By Brian C. Mackey
Everyone has an opinion. This is my version taken from numerous ideas I’ve heard and added to over the past several seasons. I don’t claim to resolve all that is wrong with Indy car, but it is intended to move the needle a bit forward toward finding better solutions to very complicated and long simmering problems. “One small step for Indy Car, one giant leap for the Indy Car world” comes to mind. To be sure, Indy Car seems to be in real trouble. And unless they do some sensible, strategically savvy and dramatic changes soon, I fear that Indy Car series as we know it might cease to exist. Pity really. It didn’t have to be.
Many, many industry people and armchair quarterbacks, including me, have placed the lion’s share of the blame squarely on the Indy Car “split” as the determining factor in Indy Car’s spiral to obscurity. And that would be mostly right. But not entirely so.
It’s not just that the split occurred. It’s also how the competing sides elected to react to it. Mind you, both were fighting for their business lives, or so they thought. Back in 2004, I wrote an article called “Enemies Among Us.” It was candid, open and purposely naive. It called for less derisive dialogue between competing racing “tribes,” not just Indy vs. Champ car but in all of motorsport. For Indy/Champ Car, I suggested both sides consider their common lineage rather than arguing that one open wheel series was better than the other. But in the end, they split the market, gained nothing and NASCAR wheeled away with a greater share of the motorsport audience. A contrarian viewpoint was that both featured open-wheel, single-seat pure thoroughbred race cars; a faster, sleeker and sexier version of race car. Indy and Champ Car could have individually boasted and collectively compounded the notion that they shared in this common passion called open wheel racing. It’s the timeless “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” proverb and Indy Car and Champ Car should have considered it to a greater degree. Helping to illustrate just how disastrous the split was is the fact that Indy and Champ Car were racing cars virtually the “same” in appearance to many casual race fan observers. In a broader sense, many of my friends couldn’t tell the difference between an Indy Car or a Champ Car no matter what, and how many times have you heard nearly ANY open wheel car referred to as “Grand Prix” car by non-expert commentators? Even Formula Fords! To knock a series competing in cars so similar to your own would seem to be counterproductive. And I think it was.
Far easier said than done, hindsight is 20-20 and obviously, it didn’t go down that way. Now we are left with a unified, but far weaker series. With no one left standing to fight one another, Indy Car is scrambling to find ways to get back to where they started. So many ideas, so few that appear to have resolved the problem to the degree needed. Staffs seem to be constantly changing/leaving and with different staffs come different directions and priorities so that it is hard to maintain positive momentum. Yet, for me, a simple, perhaps obvious and rudimentary change in the way Indy Car competes seems to be right in front of all of us, yet I don’t see much focus on it. Could a modestly simple idea revitalize the series and commence a path back to racing relevance? In 2010, Indy Car introduced the Mario Andretti Road Course Championship trophy. It was given to the driver who scored the most points on the road course events. To me, as a marketing guy, this development could be looked at as pivotal. Yet, I’ve heard very little about it recently and certainly, there has not been a dedicated focus to make the Mario Andretti trophy a principal talking point in the redevelopment of Indy Car. I literally could only find a line or two about the trophy buried deep in the Indy Car website. It’s a relatively simple idea with I believe, massive implications.
Here is what I mean. Indy Car is in need of some dramatic and ground-breaking new reality. They need something that will propel Indy Car back into the forefront and leadership role. They have their back against the wall. From my marketing perspective, let’s split INDY car (I can hear it now — OMG RU CRAZY? — NO NO NO NO NO) and create two separate “divisions”. OK, OK, let’s not call it a “split”, as history has polluted the water beyond toxic. Let’s call it a re-organization of Indy Car. It’s been talked about before, but taking the initiative started by the Andretti trophy, let’s redesign the series into two divisions, Indy Car and Champ Car (or more PC versions “Indy Oval” and “Indy Road).” Same cars. Two different body kits, one for ovals and one for Road/Street courses. Teams and/or drivers could compete in both divisions or only one. Two division champions and one overall series champ. There are oval track drivers who do well on ovals and road course drivers who compete better on road courses. Now they could compete in separate divisions and the teams could compete with them and have purpose for competing in one or both. The schedule would be developed for each with no conflicting or overlapping events. All races under the umbrella of the IZOD Indy Car series. Same TV package until they get a better one. Points are scored in both divisions, separately and collectively. Highest scores win. Simple really. And here is an additional element that might help make the change more interesting. The road course division would have a crown jewel event on the road course at Indy in the same way the oval track division has their crown jewel event at Indy with the Indy 500. As has been mentioned in Autoracing1.com and elsewhere, ditch the NASCAR event, and replace it with the INDY Road Course division championship event in the fall.
