Q: I enjoyed your recent article about IndyCar attendance. Two big contributors to the downturn are entertainment competition (new sports and video games) and the advent of ubiquitous high definition television, but you know this better than I. I’m hard pressed to go to Pocono when I can sit back in my living room and watch the race (and the NBC crew, + Gold) in HD. I just can’t seem to get there, especially when Pocono tacks on fees at checkout, as they have in the past.
And there’s one thing that IndyCar used to have that’s gone by the wayside: car and engine diversity. I wonder if the crowds would be bigger if the field of cars included Wildcat, Coyote, March, Penske, Porsche, Galmer, Dallara, Eagle, etc., and the engines included Offy, Chevrolet, Honda, Buick, Foyt, Ford, Cosworth and helicopter turbines (ha!). The racing is great, but the cars and engines added to the fun. (I know, costs, safety, but maybe there’s room to open up the design of the rear and front wings to the owners, with IndyCar safety certification?).
I’m 63, been following IndyCar since my dad took me to Trenton to watch Foyt and the IndyCars run when I was seven or so. [Foyt would bring his car in across the track with a pickup truck and a single car trailer!] That’s a long time to be in love with anything. And for the first time in a long time I was really excited about a driver – Robert Wickens. Soft-spoken and fast, and then that damn Pocono fence. Words just fail sometimes. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m damn glad you’re still with us.
Jim Fling, Trenton (Speedway) NJ
RM: There is no doubt that a lot of the old-timers lost interest when the cars became spec and engine leases were mandatory. It’s made the racing great, like you said, but it did take away those added elements of technology, anticipation and curiosity. Wickens is an inspiration and continues to improve and amaze us every week, so don’t count him out. And I’m very happy to still be here, thanks.
Q: I email you (annually) instead of other electronic media. I like your one-on-one fan-friendly approach: you care, read, and respond to fans like me. My most recent example: I was glad to briefly see, converse, and bump hands with you in St Pete this March. Hopefully both of us 70-year-old Hoosiers will be able to see each other again in St Pete next time. My comments in regard to this week’s piece on IndyCar attendance follows: I suggest the revenue and attendance for real diehard fans who attend Fridays/practice are also included in race weekend revenue and fan numbers. Yes, I am probably talking about the 1% level of attendance numbers and revenue at a race weekend, but having those relatively accessible/somewhat pricey close-ups for my two sons (and myself) on practice days (starting in 1972) and the close encounters/photos/sounds/burnt fuel aroma have had lifelong impacts on their continued avid IndyCar interest.
P.S. I first met an IndyCar driver in 1961 – Red Amick.
RM: I don’t disagree with your suggestion and there are good Friday and Saturday turnouts at road courses and street circuits, but is it the same person all three days? Not sure how you gauge that in ratings. And the ovals draw nobody for practice or qualifying anymore, but they did when we were growing up and you were introducing your boys to Indy.
Q: IndyCar at Iowa Speedway has to be one of the great deals in racing. The hotels in Des Moines, 45 minutes from the track, don’t seem to notice the event and are amazingly cheap. It’s possible to drive in on Saturday morning from Kansas City, Omaha, or Minneapolis and watch the race. After spending Saturday night in Des Moines, you can be back home before noon. There’s not a bad seat in the place, and you’re watching some of the world’s best drivers look like slot cars as they turn eighteen-second laps. If you can take that Friday off, you can add in a trip to Knoxville for some sprint cars on the dirt. All for less that it would cost a family of four to go to an NFL game in their own city. When we lived there, we took people who swore that they had no interest in racing and turned them into fans. Do you think attendance will improve with the return to Saturday night?
RM: I hope so, because the Iowa fans always got there early and stayed late for the night race, but Sundays seemed to keep people away and one reason was the drive home Sunday night. But it’s a great facility and usually a pretty damn good race. See you in a few days.
Q: Just read your piece on crowd size. There are certainly many reasons (as you pointed out) why attendance is down. Beyond the reasons you have discussed, IndyCar must take much of the blame. I have been going to IndyCar events since 1974 and consider myself a dedicated fan: My two sons and I have seen races in Cleveland, Mid-Ohio, Michigan, Nazareth, Texas, California, Pocono, and of course, Indianapolis. Over the years I have never felt the sport appreciated fans like my boys and I who have taken our hard-earned pay and got in the car and drove to our favorite races. Many summers these weekend trips were our family vacation. One by one our tracks disappeared from the schedule. Every time we lost a venue it was like a kick in the gut to us.
But what has really made it hard to keep supporting the sport is the idiotic start times IndyCar (driven by TV) has gone to. A few years ago we made our annual five-hour drive to Pocono (love the track). Three weekend grandstand tickets, paddock passes, two nights in a motel and a couple of days of meals for three. This was an easy $1000+ weekend. The powers that be had scheduled the start time for this 500-mile race at 3:30 p.m.! If everything went perfect the race could end in the dark.
On the Friday before the race every weather forecast said heavy thunderstorms would arrive in the early afternoon on race Sunday. When we headed to the track on Sunday morning, it was a beautiful summer day. We checked the weather and it looked like it would be perfect weather until about 2:30 or 3:00. I told my boys, don’t worry, I’m sure the officials are seeing the same forecast we are and will start the race early. No way, the hell with the loyal, ticket buying fans. The race did not start early, and at 2:30 the skies opened up and the race was moved to Monday. We all had to be to work Monday morning, so I spent $1000 + to see practice and qualifying on Saturday. I have not been back to Pocono since, as they have continued with their stupid start times.
Recently we were making our plans for our trip to Mid-Ohio this August. I cannot count the number of trips we have made to Mid-Ohio. My youngest son now lives in New Jersey, and booked a flight into Columbus with the only flight out being early Sunday evening. A few weeks after making our plans we discovered the start time for the race is listed as 4:30 p.m.! This is probably the “start your engines time”, so the green flag will more than likely be closer to 4:45. Who could possibly think starting a race on a Sunday in the eastern time zone at 4:45 makes any sense? Upon discovering this start time we immediately dropped our plans to attend the race. My son has a non-refundable ticket that he will now eat.
Certainly starting times are not the only reason for attendance decline, but for us it has been really disappointing to feel no love from the series that we have cherished our entire lives. We love the sport in spite of the fan un-friendly decisions that seem to be coming more often. The series is doing its best to drive paying fans away. Am I alone in this feeling?
Spike Mancuso, Sharpsville, PA
RM: No, you are one of many fans who I’ve heard from in the past 48 hours after my column, and you are spot-on in your logic and frustration. That’s why I have so much admiration for George Bruggenthies. He told IndyCar the only way it would ever come back to Road Atlanta was if the race started before 1 p.m., and he stuck to his guns and it’s been a hit the past four years. I realize my employer (NBC) is responsible for some of the late starting times, and we’ve got to have live TV (although I’d be all for tape delaying it and starting every race at 1 p.m., but that doesn’t fly anymore). Mid-Ohio’s starting time is actually 3:45, but that’s still way too late for your son and for people who have a four or five-hour drive. The paying customers get the short end of the stick way too often, and after a while they simply quit coming. Thanks for your honest letter and passion for IndyCar.