Mark Dill has 30 years experience in marketing and communications much of it with Fortune 500 firms. Five of those years included sponsoring Indy car teams highlighted by winning the 1997 Indianapolis 500. Mark also had a stint as vice president of marketing and public relations for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ending in 2012. Born in Indianapolis he has been a “500” fan since 1963. Now a marketing and communications consultant, Mark operates the racing history website First Super Speedway.
Incidentally, Mark is also one of the inspirations behind RACER‘s ongoing “IndyCar 2018” series, because what follows is actually an edited and updated version of something he wrote a couple years ago…
My view is that the challenges of Indy car racing can be boiled down to a short but very fundamental list of issues. We can start with a definition of terms, specifically “product” and “marketing.” Frequently the assertion is made, “the product is great,” and that all that is needed is “better marketing.”
Finding a solution starts with defining the problem. Continued insistence that the product is great should spark several questions, not the least of which is “why do you believe that?”
Given the cold evidence of poor market acceptance since 1996 it is hard to imagine how anyone would accept without question that the product is great. Some might challenge further by asking those making this claim to define their terms. What, exactly, is the “product?”
A product is a combination of all elements in the customer experience. This can vary based on how the customer consumes the offer – primarily in person or through media channels of which there are several today. I will limit my thoughts to the on-site experience but recognize that multi-media distribution of Indy car content in real time or delayed is both a reality and extremely important.
The on-site fan experience requires satisfaction of many desires to earn “greatness.” Here are my thoughts on some of the basics.
* Ease of access to/from venue
* Pricing (food, tickets, merchandise, etc.)
* Food quality
* Sight lines
* Mobile device use/applications
* Ancillary entertainment
* Cleanliness of facility, especially restrooms
The above are elements that extend beyond the core product. Below are elements of the core product that come to mind for me:
* Reason to care/emotional investment
* Sensory experience – eye candy, sounds, smells, more
* Fan access – pits, garage, drivers
* Exciting racing
* Heroes/personalities to relate to
This is to lay out elements of the product necessary for discussion before we can assign some “grade” level. It is reasonable to unpack the product for assessment.
For the most part, venues do a commendable job on product elements beyond the core – recognizing that there are exceptions and always areas for improvement such as digital infrastructure. The core, in my view, is the problem.
Surveys, focus groups and lurking on social media channels provide support for this contention. There is no shortage of discontent expressed specifically about spec cars, too few American drivers, a shortage of ovals and the lack of a general reason to care.
Evidence for the “great product” claim certainly rests on the attribute of close racing. The races are close and have been for more than a decade. A leap to a conclusion that this is all fans want is misguided and reflects a basic lack of appreciation for marketing. The same voices that extoll the greatness of the product also proclaim that all that is needed is “better marketing.”
At risk of being pedantic allow me the point that the textbook definition of marketing involves “the four P’s,” or: product, price, promotion and placement. That means marketing is involved in product design. The product is not something tossed over the transom at marketers by operations people and engineers. Designing the product around customer wants is essential to success.
The call for “better marketing” suggests that for those expressing this view, the definition of marketing boils down to: marketing = promotion. If this is true, it also follows that Indy car has everything it needs for business success except more clever advertising and public relations. That is an assumption that can deliver disappointing results.
The idea of giving fans something they care about is everything. They need heroes and they need excitement. The type of racecar (the “formula”) is at the root of the matter.
For background, the current spec car traces its roots back to the European influence that emerged in the 1960s [ABOVE, start of the 1964 Indy 500. IMS photo] and re-defined cars entered in the Indianapolis 500 as rear-engine, not front-engine, design. This development established a trajectory of vast consequence in no way fully appreciated at the time. Not only was the engineering of Indianapolis 500 racecars re-defined but the sport’s brand and ability to differentiate as a business was as well.
As road racing progressively displaced oval tracks on the schedule, distinctions between major “open wheel” series blurred especially for those not fully acquainted with motorsport. While for established fans this was somewhat less troublesome, it created confusion for those who might have been attracted to Indy car racing.
For a time the influence of Grand Prix culture seemed to make sense in America as the technology had not yet taken speeds to almost incomprehensible levels. With the integration of aero technology, the absolute limits of speed have become apparent. Indeed, questions arose about the need for a driver in the car as the ability of remotely operated computer technology to continue the trajectory of amazing speeds emerged. Formula 1, who clearly owns the market position of highest technology, had to introduce regulations to dumb the machines down to retain driver relevancy.
While the limits of sensible speed have been recognized as something just north of 200mph, the whole point of the sport is going faster than the next guy. This might lead rule makers back to the spec car but not necessarily if other valued attributes of the core product are considered – such as design, American heroes and sensory appeal. It is imperative that we re-think the car. Here are central tenants I suggest:
* An open rulebook that allows for equivalency adjustments across different elements such as power plants. This should leave room for alternatives like diesel, electric motors and different fuels.
* A car that is “backwards-compatible” to the platform used by the grassroots short track American racer.
* Elimination of wings and ground effects. The ethic should be that we race cars not airplanes.
* Auto manufacturer relevance – probably on a component, industry issues level.
