Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 and Opinion

BENNER: IndyCar must kiss the past goodbye, embrace bold ideas

May 4, 2013

My longtime friend and motorsports writer/broadcaster Robin Miller recently authored a piece that was highly critical of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s rumored plan to end the IndyCar racing season with a road race at 16th and Georgetown.

Miller’s love and passion for open-wheel racing in general and the Indianapolis 500 in particular are unequaled. When Robin speaks, his voice resonates. No one is more knowledgeable, or has broken more stories over the years, than he.

He’s also been a staunch critic of any number of directions IMS, the Hulman-George family (in particular, Tony George) and IndyCar leadership have taken over the years.

But when he pronounced the idea of a season-ending race on the Speedway’s road course as the dumbest of all the dumb things that have happened over the years, well, I must politely and respectfully disagree.

As I pointed out to Robin in an email, the halcyon days of the Indy 500 and open-wheel racing—roughly a 40-year period from the 1950s until the time of the ill-fated split in open-wheel in 1994—are gone, and they are not coming back.

And those entrusted with the present and future of the sport—if, indeed, there is to be a long-term future of the sport—must now approach the enterprise with an entirely new, different, creative and bold way of thinking.

In short, they shouldn’t be afraid to try anything.

The point was reinforced recently when I picked up a Monday copy of USA Today. There, on the front page of the sports section, was a lengthy story recapping the previous day’s NASCAR race.

And there, on the last page, at the bottom buried in the “briefs” section, was a two-paragraph summation of the IndyCar race also held the day before.

To be blunt, the mainstream sports media—and that includes national publications, the major newspapers and certainly the cable sports networks, most notably ESPN—no longer consider IndyCar relevant to the masses.

It gets significant coverage once a year: for the Indy 500. The only other time it has received major attention in recent years was following the tragic death of popular driver Dan Wheldon in the season-ending 2012 race in Las Vegas. And that’s not the kind of pub it wanted.

Its season-long television coverage is relegated mostly to the cable NBC Sports Network, where the races draw minimal ratings. And there is little promotion of the telecasts that might draw in the casual fan.

In multiple respects, those involved in open wheel have only themselves to blame, and space does not permit a recounting of the many missteps going back to the split in 1994.

Besides, that was then, and this is now.

To the credit of the Hulman Co., it has brought in Mark Miles to serve as its new CEO and de facto head honcho for the direction of IndyCar. Like the previous IndyCar CEO, Randy Bernard, Miles is an outsider to open wheel.

But at least in Indianapolis, he arrives with credibility, going all the way back to his stewardship of the 1987 Pan American Games through his most recent stint as chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee, which pulled off a stunningly successful event.

I’ve known Miles for years. His intellect, his creativity and his willingness to be a risk-taker are keen assets and essential to the task at hand. Miles will not be afraid to be bold, and different.

But will the other stakeholders—team owners, sponsors, manufacturers and, yes, influential members of the media—buy in? For the most part, they never gave Bernard that benefit.

Whether or not you agree with the politics or the philosophy of public funding for private enterprises, the bill sitting on Gov. Mike Pence’s desk that will enable the Speedway to move forward with millions of dollars of improvements is an important first step.

But the physical improvements must be accompanied by a larger strategy. A nighttime Brickyard 400 is one proposal that has merit. Again, with the dwindling crowds the Brickyard has experienced, why not?

And so, too, is a season-ending championship event for IndyCar at the Speedway. I previously proposed some kind of hybrid that would involve both the oval and the road course. Perhaps there is no logistical way to pull that off. But it’s time to put any and all ideas on the table.

As the month of May commences, I’m convinced the Indy 500 will remain an iconic event, but it needs the foundation of a dynamic series. If that series should lead back to Indy for a season-ending finale of some sort, bring it on.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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