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Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe of Canada laughs with his crew during practice time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis May 25, 2012. (Brent Smith/Reuters)
Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe of Canada laughs with his crew during practice time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis May 25, 2012. (Brent Smith/Reuters)

Motorsports

Forget the report, IndyCar should focus on its top drivers Add to ...

Sometimes knowing exactly what not to do can be extremely valuable when you are trying to solve a problem.

IndyCar might want to keep this in mind as it evaluates a report it commissioned to help it chart its future.

The Associated Press got its hands on the 115-page report submitted by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and published some if the details late last week. AP outlined several strategies in the report designed to help the IndyCar Series boost its almost non-existent fan base and help the Indianapolis Motor Speedway increase profits. The Speedway and IndyCar parent company Hulman & Co., hired BCG last year to help it develop a long-term strategic plan for the growth of its motorsports business.

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After the AP story appeared, Hulman & Co., chief executive Mark Miles was quick to point out in a written statement that the report obtained by AP was an early version, although he confirmed the document did include some elements of the strategic plan.

“BCG examined many important questions throughout this process, including how to define our overall brand, how our motorsports properties can attract more fans, how we can make our races more appealing to television viewers and live audiences, and how we can help our teams, partners and other stakeholders be more financially successful because of our relationship,” the statement read.

“The work BCG has done provides conversation points around several important areas of our business as we shape our thinking about the future, but our strategy has not yet been finalized.”

Miles added that Hulman & Co. would be sharing information with stakeholders and listening to feedback before coming to any final conclusions. He also stressed that the series is still in the early stages of this process.

IndyCar has suffered though years of declining television ratings and lack of sponsorship dollars, a situation which has not improved since the two rival open wheel series in the U.S. reunited in 2008. The split happened in 1996 when Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George broke away from the existing Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Series and founded the Indy Racing League. George’s action wreaked havoc on open wheel racing in North America. When the fight was done and CART’s successor Champ Car was swallowed by the IRL, open wheel seemed to be in its death throes. On the other hand, the split created opportunity for NASCAR, which used the infighting to become a behemoth that dominates the racing landscape.

Meanwhile, the reunited IndyCar has limped along, trying to find relevance among U.S. racing fans. It hired Randy Bernard in 2010, hoping the former Professional Bull Riders boss, who turned a fringe sport into a multi-million dollar sports property, could work his magic on IndyCar. Bernard was dumped late last year and the series went back to the drawing board.

The good news in the report is that the consulting company told Hulman to keep its hands on the Speedway and the IndyCar Series. That fact shows that both clearly have value and potential to bring profit. Frankly, IndyCar has no place to go but up and a workable strategy should be able to improve its stead.

IndyCar’s on-track product is solid, but it has suffered from underexposure in recent years, mostly due to a poor television deal that has kept most of its races from getting on one of the big three U.S. networks. The series is shown mostly on the NBC Sports Network in the U.S with selected events on ABC due to a deal that includes the Indianapolis 500. In Canada, IndyCar just signed a deal to have its races on Sportsnet. The report recommends changing the U.S. arrangement, although achieving that no-brainer goal may be a bit tougher.

On the other hand, the fact that IndyCar says it has changed or revised some of the recommendations is a good thing because a few are downright silly.

For example, the idea of having a NASCAR-style playoff at the end of the season to determine the series champion is simply dumb. The report apparently outlines a 15-race season where the final three starts would be used as a mini-Chase for the Cup to crown that year’s champ.

The problem with this idea is twofold. First, and most importantly, the declining number of fans shows that this contrived format isn’t popular with NASCAR fans. Despite last season’s riveting battle to the wire , the television numbers for the 10-race playoff were their worst ever.

Overall, the trend has been a steady decline in viewers since the first small gain in Year 2 of the Chase. Since 2009, the 10-race championship showdown has lost an average of almost 1.3 million sets of eyes per race.

NASCAR tweaked the format several times over the past few years to try to get fans more interested, but they continue to switch channels or simply not watch at all.

The second reason that a Chase-style playoff wouldn’t work is the length of the IndyCar season. With only 15 events to play with as opposed to NASCAR’s 36, having a separate championship doesn’t make sense. When you consider that one bad outing in NASCAR’s 10-race showdown is usually enough to sink a driver’s title bid, imagine the caution IndyCar drivers would use in a three-stop winner-take-all championship battle.

It’s puzzling that the report insists a playoff is needed to boost ratings at the end of the season because “because the series does not have a mechanism to create suspense,” since every IndyCar championship since unification has been decided in the final race of the year.

In addition, the report suggests that IndyCar’s 15-race season should happen over 19 weeks, including the three-race playoff. Considering that IndyCar is paying a huge price in lost opportunities marketing its first U.S. champion – Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter Reay – in six years due to a six-month off season, suggesting that IndyCar have the lights out for seven-and-a-half months per year is laughable.

The strangest recommendation of the report is the idea that the series should focus on marketing IndyCar’s drivers as the “most skilled, daredevil drivers,” rather than their personalities.

While on-track performance matters, trying to sell highly-skilled racers as 1930s-style barnstorming daredevils will not secure the future of the sport. The reality is that most people who go to a race or watch one on TV will never really understand the skill level needed to pilot an IndyCar and painting it as some sort of modern day thrill show will only turn IndyCar into a curiosity.

Besides, it’s the exact opposite of what NASCAR did to become the 600-pound gorilla in North American racing, which is something that should carry some weight. The stock car series is all about the drivers and their various personalities, because that’s what resonates deeply with fans.

It works too in IndyCar. Just witness the throngs of fans who gather around Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who genuinely engages with the people buying tickets and knows how to work a crowd and the media.

Like it or not, IndyCar’s brass needs to stop commissioning reports and start following Hinchcliffe around during a race weekend, and take some notes while they are at it.

His authentic, down-to-earth approach made him the series’ most popular driver last year and there’s little doubt he will repeat as the crowd favourite this year. And that’s something IndyCar needs to embrace if it wants to turn things around.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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