NCAA Final Four offers key lesson for IndyCar survival

March 30, 2010
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As I watch the madness overtaking Indianapolis with the NCAA men’s Final Four coming to town, a recent conversation—about IndyCar racing of all things—comes to mind.

One look at the fan fervor surrounding this 65-team hoops tournament, not to mention the business interests willing to spend cash to tap into that fan fervor, and I begin to wonder if auto racing fan and analyst Scott Morris might not have a solid point about how to develop a stronger open-wheel racing series.

Reading one of my posts last month about the dearth of American open-wheel drivers and the waning ranks of the Indy Lights series, Morris called me with an interesting idea. He says its high time for someone in the IndyCar Series to look seriously at launching the North American College Racing Association.

OK, I know. It sounds a bit off the wall at first. But then I began to listen, and after watching another NCAA basketball tournament unfold here, I began to wonder … could it work? My conclusion; it’s better than anything going right now.

“Colleges have corporate connections and they have endowments,” said Morris, a regular contributor for AutoRacing1.com. “Colleges have resources that would dwarf most Indy Lights and IndyCar teams.”

Colleges could use their labs, land, money and connections to compete very nicely alongside existing professional teams, Morris said. And the participating schools would get something back for their investment that they badly need.

“College education systems are in dire need of applied studies for their engineering, marketing and sales courses,” Morris said.

Morris thinks colleges nationwide could leverage their built-in fan bases to sell merchandise year-round and race tickets when the series came to their region. It might even open up new markets. Morris added that the college (upscale, educated and up-and-coming) demographic would be perfect for IndyCar and its existing sponsor base.

The $800,000 to $1.2 million annual budget to run an Indy Lights team would be little sweat for most universities. Most Big Ten schools have athletic budgets in excess of $35 million, with the likes of Ohio State and Michigan having budgets of more than double that.

Even mid-major and small colleges have athletic department budgets in excess of $20 million. So funding a one-car race team wouldn’t be much of a stretch, especially if the university could tie it to an educational initiative. And with a little elbow grease, Morris said, the school could make its race program self-supporting.

“Colleges offer two things the IndyCar and Indy Lights series desperately need,” Morris said. “Fans and rivalries.”

Morris thinks kicking-off such an initiative would only require IndyCar officials to entice one or two big schools into the program. If Michigan jumps in, Ohio State will surely follow, he surmises. And if UCLA goes all in, Southern Cal won’t want to fall behind in such a cutting-edge initiative.

“With colleges, there’s a huge matter of bragging rights,” Morris said. “Can you imagine a car emblazoned in Michigan’s blue and maize logo?”

Morris’ vision includes building programs at each participating school where freshman work on karting teams, sophomores graduate to a Mazda Star-type series and juniors and seniors who make the grade would move up to Indy Lights. The college students, with the help from professors, would handle every aspect of the team; from engineering to sales to providing the driver.

College teams would compete alongside existing race teams, but they'd have their own collegiate national championship, Morris said.

After graduating, the IndyCar Series would have a natural flow of top talent to its ranks, and the fans who fell in love with drivers while on college campuses nationwide would naturally follow them when they hit the big-time IndyCar Series.

Is Morris’ idea madness? Perhaps.

But who would have thought Butler would make the Final Four?

And three decades ago when the Final Four was played in Market Square Arena, who would have thought the men’s NCAA basketball tournament would evolve into an annual multi-billion dollar business?

And more importantly, what other prospects does the IndyCar Series have on the horizon for a serious development effort that will build up drives abilities and images and send fans back to open-wheel in the droves like those that will flock to Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend?
 

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  • Wow
    I really like this idea! Plus it's positive which is rare for this blog.:)
  • Great Idea!
    I love the idea, it is so off-the-wall and original. I really think it could work. What can we do to get the ball rolling?
  • It is a fascinating idea. And many colleges already sponsor sun racing teams and other developmental technology. There is some real merit there. Also you figure there is some good driver talent there with the likes of Ryan Newman going to Purdue and Sarah Fisher at Butler.

    It is that kind of off the wall thinking that makes break throughs. Who would have thought that you would need a 70,000 seat arena to host a Final Four?
  • Skepic I am
    I like the idea....just can't see the ROI for the colleges. Seriously, is BillyJoeBob, with his Marlboro hat and ticket freebies REALLY interested in attending these colleges because of the sponsored cars?

    Look, if the IRL can find a way to harness BEER PONG tournaments and SPRING BREAK / PARTYING into some kind of engineering activity I'd say you're on to something. Engineering offers WAY to small a base of market to penetrate....resulting in NO ROI.

    You wanna turn on kids to INDY and the IRL? Host BEER PONG TOURNEYS and open up the madness of general admission to the insides of the turns again. That would create a BUZZ like you can't imagine in more ways than one...and DRIVE THE FANS back to the tracks. Lord knows the racing can't draw them back on it's own....
  • Brits doing it
    Imperial College in London has a racing development program based in its Faculty (read department) of Engineering. And it's green. Here's the URL:
    http://dougal.union.ic.ac.uk/rcc/racinggreen/
  • has possibilities
    Shell Eco-Marathon 2010 http://www.shell.com/home/content/ecomarathon/americas/media/2010_sema_houston_results.html
    Purdue grad finished 4th in this weeks NASCAR race http://www.nascar.com/races/cup/2010/6/data/results_unofficial.html
    Purdue Grand Prix http://www.purduegrandprix.org/
    IU Little 500 http://www.iusf.indiana.edu/little500/
    I'm at Purdue, so this is Purdue oriented.

