It’s finally here folks. I know many readers dislike when media members play into the hype train that motorsports marketing departments deploy on a weekly basis, but this week, that hype is justified. INDYCAR is rightfully hyping up its long-overdue return to Pocono this weekend as one of the biggest events of the season and, by extension, of the past few years, even going as far as crediting the track with the return of a real Triple Crown. INDYCAR is going all in this weekend, knowing that the sport is being faced with its last chance to truly shine in the year of 2013. Sounds dramatic, I know. But my dear INDYCAR readers, you must understand something. This is an utterly critical weekend for INDYCAR, and its future, and I’m about to tell you why.
First off, I would be remiss if I did not establish why Pocono itself is such a critical new cog in the INDYCAR machine. Long ago, before the schism occurred that nearly destroyed American Open Wheel racing, the sport featured a prestigious trio of races known as the “Triple Crown”. The Triple Crown of that time was composed of 500 mile races at three of the largest and most historic race tracks of their time: Indianapolis, Michigan, and Pocono. The Triple Crown events (especially the Indianapolis 500, which goes without saying) acted as the three pillars by which the sport was built upon. Much like the “Majors” in golf, when one of these big events was held, the sports world took notice.
Unlike today’s INDYCAR, where one race in May essentially supports the whole sport, pre-schism INDYCAR had the luxury of sporting two more major events designed to penetrate the mainstream sports world and prop the sport up throughout the year, thus allowing the sport to remain in the public eye for more than just one month. However, due to infighting and mismanagement, the “other majors” of INDYCAR slowly lost their prestige and went away. Pocono went away first, in 1989, and without it the Triple Crown was lost. And after that, American Open Wheel racing slowly spiraled down the slippery slope that nearly killed the sport.
This is one of the many reasons why INDYCAR’s return to Pocono is so important. With Fontana acting as a surrogate replacement for Michigan, Pocono’s return to the schedule finally gives the sport a 3rd major race. No, the return of the Triple Crown will not suddenly spring INDYCAR racing back into the mainstream, but it helps rekindle much of the spirit that the sport lost in the ‘90s. Slowly but surely, the sport is being rebuilt into what it once was, and Pocono is indeed a historic and important part of that process. It doesn’t hurt that the track is tailor made for today’s INDYCAR either, as the smooth surface and long straights will provide for incredible draft-intensive racing that rivals what was seen in this past May’s Indianapolis 500, with a bit more focus put on handling to spice up the show even more.
But alas, the prestige and history of a return to Pocono is not the only reason why INDYCAR is hanging its hopes on this weekend. This weekend represents a perfect storm of sorts for INDYCAR in terms of TV viewership. The Pocono event will be covered on network TV smack dab in the middle of a Sunday afternoon with little to no competition from other sports. The sport’s bane, NASCAR, will be running its weekly event the night before, and the NFL, NBA, and NHL are all out of season. Save for a few regional MLB games, INDYCAR will be facing virtually no competition for eyes on Sunday….all on the very weekend in which one of the (newly) biggest races of the season will be held, on a track that promises for an exciting race.
We have no idea how long the contract for Pocono will last, and a wide-open TV weekend like the one I just described will likely not happen again. The casual sports fan will be faced with INDYCAR and not much else in terms of viewing choices on Sunday. Thus, despite all of the sport’s struggles over the past few years, this weekend is shaping up to be something of a “last chance” for the sport to prove that it can deliver on a big stage that is not named Indianapolis. The history of Pocono, coupled with its status of being an inaugural, endurance-type event shown on live network TV, gives this weekend’s race a level of prestige that would be difficult to replicate at any other time. This is INDYCAR’s chance to prove that it is still relevant. This is its chance to bring in new viewers who don’t think the only race is the Indianapolis 500. This is the sport’s time to shine.
Can INDYCAR make it happen? It can, but everything needs to be executed perfectly. A gripping race, tight television coverage, and a solid marketing effort by both INDYCAR and ESPN / ABC throughout the week will help make this race a success. But the one number everyone will be watching will be released on Monday afternoon. That number is the TV rating. Given all the favorable conditions surrounding this event, the TV rating ought to indicate that this sport can still pull people in when it’s on a big stage. If no one watches, it will be a depressing indictment representing the sport’s continual fall from relevance. But if the numbers prove to be an improvement over what they have been recently, it could be a sign that this sport still has the chops to penetrate the mainstream sports world. We will just have to wait and see.
Nonetheless, despite what the TV numbers end up saying, this is still a very historic, important, and much needed weekend for the sport of American Open-Wheel racing. A return to Pocono has been long overdue, and I have little doubt that the fans will be enthralled by the product this historic facility figures to provide. Let’s just hope the mainstream sports fan feels the same way.
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