Ingram's Flat Spot On Bernard Boulevard by Jonathan Ingram It seems just as well that Tony George was voted out of his post as the chief executive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and as the man in charge of the Indy Racing League. In ...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
It seems just as well that Tony George was voted out of his post as the chief executive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and as the man in charge of the Indy Racing League.
In hindsight, George was the right man to end the split in American open-wheel racing, which started in 1979 when the CART owners established a full schedule under their sanction -- except for the Indy 500. Once the long and expensive war was over, George was not the right man to re-build.
George's objective of putting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in charge of its own destiny was accomplished with large sums of money spent with various rates of success. In the end, the war he formally started by launching the IRL in 1996 was won because he controlled the Speedway -- which is where he began.
Randy Bernard, the new CEO of the Indy Racing League, brings no racing baggage and a lot of sports marketing smarts. In a very short time, he's started sending strong signals that the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to emphasize both the diversity of driving talent and the cars. He's not trying to change the sport as much as change its presentation.
"We have to create more stars and an image for them," he said during the Kansas race week. "What separates us from NASCAR and Formula One is our demographics, as well as the versatility of being the fastest car in the world. NASCAR runs ovals with two non-ovals, and we have a 50-50 split. F-1 is strictly non-ovals. That's what we need to hang our hat on and clarify a consistent marketing image that defines what we're about. And that's the fastest, most versatile car in the world and driver in the world."
After less than three months on the job, Bernard has established the IRL's identity without doubt or compromise. Yes, it's ironic that he did so by creating an intra-season championship for ovals and street/road circuits. But it confirms what these cars and drivers do. Already the advertising from IZOD is underscoring what they do: they go fast.
The old bromide about CART and its marketing approach concerned the fact the PPG Indy Car World Series never really established an entity, because the team owners never decided what the series' identity was supposed to be. They couldn't embrace Indy, because they didn't control it. They couldn't beat Formula One, because they were limited to expanding to ovals outside the U.S. by an agreement fashioned with the FIA during the years CART was directed by Bill Stokkan. Above all, the team owners were always more interested in following the money trail, fooling themselves into thinking that confirmed an identity.
The schedule included races all over the map at all different types of venues without enough continuity from year to year. Date equity was impossible to build for promoters, sponsors and fans, the foundation of a motor racing identity. (If it's Mother's Day weekend, NASCAR must be in Darlington... .) Over time, it was confirmed the Indy 500, where almost all of the CART teams and sponsors and manufacturers eventually migrated back to, was the cornerstone of open-wheel racing's identity in America.
As for Bernard, his timing is as good as his perception. In IZOD, the IRL finally has a major sponsor with some marketing savvy, one that is a good match-up for the series and its promoters. Reunification has been established. Young Americans like Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal have enormous appeal. Dancia Patrick is still on board. New cars and new engines are on their way. Above all, there's no place to go but up for a series whose TV ratings have fallen off the chart.
How Bernard follows through on emphasizing speed on the ovals along with an emphasis of the different types of street and road racing circuits matters a lot. The schedule and ongoing stability are keys. But how the new cars and engines come across at venues like Long Beach and Indianapolis will have to make the message matter. They don't have to be faster than present, but that would be the best way to reinforce the message, especially if the new equipment is also safer and greener.
The racing has always been good and often great in the IRL once the CART/Champ Car teams finally came back to the Indy 500 and the rest of the schedule. The problem came in two parts. CART/Champ Car's lack of an identity whittled the fan base down to a small hard core. And once reunification took place informally and formally, not enough fans came with the teams and drivers. On the other side, George alienated the hard core fans of the IRL who might have followed the sport outside of Indy by pumping so much money into the teams the aficionados doubted the series' reality -- i.e. it was a show jig-sawed into place by dollars. That, too, was an identity crisis.
Bernard faces some challenges along the lines of money-pumping. Are these really the fastest drivers, or the leftovers from South America and Europe who couldn't buy a ride through sponsor connections in F1? Does any Japanese driver compete on merit or on connections to Honda? Who will have the resources to beat the drivers of Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi to a championship? How many of the current teams can sell major sponsorships in the absence of tobacco money?
As recently witnessed in the acquisition of the Shell/Pennzoil sponsorship by the NASCAR team of Roger Penske, sponsors really like the idea of a champion, which makes the new intra-season championships attractive. It might even be enough to keep Patrick in the IRL full-time, because she's capable of winning the oval championship as well as the Indy 500.
Producing more bona fide corporate sponsorships, which of course implies TV numbers, will be the acid test for Bernard. The new oval and street/road circuit championships are a good start.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.