Give Race Fans What They Really Want

One of the common laments for fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series over the past few years has been dwindling attendance at ovals. Series officials and race promoters have been scratching their collective heads trying to figure out how to get more fans to attend oval races, which make up the DNA of Indy car racing.

While they have taken the topic to focus groups and high-priced business consultants, they’ve apparently not asked hard-core race fans what it would take to get them to attend oval races, like they do road and street courses.

Some theorize that the non-ovals draw better due to street courses being in large metropolitan areas. OK, I’ll buy that for street courses, but what about the road courses in remote locations like Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (Road America) and Lexington, Ohio (Mid-Ohio). They aren’t exactly in bustling cities, yet fans will drive for hundreds of miles for a race weekend there. Barber Motorsports Park is a big draw, but it’s only about fifteen miles from downtown Birmingham – so that’s not a good example.

I’ve attended every IndyCar race at Barber since the series started running there in 2010, and every race since the series returned to Road America in 2016. I even went to the debacle at NOLA in 2015. Aside from going to the Indianapolis 500 each year, I have attended IndyCar oval races at Nashville, Charlotte, Gateway and Pocono. I don’t say this to brag about my travels, but to demonstrate that I have witnessed these events firsthand and I’m not just spouting off based on observations from my couch at home.

Why do some venues attract fans and others don’t? Is it the location? Is it the attractiveness of the facilities at the track? What is it that determines whether or not fans show up? Many fans have their theories and I have mine.

There are two common threads that run through the successful events and those that are struggling. Both involve giving race fans their money’s worth – with emphasis on the words race fans.

First of all; unless the race is on a Saturday night – give fans a three-day weekend. Except for Indianapolis, weekends for oval racing have been reduced to two over the past few years. Many of us travel great distances to go to races. If I’m going to go to the trouble of taking off from work, driving (or flying) and getting a hotel – I want to make it worth my while. When IndyCar races at Pocono Raceway, it’s a two-day show. I’ve been there for the last two years and while I love going there, I wish there was something going on Friday. It was the same at Iowa a few weeks ago. The first IndyCar practice was Saturday morning, then qualifying that afternoon and then a final practice late afternoon.

Racing fans want to see racing, and lots of it. A couple of practices, a qualifying session on Saturday and the race on Sunday is not enough to bring fans great distances.

At least with Iowa, there was other track activity – which brings me to my second point.

The Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park has three full days of track activity. From 8:00 am until just before dark, there is track activity from the various support series Whether it’s the Continental tire series, the MX-5 Cup Series, the Mazda Road to Indy, the Verizon IndyCar Series or whatever – there is no time in the three-day weekend when there is not some type of race cars on track, be it practice, qualifying or races.

It’s even more intense at Road America. Some of the lower series actually start their practice sessions on Thursday at Road America. The days are also longer at that time of year. Practically from sunup to sundown, you can find racing going on from Thursday through Sunday on the IndyCar race weekend at Road America. There is even a sports car race on Sunday after the IndyCar race.

To me, that’s why Pocono struggles. Not only is the event only a two-day show; it’s also only an IndyCar show. No other series is there. Indy Lights doesn’t run at Pocono, nor does any other part of the Mazda Road to Indy. There is no NASCAR Truck Series, no ARCA or anything else. Race fans get a Saturday morning practice, a qualifying session and a late Saturday afternoon practice. On Sunday, they get the 500-mile race.

While the racing is good at Pocono and I love going there, there is a lot of down time. The Saturday morning practice usually goes from 8:00 until 9:00. Then qualifying is around 1:00. What does the general public do in that four-hour span? Sit in the sun and bake? If they spent the bucks for a garage pass, they can meander through the garage area and watch the crews work on the cars or maybe catch a glimpse of the drivers riding through on their scooters. After qualifying, the fans have to kill a few more hours before that final practice. Even the most hard-core fan might be hard-pressed to show up under those circumstances if they can’t afford the garage pass.

The thing is, there are no concerts or non-racing activities at Road America or Barber. I doubt that Mid-Ohio offers a concert either. They don’t have to. The entertainment is the racing. That’s why the people are there – for the racing. The promoters know that their crowds are die-hards and they promote their races for the die-hards. They don’t waste time or money promoting to the casual fan, which all racing series seem to covet.

