June 8, 2014

Texas oversaturated, or does IndyCar have vroom to grow?

Texas Motor Speedway estimates a crowd at 65,000 for Saturday’s IndyCar race but is concerned with Houston competition.

Texas is known for a lot of things, from football to barbecue to doing everything “big.” Maybe open-wheel racing will join that list one day.

The state has suddenly become a hotbed for open-wheel races. IndyCar has two stops on its schedule, to Fort Worth and Houston, and Austin is home to an annual Formula One race.

Avid fans of the sport are OK with it, of course.

“If you’re a real race fan, there’s never enough racing,” said Brandon Mazza, a 28-year-old from Austin who attended the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday.

And that’s how IndyCar views it.

C.J. O’Donnell, the series’ chief marketing officer, doesn’t view the region as oversaturated with open-wheel races.

As O’Donnell said, “A rising tide floats all boats. If motorsports is popular and we’re all doing a good job, I don’t see them stealing a ton of our business and vice versa.

“The early indications have been that the state can handle races in both markets, and it’s a platform we’re planning to use for years ahead.”

TMS president Eddie Gossage isn’t fully on board with that assessment. He knows the Houston track has cut into TMS’ attendance figures and would have preferred things to remain the same, but isn’t going to concern himself with it after the fact.

“The state probably is oversaturated,” Gossage said. “But we aren’t campaigning to get rid of Houston, it is what it is. We had a pretty good night Saturday, and we want to grow from there.”

TMS estimated 65,000 attended this year’s IndyCar race, and Gossage is more pleased with how IndyCar is running things nowadays. A couple years ago, he thought about dropping IndyCar from the racing schedule because the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement.

Those days are in the past.

“I’m really pleased with what they’re doing,” Gossage said. “I’m excited about the future of IndyCar, they’re doing a lot of things to help grow the sport.”

Growing the sport has been the top task for O’Donnell, who has been on the job about six months. It comes down to two simple concepts, O’Donnell said.

“We want to thrill our fans and champion our heroes,” O’Donnell said. “It boils down to that.”

O’Donnell and his team couldn’t have asked for a better opening push to do that than this year’s Indianapolis 500. An American, Ryan Hunter-Reay, won the prestigious race by a narrow margin over Helio Castroneves, the most recognizable driver in the sport.

Keeping the thrill is part of the reason why IndyCar allowed cars more downforce during Saturday’s race at TMS. It tightened the field and helped them better showcase the speed and danger of the cars.

Championing their heroes is just as important, if not more, than thrilling the fans. If IndyCar is able to get fans attached to particular drivers, it will have acquired lifelong consumers of the sport.

“Only a few drivers have broken out beyond the sport to become well known in the last few years,” O’Donnell said. “If we can accomplish that, and it won’t happen overnight, it will really be the thing that can make this sport grow.”

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