By opening the rulebook using equivalency standards we eliminate the much fan-maligned vanilla spec racer. The garage area and paddock suddenly takes on the air of a car show and hopefully a reconnection with car culture enthusiasts. This adds eye candy – an element of sensory appeal – while providing another reason to care – brand allegiances that could logically form for the variety of manufacturers and designers represented. The additional and critical benefit that would inevitably be enjoyed is a proliferation of entries in the Indianapolis 500 and a return to real bumping during qualifications.
The concept of a rulebook fostering “backwards-compatibility” to the American short track racer has huge implications. Inevitably this means a legislated front engine design and that is fine as virtually all street vehicles use the same power plant positioning. This makes the typical short track American driver’s experience more relevant to the Indianapolis 500. More important than simply increasing the number of Americans in the Indianapolis 500, it opens the path of the “hero’s journey.”
This path would be readily apparent to the fans from short tracks across the country. Suddenly, they have a reason to follow “their boy or girl” on their journeys. They have an emotional investment – a reason to care. In essence the American short track driver brings fans to the track much as in the classic days of previous decades now revered in nostalgia. Simply being an American driver is not enough. The sport needs American drivers that bring an established following.
Contrast that with the racer of foreign origin. While many are charming and genuine personalities, the size of their domestic fan base is lacking when they arrive in America. As with Helio Castroneves, their appeal is undeniable and they win over the affection of established fans. All of that is fine but the harsh business reality is that they bring little net gain to the fan base total. They simply earn the enthusiasm of people already there. Make no mistake, many are great drivers and by no means should they not be welcomed into American racing – but let’s think about the opportunities for American drivers as well.
The “backwards-compatible” car also opens the door to more extensive differentiation. This distinguishes and defines the sport’s brand. This type of car could return the sport to dirt tracks, ensuring the presence of ovals in the series and right-sizing the venue to demand.
That said I do not recommend a retreat from road or street racing. As the ponderous behemoths of NASCAR demonstrate, some of the most entertaining events on their schedule occur on road courses. The challenge of manhandling a car less than ideally suited to the venue is compelling and provides a window to the relative skills of the drivers. It also offers an extremely appealing element to the event as the more experienced road racers test their abilities in this car platform and demonstrate what advantage they may have over competitors more acquainted with ovals.
Another crucial point with the “backwards-compatible” car is that by definition it leverages an organic ladder system. This eliminates the need for the current “Mazda Road To Indy” program. As it currently exists, it fosters a system that inherently contributes to the influx of foreign-born drivers to the Indianapolis 500 which is widely cited as dissatisfying for fans. It also clouds the view of exactly who the customer is.
There is little doubt the Indy Lights car was designed to compete with GP2 and for funded drivers aspiring to professional careers. That means the customer for that series is the funded driver, not the ticket-purchasing fan. Given that this is the acknowledged feeder system for future stars of the Indianapolis 500, it creates a problem on two levels. One, it does little to grow the participation of Americans in the series. Two, it does not attract new fans.
I say all this with complete respect for the diligence, professionalism and personal financial risk of those managing the MRTI. The simple matter of the situation is that I believe IndyCar needs fundamental change and this is a perfect example of sunk costs determining future decisions. A thoughtful plan would hopefully redeploy those employed in the current Mazda Road to Indy as well as those investing in it.
Further to the design of the Indianapolis 500 car, all wings and ground effects should be banned, as well as the use of wind tunnels. We are designing racecars not inverted fighter jets. This cuts tremendous cost and encourages artistry of design as a result of a focus on mechanical grip. The caveat on all of this is that investments in safety technology should not be compromised, for reasons self-evident.
The backwards-compatible design ethic allows plenty of room for innovation. Reliance on mechanical grip will produce interesting experiments and flexibility to express brand styles or the designer’s creativity. Automobile manufacturers still have room to engage in a relevant manner at the component level.
A backwards-compatible car can re-visit the Indianapolis 500 “roadster” moniker as a part of its brand heritage and the quest for clear distinction from other forms of racing. The cars of the Indianapolis 500 should be fire-breathing beasts of massive horsepower. They should be difficult to drive allowing for a greater premium on talent in driver selection.
The big machines should roar down the straightaways at breath-taking speed and the driver should be forced to decide how late to brake based on his or her innate sense of when the tires lose traction. Lap after lap the driver must hit their line or get out of shape and lose speed exiting the corner.
Apart from making the driver a larger factor in the speed equation, consider the product. As a fundamental principal of marketing, a product should be clearly – not subtly – differentiated. Distinguish yourself in the marketplace. As it is, it appears (although nowhere explicitly stated) that Indy car today is moving, consciously or unconsciously, to the market position of the value-priced alternative to Formula 1. Is that what fans want? Is that inspiring?
I know a lot of people will angrily disagree with my position. I also acknowledge that there are fans who are whole-hearted enthusiasts for the current offering. My belief is that these changes won’t shake their enthusiasm because they are loyal to the heritage of the sport and key attributes such as road racing are retained. I am convinced that what is presented here is an outline not just for survival but prosperity. That can only be achieved through patience and time.
Everyone invested in the sport – not the least of which are team owners – would probably emotionally implode if my suggestions were taken seriously. These people have far more invested than I have or ever will have. Unfortunately I believe their judgment is clouded by those investments. Any positive change will need their endorsement or the willingness of the sport’s leadership to deal with consequences of their departure.
The financial pain to those less influential but nonetheless personally invested is not to be taken lightly. These suggestions are done without malice but with a heartfelt belief that they are necessary for long-term growth and success.