Changing two letters can change so much. A little creative spelling can alter perceptions, modulate expectations, spark interest and steer a brand into exciting new marketing territory.
IndyCar is a drab nonentity on the American sports scene, a struggling race circuit waiting for its annual resuscitation jolt from Sunday's Indianapolis 500. The IndyCar brand has alienated fans for nearly two decades; in a nation where NASCAR so popular that its minor-league circuit draws competitive television ratings, IndyCar clings to life mostly on NBC Sports Network, wedged between the bicycle races and Champions Tour golf.
That's IndyCar. But what about IndieCar?
IndieCar is hipster chic and alterno-cool. It's hand-crafted, grassroots and homespun, the way NASCAR used to be before it became ponderous and corporate. IndieCar is the racing circuit for the fan who does not follow the flock. If NASCAR is boring old Budweiser, then IndieCar may not quite be a microbrew, but it at least Pabst Blue Ribbon -- so retro that it's nouveau. IndieCar is the pierced eyebrow of American sports leagues.
And the Indianapolis 500? It's not The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," ironic quotes in flashing neon. It's South by Southwest or the Great American Beer Festival or Maker Faire. It's a scene, a celebration of attitude and lifestyle with 500 miles of noisy high-velocity racing thrumming on the periphery. It's where early adopters of the next big trend go to remember a time when racing was something you did when the traffic light at State Highway and Main turned green.
IndyCar needs to rebrand as IndieCar to attract an audience that will last beyond Sunday's checkered flag. They might as well try, at least. Nothing else has worked.
From Aborted Start to Cautioned Finish
The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis took place two Saturdays ago. The race was a logical addition to IndyCar's ever-changing schedule. The Brickyard and the lore of the 500 are the league's greatest assets. Why not double down on the excitement while consolidating the fanbase in the circuit's home city?
ESPN and some other major outlets nibbled at the bait. Cars would be going clockwise on America's most famous track! Portions of the vast infield were transformed into a road circuit! And the Brickyard would experience its first IndyCar standing start after decades of rolling Indianapolis 500 starts.
That last item proved to be a stickler: IndyCar style open-wheel racers don't accelerate from rest with the reliability of, say, the Accord in my front driveway. Pole sitter Sebastian Saavedra stalled immediately at the green flag. Carlos Munoz, one of IndyCar's top rookies, slammed into him from behind. Mikhail Aleshin, another rookie, got caught in the debris. The latest, greatest hope for IndyCar enthusiasm began with seven caution laps.
Perhaps it was for the best that few people saw the race. The Indianapolis Business Journal said some estimates placed attendance in the 25,000-30,000 range, exposing acres of silver bleachers at the cavernous Brickyard. Indianans watched the hometown race, but America tuned out: National ratings came in at 0.9, roughly a quarter what a typical NASCAR Sprint Cup race earns, even with NASCAR ratings down in the last two years. In Philadelphia, ABC coverage was preempted for a college rowing regatta. And while ESPN gave the Grand Prix of Indianapolis more attention than it gives to most non-500 IndyCar events, even with the novelty and the spectacular opening crash, a football player kissing his boyfriend utterly upstaged the new race.
The previous IndyCar race, the Grand Prix of Alabama, barely happened. Soaking rains drenched the Birmingham raceway, pushing start times back until the race became a timed affair, rushed to completion before sunset. Like the Indianapolis road race, it began under caution, with Mike Conway spinning out behind a curtain of sprayed puddle water on an early turn. It also ended under caution, with 2012 circuit champ Ryan Hunter-Reay coasting through the final four laps after Mikhail Aleshin skidded into a barrier. Fans who waited hours for the start were treated to a soggy, truncated display of dodged puddles, skidding vehicles and yellow flags.
And so it goes. Not all IndyCar events are fiascos -- the Grand Prix of Long Beach was a fine race, Scott Dixon playing chicken with Conway for 20 laps before finally pulling into the pits in fume-huffing desperation with three laps to go -- but enough of them are to make the fiasco part of the expected experience.
Flash back to last year's Indianapolis 500, a ripping race with multiple lead changes that promised an electrifying final sprint … until yellow flags ate up six of the final 10 laps, including the final three, giving circuit favorite Tony Kanaan a handful of anticlimactic victory laps.
IndyCar is addicted to bad ideas. A simple green-white-checker rule would have made last year's 500 a classic, and restored some thrills to the Alabama race and countless other events that ended like parades instead of races. The standing starts inevitably lead to comic bumbling; the second race of last year's Houston double header was marred by an aborted start, with Dario Franchitti traveling about 20 yards before stalling out and forcing a do-over. Organizers are infamous for changing rules at the last moment, at least when they are not publically infighting or carping about operating expenses. The most newsworthy event of last season, besides Kanaan's first career 500 victory, was Dixon clipping a member of Will Power's pit crew during the Sonoma race. Did Dixon deserve to be penalized (he eventually won the series cup)? Did Power's rear tire man, Travis Law, linger in front of Dixon on purpose? Is anyone crazy enough to risk getting hit by a race car to win this gnarly little circuit?
For IndyCar, the constant fear that a race will neither start nor end properly is a massive liability, one that scares fans and television networks away. But for IndieCar, those bugs become features. IndieCar is all about the unexpected: Maybe the race will start with a stall, or end under caution, or take place minutes after a monsoon under modified (or made-up-on-the-spot) rules. Perhaps the hairpin turn from the closed-off highway to the stadium parking lot wasn't such a great road-race layout, but if you get a seat near the turn, you can either see pileups or race cars downshifting to ice cream truck speeds, or both. And maybe the whole race will be upstaged by angry tweets by an ousted executive or claims of preferential treatment in the endless Ganassi-versus-Penske, Chevy-versus-Honda, Montague-versus-Capulet resource-and-spec war.
