I get the impression that the IndyCar opener at St. Petersburg has underwhelmed many. On one side are those who say “Well, duh, it was a super-boring street race. Yawn.” On the other side are those who declare the race PREFECT!!! and blame the underwhelment on various other factors.
As usually, I’m in between … and I see an opportunity.
So expectations were elevated. What played out was a street race. That's not a criticism. Don't read any sneer into that sentence. But a street race is a street race is a street race. The essence of street races have been roughly the same for about 30 years. If you expect three-wide at the line and breathtaking last-lap battles, you're at the wrong venue. Road and street races ("twisties" for shorthand) are kind of the classical music of racing. Artistic, much-beloved by the faithful, worthy of academic and artistic praise … but an acquired taste.
Enjoying a road/street race requires an appreciation of fuel-pit-tire strategy and the patience to watch one car stalk another, lap after lap, until he or she ... at the exact right time ... makes the move that gets the pass done -- or not. It's somewhat like soccer ... you get maybe three goals (meaningful on-track passes) in a game but you need to have the attention span to wait for them and to appreciate the process that leads up to the goal.
I prefer ovals in general -- which often gets me dismissed as a twisty "hater" since you apparently can't prefer something and still enjoy something else -- but I'll take a road/street race over a single-file lock-step-on-the-track, God-please-send-us-a-yellow-flag oval any day.
So I'm afraid people who wanted a rapturous debut with breathtaking overtakes for the lead and a drag race down the final straight to the liiiiiineeeee .... were crashingly disappointed by St. Petersburg. But expecting that kind of action at a street race is like going to see a lion and hoping it turns out to be a bear. So Jenna -- who has actually gone out of her way to be kind to IndyCar in print -- honestly noted the over-hype, under-performance gap. (Story here.)
Faced with the air leaking out of the room, the Ardently Faithful (and they are nothing if not ardent) like to toss the TV coverage under the bus. "There were overtakes on track, but ABC missed them," is the indignant accusation.
Yeah, TV missed overtakes, but again they often miss overtakes on a street course due to the nature of the beast. Even mighty F1 production, the best in the word by far at covering road/street races, shows many passes in replay. More damaging in my view was ABC's failure to inform us of strategies playing out on the track and build the story of the race. Such as ..
- Why did Power pit early? What is he hoping for there? How did that strategy working out over the course of the race?
- Why do leaders want to stay out as long as possible under green?
- How does passing in the pit normally work (when cars don't pit together), set that up and show us it playing out. ABC and Versus (now NBC Sports Network) continuously miss opportunities for drama as one car hurries to get into the pit and back out in front of another car. Often that moment determines the race.
- What does it mean to go "off-strategy." What are teams that do that hoping for? (Thus informed, we can watch how that plays out during the race.)
- How does pitting under yellows impact the race? It's often the OPPOSITE of ovals.
- What does through a driver's head as he or she does the multi-lap dance to set up a pass?
Covering twisties is more about storytelling. Picking up threads the races offers early on -- not preconceived story lines -- and helping the viewers follow them throughout the race. It maybe easy for me to describe, but it takes massive skill to do, and I would totally suck at it, which is why I don’t get $250,000 to do it. The SPEED crew of David Hobbs (colorful former driver), Steve Matchett (techno-strategy wonk and former mechanic) and Bob Varsha (play-by-play) are the best in the business at this, and they're greatly aided by the F1 production team.
So if I find flaw in the coverage, it's for the lack of building stories during the race, not for lack of live overtaking. Really great race coverage -- oval or twisty -- is about building the story of the race. But on ovals you have cars inhaling each other to fall back on. Kind of like a movie with a weak plot but tons of action scenes.
Not so with road/street races. There are very few dramatic passes (action sequence) to carry the show, so the story (plot) becomes even more important. This twisty storytelling is super hyper important for IndyCar because, as Jenna and others have opined, new customers tying the product (people tuning in for the first time) are most likely road/street illiterate.
So if they watch a twisty with an oval brain, they'll flip the channel in under 10 minutes. REGARDLESS of if TV shows every single overtake live as it happens, since there are only about eight contested overtakes in an entire street race. (Dirty twisty secret: vaaaaaast majority of positions are gained via pit strategy, random yellows, etc.)
