By Mike Mulhern
Reality check, please:
Here we are at Martinsville Speedway complaining about a mediocre crowd of maybe only 50,000 for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Sunday, on a drizzly, frigid 40-degree afternoon. And what was going on down in sunny Miami, where Sunday’s temp was a balmy 84 degrees, with a Saturday night low of not-so-bad 68?
Well, the newly reunited Indy-car tour was making its debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a beautiful track at the head of the Keys, and not that far from the Miami Airport, to a Saturday night crowd of—according to the Miami Herald 30,000 to 35,000, but according to veteran Indy-car journalists rather maybe just 20,000 at best.
Now certainly Martinsville should have been a sellout, at some 60,000. Heck, it should have been a sellout if there were 100,000 seats. They’ve been doing business here since 1947, they’ve got marketing charisma (though it would be nice if the place were again ringed with blooming azaleas), and they’re playing in the heart of stock car country, with a surrounding population of some five million to draw from within two-hours drive.
But then the Miami area itself boasts a population of some 5.5 million, and a ring of Interstates.
So the Indy-car world is one again, unified finally, after 14 years of bickering, by some dunderheads who have done their best – and maybe succeeded at all but killing off what was once the most popular motorsports series in the country.
Now Tony George, who runs Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was right to wrestle control of that sport away from the wealthy car owners who were not playing with the best of intents for the sport itself. George tried to be diplomatically correct, for a while, but after beating his head against the wall, he finally just pulled the trigger.
And his Indy Racing League should have succeeded. He did a lot of good things. But when Toyota and Honda ran out General Motors, and the Indy-car game began being dominated again by big dollars and selfish interests, well, things started going downhill fast.
Curiously, perhaps, NASCAR men weren’t quite able to help George turn things around…even though some of the very best racing in the country the past several years has been the June Indy-car race at Texas Motor Speedway.
So NASCAR’s Busch-now-Nationwide series passed the Indy-car tour as the second-most popular motorsports series in the country.
Which all is the setting for what?
With the Indy-car world finally united again, NASCAR men should brace for new competition, in the sponsorship-and-marketing arena and in the TV ratings game?
Whoa, not so fast.
Despite so much giddiness in the stock car garage here among motorsports aficionados so glad to have some semblance of sanity back in the Indy-car world, George and his new IRL have a long, long, long way to go to catch back up.
If indeed they ever will.
“Oh, in five years Indy-car racing will be back atop the American sports psyche,” some here gleefully predict.
If so, it would take an almost complete collapse of what NASCAR has built over the past dozen years during the Indy-car world’s hibernation.
—First, NASCAR men – the France family and Bruton Smith – own virtually all the major U.S. race tracks. So George would need their help to make his new plan work. And with NASCAR running three major national touring series itself, how much room on the sports calendar is there left really for the IRL?
—Second, the enormous NASCAR marketing machine has not only blanketed the country, in nearly every major market, but it has also locked up nearly every significant sponsor interested in marketing through motorsports.
—Third, NASCAR has an incredible amount of sheer racing inventory – 38 Sprint Cup weekends, 35 Nationwide Saturdays, and 25 Truck weekends, all spread out from early February through late November. NASCAR is already two months into its season while the new Indy-car tour just opened.
—Fourth, many Indy-car stars have long since defected to NASCAR: Heck, Sam Hornish Jr., the 2006 Indy 500 winner, and Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 winner, were right here at Martinsville Sunday, albeit struggling, but seemingly satisfied to be where the big money and big sports interest really is….in NASCAR. And of course there’s Tony Stewart and others, who might be in Indy-car if things hadn’t fallen apart.
—And fifth, NASCAR’s marketing machine is at least 10 years more ‘mature’ than the Indy-car operation, and it has some remarkable depth.
So it may take George quite some time to rebuild his open-wheel world into a formidable sports power again, because while it’s been struggling, NASCAR has kicked into overdrive.
To help bankroll his new series 14 years ago George invited NASCAR to the Brickyard. In the years since, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 has arguably become a bigger event than the Indy 500 itself. And NASCAR itself has become the top racing series in the U.S., while the Indy-car world has hit the skids.
NASCAR has the world’s three biggest car makers supporting its sport – General Motors, Ford and Toyota, along with Chrysler.
Honda has the Indy-car world to itself, now that Toyota, GM and Ford have all quit. So Indy-car racing is really a “spec” series now.
Still, one of the marketing lines being heard here over the weekend is that the newly revived Indy-car tour should help keep NASCAR executives on their toes, particularly in the area of budget costs, and especially in the Nationwide tour, which is struggling, not only losing the bedrock independent car owners but also now losing TV ratings too.
So let’s hear what Geoff Smith, head of Roush Racing, and the man who runs Jack Roush’s vast sponsorship-marketing arm, says about this new economic competition from the Indy-car world:
“First of all, we’ve done very well with recruiting sponsors for the Truck series, for the Nationwide series, and for the Sprint Cup series.
