A sad tale of superheroes and manhole covers

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 04: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #37 Team IZOD Andretti Autosport Dallara Honda, sits in his car during practice for the IZOD IndyCar Series Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway June 4, 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Has anyone seen a new Izod IndyCar Series commercial on TV? I haven't, but then again I don't spend a lot of time watching Versus live, and I usually zip through the ads during hockey games.

Some of my Twitter friends have tweeted about seeing open-wheel cars used in commercials for other products, but have we yet seen an honest-to-goodness INDYCAR (all caps) spot?

I ask because I have seen some NASCAR ads, and to say the least they left me feeling a little insulted. Everything else Randy Bernard has done this off-season has been golden, so I'm looking forward to seeing what he and his team comes up with.

Sadly, once again - this time in the area of TV ads - it's not like NASCAR has set the bar very high. The spot I saw during the NFL playoffs on Fox went something like this:

A manhole cover on a sunny street suddenly explodes into the air, causing shocked and frightened expressions for shopkeepers and pedestrians, including some kids, up and down the street.

Without warning, the next manhole cover in line explodes, and then the next, and so on ... causing panic and fear for everyone except one guy who - we don't realize until the very end of the commercial - is meant to represent The NASCAR Fan.

The NASCAR Fan runs to the next manhole cover in line and stands on it, so when it explodes high into the air he's riding atop it and laughing his head off.

As I indicated, there is nothing in this ad to indicate it's about NASCAR until the very end. That means another 30-second spot was on the screen as I processed my feelings about the whole "manhole cover" ad. The game was back on before I realized I was getting a little angry about what that ad implied about me as someone who watches NASCAR.

So, according to the braintrust who put together this likely high-priced commercial, if The NASCAR Fan was in a bank taken over by robbers, while all the other hostages were cowering in a corner, our intrepid NASCAR Fan would be trying to get a piggy-back ride on the gunman?

Um, no.

Going for the lowest of the lowest common denominators

I'm not even going to address NFL/MLB announcer Joe Buck's reading of Fox's moronic Dayonta 500 promo (three-wide at DIS, finally? Wow! (not)).  But based on the whole "manhole cover" fiasco, I expect we'll be getting a heavy dose of "NASCAR's Greatest Wrecks" highlights this year, especially during races at Talladega and Daytona (interested in seeing how respectful the coverage is on the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death).

A lot of this came into better focus for me when I saw the comments of Fox Sports chairman David Hill during the annual NASCAR media tour: "What this sport is all about is the driver. Everything else in NASCAR is an afterthought. People follow the sport because the drivers are heroes. ... The story of the heroes - that's what the fans want to hear, the superheroes that can do things that very, very few people can or will."

I'm good with a plan that humanizes the sport, and I agree the talent and skill level of a top-tier NASCAR driver is impressive, but I balk at calling them "heroes" or "superheroes." And I suspect the folks at Fox will be playing fast and loose with the "superheroes" theme, giving us cartoons instead of substance.

Worse yet, we'll be seeing more "storyline-driven" coverage of races, which ESPN has perfected to the point that ratings are stumbling toward the cellar faster than my drunk Uncle Joe.

By the way, Mr. Hill: The police and fire department first responders who charged into the burning North and South Towers on 9/11 were heroes. I suspect every NASCAR driver would agree with me on that, too.

Future's so bright, IndyCar needs shades

This is after all, an IndyCar blog (sorry Tony for hijacking your little piece of the InterWeb to - once again - complain about NASCAR) so what should we expect from IndyCar's marketing plan for 2011?

Like Fox's Hill, Randy Bernard has said it is important to focus on IndyCar's drivers, but without the hyperbole and "hero/superhero" labels. Instead, the emphasis sounds like it will be on "the most diverse driver roster in motorsports" - and I like the sound of that.

Unlike Fox and NASCAR, IndyCar can and will showcase the awesome technology incorporated into a modern open-wheel racing car, especially as the clock ticks on to 2012, and the focus on green technology is another winning storyline with today's audience.

Adding a marketing office in Hollywood is an interesting move, which could be brilliant if handled properly. The same city brought us "Transformers" and both "Tron" movies, so IndyCar can leverage that special-effects wizardry and storytelling ability within the context of the storylines it wants to employ.

So, although I haven't seen any TV spots yet, IndyCar already has a leg up on NASCAR in terms of having an effective, coherent and non-insulting marketing plan.

Just as long as they stay away from exploding manhole covers. That's just stupid and insulting.

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