IndyCar Needs All Of Motorsports To Thrive

By now I know many of you have seen the article that ran in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago regarding NASCAR and how the bloom may be off the rose. In fact, the title of the article is a lot more harsh than that – saying that NASCAR has “hit the skids”. A few of you e-mailed the article to me. It’s a good article that not only points out what we already knew about NASCAR’s woes in attendance, sponsorship and ratings – but it goes much further. It digs deep into the schism within the France family that founded NASCAR.

The article also goes into some of the various tweaks (some say gimmicks) that NASCAR has thrown out there to try and reverse a very disturbing trend that has seen NASCAR fall from the 800-pound gorilla in the room just a decade ago, to almost a weekend afterthought.

Some IndyCar fans are almost giddy as they watch the bully that seemingly stole their fans away over the last two decades, now fall flat on their face just as IndyCar did in the nineties. They point to IndyCar as the rare example of a sports entity that actually had rising TV ratings last season over the previous year.

But IndyCar fans might want to think twice before becoming overly jubilant at NASCAR’s troubling trend. If NASCAR falters, does that mean that IndyCar profits? I’m not so sure.

I’ll be the first to admit that I chuckle the loudest every time NASCAR trots out some new gimmick or manufactures unnecessary drama. When their idea of segmented races was announced, I scoffed at it (and still do). But there’s a difference in laughing at some of their desperate gimmicks as opposed to taking joy in their misfortune.

I tend to think that one form of motorsports failing is bad for all of motorsports. NASCAR seemed to enjoy IndyCar’s tumble out of the spotlight in the late nineties. They thought it meant for fans for them. For a while it did.

NASCAR rose in popularity at the same time that IndyCar was falling into obscurity. Then two things happened simultaneously – Fox Sports began broadcasting NASCAR races in 2001 and Dale Earnhardt died before everyone’s eyes in the very first race for Fox. Suddenly, non-race fans tuned into NASCAR races for the first time – possibly out of morbid curiosity. Whatever the reason, those tuning in for the first time in quite a while were also seeing a fresh way to broadcast races that they had never seen before. Consequently, NASCAR exploded overnight.

Suddenly it was cool to be a NASCAR fan. What had previously been a niche sport mostly followed south of the Mason-Dixon line, was now being discussed around water-coolers in every walk of life in all parts of the country. Odd as it seemed, the snooty folks were the ones talking about Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.

In the meantime, IndyCar struggled and scrapped for fans and relevance. The Split was still ongoing> Fans were confused with why there were two open-wheel series. Most of the names they knew drove in a series that did not race in the Indianapolis 500. It was all too confusing. It was easier just to follow NASCAR. They had the stars and their drivers names were more familiar and easier to pronounce. NASCAR was on a roll that appeared to have so much momentum that it could never be stopped.

Fast-forward fifteen years. Those fans that showed up so quickly in 2001, left just as quickly. Sprint also left as a title sponsor. What was hoped to be a $100 million replacement sponsor ended up as a $20 million sponsor they were lucky to get in Monster Energy. Their hard-core fans feel as if they have been jettisoned in pursuit of younger fans.

Now that the fickle fans of a decade ago have left NASCAR, they realize that the hard-core fans have hurt feelings and are now older. There aren’t many in line to take their place as they age and eventually die off. Bill France, Jr. died in 2007 after turning over the CEO reins to his son, Brian in 2003. Since then, gimmick after gimmick has been tried so much that the sport doesn’t resemble what it looked like twenty years ago. And according to the article, Brian and sister Lesa France Kennedy apparently have been feuding for a while on what is the best direction for the series founded by their grandfather in 1947.

In the meantime, IndyCar has slowly but surely built some momentum. The two series reconciled into one in 2008. The Hulman-George had their own differences in the direction of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, culminating with the ouster of Tony George as CEO. After the CEO tenures of Jeff Belskus and Randy Bernard, Mark Miles assumed the role and made some curious moves at first. There are several things that Miles has done that I still don’t agree with, but he has made one move that was brilliant. He hired Jay Frye in 2013 and promoted him as President of Competition after Derrick Walker left following the 2015 season.

It didn’t take long at all for Frye to become the face of the series early in the 2016 season, while Miles works behind the scenes. It seems that more and more big decisions are made by Frye, and they all seem to be the right ones. While Mark Miles may still have the title of CEO, Jay Frye appears to be the man in charge and is leading IndyCar down the right path.

Skeptics say that IndyCar had nowhere to go but up, after dwelling in obscurity for two decades. That’s not true. There was another direction for IndyCar – extinction. Jay Frye has help to stave off extinction and seems to have a plan where the series can actually flourish in the not-so-distant future.

So are IndyCar’s fortunes tied to NASCAR’s problems? In my opinion, no. It’s purely coincidental.

As I said earlier, I tend to be a believer that all boats rise. In my opinion, I think a healthy NASCAR would help fuel the momentum that IndyCar is enjoying right now. Now that NASCAR is ailing, it may not hurt IndyCar – but I think IndyCar would benefit from a healthy NASCAR.

All sports are at a crossroads in today’s environment. Even the mighty NFL is having to rethink ways to entice new fans for the first time. Each sport has its own set of challenges it is facing and they will need to devise a plan on how to deal with it. But if you are enjoying watching NASCAR struggle – don’t. IndyCar needs them to succeed.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “IndyCar Needs All Of Motorsports To Thrive”

  1. It’s far too early to tell how the rule changes will change the appeal of NASCAR to its audience. They are not liked within the racing community because they somewhat mess with the old credo of “To finish first, first you have to finish.” I also think this is controversial. But it still remains to be seen how NASCAR fans react.

