by Kent Sterling
The 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.