“If you’re in racing and you’re looking for affordability, you’re lost. Who promised you cheap? Who promised you affordable? This is an exotic, on-the-edge, extreme sport and it takes big money to go fast. If you make these cars superstars again, we’re gonna’ get more rich guys coming into our sport because that’s where they want to play. And if there’s one thing we’ve lost on the team’s side, is we’ve lost a lot of team owners; because we’ve lost their fascination with the product.”
If you ask me, there’s something to be said about what Townsend Bell – active sports car driver and six time Indianapolis 500 participant – is talking about. Townsend was on Trackside with Curt Cavin & Kevin Lee discussing his history in racing and what he feels the Indycar Series could do to regain relevance. This excerpt caught my attention because it’s something I’ve felt for a little while now.
Fans, bloggers, and journalists generally look to at-track attendance and television ratings as the barometer of success for Indycar (and if you consider that the barometer for success, Indycar isn’t doing very well). But something I consider to be a big indicator of success is how many people want in on what you’re doing. Success, in the context of Indycar, is taking stock of how many people want to be involved in the series – how many people want to play in your sandbox.
At the moment, I’d say desire to be involved in Indycar is at an all-time low as far as team owners go. Much of what we have left as a sport is down legacy: We have team owners who race in Indycar almost out of primal necessity. They love Indycar racing and therefore they do whatever it takes to participate. We have vendors who supply tires and engines and chassis because of ties to some of the influential members of the Indycar paddock; or because they’ve been a part of the sport for decades; or because Indycar pries their interest with sweetheart deals. Car companies and tire companies and chassis builders don’t flock to Indianapolis every May anymore to cut their teeth and prove themselves. They go to Le Mans, France every Summer, but they don’t come to Indianapolis – not as a point of pride. That’s a problem. Who was the last team owner to start a team from scratch that wasn’t a former driver? Jay Penske? And he just so happens to be the son of the most successful Indycar owner in its history
Ask someone why Indcar has fallen and they’ll tell you it’s because of TV ratings, or poor attendance records, or costs. But to that I say: explain the America’s Cup. I’ve never seen the America’s Cup on television. I do know that they had an NBC deal this past October to show 90-minutes of coverage, but I would venture a guess that the number wasn’t very good. And to their credit, that television package is expanding in 2013 with the actual America’s Cup race (it’s complicated to explain that 2012 wasn’t an America’s Cup race). They get a 0.0 Neilsen rating out of me. But my point is that television has never been a cornerstone for the America’s Cup and it’s draw. Rich guys enjoy the sport, the contest, and the challenge. They spend their fortunes on the endeavor because the prestige, alone, is enticing. And yacht racing is not cheap. But beyond that is the draw of building your own vessel, with your crew, and taking on the unique vessel of someone else. They’re drawn to the propriety of it. Ted Turner didn’t buy a Dallara chassis and a Honda engine off the shelf for a discount price in the 1970s. And if the option were there, I’m not entirely sure he would’ve jumped at it. What Ted Turner did was build a beautiful boat that he felt he could win the Cup with. And he did it. In 2012/13 Larry Ellison is drawn for the same reasons and he’s revolutionizing the sport as we speak. WIthout the propriety of the endeavor, who knows if Larry Ellison shows any interest.
What comes from all of that passion is sponsor participation: BMW, Oracle, Louis Vitton, Red Bull, Prada, Omega. You get the participation of nations: New Zealand, Australia, The United States, Japan. You set your foundation with passion and propriety and spirit, and allow that to foster involvement from those who wish to get a taste. You don’t set your foundation with cost and rationale and ROI – that comes later.
What we’ve lost in Indycar racing is the propriety of the endeavor, and the fundamental belief that racing is an exercise in ego and competition. These rich guys want to build something to compete with and beat the other rich guys – ratings be damned. That’s what the Indianapolis 500 was about, and is something it continues to grasp at today. The spirit of Indianapolis is someone feeling compelled enough to build their own racing weapon of choice, hire the people necessary to run it, and a daring driver to pilot it. Buying your bits off the shelf suffocates that spirit; creativity and freedom cultivate it. As Townsend put it, this is their playground. Let them play