    I agree with you, George, that the different motor racing series’ economical performances are somewhat connected to each other because they are all in the same business. And with PIR, Iowa and Watkins Glen, NASCAR-owned venues holding IndyCar events and the NASCAR race at Indy, the two entities are also business partners. It’s been good for the sport that this partnership was re-established in recent years and that both series have realized the more business they do with each other the better because shared events between both series always mean more eyes on both series’ races. The last thing anybody needs would be a series threatening team owners if they want to race in an additional series, which was rumored a while ago.

  2. I became a NASCAR fan originally because of my interest in Indycar and the Indianapolis 500. I was a season ticket holder for the 500 and was part of the first group offered tickets to the Brickyard 400.

    In addition, I had followed Jeff Gordon’s pre-NASCAR career. I remember him being at Pole Day around 1991 or so when he was still looking for a possible ride in Indy car racing. He was actually interviewed over the PA at the track.

    Based on that, and the chance to see another race at the Brickyard, I became a season ticket holder for the Brickyard 400. My interest grew until I was watching races every week and following the sport.

    What really started the downward spiral for NASCAR was the introduction of the chase and the lucky dog. I had friends so angry over those changes that they left even back then. The changes now have reached insane proportions.

    What finally drove me away was NASCAR’s charge into left wing politics over their reaction to the confederate flag. The article you referenced mentioned that this decision was made right before the Daytona 500 without even advising the track owners. NASCAR is still in a lot of ways a southern sport. The majority of their fans do not share the left wing view of the confederate flag. It was like poking your fan base in the eye and insulting them.

    There was a time when businesses would do everything in their power to avoid politics with their customers. Why anger half or more of your fan base? They are not alone. Other sports leagues have also been foolish enough to jump into politics. But this was the last straw between me and NASCAR. I have not watched a race since August 2015. I won’t be watching the Daytona 500 this weekend.

    I agree Indycar needs other racing leagues to thrive. But what can you do when other leagues shoot themselves in the foot?

    How long until St. Petersburg?

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    Building a better mouse trap.

    My mouse trap is better than yours………………. Oh, yah…………………. Prove it ! !

    Perhaps, giving rise the inception of competition and independent thinking .

    Thus, it might be said open wheel racing was born commencing with chariots…………. And with each passing year thereafter improvements ….

    What we see today continues to be classified as “competition” but what has become of independent thinking ? ?

    Independent thinking that is borne under the shade tree ….. And on the test bed of back country roads ? ?

    Independent thinking by each team which is then incorporated into their racing vehicle ? ?

    Independent thinking which allows spectators to root for their favorite ‘underdog ?’

    Said independent thinking that spectators are able to relate to on their every day mechanical level.

    “You cannot go home, “ holds true in this scenario, as well.

    Technology, observed as a genie escaping from its lamp, is a major driving force which has substantiated the ‘You cannot go home’ theory being exhibited.

    While those racing series which have not allowed the genie to escape from the lamp remain with a successful, solid following of participants, supporters & spectators…………………..

  4. After reading the WSJ article what glared out to me was: The economic downturn started NASCAR’s landslide and has only recently, after almost 10 years begun to stabilize.Thanks to the last President, economic stagnation has taken a massive toll on just about everything, and the most significant sufferers are sports. Then came social media which, has brought on a whole new slew of problems, not just for NASCAR fans, but for society in general and now, big surprise, politics (which ruins everything) made its way in with the confederate flag fiasco. Simultaneously, Mrs. France is seeks a more affluent fanbase (old IndyCar fans) by spending $400 million to upgrade and downsize Dayton International Speedway at the the same time, abandoning their base of blue collar rednecks and those fans are responding by abandoning NASCAR. These realities have found their way in to a sport that grew from humble beginnings to a Goliath that has gotten so big that now race tracks, and industries depend on the capital of NASCAR in order to operate and update their facilities. In a lot of ways, is similar to the NFL which NASCAR also competes with, and at the same time capitulates to. The fanbase as a whole is shrinking as everyone tries to unlock the mysteries of the millennial generation and how they wish to be entertained.

    Is this good for IndyCar? After reading the article, no, because NASCAR’s problems are ultimately IndyCar’s problems. IndyCar has a chance to regain the fans they lost but have those fans moved on as well.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    NASCAR has been pushing solutions in search of problems for quite some time. By all accounts, they gather a tremendous amount of data on their fans and what those fans want, but don’t seem to interpret it well. A more simple approach is probably better, and NASCAR has not seemed simple in a long long time.

    It should be noted that NASCAR has publically disavowed the Confederate flag since at least 1994, when they refused to allow the Sons Of Confederate Veterans to sponsor a Ford to be driven by a Texas short-tracker named Gary Wright. I can appreciate that they were in a difficult position, being under pressure to take a stance on it given the public perception of their fan base and the national political situation involving the flag, but they handled it in a very ham-fisted way that pleased no one.

  6. I said when Brian France was given the reins, he would run NASCAR into the ground. I stand by that statement. He is doing a pretty good job of doing so.

  7. I’d like to be more rational about it, but I can’t. NASCAR never did Indycar any favors and I have zero sympathy for their plight. I continue to enjoy watching their decline.

  8. More than anything, I find Nascar races to be too long and really, really boring, particularly the restrictor plate events. Happy to be back here today after emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor. Thinking ahead to Road America.

  9. Brian France is the NASCAR equivalent of Tony George

  10. I ‘d like to see better coverage of all motorsports, not just NASCAR. I don’t wish them ill though. I agree that Jay Frye has been a positive addition to the running of IndyCar. His relationship with ISC has helped broaden our venue selections.

  11. […] and viewing figures. In a recent article, IndyCar blogger George Philips proposed that the decline of NASCAR is ultimately bad for IndyCar and all forms of motor sport in the United […]

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