NCAA Final Four offers key lesson for IndyCar survival

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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 “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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