Is the newly united Indycar Series in danger of being still born, or at least smothered by the gathering economic gloom?
A year ago I was happily relaying news of the merger on my FOXsports blog and couldn’t have been happier when the various parties agreed terms and were united in time for the 2008 opener at Homestead-Miami. The new series was the only way that US Open Wheel racing could compete with the commercial juggernaut that NASCAR had become.
The Indycar Series looked to be going well, supported by a number of big sponsors—Kodak, Target, Motorola, McDonalds—and picking up new endorsements and “official products” seemingly on a weekly basis.
The racing may not have been at its best, but it came with a number of storylines to whet the appetites of fans—Danica’s first win, Rahal’s first win, the old CCWS teams catching up all the time. All eyes were on 2009 and a year of better organisation, better parity and a better calendar.
This off season seems to be littered by the bodies of Indycar teams and the careers of drivers. Justin Wilson, a winner last year and a front runner in the old Champ Cars is currently on the outside looking in. KV Racing Technology, struggling to plug the whole left after the loss of the Team Australia/Aussie Vineyards sponsorship, look increasingly likely to cut back to single car team, with Oriol Servia likely to be the main loser.
Conquest Racing has had to go out its way to say it is NOT closing. Ryan Hunter-Reay, an open wheel stalwart and product of the feeder series, is currently looking unlikely to get a drive, and his 2008 team, Rahal-Letterman Racing are making noises about not having the funding to run a full season.
The problems of Rahal-Letterman are a good barometer of the health of the series. They may not be constant contenders, although Ryan won at Watkins Glen, but they are crucial to the series. Fair enough, a large chunk of their problems may be due to over-extension with their BMW programme in the ALMS, but they seem to have gone from a fully funded, well structured team to a part time outfit in a few months.
However, that is not the end of the problem. Indycar has signed a TV deal with Versus, seeing all but five races broadcast on the network. Being in the UK I have no knowledge of Versus, but I have heard dissenting comments over the fact that they have gone to a minority network.
And if it’s to work Indycar, and Versus, need people to watch the channel and watch the racing. All this at the same time when the very things that would make people watch are leaving through every exit.
Reading the regular Robin Miller’s Mailbag column on Speed’s website Mike Conway is singled out for grief. The main thrust of the argument seemed to be his was buying his ride, ousting those more talented.
I don’t know how much of this is true, Mike has been a Honda development driver for years, testing for the F1 team and with their collapse the manufacturer may well have moved him into Indycar to keep him in the family – read into that what you will.
What is clear is that he is not a draw for American audiences. He’s not even a draw for English audiences (at least not this one). During his time in GP2 I never once thought “I think I’ll watch GP2 because Mike Conway is racing.”
However, I believe you can add drivers like Hideki Mutoh and Mario Moraes to the same group, so having drivers unlikely to draw crowds is not a symptom of the economic woes. Throw into the mix how Indycar drivers are increasingly sliding into the “humourless sponsor drone” model carved out by NASCAR’s finest.
As much as Danica was a target for humiliation after some of her antics last year, she got people watching, she gave fans something to talk about. I doubt Mike Conway, or most of the other drivers lined up for 2009 are capable of doing that.
Between media stories about teams closing and Helio being headed for the clink the best piece of Indycar news has been a threat that Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy were trying to get funding together. I’ve never been a PT fan, but he’s exactly what Indycar needs.
When PT and Bourdais were in their seasons for near fights in Champ Car I remember actively seeking out repeats of races. And when fans do that sponsors know about and join the series. Unfortunately the thought process to do that for an Indycar race is still a long way off.