Monday, March 14, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: The Fish Aren't Biting

IndyCar opened it season with a respectable race from St. Petersburg. Lucas di Grassi can't catch a break. Brits continue to dominate. A German won in Canada. There was another photo finish in NASCAR but a usual face was victorious. Pirelli World Challenge had a first-time winner. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Fish Aren't Biting's Mark Glendenning interviewed IndyCar's chief marketing officer C.J. O'Donnell prior to the start of the IndyCar season. O'Donnell is in, arguably, the toughest job in motorsports. When we critique IndyCar's marketing strategy, or the lack thereof, this is the person at the helm that we are critiquing. He is the captain of that ship, which sometimes appears to be just circling around in the ocean hundreds of miles away from shore.

One of O'Donnell's jobs is getting people through the gates and IndyCar races on television screens and tablet screens and computer screens in homes where it currently isn't being viewed. Easier said than done. It is easy to throw O'Donnell under the bus and I don't mean to do that but there were a few things in the interview that left me scratching my head.

When talking about target audience O'Donnell said, "eventually we have to start thinking about Millennials." While Millennials might be the most hated generation in the history of the United States, they are becoming a more powerful part of American society. By definition, a "millennial" is someone born from 1981-1996. Those people are somewhere from as old as 35 years old to as young as 20 years old. So from newlyweds expecting their first child to juniors in college. He should be thinking about Millennials now.

The upper end of that generation are in the workforce, hopefully making money, hopefully have some type of disposable income but likely not much because of the mountain of student loans. The lower end of that generation are slowly drowning in student loans while balancing studies, a part-time job and scrapping money together to pay rent, purchase the basic necessities and try and have fun every now and then.

While neither of that sounds great for IndyCar, those people who are struggling are who IndyCar should be trying to appeal to now and while that do that with the Snake Pit every year at the Indianapolis 500, what is it doing to attract people to St. Petersburg, Iowa, Pocono, Texas, Toronto, Barber and Road America?

O'Donnell pointed out that the youngest and most diverse crowds are in cities, like Long Beach and when mentioning changing the scheduled O'Donnell added, "if your goal is to attract a younger audience, you're got to go fishing where the fish are."

When Glendenning brought up a shift from ovals to more street races, O'Donnell admitted that is something to think about down the line. First off, how many fewer ovals could IndyCar have? It's already down to five and IndyCar just added Phoenix. If history tells us everything, street circuits are not a stable foundation for a series to grow.

Look at the list of street courses that have come and gone in less than five years: Baltimore, Houston (twice), São Paulo, San Jose, Miami (on three separate occasions), Denver (twice), Las Vegas (twice).

Fishing where the fish clearly isn't a bulletproof plan. IndyCar's growth ultimately comes down to making an IndyCar race something people want to go to. Look at the Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival. The event drew nearly 200,000 people and grossed over $84,000,000 in 2015. The event is held in Indio, California, a city around 85,000 in population and two hours outside of Los Angeles. Here is an event far from where the fish are that draws a crowd smaller than the Indianapolis 500 and probably makes more than IndyCar makes in an entire year. Why does it succeed? Because it is an event people want to go to. It is an event that draws the Millennial generation.

There are plenty of permanent venues, ovals and road courses, that are within two hours of metropolitan cities. Fontana is an hour away from Los Angeles and the IndyCar race drew well when it raced in October and only suffered when someone (Mark Miles) thought racing in June was a brilliant idea. Phoenix International Raceway is about a half-hour from the city of Phoenix. Richmond is within a half hour of downtown Richmond. Gateway is right down the road from St. Louis. Circuit of the Americas is a half-hour outside of Austin. The Milwaukee Mile, Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland are three more tracks within an hour of U.S. cities. All have been IndyCar venues and all could be IndyCar venues in the future.

IndyCar and permanent venues need to figure out why IndyCar can draw people to street races such as Long Beach, St. Petersburg and Toronto but can't get people in other cities to travel a half-hour to an hour to see the same series and arguably better races. I love racing and I love IndyCar but clearly a race in and of itself isn't enough. IndyCar races need to be social events that draw the community out in droves. It needs to be more than a race but the race needs to critical to the existence of the event.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Juan Pablo Montoya but did you know...

Michael Lewis swept the Pirelli World Challenge GT races from St. Petersburg. Jack Roush, Jr. swept the GTS races.

Felix Serrallés and Felix Rosenqvist split the opening weekend of the Indy Lights season from St. Petersburg. Pato O'Ward and Aaron Telitz split the Pro Mazda races. Jordan Lloyd and Yufeng Luo won in U.S. F2000.

Lucas di Grassi took the checkered flag in the Formula E race from Mexico City but a disqualification gave the victory to Jérôme d'Ambrosio, whose only other victory came in Berlin last year after di Grassi was disqualified.

Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes split the World Superbike races from Buriram, Thailand. Jules Cluzel won the World Supersport race.

Ken Roczen won the AMA Supercross race from Toronto, his third victory of 2016.

NASCAR race from Phoenix. Kyle Busch won the Grand National Series race.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One starts with the Australian Grand Prix. 
MotoGP opens under the lights in Qatar.
The 12 Hours of Sebring. 
NASCAR will be in Fontana
V8 Supercars runs its second round from Symmons Plains. 
AMA Supercross heads to Detroit.