Changes need to be made to boost IndyCar

Changes need to be made to boost IndyCar

Published May. 31, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

It’s not as if IndyCar racing needs to top Sunday’s dramatic and stunning 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500. It simply needs to take advantage of the attention and roll with the momentum.

The IZOD IndyCar Series should be primed to win back a chunk of the racing audience that it lost during the open-wheel split of the late 1990s.

The Indianapolis 500 garners the highest “casual fan” attention of the year, making it the single most important time to deliver some converts. How could you not be excited by a finish decided in the final 1,000 feet of a 500-mile race?

Danica or no-Danica, IndyCar is positioned for a run at the racing market, but there are some issues to address.


The race winner of the biggest race of the year doesn’t have a full-time ride after the checkered flag. Sound familiar? Trevor Bayne won the hearts of Americans and the Daytona 500 trophy in February, but was already scheduled to run a limited schedule with Wood Brothers Racing in the Cup ranks this season and held to that, though he has a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series.

Sunday’s Indy winner, Dan Wheldon, joked that his contract was “up at midnight.’’ Unlike Bayne, he doesn’t have anything at all lined up for the rest of 2011, except for a part-time gig working on the VERSUS telecasts (we’ll get to that later).

Wheldon is a proven commodity – the 2005 IndyCar Series champion, a driver who has won the Indy 500 twice and finished runner-up twice in the last six years. How is it even possible that someone this talented and marketable is without a ride?

Wheldon’s Indy 500 team owner, Bryan Herta, said late Sunday afternoon that his team is trying to position itself for a full-time, solid entry in 2012. Surely there is a sponsor that would step up now and fund a team that is more competitive and, therefore. more deserving of a starting position than half of the current field.

Of course, having great competition, compelling personalities and fantastic storylines won’t matter if no one knows about it. And this is arguably the biggest hurdle for IndyCar.

The series needs to address its television contract with VERSUS, which currently goes through the 2018 season.

VERSUS actually does a tremendous job with its preshow, postshow, mid-week studio show and race broadcasts – many feel it does better than previous efforts by larger networks. But because it’s hard to find VERSUS on the dial, no one is seeing the stellar product. And it’s not just fans that IndyCar is missing out on. It’s hard for sponsors to justify their spending when they aren’t getting the exposure they need.

The most obvious thing would be for VERSUS to shift at least its race broadcasts to sister network NBC. The overnight rating for the Indy 500 was higher than NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 this year, but that hasn't always been the case.

Drivers have privately complained about the situation for years. Team Penske president Tim Cindric told the Indianapolis Business Journal last week that changing the television package should be a priority for IndyCar.

“The TV contract is something that needs to change,’’ Cindric said. “We need to try to get on a network with a larger viewing audience. That’s the bottom line. For our sponsors, we have to do anything we can to drive ratings.’’ Founder Bob Parsons agrees and candidly told writer Lee Spencer that it is a deciding factor in where Danica Patrick ends up in 2012, IndyCar or NASCAR. He even suggested this week that Patrick would increase NASCAR ratings.

“The institution of IndyCar, there are some problems here no doubt,’’ Parsons said. “One of them is the VERSUS thing. I will never understand that decision.

“We measure our advertising religiously and our advertising results dropped in half when IndyCar moved to VERSUS. I was teasing somebody, ‘Why don’t they move it to short-wave radio? Broadcast it in Morse code. That’s one of the problems.’’

And that’s coming from someone whose driver gets more television mentions and attention than any other driver in the series, bar none.

Which brings us to the Danica Factor. The writing is on the wall, even if the words aren’t coming out of her mouth. She is most likely going to race in NASCAR full time in 2012, perhaps keeping her options open to a one-off drive in the Indianapolis 500.

Contrary to what you read and listen to, Patrick is not the only driver on the IndyCar starting grid. The IndyCar Series will be fine, however, as it shifts media attention to the other legitimate and interesting stories

Dario Franchitti has won the last two championships. There are up-and-coming American drivers, like second-generation driver Graham Rahal, who contribute name recognition as well as talent. And the competitive rivalry between Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi is better than any manufactured by NASCAR.

IZOD has been the best thing to happen to the series since the Indy Racing League left the open-wheel sandbox in a bitter feud with the established CART Series (Championship Auto Racing Teams) in 1996. Finally, here is a hip, capable company willing to invest money and marketing to spread the open-wheel word.

It is spending a lot of money and time to make the IndyCar races “cool,” must-see events – interesting for the racing and for the scene – and that’s what separates it from the good ol’ boys of NASCAR.

IndyCar isn’t NASCAR. And that is exactly what it has going for it.