OURSLER: The Rambling Road


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s all about setting goals and success. That’s the simple part. What’s much harder is trying to fathom what the real goals are, as opposed to what people say they are.

Take, for example, pet food — mundane to most of us, but important to the creatures who inhabit our households and are part of our families.

The obvious goal here is to produce a product that our pets will like and eat. The less obvious is to make their masters feel good about what they’re feeding to their pets. The complication is that the animals aren’t paying; the people are. So what do pets and the food they consume have to do with motorsport? A lot, it turns out.

Like the dogs, cats birds and whatever else humans welcome into their homes, racing fans are consumers. For even us older, doddering folks that seems simple to grasp. The people support the sport because they like it. But, is getting and keeping them in the fold the real, or the perceived goal?

And, while this question applies to motorsport as a whole, it is critical to road racing, particularly in North America, where, unlike the rest of the planet, the audience is relatively tiny. If the oval track community suffers in attendance, or has a drop in its television ratings it’s a problem. If the same thing happens in the road course arena, it can be devastating.

Last weekend at Mid-Ohio we were treated to two ends of the current road racing spectrum: the nearly spec Indy cars and the complicated class structure of the American Le Mans Series.

To be blunt, neither the sports cars, nor the single seaters provided that good of a show with Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon holding sway among the open wheelers and the Muscle Milk Honda duo of Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf doing the same in the ALMS.

The problems for the once mighty IndyCar set are multitude and obvious. In short, however, the “dog foot” they are serving to their audience — whose roots are on ovals rather than the twisting asphalt of Mid-Ohio — is not what that audience wants to eat.

Likewise, the complications of trying to separate, and understand the differences between the three different classes of identical appearing prototypes is more than the average person wants to spend any effort on. Moreover, this is a situation not helped by the fact that the top tier MLP1 entries are not the headlining factory Audi and Toyotas, but rather mid pack “second raters.” Put together, while the ALMS has increased its prototype numbers, it hasn’t increased the fan interest in or enthusiasm for them.

But, to whom are IndyCar and the ALMS appealing?

In truth, although one would assume that pleasing the audience is their primary goal, that assumption turns out to be fair, less important than one might expect, especially when it comes to television, the single most important medium for financial success.

With TV it is all about numbers, not so much how many people watch, but rather how long they watch. And, while it may be convoluted, basically the longer they watch, the higher price the telecaster can charge for commercials.

For the ALMS, getting the numbers telecasters wants meaning attracting people not necessarily familiar with the sport. In turn that means educating them about what they’re watching so they’ll stay tuned in longer. But, the disruption this causes to the flow of the telecast and the event themselves can cause viewers to change the channel.

Experience has shown that the loyal core fans will grumble, but continue to watch. As for the “newcomers,” there the results seem mixed.

Even though the loyal IndyCar fans appear delighted with the coverage provided by NBC Sports and ABC, the truth is that the series’ ratings are in the toilet — barely large enough to measure.

Similarly, those of the ALMS haven’t been helped by the decision to rely on the Internet as partial substitute for the more traditional television coverage of its events. Still, if the ALMS’ fan base hasn’t grown in real terms, it hasn’t decreased either, which given everything can be considered a plus.

Ultimately, though. It all comes down to whom one needs to satisfy the most. And, that is truly the hard part. The television folks are interested less in the quality of their programming than how the change the maximum to those who advertisements pay for it. The entrants on the other hand want to taste glory and the lowest possible cost, while the core fans simply want to be entertained.

In the end, does one settle for “good enough,” or strive for excellence. And, that brings us back to pet food. If the pet gobbles it down, what else matters? Unfortunately, in terms of what the pet consumes and what the needs of the racing fans are, their pleasure factors are far less important than those behind the scenes.

Perhaps it’s time to think about changing that.