Do Casual Racing Fans Really Exist?

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This past Friday, I was listening to my usual sports-talk radio show that I’ve been listening to on my way to work for years – The WakeUp Zone on WGKX 104.5 FM – The Zone. Most people evolve with age and deepen their interests in many different areas. I am the exception. I have gotten more shallow with age. Fifteen years ago, I would listen to different types of music, news-talk radio as well as sports-talk. Today my radio pretty well stays parked on this station 24-hours a day. In the not too distant future, I’ll be so shallow there won’t be much left in the pool to drain.

My radio station carries the Indianapolis 500 every year along with selected IndyCar races throughout each season. When IndyCar was racing at Nashville Superspeedway from 2001 through 2008, they did their homework and really did a good job of presenting IndyCar to the local market. It was on this station that Ed Carpenter let slip his infamous “…depending on the time of the month” quote pertaining to Danica Patrick and her style of driving. I found it ironic that more than a decade after that quote from Nashville went viral, she closed out her racing career driving for Carpenter.

Usually sports journalists, who are usually focused on stick-and-ball sports, absolutely botch racing discussions. They are painful to either read or listen to, and it is even worse on the local level. When we were at St. Petersburg this past March for the IndyCar season-opener, I remember catching a local newscast as they attempted to tell what had happened in practice the day before. Names were butchered, information was wrong and it just seemed like a major case of being ill-prepared.

That’s where I’ll speak up for our local station – especially longtime local sportscaster Mark Howard. He will freely admit that racing is not his forte, but he prepares, does his homework and is conversant enough to at least sound like he knows what he is talking about. I’ve been listening to him for years and I’ve never once heard him say something that made him sound like a novice. Since Josef Newgarden came onto the scene, he has really immersed himself into following Newgarden’s career and speaking intelligently on Monday mornings about how Newgarden did the day before. I’ve seen far less racing professionalism from Indianapolis TV stations compared to our local sports-talk down here in Nashville. That’s my plug for 104.5 The Zone.

This past Friday the station was interviewing Kyle Petty, who was in Kentucky to cover last Saturday night’s NASCAR race for NBC. Petty’s late son, Adam, spent a lot of time at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in the last couple of years prior to his tragic death. Petty’s daughter and grandchildren currently live in Nashville, so he is a friend of the morning radio show.

Howard asked Petty about the decline in NASCAR’s TV ratings over the past few years. At first, Petty gave the usual answer that everyone uses to explain away the declining attendance across the board for all sports – crystal clear HD television, high ticket prices, high hotel rooms, more choices, blah blah blah.

But then Petty said something that really caught my ear. He said “…you get down to it, there is no such thing as a casual fan. You’re either a racing fan or you’re not. Football and baseball have casual fans, but there is no such thing as a casual racing fan. How many people flip through and say ‘Oh, there’s a race on’? None. Our fans know when our races are. That’s why our ratings are down because we have lost the hardcore racing fan.”

First of all, I’m not sure I agree with him. Secondly, if he’s right then the NTT IndyCar Series may have a flawed marketing plan.

In my opinion, there are many casual racing fans out there. I’ve talked to many of them. People I work with know I’m a hardcore IndyCar fan. Some know about this site and a few even read it occasionally. Invariably on a Monday after a race, someone will come to me and say they were flipping around and stumbled across the IndyCar race and watched it. My ego is not that inflated enough to think they stopped and watched it just because of me. They had no idea it was on, but were enough of a racing fan to stop and watch the remainder of the race.

I used to be a big baseball fan, but for the last twenty years or so, my interest in baseball has waned. But I’m still enough of a fan that I’ll watch a few innings if I stumble across it – that is, if Susan isn’t in the room. She despises baseball. But I’m in-between being a fan and non-fan.

It’s the same with horse racing. I know very little about that sport and couldn’t tell you the difference between an exacta and a trifecta. But the first Saturday in May always finds me in front of the TV watching the Kentucky Derby. I’ll bet I haven’t missed a running of the Kentucky Derby since the sixties. I’m hit or miss with the other two races that make up the Triple Crown. But do you know how many other horse races I watch on television throughout the year? Zero. But I call myself a casual horse racing fan. Maybe I’m really not, but that’s how I see it.

You can’t tell me that there are not a lot of people out there that make up auto racing’s viewership that watch races that they stumble upon.

