Let’s Welcome Any New Fans

If there is one thing that identifies the city of Nashville, it’s the country music industry. Whether you like country music or not (and I’ll admit, I do), you can’t escape or deny the grip that it holds on our city. There is an IndyCar connection to this, so stick with me.

Yesterday, our local paper ran a story that quoted 78 year-old country music legend George Jones as saying that current country stars Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have stolen country music’s identity. He went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing, that they used country music to break into the music industry and they need to call it something else, because their brand of music is definitely not traditional country music.

So where is the IndyCar connection? Well, aside from sounding like a bitter old man who wants to harken back to another time – Jones sounded an awful lot like the bitter NASCAR fans who claim that the explosion of new fans in the early part of this decade, along with the series branching out into other markets have caused their type of racing to lose its identity.

Many of NASCAR’s old-school fans, owners and drivers have bristled at these interlopers that have invaded their sport and homogenized it. Those complaints fall on deaf ears to IndyCar fans for a couple of reasons. On one hand, we never really seemed to have an identity. But we do have a rich history, but those that are still around that were a part of that history seem to be more willing to try and move the sport forward than do the bitter grumps at NASCAR.

All of the icons from the past; AJ Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and others are still very active and do whatever they can to try and help this sport along. None of them seem content to sit back and grumble about how much better it was “back in the day”.

George Jones offered no suggestions for improving his version of what country music should be. All he did was criticize today’s version and its stars. Although, I appreciate some of Jones’s work, I’d much rather listen to Carrie Underwood blast out “Before He Cheats” instead of Jones’s ex-wife Tammy Wynette’s twangy “Stand By Your Man”.

NASCAR’s old guard criticizes the series moves to abandon their traditional base in the southeast. Historic, yet run down tracks like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro; were abandoned for new modern facilities at Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They were so entrenched in their regional identity that they saw no reason to expand their series and grow. Keep in mind; the southeast is still flush with NASCAR races at Bristol, Charlotte, Richmond, Martinsville, Darlington and Talladega. In my opinion, they maintained a good bit of their heritage while also growing the sport in spite of strong resistance from their fans and the retired drivers and owners. They claim the sport that they helped build has left them behind.

Unlike most of the country music purists and the NASCAR traditionalists, IndyCar fans don’t seem to be stuck in reverse – unless we’re talking about the Indianapolis 500. Then, any and all tradition is sacred. Otherwise, IndyCar fans, owners and the members of its past all seem to in agreement on this issue at least – the sport needs new fans.

Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee held a semi-open forum last week on their show on how to attract fans. Throughout all of the ideas tossed about for two hours, the common theme seemed to be that everyone agreed that the IndyCar Series needed to reach out and get NEW fans. It would certainly help to get back some of the fans they lost, but the sport cannot grow and ultimately survive without a core of new fans.

Vince Welch of ABC/ESPN was a guest on the show and had an excellent point. He said he was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan although he grew up in Indianapolis. He formed his love of the Steelers while he was in school, long before the Colts moved to town. He stated that most passions for sports are formed in the childhood years, not in the twenties and thirties. I remember that I was hooked at the ripe age of six, when I attended my first Indy 500 in 1965. Without ignoring the adult fans, IndyCar needs to put on a much stronger push for the adolescent fans.

My oldest brother will turn 60 next spring. In April of 1966, during his sophomore year in high school – retired Indy 500 driver Bob Christie came to my brother’s school to speak on driver safety. When my brother learned that Bob Christie had passed away a few months ago, the first thing he did was relay the story to me how enthralled he and everyone else was when this former driver had come to speak. That’s how big an impression he left.

Realizing the impact that drivers can have on young minds, the IRL should start a grass roots program to target the fans of tomorrow and help build a new brand identity. But that’s another article for another day. But if and when these new fans arrive at the track, I hope that they will be embraced and welcomed into our sport. I think they will because even though our fan base is still divided over the events of the past fifteen years, there is one thing that we all seem to be in agreement on – the need for new fans.

