INDIANAPOLIS _ The two biggest racing series in the United States are fighting to regain prominence that they once knew. Indycars and NASCAR’s Cup Series are using imaginative ideas and stirring their own pot in an attempt to refill what once were sold-out grandstand seats and boost television ratings.
A big difference is NASCAR’s top circuit had packed houses a few years ago. But it has been closer to two decades since the Indy circuit could boast of a view from the top of the motorsports heap.
Today NASCAR is fighting to stop sliding off their plateau any further, while Indycar has fallen far from the once known heights but now shows signs of gaining traction and clawing its way upward.
The 1960s and 1970s saw Indianapolis 500 drivers become household names. The 1980s saw a sharp climb in NASCAR. And in the 1990s the full-fendered crew skyrocketed while Indy began a free fall that they are still recovering from. However Indy’s mode looks to be in recovery and no longer crashing.
Brian Barnhart, president of competition for the Indy Racing League, talked about Indycar’s positive outlook. “I certainly can’t speak to the situation in NASCAR. We’ve got our hands full trying to make sure we’re doing as good a job as we can with the Indycar Series. Absolutely there is an upswing on the Indycar side.
“I think it began with unification in 2008, which ended years of the split. And then that momentum has carried on with some great on-track competition and a great product there” Barnhart said. “And with the addition of Izod as the title sponsor for the series coming on board this year It is creating a lot of buzz, and energy and excitement around the sport.”
At the Saturday driver’s meeting Barnhart addressed all 33 race starters about catering to the fans’ desires. A subject NASCAR has gotten praise for recently with multiple green-white-checkered finishes, double file restarts, the return of the spoiler, and the ‘have at it boys’ attitude. Barnhart lectured them about holding their three-wide formation for the three preliminary laps.
“We need to get back to ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’” He didn’t want to see two-and-a-half laps of single file and then a half-lap of three wide before the start. This brought loud applause from the fans that gathered for the public meeting.
“I’m hoping we see it. We can ask and request it as much as we want” Barnhart said following the meeting. “Whether they do it or not is strictly up to them. But it is something we have talked about for every year for several years to try and get it done. But emphasizing it again yesterday (Friday) in the private meeting and again today in the public meeting… if they’re not listening to what the fans’ reaction was when I said it today, then they’re not being very smart. Because I think the fans were very clear this is what they want to see.
“And actually I give a lot of credit to that to Al Unser, Jr. our driver coach who pointed out that the first two laps are called parade laps. The third lap is a pace lap. And the parade laps are called parade laps because they belong to the fans. And the expectation is the fans are acknowledging their achievement of making the race, they’re thanking the competitors for their efforts. The competitors need to thank the fans for coming out. You watch some of the video from the sixties and the seventies and the field was lined up so much better. We just made it a point this year to stress it in both driver’s meetings.
Long time and honored racing journalist Chris Economaki had written they once looked like “geometric shapes” approaching the green flag. But that has not been the case for years.
Officials hope Izod will do for Indycars what RJ Reynolds Tobacco did for the NASCAR Grand National Series. A brand new idea of a two-seat Indycar actually taking the green flag behind the field debuted at Indy.
Michael Andretti drove it and actor Mark Wahlberg was the rider. It started out behind the pace car and sped up to catch the rear of the field on the second parade lap. It took the green flag at the rear of the grid allowing a civilian to experience the sensation of actually starting the Indy 500. “We are going to have the two-seater on the grid at all races” Barnhart said.
“At Long Beach they took us downtown Hollywood, we took over the Kodak Theatre. We had all kinds of celebrities there. Jimmy Kimmel and Wahlberg. There is a huge effort made by Izod to take us into pop culture. We could not have picked a better partner as our title series sponsor. And what they brought to the table in such a short period of time is amazing and certainly has everyone excited for what they are going to do in the future” said Barnhart.
Team owner Sam Schmidt who fielded a car for Townsend Bell in the 500 had opinions on Indycar and NASCAR. “Clearly NASCAR got expensive so rapidly from drivers making a lot money to sponsors having to pay a lot of money, to the economy crashing. All of those things. Lack of fan and corporate access to the garage area. All of those things are causing the situation. I am the first to admit I was surprised with 27 cars at Kansas, 37-38 cars here with the state of the economy.”
