Indy 500 Needs an Infusion of Drama to Rekindle Interest

by Kent Sterling

UnknownThe Indy 500 was a better event in 1992, and every year prior than it is today.  The legacy of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is one of innovation, speed, and safety.  Over the last 17 years, the speeds have slowed, the innovation has stagnated, and safety is sadly not a point of interest for fans.

The drivers are incredibly positive or bland, and conflict is nonexistent – at least publicly.

As a result, television ratings are declining to unheard of levels.  The numbers for last weekend’s race were the second worst ever nationally, and in Indianapolis the rebroadcast of the race drew roughly half the viewers who watched the Pacers vs. Heat, and marginally more that the live broadcast of NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.

Living in Indianapolis from 1993 to 2011, I knew that local interest outstripped that of people outside the state, but I was shocked at the complete indifference of sports fans less than 300 miles away in St. Louis.  People there had vague recollections of watching the race in their youth, and if you asked them to name a driver, the answers were likely to be Foyt, an Unser or three, Mario Andretti, and Mears.  Ask them about Scott Dixon, and they say, “You mean the tax guy from Florissant?”

The Indy 500 has become the carnivals you went to as a kid.  The memories are fond, but the current reality is not thrilling.  I remember the tickle in my stomach I felt the first time I went on a Ferris Wheel, but have no idea when I enjoyed going around in vertical circles last.

The formula for generating interest in any media offering isn’t a national secret.  There are two keys – conflict and resolution.  Look at every successful sporting event, reality show, or scripted drama.  You want eyes?  Give people conflict and resolution.

In IndyCar, the conflict is either muted or nonexistent.

In NASCAR, it seems everyone hates everyone else.  If we threw our cars around the interstate with the same fury as NASCAR drivers, we would do time.  The antipathy for Joey Lagano is thick, and the Kurt and Kyle Busch don’t have many friends either.

Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles said in an interview last week that they will try to find new ways to bring both increased speed and safety to Indy, but what is really needed are heroes and villains.

There are two problems standing between IndyCar and heroes.  Every time they develop one, NASCAR pays him (or her) more, and they bolt.  Tony Stewart, Sam Hornish, and Danica Patrick left IndyCar and never looked back.  Hornish was too boring to be an true hero, but his abandonment of IndyCar is endemic of their biggest problem in talent retention – money.  And without popularity in the form of TV ratings, there isn’t enough money to pay them.

IndyCar has rarely had a villain.  There was a dust up between Arie Luyendyk and A.J. Foyt at the Texas Motor Speedway early in the Indy Racing Leauge era, but other than that I can’t remember a Yarborough vs. Allison donnybrook to energize conversation among the passive fans who might be re-engaged to give a damn.

The problem with the Indy 500, as is the case with long standing events with rich histories is the reluctance to dishonor their legacy by trying to update their product.  “Indy has always been about speed, innovation, and bravery,” fans will say.  Unfortunately those who remember the days when that was true are getting older and older.

People who were born on the day the last time Tom Carnegie spoke the words, “a new track record” are now 17 years old.  The last time there was a massive controversy during the race was 1981 when Bobby Unser was declared the winner in October after a protest lodged by Roger Penske was upheld and Mario Andretti was bumped to second.

There is still debate about that race, and I remember watching ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel spending an entire show discussing it.  It wasn’t sports – it was news, Ted Koppel level news.

The Indianapolis 500 needs to replate and rebuild to engage viewers, and if vestiges of its grand history are retained, that’s wonderful.  If not, that’s fine too.

Pleasing those who are married to what they watched in 1985 is not a viable strategy.  Create a week long party filled with action, conflict, and fun.  Get rid of the useless week of practice prior to the Pole Day.  Eliminate Bump Day altogether (as there is no bumping), and for the love of God give people there for the weekend something to watch on the Saturday before the race.

And hire some cranky pricks who aren’t afraid to piss each other off.  The answer for making Indy interesting isn’t brain surgery, it’s on TV every night.  “Hell’s Kitchen”, a reality show on Fox about people cooking food at a restaurant averages nearly as many viewers each week as the Indy 500 netted last weekend.  IT’S A SHOW ABOUT COOKING!

“The Voice” yet another panel show about singers trying to become stars triples the audience that enjoys the Indy 500.

The Indy 500 should be the coolest reality show in the history of TV.

