Why IndyCar needs proactive fans to revive its mass appeal

The Verizon IndyCar Series will only attract new followers when hardcore fans vote with their feet and help create an atmosphere that projects each race as a spectacular, must-see event, writes David Malsher.

Do you remember what first got you hooked on motorsport? Can you pin it down to one event, or was it a gradual process? I tend to ask competitors those questions when I first interview them, but they’re often unsure, or come up with predictable variations on the theme of, “Well, my dad put me in a go-kart when I was eight.” Fans’ replies are usually more interesting, because they can pinpoint the race, the year, and the reason they became addicts.

In my case, maybe the seeds were sown in 1978 when I was given a sweater bearing an image of Niki Lauda’s ’77 championship-winning Ferrari 312T2, in ’79 when I envied my friend for his beautiful 1:18 scale Mario Andretti Lotus 79 which doubled as a radio (so cool), or 1980 when I started occasionally watching races on TV, and decided that soon-to-be F1 champion Alan Jones and soon-to-be 500cc motorcycle runner-up Randy Mamola were my favorites.

But it was two years later, when I saw a heavily delayed highlights reel of the 1982 Indianapolis 500, that I first discovered that racing can leave you catching your breath with tension and tingling with excitement – despite already knowing the outcome of the narrowest winning margin (to that point) in 500 history. What made that race so very special was that it was the first time I’d heard spectator reaction almost drown out the sound of the racing engines; there was a searing headrush of noise as the fans either willed Gordon Johncock to hang on to the lead, or urged Rick Mears to catch him. Even if you’d eliminated the TV commentary, the crowd’s crescendo over the closing 15 laps would have let you know that this was the highest of high noons, a 200mph shootout.

That kind of moment forces you to appreciate the sense of occasion that comes wrapped up in the Indy experience, and learn what racing really means to the drivers and their fans. Truly engrossed by what I’d just witnessed, this nine-year-old suddenly longed to one day be part of that Indy 500 crowd. As a teenager, the fans’ similarly explosive reactions to the crucial moments in the F1 grands prix at Silverstone in ’87 and Monza ’88 made me yearn to attend those events, too.

I’m guessing most readers can cite similar turn-on points for racing and maybe other sports too. We watch the event on TV or the internet, or listen to it on the radio, the crowd’s thrill is conveyed to living rooms and bars around the world, and so the idea takes hold of one day being part of that scene and worshipping at the altar of the next Mario Andretti, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, Alex Rodriguez or Dan Marino.

Naturally, though, the opposite also applies. If you’re part of a tiny crowd and the occasion has the atmosphere of Mars at 3am on a Tuesday, then no matter how worthy or entertaining the sporting battle itself may be, it won’t feel significant, it won’t induce goosebumps and it won’t make you want to return.

And that’s what starts spinning the vicious circle. If hardly anyone bothers to show up in person, then that too is transmitted via media, the event’s perceived value as a sporting spectacle is shredded and so the compulsion to watch on TV rapidly dissipates, too. It won’t be memorable for existing fans, nor will it convert casual followers into fans who wish to experience it in person. Imagine if only 7000 people had been in the 70,000-seat Houston NRG stadium for this year’s NFL Superbowl; you can bet the TV viewing figure of 111 million would have been decimated.

Unfortunately, I fear this lack of atmosphere has afflicted several IndyCar races, in particular the ovals, where grandstands are vast, accentuating the fact that spectator numbers are pitifully low. No matter how loud the driver introductions, no matter what cool planes fly over, no matter how well the national anthem is sung – if, at the end of the pre-race ceremonies, a substantial crowd can’t be heard erupting in response to ‘Drivers: start your engines!’, then it’s going to feel like an SCCA auto test on an abandoned airfield.

To create a must-attend/must-watch event, you certainly don’t need the quarter of a million people seen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway each Memorial Day Weekend. Barber Motorsports Park, Road America and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course have recently demonstrated their ability to entice enough of a crowd to make their events feel special to the fans and the drivers. Given time, I think Michael Printup can build up a similar following for Watkins Glen to help foster fans’ compulsion to be there.

But Sonoma Raceway and Auto Club Speedway at Fontana – despite strong PR staff, great viewing facilities and decent pre-race media promotion – have never been able to replicate this success for IndyCar. (That’s a large part of the reason why ACS is now absent from the schedule.) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud truly deserved better than to clinch their IndyCar titles in a ‘club racing’ atmosphere, in front of swathes of empty spectator seating areas. Significant, too, is that not even clever camerawork can hide absenteeism from the TV viewers, and that’s truly damaging to the image of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and its appeal to potential sponsor partners.

Sonoma, like Mid-Ohio, regularly faces criticism for not being ‘racy’ enough but I’ve never been convinced this directly correlates to a dearth of paying customers or poor TV figures. President and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, Jim Michaelian, will forgive me for saying that it’s been a few years since IndyCar put on a truly exciting race around his two-mile street course. But each edition of the TGPLB feels like an event of real import and with an electric atmosphere. In 2013, Takuma Sato pretty much had the race won from one-third distance, yet there was truly nowhere else I’d rather have been than standing trackside watching AJ Foyt Racing (and Sato) make their first trips to Victory Lane in more than a decade. And 20 years from now I’ll still be pleased to say, “I was there when…”

Of course, metropolitan areas such as Long Beach have an inbuilt advantage in terms of attracting crowds and it was a template that the now-defunct Champ Car World Series tried to emulate elsewhere. The management said the schedule’s proliferation of street races – some were merely projected, others became reality – was a result of 1) the desire to distinguish the series from its oval-heavy rival, the Indy Racing League, and 2) the belief that the racing model had changed.

