IndyCar has a noticeable advantage over other sports that they are not exploiting well enough: fan access.
IndyCar needs to find new fans. Turn non-racing fans into IndyCar fans. This is not about competing with NASCAR. I think trying to get fans to defect from NASCAR to IndyCar is folly. That would be a huge investment of time, attention, cash and other resources for minimal return.
Instead, IndyCar should use its exceptional fan access to build new fans. If you go to an IndyCar event, you have a relatively good chance of interacting with one of the stars, much greater than you'd have at an NFL, NBA, etc. etc. event.
OK, so how?
1. Garage/Paddock Access
One thing they can do in this area is exploit a natural advantage — garage access. It's like backstage passes for thousands of concert-goers. NASCAR cars get to the track under their own power — they fire them up and drive them out to the track. Because of safety concerns, garage access in NASCAR is relatively hard to come by. You gotta know people to get a garage pass, because if they had 9,000 people walking around in the garages, someone would get run over by a car being driven out to the track.
IndyCars are pushed out to pit lane before they are started up and driven, that removes 99% of the safety concerns for garage areas. Therefore virtually anyone can buy a garage pass and wander around in the paddock (as we call it) for hours on end. Granted, you can’t sell 45,000 garage passes because of space limitations, etc. but you can sell maybe 5,000 to whoever has the cash to by them. No connections required.Try buying locker room passes in the NBA or sideline passes in the NFL.
IndyCar should make a Great Big Damn Deal about this access. Come to the race, go backstage, get four feet from the cars, catch a driver or two zipping around on his or her scooter for an autograph, take a zillion photos, have yourself a time. Backstage passes available to thousands, not just the hundred or so who are plugged in. BUT DON’T DELAY. Get yours now before they’re all sold out!
2. Fan Zone/Autographs
Love the fan zone idea where fans can meet drivers, but let’s ramp it up. Are fans the priority? Really? Then get more drivers to the fan zone. NASCAR has a bit of an advantage here because the SPEED TV stage becomes the default fan zone on race weekends and people gather around it to hear the SPEED guys and drivers pontificate. It takes on a kind of like College Game Day on ESPN feel. The NBC Sports Network sort of replicated it during the opening at Barber.
But let's think in terms of weekend here. First of all, kudos and sustained shout outs to these drivers who were on the schedule to appear in the Fan Zone at Barber …
Bobby Rahal (IndyCar)
Takuma Sato (IndyCar)
Simon Pagenaud (IndyCar)
Ed Carpenter (IndyCar)
Pippa Mann (IndyCar)
BHA Tweetup w/ AlexTagliani (IndyCar)
Tristan Vautier (FIL)
Esteban Guerrieri (FIL)
Carlos Munoz (FIL)
JP Garcia (FIL)
Troy Castaneda (FIL)
Zach Veach (Star Mazda)
Four active IndyCar drivers and (hopefully soon to be active driver) Pippa making appearances aside from the all-driver autograph session is not enough. I know, I know. Easy for me to say. Everyone is busy. Sponsor appearances, practice, preparations, de-briefs with engineers, etc. etc. Yeah, I know. But … if fans are the main priority, squeeze out 30 minutes to do a Q&A and meet and greet in the Fan Zone.
Why? Because IndyCar can be the most fan-friendly, star-accessible sport in the world if it wants to be. They already do an above average job. Time to accelerate to ramming speed. The all-driver autograph sessions are awesome. NASCAR does not do this. NBA, NFL, NHL -- I don't know of another big-league sport that does this. That's awesome. That's the kind of fan-interaction that gives IndyCar a hook.
Yeah, the lines can be long. Yeah, people get hosed and don’t get a signature. But the chances to get one are far far greater than the competition. Work it, IndyCar ... and kicking in the turbo charger. Lavish access on your customers like your professional life depends upon it, because it just might.
If the Fan Village is one driver after another all day, interacting with fans, getting some photos taken, doing a Q&A, the word of mouth advertising will flow from that. Mr. Jones will talk to his coworkers about how little daughter Jane got to see Simona and how he got to hob-knob with Marco -- even if it was only for five minutes. BOOM. Schedule Dario or Will Power or whoever for a big Q&A and publicize that big. Get people there and juiced about meeting the drivers.
How does his help TV ratings? I can tell you from personal experience, if you have a driver you root for (because you met him or her at the track) watching the race takes on a lot more enjoyment. I root for Ashley Freiberg (and others), so now I pay close attention to her series, Star Mazda, which I never did before. I root for Shannon McIntosh and Collete Davis, so I pay closer attention to USF2000. I root for Danica Patrick so I now watch every NASCAR Nationwide race. Make those personal connections at the tracks and it carries through to TV.
Again, easier said than done — and IndyCar does a lot of good things now — but if fans are really P1, it’s worth making it a priority and ramping it up.