May 22, 2009

Indy o’ Indy were art Thou?

Memorial Day weekend use to be one of those “iconic” weekends for auto racing, featuring its “Super Bowl”, the Indianapolis 500.

Growing up in Houston, I was a fan of AJ Foyt.  When I moved to Albuquerque I added the Unser family to the list of drivers I’d follow.  Memorial Day weekend was a time I looked forward to seeing how my favorites would do against the likes of Mears, Rahal, Sullivan, Rutherford, and Fittipaldi.  It was a great time for the auto racing industry.

Then it became 1994.  The Indy Racing League (IRL) was created.

In 1996, the All but a few slots in the Indy 500 were reserved exclusively for members of the IRL.  That year, all hell broke loose on the track (literally) prompting a number of changes and marketing gimmicks for all future events. 

A competing event called the US 500 failed and the owners of the Indianapolis track through it would be a good idea to break its brand of being an “open wheel” (Indy Car) track by inviting NASCAR to the table.  As a result of those and other events, Indy Car racing found itself in a death spiral and it couldn’t pull out.

Recently, the best thing to happen to Indy Car racing was the addition of Danica Patrick.  She is a solid driver with attitude… it doesn’t hurt that she is also easy on the eyes.  Indy Car fans thought this was the spark to reignite interest in their sport.  Interest was a short lived.  It was only successful in temporarily attracting NASCAR viewers (not fans) who were drawn-in by the hype.

Now, Indy Car racing didn’t implode on its own.  NASCAR did a great job of capturing the disgruntled Indy Car racing fans.  NASCAR knows its brand and they have promoted and leveraged it better than any other sports league, on par with the National Football League.

Indy Car racing let greed and ego get in the way of its brand and it never recovered.

This weekend I’ll probably watch the Indy 500 for curiosity sake, to see if Danica can get it done and win the race.  But, if I end up having to tend to the ribs on the barbeque smoker, I’ll rely on DVR because Indy Car racing lost me as a fan a long time ago.

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