“The days are gone,” I was told by one senior CCWS figure, “where you could ask the public to drive into the middle of nowhere to watch a race. With street races, we take the action to the people, so they can just walk downtown and everything’s laid on for them – the racing, the food stands, the merchandise, and so on. And they all have nice restaurants and hotels nearby for the evening.”

Although the high costs involved in temporary tracks – especially start-ups – meant these Long Beach Lites hemorrhaged money, the basic theory made sense; a street race with a carnival atmosphere has the chance to intrigue fairweather onlookers in a way that a Phoenix or Pocono certainly would not.

What’s most worrying now is that luring even the hardcore IndyCar fans to “drive into the middle of nowhere” appears to be an uphill battle. For years we’ve read comments from a sizable section of series loyalists about how oval racing is vastly superior to streetcourse racing because it’s faster, there’s more passing and you can see far more of the track – valid reasons, all. But are those same critics actually prepared to make an effort to attend their nearest oval IndyCar race? I’m left wondering about that every time we go to a left-turn-only track and the crowd barely reaches five figures.

Ovals, particularly superspeedways, do have one almost insurmountable problem, which is that they are unsuitable for the majority of support series that happily join IndyCar at road and street courses. Pocono this weekend is a case in point – along with the IndyCar race, there’s nothing to watch on track besides three-quarter midgets and parades of vintage Indy cars, and so turning it into a one-day event would make a lot of sense. (A discussion for another time). But remember that this explains also why tickets for this event are ridiculously cheap. And without wishing to sound like a pitch man for the facility, Pocono Raceway is also set in one of the most beautiful areas of America, and is therefore worth visiting for the weekend.

I have greater hopes for a strong crowd at Gateway Motorsports Park next week where organizers are making a real effort to attract both the devoted and the merely curious to the Bommarito Automotive Group 500. There are several activities in and around the facility, and with Pro Mazda and Indy Lights also on the schedule, there should be plenty of action on track, too. The tickets are exceptional value and the standard IndyCar event attractions apply – all the drivers will be accessible, the paddock areas will allow close-up views of the mechanics hard at work and the racing on the new surface should be good. In addition, the IndyCar race is being held on a Saturday, allowing leeway for a possible rain delay, or, if the weather is fine, giving fans the choice of driving home that night or the following morning.

Now if we consider that Indiana is the hub of open-wheel racing fandom in this country, how many Hoosiers are going to take the three-hour journey to Madison, Ill.? If just 20 percent of the Indy 500 crowd made that trip, Gateway’s return would be considered a huge success, the atmosphere around the 1.25-mile course would be magic, that would be conveyed via TV, and so the desire for return or first-time visits in 2018 would be off the charts. It shouldn’t be too much to expect a 50,000 crowd… but of course it is. Folks from Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway or Iowa Speedway can tell you that.

Assuming anyone who’s read this far is a fervent IndyCar fan already, I’d urge you to go the extra mile (or 200) and attend one of the four remaining rounds of the 2017 championship, and also look out for the 2018 IndyCar schedule coming soon, in order to keep your preferred race weekends free. Remember that as well as having fun and enjoying your favorite sport, by going to these races you’re also going to help create a buzz and build an atmosphere that can prove alluring to others.

And frankly it’s vital that, as fans, we make others aware that IndyCar races are compelling, must-attend, must-watch events. It’s quite simple: if even we display apathy toward our favorite sport, there’s no chance of pulling in others, be they fresh-eyed young potential fans, cynical old curmudgeons who need reconversion, or folks who waver between attending a race, watching it on TV, or mowing the lawn.

Sadly, we have to admit that no matter how dependably excellent and/or unpredictable the racing is across an IndyCar season, that alone does not draw people to their flatscreens nor trackside bleachers. The IR12 – née DW12 – helped create consistently close action across all types of track, but TV viewing figures and spectator numbers would suggest the series is still metaphorically running through molasses in terms of making progress.

Other significant aspects of the series are gradually improving. Jay Frye, Dallara and all those with input into the 2018 car have created a handsome machine that contains improved active and passive safety measures but is also more demanding to drive, yet also creates more passing opportunities. Frye can also take credit for fewer disputes over Race Control decisions than at any time in the past dozen years.

Meanwhile Mark Miles, despite his questionable fixation with ending the series in September, does at least understand the importance of date equity and consistency, so that year to year, most races are roughly in the same place we last left them. He has also become very cynical (in a good “show me the money” kinda way) when it comes to expanding the calendar, and also recognizes the need for a vastly improved TV deal.

But there’s a responsibility on fans, too, to front up and pay up when they can, because none of the other areas of progress matter if no one’s watching. And no one will be watching if we can’t make each race into a memorable, meaningful and inspiring event.

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