Pandering to NASCAR hurts IndyCar’s brand

Every time there’s talk about a great racer from another series coming to Indianapolis or some other IndyCar venue, I have the same thought.

Is this smart marketing or does it have the look of desperation?

Over and over we’ve heard from the keepers of American open-wheel that the Indianapolis 500 is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and the IndyCar Series features the most talented drivers who do battle under the most varied set of conditions in racing.

So if the Indy 500 is such a spectacle and the drivers in IndyCar so proficient—and worthy of fans’ attention—why do series officials and IndyCar team owners continue to cast bait for NASCAR pilots and those involved in other two- and four-wheeled endeavors?

We all know about Randy Bernard’s attempt to draw various competitors to Las Vegas in 2011. In the end, there weren’t many takers for his big-money challenge.

For years there have been efforts to try to draw NASCAR drivers to the Indianapolis 500 to do the double. NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 is run later the same day as the Indianapolis 500.

If a crossover is so good for racing, why isn’t NASCAR trying to lure over any IndyCar stars of today? I won’t answer that question. But the one-way initiative doesn’t look good for IndyCar.

In the latest IndyCar come-hither, Roger Penske is offering a race car to NASCAR star Tony Stewart for next year’s Indianapolis 500. Indianapolis Motor Speedway followed up by putting a petition on its website for fans to sign to beg the racer affectionately known as Smoke to bring his talents to 16th and Georgetown.

There’s even talk about bumping the Indy 500’s start time up to accommodate Stewart or other NASCAR drivers who might want to try the double in 2013. It’s not the first time there’s been talk of adjusting the start time.

Should the Greatest Spectacle be adjusting for drivers of fendered cars and their series?

Sure, Stewart, who started his career in open wheel, would draw a few more eyeballs to the Indy telecast. It could even drive a short-term revenue bump.

But the message of such efforts is clear: We don’t have the drivers to attract viewers on our own. The secondary message is that driving an IndyCar is so easy, a guy like Stewart or even someone who has never raced an open-wheeler can jump in and drive the thing at 220-plus mph.

Here’s a new statement IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials might consider: The Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar racing are for highly-skilled specialists, not someone who can “drive the wheels off anything from a Dixie Chopper to a Camaro.”

Marketing and selling is all about positioning. If you want people to believe your product has certain qualities, the maker and seller of that product had better act like it actually has those qualities.

If I’m selling the IndyCar Series, I tell my people to sell what they’ve got and stop trying to sell something they don’t have—and probably shouldn’t want.

After all, the series already has the very best, most versatile drivers in the world. Right? And the true Brickyard classic held each May already is the biggest, best-motorized race on the planet.

Are those statements reality, a dream of a bygone era or a vision of a new open-wheel leader?

I’m not sure.

But the first step to being great—in many instances—is to start acting like it.

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