IndyCar can succeed overseas. Really.
The prevailing wisdom within IndyCar regarding the series racing overseas seems to be less than favorable. Many prominent figures within IndyCar, such as Roger Penske have long spoken out against the idea, citing a host of reasons. And to be clear, I don’t necessarily dispute their validity.
For one, we are told by those who attempt to lure corporate support, that races overseas (outside North America) are of little interest to North American based sponsors. Also, for a sport desperate to increase its television audience, overseas races often take place at less than favorable television times in North America, and inevitably drag down the already lagging TV numbers. Remember, the television audience for Danica Patrick's historic win in Japan was minuscule, as the race occurred in the middle of the night American time. What could have been a media bonanza for IndyCar, was well, not.
For teams, the travel can be taxing. Plus, unstable economic and political climates in certain regions have derailed many a motorsport event. We saw this with Bahrain in Formula One, and IndyCar’s cancelled race this past year in Qingdao, China, where a change in the local government resulted in apathy toward the scheduled IndyCar event.
No, plenty of domestic ones have too. While in the interests of brevity and personal sanity, I will spare you a list, I can assure you there is no shortage of failed IndyCar events within North America. Moreover, the preponderance of failed domestic events raises a larger issue within the world of IndyCar, and one specific to overseas races: If both domestic and overseas events have failed, could it be that overseas events are not somehow inherently flawed? After all, some have been wildly successful.
Contrarily, could it be that similar to IndyCar itself, overseas events have been the victim of gross mismanagement?
That is certainly plausible. As we will see, Indy car management, in its many forms, has failed to capitalize even on successful overseas events. Heck, one could actually argue, the poor management of overseas events has been the prevailing factor in perpetuating the myth that overseas events are inherently flawed and thus destined to fail.
Of course, a large part of the success in Mexico can be attributed to former Indy car driver, and Mexican mega-star Adrian Fernandez. Fernandez was joined during those years by Mexican race-winners Michel Jourdain, Mario Dominguez and a host of other Mexican drivers, who gave the fans hometown heroes to root on. Heck, even without Fernandez in 2005, 271,000 people attended the event. Not only were the races well-attended, but Mexican sponsors Roshfrans, Gigante, Corona, Herdez, Banamex and Tecate, were all heavily involved with Champ Car sport during that time.
Sadly, CART/Champ Car and later IndyCar did nothing to capitalize on the success of Mexico City. With the merger, the Mexico City event was eliminated from the schedule, and not surprisingly, no Mexican driver has had a significant presence in IndyCar, and to my knowledge no Mexican company has had anything but minimal involvement since. Worse, with the current political turmoil in Mexico, any window of opportunity IndyCar had south of the border, has probably closed.
But, let's be clear on something: the foray into Mexico did not fail. Rather, it was a smashing, unquestioned success. The final Champ Car event in 2007 drew 198,000 over the three days, or about ten times the number who attended Fontana this past year. And keep in mind, that was without a prominent Mexican driver, as Fernandez and Jourdain had by then moved on. What failed in Mexico was the sport's inability to capitalize on the momentum and success it did have.
Another example of a successful overseas venture the sport failed to capitalize on was the Surfers Paradise, Australia event, which ran uninterrupted from 1991-2008. The race, of course, almost never got off the ground due to resistance from then-FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre. Nevertheless, CART ran its first race Down Under in March of 1991 with John Andretti scoring his first and only IndyCar victory.
However, for all of its success, Surfers never did what an overseas event should do: build the sport's brand and generate long-term partnerships.
CART and later Champ Car essentially put the cars on the plane, went to Australia, soaked up the sun, ran the race, and came home. The attendance was excellent, the atmosphere festive, the payday decent, and well, that's about it. The Surfers event, successful as it was, never complimented a broader strategy for growing the sport. Rarely were there Australian drivers in the field. Australian companies did not become significantly involved in the sport, like their Mexican counterparts. Long-term partnerships were not built.
And when the sport ended its partnership with the Gold Coast event after the 2008 running, well, there was little to show for 18 wildly successful events.