I get it that the Indianapolis 500 caters to casual fans. They can afford to and need to. When you have to sell out or come close to selling out your gigantic venue every year, you have to attract those that are only mildly interested or care more about the party aspect than the actual race.

This is strictly my opinion and many of you will probably disagree with me, but I maintain that race tracks need to cater to race fans. That sounds very simplistic, but many tracks and promoters have gotten away from that model and made things complicated. They schedule pre-race and/or post-race concerts, while some even have a mini-amusement park in the infield. While that sounds nice to some, I always found it irritating to go to a race that had a concert blaring in the background, usually featuring a band you’ve barely heard of.

When IndyCar raced in Nashville, they felt the need to provide a lot of music – I suppose trying to live up to the name Music City. They had a band playing in the parking lot outside the stands as the crowd was arriving and then a later concert on the actual track just before the race. I cared nothing about it, but found it very loud and annoying as we wandered around the infield paddock before the race.

I like a concert and good music as much as anyone. When I want to go to a concert, I’ll buy tickets to one and go. When I’m at the concert, I don’t really want them to create distractions to draw my attention away from the reason I’m there – to watch a concert. When I’m at a race track, I like to focus on racing – a lot of racing.

I’m curious as to why there are no support races at Pocono. I don’t know why the Mazda Road to Indy doesn’t race there, but they don’t – at least they didn’t for the past two years when I was there. I don’t know if the track is too big for USF200 or Pro Mazda, but surely Indy Lights could race there since they race in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Don’t get me wrong – I love going to Pocono and it’s killing me that my work schedule won’t permit me to go this year. But I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of race fans who live within a few hours of Pocono Raceway that don’t go to the IndyCar race weekend due to the sparse schedule. NASCAR is racing at Pocono this weekend. Along with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the Camping World Truck Series is racing there as well as ARCA. Fans will get to see all three series have practice, hold qualifying sessions and race. That’s a whole lot of track activity. That gives fans a reason to come and stay for the three-day weekend. The IndyCar weekend lasts only two days. The on-track activity will feature Indy cars and…well, just Indy cars.

Race fans want to see racing, and not gimmicks. I think all racing series today make a mistake of catering too much to casual fans. Yes, they need to recruit new and younger fans in order to survive and grow. But I also feel that promoters and series officials can go too far and end up alienating the hard-core fans that have been supporting their series for decades. We don’t want to give up track activity for concerts and Ferris Wheels. Both would be great, but if I have to choose in order to protect the bottom line of a track – I’m going to opt for more racing on the track.

Road America has no gimmicks and they had a near-record crowd last month. I’m willing to bet that there will be no gimmicks at Mid-Ohio this weekend, and all indications are that they are expecting a healthy turnout. A glance at this weekend’s schedule shows no less than five different racing series will be on-track at Mid-Ohio this weekend. The MX-5 Cup, USF2000, Pro Mazda, Indy Lights and the Verizon IndyCar Series will all be sharing track time. That gives fans three full days of track activity going from roughly 8:00 to 5:30, all three days. That’s what fans want to see and that’s why they will be at Mid-Ohio this weekend. That’s also why they won’t be at Pocono less than a month from now.

Officials from Pocono and IndyCar will be wringing their hands over the next couple of weeks, wondering why tickets aren’t selling for Pocono. It won’t be due to the remote area, or that there isn’t a concert scheduled or that the date changed. It will be because the real race fans – the backbone of the fan base – have not been given what they want, which is more racing over three days and not just two.

Am I over-simplifying this? Probably. If I had all the answers, tracks and series officials would be banging my door down – and they’re not. But it sure seems like a common sense approach that if you’re trying to attract race fans, maybe the best thing to give them is more racing. But what do I know?

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Give Race Fans What They Really Want”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    They’ve explained why the MRTI series isn’t at more ovals. Something to do with they want to ease the guys into ovals, so the bottom series has only one or two ovals, the next rung up adds one more, Indy Lights adds another. Ovals have more potential for big crashes which means higher costs for the teams and they want to minimize that while at the same time letting the drivers get used to ovals a little bit at a time. The bottom two rungs probably couldn’t run at Pocono because they’d be hitting the limiter most of the time. And watching half a dozen Indy Lights cars on that big track would be rather un-exciting.

