The Firestone 550 at Texas has started a lot of conversation in the motorsports world.
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?
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 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.