So if Izod is actually announced tomorrow as the new title sponsor for the series, and they are somehow able to lure new fans with their…um, different styling – don’t shun them like NASCAR does the fans that jumped aboard the FOX bandwagon when they started broadcasting the sport. Instead let’s embrace ANYONE that is willing to give our sport a try. Help them to understand the importance of the rich history of IndyCar racing in a way they can appreciate it – not like some grumpy old has-been griping about the current stars. Although we may have trouble defining IndyCar’s identity, maybe tomorrow’s fans will help build something clearer.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “Let’s Welcome Any New Fans”

  1. bickelmom Says:

    George, I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about focusing on the young fans. As a mom with three young boys I know that they rule the activities of this family! If I think they will enjoy something, that is what we do on Saturday and Sunday. We established their racing interest by bringing them to the 500 Parade, Community Day at the IMS, and so on, but we did those things initially because I thought they might enjoy it.

    I’ve told you before, George, but others may be interested to know that at Community Day (usually the Wednesday before the 500) we got to walk around the garages, drive our own car on the track, and other fun activities that I know my boys are going to remember forever. My oldest got pictures with 3 drivers, my middle son loved collecting the driver cards, and my youngest practically exploded with joy when Graham Rahal’s guys let them all sit in his car. We drive by the IMS most days and they are always asking, “Are there cars there today? Can we go?”

    A program that would reach out to this age group specifically would be fantastic. I think of those commercials you see of NFL stars with kids through United Way or the Punt, Pass, and Kick contest. These programs establish life long fans!

  2. Donald McElvain Says:

    Heck, you don’t have to be a young kid to be empressed with race drivers. I was in my 40’s when Roger Ward came to our Rotary Club meeting in La Mesa, California and spoke. It was an honor to meet him and shake his hand. In the “old days” I remember ditching class and going to Ontario Speedway when NASCAR came to town and approaching Bobby Isaac for an autograph. Or the time I approached Roger Penske in the pits at Phoenix and he graciously allowed me to have my picture taken with him. I was in heaven and my 40’s. There’s more, but I get what you are saying. I remember my first NASCAR race at Riverside Raceway, California. I was 17. My earliest memories of racing was watching Parnelli Jones racing at ASCOT Park. I was 6 or 7 years old and watched those races on Sunday afternoons on TV with hosting by Dick Lane. “Oh Nellie!”, he’d say, “It’s hotter than a baker’s apron out there!” I remember J.C. Agajanian’s name being mentioned a lot, too. There’s much more but why bore you? By the way, this kid just turned 61. Nothing has changed. Donald McElvain, Polson, Montana

  3. I don’t think the criticism of NASCAR from old-school fans mainly has to do with the loss of historic venues and non-southern drivers. While indeed these factors play a role in the decline in popularity, there’s more to it than that and these particular factors have more to them than meets the eye.

    I’m not completely sure about this but I think most of the criticism about Rockingham and North Wilkesboro falling off the schedule along with the Southern 500 losing its date has to do with those three tracks being unique venues more than being historic venues or Southern venues. Meanwhile, the tracks that were added from the mid-’90s on were not so unique. The reason I’m not sure about this is that some fans do seem to have grandfathered in Atlanta and Charlotte while bashing Texas for no reason other than it’s not southeast, but I think more criticism has to do with Rockingham/North Wilkesboro being DIFFERENT tracks.

    The infusion of non-southern drivers? Again, I’m not sure that’s what NASCAR fans lament as much as them being corporate or feeling like the modern drivers have not paid their dues. It’s not necessarily a north/south thing either. I think Geoff Bodine, although a New Yorker, was accepted as paying his dues to get into NASCAR (by MOST fans), while even modern southerners like Denny Hamlin were not due to having development programs at very young ages. I think this is more of a rich/poor or urban/rural criticism than a north/south one. There have always been northern drivers and tracks around in NASCAR. The corporate thing? There’s more of a point to that one, as since drivers had to be marketing spokesmen, they couldn’t speak their mind. Again, that’s not due to an infusion of new drivers as much as due to an infusion of big-time sponsorship deals, a problem IndyCar does not have at the moment sans Penske and Ganassi.

