Friday, October 30, 2009

An Open Letter to Trackside

For last night’s Trackside show, Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee solicited ideas for increased visibility for the IndyCar series. What they asked for were quick, sound-bite-y ideas, but anybody who’s read even one of my posts knows that brevity is not my strong suit. Big thanks to Cavin and Kevin for reading the Cliffs Notes version of my ideas on the air, but for anybody who might be interested, the full text of my letter is below.

Many thanks to you and Curt for opening up the “what does IndyCar need to do?” debate for your show listeners. Hopefully, we’ll get some good ideas out there, and maybe some high-up folks will get something to carry forward. I’ve banged on about some of this on both my blog and others’ blogs (George Phillips’s Oilpressure blog, for instance), but I’ll try to do some show-friendly nutshell ideas here:

1) Possibly the most important: increased driver visibility. The most visible people associated with the League are the drivers, so let’s get them out there more. Autograph sessions and Tweet-ups at the tracks are a good start, but the people attending those are likely already fans, so that’s not necessarily enough to bring in new fans. What’s needed is getting the guys (and girls) out in front of some new eyes. There’s plenty you could do here, but I’ll confine my idea to just the following. As an example, the late Stan Fox came to my high school in Wisconsin back in the early ‘90s (’92 or ’93, I think) to speak about highway safety. I’ll not elaborate on the horrible, horrible irony involved there, but I know for certain that between his visit, the short IndyCar video that was played before his speech and the Menard’s show car they displayed outside the gym, there were some very interested (impressionable) minds turned toward the 500 and the IndyCar series the next season. What I’m suggesting is an IRL-sponsored highway safety campaign, done in cooperation with high schools who are either local to IRL races or just scattered around the Midwest, for ease of displaying a show car along with the driver’s speech and Q&A. If every driver could be required to do five of these per season, that’d be 100 or more events per year, times several hundred kids per event. I’m sure that somebody could work up some quick numbers for the break-even point of appearance costs versus additional ticket sales, but I’m thinking it wouldn’t be more than a couple thousand extra seats total for the whole year (and this doesn’t even include the potential increase in TV viewership, since that’s harder to nail down). As a residual effect, sponsors would also be displayed to new audiences, through footage on an associated video and through what the drivers wear to the event (be it race suit, polo shirt, Geico gecko or Ronald McDonald costume [ha!], or whatever), so there is value added for them as well.

2) Holding down costs in order to attract more teams and potentially increased competition. The next generation of cars needs to be made cost effective so that existing teams can afford to ante up for new equipment and so that new teams can be persuaded to come over from other forms of motorsport (Lights, Atlantics, GrandAm, ALMS, etc.). This can be done by standardizing the design of the carbon fiber tub among the chassis manufacturers, but also by limiting the amount of carbon fiber that’s used through the rest of the car. Aluminum and aluminum honeycomb are nearly as lightweight as the carbon equivalents, but less than half the cost. And, as carbon is used more and more in other areas (aeronautics, mainly), it’s not getting any cheaper. Limit the use of carbon fiber to the tub, the sidepod covers and the engine cover, aluminum for everything else (floor, wings, etc.). More teams in the series and the reset in chassis data for all teams (especially Penske and Ganassi) that comes with a new car means more teams that are potentially able to compete at the top of the leaderboard. That’s good for fan interest.

3) New manufacturers will bring more eyeballs to the series, through increased interest from domestic ALMS and F1 fans, and through the increase in advertising that the new manufacturers would likely bring (newspaper ads, TV spots, etc.). There does not need to be a huge escalation of cost with the addition of new manufacturers. First, and with the consultation of the potential new manufacturers, commission a standardized engine control unit with a limited scope of engine control. F1 has recently done this with McLaren Electronics and GrandAm recently accomplished this with Bosch. In both of those cases, the standard controller effectively outlawed traction control, so this would achieve the same for the IRL, along with a turbo boost limit, a limit on the number of engine maps (thereby ripping out the fuel knob, as Pressdog likes to say), etc.. With this in place, engine manufacturers can still attempt to show their technological superiority through means that are expanded from the current spec-engine format, but in a more limited manner than the wide-open late-‘90s. As a side note to this, I understand that a full-season engine lease deal for a Mazda 2-liter turbo engine for the ALMS is under $100,000, and that’s with them using their own ECU and only two cars in the series (i.e. basically no economies of scale). If that’s the case, then why can’t IndyCar set a target for a season lease for a similar engine with a standardized ECU from all of the new manufacturers at $500,000-600,000? That would be 50-60% of the current one, wouldn’t it? Between this limit and making the chassis more affordable (see item #2), you encourage new teams to enter the sport while addressing the financial concerns of all of the current teams by bringing down the price to play. Meanwhile, new manufacturers bring their advertising budgets to the table, along with their activation and increased fan interest.

There’s plenty more that can be done, I’m sure, but these three things are my pet ideas. Upon re-reading all of that, it looks a little long-winded. Please feel free to edit as necessary for brevity, or simply hang onto all of that for posting on The Fan website if you prefer.

There you have it. Any thoughts on any of this? Anybody?


Anonymous said...

You made several good points, Andy. I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea of getting drivers more involved and in front of impressionable young teenagers. Vince Welch had a great point on their show giving his Pittsburgh Steeler/Indy Colts analogy. Lifelong passions are instilled at a young age.

Palmer said...

Andy, you made great points in your post above. Another great job. Hope all is well and keep on writing and the good work.