Why a lack of interest in auto racing in America?

Attendance is down in racing across America.  Television audience numbers are dwindling even for Nascar.  Everyone it seems has their own opinion on why and what the answer is.

My friend Michael Knight in his Spin Doctor 500 blog talks about the problem he sees.

John Daly through his The Daly Planet blog tackles what’s wrong on the TV side of things.

I’ll give my opinion on the TV coverage first.  I think it lacks passion.

Some will say that Darryl Waltrip has passion.  Possibly but it’s turned into just blabbing on and on and he’s also become a mouthpiece for the series.  Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

Same can be said over in IndyCar even with changes they have ahead.  No passion and no really delving into controversies or anything that might make the series squirm.

As far as fan attendance, no question the economy hurts. When the Motel 6 suddenly goes from $39.95 a night to $350 a night with a 3-day minimum, you have a problem.

However, I think another factor is at work.  Fans cannot relate to the cars they see.  We use to go to the race track and see cars we could drive.  Many were cars we dreamed about cruising in on the highway.

FerrariThat crossed my mind after seeing a huge crowd at the 12 Hours of Sebring.  The facility was packed and why?  They wanted to see Corvettes, Ferraris, Porsches, Jaguars, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis.

Car nuts dream about driving those cars and love seeing them in action. Fans wandered the paddock and because the way ALMS is setup, they got up close to those cars and could interact with team members including even drivers.

Chevy ImpalaWe all fantasize about being Mario Andretti (okay, my dream) and zooming around the race track in an exotic car. Hard to do that when watching a Ford Fusion, a Toyota Camry, Dodge Challenger or Chevy Impala . (The old Impala was a hot car, now it’s just a passenger car.)

This isn’t the only reason for the lack of interest in racing but when there is no emotional connection by the fans to the product, there is no reason to attend or watch on television.

My first 12 Hours of Sebring

032206224057Somehow I never had attended the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring until this past weekend. That changed after the American LeMans Series hired me to become the public address announcer for them along with the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge by Yokohama and the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship.  To say it was an experience wouldn’t do it justice.

Arriving at the track in Tuesday afternoon, I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of participants.  Almost 60 cars were on hand for the 12 Hours but that was just the beginning.  Add in excess of over 100 more in various series and it was race car junkie heaven.

Larry-pre race at SebringMy real eye-opening experience was race day morning for the 12 Hours.  I did the pre-race announcing from down on pit road and also on the track amongst a crowd of wall-to-wall fans. They were old, they were young and some so young they were in strollers.  Drivers were posing by their cars for pictures and interacting with the fans.

Once the race started the action on-track was non-stop and the same could be said in the infield.  Fans cruised in their vehicles slowly on the interior roadways.  They wandered the grounds.  In fact, thanks to cars going to and from the paddock, the fans would have to part to let frantic teams through to execute repairs.

032206230665At the end of the day, it was a sea of humanity around the podium where the top three finishing teams were honored.

I had the privilege of introducing all of the winners and then dashing away as champagne filled the air.  I never knew I was as nimble as I must have been because 60 bottles of champagne were sprayed and not a single drop hit me.

Around 12:30 in the morning Sunday I finally hit the bed for a few hours of sleep before heading to the airport in Tampa to return to Detroit.

I wish I could really give each and every one of you the same experience I had.  The adrenaline rush I had at the beginning of the day when I was standing in front of the pole winning Peugeot was incredible. The atmosphere memorable.

I may still be tired from long days and hot temperatures but I’d do it all again right now.  The 60th running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring can’t get here fast enough!

IndyCar and SMI “dis” the Indianapolis 500

Many IndyCar fans and even long-time journalists are applauding the recent announcement by IndyCar and Las Vegas Motor Speedway (SMI) of a 5 million dollar bonus to any non IndyCar regular that would win the season-ending race at that track.  I say it’s a smear against the Indianapolis 500.

