News Column

Should NASCAR, IndyCar Merge?

Oct. 3,1 2012

By Nate Ryan, nryan@usatoday.com, USA TODAY Sports

Indy

NASCAR's immediate future isn't nearly as precarious as IndyCar's after the palace coup that ousted CEO Randy Bernard. But there was an overarching lesson buried within an unseemly episode of dark and inscrutable intrigue worthy of a Coen brothers movie.

The sheen is off big-time auto racing in many ways, and remaining relevant is a conundrum every series in this country faces.

So how does NASCAR become more relevant?

Well, it could buy IndyCar.

Outside of the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar has struggled to register a blip on the USA's increasingly fickle and fragmented sporting consciousness.

Major league stock car racing will face the same battle for pertinence in the long term.

While Fox's recent $2.4 billion extension insulates NASCAR (which likely will sign a similar megadeal with ESPN and NBC) for a decade from many of the woes that have befallen its motor sports brethren, there still are underlying problems that need addressing, particularly shrinking corporate sponsorship, a lack of cultural touchstones and eroding attendance and TV ratings.

NASCAR is trying to lure a younger audience that doesn't think cars are as cool anymore. They certainly don't rule the zeitgeist like smartphones, iPads and a wave of other Wi-Fi-enabled gizmos. Generation Y and Millennials gobble up today's technology with the type of voracious appetite and implacable passion their parents and grandparents had for hot rods and muscle cars.

Acquiring IndyCar might ameliorate some of those woes.

It also would be labeled heresy by both series' fervent fan bases.

There isn't much propinquity between factions that sometimes have warred with bitter contempt while flinging derisive stereotypes -- whether it's a highfalutin wine-and-cheese set that cheers for foreigners and abhors crowd-pleasing contact between race cars or unsophisticated hillbillies who swig moonshine and wave Confederate flags as their heroes makes incessant left turns with engines of antiquated architecture.

Remove the name-calling, though, and each side has something the other needs.

NASCAR has savvy leadership, shrewd marketing and the stability of permanent venues -- the absence of which have hamstrung IndyCar with political infighting, low visibility and haphazard schedules. No one wants to play second fiddle, but running doubleheaders with Sprint Cup immediately puts more eyeballs on Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Graham Rahal -- IndyCar personalities who are starved for the attention garnered by NASCAR stars.

IndyCar, meanwhile, brings an inherently more advanced product for the digital age and a more diverse lineup. Its on-board telemetry is tailor-made for a society of short attention spans and instant gratification, and its competition is better suited for promoting green initiatives.

NASCAR is making strides toward getting hipper. Though a mention by chairman Brian France drew chuckles, implementing "glass dashboards" would be a stab at equipping its cars with tablet-style interfaces that could offer another way for fans to consume data.

NASCAR's 2013 Sprint Cup car is a sleeker model, and it dovetails with recent showroom updates such as electronic fuel injection.

But these are incremental steps in an accelerated era in which the release of an iPhone seemingly jams sidewalks outside Apple stores with lines of sleeping bags every few months.

Challenging times call for bold moves. While a NASCAR-IndyCar consolidation would be viewed as capitulation by open-wheel zealots, the groundwork already is being laid in other disciplines.

NASCAR essentially is taking over the country's sports-car landscape with the 2014 merger of the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am, and it has created a buzz (and probably a major infusion of cash) from automakers trying to gin up excitement about their sales lines.

Some manufacturers are encouraging NASCAR to sanction RallyCross-type series to market the burgeoning compact car industry.

It's a reminder that NASCAR needs to find new ways to matter the way it effortlessly did during an exponential expansion from 1990 to 2005.

Perhaps a Daytona Beach-directed renaissance of IndyCar would stir echoes of those halcyon days. It certainly would be a talker on par with the Machiavellian chronicles that triggered Bernard's demise.

And maybe it would put racing in the national conversation for the right reasons this time.




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Source: (c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY


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