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.

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.

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.

What will 2011 bring?

Unfortunately I do not have a crystal ball nor can I read the future.  If I could, I’d be on a beach sipping those umbrella drinks after hitting the lottery. I do have some questions though as the 2011 racing season is about to get underway.

The top question, as it has been now for five years, can anyone dethrone Jimmie Johnson as the Nascar Sprint Cup Champion? The answer of course is yes they can but the second question is WILL they!

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle would have to be my top four choices to have the best chance to do what seems impossible anymore. There are several others that could also come through.

Next, will the changes at Hendrick payoff in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finally being competitive every week and break his two plus year victory drought? Don’t have a clue.

Over in IndyCar, will someone other than Penske and Ganassi battle for the series title?  The other teams are improving but have yet to prove they are in the league of the Big Two.

Speaking of Ganassi, does he dominate the Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype class again? Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas were almost untouchable in 2010 and testing at Daytona for the Rolex 24 is showing they are just as strong right now.

Over in ALMS, I’m just having trouble keeping track of all the classes. Will it be Patron Highcroft for a third straight year taking the LMP crown?

The NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series had two great stories in 2010.  60 plus year old John Force coming from behind to claim his 15th Funny Car title and rookie L.E. Tonglet going from almost done for the season to taking the Pro Bike title. 

NHRA also had three tragic stories with the death of a fan and two drivers.

I have no clue who is going to claim the title in any of the 4 pro divisions but hopefully all four will be as competitive as Funny Car has been.

I am looking forward to kicking off the season taking in all the action at Daytona from the Rolex 24 through the Daytona 500 as I’m privileged to be part of the PA crew there.

Let’s just all hope that each and every racing series that we enjoy keeps us on the edge of our seats until the final checkered flag falls.

Ringing out the old year

2010 was definitely an interesting year in auto racing.  Jimmie Johnson comes from behind to win Nascar Sprint Cup title #5 in a row. Dario Franchitti not only wins the Indianapolis 500 but he comes from behind to claim the IndyCar title. Chip Ganassi won the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner with Franchitti plus the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 with Jamie McMurray.  Oh, Chip also took the Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype crown in dominating fashion with ageless Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas.  Those were just the top of the list in outstanding racing moments of the year in the United States.

The lowest moment may have been the pothole problem during the Daytona 500.  When your biggest event of the year turns into a stretch of Michigan highway (I believe we are the pothole capital of the world) that is not a good thing.

All in all, it was an enjoyable year.

Personally, I’d like to thank Daytona International Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway for hiring me in 2010 to be part of the their “at-track” voice.  Doing the PA work at those facilities allows me to have the best seat in the house, right above the start finish line and to be able to see every bit of race track.  It doesn’t hurt I also get plenty to eat and drink and I have air conditioning on those hot and muggy days.

Most of all, I’d like to thank all the race fans.  Without you, those three race tracks wouldn’t need my services nor would they provide the great racing we see each and every year. Considering the economy, many of you made a sacrifice to make it to the race track and for that I tip my hat.

I hope all of you have a great 2011 and we’ll see you at Daytona in four weeks with the smell of burning rubber and the roar of racing engines!

Time to end Driver of the Year in Nascar & IndyCar

Getty ImagesCongrats to five-time Nascar Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson for winning the “Driver of the Year” award for the fourth time in his career. However, he should never have gotten the award.

Here’s my thinking on this. Could Johnson have done anything he did on the race track without his team?

How many times during the year did we see his pit crew led by Crew Chief Chad Knaus make adjustments and repairs to his car that gave him either a chance for victory or a solid finish?

What about the engine builders, fabricators, engineers and a myriad of others back at the race shop that put in hours and hours of work to give Johnson a championship winning car?

The same can be said about those in the IndyCar series.  I’ve yet to see a driver win with a poorly handling machine in that series, especially on an oval.

I’m not saying that Jimmie Johnson in Nascar or Dario Franchitti the IndyCar Champion aren’t great drivers.  What I am saying is that they weren’t head and shoulders above everyone else.  What gave them their championship was the team.

Let’s change “Driver of the Year” to “Team of the Year.” As the saying goes “There is no I in team.”