We’ve hit a transition point in the season where the introductions are over, we have an idea of who’ll be posing on the podium at season’s end versus those who will simply be posing for their sponsors. We are also going to have a transition in the type of tracks the series races on, from road and street courses to ovals. Many are breathing a sigh of relief that the series which began as a recommitment to AOW oval racing returns to its true purpose and leaves the cash grabs on city streets behind.
I attended my first Long Beach weekend last week and as I drove back to the hotel after the festivities were over on Sunday, my memory started to wander back to the final race I had attended last year and a great dichotomy was revealed. One that I understood conceptually as it has been a part of the IndyCar dialogue for 25 years now, but now when confronted with it face to face, I had no idea the magnitude of difference that really existed.
Let’s start by taking a look back at the sights, sounds and happenings from last weekend’s Long Beach race. It was a party, a festival and a happening. The city of Long Beach not only seemed excited for the race but most of the LA region. Overall, 170,000 people attended the event. Long Beach is the second biggest event on the Izod Indycar calendar. The weekend crowd probably was on par with or out drew either of the nascar weekends at Fontana. For race venues, Indy is the only other place that can make that claim. An interesting note, a number of people from either nascar or Toyota were in the grandstands handing out free passes to the fall race in Fontana – if that doesn’t say something about this event what does?
But the turnout was not only in spectators as corporate LA showed up as well. In the middle of the circuit is the Long Beach convention center, which was filled with booths and exhibits representing the corporate community wanting to be involved with the race weekend. All around the grounds, Tecate, a brand of beer that is garnering a growing share of the US market, was out in force with promotion a plenty, not even mentioning the large shiny blue army of Tecate girls roaming the premises armed with beads and skin tight unis (I hope someone in the league took notice, this is the kind of activated sponsor that might be right for a larger engagement –lest we forget the green Tequila that got away).
Of Course Izod was out also, continuing their “Race to the Party” campaign, so too was Toyota who didn’t have a car in any of the races all weekend. The massive exposure in the local community and opportunity to treat and entertain local the workforce is enough to justify the support of a car maker whose majority of racing spend goes to support selling trucks via their nascar program. (PS is there really any reason for a car manufacturer to be involved with nascar these days if they are NOT selling trucks? Taking this a step further, if nascar = truck sales then if someone at the league office can sell the story that IndyCar = car sales, then we are going somewhere as far as making a case for more mfctrs getting involved)
Overall, it was an event that created a buzz, not only with the fans and the sponsors in attendance but also with local media as several local radio stations were broadcasting on the premises and flying overhead were a couple helicopters from local TV stations. All in all a clear sign, that perhaps this series has a future.
Let’s now take a look at the last race I attended in 2009, Kentucky. I have seen three races at Kentucky with my wife and father in-law and it seems to me that the event is on a downward slide. This slide also happens to coincide with the track itself changing hands from being an independent entity to just another property in the SMI portfolio. Last year’s race crowd and this is being generous, was perhaps 15,000. 15K in a property built for 80k. Nothing kills a mood faster than the sense of wide open space at an event that collects tickets at the door. The magnitude of the crowd does not tell the complete story. Judging from the smattering of people around me, maybe 2/3rds of those fans wanted to be there. The rest either wound up with the seats as part of a season package that featured a truck and nationwide date or just were too “challenged” to purchase the right event on the internet. That portion of the crowd clearly didn’t want to be there, which just made things all the “merrier” for those of us that did.
As far as corporate involvement goes…ummm…let me think here…ummm…Oh yeah, it seemed like Dollar General had a some sort of perk promotion going on for their employees in the local area. Hundreds of DG employees, in specially minted Sarah Fisher #67 yellow t-shirts were on site taking it all in. It has been a while so I don’t remember if that group seemed to be enjoying themselves or not. I will say it was a very nice show of support for Sarah. I was initially a bit worried from the sponsor alignment perspective when DG signed on with Sarah. I was curious how they would play with the Izod and Apex Brazil crowd. But that is the power of the Indy 500, perhaps the only racing event in the world that can bring together interests both local and global and across the income spectrum together.
