Appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator

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While they are an inevitable part of racing, most hardcore fans of the NTT IndyCar Series don’t like to see crashes. While yellow flags sometimes spice up the show, I think most true fans would prefer that caution periods did not come at the expense of crash damage or worse.

For years, ABC/ESPN and now NBC have run promos for upcoming races showing spectacular crashes. We fans cringe when we see them, but we put up with it because we know that they are trying to get casual fans to tune in to check out all of the “action”.

Personally, I would love to see every race go caution-free. I don’t like to see struggling team-owners incur expensive repair bills. More importantly, I don’t like to see drivers exposed to potentially harmful situations. How many times have we witnessed what looked like a simple brush against the wall, end up sidelining a driver for one or more races because they broke a thumb, hand or wrist due to the fact they held onto the steering wheel a little too long.

Even worse is when we see a crash happen on live TV, when you fear the absolute worst. When Ryan Briscoe had a spectacular crash on the final lap at Fontana, it looked very bad – meaning a possible fatality. I cannot tell you the sense of relief I felt when he crawled out of the wreckage uninjured. Sixteen years earlier, I had watched an IndyCar race at the same track. Driver Greg Moore was not as lucky.

If you’ve followed this sport long enough, you know that no crash is a laughing matter. That’s why the long-term fans feel uncomfortable seeing the networks use violent crashes to sell the sport. We feel as if they are trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but we’ve grown to accept it in the quest for new fans.

Unfortunately, celebrating crashes has become a new practice by an organization that should know better – the IMS Museum.

I was unaware of this until a friend of mine texted me about it earlier this week. It seems that whoever is in charge of the museum’s social media accounts, thought it would be a good idea to roll out something called #CrashMonday, where the museum highlights a spectacular crash every Monday on their social media accounts.

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The IMS Museum is separate from IMS. I’m probably wrong on this, but my understanding is that Penske Entertainment owns the building, but not the collection nor the entity itself. It is a nonprofit that operates independently of IMS. If any of that is incorrect, I won’t take offense if someone corrects me.

The museum used to go by the name IMS Hall of Fame Museum, but it changed to the current IMS Museum in 2016. That may or may not have coincided with some type of new nonprofit designation. That sounds true, but in all honesty – my memory is a little fuzzy on that.

One thing that is very clear is my dislike of their #CrashMonday feature. In all honesty, I find it to be very cheesy, and I’m more than a little surprised they chose to go this route. But if I look at recent history, I’m not sure that I should be that surprised.

For the past few years, it seems like the IMS Museum has morphed from a prestigious organization trying to preserve motor racing history, to what seems more akin to a used car lot. It wasn’t that long ago that admission to the museum was $3.00. It was the best bargain in town. A few years ago, it jumped to $5.00. That didn’t bother me, because it was still a bargain. In 2019, the price had jumped to $10.00. I wasn’t sure of the timeline, but it seemed like the price had tripled over about a five-year period. This past May, it cost me $15.00 to go into the museum.

It also seems like they have their hand out for everything. I am on their e-mail distribution list and they seem to constantly be asking for donations. They made some personnel changes a couple of years back, letting go of some that knew the history and loved the Indianapolis 500; in favor of younger staff members, who seemed to know very little about the track and/or the event – and that is probably being kind. Instead, they are presented as marketing experts.

Many might actually be in favor of their aggressive marketing approach for what seems like one fundraiser after another. I have also heard they have sold off some of their collection, just to raise cash. The question is, are they struggling to keep their head above water, or are they stockpiling as much cash as a nonprofit is allowed to? I don’t pretend to know the answer.

The IMS Museum needs a major remake. Some say they should blow it up and start over. I do know that if they need a blueprint on what a museum should look like in 2021, the Barber Museum would be a good place to start. It makes the IMS Museum seem even more dated than it already does.

But as smarmy as some of their marketing tactics have been, I feel like the IMS Museum has reached a new low with #CrashMonday. Celebrating spectacular crashes is not the same as showing incredible touchdowns or home run blasts. These are not what true racing fans want to see. We like to see memorable passes and victory lane celebrations. In short, we like seeing the thrill of victory, not the agony of defeat.

Nothing makes my skin crawl more than to hear someone say they only watch racing to see the crashes. I’ve spent decades trying to tell anyone who says that how wrong that is.

As far as the general public knows, the IMS Museum and IMS are one in the same. We know they are separate entities, but in the public’s eye – there is no difference. This gives the impression that The Speedway is trying to cash in on the sensationalism of spectacular crashes. So far, it appears that they are only spotlighting crashes where the driver walked away. I hope they draw the line of decency there.

Am I making too much of this? Is this now the way all of racing should be promoted, and I’m just mired in some time-warp where things were once held to a higher standard?

