Tuesday, June 8, 2010

So How “American” Exactly Does the IndyCar Series Need to Be?

Quoting what Graham Rahal might possibly say “Obviously more than it is now”. But how much more? The economic situation of 18 months ago that affected the financial and budgetary decisions made a year ago which then created a situation this year where we have seen the fewest number of American drivers on the IRL side during the post split era and this has created a fair amount of angst, not necessarily by the current fans of the sport, but by mainstream media and fence sitting fans looking for excuses to not involve themselves in the sport and a hellaciously long run on sentence.

Others will cite a number of reasons as to why there needs to be more Americans in the series and I don’t disagree with them particularly as it pertains to expanding the fan base. As for the current fans, at this point the league probably has me, and many of you hooked already. We have grown to know and like or dislike the current drivers irregardless from where they were born. My favorite driver in the league is Vitor Meira, RHR and Will Power also keep my attention as well. The concern here has to do with others who could be watching the series.

I think there are two really important threshold numbers that the series needs to manage and within the past year it has had brushes with both of them. The first is 50%. This number references the % of events on the schedule that should be ovals. The second is 30%, the number of drivers that are Americans. In the case of the 50% deviation either way from that number is a bad thing as you invariably offend some contingent of the delicate coalition that comprises the fan base.

The 30% number is a minimum, suggesting that the league is going to have problems if there are fewer than 9 of 27 American participants contesting for the title or 11 of 33 contesting the 500. The league was down on both of those this year. If 30% is a minimum, does it imply that more is better? Initially yes, but is there a point at which there are diminishing returns? Yes there is. Not from a standpoint that more Americans are a bad deal unto themselves, but rather, if the mix goes too far in the other direction, it closes off a potential positioning and marketing strategy available to the league.

Nascar has the monopoly on the “All American” racing series in the current list of sports media properties. The initial fatal flaw of the old school IRL is that it tried to compete directly with a 900 pound gorilla that already owned the market for the “All American/ all ovals” racing series.

But here’s the flaw with nascar and that positioning: Exclusive, restrictive bigotry only goes so far. Americans are proud and happy to be Americans but ultimately for that to mean anything, our merits and abilities need to be tested against an adversary. A majority of Americans Love the Olympics for that exact reason, it is the sporting venue that allows our athletes to compete in order to test and prove their mastery on a global scale.

Nascar it could be argued, is based on an exclusionary premise, and I would posit that this is actually a weaker market positioning to have. If the US vs the World proposition didn’t sell, would anyone watch the Olympics? No they would only watch the Olympic trials. Would there be a Ryder, Davis or America’s Cup? No. nascar itself has identified that an exclusionary position limits the size of their potential sponsor and viewer audience, hence the addition of Juan “the token” Montoya to the their series. Likewise, they discovered if they hire an Australian, and then never bother to interview him, no one will figure out that he’s not from here, but at the same time they can boost the diversity number pitched to potential sponsors.

IndyCar has the opportunity to sell an inclusive, competitively premised sport, where the best from the US race against the best the world has to offer. If done right it will sell.

The first thing that has to be fixed of course is the American driver counts, how can it be Americans vs the world if there are no Americans? If the series needs nine FT drivers to hit that 30% threshold, then in addition to Andretti and Patrick the current full time Americans, full season spots need to be found for RHR, Rahal, Townshend Bell, Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher – throw in JR Hildebrand and John Edwards and you are at your nine. Of course I have no Idea how the league does this and I am not really in favor of an affirmative action program for American drivers, so it is not an easy fix.

The next thing the league could think about here is a points based competition that pits drivers from different countries against each other. Yeah, yeah, yeah another trophy. But in this case you would run the race, score up the points from the top five finishers from a country and then repeat for each subsequent race and then at the end of the season award bragging rights and etchings on the trophy to the team that scored the most points. Once the series gets a few more Americans, the teams that would conceivably exist are US, Brazil and the British Commonwealth (UK, Aus, NZL and Can). If you were to go through the process of counting the points, I think you will find that her majesty’s subjects have been dealing out some pretty wicked beatdowns over the past few years.

While I think the series would be in a good position with 30 – 40% Americans overall, that is not enough. A couple other conditions need to hold as well. First, at least one or two of those drivers need to be with good teams and able to consistently compete for wins and be in title contention. Right now RHR is really the only American who has shown he has those skills.

The second piece of American involvement that needs to be part of the equation has nothing to do with the drivers, it has to do with the machinery. As much as I am glad that Honda has been a part of the series and would welcome Mazda’s arrival (Mitsubishi, VW or Porshe as well), the series needs a US nameplate to be involved. With the drastic reduction in the number of domestic nameplate brands this is becoming difficult, but it needs to happen. The historic core, rust belt Midwestern crowd needs to have a car in the race to feel like a part of the action again. Hopefully, Randy Bernard still has some contacts at Ford in his rolodex. Finally, an American Chassis manufacturer needs to be an option for teams to select from. American jobs resulting from assembling Italian cars is fine, but those Italian chassis should be racing against at least one car born of American ingenuity and built with American craftsmanship. If you have read this blog for a while, you know who I am talking about.

The test of nations, US against the world, both Car and Driver, on ovals and twisties is the competitive drama that only the IICS can deliver and if it does, that is the drama that will revitalize the series.

1 comment:

  1. One other item that needs to be consider here is the presumption that a non-American driver = ride buyer. With that presumption, having an almost all non-American driver pool gives the impression that the drivers in the race are not necessarily the best drivers, but the best funded drivers. That has a negative impact on the prestige of the series.

    That presumption is not the case in all instances, but with the Robert Doornbos's and Milka Duno's in seats, it gets reinforced. Having more Americans in the field will help promote the perception that drivers are getting rides based upon merit (not necessarily true, but a good perception to have) so the perception of the overall talent level goes up.

    So getting more Americans is good in many ways. But to get more Americans, you need better funded teams that put them in seats rather than ride buyers. However, can you get a better-funded series without 30% American drivers? Do far the answer seems to be no. Chicken and egg, no?


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