing at a lab to develop new technologies for road cars. There has been talking in other arenas of a universal engine, which can be made by every automaker and used in every series. This would also mean encouraging the carmakers to come back, even if you have to beg-though not publicly-thik about it.

    4. Rivalries. There really aren’t any rivalries in IndyCar anymore. In the past, you had Mario Andretti vs. A.J. Foyt vs. the Unsers. Now? None that I can see. Some of that comes from rooting for manufactuers-sorry for the spelling error. But somehow, IndyCar needs some real rivalries to stir interest. Sometimes in sports-see Red Sox-Yankees-the love comes not only from rooting for your team, but hating someone else.

    5. Let the fans have more access. Schedule fan walks of the pit lane, the tracks and the garages occasionally. Obviously, not during track activities but schedule times for that. In addition, I also agree with going after the families. Make the tickets affordable for families and encourage outings at the track.

    Even if any or all of these ideas are implemented, nothing may happen. But at least it’s worth a try.

  11. Interesting that the leading poll answer is a dwindling fan base….. Kind of like asking a retorical question isn’t it? But WHY are the fans leaving? The better choice may have been “All of the below”. As stated, you can’t please everyone all of the time… in the end you please noone. Some of the ideas above certainly have merit: more open access, more involvement for the families, more innovation (open specs), etc. It will have to be a combination of all of these. I know, I know. I just metioned you can’t please everyone but when you have driven away so many for so long all areas need to be addressed.

    How cool would it be if your kid could get an Indy Car “toy” in his Happy Meal? How cool would it be to see ANYTHING Indy Car related in Target? Just some nagging questions I’ve had.

  12. Cowboy Racer Says:

    All great ideas! Family friendly and aiming at the kids is a must. I was hooked at 8 years old with the Johnny Lightning hot wheels car 39 years ago. Open the padock and requiring the drivers to be at autograph sessions are a must. I agree the drivers should have to drive the car, lift and brake into the corners. Lets take the wings off and give the engines a 1000 HP. Make the aero package punch a hole in the wind so the second car in line can slingshot past.

  13. I’m surprized at the number of comments that drivers should be more accessible. There is a free autograph session with all the IndyCar and Iindy Lights drivers almost every race weekend. My wife and I get paddock passes and find the drivers almost always make time for impromptu autographs, photos, etc. I’ll admit that I haven’t been to a NHRA or world of outlaws event, but the level of driver accessibility at the track on race weekends seems about right.

    I agree that the IRL should do more promotion through the drivers, and it needs to be done outside the track prior to each race. They need to have autograph sessions at a mall, radio interviews, appearances at local car shows etc (potential new fans aren’t at the track). Associated with these build up events there should be promotional things like free tickets or paddock passes for the upcoming race.

    Besides a static car display at these events, they should have an IndyCar simulator that allows people to understand how phycial the sport is. (Perhaps two or three simulators could fit in one trailer.) Also, invite local news figures to try “driving” the simulation of the local track while getting pointers from a driver. That news piece would be “free” promotion.

    Once the IRL and local promoters make contact with potential new fans they need to maintain it with emails, tweets, text alerts, fantasy teams etc. to keep fans involved with the series.

    The drivers seem to get that it’s all about the fans. Hopefully the league and promoters can focus more on the fans too.

  14. The problem is simple, it’s the same problem that the irl has had from the beginning, the car that awful neutered car . Low horsepower and too much downforce is fine for Indy lights but will never put Indy car racing back on top. I like Gil De Ferran’s idea he simply said ” Make the new car insanely fast like it used to be! Make it safe, but insanely fast” best idea I’ve heard so far!

  15. Something that I found very interesting and the IRL needs to tap into is what happened with Sarah Fisher a few years ago at the 500. When her big sponsor backed out on her, people started showing up at her garage handing her personal checks. Can’t we tap into that feeling? Kind of like the GB Packers? Open up a sponsorship that families can participate in? Didn’t PT do something like that with everyone’s names on his firesuit this year? Let the fans take some ownership and they’ll be personally invested in the driver and the sport.

    • Actually, that’s a cool idea – Red Bull F1 did something like that a couple of years ago with the Wings for Life charity. For 10 pounds or something like that, you could post a picture of your choice and they turned all the pictures into a special livery for both Mark Webber and David Coulthard. It looked really cool and different, and I had a fun time telling people that I sponsored an F1 team…

      That same year, one of the Indy car teams was sponsored by an open source software company who tried to do something similar, too – they took donations to sponsor the car. I threw in a few bucks and it was fun to root for my team, although that wasn’t so successful. If I remember right, they never got anywhere near the amount necessary to be the primary sponsor, and ended up with just a small sticker on the side of the car somewhere. I am not even sure if they made the starting grid.

      For me, it did help me connect to a certain driver and give me a reason to root for them. I’m not exactly a fan of any given driver – I respect anybody that can make it to that level of motorsport – and I am happy for anybody that wins or has a good day. The problem is that I don’t get polarized by being a real fan of one particular driver, where I’m ecstatic if they win, or really mad if they lose. Fantasy racing does give me some of that, though. So it’s good to have something like that to connect me to a driver and raise the intensity of my involvement and interest.

      Anyway, I think you are on to a good idea that certainly could be revisited.

  16. Given the success of Nascar, I’m not so sure technology is important to the casual fan that the IRL would like to attract. It’s really more about personality and marketing these days isn’t it?

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