In the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson plays a womanizing advertising executive accidentally gifted with the ability to read women’s thoughts. This allows him to tailor his advertising proposals to a core female demographic that had eluded him. If only the elite at INDYCAR and IMS had the same gift. The Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway certainly sparked debate on not only the core demographic, but also on the product itself. The issue facing the IZOD IndyCar Series could be made into a movie: What IndyCar Fans Want.

In an interview with Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star published on June 10, Mark Miles, Hulman & Co. CEO, acknowledged that the Indianapolis 500 needs to provide more entertainment during the month of May than is currently offered. Whether that means more on-track activity, concerts, or other entertainment options was not clear. What was clear is that something needs to change to attract more fans to the venue. The rub is determining exactly what those changes need to be. It is also clear that the racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series suffers from a similar public perception issue. What do IndyCar fans really want?

Mark Miles
Mark Miles

Photo by: Anne Proffit

One type of IndyCar fan abhors the fact the series has spec cars. This fan absolutely knows the solution is to open up development. This open development would allow the teams with the most money to spend their way to victory. In the good old days of packed venues, these rich teams dominated the podium race after race, often winning by wide margins with only two or three cars on the same lap. In this fan’s mind, it makes perfect sense. If the series goes back to the way it was, then the crowds will follow. This post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) argument connects crowds to differentiation. Of course, running all the small teams out of the series because they cannot afford to be competitive in the current economy may not be the best course of action.

Another category is the hard-core fan. The mantra is always the same. If everyone worshiped at the altar of history, and the series and IMS promoted how wonderful the roadsters were, then fans would flock to see the modern incarnations of Bill Vukovich and Wilbur Shaw. I fit in this category, and as much as I love the timeline of auto innovation that the history of IndyCar racing gives us, it is not enough to interest a new generation of fans not weened on the car culture of my youth. Cars may be cool to them, but the history of cars is not. History is full of martyrs who were willing to sacrifice all to prove a point. The hard-core fans need to open their eyes and see that neither history nor martyrdom will save the series.

Lets not forget the fan who says the series almost has it right. We just need a few tweaks here and there. If only aero kits were adopted, then it would create a difference, both aerodynamically and aesthetically, that the fans would love without breaking the bank for the teams. The downside could be racing like we saw at Texas Motor Speedway recently when Helio Castroneves had a lead of half a lap with no competition. Now that’s racing like it used to be: a few cars on the lead lap with very little passing for the lead. Derrick Walker, the new president of competition for the IZOD IndyCar Series, just tweaked the aero rules a little bit at Texas and changed the racing completely. These fans need to remember the law of unintended consequences.

A fan
A fan

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Some fans and owners say that all the series needs is a better TV package with more enthusiastic announcers. They believe the broadcast partners need to promote the venues, TV productions, and the series better. Maybe the movie Turbo with its action figures and video games will be the catalyst that brings more viewers to the broadcasts and allows IndyCar to reach a new demographic. Without a doubt, the TV ratings drive investment in the series.

A set of fans believe that races need carnival barkers, amusement rides, and the assorted freaks and geeks that go along with this. Maybe it is the local promoters who need to succeed for the series to grow. If the races make money for the promoter, then the series can worry more about the myriad of other issues that it faces. Even though the racing in the series is as good as it has ever been, the consumer at the venue demands to be entertained at all times.

Another fan screams that it is all about the future. This fan says find out what someone needs to become a new fan and do that thing, tradition be damned. They use the quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” IndyCar has certainly had plenty of that.

The movie What Women Want follows a typical romcom storyline. Mel Gibson’s character acts selfishly, loses true love, repents, and gains the love of his life. Like most movies of this genre, it has a predictable happy ending. The saga of the IZOD IndyCar Series may not have the same story arc. Mark Miles, who seems to understand that change is needed, has not been given the gift to know what all IndyCar fans, current and future, are thinking, yet he must decide the course of the series for years to come based on his perceptions. After he is through with the fans, maybe he can figure out what the owners, drivers, sponsors, and TV partners want. If he can do that, then the Academy Award is his.

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