It wasn’t too long ago that NASCAR was on the biggest power play in professional motorsports. It had all the top tracks, was culling drivers from the best of the rest of the country, and had the most fans (and money) behind it by far.
None of this could make it more apparent than the increasingly silly nature of the sport’s “silly season,” the time of year when drivers started announcing future plans. When I was growing up, usually drivers knew no earlier than October or November where they’d be the next year. Now, stars were signing multi-year contracts as early as May.
It even still borders on the ridiculous, as the concept of signing a contract for “the season after next” still comes into play (Kasey Kahne, anyone?). But the absurdity of the NASCAR silly season has been toned down as the money’s stopped flowing quite as freely through the garage.
During that time frame, IndyCar was on the bottom of the American motorsports food chain. Yes, the Indianapolis 500 still mattered, as it always will. But NASCAR was the top dog, and the Daytona 500 had arguably surpassed Indy. The NHRA had political stability. The split between Grand-Am and American Le Mans was hurting sports car racing, but not as bad as the still-divorced IndyCar and Champ Car hurt open-wheel racing; Grand-Am and the ALMS catered to different niches of sports car racing, and shared a majority of drivers, as they still do.
Most open-wheel drivers weren’t signing contracts until February, right before the beginning of the season. Many had to bring their own sponsorship. Now, we’re in the midst of an offseason that is seeing almost every worthy driver get a ride, and plenty of teams secure funding on their own.
The keys here are political stability and room for growth. IndyCar eventually bought out Champ Car, the first action to help bring the sport back together, but just because the two warring factions have unified doesn’t mean that their supporters have done the same. To this day, old Champ Car fans resent the Dallara chassis, calling it a “crapwagon;” meanwhile, fans of the original all-American, all oval Indy Racing League despise the addition of road courses and foreign drivers.
But it was the decision to bring in Randy Bernard as IndyCar CEO that began paying the highest returns. Current fans in the know deify Bernard as the sport’s savior; while one man can’t take credit for everything, it’s easy to understand why.
Before Bernard left Professional Bull Riders, IndyCar was stuck with an outdated car, an underperforming schedule, no marketing charisma whatsoever, a star driver with only one win, and little positive momentum. Since he’s come in, all of that has changed. There’s a new car on the way with multiple manufacturers, some new races with great potential, a fresh look, the potential for some new (and, importantly to some, American) superstars, and things don’t look to fall off track soon.
Clearly, Mike Kelly and the folks at IZOD are to thank for the boost in marketing savvy, and no fan can thank them enough for helping revitalize the sport for other potential sponsors. They’re cool, trendy, and really seem to understand the heritage of the Indianapolis 500 and the essence of what makes open-wheel racing so great. But they can’t be the ones to go around and solicit new engine manufacturers or commercial partners; they are their own entity. That’s the new IndyCar administration’s job, and they do it well.
Compare that to NASCAR, which has seen a whole bunch of bad news under Brian France. The list of problems reads like a nightmare. Declining attendance at overbuilt tracks. Declining TV ratings with broadcast partners who undermine the races with poor coverage or excessive commercials. A divisive racecar that has improved safety at the expense of entertainment. A Chase format that the folks up top still can’t seem to get right. An underachieving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and five-times-consecutive champion Jimmie Johnson. It goes on.
It seems that the only thing that Brian France has carried over to NASCAR from his father’s and grandfather’s leadership is an iron fist, a strong-willed belief that the fans will eventually take what you give them, no matter what. France’s comments at Homestead this year implied that he was woefully out of touch with the common race fan, the people that NASCAR built its success with, implying that the sport was absolutely fine and hinting at even more alterations to the Chase, including a second potential points reset in the final few races to guarantee a big finale every year.
While France tries to impress the media in hope that the fans and sponsors will follow, Bernard has taken the opposite approach. So far, it’s been working out. Fans are beginning to rediscover the sport, and the subsequent new list of partners would make any race fan drool. Witness Chevrolet, Lotus, Mazda, Sunoco, and Verizon Wireless. Witness the addition of a dozen official partners this year alone, from car rental services (Avis) to gourmet popcorn (Just Pop In).
Verizon, shut out of NASCAR due to restrictions on wireless service providers in its Sprint-backed top series, will shift over $10 million to IndyCar sponsorship activation. That’s kind of a big deal.
This just leads to another crucial observation: IndyCar has almost infinite room for growth. “The split” left the American open-wheel world with a bunch of scorched earth and a long regenerative process. But now that the soil is a bit more fertile, and the costs are still relatively low, the sport should be able to support a renaissance.
Again, compare that to NASCAR. The days of 50 fully-funded teams are long gone. Sponsorship costs are so high that most companies consolidate with the biggest teams and share space on top drivers’ cars instead of giving some of the little guys a chance. The sport is overvalued and underperforming, and it shows with the loss of longtime, big-name sponsors like Old Spice, and the minimized roles of sport mainstays like Kellogg’s, Interstate Batteries, and Valvoline.
What’s the result of all of this?
With NASCAR now deemed “untouchable” by many potential sponsors, their funds are shifting over to IndyCar, which is able to welcome them in with open arms and significantly lower prices. The racing may not be much better than it’s ever been since moving to a spec vehicle, but the buzz is infinitely more positive.
It leads to drivers like Tony Kanaan landing on their feet within a month of losing a major backer. It leads to a bonanza of sponsorship deals for Team Penske. It leads to young drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann, and Charlie Kimball getting deals to move up, or at least being considered to. It leads to major funding for Simona de Silvestro, the sport’s biggest overachiever and perhaps its next female race winner.
And now we have 16 drivers and teams locked in before the new year – almost a 25% increase from where we were at this point last year. That will comprise the majority of the field, and that’s a huge step forwards from where we’ve been.
IndyCar has never done things the “NASCAR way,” and likely never will as long as Bernard is in charge. It can’t, and it doesn’t have to. There’s no reliance on the past - just the opportunity to build a better future for open-wheel racing in the States. And with NASCAR's list of problems growing yearly, it may not be as hard as you'd think for the Indianapolis 500 to become the crown jewel of American motorsports once again.