    I think most of NASCAR’s criticism among old-time fans, however, is regarding the rules. Unlimited team ownership for the longest time which drove privateers out of the sport, cars that look less and less like their street counterparts, technology that grew more and more obsolete, and more to the point, the chase for the championship (a gimmick to ensure “a close title chase”, which this year is happily proving to be such a farce since Johnson/Gordon/Stewart would be much closer to each other under the old points system and having an epic battle no less), the top 35 rule (designed to keep really bad teams in and new teams out), the lucky dog (which I actually like but people see as another NASCAR gimmick), debris cautions and artificial red flags (to spice up the action), restrictor plates (which most long-time fans are sick of by now), etc…, etc… These are rulings NASCAR has made since the mid-’90s that made the series more and more show and less and less racing. THAT is why the old-time NASCAR fans criticize NASCAR. You probably know that. I would guess most of the IndyCar bloggers who now call NASCAR N-Word did at one point like NASCAR when it was less corrupt, but since Dale Earnhardt’s death (and okay, some time before) it’s been an endless series of gimmicks.

    If your belief in the criticism of NASCAR is as you have stated it, it would explain criticism in IndyCar however. There are plenty of fans lamenting the loss of unique venues such as Road America, Cleveland, Laguna Seca, Surfer’s Paradise, Michigan, Phoenix, Nazareth, and Milwaukee for the same lame cookie cutters that NASCAR runs and several even more contrived street courses. There are now two kinds of traditionalists in IndyCar, making this more complex. The USAC-IRL faithful would be upset that the IRL ever went to road and street courses, a far cry from the old days (not that an oval-only series at this point would remotely keep USAC drivers from going to NASCAR), while the CART faithful would be dismayed over generic 1.5-mile ovals. I am disappointed at the loss of almost any ovals but 1.5-mile ovals (except Indy and Iowa). There are lots of complaints especially from CART fans that the Dallara is too generic and ugly…even Defender has half agreed with this.

    Increasingly corporate drivers? Not really a problem here just because IndyCar is not popular enough for it to be a problem. You don’t see anyone but Danica and Helio in front of the cameras often. Admittedly, the USAC tradition, much like the NASCAR tradition, had rough-and-ready drivers like Foyt that it no longer has, but again that has more to do with today’s drivers being unable to obtain rides unless they come from money (in F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, sports cars, well every professional auto racing except NHRA I guess). But I think NASCAR was defined by rough-and-ready, while IndyCar really wasn’t, so that wouldn’t be a problem.

    Once again, as with NASCAR, I think IndyCar’s problem is the racing rather than loss of regional identity (which doesn’t really mean anything in IndyCar). Spec cars that are no longer innovative, increasingly generic tracks, a loss of popularity due to the split where the two sides would not get along leading to a loss of sponsorship and ride-buyers, and whether you’re a CART fan lamenting the loss of your favorite road course or a USAC/IRL fan lamenting the loss of your favorite oval, most would agree that the schedule could be much better. IndyCar has not resorted to gimmicks, apart from Gene Simmons and some of Danica’s stuff…but those things have little to do with the race itself. The debris caution at Texas was an ominous sign though, because the main thing IndyCar has over NASCAR now is good officiating (with the possible exception of 2002 and said debris caution), and THAT, not speed, should probably be the main selling point to new fans (well, either that or a more diverse schedule). Because when people talk about speeds being faster than in NASCAR, new fans would ask “Well then why were the speeds faster in 1996?” IF IndyCar ever resorts to NASCAR-style on-track gimmicks, they are done as that would be alienating the remaining fanbase they have left, who mainly call NASCAR N-Word for such reasons.

    • Good points, Sean. You hit a lot of the nails right on the head as to why I have had an increasing number of problems with NASCAR in the last few years. Generic new ovals, drivers being promoted to Cup after, like, two years out of quarter midgets, shaky, shaky officiating, goofy looking cars (though I’m about the only guy on the planet who prefers the look of the CoT over the old cars), oversaturation of coverage (hour and a half pre-race shows?), promotion of driver “rivalries” that seem more contrived than authentic, shaky officiating, lowest common denominator commentating (never play a drinking game during a plate race with the phrase “The Big One”; you’ll die of alcohol poisoning by lap 120) indifference to safety (which I finally got off my ass and blogged about last week), sixteen hour marathon fuel mileage races, contrived G-W-C finishes, contrived Chase championship system, shaky officiating, etc., etc.

      That’s all stuff that IndyCar needs to avoid at any cost. What people can sniff out is when they’re being duped. That’s why fans are are appearing more and more at NASCAR races disguised as aluminum benches and why their TV ratings are dropping. IndyCar needs to get some new eyes on the series, and then don’t treat the new fans like they’re morons.