That, my friends, is a management issue. Yes, in the cases of Surfers and Mexico, Indy car management, in its various forms, could not cash in on successful events. No, the success of Surfers and Mexico was never parlayed into a broader strategy of building the IndyCar brand.
Of course, a large part of this, can be attributed to "The Split." Yes, the story has been told and retold, but those many years CART/Champ Car and the IRL were waging war with each other, immeasurable damage was done to the sport and the IndyCar brand. Worse, it was those dark years to which we can attribute the belief that international races were somehow destined to fail, becoming part of the body politic.
However, as we've seen in the cases of Mexico and Surfers, international events are not as some suggest, inherently flawed. IndyCar may have failed to capitalize on the events, but the events themselves did not fail. Plus, when you take into account the fact NASCAR is nearly a motorsport monopoly in America, combined with the fact F1 cannot possibly serve every nation that wants a world-class form of formula racing, going overseas all of a sudden seems more appealing.
Now, in advocating IndyCar exploring options outside North America, I want to make the following very clear.
I am in no way suggesting that IndyCar carelessly gallivant the globe looking for quick paydays. As outlined earlier this mistake was made before, and contributed significantly to the negative stigma surrounding international events. And if IndyCar adopts a similar strategy in the future, international events will fail. Sure, they may be successful "cash grabs," but "cash grabs," are all they will be. Further, such events will disenfranchise key partners in the sport.
Further, IndyCar's home base is and should always be America. The season should begin and end in America, and the American market is and should always be the most prominent. Champ Car made the mistake in its final years of too many overseas events, with no real coherent strategy
However, if overseas events are implemented as part of a broader, coherent strategy; a strategy that seeks to build the IndyCar brand, and foster long-term partnerships with sponsors, promoters, manufacturers, etc., then overseas events can and will work.
To begin, remember the most important consideration for IndyCar moving forward, with regard to both domestic and foreign events, is television. In particular, IndyCar must serve its core American television audience, which is of supreme importance to the majority of sponsors.
Because of television, IndyCar has no need to jump into Asia, at least for now. While the population of many Asian countries is booming, the time difference creates awful television slots, as we saw when Patrick won at Motegi. Also, as we have seen with Zhuhai, Qingdao and Ansan, and even some F1 events, the local municipalities can be unstable.
Further, there is little for the series currently to market in Asia. Takuma Sato is the only Asian driver currently in the field. Sure, IndyCar could enlist a "token local," to help the promoter in whatever area, but by and large, the prospects for Asia are limited. The only exceptions might be if Honda wants to pay a substantial fee for a return to Motegi, or something unforeseen occurred like Hyundai wanting to enter IndyCar as an engine supplier.
Otherwise, IndyCar is not positioned to make a serious dent in Asia. For now, Asia should be on the back-burner for IndyCar. Europe is perhaps, more intriguing.
Formula 1, of course, has been slowly moving away from Europe in recent years, and will have a mere seven European races in 2013. While the population of Europe is diminishing, F1 moving away from Europe has left a void for high-level formula style racing IndyCar can fill.
Also, there are quite a few European drivers on the grid, and IndyCar would want to race in a market, in which there were locals to promote. Remember, when CART ran Lausitzring in 2001 and 2003, they had no German driver and no German manufacturer. The proposed race in Mugello for 2013 would have been the exact same. No Italian driver, no Italian manufacturer, and two weeks after the Italian Grand Prix? While there might be a nice paycheck involved, as things currently stand, the race at Mugello would have been shortly lived, done little for the IndyCar brand, and perpetuated the myth that foreign events are destined to fail.
A better European market for IndyCar to explore would be France. There are three French drivers on the 2013 IndyCar grid, Sebastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier. All three are talented, and would be more marketable than the "token local," we've seen with past overseas events. expected. While I don't know what sort of following each has in their native country, I do know France has 2 legitimate Grand Prix circuits, Mangy-Cours and Paul Ricard; circuits that have hosted F1, and have tried to get back on the calendar. Such venues would no doubt be open to hosting IndyCar. France has major manufacturers such as Renault and Peugeot who would be welcome participants in IndyCar.
