Perception of positivity must permeate for IndyCar to survive long offseason

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It hasn’t even been two weeks since the checkered flag flew at the MAVTV 500 last Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway to conclude the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Yet already, the regular season has given birth to the offseason staple that seems to rise like a zombie every year: the negativity about the offseason.

The comments/complaints/rants include, but are not limited to these usual nuggets. In no particular order:

“The season’s too short. The offseason’s too long.”

“The ratings are up, but they aren’t up enough to matter or merit greater coverage.”

“The champion won’t be exploited.”

“The schedule sucks. Bring back Road America! Cleveland! Portland! Laguna Seca! Phoenix! Insert other track from IndyCar’s past here!”

“Stupid pay-drivers are taking up too many seats on the grid.”

“It’s Tony George’s fault.”

There’s countless others, but generally speaking, it’s hard for IndyCar in the offseason to rise above the never-ending onslaught of pessimism, which sweeps through the paddock, the Internet and social media like a tidal wave.

The general perception inside the paddock is that for the first time in years, this isn’t just a series on a rise in terms of its on-track competition, but a series that has positive business, bottom line momentum to complement the product.

Today’s report from the Sports Business Journal indicating that for the first time in years IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is headed for a year in the black, instead of red, is one of the most positive developments for IndyCar in years.

Is it a be-all, end-all saving grace that will suddenly lift IndyCar to another level? Of course not. But if properly marketed and promoted as such, and the message is disseminated by the series to relay to all its participants (teams, drivers, crewmembers) it could make a dent in the negativity trajectory.

For the first time in years, IndyCar has an offseason where it has tangible market and business evidence to showcase it is going in the right direction, rather than just the perception from some diehard fans that things are better with nothing but their opinions to back it up.

This offseason, even more than the regular season, will really test the new brass at 16th and Georgetown, in the trio of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, and his two new, top hires on the marketing/partnership side: Jay Frye (chief revenue officer) and CJ O’Donnell (chief marketing officer).

Miles is at the crucial point in IndyCar leadership territory where he will now sink or swim based on how well his message and ability to get the paddock to believe in and buy into that message will determine his future with the racing series.

Prior IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was hailed as an “ideas man,” as an outsider with no preconceived notions of what IndyCar was as it fought back from the decade-plus long civil war, but his 2012 season proved his undoing. There was the internal angst in the paddock about spare parts prices and the much-discussed “tweet heard round the world” after that year’s Indianapolis 500 where he claimed an owner was trying to get him fired. Come October of that year, he had been relieved of his duties.

Miles has followed a similar trajectory as has Bernard. His first year was a learning year; his second the first year where his plan of action can come to fruition, and his third where he executes that plan and carries forward the gains made from year two. If he doesn’t, the paddock will be ready to rebel as it seemingly always does, and has throughout history.

For Frye and O’Donnell, they’ve now had a year to integrate themselves into the IndyCar paddock after coming from NASCAR and Ford/Lincoln respectively. Whereas last winter they were new hires, this offseason they and the rest of the marketing/partner staff have a task to carry the message, and develop a strategy that will keep more of the perpetually negative voices at bay and sell what IndyCar has.

What does IndyCar have? On a year when some motorsports properties TV ratings have gone down, IndyCar’s went up on both of its television partners (F1 has too this year on NBCSN). Even despite the drop-off in oval races, IndyCar still features the most diverse schedule in racing. While NASCAR Sprint Cup posted 13 different winners in 26 regular season races, IndyCar trotted out 11 in 18, and that didn’t include names like Andretti, Rahal, Wilson and Briscoe. It has killer fan access that most professional sports don’t opt to utilize. It has a title sponsor in Verizon who advertises heavily in two major sports – IndyCar, and the National Football League.

The Verizon element is another big positive for the series to exploit this winter. While the NFL’s reputation is on the verge of taking a massive hit due to the Ray Rice news and subsequent fallout regarding the league and the commissioner’s office, IndyCar can advertise its cleaner message, its speed as the fastest closed course racing series in North America, and its cleaner character.

There’s plenty of things IndyCar will have in the news this winter. The best news would come if IndyCar, as a whole, can keep the news positive instead of allowing the voices of discontent to swallow the conversation.