In search of an IndyCar villain

Paul Tracy believes IndyCar needs a bitter rivalry to ignite greater interest in the series. But as Andy Webb writes, encouraging drivers to butt heads regularly could be very risky.

Tracy: current field in need of a villain

As a  former, self-styled series ‘bad boy’, Tracy clearly knows and a thing or two about a rivalry. The 2003 ChampCar series champion branded IndyCar’s current driver roster too “vanilla” and “corporate” to instigate the intense rivalries he considers necessary to further the series.

Paul Tracy on IndyCar rivalries
Paul Tracy believes drivers like Graham Rahal need to be prepared to wear the metaphorical ‘black hat’. (Image: IndyCar)

“That’s kind of what the series is lacking, I think, in terms of trying to promote the series — everyone wants to be the good guy and no wants to be the bad guy”, remarked Tracy who is part of NBC’s commentary team for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

IndyCar continues to struggle to get the digital column inches and news bulletin coverage lavished upon NASCAR and other mainstream sports. Many observers and fans agree with the “Thrill from Westhill” that the series needs to adopt an ‘all publicity is good publicity’ attitude to accelerate its growth. Irrespective of whether that comes via great racing, off-track punch-ups or some combination of the two.

Could a bitter, fight-picking, expletive-laden rivalry push the series back onto the regular sports bulletins? Of course, it could.

Using the ‘payback’ moves and pit lane brawls

NASCAR has benefitted hugely from pit lane brawls and ‘payback’ wrecks long before it became considered a marketing ‘tool’.

In recent seasons it has been a challenge for mainstream media to decide which particular incident to focus on as rivalries boiled over up and down pit road. IndyCar, by contrast, has struggled to offer up anything even vaguely similar.

NASCAR brawl
Who cares who won the race…

A driver (or drivers) taking on the ‘black hat’ roll or IndyCar somehow pouring gasoline on the simmering tensions between Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens for example, therefore, looks like a good idea. Manufactured or not, more wheel-banging and perhaps a pit road brawl or two might be just the ticket. Particularly with NBC keen to broadcast more races on its main network in 2019, instead of hiding them on NBCSN.

But for all the potential ‘opportunities’ that might come, there are good reasons not to actively encourage or pursue the path suggested by Tracy.

What did we come to the race to see?

First off, it detracts from the racing and the quality of racing is IndyCar’s biggest selling point.

An intense rivalry with f-bombs and punch-ups can certainly bring attention to a championship. But it mostly overshadows the racing, in much the same way a huge IndyCar shunt makes it onto SportsCenter or rips across Twitter, while the race is a forgotten footnote.

Alexander Rossi Robert Wickens contact St Petersburg IndyCar
The makings of an IndyCar feud? Rossi and Wickens making contact at St Petersburg earlier this year. (Image: IndyCar)

NASCAR is a prime example with the post-race bust-ups and brawls becoming the story. The stories of the race, brave overtakes, brilliant individual performances fade into the background.

When Nico Rosberg caused a late yellow in qualifying for the 2014 F1 Monaco Grand Prix, whether he ‘cheated’ teammate and nemesis Lewis Hamilton became the story. Similarly, when Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel clashed in Baku last year, that dominated the post-race coverage. Casual observers missed out on Daniel Ricciardo’s sensational run from dead last to the win and the photo finish for 2nd between Lance Stroll and Valtteri Bottas.

Come for the racing, stay for the rivalries

Attracting new fans is critical for IndyCar but it needs to be fans who will commit to the series. Those attracted by high-speed wrecks or post-race brawls are not going to stick around in the long run unless the series delivers a steady diet of controversy mixed with assault and battery.

The series needs fans that want to see Wickens and Rossi race hard, have a heated exchange of words after the race and then go home. Those that are only interested in who throws the first punch will simply not stick around. Which hardly makes it a sustainable path to growth for IndyCar.

A caution about going flat out for publicity

Thirdly – and specifically in the case of IndyCar – it’s just too dangerous.

Any attempt to either directly or indirectly encourage vendettas or reckless behaviour would be utterly irresponsible. It is in fact reassuring that the drivers currently on the grid understand that banging wheels is something of a last resort and that doing so on an oval is an absolute no-no.

IndyCar is a great series to be involved in and watch right now. The buzz is returning and there are many reasons to be positive. It would be easy to get sucked along by the excitement and start pushing the envelope in search of faster growth, especially with NASCAR on the ropes.

The last time IndyCar tried to manufacture publicity in such a high-risk fashion it resulted in one of the darkest weekends in its history: Las Vegas, 2011.

A bitter rivalry in IndyCar could – in the short term at least – boost its profile. Without it, the process of rebuilding the profile of the series will continue to be a slow one. But if that is the price to pay for IndyCar steering clear of pit road brawls between drivers and high risk gambles, I am all for it.

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