By Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer
In the midst of the excitement that is the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, the fact that 2016 also marks the 20th anniversary of the open-wheel split is not lost on me.
Speaking as someone who lived through the formation of CART, the glory days in the 1980s and 1990s, and the slow painful death of the series, I have a vested interest in what happens next.
Will the Media attention around the 100th running be enough to bring growth in viewership? Will the growth be short-lived, or will IndyCar be able to strike while the iron is hot and maintain a steady upward trend for the next several seasons.
Or, will the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing be a final hurrah amidst unconfirmed rumors that the Hulman family is ready to sell the Speedway and wash their hands of a Series that has put a steady drain on the family fortune?
Now, for me to write an article for a racing-themed website and talk about the Series’ perceived issues as seen from the point of view of those that enjoy the sport is tantamount to preaching to the Choir.
The marketing is the problem. The cars are the problem. We need more power and less downforce. We need innovation on the track. We need more American drivers. We need more marketable drivers. We need higher profile sponsors. We need a longer schedule. We need more teams. We need a better television package.
We’ve said it all before, we’ve heard it all before. We’ve read it all before, and we’ve collectively bitched about it all before.
Sure, that’s what all of us, the IndyCar faithful, would like to see.
But, guess what? We are already watching.
What we really need is more fans. Different fans, new fans, young fans.
The key to a sustained growth is to somehow connect to a young generation with an incredibly short attention span. If one could only encapsulate all that is good about IndyCar into a six-second Vine…But, I digress.
The problem is not unique to IndyCar. NASCAR and Formula One have seen a decline in attendance and viewership in recent years as have Major League Baseball, Hockey and Basketball. As a matter of fact, only the NFL and NCAA Basketball seem to be holding tough.
With IndyCar being at the bottom of the pecking order, the issues just seem exacerbated. Hulman and Company have reported that their numbers are actually rising at this point. Yes, the gains are miniscule in the big picture, but gains nonetheless.
I do know that IndyCar has a solid product on the track. Despite, or perhaps because of, the use of a common chassis, the Series has a field deep with potential race winners.
IndyCar has provided a Championship that has gone down to the wire season after season without the benefit of a drama-manufacturing gimmick like ‘The Chase.’
On the flip-side, unless you are looking for the coverage, the competitive races and championship battles are largely ignored by the mainstream media once the Series leaves Indianapolis.
With a six-year life cycle assigned to the chassis, combined with considerable support from Chevrolet and Honda, IndyCar has become a more economical form of racing for owners, creating three and four car super-teams.
On the flip side, should the series lose one on the ‘big-three’ teams; 20% of the field is gone in one fell swoop. Certainly, we have not seen a line of folks at IndyCar’s door, begging to get into the series.
I’m unsure as to whether or not 2016 is truly a make-or-break season for IndyCar, but it certainly feels as if we are at a precipice. And, the 100th running of the 500 seems like a perfect opportunity to shoot for the stars.
No, I don’t know how to fix it. I’m not sure that anyone does. As a matter of fact, it was Mario Andretti who told me in a recent interview, “If I knew how to fix it, I’d bottle it and sell it.”
But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
I can dream about a day that Scott Dixon can walk into a Target store in his Team Ganassi polo and be recognized as an IndyCar champion, rather than be mistaken for a Target employee as a young mother asks him which aisle she can find the Pampers.