This isn't summer blockbuster racing at the IMAX theater. It's the Unheard Voices Film Festival at the semi-renovated bijou in the not-quite-gentrified neighborhood. Poor choices, spotty production values and a level of inaccessibility are actually part of the charm. IndyCar cobbles together nutty races that lack a beginning, middle, and end, but IndieCar keeps it real.
Emptying the Spectacle
The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It's a terrible bit of branding, and not just because it is completely false. Indianapolis 500 organizers -- a separate-but-intersecting group from the folks who run IndyCar -- must not recognize that the word "spectacle" has a bad connotation these days. Spectacle suggests the absence of substance. Fireworks displays and Michael Bay movies are spectacles; sporting events are serious, important, complex and inspirational competitions. Just the word "spectacle" takes the Indianapolis 500 out of the realm of the Super Bowl or World Series and into a side category of events that glitter for glitter's sake, like the NFL draft or the Home Run Derby. That would be fine, perhaps, if the 500 could match the pageantry of those events. But it can't.
As spectacle, the 500 cannot survive. The problem is not just that all of America's most beloved drivers race in a completely different circuit -- all of the guys and gals on the cereal boxes are in Charlotte this weekend, not Indianapolis. The problem is that IndyCar's own stars are falling by the wayside. Franchitti, a three-time 500 winner and the circuit's most famous racer, retired after a nasty crash in Sonoma last year. He will be relegated to starter car status, driving honorary starter Mark Cuban around before the green flag. Attempts to cultivate another female superstar have failed; Simona de Silvestro, after two top-five finishes at the end of the 2013 season, bolted to Formula One. Power, who starts this year's 500 in the front row, is a road racer who rarely fares well on ovals, ensuring that IndyCar's most consistent winner is a non-factor in the league's most important race.
Even with Franchitti gone and NASCAR siphoning off a little more thunder each year, this year's 500 is not devoid of drama. Helio Castroneves is again bidding to join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. on the list of four-time winners. NASCAR veteran Kurt Busch qualified for the 500 and will attempt to perform double duty, flying to Charlotte to race in the Coca-Cola 600 after wrapping up at the Brickyard. Kanaan is in the field. James Hinchcliffe, who was struck by flying debris two weeks ago, qualified on the front row. And there is a female racer: Pippa Mann, who qualified for her third 500 in four years.
So there are great racers and multiple chances to make history. But spectacle? When one of your event's major storylines involves a guest racer from a more successful circuit leaving as quickly as possible so he can compete in another race, you are hurting in the spectacle department. You have become the Greatest Pre-Party in Racing, a picnic with milk chugging and Jim Nabors and other goofy grannie traditions before the cool kids head to where the action is. IndyCar cannot keep hanging its hopes on the 500 "spectacle," because it is not much of a spectacle.
But IndieCar? IndieCar can embrace every vintage vinyl and thrift shop couture element of the Indianapolis 500. IndieCar is so forward-thinking that it embraces the spectacle of not being a spectacle. The one thing the 500 still lays absolute claim to is a proud, defiant Midwestern sensibility: cold beer on Carb Day, a wholesome-and-swift parade through a downtown that empties completely minutes after the final float leaves the street, swap meets full of rusty-and-ratty race memorabilia, and a fierce, stuck-to-the-ribs desire to preserve America's heartland identity. Such squareness has never been more hip.
Never heard of the drivers? Who cares! When you go to a music festival, you don't go to the main stage. The side stage is where all the action is, and the 500 has become the ultimate side stage. NASCAR is Miley Cyrus vamping at the Billboard Music Awards. The 500 is Jack White recording folk songs in an old barn with ribbon microphones and tube amps.
The 500 is not The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world in which it was, a world with a little less flash and bombast where a Sunday afternoon at the track could be enjoyed on its own terms, not as part of a complicated cup circuit, multi-platform merchandising strategy or sociopolitical statement?
If you feel that way, IndieCar has just what you are looking for: the Greatest Alternative in Racing.
Reclaim Your Racing Roots
The IndyCar Series is a once-divorced couple of a certain age that reunited after a decade of fighting and self-destructive behavior. It survives amidst the wreckage of a pair of shattered lives, the former IRL and CART pooling their resources and navigating minefields of financial problems and broken promises. It lurches from race to race and season to season, donning its Sunday best for Memorial Day weekend but grimly battling through most of the year.
Now and then, there are flickers of hope. A new title sponsor! (Verizon.) A new venue for 2015! (New Orleans.) The Turbogate scandal and Lotus engine debacles of recent years seem to have quieted. But every year remains a battle. Sports fans are not crying out to re-embrace open-wheel racing, and IndyCar may not be ready to receive an embrace.
But life is too short to wallow in dejection. Find the old straw hats and flowered sundresses. Scour the farmer's market for the homemade, the locally grown, the gnarled, imperfect and lovable. Rummage for some All-American antiques, cast iron and chrome parts, porcelain and neon signs, reminders of a rougher but simpler time when entertainment in the heartland meant one day of road racing and 364 days of mini-golf.
Then crank up that vintage phonograph and blast "Back Home Again in Indiana" as loud as you can stand it. Nabors will sing it one last time this year before retiring to Hawaii with his spouse. Let a corny song by a performer of a bygone era rekindle that simple joy of watching fast, loud, colorful, shoestring-budget, seat-of-the-pants racing.
IndieCar is waiting for you, not with spectacle, not with modern convenience, not even with top-shelf professionalism, but with fast cars in historic venues and on city streets, driven by non-superstars eager to win a trophy and put on a show. It's an idea, like the Indianapolis 500 itself, that is so old-fashioned that it is newfangled.