    I’ll disagree on the last point though, I contend that REAL race fans will attend the race regardless of how packed (or not) the schedule is. If I was within a couple hours of Pocono or any of these other ovals I would attend every year even if it was only IndyCars and all packed into a one day event. REAL race fans want to be at a race track no matter how many or few series are there that weekend. That’s why I go to IMS for almost every event they have throughout the year, and why I’m going to Gateway for my second year in a row, there’s very few things I’d rather be doing than spending my day at a race track.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    My wife and I go to Indy every year and have been to Road America for the last three years. We go for one day and not the 3 days of racing. We do other things on Saturday and the then the Indycar race in Sunday. So more racing would help with us.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – Wondering if it would be worthwhile for you to go to the source and report back to us ? ?

    Why not contact Pocono directly and ask them:

    1. Why there is only one race activity (Indycars)?

    2. Why isn’t there Friday track activity?

    3. What would it take to have Friday activity by another motorsports club?

    I have often thought back to the 1960’s & 1970’s, that it would be more competitive once again if teams were not restricted/limited to a certain allocation/amount of fuel per ‘race.’

    Why not allow teams to actually race with no allowance limit of fuel allocation per race car?

    Perhaps, we might possibly see more competitive racing ? ?

    But then the powers to be have been in a rut low these many years and change……………

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I do think this is part of the equation for increasing attendance at struggling and oval events, but only part of the equation. More on-track activity is a sure selling point for die hard race fans, but my observations at Indycar races at ovals, road courses, and street tracks have told me that crowds seem to grow exponentially when the “main event” is on track from when an undercard series is running. This tells me that many, if not most, people who come to the track are doing it for the main series or main race. I do like the idea of increasing on-track activity, but I do not think it is the only or even the primary solution to attendance woes at certain venues.

    In regards to bringing in more on-track activity, ovals, especially large ovals, do face a serious challenge in having fewer racing series willing to compete on them than road and street tracks do. Outside of Indy Lights at IMS, the only series that run on 1.5 mile+ ovals are ARCA and NASCAR’s 3 national series. Even on shorter ovals, much of the available undercard series are NASCAR-affiliated and may be tied to other NASCAR events or tracks (USAC largely leaving pavement does not help). So too, when it comes to Indycar, many fans, even those who very much like oval racing, are not especially interested in the stock car scene.

    One thing that appears to have had success paired with Indycar and can operate on large ovals (well, they only use part of them) is the Stadium Super Truck series. They have been with Indycar at Texas the past few years and have been pretty well-received. They have done a good job retaining much of the crowd for their post-Indycar race contest. At the very least, they should be considered for a trip to Pocono.

    And in fairness to Pocono, they are providing a race that is generally the longest or second longest on the schedule by a fair margin in terms of time on track (well, and distance too). So there is some additional value there over most other races. Still, it would be better if there were additional racing events on the schedule.

  5. S0CSeven Says:

    I went to the Michigan 500 Nascar thing once and for a number of reasons (like the 3.5 hour parking lot exit) I would never go back. But I must say this, our tickets were from an old fan who had the same seats for years ………. but this year, the entire grandstand we sat in was totally bought out by Pennzoil and everybody but us had yellow hats. That’s thousands of seats.
    I expect that the days of companies buying scads of free tickets are a thing of the distant past and that just MAY be why the race fans turned up in the first place. … because it was free.

    On another note, I agree with your assesment on supporting series but you’re preaching to the choir here. My observation is that I’m the only one in the stands for support series practice, qual & race. Everyone else has gone walkabout. Same thing in Formula 1.

  6. They need to pack the schedule with things to keep people busy. Ovals, as far as I can remember, they don’t have as many feeder series races. Indy Lights even runs double header races on some of the road courses but can’t get to some of the ovals? The feeder series need to be well represented at the oval races.

    Also the issue with ovals, there isn’t as much to do because the grounds are smaller. There isn’t an oval in the world other than Indy, with the room to move around like you get at RA.

  7. I thought Pocono in person was an amazing track. I was fascinated with the three distinctively different turns. However. not having much on track was disappointing. I enjoyed the surrounding area and hope to return someday.

  8. Carrie LaRue Says:

    Three days? Bad idea. Because of work, and a 2-day drive, I could manage two days at Mid-Ohio. I missed two practices and the autograph session. I felt cheated. This isn’t my primary time for vacation.

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