Outside of the Indy 500, the Grand Prix of Long Beach has been the most successful IndyCar/open-wheel event in North America. Even through the Champ Car/IRL split and the IndyCar rehabilitation years, Long Beach has continued to be a feel-good race weekend for many reasons. Big crowds, enthusiastic promotion, a party atmosphere and sponsors galore to name but a few.
Often the success of Long Beach has been seen as something to downplay because it draws too much attention to the poor performance of other races on the schedule. Long Beach however should be looked upon as a learning opportunity for the series and other promoters about how to maximize your race. Here are 3 key features of Long Beach’s success that do not rely on it’s history and iconic status.
One of the hallmarks of the Long Beach event has been stability. Date equity is something IndyCar’s management have talked about at length. Sadly it has rarely materialised in recent years, hurting race promoters as a result. We have to go back to 1984 for the last time the event was held outside of April. Not only that, the race has typically run either the first or second weekend of April with little deviation over the same period.
The popularity and success of Long Beach and it’s effectively permanent date are no coincidence. For locals and fans in southern California it is a semi-permanent fixture that goes in diaries as soon as the previous race concludes. The promoter, sponsors and partners all know their timescales and can plan in advance with some degree of comfort and confidence in its place on the season schedule. Offering that to more race promoters would be a big step forward for IndyCar.
Don’t be ashamed to join forces
Looking at the Long Beach program this past weekend emphasises something many of us have understood for years: IndyCar is not popular enough to draw big crowds itself (yet). Outside of Indy, this is the reality for many events on the schedule. Instead of trying to save face, IndyCar should be actively facilitating and encouraging promoters to work with other series.
By featuring the United SportsCar series, Robby Gordon’s Off-Road buggies plus drifting and more, Long Beach provided not only serious bang for a spectators buck, but opportunities to draw in fans across the motor sport spectrum. Joining forces with other championships and other non-motorsport attractions does not diminish IndyCar. The bottom line is the series needs to attract more people in order to convert them to committed fans. Taking a more cohesive and strategic approach to partnerships would be a good way to start.
Embrace the event
Long Beach’s promoters do have many advantages over other events and in particular recent additions to the IndyCar schedule. One that is not excusive to them however is the manner in which they embrace the event.
Multiple races and race series feature over the weekend, there are expos and family entertainment zones plus concerts around the circuit. Few sporting events these days can simply roll up and roll out the core product and expect bumper crowds. Consumers are more discerning than ever and quick to switch where they spend their dollars. With the IndyCar core fan base massacred during the split, drawing in occasional fans to events regionally will make or break the budget for promoters. At most races the regional fan base for IndyCar and motor sport in general will not be enough to sustain a round of the championship and that is the stark reality.
Of course not all promoters can use the same model as Long Beach and this is a very simplified take on a complex issue. Nevertheless, IndyCar as a series needs to knuckle down and roll out initiatives and programs to help current promoters grow their races. Date equity, taking a series-wide approach to partnerships with other formulae and providing support for circuits and cities to embrace the series are just some examples. But most critically, the series needs to give promoters time to experiment and learn before moving on to someplace new.