Mario Has Spoken, But Do We All Agree?

This past weekend during the US Grand Prix, Mario Andretti sounded off on a couple of subjects regarding the IndyCar Series. Regardless of your allegiance to Mario in the sixties, he has earned the position over time that whenever he opens his mouth on a subject – you would do well to take note, shut up and listen. You can decide later on whether or not you agree with him, but one would be foolish to not listen to what the man has to say. After all, he is one of the legendary names of all time and at the age of seventy-three – he is still extremely active in the sport. So you can’t write off anything he says by saying he is out of touch.

That’s not to say you have to agree with everything the man says. He is fallible, just like the rest of us. There was an article that made the rounds earlier this week, quoting Mario on a couple of subjects. I vehemently disagreed with him on one topic, while strongly agreeing with him on another. Mario was quoted on his displeasure on next year’s IndyCar schedule ending in August. He also uttered his disdain for Mark Miles’ idea on an International “mini-series” to be run in the offseason.

Those that visit this site regularly know where I agree and disagree with the 1969 Indianapolis 500 champion (whose win I watched in person, by the way). Andretti pointed out that IndyCar could never be taken seriously, unless their season ran into November like Formula One and NASCAR.

The way the calendar works out, it is true that the IndyCar season ends in August. Labor Day is Mon Sep 1 – the earliest it can ever be. The finale at Fontana is scheduled for Saturday night on Labor Day weekend – Aug 30.

I have been beating the drum for some time to end the IndyCar season on Labor Day weekend in order to avoid getting crushed in the ratings by the behemoth that is the NFL. I will concede that there is something psychologically wrong with wrapping up the final race while the calendar still says August. On the other hand, for Mario to say you can’t be worried about going against football is a tad bit naïve or in denial of the condition of this sport. I have no way of knowing, but I wonder just how much the IndyCar legend follows football. Sometimes, those so ingrained in one sport have no idea just how big other sports have become.

Keep in mind that when Mario Andretti was the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1965, there was no such thing as the Super Bowl. There were on Thursday night, Sunday night or Monday night games. Mercifully, Fantasy Football did not exist. The NFL only had fourteen teams, while the upstart AFL had eight. There were only three TV channels. Those clamoring for sports only watched what they were given. There were few choices.

Today, the NFL is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It long ago supplanted baseball as the nation’s number-one sporting obsession. Just look at the numbers. In August, a pre-season Titans game will pull a local rating in the twenties. IndyCar does well to pull close to a 1.0 on a national network telecast, while averaging around a 0.2 on cable. It is estimated that only 160,000 people watched the Sunday race of Houston’s double-header on Oct 6. That’s 160,000 nationally, not local. That same day, the Titans played the Kansas City Chiefs in losing effort in Nashville. Based on the ratings, almost twice as many people in the Nashville market alone watched the mediocre Titans, than the national number that watched the IndyCar race that day.

I consider myself a die-hard IndyCar fan, yet I set the DVR for the Houston race while I watched the Titans live. Some die-hards will exclude me from their club for that admission. They will say only a true racing fan will ignore the stick & ball sports and pay attention only to Motorsports. To acknowledge that baseball, basketball or football is interesting, is traitorous to the sport we love. To that, I say “Baloney!”

I think most racing fans think like me. We like both football and IndyCar. More than NASCAR or Formula One, the demographics of an IndyCar fan is closest to the typical NFL fan. To say that football is inconsequential is to bury one’s head in the sand.

As much as it pains me to say it, IndyCar is not currently on the same level with NASCAR and F1. NASCAR ratings drop significantly once the NFL season starts. Although their ratings have dropped in recent years, they still are strong enough to withstand a drop in the fall. Formula One simply doesn’t care that much about the US television market. Ratings are what will make or break IndyCar in the future. Advertisers that see numbers like the October Houston race will run, not walk from the bargaining table. Sponsors will cite those figures as reasons why not to sponsor a team or why they will only offer a fraction of what a team is seeking.

Although I have been chirping to end the IndyCar season by Labor Day, I’m altering my stance just a little. Have a couple of races run in September after the Labor Day weekend. Perhaps one on Labor Day Sunday, then two more on Saturday nights to late September. That avoids the NFL. College is so regionalized and fragmented that they don’t pose as big of a ratings threat. It also prolongs the season for a few more weeks and thereby shortens the offseason.

I still think that the IndyCar season should start earlier than it does – either late February or the first weekend in March, not the last weekend of March as will be the case in 2014. But just because NASCAR and F1 run their season into November does not make it right. I think the NASCAR season is laboriously long. It limps to a merciful end each year, sort of like the NBA does in late June.

And just because Mario Andretti says it does not always make it right, either. I say see if the ratings improve by avoiding the NFL. Try it and see what happens. If the ratings improve, keep it there for a few years and continue to build momentum before trying to tackle the NFL head-on. If they don’t improve, well – it was worth a shot.

