NASCAR Gets It; IndyCar Still Needs Tutoring

by Kent Sterling

NASCAR officials separate the crews of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch after Saturday night's race at Darlington. This is called conflict, and that what IndyCar needs right now.

Ashley works in my wife’s office, and she was excited today when I popped in to say hello.  “Did you see the NASCAR fight?” she asked.  I have – a bunch of times on ESPN and online.  It was impossible to miss because sports fans like drama.

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Multiply that by 1,000,000 this morning, and the reason for NASCAR being popular enough for major networks to fight over the rights to show the races is clear, while IndyCar is stuck on the purgatory of the Versus Network.

Last week, Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya got a little sideways with one another – literally.  After Montoya spun Newman, NASCAR put the two drivers in a hauler for a private meeting.  What happened in there is anyone’s guess, but afterward Montoya was quoted as saying, “Newman hits like a girl.”

On Saturday night at Darlington, it was Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who got into it, and that is what is driving water cooler talk today.

The last time IndyCar generated any talk at all was when Helio Castroneves went nuts and started screaming at race officials behind a shed in the infield of a race that was run last year – I think.

With all the talk today on Sportscenter, my conversations in the dental office and on the phone, no one has mentioned who won the race in Richmond or at Darlington.  I still have no idea who won, nor do I care.

IndyCar needs an infusion of drama, and I know IndyCars are too fragile to withstand the kind of “rubbin’ is racin'” behavior that stirs up the NASCAR fans – of which there are millions.  But does NASCAR own some proprietary information or patents on the technology that allows for contact that won’t shatter the chassis?

The IndyCar Series put out a request for chassis designs last year, and easily could have made sturdiness part of the criteria.  Speeds would have dropped, but people don’t show up to see 232 mph.  They show up to see fast and faster, and they want drama.

You don’t need a degree in theatre to know that drama is impossible without conflict.  And interest is impossible without drama.

If IndyCar doesn’t embrace the NASCAR model of building fan interest, races will continue to repel viewers at the rate of 299-out-of-300 homes with TVs.

I love the Indianapolis 500.  Going to the race is a highlight every year, and I want a resurgence in its popularity in the worst way.  Seeing the empty seats every race day is heartbreaking, but until fans have a driver to root for and root against, they have no reason to go to the race other than tradition.  Tradition isn’t enough.

More importantly, every year when I talk to friends about coming to Indianapolis for the race, they act like I’m nuts to ask.

Please, for the love of Mauri Rose and Wilbur Shaw, do what’s necessary to turn some of those Monday morning conversations into recaps of open wheel events.  Cars flying in circles without context is called traffic.

22 thoughts on “NASCAR Gets It; IndyCar Still Needs Tutoring

  1. Neil

    Before we get too excited about NASCAR, I would mention that NASCAR is not as old so the Indy cars have had a head start at turning off viewers by about 50 years. Don’t worry, NASCAR is trying to catch up. Pay attention to all the politically correct crap that is starting to rear its ugly head in this venue too. Give them a few more years and they will be just as unwatchable as indy cars. My brother who started watching NASCAR when he was in high school has gotten more bitter with every coming year. I have talked with many of the old time fans and they are falling away in droves. They aren’t going back to indy cars by any means but the politics and pettiness of the officials is going on is getting harder to ignore. USAC was the beginning of the end of the open wheel indy cars and NASCAR as it now stands seems fully intent on replicating that pattern. It just takes time. I am through with all of them. The IMS just had their last chance with me, I am through with them.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      They went south into 2010, and then NASCAR got smart again and told the drivers to settle disputes themselves. The result has been the racheting up of the kind of mayhem people have enjoyed the last couple of weekends.

  2. Will

    NASCAR = WWE of motorsports.
    IndyCar needs real fans, not a bunch of (****) people who are fooled by GWC rules or a spec series masked as “different” cars.

  3. J

    As an IndyCar fan I will tell you that I would stop watching immediately if they went to a NASCAR mentality. If “traffic” is moving at 230 mph wheel to wheel and that doesn’t excite you as a race fan, then you aren’t a race fan…

    1. kentsterling Post author

      If traffic is moving wheel-to-wheel at 230 mph, and I have an emotional investment in one of the drivers, then that works.

      If the drivers all love and respect each other, enjoy watching the races now because they won’t be around for long.

  4. Stuart Carter

    Mr. Sterling, you may think you are a race fan, but you are not. If you are excited about mayhem, you don’t get it. And I doubt you ever will.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      What I get is apathy vs. interest. If you are one of those racing elitists, longing for the days of new track records, and thrilled about watching mostly identically-prepared cars driven by nice guys, you are part of the problem because that product will have no audience – which isn’t far away from the 0.3 rating the Alabama race earned.

      Without conflict there is no drama, and without drama there is no audience. Period.