The knee-jerk reaction is to scream "INDYCAR NEEDS MORE OVALS!!!" Unfortunately, there's no market for IndyCar on ovals, which is why there's few IndyCar oval races. Businesses don’t do what loses them money. Tracks are businesses. Not enough people buy tickets to oval races in enough markets to make it happen.
Get angry if you want and by all means continue to suggest ways to increase customer demand for ovals, but for now (with a few exceptions) the market just isn't there. I hear you saying "promote them better" but Randy Bernard said himself he promoted the crap out of Las Vegas and got a disappointing crowd for his efforts. (My at-length opining on oval economics here.)
Now road/street races seem to do better at the box office. Why? Because (in my opinion, obviously) the racing is secondary to the event itself. You got parties; you got cocktails, sun, 19 other series on the track, Ferris wheels, vendors, babes in spandex ... oh and a race. Watching a twisty in person? Please. You watch ONE corner and kind of see cars flash by now and then. Or you move about. You cannot see the entire track at one time. Maybe you watch a corner with a jumbotron so you can see the rest. When people say a road/street race is a "great race in person" what they mean is "great event in person." It's about the experience, not the racing. Ovals, on the other hand, rise and fall on the race itself, since there is no carnival associated with it and no gorgeous surroundings to add to the experience.
So here’s the opportunity ... First, a bedrock principal: IndyCar needs to be different from NASCAR to compete. So, focus on how to make it different. The diverse schedule -- road, street, big oval (Indy), smaller oval -- is a good hook for starters. Now focus on how to make the IndyCar brand cooler, faster, funnier, more serious, more diverse, more don't-give-a-shit ... something. The billion-dollar challenge is that IndyCar needs to be different, and that difference needs to attract fans. If IndyCar and NASCAR are fundamentally the same, given that people only have limited time and money to invest in racing, IndyCar loses. (More thoughts on differentiation here.)
Which brings us back to the twisties. IndyCar goes to Barber Motor Sports Park this weekend, and if you thought St. Pete underwhelming, it will make Barber look like four-wide at the line for the win at Chicagoland in comparison. Last year there was one place to pass on the track and that quickly became the BANZAI section of the track. Just set your camera up there so you won’t miss any on-track passing. Also prepare yourself for fuel-tire-pit strategy racing.
TV should assume that everyone tuning in is a complete road/street race virgin with no clue and explain it all to us. Ignore the hard-cores who will bitch about announcers insulting their intelligence with too much explanation. Far better to over explain than under explain. Example: Bob Jenkins explained “oversteer” and “understeer” during a race last year and was vilified by some of the hard-cores as insulting their intelligence. But I, who have watched every IndyCar race since 2005, constantly get those two things mixed up. When Bob said ‘understeer has a ‘u’ in it, like ‘push’" (Oversteer also has an o like loose) I now can keep them straight. Thank you Bob.
Also, if I was in charge of IndyCar (and I am clearly not), I’d work more with the twisty-dominated Road to Indy steps, especially Star Mazda and USF2000, to try and help them build fan bases for the racing and the drivers. Build your minor league popularity and it will come through to the majors. And for the love of God fix IndyCar.com. It's an unusable jumble right now. I rarely go there.
If twisty-dominated racing is the future -- and I think it is -- better get “all in” as they say in building an audience while maybe scaling back the expense to run a team to meet the expected revenue, which is never going to be NASCAR level. Sorry if that stings, but I’m a fan of reality, and America remains predominently oval nation.
Don't mistake me saying "here's what I think should happen" for me saying this will be easy or even doable. Even a 25-cents-per-hour blogger can type out an opinion (cranked this out in a couple hours, another 50 cents in the bank!), but executing it takes real talent that sells for a much higher hourly wage. It most definitely will not be easy, and may not be doable. Hard to say. But it seems the most hopeful path to me.
The absolutely most lethal attitude is this: "IndyCar is great as it is, potential fans and members of the media, if you don't go the extra mile to learn to love it, that's your loss." Recall this is a free country, and people/media have many choices what to pay attention to. Telling them "love it or leave it" just ensures they will do the latter.