But what if Kyle Petty is right and I’m wrong? If that’s the case, IndyCar may need a new marketing strategy. For years, it has seemed as if IndyCar has been courting the casual fan. With free concerts, Ferris Wheels and Kid Zones, it appears that IndyCar hopes to lure people to the track with these other goodies. Then when they get inside the gates, the speed and thrills of IndyCar racing will nab them and turn them into fans for life.

That’s really boiling it down to the simplest of terms, but I think that philosophy is a big part of their marketing plan. I think the casual fan that stumbles on a race while flipping around is another part. So if Kyle Petty is right when he says there is no such thing as a casual racing fan, what does that say for IndyCar’s plan, if that is indeed the way it is?

I am a firm believer that the best way to hook an IndyCar fan is to get them to the track. Most everyone that comes to this site is pretty much a hardcore fan. So think back…what got you hooked?

I know what got me hooked. In 1964, my father took my two older brothers to the Indianapolis 500. They brought back the Official Program and lots of stories. I wanted to go the next year, but my father was not so sure. He thought taking a six year-old may not be the best idea. But I convinced him that it was. A year’s worth of anticipation and hype in my own mind, did not lead to a letdown when Race Day of 1965 arrived. We sat in Stand J. To this day, I remember the site of that colorful field coming around Turn Four on the Parade Lap. It was the most spectacular sight I had ever seen. When they came around in anger to complete the first lap, the speed and the sound was almost too much to even comprehend.

By Lap Two, I was hooked and it has lasted a lifetime. Is my story unusual? I don’t think so. I’ve talked to too many others whose stories are very similar.

Unlike Kyle Petty, I think that casual fans do exist – and in great numbers. The challenge facing the NTT IndyCar Series is identify those casual fans and hitting on the magic formula that turns them from casual fans into hardcore fans. Make no mistake, it’s a tall order.

I won’t get into why I think NASCAR’s ratings are falling, but I don’t believe it has anything to do with the lack of casual fans. I think their problems run deeper than that. While I think that IndyCar is on the right track of trying to get people to the track and then nabbing them – it has to be a lot more than that, and I think IndyCar knows that. I think that some of the new staff that has come on board with IndyCar in the past year can help take IndyCar to the next level from where they are currently.

In February, IndyCar hired SJ Luedtke away from Nike, where she was Senior Brand Manager. While Nike has been criticized of late for their marketing campaigns, there is no denying their place in the business world. They know their marketing targets, and have done a stellar job of capturing the business within their targets. Most of the people they have offended lately don’t buy their shoes anyway (like me – I buy Reeboks).

If Luedtke can apply the same strategy to IndyCar, she just may be on to something. I’ve often thought that IndyCar is trying to be too many things to too many people. At this point, there is nothing wrong with being a niche sport. The idea is to make the niche sport a great sport, before trying to take it mainstream. Horse Racing is a niche sport. Soccer in the US is a niche sport, but some soccer fans will vehemently disagree with me on that. Both would like to be bigger, but for now – they are just trying to be one of the best and biggest niche sports out there. If they grow and become mainstream, it will be organically.

By trying to appeal to so many people for the past twenty years, I feel like IndyCar has failed to appeal to many at all. Only recently have TV ratings seen an up-tick, and that has been in a period of falling TV rating across most sports.

So in my opinion, IndyCar should figure out who they want to target next, no matter how small that target is, and then go out and get them. Once they get them, keep them. So many times, I’ve felt that IndyCar has forgotten and neglected their core in their efforts to snag the casual fan. It’s more work, but they need to keep and nurture the audiences they get. That’s how you grow.

With all due respect for Kyle Petty, and what he and his family have meant to auto racing, but when it comes to his opinion that NASCAR’s woes are tied to the lack of the casual racing fan, I think he is dead-wrong!

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Do Casual Racing Fans Really Exist?”

  1. Of course casual racing fans exist, IMS has about 150,000 of them every Sunday before Memorial Day! 😀

    Honestly though, I side more with Kyle Petty on this one (never thought I’d say that). I think the number of people flipping through channels, see a race on and actually stay and watch the race are extremely small. I live on the northside of Indy, 30 minutes from IMS, wanna know how many people I know around here that follow IndyCar or any kind of racing? Other than my dad, zero. I know two people that go to the 500 every year but they couldn’t name more than a handful of drivers and never watch any other races. I don’t even know anybody who watches NASCAR anymore.

