I came across an opinion article written by Laura Lee Smith for The New York Times after it was shared several times by figures in the Verizon IndyCar Series community on Twitter, including track owners and teams.
Titled “Florida at 200 M.P.H.,” the piece is about Smith’s experience at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, based on her perspective as a Florida resident who “grew up in a motor-head family.”
Fans know that IndyCar is an incredible secret. Thus, exposure in The Times is valuable. I just don’t think this exposure was very good.
Beyond eight glaring errors against the series’ style guide, the article is borderline misleading at certain points. For example, a photo of Tony Kanaan sitting stationary on pit lane in his No. 14 Chevrolet is captioned: “A pit crew readying its car for the qualifiers race.”
Kanaan — who began his 21st year of Indy car racing at St. Petersburg — is not mentioned by name and neither is his team, AJ Foyt Racing, which bears the name of one of the sport’s legends.
I wish those were my only gripes with the caption though.
What in the world is a “qualifiers race”?
I seem to remember knockout qualifying leading to a Firestone Fast 6 which was comprised of an equal number of rookies and series veterans. None of that is mentioned here, though. Just a pit crew and their qualifiers race.
Furthermore, this, about the race’s future, is just plain false:
This year, Firestone announced the Grand Prix will continue until at least 2020, and hopefully beyond.
Firestone doesn’t put on the race! The Firestone news was that they extended their title sponsorship of the event in a partnership with Green Savoree Racing Promotions — the group that does make the race happen!
Am I being nitpicky? Do you feel that IndyCar’s qualifying format doesn’t need to be reflected correctly in an article from such a major outlet? Is the Firestone bit unimportant too? Do you wish I’d just get over the four times Smith wrote “IndyCars” instead of “Indy cars” when referring to the “nearly two dozen1 … Goliaths of American testosterone” that we saw race last weekend?
I’m not going to get over it. It’s a problem.
Mainstream coverage of anything tends to miss the mark. The truth is, I expected all these errors when I loaded the article.
That doesn’t excuse it. It’s a problem.
Out of Control
I believe there’s a scale of integrity in play in essentially every situation involving third-party coverage/explanation of something. One end of the scale can be labeled “Desperation,” while the opposite end would be “Caring About How We’re Perceived.”
Choosing to place your brand on the Desperation side is choosing quick, weak wins. It gets you featured in The New York Times in an article that you proudly share on social media as a representation of you — qualifier races, style errors and all.
Choosing to care about how you’re perceived, I believe, is playing the more admirable long game. It’s making sure your style guide is actually followed. It’s not giving in to the flame like a moth by being satisfied with any appearance in something like The Times. It’s making sure ridiculous falsities like this never see the light of day:
Watching practice runs earlier in the day, I became keenly aware that a single errant rivet from one of these high-tech missiles would be enough to hurt a person unlucky enough to be standing nearby. This race can kill spectators, and it has. I decided to take my chances on top of the parking garage.
Embarrassing. Also, what in the world is a practice run?
Most of what I’m saying here is that someone who doesn’t understand IndyCar wrote about IndyCar and that INDYCAR2 should better control the publicity it gets.
Wouldn’t this turn away people who want to write about it? Sure, the ones who won’t bother accurately writing about it.
Wouldn’t this turn away fans who don’t care that the series ignores its own style guide on social media, who just want quick hits of dopamine via instant videos of on-track incidents? Of course, but those fans shouldn’t be catered to.
Wouldn’t this make INDYCAR appear uppity and arrogant? Eh, I prefer clean and considered, but the result is the same: Competent, engaged fans.
Though I believe INDYCAR getting serious about how it portrays itself and how others portray it is vital, directly controlling it would have its downsides. There’s a more natural route to take — a long game in its own right.
Ultimately, the issue here is not that IndyCar was misunderstood by the writer, it’s that it never was understood. Therefore, the sanctioning body is tasked with growing that understanding itself, generating new interest and turning that interest into deep passion and understanding.
Ben Hinc and I have discussed the importance of knowledgable fans often on The Braking Point podcast and as recently as last week’s show, which was Episode 88. We both noticed that fans at St. Pete weren’t just bothering drivers for autographs — they were yelling out to Mario Andretti and Helio Castroneves, they knew the drivers by name and they knew specifics about their weekend and/or the session that just finished up. This was encouraging, but it isn’t quite typical.
I won’t pretend to have the key to creating a fanbase (and mainstream media) that knows what the heck is going on, but I do have a sense that progress isn’t being made in this area.
Unfortunately, pretty much all of IndyCar’s marketing exacerbates the problem.
The new video series featuring Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe as characters in some anime-video-game-action-movie concept perhaps gets the point across that IndyCar is modern and exciting, but it leaves a lot out. In fact, it leaves everything out.
You can’t watch those and come away knowing the difference between Firestone’s primary and alternate tires, how starting positions are decided (Hint: It ain’t qualifier races.) or any other specificities about the sport.
These four drivers are excellent choices for this. But does a single one of them care for this portrayal? Will Dixon ever be seen strolling around the paddock in this guise as “The Iceman”? Or is this an accomplished driver who’s known for his ability to save fuel and has four championships to his name?
Maybe the “Fast Four” videos led to a video-game loving kid exploring IndyCar’s YouTube channel some more. But that sounds like a quick, weak win to me. Will he buy tickets and t-shirts? Will he turn around and sell IndyCar to his friends and family because he loves it?
I doubt it. These videos can’t be expected to have that impact.
People don’t want to make the effort to follow something they don’t understand. Some effort is required, but effort in learning about something is easy where there’s a fire of passion burning — it’s the honeymoon period. IndyCar is already a product that one can easily stake passion in, so:
How about getting young people to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway instead of showing them cartoons?
When The Times’ article is regarded with disdain rather than celebrated, IndyCar will have turned a corner. Caring for quality and informing fans are underrated.