“Randy Bernard (new Indycar CEO) is heading the right way by ruling by group committee rather than dictatorship” Schmidt said. “He has a lot of great innovative ideas. Some are going to work and some aren’t. But I think we need to rock the boat. I think we need to allow fan access into the garages with a ticket sale just like NHRA does. That’s been very effective over there.”
Said Schmidt; “We need to make our drivers accessible to the fans. We need to build the league in such a way we can pay our drivers enough to stay here instead of going to NASCAR. We need to create some rivalries and support the driver base better, rather than just promoting one or two drivers.”
“We have to reeducate a whole generation because we had the split for 15 years. And that is just a whole generation of kids that were confused by what we were doing as an industry. We need more American drivers. We don’t want the American drivers to only think about F1” Schmidt said.
He also has a close eye on upcoming chassis selection and design for Indycar’s future. “Our most critical decisions over the next three months are engine manufacturer’s situation and cars. What we choose in 2012 will make a huge impact in the next eight to 10 years of open wheel racing.” BAT Engineering, Dallara, DeltaWing, Lola, and Swift have proposed separate chassis designs to Indycar.
“We are doing well. It is an industry of haves and have-nots. When you are winning everybody loves you and they want to give you stuff, your prize money is up and the economics are better. If you are dead last you are working as hard or harder as the guy up front but people don’t want to give you stuff and you have to pay for everything. It is like a pendulum and fortunately we are on a pretty good side of it. “
Veteran Indycar broadcaster Paul Page also sees the Indycar future looking brighter if it can make good decisions from here on out. “When we say the buzz is back, it’s a quiet little buzz right now,” Page said. “It’s not the day where you would walk out on qualifying and there would be 200,000 people in the stands. That’s still a long way off. Whatever the anomaly was that was the split in the series, not only are the problems with it gone, but the attitudes with those problems being gone are now much better.”
Said Page “I love doing (ESPN broadcasts of) NHRA drag racing. I love it because of the camaraderie. At the end of the day everyone just kicks back all up and down the pits. Drivers, mechanics, everybody. We (Indycar) didn’t have that for years. Everybody was cloistered. They were talking with this sponsor or that sponsor. Nobody was having any fun. (Now) it feels like they’re having fun despite the tension you usually get race morning.
Page had his own opinion of Indycar’s proposed chassis “I don’t like any of them. I don’t think they would be smart to change the chassis design for a couple of more years based on economics. This is a known product. They have costs down where they are controllable. Is it a bit of a spec series? Yeah. What I would like to see is them take a tub design that incorporates all the safety that they want, then draw a box around that and say ‘whatever else you want to stick in that box, have at it’ and try to bring back some of the innovation.”
On what Indycars and the 500 need to bounce back and regain some of its lost popularity Page said “Get all of the sports marketing experts and take their credentials and tell them to stand on 16th Street. The problem is this isn’t like any other sport. It never has been. This place (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) rests on its lineage, on its traditions, on its history. Those are elements that any sports marketing guy worth their salt is trying to get to.
“And to get there they’re having to use gimmicks. This place doesn’t need gimmicks. Has this place always attracted celebrities? Absolutely, no question about that. The great pictures with both Wilbur Shaw and Tony Hulman and Jane Mansfield. But that happened naturally. They didn’t pay them to come here. Forget gimmicks. It’s not necessary here. Other places you need that buzz to draw a segment. Here all you have to say is ‘same starting line Ray Harroun passed over nearly 100 years ago is exactly where they are going to be racing today.’ The whole history of what matters in the sport is happening within these two-and-a-half miles. People communicate with that. They identify with that.
The people involved with the Indy 500 have a deep-rooted passion for their crown jewel race and their series. As much as anyone with stock car heritage who cares about the Daytona 500. Neither form of racing is at the peak it once enjoyed. But the officers in NASCAR and Indycar would do well to adopt ideas from each other’s series that would excite the fans and strengthen the competition.
Both need to embrace their rich history and proudly display it. That is what brought both to the best days in the first place. And that is what will bring both back.
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