Thousands of racing fans will pour into Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night, excited to watch the 27th IndyCar race in the track’s history.
But, at a track with 128,655 permanent seats, almost half the seats are likely to go unfilled based on attendance at past races. Getting back to relevancy continues to be a challenge for the IndyCar Series, and everybody seems to have a reason why.
Maybe it’s been the wrong marketing strategy, pushing the technology of the cars instead of the personalities of the sport like NASCAR. Maybe there aren’t enough American drivers succeeding in the sport. Or maybe the series is doing it right and it’s just a matter of time before the small gains being made now start to pay off.
But patience wears thin, particularly when millions and millions of dollars are being spent. The biggest controversy today rests on the success of the new aero kits that IndyCar proudly introduced at the beginning of the year.
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The sport’s two manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda, were given free rein to build the kits from scratch with a variety of goals, namely providing a platform for developments in safety, performance and efficiency as well as promoting the IndyCar brand by featuring the fastest and most versatile cars in the world.
Money was poured into the project by the manufacturers and the teams, and the results have left some wondering whether this whole endeavor was even worth it.
“I drank the Kool-Aid 18 months ago, and I was excited about it thinking it would change the sport,” said Sam Schmidt, co-owner of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “And here we are, nine months later, and so far all it’s done is cost manufacturers millions and millions of dollars that could have been poured into advertising. And it cost the teams millions of dollars.
“So, as of June 2015, this has been a complete waste of time and money. We had incredible racing before, we had a championship down to the final race and it was great. Now, we’ve spent all this money and we’re getting marginally more fans, we’re getting marginally more viewers. It’s very, very frustrating from where I sit.”
As Schmidt alluded to, the new aero kits seem to have made more headlines for the wrong reasons than the right.
At the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, contact knocked loose some body parts of the new aero kits, resulting in an incident where a fan suffered a fractured skull after being struck by debris.
The Indy 500 had four significant crashes in the days leading up to the race, including three drivers going airborne and another, James Hinchcliffe, being hospitalized after slamming hard into the wall.
An altered aero kit design is being introduced again this week at Texas. The manufacturers have adjusted a closure panel for the front and back of the rear wheel guards, which should eliminate lift when a car is traveling backward at high speeds during an accident. They also changed the degree of the rear wing angle to increase the overall downforce with the hope that helps enhance the overall racing.
This new design hasn’t exactly made the sport become must-see when it visits town, although Chevy is likely more pleased with it than Honda at this point. Chevy cars have won six of the season’s first eight races.
Schmidt’s two cars are Hondas, but his issues with the new aero kits run deeper than that. He just doesn’t see the return on investment for any owner or manufacturer.
“If you’re 100 yards away, you can’t tell the difference between the new aero kits and the cars from a year ago,” Schmidt said. “I think we just need to cut our losses and go back to the [Dallara] DW12 chassis. And I’m not throwing IndyCar under the bus.
“In every business, you make decisions and hope the good ones outweigh the bad. When you make bad ones, you have to suck it up. We need to suck it up and say we’re going back to the DW12 because it’s best for the series, and best financially for the teams.”
More than the aero kits
The money poured into the technology behind the aero kits, Schmidt and others believe, would have been better served going all-in on building up the series’ personalities, as NASCAR has done.
That continues to rank as the No. 1 difference between IndyCar and NASCAR. In America, racing fans tend to gravitate toward the drivers themselves whereas overseas people affiliate more with the manufacturers.
Yes, there are Toyota guys or Chevy guys in America, but there is a heavier following based on the drivers themselves.
“That’s what you have to sell,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “We love our personalities.”
NASCAR fans root for Dale Earnhardt Jr. because of his down-to-earth nature despite being racing royalty. Some embrace Kyle Busch’s brashness, or Tony Stewart’s swagger of being an everyday guy who hates working out.
IndyCar, it seems, could have just as many colorful personalities. Helio Castroneves should be a superstar with his three Indy 500 wins and his Dancing with the Stars success.
Tony Kanaan is a likable veteran who stays in better shape than most of the young drivers. Marco Andretti comes from racing royalty, as does Graham Rahal. And reigning champion Will Power gets praise from his peers for his humor, and has a brother who is a standup comedian.
“IndyCar has a heck of a lot of good personalities in the sport, just like NASCAR,” Rahal said. “But nobody has a clue who some of them are. I hope we can get there someday.”
Rahal has been around the sport since he was born. His dad, 1986 Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal, raced during the heyday, so he understands what the sport could be — one that is must-see TV when it’s on and must-attend when it’s in town. For now, however, it’s been relegated to a niche sport.
But those open-wheel glory days also featured mostly American drivers compared to the international-filled series nowadays. That is a constant point of contention in the series.
Right or wrong, people seem to have more interest in the Al Unsers and Rick Mears than they do in the foreign drivers.
Three-time Indy 500 champ and Fort Worth resident Johnny Rutherford explained it, saying: “The American drivers bring a bigger fan base. Foreign drivers just don’t have that kind of fan base. It’s that simple.”
Kanaan, a Brazilian, understands it to an extent.
“I married an American girl, my son is American, and I understand you have to be true to your country,” Kanaan said. “I’d love to see more Americans in the series, but that’s not going to be the game-changer. It still comes down to the personalities you have, not the nationalities.
“We had a great American guy [Ryan Hunter-Reay] win the Indy 500 last year. Did we have more people following? We have Graham Rahal with a huge name behind him. … It’s all relative. If there is a great product and great personalities, people will come and people will watch.”
For all the perceived issues — the new aero kits, lack of Americans, etc. — IndyCar at least appears to be making the right strides.
This year’s Indy 500 saw its TV ratings increase for the third consecutive year, and touched numbers it hasn’t since 2008. On the same day, conversely, NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 hit a new low with an overnight rating of 3.6, its worst since Fox started covering the event in 2001.
That is a positive trend for IndyCar even though its Super Bowl, the Indy 500, still doesn’t come close to NASCAR’s, the Daytona 500, in terms of TV ratings.
But those steady gains help. Look no further than Saturday’s race at TMS, which will be carried on NBC Sports Network instead of its original destination, CNBC.
“IndyCar is growing in popularity,” Gossage said. “It’s good to see the needle moving in the right direction.”
There is still room for growth, of course, and it seems like there is an obvious elephant in the room that could help IndyCar — getting NASCAR fans interested in the sport.
NASCAR fans tend to think IndyCar is just a bunch of international pretty boys, while IndyCar fans refer to NASCAR cars as “taxicabs.”
“It is crazy,” Gossage said. “There’s arrogance by certain fans that look down their nose at the different series, and I don’t get it.
“Everybody wants to compare IndyCar and NASCAR and you really don’t have to do that.”
It’s a comparison IndyCar would welcome if its popularity ever gets back neck-to-neck with NASCAR’s.
“It’s about creating an interest for the fans to get a hold of,” Rutherford said. “I don’t know how long that’s going to take. It could be a couple of years, or it could be six months. But IndyCar is still good racing.”
Added Kanaan: “Are we at where we’re supposed to be? I don’t think so, but we’re taking steps in the right direction. We’re on a good swing. You can’t just hit the power ball. We just need to keep growing every year.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
RaceWeek at TMS schedule
12:30 p.m. Legends Races
3 p.m. Gates 2, 3, 4, 5, luxury suites and Victory Lane Club open
5:30 p.m. Pre-race show featuring Reckless Kelly
7:30 p.m. Firestone 600 (248 laps, 372 miles)
TV: NBC Sports Network; Radio: KRLD/105.3 FM
Post race: Show featuring Bleu Edmondson