Race Weekend Central

Open Wheel Wednesday: Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

The IndyCar series had this past weekend off. And with that break, a couple of questions come to mind: Did anyone really notice? Was it even missed? The Olympic Games have attracted much of the sporting media’s coverage, but that didn’t stop other motorsports. Formula 1 continued as they would, and NASCAR held one of the bigger races of the season, and with coverage of that series switching to ESPN, the race was a showcase event for the network.

Heck, even the NBC Sports channel, home of some of the Olympics coverage, took time out to show Major League Soccer – so yes, the show must go on.

What these things remind me is how far removed IndyCar is from the overall sporting consciousness. The ratings this year, aside from the Indianapolis 500, have been, well, lackluster – averaging under 1 million sets of eyeballs per race, hardly an impressive television audience. I’m not sure but it seems that even the NHRA does better than that.

So, after the years of acrimony that created the Indy/CART split, the result is a series that seems to have gotten left in the dust?

Numerous writers have detailed how that division in the 1990s allowed NASCAR to take over the American racing public’s interest. I’ll not address that. What I’m more concerned about is: What does IndyCar do now?

When Randy Bernard took over as CEO of IndyCar he was faced with a multitude of issues – but none bigger than making the series relevant again. Relevant. Let me pause to touch upon what that might or might not mean.

IndyCar sits in a weird kind of state. It has neither the sophisticated, big money, technological developments of F1, nor the brash, ostentatious, braggadocio of NASCAR, so it sits in a kind of limbo. And in that limbo state, it also has another conflicted identity that being that the cars race on both road/street courses and ovals. It wants both, though it is still conflicted how to do so, as it still seeks out the right ovals for its product.

This overall identity seems to make IndyCar the confused middle child in the racing world, one struggling to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. With that analogy, Bernard sits as the aspiring parent hoping to guide his wayward child to success. (I’ll remove myself from the discussion of how some of the IndyCar owners have tried to mitigate his authority – once again, another issue that plagues the series and its attempts to grow itself.)

I feel it important to iterate that I want to see IndyCar succeed. I’d like to see the grandstands full, for people to talk about it, for the drivers to have some kind of status. To wit, it is important to remind ourselves that these drivers hit speeds of 200 mph in cars that are open cockpit and don’t have the robust body of a stock car. Guts and nerves. Shouldn’t that garner more attention? When was the last time that a race winner showed up on an ESPN set, or for that matter, an NBC Sports show outside of “Indy 36?”

This area is where Bernard needs to see an opportunity. A full-scale media blitz, advertising etc. is probably a bit prohibitive with regards to costs for the series, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues to explore. IndyCar may not be able to advertise directly per se, but the series could certainly make sure that their drivers are doing their best to move into the public eye. The “Indy 36” pieces are a good start, but the problem with them is that they air of NBC Sports, read: nee, Versus, and that means they’re still limited by the fact that many people either don’t have the channel or don’t think to visit it.

And that hits upon part of my problem. Sometimes I’m not sure when the next race is – and I’m an interested party! Is the race on ABC or NBC? What time is it on? These aspects seem to be, and this may seem silly with the ease of information access nowadays, still problematic.

If IndyCar wants eyeballs, they’ve got to continue to hype each race like it’s the next big thing. The Indianapolis 500 shouldn’t be the only race to attract the national media exposure, even if that is deservedly so. With only 15 races on the schedule, each one should be an event. The drivers should be on ESPN, NBC, CNN, radio shows, the “Today Show,” Rachel Ray, whatever, I don’t care, but get them out there.

If Jeff Gordon can host “Regis and Kelly,” then certainly someone in IndyCar can.

What makes this lack of attention disappointing is that the on-track product is probably the best it’s been in years. It’s time for Bernard to capitalize. It’d be a shame to watch the IndyCar whimper into another off-season with no one seeming to notice, again.

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