Motorsports has a deep history within the United States and the actual racing used to be enough entertainment to keep fans engaged with the sport. Now though, all organizations within sports are pressed with attracting eyeballs through a combination of experiential marketing, team or athlete performance, and social media creativity. IndyCar is no different when it comes to this challenge. Going up against a storied property like NASCAR and the increasing popularity surrounding Formula 1, the league has been forced to get creative when it comes to increasing viewership and engagement with the younger demographics. In recent years, IndyCar has made significant moves to reach the millennial audience by exploring new events, attracting a diversity of sponsorships across all teams, and promoting unique experiences that have become attached to the league. Let’s take a closer look at what IndyCar has done well in each of those areas and identify ways it can continue the momentum.
New Events & Structure: Developing a strategic schedule where premier events are highlighted with minimal conflicts gives any league the greatest opportunity to capitalize with regard to viewership. For IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 is the marquee event that all but guarantees the most attention given the storied history and record-holding capacity of the venue. Outside of that race and those within the city of Indianapolis, there are no other clear-cut gems that people recall when they think of IndyCar. There is, however, one that many will remember -- Nashville. The Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, set in the streets of Nashville, was a new race on the IndyCar schedule this year. Although the actual race itself was a disaster with a flurry of crashes and restarts. But more importantly, the race was lauded for being a historic spectacle and an entirely new kind of entertainment for the nearly 110,000 people who experienced it that weekend. Former Pocono Raceway President described it best when he said: “It can’t just be a race. It has to be an event, OK? And nobody throws a party like Nashville” (Estes, Tennessean). There are several other prime destinations for new races, but arguably the most logical choice? Las Vegas. Not only has professional sports flourished over the past 5 years, but the prominence of sports gambling in the area makes it an attractive opportunity to reach the younger audience. Additionally, Nevada has become more populous and diverse according to the most recent census report. Nevada’s diversity index has gone up to 68.8% -- third behind Hawaii and California -- and the population grew 15% over the past 10 years with less than 50% being caucasian (Rodgers, Las Vegas Sun). Replicating what happened in Nashville in a budding city like Las Vegas would bring IndyCar's viewership and demographics to a new level.
Diversity of Sponsorships: Gone are the days of the traditional categories of companies sponsoring sports. New players have entered the space and changed the way sponsorship looks for a team and driver. In a previous post, I mentioned NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Landon Cassill’s partnership with Voyager and how impactful that was on several levels. IndyCar has also managed to tap into cryptocurrency through the relationship between Ed Carpenter Racing and Bitcoin. Carpenter explains how “Bitcoin is revolutionizing our financial system” and he sees the sponsorship as “an opportunity to transform how we operate within our motorsport industry” (Pruett, Racer). For activation, a QR code allowed Rinus Veekay’s #21 Chevy to be completely crowdfunded as the first-ever “peer-to-car” contribution model in all of motorsports. Giving the people the opportunity to actively participate in a campaign brings them closer to the sport, not to mention exposing them to the future of finance. Another partnership changing the game is DarkTrace’s work with McLaren Arrow SP. Already a crucial part of McLaren’s Formula 1 team, DarkTrace has extended their autonomous cyber-AI (artificial intelligence) to McLaren’s US-based IndyCar team. With a greater majority of McLaren’s organization working remotely and relying on cloud collaboration platforms, DarkTrace has successfully protected the team from a variety of cyberattacks. The synergy of DarkTrace’s cyber-AI technology and the team’s need to make real-time decisions without sacrificing time has culminated in a partnership that every team seeks to create. A greater number of these kinds of partnerships in emerging areas can help bring innovation to the sport and expose their audience to new companies that are making an impact beyond a simple sticker on a car.
Unique Experiences: Even though COVID-19 is not technically gone, experiential marketing and entertainment have become crucial with fans returning to stadiums and sporting events. Genuine engagement that can be formed between fans and IndyCar both physically and virtually are key steps to the growth of the league. On that front, IndyCar is on the right track (pun not intended). Ruoff Mortgage’s “Fastest Seat in Sports” is a one-of-a-kind experience that gives some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities and stars a first-hand look at what racing in IndyCar looks like. While this experience is great for publicity and creating content that can be repurposed, there isn’t much when it comes to a real fan connection other than the fact that someone may follow that celebrity and might enjoy the content. Another popular experience surrounding IndyCar includes the Indy 500 Snake Pit -- an extravaganza of music, dancing, alcohol, and partying that rings in summer like no other event. This event is critical as it provides an opportunity for those who come to see the performances and the atmosphere to take in the racing aspect and learn about the sport. On the virtual side, IndyCar has been late to the party. NASCAR has already tapped into virtual racing with eNASCAR and you can even buy, breed, and race a NASCAR digital horse as an NFT. In July, IndyCar announced that a new NTT IndyCar Series video game would be available in 2023 for PCs and gaming consoles. Although it is a good sign that they are creating an “esports competition featuring potential driver participation and collaborations” (IndyCar.com) which could start before the year ends, leagues like NASCAR have jumped ahead early and established themselves in virtual racing. For IndyCar to continue to grow, they will need to provide unique in-person experiences and map out how to tap into new digital realms like the metaverse.
IndyCar has made significant progress in becoming relevant for younger audiences and has been successful in creating a personal brand that lives and breathes alongside another major sports property in NASCAR. The challenge is, and always has been, finding ways to generate more genuine interactions with fans through a variety of channels. The framework is there and there is evidence of what works, but it will be up to IndyCar to take the wheel and push forward to continue changing the motorsports landscape in the US.