If the Indianapolis 500 is your marquis event of the season, why then does a piddly season ending race pay almost twice as much to win as does the Indianapolis 500? (Dario Franchitti took home 2.75 million this past May for winning “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”)

The reason is simple.  Bruton Smith, the man behind SMI and LVMS along with IndyCar want to try and bring interest to a race that won’t come close to selling out without something big. (Don’t look for a sellout even with this.)

If there is to be a bonus for a non-regular, why not Indianapolis?  Maybe they could get some of the great names of racing who at one time made it to Indianapolis to race once a year return? And is a bonus for an outsider really fair to those that work hard every week?

I know it’s a very long shot for a non-regular to win at LVMS but to me it makes no sense to pay someone more for winning that race than the Indianapolis 500.  Oh and throw this in.  The season champion that runs all of the IndyCar events only gets a 1 million dollar paycheck.

IndyCar has gotten so desperate to survive with its declining fan base and driver recognition that they are more than willing to do gimmick after gimmick with SMI.

I refuse to drink the Kool-aid and sadly this just confirms my belief that the Indianapolis 500 has now become just another race in the IndyCar season.

The Daytona 500 once again “The Great American Story.”

I’m a sucker for a great story. To me, great stories are what make racing so interesting to me.  This year’s Daytona 500 had three of them.

Sam Cranston-Nascar llustratedThe first great story was that of Brian Keselowski. I’ve known Brian for several years and talk to him whenever I can at the race track.  I know how hard he works to stay in the sport he loves and how he struggles each and every week just to show up.

During the second Gatorade Duel at Daytona, Brian’s younger brother Brad, who is now a star Nascar driver for Roger Penske, pushed Brian into a qualifying spot for the Daytona 500.

Suddenly, the plain white car with the #92 on it and a crew of the driver, father and a friend were in the Daytona 500.

Roger Penske stepped up offering an engine. Ray Evernham, whose two year old chassis Keselowski was driving, offered to buy tires. During the first pit stop in the Daytona 500, the fueler from the A.J. Allmendinger Best Buy team did his normal job for Keselowski.  This indeed was the vaunted Nascar family at work!

63606742Then, in the Daytona 500, rookie Trevor Bayne in just his second ever Nascar Sprint Cup race, held off a hard charging Carl Edwards and won the race. This put the once dominant car owners the Wood Brothers back into victory lane after several years of struggles and even not qualifying for the Daytona 500.

Every fan in attendance at Daytona was up cheering the victory, no matter there driver allegiance. Even the media, who aren’t suppose to cheer, did because this was a great American story and showed perseverance by good people does pay off.

I got to sit down with Trevor Bayne, Eddie and Len Wood and crew chief Donnie Wingo the morning after the Daytona 500. They were all walking on air as well they should be for quite a long time.

I’ve talked to Brian Keselowski since he raced in the Daytona 500 and being involved in the “Big One” that ended his day early.  He’s back working on his car and trying to find that one extra dollar that can keep him on the track.  He’s still smiling and upbeat as he always has been even when his struggles seemed almost impossible to overcome.

The 53rd Daytona 500 may be remembered for it’s exciting finish but I’ll remember it more for the people and their story.

Is it time to shorten Nascar Sprint Cup races?

Everyone is trying to find an answer to Nascar’s declining television ratings. Some point to a dull Chase format, some to boring races and some to bad television production of Nascar races.

One idea that I like has actually been suggested by Fox Sports Chairman David Hill. (Here’s the story) His idea? Shorten all Sprint Cup races to fit into a 3 hour window with another one hour set aside for pre-race and post-race combined.

California finally caught on that 500 miles was too long there and shortened their race to 400 miles.  It turned into a better race.

Do we really need 500 miles twice at Pocono? 500 laps at a Bristol?

I would keep Daytona obviously at 500 miles, the 600 at Charlotte but everything else would be negotiable.

A NFL football game runs approximately 3 hours, a college football game about the same.  NBA game?  A little over two hours.  NHL? Two-and-a-half hours.