“When you see the U.S. economy go soft, the lack of (marketing) infrastructure in many of these race teams starts to show up. Whether it’s the IRL or in the NASCAR garage, I can’t tell you how many teams spend their time trying to raid our sponsors rather than working to find new ones.
“The guys at the very top (Roush, Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs) can get their sponsors by waiting for the phone to ring. But that doesn’t go very deep into this Cup series, or the Nationwide series or Truck series. You have to have a marketing arm out there continuously mining for sponsors.
“That’s where the weakness among other teams shows up more when the economy is off. So many people just try to put a wheel under you—If there’s an opportunity to steal, whether it’s a part or a sponsor, let’s play the game, which is how it works around here. It does show the soft moral underbelly we have here in the NASCAR garage…
“Nobody in here is surprised….but I think the public would be surprised if they understood what it really means to be a competitor here – that feeling that so many people have that sense that anything goes:
‘Slander, great, let’s use slander.’
‘Cheat? Yeah, let’s cheat.’
‘Lie? Yes, let’s lie.’
‘Steal? Okay, why not?’
“But a lot of us don’t like to operate at those levels.”
But the Indy-car world…
“They’re going to try to create a new dynamic, to improve the quality of their show….and that’s what they’ll have to do to attract sponsors,” Smith says.
“We all have to understand what the competition is at a particular price point.”
So Indy-car men should be trying to undercut and under-price NASCAR men for sponsors. And that could show up just how exorbitantly expensive NASCAR racing really is, across the board. Indy-car men might well be able to make a case – if they work hard enough – that their racing series offers more bang for the buck….particularly given how many bucks it takes today to play this NASCAR game. The Cup level is simply outrageous. And the Nationwide series is overpriced too, perhaps. And the Truck series has long suffered in attracting major sponsors, other than the Detroit car makers themselves.
Smith, though, sees it differently:
“In terms of a cost advantage, the Indy-car tour has so many fewer races that there ought to be some price benefit there,” Smith says.
“But we’re out there 35 times a year in the Nationwide series, and that’s twice as many races as Indy-car…..which means NASCAR has twice as much reach nationally and geographically, which allows a sponsor to have a full-year national platform they can roll out week after week….without having to invent something.
“It is very difficult for people to invest in marketing staffs that can come up with two, three or four national programs each year. It’s much more efficient to take a 38-week marketing package and then do incremental spinoffs in different markets.
“I think our Nationwide programs and Truck programs will hold up very well against that new competition.
“But all of us, whether it’s NASCAR or the IRL, are facing tough economic times. We’ve had them before….but many people look at economic downturns as a great opportunities to go market. Still, some companies just won’t spend until they’re certain which way things are headed.”
Roush himself did build Indy-car engines a while back, when the IRL was first formed. Might Roush be interested again now? “Jack will race anybody anywhere any time. He is an unbelievably competitive man, as you know,” Smith says. “And we’d be happy to consider new racing series.
“But we’d have to come up with a marketing plan to make it work. And the start-up investment to have a competitive engine in the IRL would require a major commitment (for Roush) by Ford Motor Company.”
So George might first have to woo Detroit.
“But when it comes to those types of series where technology is so important, the car makers have to be very selective,” Smith says.
“Ford, for example, made a big investment with Cosworth…but then Honda came in and said ‘We’ll put this much more into a new engine.’ And Ford had to decide whether to stay or go….and Ford decided to go.
“NASCAR, as a sport, has been unique in that the manufacturers have been a much smaller part of the economic package for each team. Plus the commitment by each of these manufacturers is very similar…and there is some security that their marketing investment here won’t be obsoleted by another manufacturer’s investment. At least that’s what we’re hoping.
“So this sport has been uniquely stable, compared to open-wheel, which has been so influenced by big manufacturers, Formula One and Indy-car….and even back in the Trans-Am days.
“We had a glimpse of what could happen, with the Truck series the past few years – when Dodge came in and outspent everyone, and in doing that, the marketplace for sponsorship for the rest of us went to hell in a handbasket, because Dodge could subsidize their teams’ sponsors.
“At one point Dodge beat us out of a sponsor, in 1998, by providing 75 percent of the sponsorship.
“So some of the multi-car team rules you see today, in NASCAR, there is a measure of limits in what the manufacturers themselves can do…to keep the sport from becoming too dependent on a manufacturer, as in other branches of the sport.
“So the IRL has a nice vision: that the technology and costs have to be organized in a predictable way, so potential owners know the costs.
“But this is just a start for the IRL…and we (in NASCAR) have inherent competitive advantages in the marketplace: with the number of races we have, the length of our seasons, the number of markets we reach, the geographical reach we have—and in our pricing for what we can deliver.
“And we have a marketing infrastructure in NASCAR that is very tough to compete against.
“So the new IRL might be a complement for us….but I don’t think it’s threatening us in any way.”