Long Beach race reveals IndyCar issues

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IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard has two troubling things to ponder in the wake of Sunday's Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Well, three if you want to count attendance. Event organizers said the crowd assembled over three days was 170,000, about 5,000 fewer than a year ago. But the attendance downturn was mostly due to a rainy Friday.

Still, with all the excitement generated from the 2012 engine and chassis formulas, you’d think more car-loving Californians would come to check out the new wheels.

Speaking of wheels, that’s at the center of Bernard’s first—and most serious—concern that surfaced at Long Beach. When Marco Andretti hit Graham Rahal from behind on lap 23 Sunday, Andretti’s car went airborne and was closer than anyone would like to see to flipping upside down.

The accident happened at road race speed, which is much slower than speeds attained on an oval, especially one as big as Indianapolis. Clearly the new coverings on the rear wheels aren’t enough to keep the cars from going airborne when the front tires of one car touch the rear tires of another. Any maybe nothing save enclosing those rear wheels altogether will do that.

Closing the rear wheels any more than they already are would be a major departure for open-wheel racing. Still, safety concerns may push Bernard and his technical crew to do something more radical with the back wheels.

But what must also be troubling to Bernard, not to mention the IndyCar safety and engineering crew, is that the new Dallara chassis might be as prone to take flight as the old chassis retired after last season.

The risk for the IndyCar chassis taking flight has long been a concern among IndyCar racers and teams. That was magnified after Dan Wheldon was launched into a fence and killed in Las Vegas last year when his car ran up on the back end of another.

Andretti’s quote after the accident was enough to make IndyCar officials shiver.

“I’m lucky I didn’t get upside down. I could have been killed,” Andretti said.

Though it pales in comparison to the concern over drivers’ safety, Bernard and his marketing crew must also be concerned about how many people at the Long Beach race lacked basic knowledge of IndyCar racers’ identity.

Sure, the 24 food trucks allowed into the track for the first time this year were a big draw, and Long Beach has always been almost as big a draw for the party as for the racing. But when scores of people failed to recognize the IndyCar driver who qualified on the front row, you have a marketing problem.

Josef Newgarden, who had qualified alongside Dario Franchitti on the first row for Sunday’s race, was just having fun when he took off his race suit, grabbed a mic and roamed among the fans asking them if they knew who Josef Newgarden was.

While the YouTube clip is entertaining and showcase’s Newgarden’s off-track talents, the takeaway is that IndyCar marketers have a long, long way to go. A dozen people asked by Newgarden himself who “this kid Josef Newgarden” was, hadn’t a clue. Several said they had never heard of Sarah Fisher Racing.

Has Newgarden won the Indianapolis 500? No. Has he been at the top of the series leader board? No again.

But Newgarden can drive—the rookie was last year’s Indy Lights champ and he’s one of the series’ most promising up-and-comers, and if a marketer can’t sell this 21-year-old American’s personality, they need to get out of the business.

Newgarden didn't help his own cause by crashing out on lap one Sunday, but for the IndyCar Series to go from niche to hip its most engaging personalities have to be recognizable by the people coming to series events.

At one point Saturday, Newgarden pulled out a post card with his picture on it, stood right next to Long Beach Grand Prix attendees without his sunglasses and asked if they knew who that guy was who qualified in the front row.

Lots of blank stares. The good news, at least most of them knew who four-time series champion Franchitti was.

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