Robert Clarke is a consultant for Honda, as well as being president of SCCA Pro Racing. What follows, however, is a purely personal view of the sport he loves and the major shift in approach he believes is necessary for IndyCar’s future health.
Will we ever quit trying to save IndyCar racing? There are a number of us, driven by an indelible passion for the sport, knowing what it used to be and what it could/should be, having a direct investment of heart and soul and possessing proven business acumen and knowledge of the sport, who keep trying. I am one of them.
Indy car racing (and I am using the phrase in its generic sense – AAA-, USAC-, CART-, IRL-, ChampCar- and IndyCar-sanctioned) is sick, it has been for a long time. Made ill by the chronic pursuit of self interests, IndyCar was losing its way long before the now infamous CART-IRL split at the end of 1995 and has never recovered. IndyCar forgot that it needed to serve its audience and over time failed to evolve and remain relevant to its fans foremost. Harsh words, but true.
There is no simple, quick fix for IndyCar. Only a comprehensive, well considered multi-year business plan, that addresses every aspect of the sport has a chance of success. Unfortunately, just continuing to meddle with the technical and sporting regs, taking the wings off the cars, updating the website and/or Tweeting more will not do the trick.
IndyCar needs to be reinvented, it needs a new day-one – a fresh start, something totally new and relevant … full of passion, energy and potential. IndyCar’s mission must be to become state-of-the-art sport entertainment relevant to today’s audience:
• Leading edge in every sense
• Fan interactive
• Embracing real-world regulations regarding technology, safety and social responsibility
In other words, let’s get contemporary. So it’s ironic, perhaps, that we need only look at IndyCar’s past to see the way to the future.
IndyCar racing was born in 1911, during the early years of the automobile industrial revolution, with the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). Built as a proving ground, not a race track, IMS served the needs of a booming industry. Hundreds of auto manufacturers existed in the world at that time and Indianapolis was a “Motor City” of its own right.
Automobile production was more than doubling each year as fierce competition and new production techniques drove lower pricing (the Ford Model T, $900 in 1909, had dropped to $260 by 1925) to the affordability of a larger market. The industry was full of invention as both engineers and marketeers aggressively pursued greater sales. That spirit of innovation spread well beyond the auto industry and spurred the invention of new materials, mass production techniques, inventory control systems and more. Automobiles had also become fashionable and styling became a significant aspect in a customer’s purchase decision.
However, cars were quite crude and unreliable. To put things in perspective, in 1912 a Packard was the first to complete a U.S. transcontinental trip – in 46 days.
Motor racing had become an effective marketing tool for demonstrating the reliability and performance of cars. And a 500-mile race within the confines of a 2.5-mile track, as opposed to the see-each-car-just-once nature of city-to-city racing, was a spectator-friendly stage.
There’s obviously much more to IndyCar racing’s history, but let’s focus on the conditions around the 1911 Indy 500 [ABOVE, IMS photo]:
1. Huge competition between auto manufacturers for sales and market share.
2. Manufacturers fighting to establish their brand – technical, functionality and styling aspects that differentiate their products from their competitors’.
3. A fast-paced industry with an infrastructure growing to support it
4. A growing market of customers who are beginning to see the viability and advantages of the automobile vs. the more popular horse-drawn carriage and who are being lured by creative manufacturer’s smart engineering and smart marketing.
5. Sanctioning body and event promoters seeing the attendance potential of motorsport and the opportunity to feed the needs of manufacturers (to demonstrate and showcase) and the public (to see and evaluate in a fun, yet informative way).
6. For the most part, race teams are factory teams – extensions of the various manufacturers or the growing industry of mechanic/service shops
7. Although radio exists, it will be another nine years until the first public radio station goes on the air. And another 28 years before live TV is demonstrated at the New York World’s Fair. In other words, there are few means to promote products other than print (newspapers and magazines), billboards and physical displays.
8. The lack of radio and TV also means there are few options for people’s time other than family and locally organized occasional social events. Movie theaters have not arrived – it will be another 17 years before movies with sound are produced.
9. The population as a whole has no understanding or regard for the coming ecological impact of global fossil fuel usage.
It all worked, motorsport served a true need and there was a reason for it to exist. Manufacturers needed it, the public wanted and enjoyed it, while promoters saw the opportunity and created the circuits and events.
Looking at today’s conditions, let’s see what’s missing and what’s required to reach a similar ideal paradigm:
1. Huge competition between auto manufacturers for sales and market share. Check. The auto industry went through some tough economic times, made some business/product adjustments and has generally recovered – record sales are predicted for 2016.
2. Manufacturers [RIGHT, GM’s Jim Campbell accepts Chevrolet’s 2014 Manufacturers’ title. LAT photo] fighting to establish and further define their brands. Check. The market is move diverse and the products more sophisticated, technical, feature-full and stylized than ever before.
3. A fast paced industry and growing infrastructure. Check. The industry is going through major adjustments as it reacts to economic, ecological, energy and social changes together with the advent of autonomous cars and infrastructure requirements to support it all.
4. A growing market of customers. Check. The market is not growing at the magnitude that it was in 1911. However, the diversity of product offerings, driven by mandated federal requirements and consumer demand for alternative and efficient energy solutions, is keeping the market fresh and healthy.