Perhaps that’s the case, but I still find it bothersome that an organization charged with preserving and protecting motor racing history, should stoop so low as to try and market themselves to the lowest common denominator. Maybe that’s just me.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator”

  1. You are 100% correct!

  2. Jack Phillips Says:

    George, I always wondered if my fear of racing crashes was due to the fact that my very first race with the 1964 Indianapolis 500, where I was sitting with my father and older brother (our little brother was forced to stay home, being too young, as you well remember). We were in Stand J, and the McDonald-Sachs crash happened right in front of us. We could feel the heat of the fire, and I was sick at my stomach knowing that two men had died right in front of me. That was the first time in my life I ever saw somebody die, and I didn’t like it.

    Ever since, I have never liked to see a crash, even though improvements like the SAFER barrier have made racing significantly less dangerous. It still is probably the most dangerous sport in the world. Crashes are part of racing, but they should be downplayed, not glorified. Good racing is watching a talented driver keeping his car right on the edge of losing control, but still making it do what he wants it to do.

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    History or the almighty dollar?

    The dollar ! !

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I would agree that the concept behind the #CrashMonday feature seems pretty tasteless, though I think the Museum’s execution of the concept rises (slightly) above that. Crashes are not fun to see or revisit, but I do believe that part of racing’s appeal is that drivers risk being involved in such frightening incidents every time they hit the track. So too can examining crashes be edifying, to see how the sport has evolved and found ways to make crashes less likely and/or less injurious. I will give the Museum credit for the fact that the second part of the tweet screenshot posted here mentions how modern Indycars are equipped with devices that largely prevent wrecks like Crawford’s. That said, I’d be happier to see #CrashMonday disappear.

    While I am sure keeping dozens (hundreds?) of antique racing cars in working order is an expensive task, the price increases are indeed quite steep, and they now offer wildly non-traditional things like basement tours and high-priced track laps that let you out to kiss the yard of bricks. I do wonder if these price increases may have coincided with a reduction in donations from the Hulman family as they divested of Clabber Girl and other things during the 2010s, but that is complete unfounded speculation on my part.

    The name change away from “Hall of Fame” museum seems to have simply been a rebranding done ahead of the 100th running. The Museum’s operating foundation has been a 501(c)(3) non-profit since 1959.

  5. George,

    I’m nearly with you, and please forgive my attempt at nuance on the internet (always a losing proposition, ha):

    For my own personal enjoyment and preference now, I’m 100% with you. Now that I’m 36 and have my own young children like many drivers, I have seen just how mangled a body can be at those speeds and many have unfortunately paid the ultimate price. I just don’t need or want to see wreck highlights anymore.

    However, it was the ’90s era “Delta Force” intros by Paul Page that hooked my younger self on racing (“Geez, these guys really are modern gladiators!”) – and the above Jim Crawford wreck often featured prominently in those features. I was born in 1985, first race was ’95, so I didn’t have a personal experience with the earlier, more lethal, years of racing. It really was part of the allure for me when I first started watching more than the 500 – not that I wanted to see one, but the nervous excitement of knowing what was possible yet these racers were out there inches apart at 230+ anyway.

    Not that it is right or good, but featuring the incredible speeds and wrecks really did grab me as a new young fan.

  6. Mark Wick Says:

    I remember that crash well. I was on the green stand that race observers used on race day, and I was very surprised when the sliding car just jumped into the air right in front of me. I got a photo of the car with the Speedway water tower showing under it. I think it was 1975 when I got a sequence of rookie Eddie Miller flipping end over end inside the south chute, and landing upside down right in front of the infield bleachers. After turning in my film to Associate Press, I spent an hour or so just sitting in my truck debating with myself whether I ever wanted to risk seeing anything like that again. Even though, for years, a significant part of my income came from photographing track incidents, I didn’t like to, and still don’t like seeing crashes. I also came to realize that if race cars just kept going around the track with the greatest consequence being that a driver doesn’t win the race, it would be easy for anyone to think we can all do that, so why pay to watch people do what we can do. Without crashes, would enough people pay attention for anyone to be able to pay the necessary bills to race?

  7. Drivers are not crash test dummies. Instead, they are both human beings and skilled athletes. The tagline of “Crash Monday” seems to disregard that fact in a rather big way. It’s not a good idea to promote the sport at all. I can only guess James Hinchcliffe would feel the same about that topic. He did crash on a Monday.

  8. I always cringed during the intro to Wide World of Sports with its “agony of defeat”. It is the same with any race crash. The cars are much safer than they were even 10 years ago, but there is no guarantee. It was such a relief when Romain Grosjean was able to extricate himself from his burning car last year.

    I still mourn the deaths of Dan Wheldon in Vegas and Justin Wilson in Pocono (I was there). It is a blessing that Hinch and Sebastian were able to come back from their horrific crashes at Indy. And I am very sorry that Robert Wickens is still in a wheelchair.

    Glorifying crashes just seems too carny for me. Sure they look exciting, but …

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