When "more of the same" ceases to be a good thing

Josie George, Randy Bernard, Mary H. George, and Nancy George (Photo: IMS Photo/Ron McQueeney)

Tomorrow, Randy Bernard is going to get up in front of everyone and give a summary about the state of IndyCar.

I'm not entirely sure what will be in his prepared remarks, but from my side of things I'm in a perpetual state of amazement about how quickly things have gone from dire to hopeful in this neck of the motorsports woods.

It's a turnaround that stands in stark contrast to the state of IndyCar's biggest and meanest rival, NASCAR. A series that virtually had a license to print money at the beginning of the 21st century is now facing sagging ratings, empty seats, and fan discontent. And while NASCAR would have to fall a long, long way to get down to where IndyCar is fighting its way back to relevance, there is no question about which series has the most positive momentum at the moment.

What is the one thing that explains both sides of this issue? Stagnation.

I'll tell you right now - if Randy Bernard had taken over as IndyCar CEO and promised to maintain the course, we would be talking about IndyCar in the past tense today. Tony George was absolutely correct when he said as he left office that IndyCar could have gone out of business within three years if things had stayed the way they were.

The series was stagnant. It was going nowhere in the ratings and in attendance, and technologically-speaking it was an unflushed turd in the bowl. But incredibly, the majority opinion in the series and among the competitors seemed to be that making any changes would be financially catastrophic and philosophically unnecessary.

When Ben Bowlby and Chip Ganassi introduced the Delta Wing concept to IndyCar, the overriding impulse from just about everyone was, "Run away!" Sure, it was fine in theory, but the look of the thing was simply too radical, the concept of it so alien to the way things are that the majority of people simply didn't want to deal with it.

But Randy Bernard realized that, while Delta Wing was probably too big of a change for the struggling series to absorb in one sitting, the idea it represented - a significant change in how things had been done for nearly a decade - was a sound one. So, rather than sit back on his heels and wait for change to come, he moved forward with it.

Boy, did that ever spark a riot. The car owners just about turned into a flash mob en masse when the ICONIC committee's 2012 specs were unveiled last summer. They were all ready to rope up the cowboy and roast him over a spit.

That attitude changed pretty quickly when people outside the sport saw what was changing and thought, "Hey, this looks pretty good." Now, it seems like Randy can do no wrong.

So what's the deal with NASCAR? Well, you can ask five different people and get five different answers. Many of those answers sound familiar to IndyCar fan ears because they seem to use the same rationalizing logic that we've used for a decade and a half. The economy, changing entertainment tastes, the terrible quality of the network partners... sound familiar?

To me, though, the real answer seems pretty simple: too much of a good thing is almost always bad, especially if it doesn't change.

I believe that fundamentally NASCAR is a good thing. There are compelling personalities, the action can be terrific at times, and there's so much history in the sport. But today's NASCAR is also obsessed with homogeneity. The cars all look the same because the powers-that-be got tired of dealing with the competitor complaints about favoritism to one manufacturer or another. The fields all look the same because so much marketing money is wrapped up in a certain subset of the driver corps that having one or more of them actually miss a race for some reason would be calamitous. The NASCAR championship format was turned into a faux-playoff system because the NFL has one.

Chalk it all up to Brian France... the marketer. Bill France's grandson has worked for his whole tenure to make NASCAR a marketing machine. Find out what sells and then arrange the sport to suit... that seems to be his plan of attack. If the NFL is the top sport in the USA and they have a playoff system, then so should NASCAR. If people show up to see Dale Jr. and Jimmie Johnson race, then by God the odds of them missing a race should be reduced virtually to zero. And by God, there is nothing wrong with the product that a little window-dressing can't fix.

What that has resulted in is a series that is basically 36 weeks of "more of the same." Homogenous-looking cars, the same group of 35 or so drivers every week, the same teams dominating, the same "Boogity boogity boogity."

What this has done on a macro level is turn what used to be an unpredictable and intriguing domestic racing series into an interminable, dull broken record. And yet, the idea of pulling a Randy Bernard and shaking the NASCAR tree appears to be anathema to Brian France. Better to put the pizza in a new box than to change the crust and toppings.

Why? Because we live in the Age of the Comfort Zone. The same human impulses that make it so every community in the United States has that same strip mall with a Paradise Bakery and a Quiznos are those that keep racing series from venturing out of their shells to make substantive change.

They are conservative, reactionary impulses, and in most consumer ventures playing to those impulses sells. It's why they built a McDonald's in Red Square, why the Chili's on the corner will eventually drive that tasty hole-in-the-wall joint out of business, and why there is no such thing as a mom-and-pop department store in the Wal-Mart Era.

People find relief in the familiar. New things are viewed with skepticism and outright hostility. If you doubt me, talk to the folks at The Gap - particularly the guy who greenlit the budget for their new logo.

That's why marketers in consumer-oriented businesses generally play to people's comfort zones. That's why change usually comes in small, tweaking increments instead of big shakeups.

The big problem with this as it applies to racing is that racing is not a consumer business, but an entertainment business. It may be a fine distinction to draw, but it is a critical one nonetheless. Attention spans and the urge to invest vary significantly between the two types of business. You can make and market the same McDonald's hamburger for 50 years, but a TV show rarely lasts more than two before getting into a rut that either results in a change in the story or that show's cancellation.

Randy Bernard realized that IndyCar was an entertainment product and moved to freshen it for a new audience. That is why he has succeeded. Brian France runs NASCAR as a consumer product, and that is a big reason why people are getting tired of it.

IndyCar has provided plenty of lessons to NASCAR of what not to do since 1995. Now that they can offer a good example for a change, I wonder if NASCAR will recognize it?

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