In Counterpoint, Paul Dalbey and Steph Wallcraft of MoreFrontWing.com face off on topics related to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Neither reviews the other's argument until after the article is compiled for posting. It's up to you to decide who's made the better case!
This week: should Randy Bernard listen to existing INDYCAR fans when planning the season schedule?
Now that the 2011 IZOD Indycar Series has passed its midway point, we can begin to look to 2012 and speculate about next season’s race schedule. Frankly, guessing at schedules is one of my least favorite things to do because there are just way too many moving parts and important variables that are beyond INDYCAR’s control. As we saw last year when major schedule adjustments were necessary because of shifts in NASCAR’s 2011 schedule, trying to guess what might happen if one domino falls is a tangled web that requires way too many ifs for us to figure out.
What is important, though, is that the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule be a reflection of the types of races that the fans are most interested in seeing. While it is true that the IICS cannot simply show up and put on a race at any track the fans choose, it is important that fans feel every effort is exhausted to include their favorites. Whether that's Phoenix or Road America or Cleveland, fans need to know that the tracks they are clamoring for most are considered before others about which they are mostly apathetic.
There is probably no more divisive topic in open-wheel racing than the composition of the schedule with regard to ovals vs. road/street courses. Just thinking of the topic makes my head spin and makes the argument over spec cars vs. open competition seem like child’s play. There are still small but passionate factions of fans who believe the IICS should be either 100% ovals or 100% twisties. We’ve already been there, and those schedules didn’t work. The original IRL model didn’t work because fans still want to see open-wheel cars take on the great road and street circuits of North America. Likewise, the Champ Car model failed because oval racing is the backbone of racing in America and to wipe it from the slate is to turn your back on over 100 years of racing heritage. Knowledgeable fans of the Series understand that the schedule really needs to be a diverse mix of racing on both road/street circuits and ovals and that maintaining that diversity is the best way to stabilize the current fan base and gain new fans over the long run. Should the schedule get off-balance as it was through the early 2000s, fans will again quickly lose interest in open-wheel racing, and the fledgling momentum that INDYCAR is currently enjoying will disappear.
The majority of fans have said they want to see a well-balanced mix of events, and as much as possible, Bernard has delivered and INDYCAR has done a good job of maintaining that balance. Last year, fans said they wanted to move away from so many dangerous 1.5-mile speedways (and particularly those owned by ISC, at which INDYCAR was largely treated like the red-headed stepchild) and toward short ovals. In response, Bernard dropped ISC-owned 1.5-mile ovals at Chicago and Kansas and added 1-mile ovals at Milwaukee and New Hampshire. Fans have asked to have Michigan back on the schedule, and while Bernard has not been able to deliver Michigan quite yet, he gave the next best thing in its sister track in Fontana, California, which was announced last week as being part of the 2012 schedule.
Bernard needs to be very careful of seeing too many dollar signs from new events that don’t really have a significant appeal to the INDYCAR fan base. Rumors of a second race in Brazil, a race in China and/or Qatar, or even the newly rumored street race in Fort Lauderdale are unlikely to significantly move the needle in terms of American appeal. Furthermore, their priority over events such as the aforementioned Phoenix and Road America races could be seen by some fans as an isolating move and cause fans to fear a return to the closed-off days of the George administration. In an era where uniting the fan base under the banner of INDYCAR has to be at the forefront of every decision, fostering memories of the divisiveness of the George era is the last thing that’s needed!
Obviously, there is no way that Randy Bernard could ever be given a crystal clear indication of the fans’ desires because of the diverse cross-section that makes up the INDYCAR fan base. Most fans realize that and understand that not every decision made by Bernard is necessarily going to meet with their approval. However, as long as Bernard and INDYCAR continue to listen to the fans, hear their concerns, and make every effort to satisfy the general sentiment of the fan base, the fans will continue to reward the Series with their loyalty and their support.