  4. MARS on Earth Says:

    After reading some of your posts I hope that you all realize that times have changed since the ’60’s when penny candy was a penny. Why aren’t the drivers talking about ssafety on the roads….what happened to the the translation of speed to street safety? So many kids are getting killed on our roadways immitating your third generational racing “pro” drivers….(IRL is almost incestuous. Too much in-breeding results in failure BTW…..Genetics 101)
    Young children emulating these drivers on the roadways and highways has caused many civilian deaths and has broken the hearts of many families…..IRL is just a playing field for old scores to be settled….. It seems that not one professional has stepped up to address the issues of role modeling for our kids who are watching Danika and her troupe of girly men and ex-playmates fawn over her kinky fantasies in her vehicle…one way to sell products. Where is the maturity in this league of so called “professionals.”….
    Liberty is not something that should be abused in American “professional sports.”
    Also, can’t the league get better sponsors than the old guy who uses viagra?
    Your casual demeanor regarding life and death on and off the race track demonstrates the unprofessional and impaired judgment regarding American Professional Sports. Greyhounds at the dog-track have more regulations and more over-sight!
    “Professional” implies education, in American Sports….
    This league has gotten more and more raunchy and really who would want their sons or daughters watching the professionals sporting their meager body parts …certainly don’t want to see Dario or Scott Dixon in his underwear…There seems to be a real raunchy element in this series….not what parents want for their kids……Since you want a young audience, you need some accountability to that audience!

    • Dude….. What? I can’t even begin to parse out of that what point you’re trying to make. Old scores? Greyhounds? Dario’s underwear?

      Maybe this is my fault. Did I black out for three years without realizing, and now I’ve awoken to a Road Warrior-esque dystopia? And if so, who won the championship this year? Do the IRL cars have big, spike-y things on the wheels now? Has Danica won another race yet?

      • I was lost there, also… I don’t recall seeing Franchitti or Dixon racing while wearing only Nomex underwear. I don’t know why ““Professional” implies education, in American Sports….” but ‘MARS’ could use more English education. Some comments following some posts in this weblog are strange, indeed.

  5. Two things:
    1) I hear the “new stars of country music have hijacked country music” every decade for as long as I can remember.

    2) I agree: sports fans typically happen young. My father wasn’t much into sports, but we watched the Indy 500 every year together. It was a bonding experience. One of the main things I’d concentrate on, if I were in charge of the IRL/Indycar/etc, is aim at families and making it as accessible to parents and children as possible.

    Most people I know, particularly motor racing fans, tell me they have it common with their dads. You may not be able to talk about politics, religion, or his new wife, but you can still talk about the race.

  6. MARS on Earth, do you actually WATCH the IndyCar series? Not one single, solitary thing you wrote in your diatribe has anything to do with IndyCar. You might want to actually watch the series before writing such scurrilous, inaccurate things.

    Getting back to George’s point about welcoming new fans, I think IndyCar fans will. However, the series needs to do a better job of finding those fans because from the perspective of an outsider, not much is being done other than, “Here’s a race, come watch it.”

    • “about welcoming new fans, I think IndyCar fans will. However, the series needs to do a better job of finding [future] fans.”

      Agreed. I had thoughtthat George or a commented would have advocated that we should recruit new fans to view MindyCar races on TV or in-person. But these days the ‘on track product’ isn’t exciting enough for me to exhort someone, “You’ve got to try this!” And not everyone gets Versus on Dish Network or via cable… The Indy 500 is a different animal, as mentioned — product and distribution.

    • Edward dear-
      I have watched every race, (unfortunately) since the Indy 500 in 2006. I was astonished to watch a baby-faced teenager come in 2nd and thrilled that Sam Hornish won that race. I watched Sam get bullied out of the series, and actually started to appreciate RHR and Scott Dixon, Recently I watched the formula-one race in Abhu Dhabi at the end of October 2009 (and again am astonished that Honda-Indy car racing actually allows children to race in an adult sporting venue.) Formula-one is the standard for open wheel racing and it seems that the American style open-wheel racing has really abandoned automobile engineering. It actually seems dangerous to have the cars so equal…very scary. I am a sceptic and a critic but as I said i have paid the high price.

  7. Now that Danika is moving over to NASCAR she can bring her raunchy commercials and the playboy ” IRL Hefner House” influence with her….

