IndyCar: 5 things IndyCar must do in the off-season

After a headline-grabbing season finale the dreaded IndyCar off-season has arrived like a big black flag. Aside from being hugely frustrating for fans, there is genuine concern it will undo the good work done this season as IndyCar’s management sit on their hands.

MotorSportNotes examines the top 5 things IndyCar should be doing after Labor Day this year

Tie down Honda and Chevrolet

Easy to say, difficult to do but then nothing worth doing is. Yes the previous ‘administration’ pushed for the new regulations and aero-kits but IndyCar has subscribed to this and has to see it through. Part of that process is managing, sweet-talking, encouraging and incentivizing Honda and Chevrolet to stick around.

BorgWarnertrophy

Logic dictates that next year’s 100th Indy 500 will be a big deal for both manufacturers, and the 101st not so much. Thus maintaining their interest beyond 2016 is essential. Neither is likely to stick around for long if the other disappears and the technology drive the series is now committed to cannot survive without manufacturer involvement. The mooted involvement of firms from the technology and aeronautical engineering sectors looks dead in the water so it’s car manufacturers or bust.

Furthermore, if IndyCar can really work with the manufacturers there is scope to access their marketing and media resources. Be in no doubt, neither manufacturer has properly activated their involvement in the series in the US at all.

Fix the schedule (and not just for 2016)

IndyCar has enjoyed the support for several years of a number of circuits that have not necessarily received reciprocal treatment. In several cases, that has been completely exhausted.

Penske

We now know the Auto Club Speedway is off the schedule for 2016 and beyond – unsurprisingly given that predicting their race date each season has been like throwing darts blindfolded – and NOLA is all but gone. Following the rip-roaring Fontana race this year and the circuit’s continual support of the series, losing the former is a real blow. The less said about the latter the better.

Milwaukee continues to be under-threat, not least from the Andretti vs. Andretti legal wrangles in August and whilst Road America returns (good), we could be looking at Indianapolis and Iowa as the only confirmed ovals (very bad). The concept of date equity has been bandied about for years but we are at the stage where it has been superseded by almost a form of date survival.

Milwaukee Mile

A good use of the off-season would be agreeing on a suitable season length and outline schedule for not just 2016 but 2017 and 2018. The series is making life more difficult for itself and circuits/promoters with a year-by-year approach to scheduling.

Without giving races a semi-permanent date, no one can really assess whether the promotion has been good/bad, the circuit is attractive/unattractive for IndyCar racing or fans just aren’t interested anymore. Tracks, city authorities and promoters are critically important to the series. The current attitude to scheduling leaves them working with one hand tied behind their back and a nagging doubt if it is all worth the time and considerable expense.

Speak to Red Bull

Whilst Red Bull has become synonymous with developing new sporting attractions to promote their brand, they are also getting a reputation for energizing (pun fully intended) tired products.

Rallycross was to all intents and purposes dead until Red Bull injected life with their Global Rallycross series. A category of motor sport that appeared to have had its heyday in the 1980s is attracting increasing attention, growing crowds and benefitting greatly from Red Bull’s in-house media, production and broadcast services. Global Rallycross has a few legitimate superstar drivers along with partial manufacturer involvement and attractive, accessible venues.

logo-red-bull-global-rallycross-small

The success of Red Bull’s owns series has made the FIA – the world governing body for motor sport – sit up and take notice. The original World Rallycross championship is suddenly back on their radar after languishing behind everything from F1 and rallying to endurance racing and Formula E. Tying up with rival energy drinks brand Monster is a clear statement of intent by the FIA to try and quell the noisy, Red Bull upstart.

Similarly, Red Bull’s media division could yet be the savior of the World Rally Championship as broadcast rights holder. For a sport that could do no wrong in the 1980s and 1990s, it has lost it’s way badly and Red Bull are seen as the best hope of reviving it as, somewhat ironically, products like Red Bull’s own Global Rallycross have grown in popularity.

Admittedly IndyCar’s current fan base is unlikely to match particularly closing to Red Bull’s target audience. The flip side is that they are unlikely to find another form of motor sport in the USA with more extremes – 200mph plus speeds, drivers pulling 5g at certain circuits, spectacular racing and a burgeoning band of talented, young American drivers. For the series there is access to millions of fans, followers, brand ambassadors, networks and media opportunities. Dialogue with these guys would be far more valuable than anything included in Mark Miles’ precious Boston Consulting Group report.

Look at digital engagement for fans

All forms of entertainment and sport are focusing much of their effort these days on customer engagement. Social media platforms have opened up all manner of ways to enhance the customer experience and differentiate your product from all the other ways people can spend their disposal income and time. Gone are the days when it was enough to open the gates, put on a race and be comfortable fans would keep lapping it up. Fans want to be part of the action to as much an extent as possible and that goes for attracting the new generation of ‘millenials’ who the researchers argue prefer the digital world to the real one.

Piquet

Push to pass is a ready-made way of doing that for IndyCar. It’s not a unique idea – Formula E has utilized the ‘Fan Boost’ concept where fans can vote pre-race for a driver to receive further electrical power to use during the race. Modifying push to pass to create a similar opportunity like an additional push to pass for those drivers voted for by fans is a relatively straightforward opportunity to massively ramp up fan engagement.

Why stop at that: roll it out to afford one driver an additional push to pass voted for during the race as Formula E is considering. With that comes more fan engagement, more promotion for the series on social media and fantastic commercial opportunities for sponsorship of the voting process. Further options could include an extra set of tires in practice or deciding the pit box order. Of course any system would need to be managed carefully and the kinks worked out. The relative sizes of each drivers’ fan base could permanently skew the results and opportunities for abuse remove or planned for but these are minor in comparison to the engagement opportunities.

Sort the horsepower to down force ratio

The white-knuckle racing at Fontana and the accidents at Indianapolis both have their roots in a common problem for IndyCar’s oval races: the cars have too much downforce and too little power.

Ovals are an endangered species in IndyCar at the moment. Dangerous racing and accidents are not going to help that. The fact drivers could run wide open at pretty much every oval on the 2015 schedule may have made for eye-popping top speeds. Unfortunately it also makes for dangerous circumstances in which to race and the mainstream safety brigade is circling ominously with superficial NASCAR/F1 vs. IndyCar accident and fatality statistics. In failing to deal with the core issue the series will either end up with Indianapolis as the only oval on the schedule (thus losing one of its fundamental attractions) or find itself forced to remove ovals.

Making the cars trickier to drive by reducing downforce and upping power appears diametrically opposed to the goal of improving safety. But once the cars are unable to run ovals at full throttle, average speeds will reduce. Reducing the opportunity to rely on high downforce levels will lengthen the time taken to put together an overtake and reduce the number of grooves drivers can take on ovals. We will not see the return of pack racing like Fontana 2015 but we will at least have slower, safer racing that better balances thrilling entertainment with reasonable risks for the drivers.

The bottom line for the series is that since we are stuck with a 6 month layoff this year, it has to be well used. Failure to do so would undermine the gains achieved this season and IndyCar cannot afford that.


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