    But this touches on a reason I believe is partly responsible. I’m not sure when it happened but most race broadcasts, especially here in the States, are approached like a “racing for dummies” style where they are constantly explaining all these basic details that real racing fans already know and have known for a long time. We know what loose vs. tight is, we know high downforce means high drag, etc. but so much of the broadcasts are spent explaining that stuff in the hopes of capturing the attention of the casual fan but in effect are turning off the serious fans because we feel like we’re being talked down to. NASCAR is really bad at this, especially the Fox team who spends most of their time talking about anything other than what’s happening on track. Go watch old race broadcasts and they’re constantly describing the action on track and rarely giving a “racing 101” lecture, and those broadcasts are more exciting which makes the series look more exciting which makes people want to watch.

    The current NBC commentary team are about the only ones who don’t do this, or at least not very much. For my money they are by far the best and most entertaining racing commentary team in this country right now. In sharp contrast is the NBC IMSA team which is like Fox, they rarely discuss what’s happening on track and spend most the time chit-chatting about racing in general.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    “You can’t go home…” may be discussed as fitting all motorsports.

    The day of the Shade Tree Mechanic is long since a memory now with computerization driving/in control of your motor car/truck/cycle…… and yes your race vehicle.

    What was once an activity that all could be a hands on participant … that is being involved in repairing (also know as hopping up) your motor, transmission, etc. is but a memory due to computerization…………..

    It has reached the point whereby farmers can no longer trouble shoot a problem with most, if not all, their mechanized field equipment… due to computerization. They are blocked from trouble shooting if there is an engine related problem because they do not have the “code” to utilize which allows them to self-diagnose the cause. They are required to contact their equipment distributor who in turn sends out a field representative (in a day or two if they are available) to troubleshoot the cause and the replacement parts are ordered, etc. All of which causes a mandated delay on the farmer’s part & potential loss of harvesting a crop before it spoils.

    So it is the equivalent scenario for the motorsports fan who was able to relate to the challenges of racing since they were able to trouble shoot their own vehicles and arm chair guess racing equipment failures…….

    A few years ago, I was listening to an interview in which a veteran demolition derby driver was lamenting the demise of demolition derby racing………. He mentioned that the supply of older durable cars to use in demolition derbies was diminishing since the current vehicles with their plastic & fiberglass components were not suitable (aka durable) for demolition derbies.

    So the old saying you cannot go home is substantiated once again….. the motorsports fan of the era prior to the 1980’s enshrined in a museum ……Soon to be joined in museums with exhibits displaying paper newsprint…… paper page print books,,,,,,,,,,,,,, pay phones…… and perhaps even a typical display of a race commentator – a Robin Miller manikin … race commentators replaced as onboard race car/motorcycle computers continually communicate race activity directly to your hand held phone, or implanted receiving device, or whatever it may then be called…..

    A race fan ……………. What is that ? ?

  3. Jack in Virginia Says:

    I disagree completely with Kyle Petty. I consider myself a casual racing fan. I always watch the Indianapolis 500, either in person or on TV. I will occasionally watch other races, if it’s not a pretty day and I have no other activities planned. I am in no way a hard-core fan. But I’m still a fan.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I would agree that casual racing fans exist, but they exist in the way that they do for horse racing, golf, or tennis. They are most apt to tune into or go to big events (Indy, Daytona, etc.). Casual stick-and-ball sports fans, while often more interested in big playoff matchups, are more apt to tune into “average” or regular season events. This, of course, is my unverified opinion.

    I do think auto racing often struggles to pull in casual fans at the numbers of some other sports too because attending or even watching a race on television requires a relatively large commitment of time and because the sport is relatively complicated compared to most others. Yes, the idea behind “finish all of the laps before anyone else” is quite simple, but following the narrative of pit stops, cautions, strategies, and penalties is not. Some other sports have their complicated elements too (football, for example), but most of those have permeated American culture to a point where casual fans either already understand the complicated elements or can easily find someone who can explain them.

    • ^ This, especially that last part about how most everyone kinda already knows the basics of stick-and-ball stuff so they can latch on to a random game easier or easily find someone to explain it to them. Racing is not as black & white with that stuff, it takes a minute to explain what “offsides” is in football but you could spend the whole afternoon trying to explain fuel strategies.

  5. regarding Petty, he is on to something.
    his evaluation is part of a marketing equation.
    compare to Cable TV. they wanted NEW or
    “casual” customers and the current customers
    were in the rear-view mirror. cord-cutting was
    the result. old saying: to retain a customer
    is 10X cheaper than to find a new one.

  6. Carburetor Says:

    I know numerous people who follow the Indianapolis 500, but not so much the full series–much like you, George, with your Kentucky Derby habit.

