Apathy Kills

It’s pretty easy to figure the worth of NASCAR’s NEXTEL Cup series, which has marketing tie-ins throughout popular media, from television, radio, magazines, billboards, stand-ups, newspapers and internet.

Product tie-ins abound for stock car racing; you can’t go anywhere in the state of Florida without seeing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. billboard. Motor homes traveling the highways – and side roads – of this state have affiliations noted on their flanks, for the #8, #88, #24, #48, #6, #9 or whomever.

The same doesn’t hold true for the open wheel set, though. Has anyone ever seen bumper stickers for open wheel racers? Does anybody have an “I [heart] Kimi Raikkonen or Juan Pablo Montoya decal in the rear window of their Expedition or X5 BMW, for that matter? I’ve seen a few plugs for Michael Schumacher, but only a few.

Can you find stand-ups of Tony Kanaan in your local 7/Eleven store? Didn’t think so.

The question of how to market open wheel racing, be it Formula One, the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar and Menards Infiniti Pro Series or the Champ Car World Series and its Toyota Atlantic ladder competition receives a lot of lip service but hardly ever, it seems does the promotion of this type of competition to the public become, well, public.

The American Le Mans Series recently put together a brochure of its 2004 year-end exposure analysis, using the services of Joyce Julius and Associates, Inc., a recognizable name in the product placement analysis industry. Everyone in this motorsports business uses analyses from this company; they’re quite reliable.

In its slick brochure, ALMS noted it receives as good – if not better exposure for its teams, drivers, primary and associate sponsors than either its straight-across competition, the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series, better than IRL and Champ Car. How does this happen?

Well, ALMS has several classes, as does Grand Am, and with diverse manufacturers and businesses in the mix, they’re able to cull more air time or print space for their cars than do any of the auto makers in F1, IRL and/or Champ Car.

While Toyota and Honda broadcast their US-based open wheel affiliations widely by using air time, likely the most recognizable name in IRL is Penske, not sponsor Marlboro; it’s Chip Ganassi’s Target Stores affiliation, more than drivers Scott Dixon, Darren Manning and Ryan Briscoe.

So the question remains: how do we get people in the stands and how do we get them to purchase products being advertised by sponsors of open wheel motor sports? How do we reach you, the couch potato sitting and watching the show we’re putting on for your benefit? How do we get you to patronize the people who keep our show on the road and who support our ongoing competition?

Certainly in the Indy Racing League, there are any number of fun, exciting and personable drivers to follow, starting with 2004 champion Kanaan and perennial competitor Helio Castroneves, the two-time Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner. For the “homers”, there’s 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, an All American kid from Phoenix, Arizona.

In the Champ Car arena, it’s easy to follow Paul Tracy, the acerbic and talented Canadian, but even he can’t pull in deflated dollars from his home country for sponsorship. Or you can be a fan of Bruno Junqueira, the perennial bridesmaid whose whines are often as tasty as a Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir.

In F1, you have 19 bridesmaids chasing Michael Schumacher, still on a racing rampage to secure a sufficient number of titles that he might never be challenged. Some of these guys could have personality but for the most part they are stifled by the extraordinarily overpowering demands of being an F1 driver.

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is trying to build his “brand” in the United States, using network television to broaden the reach of what he considers the highest form of open wheel racing.

At one time a lot of people here were interested in F1 but that seems to have changed in the Schumacher era. Is it because there is no American driver racing? Possibly, but 2004’s boring races and artificial competition “enhancements” would not have played any better on network TV than they did with Speed coverage.

Let’s say, just for supposition that Ecclestone is successful in wooing more American fans to worldwide F1 competition. What will that do for US-based fenderless formulae?

Some believe a Formula One revival in the United States would kill off the IRL and Champ Car; rather I think it would foster a halo effect in which people who watch an F1 race would then be drawn to home-based series.

After all, Indy racing and Champ Car events are far more accessible to them than is F1, where the only time fans get close to their driving heroes is during the Thursday pit walkabout at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

That walkabout, by the way is one of the few opportunities fans worldwide get to see the cars – and the stars of Formula One up close.

To see the drivers, teams and cars of our US-based open wheel series, all you need is a paddock pass and the ability to survive crowds. At that point you can wander to your heart’s content, ask questions of the crews and drivers and marvel at the Dallara, Lola and Panoz race cars as you listen to the roar of their methanol based engines.

If fans would tell the sanctioning bodies what’s needed to make the racing more relevant, perhaps there might be enough currency here to accommodate Formula One, Indy and Champ cars and their progeny.

It’s up to the fans to accept and embrace us, so please spend some money at your 7/Eleven stores, buy some Pioneer electronics, have a fish filet at McDonald’s and “expect more pay less” from Target.

Apathy is the enemy of American open wheel racing. We’re begging for your support to enhance our corporate value. And keep us around.

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