Remember, I’m just a marketing guy. But we have just added considerably to the potential sponsorship inventory that could be developed to support both divisions. IZOD could remain as title of the entire package, but each division could have title sponsors of their own. The series has opened up competition for more drivers and teams who have smaller budgets and can’t compete in both divisions, but might compete in one or the other and yet have a purpose or goal in reach with their individual division championship. It would be akin to winning the pennant in baseball, yet one big step shy of the World Series. The big major teams could/would compete in both.
I realize that many old fans will say that Indy Car is simply adopting, revisiting and bringing aboard a reconfigured CART series. You know what, that would be correct. But to deny a more solid future by holding on to blaming the past is not a credible solution. The division concept brings a new angle to Indy Cars. One of my personal problems with Indy Car is the look of the current car. I think it is just too bulky, awkward and “dated” looking. I am not a fan of “spec” series racing, particularly for purpose-built racing cars. But this car was purported to have been designed to help the safety of the driver on ovals making its design a necessity and I defer to that priority. But recalling that the DW12 was initially designed to accept different body kits, the idea of a sleeker, more traditional ChampCar-like body kit that would compete exclusively on the road/street courses is an attractive idea to me. Yet, we also address and maintain the constant high velocity safety issues of the oval track requirements. Until Indy Car fully develops the varying body kit strategy, this is a worthy way to commence the process of initiating multiple body kits.
Downside? I suspect there is some, change comes with that. My own personal marketing orientation might not always include the more operational aspects of change. The most obvious is a series with two body kits for one car to compete in all events. But insurmountable? Indy is far bigger than that challenge, I hope. Perhaps it would be the schedule. But, it doesn’t have to happen overnight, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and I don’t see how this idea is inherently complicated. Indy Car already has the Mario Andretti trophy to use as an initial template. The 2013 schedule is lopsided with street/road courses compared to ovals. But if Indy Car could reprieve an early season oval event like Phoenix used to be and another oval event or two the season would be much closer to half oval and half road/street course events. And of course, there’s no rule that it be exactly half and half – just representatively so. Redistribute and massage the timing of the events to reduce the gaps between the two divisions. Car counts might be a possible issue if not enough teams initially elect to compete in both divisions. However, the existing Leader Circle program should keep teams competing in both divisions. The intention is to GROW the series as a whole and over time there would be more teams, more drivers and more opportunity to win a championship(s). Costs would be similar to present day, and body kits for both series would be an option, not a requirement. However, it would be required to run each individual body kit in each division. No Indy Oval bodied cars in Indy Road events and obviously, none vice-versa. The scoring of the events contribute to each relative division and/or series championship making it unlikely that a driver could finish in 2nd place in both divisions and not win the overall championship while two differing drivers might win the separate division crowns. Maybe the Indy 500 and IMS road course events could have “special” point totals to enhance their relative importance to the series. That would enable Indy Speedway to remain at the center of both divisions and the series as a whole, something that the Hulman family has been reported to want.
Upside? Growth. An opportunity to change the dynamic of Indy Car racing and broaden the appeal while not restricting it. Ovals and road/street courses remain a critical part of the whole and a unique element to Indy Car competition. The division concept doesn’t hurt the image, the history, the intrinsic appeal or the safety of the Indy Car series. It enhances it.
I surely believe it’s time to relegate to the ash heap of history the dreaded series split. It’s not now, nor should it have ever been one series OR the other. Once the regrettable split occurred, the “or” was a ferocious waste of time, resources and precious fan following. With the Indy division formula and “reorganization” we have regained some residual strengths from the collective past. We have added some new twists that add creative development moving forward. It’s a starting point and with it, we initiate progress that signals a new day for Indy Car. And that would be something worth cheering for.