5. Sanctioning body and event promoters seeing the opportunity. Nope. Although the first 4 points are confirmed, IndyCar and the event promoters have not evolved to meet changes in the market and support the market’s needs.
6. For the most part, race teams are factory teams. Nope. Today, few teams have direct manufacture support. Most rely on driver funding and commercial sponsorship which is inadequate to support the cost of competition and as a result is having a dumbing-down effect on the sport.
7. Marketing media. Oh yeah, we got a ton of that. Motorsport has an abundance of competition from a multitude of marketing media options/platforms.
8. Entertainment options. Oh yeah, we got a ton of that too! Motorsport has stiff competition from a wide gamut of options/platforms.
9. Aware and knowledgeable society. Check. Today’s society is the most informed and sensitive to key factors that are directing and influencing automotive market ever.
In 1911, with a lack of marketing options for manufacturers and few entertainment options (distractions) for the public, and with a very strong buying market and innovative manufacture pool, motorsport was an easy business to excel at. Today, the market conditions are equally ripe, but are not being exploited in a world that offers sellers and buyers a host of engagement options.
Motorsport can be an effective marketing tool and popular with its audience, but those running the business must be smart and ingenious – it’s not a simple business anymore.
What’s the fix? Cater to the market.
As was the case in 1911, manufacturers [ABOVE: LAT photo] need motorsport to differentiate their products and their brands. To do so, the technical and sporting regs must be designed to allow them to employ, demonstrate and showcase their technologies, unique features, styling and most importantly their underlying brand. Provide them the proper playground and they will come.
Yes, in today’s world the audience has many entertainment choices (distractions), but given a choice as enlightening as it is entertaining can make the difference.
The nature of the event and how the audience engages with the event are the key differences between 1911 and today. In 1911, considering the lack of product refinement and its unreliability, racing was an effective demonstrative challenge. Racing today’s cars on traditional circuits, in traditional ways, is not only ineffective at demonstrating a challenge, but is ineffective at producing entertainment as well. The format of motorsport needs to change so that it produces a true challenge to the cars and competitors in an entertaining way. Additionally, today’s youth has demonstrated a short attention span or patience for boring, repetitive activities. Motorsport events need to be multi-activity events with the “race” being only one component of an event that offers a multitude of options appealing to a broad spectrum of the demographic audience including gender and age.
Felix Baumgartner’s space jump proved that internet streaming video is due to ultimately replace TV. An audience of 8 million watched at their total convenience from wherever they were at the time. A multitude of cameras captured the event and provided information that kept the audience engaged. Motorsport must embrace the available technologies and use them to its advantage. Motorsport is highly dynamic, but the fact that it’s a violent and exhilarating experience is not being shown to the viewing audience.
Engage the audience, whether on-site or watching remotely. Give them information, give them the power to make decisions which impact the event’s outcome. Just watching isn’t enough anymore.
Society likes team sports. “Ball” sports remain hugely popular compared to motorsport. Why? Society like to see the simplicity of two teams having it out with each other with the outcome being one winner and one loser. Motorsport is complicated. Lots of factors are at play, many of which the audience cannot relate to (car control, technical issues with the car, etc.) or does not have the information provided to them so they can understand it (race strategy, exact fuel/energy consumption, etc.). IndyCar should encourage team competition. Larger, multi-car teams are already a trend. Support the trend by giving those teams something additional to fight for.
And, finally, the car. Motorsport is about the car, but the future of motorsport must be about a much broader cause. The technical and sporting regs that control the sport should be open to encourage and promote the advancement of innovation.
There are no rules as to what a manufacturer chooses to produce as a road car. Manufacturers are free to engineer products with the technology, features and styling reflective of their brand and the beliefs of what the market wants. Motorsport should be the same. Let the nature of the events and the market determine what manufacturers bring to the track. The world is not a fair and equal place, so why must IndyCar, the U.S.’s premier form of motorsport, use ‘spec’ cars for the purpose of parity?
Racecars should be leading edge in every sense of the word including styling. Yes, racecars should be beautiful [ABOVE: Jim Hurtubise in the 1960 Christensen-Offy. IMS photo] and the judgment of that beauty should be in the eyes of the audience. Think of an auto show – a static display; now think of IndyCar as a dynamic auto show with concept cars – cars that are running examples of each manufacturer’s vision of the future in technology and styling.
Two more things … 1) there’s no need for a great number of events. It’s more important to have quality over quantity. Imagine 5-6 Indy 500/TGP Long Beach-level events. [BELOW, Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach 2014. LAT photo]. Wouldn’t that be much better than 20 Iowa (sorry Iowa, nothing personal) Corn 200s? 2) Create a second class for non-manufacturer supported entries. Going forward, manufacturer involvement will come from non-traditional industries (i.e. Google, Microsoft, Apple, GE, etc.), but there will likely be insufficient car count for full grids. A second class for privateers/non-manufacturer supported teams will fill the fields and add an underdog challenge.
Without question, IndyCar can be saved. The market is there, the need is there as well as the tools to create and present truly special events that compel a commanding audience. It’s up to the series to dream bigger, be bolder…and implement the necessarily significant changes in a manner that embraces the future.