28 October 2009

Bringing IndyCar to the Masses, Part III

(The third in a series looking back at the 2009 IndyCar season and how the series can improve moving forward.)

Thus far, we've tackled IndyCar's move to Versus and the need for additional sponsors.  Honestly, these two issues go hand-in-hand.  And they also weave their way into the third issue facing the IndyCar Series - how to bring news fans to the track(s).

Growing up in Indianapolis, you know about racing; it's tough to spend any length of time here and not know that the month of May is a special time in the city, from the Mini-Marathon (come to think of it, what's special about running 13.1 miles?) to the parade to qualifications to the 500.  IndyCar racing takes on such a big part of Indianapolis' sporting spectrum that it is virtually impossible not to notice the race going on.

But as racetracks popped up in the mid-90's around the country, it became easier to not notice racing in local communities.  This year, I went to Kentucky Speedway for the Meijer Indy 300.  The track is fantastic, but it is in the middle of nowhere; because of this, I doubt that the local towns really feel much of an effect of the IndyCar Series rolling into town.  This is the case at many tracks that aren't located in communities like IMS is, but rather are on the outskirts of a town.  With that in mind, how does the IndyCar Series make their races relevant and bring people to the track who would otherwise miss the race?

Clearly, increased TV ratings and additional, mainstream sponsorship will help.  But the IndyCar Series needs to reevaluate some issues as well, in order to make attending a race more feasible.

For instance, after taking my wife to the Kentucky race, we looked into heading to Chicagoland for the IndyCar race.  However, with a 9 p.m. CT start, we knew there was next to no chance that we would be able to drive home following the festivities.  And the thought of driving from Joliet to the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago to stay with relatives was ruled out, too.  Now, had the race been at a more manageable time, say 6 or 7 p.m. CT, would we have made it?  There's a decent chance.

Moving start times so that the fans, not TV, has a controlling interest is sure to ruffle some feathers.  But I remain confident that a balance can be reached between the two, keeping fans from showing up for a race that doesn't start until late at night (Japan aside).

What else can the IndyCar Series do to bring fans to the track?  Keep up a trend I noticed at Homestead - each team had tickets to give away to the charity of their choice.  I don't know if this happens at every track, but it should.  Hopefully some of those tickets made their way into the hands of young people; by getting young kids to the track, the IndyCar Series can begin to create the next generation of racing fans.  And if kids go to the race and have a good time, they'll want to come back.  And if they come back, odds are they will bring their parents, allowing them to buy a Coke and a hot dog and maybe a souvenir, putting some money into the pockets of the IndyCar Series.

Along the lines of ticketing, we already have some progress being made.  Tracks that only allowed IndyCar race tickets to be purchased within season ticket packages have changed this rule, making it a little bit easier for IndyCar fans to buy tickets to the race at Chicagoland.  With that in mind, the tickets sold for the race will be more of a direct reflection upon the true number of fans at the race, which could be a boom-or-bust scenario for the series.

Finally, how do you go about bringing in new IndyCar fans?  Some of the responsibility falls on us as fans.  Talk up the series and racing to your friends and family who haven't been to a race or don't follow the series.  One of my favorite parts of the Indianapolis 500 is bringing someone who has never been to the race before and watching their reaction.  The speed, pageantry and everything else that goes along with the race sucks in a newcomer. 

So buy that extra ticket and invite some friends who have never been to a race.  If your friends like the race, have them renew some tickets for next year and bring more friends.  Not only will it enhance your race experience by growing your group of friends at the track, you're helping to support the IndyCar Series.  Seems like the easiest way to help fix things.

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