Racing News

Opportunity for IndyCar to be No. 1 Is There – but will they go for it?

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

While a new television contract with NBC is welcome news for IndyCar, that won’t happen until 2019 and whether they realize it or not, this is the year that really counts for that series.

NASCAR is in big trouble. With the exception of the Daytona 500, which did well, every race since has seen a decline in television ratings and viewership ranging from 13 per cent to 30. The Phoenix race had the lowest rating and viewership since FOX started broadcasting it in 2005.

Why? Because people are bored with never-ending oval racing. Charismatic driving stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have retired. You can only see so many Big Ones before they become ho-hum. And the new generation of driver is not made up of good ol’ boys who got their start in Figure 8 racing and then scratched and clawed their way to the top. Instead, they are little rich kids whose daddies bought their rides and while that might be standard practice in most other forms of racing, it hasn’t been in NASCAR and the new reality isn’t going over well – at all.

Formula One is also in trouble. Maybe not big trouble, but trouble all the same. Their U.S. TV number for the Australian GP was 0.16, down from 0.19 a year earlier. All sorts of excuses are being thrown around as to why this happened (mostly about the incompetence of TV broadcaster ESPN) but the real reason is that people are sick and tired of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes winning all the time. Yes, Sebastian Vettel won the first race in a Ferrari but unless the fix is in, we all know what it going to happen over the course of the season and so why bother watching?

The other reason F1 is in trouble is because ESPN didn’t have to pay to get the TV rights for the series and so aren’t putting any effort into it. If something is perceived as not having any value, why spend any money on it? Nobody was interested in bidding for F1 – NBC, which had the rights, declared it wasn’t interested in continuing – so F1 owners Liberty Media had to find a network willing to broadcast the races and that’s where ESPN came in.

It is not a good sign when you have to give away your product, which F1 had to do in the United States.

So the door is wide open for IndyCar to drive through and take over as the No. 1 motorsports series in North America but whether they will be able to capitalize on the opportunity remains to be seen.

They have a new car, a solid field made up mostly of paid drivers, a great mix of short ovals, superspeedways and road and street courses, and a young Canadian driver who is on the brink of taking the racing world by storm.

Robbie Wickens of Guelph has the makings of a superstar. Not yet 30, he’s good looking, articulate, a winner, a two- or three-times champion and a veteran of the European racing wars who’s virtually unknown in North America. In short, he’s ripe for positive publicity with a track record to prove legitimacy.

An IndyCar rookie, he dominated the opening race in St. Pete. Never mind that with a lap or two remaining, he left a gaping hole for Alexander Rossi, thus creating the situation in which Rossi drove into him and knocked him out of the lead (you can bet he won’t let that happen again), the fact of the matter is that nobody could touch him until he screwed up and it was very nearly a Cinderella story.

This is what concerns me, then. It is 2018 and you can’t sit back. You have to be aggressive and strike while the iron is hot. If I’m IndyCar, I’m paying to get Wickens on all the major U.S. breakfast television shows and all the late-night talk shows. (An aside: that’s how TV and radio work these days. You want to be interviewed? Pony up.) I’m also on the phone, trying to arrange interviews with newspaper columnists all over the U.S. and Canada. Newspapers have websites, so I’m getting 2-for-1. I’m blue-skying with my IndyCar PR colleagues: the next race is in Phoenix this Saturday night. Let’s get Robbie out to Sky Harbour Airport Wednesday, greeting people as they get off planes and inviting them to take in the race. Let him give away tickets.

I could go on.

I was in New York at the auto show last week. I was watching the PIX11 news and a Honda ad featuring James Hinchcliffe came on. Great stuff, I thought. Honda just did IndyCar a favour. Take advantage of it, I say. I’m not sure they will.

Oh, sure. Lots of attention gets paid to the people in the choir; the people who follow Robin Miller and Jeff Pappone. Forget them. They are already disciples. IndyCar has them. It’s the other motorport fans out there you want to attract. And it’s the fans of other sports you have to go after.

When the new TV deal with NBC was announced, there was a great sigh of relief. All of our troubles are over, I heard people say and write. I also heard all this stuff before, when IndyCar was locked into a contract with  – does anybody remember this? – Versus. If we could only get out of this Versus deal, people would say, and get with a network that cares, like ABC, everything would be hunky-dory.

Well, guess what? That didn’t really work out all that well either, did it?

NBC will be great for IndyCar if IndyCar is working its butt off promoting itself. Heaven helps those who help themselves, they say, so if IndyCar is waiting for NBC to do all its work for it, it will very quickly find itself in the same bind it’s been in with every one of its other TV partners over the years.

The time to go for it is now, not next year. Unlike NASCAR and F1 early in the 2018 season, IndyCar did not lose any ground, ratings-wise, with the opening race in St. Peterburg. So the iron is hot; the opportunity is there. All IndyCar has to do is go out and get it.

It will be interesting to see if they do.

TV GUIDE

IndyCar, Phoenix Grand Prix, Sportsnet360, 9 p.m., Saturday, April 7, 2018

Formula One, Bahrain Grand Prix, TSN, 11:05 a.m., Sunday, April 8, 2018

NASCAR, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, Texas Motor Speedway, 2 p.m., Sunday, April 8, 2018