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Sports Business

Will 2012 chassis breath new life into IndyCar?

February 16, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Delta Wing’s proposal for a 2012 IndyCar Series rig sure is radical. Radical, man, radical!

Dallara, Lola and Swift also have some very interesting ideas. Open-wheel insiders in every corner are hoping the snazzy chassis concepts will breath new life into the sport. Sadly, I don’t think it will.

Sadder yet … the belief that it will shows how many in the sport have missed the point all these years.

It’s not the horse, it’s the jockey. It always has been, and it always will be. Only true gearheads and race nuts can tell you what powered Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt to victory.

It’s not the machines they piloted that attracted legions of fans to open-wheel racing. Same as it’s not Ford and Chevy that drove people in large numbers to NASCAR.
It’s the personalities behind the wheels that drove such incredible brand loyalty to the machines the drivers drove and the services and products they pushed.

I’m not saying the IndyCar Series chassis isn’t in need of an update. But acting like this is the savior of the sport is wrong-headed.

Men like Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty drove NASCAR into star status, the same way Foyt, Andretti, Rick Mears and the Unser brothers did in open-wheel. In its heyday, the series was full of colorful characters, from Gordon Smiley to the Whittington brothers—many of which never even made it to the winner’s circle.

Quite frankly, most of the people who packed the stands at Indy couldn’t tell you the difference between methanol and ethanol, or a stock-block or turbo-charged engine.

Those things didn’t drive people to the sport, and as kooky as the Delta Wing bat-mobile looks, it won’t either. Curious onlookers, yes, but those folks won’t stick around long enough to pay the bills. Maybe the new chassis will even garner a mention on ESPN SportsCenter (which is more than it’s gotten so far), but that exposure won’t be enough to build critical mass.

The IndyCar Series has floundered around trying to promote its drivers since 1996. But from Billy Boat to Buzz Calkins, they never had the cache to catch on.
Then there’s this; No American drivers. I count Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and probably Ryan Hunter-Reay full-time and Sarah Fisher part-time. Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal are currently on the outside looking in. So are a couple others with almost no chance of piloting an IndyCar in 2010.
And like it or not, no American drivers means no American fans.
The last time I checked, America is still the most sought after global market, with an expendable income base, even in a bad economy, like no other country. So going global is fine, but series officials better be able to make the series pay off on U.S. soil first.
Randy Bernard, CEO of Professional Bull Riders who will take over as president of the IndyCar Series March 1, is inheriting some difficult challenges. As successful as he’s been at that endeavor, I wouldn’t list bringing any bull-riding personalities into the forefront of American consciousness among his accomplishments.

To grow the open-wheel series beyond its precarious niche status, he’ll have to make the men bigger stories than the machines they pilot.

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