10 thoughts on “Indy 500 Needs an Infusion of Drama to Rekindle Interest

  1. Rusty Humphrey

    Kent, you must not have been there is all I can say. To say that 1992 was a better race than the one last Sunday made me laugh. I was there for both. 1992 was gawdawful. It was a wreck fest with a dozen cars finishing the race. It lasted forever because of all the yellows. And it was very cold and windy. Not cool. Cold. Maybe you like wrecks and seeing drivers injured, some forced to retire. Open wheel fans don’t and never have. We don’t like it when our heroes die or lose their legs or marbles.

    The last controversy in ’81? What about ’02? That was when Tracy passed Castroneves just as the light went yellow in the final laps. There was a formal protest and the results were contested for weeks. You want to see a dust-up? Watch professional wrestling. You think Danica was a hero and you want to see villains and you don’t think there was drama last Sunday? I reckon everybody has an opinion.

    My opinion….NASCAR is a snooze-fest. Drafting in big packs makes me fall asleep. I have no use for “villains.” It just make me wonder whether their mommas ever taught ’em how to act. And slow….those cars couldn’t get out of the way of a bus. My idea of racing is 230+ miles an hour where they don’t lift off the throttle. And don’t get me started on that ridiculous green/white/checker thing. I don’t like it when they make up rules as they go along either. NASCAR is great entertainment….but it isn’t real racing.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Rusty – Not claiming 1992 was a better race at all. Because of the star power in the race, it was one of the last that had significant national interest.

      My evaluation of controversy is measured by impact in the media. The Tracy/Helio deal was big news in Indianapolis, but made no national ripple at all. The 1981 deal was huge.

      Media reflects interest, and by their reckoning there is nearly none outside Indiana.

      1. Rusty Humphrey

        There sure were an awful lot of cars in the N lot with out of state plates. You sure you were there?

        1. kentsterling Post author

          I’m not talking about the race as a spectator event. It’s one of the absolute bucket list events in sports. I’m not being critical of the TV coverage either. I think NBC Sports and ESPN did a wonderful job. This is about people nationally being disconnected from the telecast. They have no compelling reason to watch.

          1. Rusty Humphrey

            OK…I can’t argue TV ratings with you. They are disappointingly low. But I maintain there was plenty of drama last Sunday. People have over 100 channels of crap to choose from now. And ratings don’t count Tivo views.

            NASCAR drivers don’t drive IndyCars and IndyCar drivers don’t drive cup cars anymore. They used to. NASCAR has seen to it that will never happen again. That used to generate lots of interest.

            I know IndyCar misses Danica, but I doubt Simona or Ana are going to get a tramp stamp or take their clothes off for the camera.

            All racing has become spec racing because of cost containment. Every series is losing market share, including NASCAR and F1. I’m not sure where we go from here. But I have never been a fan of manufacturing excitement.

  2. Rusty Humphrey

    Oh, and Tom Carnegie is dead. So he couldn’t announce the two records broken last Sunday…68 lead changes, and the fastest average speed for the race at 187.433.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      A small percentage of people saw either record set, and few cared. 237.489 mph is the number that might draw people out to the track. 187.433 is a function of safety and resulting lack of yellows.

      1. Rusty Humphrey

        NASCAR isn’t setting any records. Why do they get a pass? They haven’t set any speed records in the last decade or so. They’re every bit as concerned about safety, as is witnessed by restrictor plates and every safety device IndyCar came up with they then take credit for. The year they set that 237 record, they dialed up the boost, turned them loose, and Scott Brayton died. Of course they slowed the cars down. They did the same thing in NASCAR after Dale Earnhardt died. A couple years ago they wanted big media buzz in Las Vegas. So they put too many cars on the track, dialed up the boost, and offered $1 million to Dan Wheldon to start from the back and win. We all know how that turned out. It created lots of media attention.

        1. kentsterling Post author

          Speed is one of the less meaningful changes that can engage. Conflict creates drama. Drama creates interest. Interest drives rating. The Indy 500 needs drama. Where it comes from is irrelevant.

          Abd speed didn’t kill Scott. It was the lack of structural reinforcement on the left side (the inside facing half) of the car. He spun halfway around and hit hard. I was there that day, and it was horrible. Such a good guy.

          1. Rusty Humphrey

            I know one way you could bring some conflict. Bring Tony George back. (Just kidding.)

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