The good: IndyCar's CEO Randy Bernard continued to play the role of maverick (a relative term in IndyCar to be sure) by announcing a 5 meeeeeeyon dollar bonus for any non-IndyCar driver who can win IndyCar's season finale on the 1.5-mile oval at Las Vegas on Oct. 16, a 200-lap, 300-mile race known as the "Izod IndyCar World Championship."
Sure, it's a gimmick. You say that like it's a bad thing. As my buddy Johnny (@livefastracing) said, "that's dirt track as hell." More importantly, IZOD chief Mike Kelly called it all "a big idea, a great move." Read the Indy Star recap of the deal here.
What usually happens here is the sponsoring body (IndyCar) takes out an insurance policy that pays the cash if someone happens to win.
The price of that policy is determined by the odds of the issuing company having to pay. In this case the odds will be very long, especially if 2011 proves to be a continuation of 2005-2010, during which you need to be with one of three teams to have even a remote chance to win on a big oval. In the last two years, if you didn't drive for Penske or Ganassi, you were driving for sixth on super speedways like Las Vegas.
So, in other words, God himself can get in a Conquest car at Texas, for example, and The Almighty is finishing P8.
But, the proposal generated a ton of buzz on Twitter (insert everyone doing lists of people they would like to see try it here) and likely will make at least a one-day splash in the real media. Definitely worth the cost of doing it. Plus it gives Bernard and IndyCar something to promote leading up to the Vegas race. WILL SOMEONE WALK AWAY WITH FIVE MILLION DOLLARS??? It's a good move. Very low-cost/high-benefit equation.
Of course there are downsides to everything. One downside here is that you're setting Las Vegas up to have a much huger payout (and maybe more buzz, frankly) than Indy. Part of the reason this challenge was made for Vegas and not Indy, by the way, was that a non-Indy driver has a better chance at winning on the high banks of Vegas than the flat rectangle of Indy.
Second downside is you could have a non-league driver snake the regulars live on national TV. Say Juan Pablo Montoya jumps in a spare Ganassi car for Vegas. BAM, wins it. (Which is highly conceivable.) The regulars who sell their plasma weekly to keep their teams afloat get to put on their fake smiles and watch some one-off get a made-for-TV check from the league (funded by the insurance company payout, it should be remembered) for FIVE MILLION. Better still, if it's a Ganassi car, they get to see Chip smile that "I can beat your ass any time I want, even with a one-off driver" smile. Warm fuzzy for the regulars!!
Or the series champion gets $1 million (actually from the league, not insurance) after the race and also gets to watch the media swarm the $5-million-dollar insurance lottery winner. I refer you to the reaction of the good son in the Biblical tale of the prodigal son. (pressdog paraphrase: "Hey, what about me? I've been here the whole time and now you get excited and kill the fatted calf in celebration for my brother returning from his years of avarice?" Luke 15:11-32)
The risk of Montoya (former Indy 500 winner) with Ganassi or Hornish with Penske is probably the highest I can think of. Still the odds of someone jumping into a car for a one-off at Vegas and winning it are remote.
Overall, the buzz and Bernard showing again he's willing to try new stuff in what has been a moribund series that has over-worshipped tradition and undervalued customers is The Good.
The Bad: Right after the big to-do over the Vegas announcement, Tony Kanaan tells Curt Cavin that he's screwed for a ride this year. (Story here.) My first reaction was "was this timing deliberate?" 'Cause I can be black helicopterish like that at times. Let's imagine Kanaan, having to work his ass off in Brazil to grub for any cash he can find (like so many other drivers, except for the "in Brazil" part) hearing the big boss splash around $5 M (enough to buy a full time ride for most anyone, let alone someone of Kanaan's skill) for the winner of ONE race.
If I'm Tony, aside from being younger and 79 times more fit, that's at least a bit of a kick in the crotch. Yeah, yeah, the odds of IndyCar having to pay (with insurance policy proceeds, remember) the five super large is remote, but my angry self doesn't see that part of it real clearly. I just see Bernard offering $5 million (in insurance proceeds, remember) to some ya-ya when he won't give me a quarter. (For the record, I support the league's policy of not favoring one team/driver over another with subsidies.)
I'm not saying this was Tony's motivation for the timing of his talk with Curt. Maybe Curt initiated it. BUT, for whatever reason, Tony says he can't find enough funding to complete the deal with Gil de Ferran Dragon Racing which was previously announced with a big *pending funding asterisk.
Bad. Certainly I'm not a fan of every move Tony makes on the track or off, but I'm not a fan of every move anyone makes, save perhaps Sarah Fishera and Ed Carpenter. I like Tony. He's always treated me fairly and has a great sense of humor. He has many many fans and his skill as a driver is unquestioned. Plus he blew up the Death Star (beat Penske/Ganassi) right before my eyes at Iowa last year, so for that alone I support Tone.
But he's got bupkis. Well, not bupkis (absolutely nothing), but only enough for a few races. Tony's situation is also a sign that the tragic "bring-your-own-cash" condition lives on in IndyCar. I think there have been improvements in that area, but still there are only a few funded teams that hire drivers who don't bring any sponsorship with them. For the majority, the fact of life remains if you want to race, YOU (as a driver) have to round up sponsors and bring them to a team. Bad.
The Ugly: NASCAR's Daytona 500 ripped down a whoppin' 8.7-ish TV rating, up 17% from 2010, with monstrous reach into the much-lusted-over male demographic. Most watched Daytona 500 since 2008 with 30 million tuning in. Story here. That's about 225% better than the Indy 500 rating, which decreased from 2009 to 3.7-ish for 2010. NASCAR has already demonstrated the value of an underdog winning (I whined about it here), now they are fixing to show us why 8.7 ratings are a good thing (Tip: cash flow.) FOX has to be swallowing their tongues they are so frothed up over the ratings.
And please don't give me "TV ratings are just a number." That's like saying "cash is just paper." TV ratings, however flawed, are the units of measure people use to make sponsorship decisions.
It's very dangerous for me to mention NASCAR because the "NACAR SUCKS" comments will roll in. It's also dangerous to view NASCAR as the main competitor to IndyCar. It's not. Everything people can watch on TV instead of IndyCar or do with their time instead of watching is a competitor with IndyCar. But, in some respects, the more buzz NASCAR makes, the more it becomes a generic term for "racing" and the more oxygen it takes out of the motorsports room. Whenever I say I'm into "racing," people invariably assume I mean NASCAR. Ah, that's ugly.
Here's hoping NBC will at least give IndyCar a shot this coming year. They are contractually required to broadcast the race, but the contract probably doesn't specify how much effort they put into it. It's in the network's interest to raise ratings because then they can charge higher rates for commercials on the broadcast (even though ratings are just a number). BUT, if they think it's a lost cause, the "throwing good money after bad" rule may kick in and then we got a problem. That would be ugly. I guess we'll see.