The fallout from this weekend's race sealed it for me -- INDYCAR's current core fan base doesn't know what's good for the growth of this sport, and Randy Bernard needs to stop putting so much weight on their opinions when it comes to scheduling races.
Let's use two very recent examples to illustrate this point: Milwaukee and Toronto.
The current fan base kicked and screamed and cried that Milwaukee needs to be on the schedule. It's the only track in America with a history older than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's an oval -- a flat short oval at that -- and unique oval tracks are becoming harder to come by. Plus, we need to maintain that precious 50/50 ratio, right?
Well, race weekend came around, and guess what -- the race was entertaining (in spite of some faults), but the crowd was terrible, the corporate and sponsorship support wasn't enough, and the TV numbers only hit a 0.8 rating on ABC after being promoted during the Indy 500 broadcast three weeks before (compare that to a 1.4 for the St. Petersburg race, the season opener).
Now, let's look at Toronto. There was the usual amount of criticism going in, but there was even more coming out. A faction of the sport's most dedicated fans complained that there was too much contact, it wasn't real racing, this type of track doesn't belong on the schedule, et cetera.
But again, look at the numbers: the grandstands were packed, corporate and sponsor support increased substantially, and not only did Versus pull its second-highest rating yet for an INDYCAR race at a 0.5 (not blockbuster but definitely an improvement), but TSN (the Canadian sports network) received its highest rating for a Toronto race since 1997 and the best rating for an INDYCAR event ever with more than 1.2 million unique viewers tuning in at some point during the broadcast.
What can we conclude from this? The current fan base is a very vocal minority that either doesn't always put their money where their mouths are or isn't large enough to pay the bills. There's a group of us that likes to think of INDYCAR as being a little family-run operation that puts people first, but it can't be. It's a sport and a business, and it needs to attract attention and earn profits to stay alive.
Randy Bernard has a job to do. The Toronto race brought in sorely needed outside attention and dollars, and he needs to figure out how to continue to do that. It's been demonstrated that it won't happen by going to places like Milwaukee or Chicagoland or Homestead. It can happen by going to city streets to take the racing to the fans, or to the oval in Vegas to create a destination weekend for out-of-town visitors, or to Sonoma to give his corporate clients an ideal place to entertain their guests, or to Iowa where enthusiastic fans sell out the grandstands and the drivers put on a great show.
There are certain issues for which Bernard should definitely go to the fan base for input. When a near-unanimous opinion exists among current fans, Bernard can use those strong feelings to define what makes INDYCAR racing unique in the world of motorsport, and he can then tout those attributes when marketing to new eyes. The off-season controversy about the Lucky Dog rule is a perfect example: nearly all INDYCAR fans vehemently opposed it, so Bernard can use what he learned from that passionate response to market to NASCAR fans who are growing tired of that organization's gimmicks. But now, it's easy to see that these sorts of issues are as far as input from current fans should go, and decisions like scheduling that drastically affect the bottom line need to be made independently.
There were some people who were so upset about this weekend's race that they threatened to walk away if a similar event unfolds in the future. It would be interesting to see how many of those same people complained about the nearly pass-free event at Barber last year -- or this year's entertaining race at Barber, for that matter. For some people, a race that's not exactly what they want to see -- whether that's wheel-to-wheel spec racing at an oval, a race on a road course with constant passing but zero contact, or even just the Indianapolis 500 and nothing else can measure up -- will always draw blustering and ire. A diverse schedule that demands a wide range of talent from its drivers is demonstrably the most commercially viable form of open-wheel racing on this continent, but some people can't see that through being so mired in wanting to see what they like and nothing else.
It's time for Randy Bernard to put all of this behind him and move forward with the best interest of the sport in mind. The question that he needs to ask himself is this: if one impossible-to-please fan walks away for every three enthusiastic new ones who walk in, should INDYCAR really care?
Paul Dalbey (@Fieldof33) and Steph Wallcraft (@99forever) are co-editors of MoreFrontWing.com (@MoreFrontWing), your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Reach them both at firstname.lastname@example.org.