I’m pulling for open wheel racing in the United States, I really am. Last season proved that even perennial underdogs like Dale Coyne Racing can still win races, and most events came down to last-lap shootouts with two or three cars. Wheel to wheel racing was back, and the on-track action was finally better than watching Danica Patrick’s post-race, pit-row tantrums. It looked like the bizarre hype of the old days, when Champ Car tried to rely on Gene Simmons, pro wrestlers, carnival rides and live music to build attendance, was finally behind us. And then I see their latest marketing brainstorm: IndyCar is offering a $5 million bonus for an “outsider” to win the final event of the 2011 calendar, scheduled for October 16 in Las Vegas.
So let me get this straight: it’s not REALLY about the racing, or about making the drivers more accessible to build a fan base, or even about preparing for major rule changes in 2011. Instead it’s “sell the sizzle, not the steak” by throwing big cash at a NASCAR, F1 or WRC star to come in and take the checkered flag at the season ender. If that happens, and I seriously doubt it will, it will be because “Driver X” paid Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske enough to “rent” a top flight ride for the weekend. In other words, he’s willing to cough up $2 million for a one weekend ride, to walk away with $3 million in his pocket. The absurdity doesn’t stop there, though: IndyCar will give tickets to the Las Vegas race to anyone who buys tickets to another event, completely de-valuing Las Vegas tickets. How many fans have the budget for a fall weekend in Vegas, especially after attending other IndyCar events throughout the season? How is it going to look when the grandstands for the final race of the season are empty, because you “gave” tickets to non-attendees?
If I can make a recommendation to IndyCar, I’d suggest they fire the entire marketing and promotions staff. Focus on improving the racing and not on hyping a single event. Maybe teams that dominate race after race get a ballast penalty, just like in touring car competition, and maybe drivers with money and no talent (Milka Dunno, for example) should be kicked to the curb in favor of more competitive drivers. How about borrowing a rule from F1, where the worst lap time can be no more than 107% of the best lap time? And while I’m at it, how about you focus on returning some of the glory to the Indy 500, which used to be the “greatest spectacle in motor racing” but has evolved into “a good excuse to drink beer on the Sunday before Memorial Day”. Good racing is what it takes to win back fans, and that won’t happen overnight. Last year was a step in the right direction, and the 2012 changes will make next season the best in years. Please don’t screw the pooch in 2011.