With the dust and social media frenzy starting to settle on IndyCar’s now infamous regulation 9.3.8, here’s my take following a bit of deliberation on a ruling that is the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.
Regulation 9.3.8 came out hot on the heels of the widespread criticism of IndyCar from drivers regarding the pack racing at Fontana. Aside from the free-speech argument and the various sources suggesting drivers only spoke out because the series gave them a deaf ear privately, IndyCar has stunningly shot itself in the foot. The ‘gagging order’ as it has been widely referenced is both over the top and likely to harm the sport as it tries to get back to growth.
Let’s face it; outside of race broadcasts it is very difficult for IndyCar to gain mass media coverage in the USA. This season’s deal to buy coverage in USA Today is a perfect example. IndyCar has only featured on the nightly sports roundups recently following Ryan Briscoe’s barrel roll at Fontana and Ed Carpenter’s dressing down of Sage Karam. Personally I would rather see the series gain coverage because of the racing or the tight championship battle. The reality is that, for the time being, it will not.
The other harsh reality is that the sport needs more fans and more viewers. Whilst there are often many kids at races the audience is not being replaced in enough numbers by fresh blood. Look around you at the next race weekend and pick a random sample of 10-20 spectators and see how many are under 35 and how many are over 35. I would suggest it is often 30/70 at best. That is not the ratio of a growing sport.
Embracing the ugly bits
Without mass media coverage refreshing the ranks will be almost impossible. Consequently IndyCar, as a series, needs to play the game. Like it or not the spats, the disagreements, the ‘twitter-war-of-words’ incidents are going to have to be part of the marketing plan for the series. Getting on Sports Center with a crash or a driver bust-up will offend the purists (myself included) but it now needs to be considered a necessary evil to help IndyCar survive. Or should have been at least because this is where the new regulation comes in and drops a big wet blanket.
Trash talking on social media, bust ups, drivers flipping the bird at each other during a race weekend are all going to get coverage right now quicker than great racing. The gagging order punctures that like a piece of carbon fiber at 180mph. It also begs the question how strict and how far will the series go? There is real potential for it to become farcical – would Carpenter’s finger to Karam now be considered to threaten and denigrate a fellow competitor? Would the Paul Tracy/ Sebastian Bourdais feud of the 2000s be allowed to create a fabulous sub-plot if it were happening now? Did IndyCar even look at it’s own mediocre #IndyRivals campaign and realize how incompatible that is with the new regulation? On the flip side there would be something horrific and moronic if everyone after Las Vegas 2011 was only allowed to come out and say ‘everything’s fine, no need to change anything’.
IndyCar’s current crop of drivers are by the standards of say the NFL, NBA, NASCAR and F1 a pretty positive bunch when it comes to their series. For every post-Fontana blowout there are countless examples of drivers praising, supporting and cheerleading for the series. When you consider where the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Sebastian Bourdais have come from in their careers, the fact they like their rivals are willing to turn up for autographs at a ‘mom and pop’ auto parts franchise in Alabama speaks volumes. Even in the face of racing in front of stands where there are more empty bleachers than people, the drivers still maintain their support for and positivity towards the series. In this regard IndyCar is completely spoiled.
Some drivers still want to race in IndyCar
Something else that IndyCar appeared not to consider was this simple truth: for the vast majority (if not all) of the drivers and teams in IndyCar, this is the pinnacle of their career. Consequently why would they wish to denigrate it?
In the current climate, post-split and in the throws of NASCAR domination, having drivers like Newgarden and Karam whose ultimate objective in their racing career has been winning in IndyCar is a blessing the series cannot afford to waste. These guys are not looking at it like Tony Stewart did as a stepping-stone to Daytona.
Cumulatively that leaves me wondering why – if not for paranoid, self-seeking reasons on IndyCar’s part – there was any need for such a ruling. Yes, post-Fontana was tricky for the series but there really appeared to be a fundamental problem of communication between the series and drivers more than a break down of discipline and restraint. If I felt my life had been put in serious jeopardy I would find it hard to toe the party line.
This is a sledgehammer to crack a nut at best. At worst – and if the rumors about drivers being ignored at Fontana are true – it is draconian and dangerous. Without needle, without some back-story, without controversy any sport is devoid of the thing that makes it so engaging for millions of fans. And without no communication channel for participants to raise concerns to the organizers leaving them feeling like public comment is the only option – especially in one as dangerous as motor racing – there is a ticking time bomb.