It's tough being a fan of a niche sport.
Let's be honest here, people. That is what the IZOD IndyCar Series is - and will be for the foreseeable future - and it does no good to pretend otherwise.
That should not reduce our love for it one whit, nor should it cast a pall over the Indianapolis 500, which is still an American tradition and a transcendent event that gets the general public interested in our little corner of the motorsports world once a year.
But there is a somewhat overoptimistic trend of sentiment out there that IndyCar is just one crucial step away from exploding on the American sports scene. Everyone seems to have different concepts of what constitutes that one crucial step, but they all share the opinion that if we could just take that one crucial step that everything would be copacetic and the nation - hell, the nations - will love us again.
For Robin Miller, the longtime IndyCar curmudgeon, it's Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal winning races. Robin believes that having two young, talented Americans dominating the sport instead of a Scot, a Kiwi, and a Brazilian would uncork a wave of popularity that would swamp IndyCar with money and love like a jet of Asti Spumanti. This theory is a distillation of the more general "Amer'kins iz teh sh*t" attitude that still stubbornly persists among the gritty, hardtack die-hards - more muttered in small circles than publicized lately, but still prevalent - but it also presupposes that there is still nationwide affinity for both the Andretti and Rahal names that rivals that for Earnhardt, Busch, and Harvick.
Other folks believe that the one crucial step that will renew the public's interest in IndyCar racing is adding more oval racing. This camp believes that road racing is not only anathema to IndyCar, but is actually a crime that exceeds misdemeanor status. You don't have to remember the roadster era and still nurse a grudge about rear-engined race cars, or secretly wish that IndyCar still raced on dirt short tracks like back in the good ol' USAC days - but that certainly doesn't hurt your chances at membership in this club. The empty grandstands everywhere but at Iowa and Indy are cheerfully ignored by this very vocal contingent.
The group that gets the closest to having a valid point is the one that believes that there aren't enough young short-trackers getting opportunities in the series. Their belief that this is the one crucial step that bars IndyCar from relevance is rather sadly misplaced - these young short-trackers are well-known to their local crowds but have absolutely no footprint elsewhere - but there is a nugget of wisdom there that can't be left unexplored.
The reality is that there is no one crucial step that will magically elevate IndyCar into mainstream relevance. No magic bullet, no miraculous intervention, no gimmick that will reverse almost two decades of sliding towards utter obscurity.
What about Danica? The world knows Danica, but only Danica. The news bubble that surrounds her will move lock, stock, and barrel to NASCAR next year and it will be as if she never raced in IndyCar in her life.
No, the only thing that will bring IndyCar back to the brink of relevance is a long, patient process of teaching people to care again - and not just about the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers and teams. People have to get invested in the process as well as the product. Years of total unknowns buying their way into the series for a three- or four-race "checkbook stint" has done nothing to help build loyalties. There is very little sense of consistency or permanence in IndyCar racing and consequently very little opportunity for new fans to find good long-term investments for their affections.
Maybe it's time to implement a couple of elements from the stick and ball world to change that. Not the championship system - NASCAR may have been right to go to the "traditional sports" well for their game-changer, but the playoff system wasn't the right element to grab if you ask me. No, I'm more interested in two other elements - franchising and the amateur draft.
Franchising is almost a pejorative in motorsports because of the long-held theory that the fastest pretenders to the trophy are the ones who deserve to compete for it. I have personally written more than once about the utopic idea of having no provisionals, no fallbacks, no hedges against fate or luck. But in this day and age and economic and entertainment reality, it just isn't realistic, is it?
Perhaps it is time to consider the Formula 1 model of establishing a set number of team franchises. It may go against all of your personal free-enterprise principles, but there is no arguing the kind of loyalty that is built around the various F1 franchises. There are generational fans of some of these teams - and even some of the lower-echelon teams like Toro Rosso still have fans of the Minardi Minnows who went with the team when it was purchased by Red Bull.
So establish 12 IndyCar team franchises of two cars per team. Create value in the team by attaching a sense of permanence to it. If someone wants to compete for a full season in IndyCar, they can purchase an existing franchise. Allow each franchise to have an "R&D team" whose purpose is data acquisition and testing, which opens up 12 more seats for drivers without a ride as well as provide a race weekend backup in case of injury or illness.
Whither Indy? Is this not like 25/8? Not so fast. While the balance of the schedule would have restrictions on participants based on the franchise model, Indy could remain an "open" event. All "franchise" teams would be eligible to compete (along with their test teams and drivers if they desired), but privateer teams and drivers would also be encouraged to attempt to qualify with no discouragement about guaranteed starting spots for franchise teams. Perhaps franchise teams who elect not to field their test teams at Indianapolis could be encouraged to lease those test cars to interested parties for the Month of May.
An extension of this franchise model would be a requirement for IndyCar franchises to create their own "farm teams" in the IndyCar ladder system or establish affiliations with existing teams in the ladder leagues. Paired closely with this move would be the creation of a prospect draft system akin to those in place in traditional sports. IndyCar franchises would hold an annual prospect draft - in reverse order of the previous season's point standings, of course - to institute exclusive negotiating rights with drivers in lower level racing to put into their development system.
This accomplishes several things. First, it helps build a sense of continuity between young up-and-coming talent and the "big leagues" of IndyCar racing. Second, it helps teams that struggle to have access to prime talent (if that talent chooses to negotiate a deal - if not, then the driver can go back into the next year's draft pool) instead of the best young drivers only being available to the richest teams. Third, it helps to build excitement at the lower levels of racing for IndyCar as a destination, rather than simply an option. And fourth, establishing transfer agreements with lower-level series helps improve IndyCar's relations with those series and may increase their prestige by association.
Those of you who would like to debate the logistics of an idea like this, let me assure you that I have not done much thinking beyond the brainstorming level on this. But there's enough common sense in the idea that I believe it's worth pursuing. After seeing the hype and publicity surrounding the various sports' drafts lately, and then seeing how following prospect athletes through their development until they reach the big stage builds a connection between franchises and fans... well, who wouldn't want that element of investment and interest in IndyCar?
It's a long-term solution for creating a sense of permanence and consistency, as well as generational loyalties, in the series. It would take time to develop and perfect, and certainly there would be growing pains along the way. It seems clear, though, that it's a long road back to relevance for IndyCar, and it will take more than just one crucial step to reach our destination.