Posts Tagged Auto Racing

And Now, for Something Completely Different: Where Was the Crowd at the Pocono 400?

Every once in a while I like to go off-topic, and since the IronPigs are on the road this is a good time to do so. One of my other favorite sports is open-wheel racing, specifically the IZOD IndyCar series.

My passion for IndyCar racing began at Nazareth Speedway (1997 to 2004) watching Nazareth’s Michael Andretti battle Al Unser. As thrilling as the races were, the atmosphere surrounding them was equally exhilarating. Fans came from all over the world, and it was fun to grab a Coke, sit at a table with complete strangers and talk about their hometowns or countries.

I also got to meet a lot of great racers, most of whom were great  people. Perhaps the greatest and friendliest of them all was the late Greg Moore, who died in 1999 in an horrific crash at California Speedway. His death broke my heart, because I’d come to know him rather well. I also got to know Michael and Mario Andretti, the hometown heroes, as a member of their fan club. Each year on the Friday before the race, they’d sponsor a fan club dinner, where Mario and Michael spoke, signed autographs, mingled, and raffled off prizes. The first year I took my son Joshua, who was 9 at the time, he won the top prize — a painting of Mario’s IndyCar, which Mario signed and dated and personalized for him. Mario must have chatted with him for 5 minutes. My son was hooked, and we went to the races together from then on.

It was always my ambition to become involved, in some way, with the race itself. One year I was a volunteer for Racer magazine, handing out sample copies, signing up new subscribers and, occasionally, hosting driver autograph sessions. I recall one specifically with Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Oriol Servia, who were all relative unknowns at the time. Racer‘s rep warned me, appropriately, that one day they would famous drivers. That prediction came true — at least for Castroneves (3 Indianapolis 500 wins) and Kanaan (1 championship and 1 Indy 500 win).

Finally, in the last year of racing at Nazareth, Andretti-Green Racing made my dream come true. They asked me to be a scorer for Kanaan, which I quickly agreed to do. The perks were tremendous: an all-day, all-the-time pit pass and an open invitation to Andretti-Green’s hospitality tent, next to their RV in the infield. Free food, team pins, access to the drivers (including Michael) and a chance to chat with crew members and staff. I recall meeting a good friend and fan of Michael’s from Japan, who was staying at his Nazareth home while here for the race and a visit.

The biggest thrill, of course, was being an official scorer. In some ways, it was easy and in some ways it wasn’t. Punching a button every time Tony crossed the Start line sounds easy, but do that for more than an hour and you can begin to question your sanity. Nonetheless, it was an honor, albeit bittersweet because it was the last race; I’d gotten the job (non-paying), but the job was disappearing along with the racetrack.

Kanaan came in second that day, but it was a 1-2-3 podium finish for Andretti-Green, with his teammate, the late Dan Wheldon, winning and teammate Dario Franchitti placing third. Not long after the race, the seats at Nazareth Raceway began to come down. Today, only the gate signs and a few other remnants tell passersby what used to be there.

So it was a thrill when IndyCar announced it was returning to Pocono Raceway this year after a 24-year absence from the Tricky Triangle. I anticipated a large crowd, many of them old Nazareth Speedway fans as thrilled as I was to see IndyCars return to this area. But alas, only 30,000 attended the race; compare that with Pocono’s two NASCAR races, which each draw more than 100,000 fans.

Why? IndyCar came into Pocono weakened by several factors — first and foremost the split between CART and Tony George’s IRL, the reunification which meant the end of turbocharged engines, the financial failures, rules squabbles, etc. It’s the saddest chapter in the history of auto racing, period. It drove away fans forever.

The IndyCar Series was born out of the IRL-CART merger in 2007, but has had other struggles that have turned away fans. In 2011, a 13-year deal with Versus, the television network that became NBC Sports Network, proved to be a mixed blessing as the network struggled to find an audience and a place on the cable sports tier. And the championship race that year was a disaster as Indy 500 winner Wheldon died in a 15-car pileup on the 12th lap of the Las Vegas race, which was then cancelled.

Constant talk of lawsuits and equipment costs sapped enthusiasm for the races themselves, dubbed “spec races” by fans who preferred innovation to rigid rules. Reports about expenses made IndyCar sound cheap. Just days before the 2012 Indy 500, Turbogate erupted between CEO Randy Bernard and the team owners, leaving IndyCar still fractured, bleeding money, wracked by dissension and egos, almost stubbornly unwilling to showcase its greatest assets — its drivers and its turbocharged cars.

Under his successor, Mark Miles, things have finally stabilized and it looks like IndyCar is finally on the road to success. But it isn’t there yet. Miles has a long way to go, and the Pocono 400 reflects that. He has a major challenge in luring back the fans lost by the infighting and unsatisfactory competition. Overnight ratings for ABC’s telecast of the Pocono 400 were only 1.1, yet that was the second-highest rated race outside the Indy 500 this year. By contrast, NASCAR’s Pocono race this year drew a 2.8 rating on TNT (down from 3.2 last year).

My first suggestion: Get busier promoting the race! Did anyone see billboards in the Lehigh Valley promoting it? I didn’t. Between the time the race was announced and a few days before the race, there was very little publicity at all. IndyCar is not the only one that needs to do more of this. The major sponsors need to do a better job of getting out the word too — Sunoco, Izod and the engine manufacturers, mostly.

Second, get IndyCar drivers here in the weeks before the race to sign autographs, mingle with the fans and give interviews with media outlets. Signing photos and souvenirs will draw a crowd to malls, car dealerships, etc.

Third (a corollary to #2), put the IndyCars on display at area Sunoco stations for race fans to gawk at. They’re the most advance pieces of machinery anyone could hope to see and one of the major assets of the series.

Fourth, have ticket contests and giveaways (particularly if you have 70,000 unsold seats!). Marlboro used to do this for its customers at Nazareth races every year, when that was still legal, and it helped fill the seats and bring in new racing fans (including me).

Finally, those of you out there who are already IndyCar fans and now look forward to Pocono, start spreading the gospel! Let’s make Pocono the success it should be, and ensure the IndyCar racing is forever within easy driving distance of Lehigh Valley open-wheel racing fans.


Michael Andretti gathers his thoughts in the Andretti-Green Racing pits before the Nazareth Speedway event in 2004.

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