America’s attention span keeps getting shorter and shorter and maybe it’s time to fit the product to the audience.

One idea I’m not in favor of that Hill suggested is that many of the races move to Saturday night to stay away from going up against the NFL.

To me that forgets the person who is paying their hard earned money to attend the race as opposed to someone sitting in their La-Z-Boy at home.

Would I really want fans driving hours to go back home after a race ended at 10:30 at night? No matter what, fans that buy tickets must come first in any decision. They have earned that right by giving up not only money but their time to attend a race in person.

As I’ve said before, Nascar and its television partners can market the hell out of the racing but it still comes down to the product every week on the race track. Come up with a great solution to that and all will be well.

Two-wide restarts for IndyCar on ovals? What a joke!

IndyCar right now is looking for anything to generate a scintilla of excitement around a series which has lost much of its luster.  One new change that follows Nascar’s lead is for double-file restarts on oval tracks.

On paper, this sounds like a good idea.  However, paper is not reality.

Let’s look at what has gone on for at least 10 years under the “brilliant” leadership of Brian Barnhart, President of Competition and Racing Operations of the series shall we?

IndyCarThe Indianapolis 500 was always known for it’s three-wide, 11 rows of three “Flying Start.” All the rows would come off turn 4, perfectly lined up, and the green flag would fly. That tradition ended under Barnhart who has let the field start stringing out in TURN 3 BEFORE THE GREEN FLAG and be almost single file to start the race!

If these are the best drivers in the world, then let them come to the start of the race the way the great names in racing did! I guess Barnhart doesn’t’ have much faith in them.

This starting in turn 3 also took place at every other oval on the IndyCar Series schedule and also on every restart.

IndyCar says it is addressing that “situation” in its press release on the two-wide restarts.

When the field hears “green next time by,” the restart zone will be closer to the start/finish line and be identified according to each venue’s characteristics. On ovals, the restart area had been between Turns 3 and 4.

“It’s a fan’s expectation that it’s where the restart should take place. It should be an exciting change,” Barnhart said.”

You mean the fans actually expect the field to be on the main straightaway where they at least can see the start/finish line before restarting?  How novel an idea!

As I’ve said before, I’m a Neanderthal when it comes to the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar racing, but the problem isn’t tricks and marketing, it’s the racing..and gimmicks won’t cure the problem.

Déjà vu all over again?

By now you know that I worked with Championship Auto Racing Teams as a radio announcer during that series glory years of the late 80’s and through the 90’s.  I was there to see many of the mistakes that were made that ultimately led to the demise of a series that once provided the best racing in the world. IndyCar, far from providing that same level of competition, is beginning to follow the same path.

A few days ago I received a news release from IndyCar. It read: “INDYCAR, the sanctioning body of the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will open an office in Santa Monica, Calif., to make further inroads into the media and entertainment industries.”

It went on to say “INDYCAR is in a unique position for growth that makes opportunities for integration into film, television, music and emerging media properties exciting. “

Excuse me? Anyone remember the God awful movie “Driven?” (BTW, you can hear me in that movie and I still say it should be banned from anyone viewing it again!”

Here we go thinking that the series is somehow full of “stars” that the entertainment world just wants to hear more about. The only reason anyone in Hollywood might even know IndyCar exists is because Ashley Judd is married to Dario Franchitti.

IndyCar’s problem is product and very poor officiating. Put rouge on a pig, you still have a pig.

CART thought they were the “elite” of the world and kept moving into the “wine and cheese” lifestyle presentation.  If IndyCar heads down that path they too will be doomed.

It’s not as much about putting butts in the seats every week these days as it is TV ratings where the big money is to be made. You can attract people to the “party” such as at Long Beach and Toronto, but can you get them to become real fans? An outreach to the Hollywood community isn’t going to do a thing to change that.

As I said, I’ve seen this road taken before and it leads to a  hubris that can only spell trouble.  Think you are bigger and better than you are and not work on improving the reality of the situation and you are doomed to failure.

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