      1. Stuart Carter

        Drama is A.J. winning his fourth.
        Drama is Johncock holding off Mears lap after lap.
        Drama is Danny Sullivan doing a 360 and winning the race.
        Drama is Al Sr. starting the month without a ride, and ending up in victory lane.
        Drama is Emmo and Little Al refusing to relent into Turn 3, with only one coming out – and no punches thrown.
        Drama is Michael passing Mears on the outside into 1, and Mears returning the favor.
        Drama is Goodyear coming from 33rd place to almost win.
        Drama is Penske watching from the stands on race day, one year after dominating the place.
        Drama is Robby Gordon falling just short of fuel.
        Drama is Tracy running down Helio, only to have the yellow come out at exactly the wrong time.
        Drama is Danica leading with less than ten to go.
        Drama is Sam Hornish popping out from behind Marco with a handful of yards to go.

        If that’s not enough drama for you, then I repeat – you are not a race fan, you just think you are.

        1. kentsterling Post author

          Yes, those moments are dramatic, and don’t confuse the issue with my being a fan. I’ll go out to 16th and Georgetown to watch the pigeons poop. If the IndyCar series wants to engage the average sports fan, they need to be able to generate more than 12 individual moments in 34 years and 17,000 miles to earn allegiance. They need drivers who can generate passion. It’s not that the Indy 500 doesn’t occasionally provide a great moment that is seared into the memories of those who witness it – they need to drive consistent compelling content. That is done through personality, not technology or speed.

  5. LittleOffy

    IndyCar’s problem isn’t drama, it’s the split that lasted 13 years. Personally, I don’t know anyone that gets excited about seeing drivers, athletes, celebrities fight… The novelty’s worn off. Now it’s just obnoxious and contrived. I also disagree with your ‘banging wheels’ idea. It’s much cooler seeing drivers run side-by-side, knowing full well that if they touch, their race could be over. Making the car more rigid and slow is just dangerous. These cars are latterly weak for a reason, so an A-arm doesn’t go through the tub and into a drivers leg. If we’re going to make the sport dangerous, speed up the cars. That’s what people like. IndyCar fans get more excited seeing drivers push the limit of speed, then fist fights.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      I’m not sure what media you are watching. Every single reality show on television is about people arguing, fighting, and overall conflict. Watch an episode of “Celebrity Apprentice”, “Survivor”, “Big Brother”, “The Great Race”, all seasons prior to this one of “American Idol”. The highest rated show on cable is always WWE – which is literally nothing but celebrities fighting.

      The limit of speed was last pushed in 1996. Those days are over.

  6. jeremiah

    People dont show up to see 232? UM……I LIVE at IMS during May for that very reason. And I know A TON of people that do. Not really sure what you mean by that, but speed is what the Indy 500 (oh ya, the largest single day sporting event in the world) is all about. Racing is about who can go the fastest for the longest, not who can get out of their car and beat up the next guy. I watched the darlington race Saturday night…until oh, lap 300. That race was so incredibly boring that I actually put cartoons on and called my kids back into the living room. What is so interesting about the “Darlington Strip”? Nothing. Just means your paint got scratched cuz you couldnt keep it out of the wall.

    No, IndyCar does not need drama. IndyCar needs heated rivalries. There may be some drama that goes with that, but I think true racing fans would much rather see two guys going at it every weekend on the track than see two grown men throw temper tantrums, throw helmets at the other cars, or do something that is ILLEGAL in this country…fight.

    All of you sports writers just don’t get it when you write articles about the IndyCar series. IndyCar is about speed, danger, and putting it all on the line to win. The last 15 years, it hasnt been there as much as it was. But its coming back, and the more the sports writers put down the IndyCar series, the more the general public is turned off by IndyCar.

    I have a friend who before last year had never even watched an IndyCar or Nascar race. Guess what, We watched a saturday Nascar race, and then a Sunday IndyCar race, and do you want to know which race he was more impressed with?? This is a guy who had never watched either series. And he thought the IndyCar race was far more entertaining (iowa i might add), and thought the Nascar was boring.

    Nascar is a fad. It will always have its loyal “geographic” followers, but darlington had a TON of empty seats. The attendance is still down. Look at Taledega. How many sections were tarped off in order to make the stands look full?

    Look. If you dont like IndyCar racing, then do us all favor and stop writing about it. Period.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      I want IndyCar to succeed. I love the Indy 500, but hate the empty seats and the 0.3 rating the races get on Versus. There is a way to fix it and get people talking about it, but that isn’t politely driving around in circles.

      By the way, legally fighting is a lot like sex. When both combatants consent, and it’s on public property, there is nothing illegal about it.

      Forever, movies have been about characters we like overcoming adversity – sometimes in the form of characters we dislike. That is what people pay to watch. Give them that, and TV ratings will spike.

      And you are right – heated rivalries provide the best kind of drama.