    My Engrish suffers but I try…..too much Honda in my environmnent; (Since my daughter was killed in a brand new Honda Civic in 2005….)

    AS far as new fans,,,,young drivers on the street need to be reminded that SPEED Kills. Scott Dixon is a great role model for racing BTW…my comment about men in their underwear is regarding equality on the racetrack….Danika has made the mistake of marketing herself as a “girl next door” and really for the girls who idolize her and want to drive fast and “act up” …that is not good for the young driving spectators. I wonder if the people at NASCAr willl be “open and accepting.” Girly men and kinky messaging are really not so good for our youngsters watching,,,,obviously some people in the racing industry must know that superficially.
    Also, Ryan Hunter Rey with his Macy Izod commercial really makes an effort to speak to the young crowd and he should be applauded for making that effort…very classy and it separates the SPEED factor and excentuates the Sport factor. As someone who has lost a child to SPEED on the Highway by a racing SPEED fanatic, I hope IRL continues with Ryan’s Izod endeavor because he is the face of responsibility and could be the spokesperson for our kids watching these races. It is a brilliant advertisement for the Sport but another tag-line for safety
    (on the merchandise or at the end of the commercial) wouldn’t hurt.
    Had my daughter lived, she would probably be one of those kids watching because she was an athlete and athletes love speed. SPEED on the highways kill, and young drivers need to know that their friends…and typically jealous teenage rivals are watching…..Thinking of Doug Herbert and his 2 boys also…BRAKES is a great concept but it is not advertised on the race track….since Driver’s Edge is almost a non-profit joke…..all the power to Ryan and Izod.
    The commercial is very artistic and again it speaks “Sports and Responsibility” Thank you Ryan and I don’t mind buying Izod now and since I have paid a HUGE price I have earned the right to be a critic.
    It is incredible how we live in a beautiful, free country …so full of liberty and the ones who have aquired the most don’t understand their personal responsibility! Young drivers are watching and they are looking to their favorite athletes. The pro’s must know that automobile racing is not really accessible to the general public who are watching them, it is a competition for the very wealthy… Since they pull down the $$$$ they must speak to the issues and I applaud Ryan again for his commercial because it really has started a pathway that says “American Sports demand Accountability”. It is a beginning at least.
    Next to the other raunchy commercials, Macy’s Izod may seem to clean and collegiate but maybe the adults in the sport will step up and support “Clean and Collegiate” and someday actually put the words on the page or actually speak the “clean and collegiate” message out loud…..”Go to college and get an education if you can…Drive safely, Speed can Kill…don’t drive your Honda Civic beyond the regulations on the Highway.” Extend the vocabulary so that the kids understand that vehicular homicide comes with a jail sentence and possibly their own life…(Just like cigaretts and alcohol come with tag-lines and warnings.)

    Our children are dying dailey in the streets of Florida and other racing venues and the racers are in a great position to speak up. Also want to say that Scott Dixon is a great role model and he is great to watch, although some may find him boring….if you are going to race, clean living is the road to be on and the road to advertise to our kids on.
    MTV, SEX, and Texting on Boost Mobile (or any other cellular) really don’t mingle well on the roads in America. Maybe this will be the year for some vocal articulation, since Danika and crew are moving on.

    “Sorry for your loss” is very shallow so please just move forward.

  8. In regard to your post of what “might have been”….
    racers die voluntarily on the race track….when young adults get into vehicles of friends and family of pro-racers, they are not expecting or signing up for an Indy or a NASCAr Ride!
    If you want the young audience, don’t forget the responsibility aspect!

  9. Also, Marco’s Mom is on twitter and she seems to have decided to publicly put God “first” in her life on behalf of her children. Good for her! Since we have a public forum here is a tip for the future:

    The next time a friend of the family dies tragically in a car crash, personally send a card of condolence to the other victim’s family and acknowledge the tragedy personally, not by a third -party lawyer a year later and much of the the internet “diatribe” could be avoided….
    In case you haven’t heard, Google has changed the world of communication…and the forum is not owned by Marco’s friends only…

  10. Since I just read the sad news that RHR may sign with AGR all hopes have faded for any kind of collegiate safety message….old wine in new wine skins.
    (Can’t picture IZOD girls in Honda cages acting like animals…)
    IZOD girls hanging out with the gitls next door?

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