The event had a corporate sponsor, Meijer, a store that the Mrs and I tend to frequent, but other than naming, they seemed to have little involvement for in store activation or on site promotional activity concerning the race at all. A few weeks later, business took me to Grand Rapids and the corporate headquarters and I decided to get a feel for what the sponsor felt about the race they sponsored. While this is by no means a representation of any sort of corporate stance, one of my clients had no clue what I was talking about and the other rolled his eyes and under his breath said “that fiasco”. Reading into this a bit, it seems that they were not particularly pleased with the state of the race they put their name on.
So on this basis of this comparison of these two races, well, no comparison at all. Any league official with half a brain cell would see that the way to interest, bring and keep corporate sponsorship into the series is to shift the schedule towards these types of events into large media markets.
But that is not the whole story for these two races, we also need to talk about the competition itself and how that likely translated to a TV audience.
Kentucky was the race of the year for the 2009 Izod IndyCar series. David (in the form of Ed Carpenter of Vision Racing) battled Goliath (Briscoe and Penske) in a side by side duel over the last roughly 10 laps to yield one of the closest races in series history. But if a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? If the race is great, but no one sees it, does it matter? My party and those around us that night greatly enjoyed the drama of the moment, but as mentioned earlier there just were not that many of us, and of the ~15k that may have started the night in the stands only about 2/3rds remained as the rest of the “accidental” attendees mentioned earlier were off behind the back stretch drinking old Milwaukee, burning wieners on bonfires and pontificating where the 32 lane drag strip was going “now that the big boys owned the place”.
I don’t recall what the TV number was for the race, but I recall the Saturday night race numbers were pretty bad last year, perhaps like -.12 for this race in particular. Keeping in mind that the drama occurred over a 10 minute stretch at the end of the race, and that the 65,000 empty seats were there from the start to the finish over the 2.5 hour window it is not hard to imagine that if any casual fan stumbled across the broadcast, the empty spaces turned them off before the drama began.
As for the racing at Long Beach this year, well, it was Long Beach. In the podium positions past the first lap, we had one true pass for position. I don’t count Will’s shifting issue as a true pass. I never saw the race broadcast, but as we were listening to the truck feed for Versus on the race scanner, let me assure you that the race in person seemed duller than what was being telecast to the masses. Fortunately, there were those Tecate Girls. We were in Turn 1 off the front straightaway where it seemed most of the passing would have taken place, but we did not have much to reflect on. I have heard it mentioned that there was more passing on the back straightaway but of course there are no grandstands back there. Long Beach was the first of the US temporary street circuits designed and unlike more recent designs in Sao Paulo or St Pete, the quality of the racing was probably second to a variety of issues when the circuit was drawn up. With all that said, I look forward to going back to Long Beach one day. Since it involves cross country travel, it won't be a yearly staple but the event was worth the effort.
As for TV, the .5 it garnered is the best number any of the Versus broadcasts have ever gotten. Much of the extra audience over and above the core was likely the activated LA market. (remember all those radio stations, TV helicopters and Hollywood parties?) Now of course the burning question becomes, do any of those people stick around for the next race? That is the $60,000 question. It seems no one knows the answer. (I might point out that I can help answer that question, marketing research seems to be an innate talent I have that earns me a living…)
Now that I am 1,800 words into this it seems like perhaps I should have a gist, purpose or at least an ending. The series faces challenges as it puts together a schedule of events that have the goal of building and projecting the series into the future. On one hand temporary events are outstanding ways to get new people in the door and actively engage sponsors while on the other hand ovals, more often than not, provide more compelling on track competition. In the end, the expectations and standards need to rise for both types of venues going forward, street circuits need to be designed with competition in mind and poorly promoted events at road or oval locales need to be axed and the dates need to go to promoters and venues who care.