And if the promoter in France needs help transporting the IndyCar circus to Europe, then enlist the help of an British venue, where the series can market Justin Wilson, Dario Franchitti, James Jakes, Mike Conway, and Pippa Mann.
Now, it must be said, Europe is not ideal for American television either. Granted, it is better than Asia, but a 4 p.m. start time in France, would be 10 a.m. on the East Coast, 7 a.m. on the West Coast. Yuck!
Still, if a European excursion helps court a Peugeot, Renault, or a British manufacturer, the decision is an easy one. Manufacturers are of course, the lifeblood of any racing series, and IndyCar is in no position to exclude them. Simply put, Europe boasts many of the world's manufacturing giants, who IndyCar would be foolish not to court.
However, as things currently stand, the region with the most potential for IndyCar is undoubtedly South America.
Of course, South American economies have witnessed growth over the last decades. Already, the series has established a good event in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Like Mexico a decade ago, a host of Brazilian drivers, and the Sao Paulo race have helped attract Brazilian sponsors to the sport. Itaipava beer is the Sao Paulo title sponsor, and has latched on with Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan. Apex-Brasil is the official supplier of sugar-cane ethanol for the IndyCar Series. Brazilian sponsors stepped up last year to fund former F1 driver Rubens Barrichello. IndyCar has some momentum here, which hopefully they can continue to build on.
Another positive about South America, arguably the best thing, is IndyCar's television coverage is largely unaffected by time change. For sponsors, who are turned off by foreign races largely due to television, last year's Brazil event actually pulled a better television rating in America than many other IndyCar events. Of course, one could theorize that many of the people who would normally attend IndyCar events, did not make the trek to Sao Paulo, and were thus, watching at home. While that prospect may be a sobering one, the point remains: South America is TV compatible with IndyCar's North American base.
Also, there is huge demand in the region, as F1 has only one South American race. Numerous South Americans compete in the IndyCar ladder system, and already a host of South American companies are involved in the sport.
Simply put, South America offers huge potential for IndyCar. A second South American event could run the week before/after Sao Paulo, to assist each promoter with costs, would seem to be a no-brainer.
Of course, the inevitable question becomes where, and I must say this is somewhat tricky. Venezuela, which has IndyCar driver E.J. Viso and a host of young drivers climbing the ladder would probably move heaven and earth for a world class motor race. However, Venezuela brings a less than appealing stigma with President Hugo Chavez. Colombia, the home nation of Dragon Racing's Sebastian Saavedra and former Lights standout Gustavo Yacaman, has obvious crime/violence issues.
A second Brazil race has been mentioned and that may be just as well, given the sport's history of standout Brazilian drivers, the passion of motorsports fans in Brazil, and the country's growing economy.
Wherever it is, South America offers potential for IndyCar to grow and attract new interest. A second race in the region the week before/after Sao Paulo, in which promoters could share transport costs, is a no-brainer.
As we have seen, the presumption that international races are somehow destined to flop, is simply not true. The case of Mexico actually did work, in every way one would hope, and was not taken advantage of. Currently, Sao Paulo is building into a series mainstay and has helped Brazilian drivers secure sponsorship, and enticed other sponsors to support the series. While the sport has witnessed its share of disappointments when venturing outside North America, people shouldn't forget there have been successes too.
Going forward, if IndyCar is to venture outside North America, the series will need to pick its spots. IndyCar cannot disenfranchise their North American sponsors with too many poor television spots, gallivanting the globe for any "cash grab" they can get.
Still, there is cash to grab, potentially lots of it. But beyond that, there is a brand to build, sponsors and manufacturers to be wooed, fans to be made, and numerous localities dying for top-level formula style racing, ready and willing to pick up the tab.
Of course, whether IndyCar pursues a greater global strategy seeking to grow the IndyCar brand remains to be seen. And to be clear, I'm not exactly holding my breath. After all, myths are incredibly powerful things.
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