  7. MichiganAndy

    I would caution IndyCar from turning their series into the professional wrestling of auto racing the way NASCAR has, even though NASCAR found more than enough suckers to believe what they do is actually a sport versus an entertainment driven, high speed contrived show. Short term NASCAR has benefited from the way they manipulate their product, don’t have transparency in their qualifying timing so they can put whomever they want at the front for the sake of ratings and their sponsors, inconsistency in implementing rules, and it’ll be interesting what ultimately happens with the Mayfield legal story. But long term, well maybe I am foolish to believe Americans can only be fooled for so long, but I would argue when the house of cards NASCAR built on a false foundation will one day crumble, and not even Dale Jr punching out some character NASCAR builds up as their evil one will salvage the damage caused by people finally figuring out NASCAR is one big fraud, IndyCar will serve itself well by distancing itself from such a NASCAR model, which is exactly what Bronco is doing with the series. What IndyCar needs are better personalities, more Americans, a return to race cars worthy of being called premier level, and a much, much better TV pacjage. All 4 are slowly but surely being addressed, all without sacrificing the type of integrity being suggested here all to appease some high school level mentality.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      “A sucker is born every minute,” is a crass mischaracterization of how to create a product for mass consumption, although it’s quite correct. The key is that people just want to be entertained. Personalities do that. The TV package won’t improve until there are more fans, and there won’t be more fans until there is some conflict among the drivers.

      None of it has to be contrived, but it needs to be passionate.

      Personally, I find NASCAR dull as hell, but they are re-learning how to involve fans.

      1. MichiganAndy

        Manufactured drama would potentially attract a crowd to IndyCar to a certain degree, but not a large enough one to justify such a compromise in integrity. These are the same folks that still think those tin cans are similar to the cars they drive, to them appearance is all they need, depth of racing knowledge goes no further than knowing what town a driver was born in. The looks-like-my-car is a big part of that demographic’s overall attraction to that form of motorized entertainment. OW cars don’t offer that type of aspect, these cars are built for racing. Yes, driver identity is IndyCar’s biggest challenge, no doubt, but as Tony George tragically discovered, what works for NASCAR won’t work for IndyCars b/c they are 2 completely different products that need to be marketed differently. The minds IndyCar has their best chance of attracting are much different than the type of minds that are stoked by high school level drama. In particular, even with the spec formula there is still an overall engineering and mechanical component to IndyCar that created a platform which itself was an attraction to this sport. The drivers were racing on a platform that made them in the minds of fans jet fighters compared to NASCAR’s platform which makes them crop dusters. No reason why IndyCar can’t work towards re-creating that perception as they have a product that just flat out smokes NASCAR. Do a commercial for the Las Vegas millions challenge like, “Come on NASCAR drivers, take off the training wheels and see how big your kehones really are.” IndyCar needs to target a more sophisticated demographic as they just don’t have the product to attract those hungry for high school level hissy fit dramas. And that sophisticated demo is a large part of the fan base IndyCar lost due to the split, and they just haven’t found the same type of satisfaction with NASCAR or F1 as they did with pre-split IndyCars. So IMO, they are ripe for the picking, the drama queens, not so much. Great site BTW, thank you for posting your stuff.

        1. kentsterling Post author

          Good thoughts. Maybe creating the rivalry with NASCAR is the rivalry that would be meaningful. The crowds are poor for both series. I don’t want to see empty seats at the IMS, and they are doing little to attack the apathy that even in Indianapolis is deafening. The thing I’m looking most forward to on race day is watching the Marmon Wasp take a couple of laps. That shouldn’t be the big draw.

          You criticize high school dramas like they are a bad thing. Operating an exclusive club with three members that you believe is superior to the popular club with 150 members because they’re easily entertained is a good way for IndyCar to fail.

          And for the people who booked Staind and Papa Roach as the Carb Day entertainment, there is some serious shame there too. The bands should attract fans, not repel them.

  8. Lonnie T

    I think its pretty simple. The IRL needs to dump the boring road racing crap and get back to racing on the ovals only. That will help bring fans back to watch and attend all of the races, including the 500. They also need to get rid of all of these foreign drivers so people can relate to them.

    If there’s people that really want to watch a bunch of foreigners go road racing, you already have the euro trash F1 league.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      You sound like Tony George, circa 1995. That doesn’t make you wrong – just 15 years late.

      1. Lonnie T

        They should be so lucky to get Tony back after everything he went through with his family and the press.

        By the way, I also have no idea who Stained and Papa Roach is. What is wrong with this group of people running things? Are they trying to run off every last fan?

        1. jeremiah

          Staind and Papa Roach are rock bands…actually my type of music. Me and my friends wouldn’t be going to Carb Day if they hadn’t booked something current and contemporary.

          1. kentsterling Post author

            What’s current about Staind? Using their own hit – it’s been awhile.

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