    I think this would have more appeal to schools if the vehicle was an open design, to allow classroom involvement.
    In today's economy, the budget will have to be tight, to justify investment to taxpayers.
  • OK in Theory - Hard to
    Only if there's an educational hook would this concept work in universities. Meaning the engineering schools would be the most likely candidates as every major conference has at least one.

    Imagine the recruiting as Purdue hires the retired Ryan Newman to run their racing program and he goes all over the country to sign up the "hot shoes" and "super wrenches" of tomorrow, competing with the likes of Roger Penske from U of Michigan or Jimmy Vasser at USC.

    While "off the wall" probably isn't the right term to attach to a racing concept, this is one concept that deserves further interest.
  • dilligent guy
    This guy has been working on this for a while, because I did some work with him on this a few years back. It's a fantastic concept. I really have no idea why IndyCar doesn't sink their teeth into this thing. I am a USC alum, and I would buy a Trojans Racing Team hat and shirt right now, and I would be at Long Beach to see them whip the Bruins on the track too. I really doubt that Indy Lights teams have fans coming to see them race. It's even tougher now that they aren't even on TV anymore.
  • Interesting but
    I like the concept.
    I think it would work better with the schools partnering with the current teams.
    But until the team owners understand that the world is not on edge waiting for their next move and "hire" drivers who can not only drive well but that are marketable to the US fan base open wheel will remain as a small niche sport destine to be on a 2nd tier network (I love the coverage VS give the IRL I just wished they had a larger number of subscribers)like VS.
  • Surely they've thought of this
    You have to believe that surely the Indy Racing League has thought of this idea before. Surely they have! If not, somebody at 16th and Georgetown needs to wake up and start making some calls and doing some studies on this. The series is in no position to cast off any half-way feasible ideas to grow the series.
  • Brilliant Idea
    This is a great idea and one I think could be hugely successful. Multiple curriculums could become involved, such as engineering, marketing, multimedia, graphic design, entrepreneurship, etc. Imagine the size of the potential sponsorship pool (successful alumni) and how they would probably be far more motivated to help fund a racing program with such a personal connection and common bond with other sponsors. With effective leadership, I think this could have the potential to become a more successful business model that the current IZOD IndyCar Series!
  • Sure it'll work. Would you like to purchase a bridge?
    "fans who fell in love with drivers while on college campuses nationwide would naturally follow them when they hit the big-time IndyCar Series."
    --------------------------------------------

    Lol. Are these 'fans' gonna provide a check for their crapwagon pilot? Cause that's what it takes to go earling these days.

    This whole premise assumes a 'fan base'. Laughable.

    How were the ratings for St Theftberg?

    code = c4c65
  • Has been tried
    All, this is a great concept, but it has been tried. I personally have tried it. The situation is that with schools cutting budgets left and right in this country, the concept of using a racing team to market their schools is maddening to most faculty and staff. Imagine knowing you are not getting a raise or even getting a cut in pay or your program money, but yur school has $1 million to pay for a reace team sponsorship. And yes, I know from an Indy Lights owner, this is what it costs to run a middle of the road program. This is just nor feasable for colleges and universities right now. Not that I don't like the idea, and it would make a lot of sense to tap into the collegiate market, but the reality is with all but 12 athletic programs losing money each year, the marketing dollars in sports are already spent, just in their own athletic departments.
  • Wrong Model
    Correct. No way the colleges will spend money on this.

    The winning formula, however, is to market a number of sponsorship positions in the program to successful alumni whose companies are interested in supporting an exciting, multidisciplinary, high visibility educational program that provides students with real world experience and educational benefits. The university would simply act as a sanctioning entity and lend its brand, logo and colors as the ââ?¬Å?majorââ?¬ï¿½ sponsor, even though it would have no monetary investment.

    It may even be possible to establish a foundation which supports each team, thus potentially making the alumni ââ?¬Å?sponsorshipsââ?¬ï¿½ tax deductible. I think a lot of alumni would be attracted to this concept, especially since it has the additional emotional appeal of participating with other alumni to help field a team in school colors. After all, you canââ?¬â?¢t put your companyââ?¬â?¢s logo on the schoolââ?¬â?¢s football uniforms.
  • Izod Indycar Series
    It's the IRL, stupid! The Soapbox Derby is bigger, better managed, offers greater
    ROI and here's the biggie - it's not the IRL.
  • TOney TOney TOney
    to help them understand why they need to work for free in order to maybe breathe some life into the sport, the undergrad curricula should include courses on who screwed up AOW racing in the first place
  • Izod Indycar Series
    The League has its first school lined up

    http://neatnik2009.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/midvale-school-for-the-gifted.gif
  • Check out Colleges Formula SAE
    At least two college level races already are already here. Formula SAE cars look most like the Indy Cars and the College BAHA races will be held at Rochester Institute of Technology next year. You may know that the quality of the car is half the race or more. The college teams require that the student engineers build the car to specs as tight as the IRL. Open wheel racing has hampered itself with selfish series and track owners.

    I have marshaled both IRL and F-1 races with SCCA credentials. Trust me Colleges can not fix the IRL ego problems as the former fans vote with their feet.

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