But please don’t think I disagree with everything the former USAC, CART and Formula One champion says. As I said earlier, his opinion carries a lot of weight. Andretti also went off on the International Mini-Season that Mark Miles has proposed. I fail to see what can be accomplished by it. Sure, it may help balance the IndyCar checkbook, but at what price? What does it do for the teams or the drivers?

As we have seen recently in Brazil and China, foreign governments can be difficult to predict. No one can foresee how a change in governmental leadership or policy may suddenly make a race disappear. The Canadian races have worked out well for IndyCar, but racing in some potential countries may have completely different outcomes.

Plus, I don’t see an offseason as a bad thing – so long as it’s not seven months. An offseason gives drivers and teams the opportunity to push the re-set button. Drivers are human. Even though they love what they do, they need a break. Drivers need vacations too, whether it is to visit some exotic locale or to spend time with their families and attend a few Colts and Pacer games. Send drivers and teams all over the globe for a couple of months in the offseason, and they are suddenly racing year-round. Some drivers spend their offseason racing in other disciplines; whether it is to race karts, Brazilian stock cars or drive in the Rolex24. The Mark Miles plan could minimize or completely eliminate that.

Not that he needs me to validate his opinion, but I agree with Mario Andretti – the International Min-Season does not need to happen.

As I’ve stated many times over the years – in the sixties, you were a fan of either AJ Foyt or Mario Andretti. You could not be a fan of both. As a child, I picked AJ Foyt as my guy and he is still my favorite all-time driver to this very day. But as I’ve grown older (and older), I’ve learned to appreciate the greatness that is Mario Andretti. We fans are lucky because two of the biggest names from almost fifty years ago are still heavily involved in this sport. When either of them speak, we would all be wise to listen to every word they say. But we don’t always have to agree.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “Mario Has Spoken, But Do We All Agree?”

  1. College football is now the second most popular sport and it is not a regional sport anymore. The new playoff will further that point. As a Buckeye, the second biggest game this weekend for me is in Stillwater, OK. Leagal proceedings in Tallahassee could have a major impact on my school’s season. A Thursday night game in Palo Alto was a must see for every Buckeye. There is nothing regional about it. I never once saw IndyCars at Kentucky because it was always on a college football Saturday night. Move the race before labor day and I buy tickets.

    I would love international races, but they have to count towards the championship. It seems silly to have exhibition races just to make money. Make them count.

    • But how often does the IndyCar series come to your town? Once a year if you’re lucky. Can’t you dvr the football game? I was in the stands at the last Kentucky race. The attendance was pathetic. Apparently this market can’t handle football and racing at the same time.

  2. ending by Labor Day is a good thing, as long as the schedule starts earlier in the year.

    as far as an international mini-season no points exhibition season? I echo Steve K–make them count or don’t do it.

  3. I have got to agree with Mario. It’s tough enough to admit that the summer is over by the end of August. If he IndyCar season ends as well that makes it even tougher. The winter is long man. The off-season is way too long. I’m a football fan too,but I can always find time to watch an IndyCar race amidst the fall football season. Apparently I’m not the norm. The numbers don’t lie . According to the professionals once football season starts indyCar fans switch off their racing brains. I personally have a hard time believing that. It’s nice to have racing to watch in the fall other than just football. Plus,IndyCar needs to compete with the NASCAR and Formula One schedule that run into mid to late November. I will say that starting the season closer to the Daytona 500 would help energize the fans and appropriately compete with NASCAR Formula One. As far as having an international series in the winter…. I have a hard time believing that’s a realistic endeavor. At the same time however it’s not like the IndyCar teams have a whole lot to do in the off season with a spec chassis. They don’t have to build a car for next year. They just roll the DW 01 into the garage and wait to pull it out in the spring. Engine development is ongoing but let’s be honest not a lot to do during the off-season.

  4. As I have said before, the fear of the NFL is overrated. It’s not as big among everyone as you think. (This comes from a former 20 years NFL season ticket holder of the Bengals so I am a fan). But you can do things to make it less of an issue.

    The season in my opinion should run from late March to the end of October. Indy car should consider running most of their races on Saturday’s (day or evening) to differentiate themselves from NASCAR. After all the NFL did not always play on Sunday. The 500, being a holiday weekend would stay on Sunday. Doubleheaders would have to be on both days. Throw an extra Sunday in here or there if it makes sense. I loved the Brickyard 400 most when it was on Saturday.

    Mario is right on both counts. Its amazing how truly bad these suggestions continue to be from Indycar management.

  5. Mario nailed it on both counts. There is more to life than NFL football. And this comment comes from a Green Bay Packer fan of some 60 plus years.