    It is always interesting to hear your “start” in the racing fan world with your experience in 1964. I consider myself an avid open-wheel racing fan, yet have never seen the 500 in person. I’ve only missed two broadcasts of the 500 since 1960, when as a young boy I asked my father what he was listening to on the big Signature 4-band console radio and he informed me “it was the greatest auto race in the world.” Even as a little kid that was enough to intrigue me–I asked him who he was rooting for–Eddie Sachs was his favorite, but he said he thought this young fella named Foyt might amount to something. Later, we had the Unsers as home-town favorites. I’ve been fortunate to visit many races at PIR in Phoenix, the Denver street race, and a couple at Texas Motor Speedway. I’ve visited IMS several times on non-race events, and always have had people interested in my photos and the history of the race.

  7. Talón de Brea Says:

    Petty’s comments are interesting — but agree or disagree, we should probably factor in that he’s an ultimate insider. That doesn’t make his opinions any more or less valid, but it probably has an effect, one way or another … with his particular life experience, it is probably very difficult for him to identify with a channel surfer who catches only part of a race.

    I’ve come to think that people in general — casual fans or otherwise — have trouble understanding or at least caring about the concept of a series . The big “name” and “destination” races — especially those where camping is possible or there is more than three hours of action — seem to be hanging in there as virtual standalone events, one race here, one race there … but the “other” races that make up a season’s schedule, not so much.

    Maybe most significant to me is that racing as we currently enjoy it no longer has — maybe even cannot possibly have — the traditional “Barney Oldfield” or “daredevil” appeal of boundary-pushing with the general public, because to many it’s a retro or throwback form of entertainment in a marketplace overcroded with various forms of entertainment.

    How could the current cars be relatable to the hybrid in the driveway? Why would young people less interested in driving or working on their own vehicles care about drivers driving and cars viscerally tearing through space at a race track? How can some race-going experiences match the broadcast experience for cost, comfort and convenience? And then when factoring in the rapidly changing delivery models for “broadcasts,” the issue is complicated further.

    I’m becoming resigned to thinking that “loud” internal combustion racing might become a higher-end form of historic or vintage racing — a racing equivalent of Civil War re-enactments. Maybe it’s a case such as people having wanted to work for or ride the railroad in years past, whereas now only a small niche collects model railroad equipment, builds little “private railroads,” and posts on forums about the rewarding experience.

    If that’s what it has come down to, I can live with that. But I hope there’s a way forward that I can’t see at this time.

  8. There may still be a few casual fans of the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500, but beyond that Mr. Petty is absolutely correct. But both Indy car and Nascar have made it difficult for casual fans to take interest. Nascar with their ridiculous rule changes. IndyCar with its love affair with street and road courses and formula related drivers. In my personal experience, I run into fewer race fans than I ever have in my life. I know quite a few ex-fans who were dedicated fans who have just had enough. Both series, but especially Nascar today, is losing dedicated long term fans, not just casual fans. This is definitely worse. The casual fan is already non-existent except for each series top race.

    I first became interested in racing watching the old Phoenix 150 on TV which was in April when I was ten years old. That led me to watch my first Indy 500 in 1970 and I have been a fan ever since. I think that is why the loss of Phoenix following the losses of Milwaukee and Kentucky have been such a bitter blow to me.

    It’s just my opinion, of course, but I don’t think road and street courses are going to win IndyCar much of a fan base, dedicated or casual. I am also a big horse racing fan and I always compare thoroughbred racing to oval racing. And road/street course racing to harness racing. I love thoroughbred racing. I tolerate harness racing at best.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    A “casual racing fan” is a channel flipper who stumbles on a automobile race and continues to watch because it is live and to avoid mowing the grass or household chores.

  10. madtad1 Says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party but I’ve had some…issues…

    My take is a little different. It’s not that everyone is casual or hardcore I think it’s a blending. Lemme explain.

    Let’s take an average IndyCar fan, we’ll call him George for simplicity. George is all IndyCar, reads all the blogs, news, press releases, etc and is considered very knowledgeable. He likes going to every race, if he could. However, there is the “Honey” issue, as in “oh honey you’re not going to take me and the kids off to another IndyCar race this weekend? You know the kids [i mean me] find it boring.” **

    This is the type of “Casual” fan that the rides, booths, fun zones, etc are being created for: the ones who aren’t passionate about the racing drama. You have to throw a bone or a party to bring them to the show so they have something interesting to them that then can help direct their interest to the racing. I think the drivers do a marvelous job of this by being so open and available to the fans. By making the race somewhat like an old county fair you can do this for the possibly less than interested families.

    **No reference to any person I know 😃

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