Bring Back the Fans!

AGUANGA, CA, October 12, 2004 – My good pal Kathy has been involved in racing for as long as I’ve known her. Her ex-husband painted cars for the Granatelli family, Maury Kraines’ Kraco CART cars during the 1980s and early 1990s, the killer Nissan sports cars. Their shop was a legendary hangout for SoCal racers.

Kathy’s kids grew up at Riverside International Raceway’s Turn Six, where they played in the dust and dirt that personified the seminal road circuit. The family recognized every CART driver and team owner; they followed every single FIA Formula One race as though going to church; sports car weekends were like national holidays. They put up with NASCAR stock cars; at least the beer flowed in Turn Six as stock car drivers tried to master the turf. It was a lot of fun.

That’s changed. Ever since the Indy Racing League was formed and began racing in 1996, Kathy’s interest in racing has dwindled, little by little by little. She still follows F1 and will watch it with her current husband from their Kentucky home. They do have a tendency to fall asleep as they observe Michael Schumacher piling up the wins and points. Doesn’t everybody?

But when I regale her with stories about what’s going on in Champ Car or in the IRL, her eyes glaze over. She doesn’t even know the difference between Grand American Daytona Prototypes and the American Le Mans Series P1 cars. Kathy really doesn’t care anymore. And that’s a damn shame, isn’t it?

While CART and the Indy Racing League have been arguing for nearly a decade about who should control American-based open wheel racing, it’s apparent most people just don’t bother. Former fans haven’t given a hoot for a while and there’s very little that we in the industry are doing about it.

In the Open Wheel Civil War, the two fighting factions continue their separate ways. The Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series has the big prize – that 500-mile race in Indianapolis each May – and the Champ Car World Series continues to insist it can and should survive with a mix of [mostly foreign] street, road, short oval and superspeedway races.

In many cases, both series have given us some difficult events to follow on television; in the latter case, trying to watch the races is an obstacle in and of itself. No matter what time zone you’re in and the service you’ve contracted, Spike TV programming simply does not work, changing from vendor to vendor.

Champ Car competition between title contenders and teammates Sebastien Bourdais, Bruno Junqueira and a supporting cast of characters getting more proficient with each race has been entertaining to watch. Yet the races translate poorly on ill-produced television shows and the officiating, as current champ Paul Tracy will eagerly declare is abysmal, run by “circus clowns”.

If the Tres Amigos’ (Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi) Open Wheel Racing Series is to survive and thrive, they’ve got to take care of the important stuff, the show they put on. Otherwise, the Kathy’s of this world will continue to go away.

The IRL’s races are competitive and close, but people don’t seem to show up, or they show up late or they just don’t watch. I realize some potential viewers don’t appreciate side-by-side racing lap after lap after lap and might not get the nuances.

Apart from that, IndyCar Series tickets are cheap or free if you know somebody, the racing is technical and the competition is truly tight and still respectful. IndyCar Series drivers are interesting, new champion Tony Kanaan is an extreme athlete with a fabulous sense of humor and three teammates who love to rile him.

The title chase went to the penultimate race, a huge difference from prior years when the title was decided on the final lap or turn. Officiating is even-handed, there’s plenty to see up close and personal, drivers and team members are available to talk with most any time and, yeah, the show is excellent. What’s the problem?

Even NASCAR is turning off its fans with the new “Chase for the Cup”, instigated at the start of this season as new series sponsor NEXTEL came aboard. The Chase has alienated some of NASCAR’s most fervent fans, as has the necessity for drivers to be politically correct, something NASCAR never was in its waxing years.

Rising ticket prices for Cup races, the inability to bring along a simple bottle of water (rather than paying upwards of $2.50) into most tracks and the manipulated on-circuit action is becoming more than a turn-off for the paying public; it’s becoming a good reason to either stay home and watch races on television or find something else to do with their time and money.

NASCAR remains the most popular form of motor sport in the United States – and will soon gain fans in Mexico – but there are some dings in the armor. Fans like my pal Kathy just can’t get their arms around the Chase and the manipulated “competition” it showcases. Particularly when NASCAR bosses feel compelled to penalize one of their most popular drivers for being candid and saying “excrement” on TV.

Is NASCAR becoming too sanitized for its fans?

Part of the show, as some folks are forgetting, is being entertained by people who do extraordinary things in competition yet behave like the rest of us when finished with work. Showing a bit of excitement about winning is normal; being told what to say and do isn’t normal or right or democratic.

As the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) and the Indy Racing League (IRL) inch toward the end of their 2004 seasons, it’s apparent they all continue to alienate the folks who come through the turnstiles.

All three can change their problems with somewhat simple solutions. Champ Car could do with some true officiating and less rules tampering. Keep the push-to-pass button on those 750-horsepower Cosworth XFE engines and alternate rubber from Bridgestone; dump those ugly pit stop rules and allow the competition to figure itself out.

In the Indy Racing League, it’s time to get those fun drivers and their teams in the public consciousness. With real companies like 7-Eleven, Marlboro (Philip Morris), XM Satellite Radio, Centrix Financial Services, Jim Beam, Delphi, Target, Pioneer, Tag Heuer, Argent Mortgage and so many others on board, why isn’t there more cooperative marketing going on and cross-branding?

As for NASCAR, which has taken cross-branding to that mythical “another level”, maybe a step back and think of those drivers long gone, about to retire and the good ones coming up. It’s time to let all these men compete and treat them like men, with respect. They are putting their butts on the line after all.

Racing doesn’t have a lot of problems, and the best way to make sure the difficulties this industry does have don’t grow is to recognize and treat them now, rather than letting them fester. Nobody expects it to be easy, but it’s time to win back true fans like Kathy and treat them right.