    IndyCar needs more races in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and Canada. There are vast areas of the U.S. with no races remotely close for fans and potential fans. Someone in the nortwest is not going to become a fan because there is a race on TV somewhere offshore. For example, where can someone in Portland take their kids to see a IndyCar race? IndyCar has priced itself out of most markets.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    In regards to the end of the schedule, I disagree with both Mario and George. Given Indycar’s reported sanctioning fee demands and the fact that they don’t dole out any significant amount of money to promoters from the television contract, I do not think it is a good idea to set arbitrary boundaries on when races can be held. I do not see a reason to extend the season into November or end the season by Labor Day simply for the sake of those dates. Well, not a reason that trumps what is best for the promoter of an event anyways.

    If a fee-paying promoter wants to hold a race after Labor Day, and has good reasons for wanting that (*cough* Fontana *cough*), Indycar ought to listen. After all, there are no television ratings at all without a live racing event taking place.

  7. Chris Lukens Says:

    I’m waiting to see the TV ratings for last Sundays F1 race at COTA. Then I’m waiting for someone to use these ratings to justify why Indycar should race head to head with the NFL.

    I’ve seen reports that COTA had 160,000 fans in the stands last Sunday, so yes, there is a fan base out there to be served. But on that very same Sunday the NFL had approximately ONE MILLION fans sitting in the stands. If you want new eyeballs you don’t try to compete with a juggernaut like that.

    • Chris, with all due respect, the NFL has 32 teams in cities througout the country. The IndyCar series, if you will, is simply one traveling event that currently travels to very few cities. As Billy states above, “there are no television ratings at all without a live racing event”. Better TV ratings for IndyCar or any niche sport requires, IMHO, opportunities for potential fans to see the event live. I became a racing fan because my dad took me to races, races that were close enough to home for us to be able to afford to go. Many football fans, whether collegiate or pro, became fans after attending a live event. Then they remain fans because of long-standing tradition and continuity with a team at the same location year after year. IndyCar, with the exception of Indy, Milwaukee, and a few others, has little continuity. Here for a few years and then gone. IndyCar or any other niche sport cannot “compete” with football, nor does it need to. It needs to find ways to coexist with other sports and create its own unique fan base. Lots of football fans are also racing fans. It is not a either/or thing.

    • I got to disagree with that argument. There weren’t 16 IndyCar races going on at the same time last Sunday were there?

  8. I can’t find fault with the schedule when IndyCar is working to increase ratings and sponsorship income. As for an “international” short schedule, I would like to see how it plays out. I wouldn’t mind watching a midnight race after a day of college football.

  9. First up, I agree 100% with what Mr. Skink said above: TV ratings are not such at this point that IndyCar should be turning away any venue that wants to 1) host a race post-Labor Day and can 2) meet the financial stipulations that IndyCar puts forth to host a race. If a track can justify the cost, what’s the difference between a September race with a 0.2 rating and a July race with a 0.3 rating?

    As for the international schedule, I don’t understand at all what the objections are. IndyCar is looking to use that part of the calendar/globe as a profit center, meaning that no team is going to lose or even spend a penny for doing those races. Here’s the idea: Formula 1 currently charges new tracks somewhere between $20 million and $25 million for the first year of a contract, with a 10% per year escalator (which means that by Year 5 of a deal, they are paying 60% more than they did for Year 1…which is not even close to a sustainable financial model unless you’ve got a local government that believes that there’s no other way to get their region into the global consciousness and is desperate for such a thing to happen). For the tracks that F1 prices out (which are many, and will only become a longer list as Bernie’s contracts go on), it could make a world of sense to spend 10% of what they spend on F1 ($2-3 million would pay all the teams’ freight and expenses, meaning zero required extra outlay for the teams’ sponsors, and that sum would also include IndyCar’s hefty sanctioning fee), and then the track would be in better control of their own financial destiny of the event (for instance, F1 basically only allows race promoters to make money off of ticket sales, event merchandise and event title sponsors; all that plentiful and lucrative trackside signage belongs to F1).

    So, to reiterate, IndyCar and all of the teams will make money if they go overseas (if they can’t make money by going, they won’t go…that’s Mark Miles’s whole point). Teams that have made more money can employ drivers that don’t bring as big a check, or can invest in their own competitiveness, either of which makes for a better series. A sanctioning body that gets huge checks from places that can afford to write them can now accept smaller checks from elsewhere (like, say, Road America, Phoenix, Kentucky, a bunch of other tracks they’d like to go to). Even if said international races pull 0.0 ratings here (the foreign tracks don’t care about that…they just want to sell tickets and sponsorships that are targeted toward their local markets), everybody wins. Everybody makes money. Everybody benefits. What am I missing here?

    • makes sense, geek. but why shouldn’t these races (if indeed someone is willing to pony up the money) count towards the championship?

      • I suppose the thinking there is that by making the international stuff “non-points”, you’re neither kicking off nor wrapping up the championship at an odd hour on foreign soil (one of the main complaints for going to Japan). I’d prefer the races all counted for points, but I don’t really care either way on that point. I just want everybody to be profitable.

  10. James T Suel Says:

    I guess I have to agree with Mario! A mini season , low horsepower and spect cars are not gonna cut it around the world!! Iam a racer the other sports are just a childs games!!

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