By MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Randy Bernard would do almost anything to get more fans watching IndyCar races.
Fancy driver intros? Double-file restarts? Celebrity appeal? Check, check and check.
Next month, even the Indianapolis 500 will try something different during its traditional prerace festivities—sending an unnamed Hot Wheels stunt driver down a huge ramp
in an attempt to break the world record for a four-wheel vehicle.
Crazy, yes, and entertaining, too.
“I’m a big believer that you have to give fans a great experience and you do that with excitement and value,” Bernard said. “This is not some fly-by-night operation. (Hot Wheels parent) Mattel has invested millions of dollars, and I think it can deliver a little younger demographic to our series.”
This is not the first time a wild stunt has been linked to auto racing.
Thrill shows were common prerace fodder in the 1940s, and NASCAR’s Humpy Wheeler upped the ante with some of the most outrageous promotions in racing history. His stunts included everything from a re-creation of the 1980s Grenada invasion with Army commandos rappelling from helicopters to the world-record breaking attempt for longest jump by a school bus.
To Wheeler, seemingly nothing was off limits and almost everything worked.
“My family stunt show played at Charlotte and in Texas, and I can remember riding around Loudon, N.H., on two wheels,” Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said. “Humpy always did crazy things to blow up the show at Charlotte.”
Wheeler’s uncanny wackiness helped turn NASCAR from a regional player into one of the nation’s premier sports leagues, and now the IndyCar Series is hoping the same foundation will help attract younger fans to open-wheel racing.
The stakes are high.
Hot Wheels has a multimillion dollar training center in an undisclosed location in the western U.S. The hope is that stunts will add older buyers to a market traditionally reserved for children.
The investment also means Hot Wheels is looking to do more than one show.
“It’s definitely captured the interest of other sports tours where they have motorcycles performing, BMX, that kind of stuff,” vice president of marketing Simon Waldron said. “But no one from another race track yet.”
IndyCar, which has a partnership with Hot Wheels, hopes to tap a younger market to fill seats and improve the television ratings that have been lagging for years.
While there’s no guarantee next month’s stunt will increase attendance at the series’ most prestigious race, which is already tabbed the world’s most attended single-day sporting event, the speedway is selling ticket packages to get a birds-eye view of the jump in the fourth turn.
Plus the stunt—which features a ramp coming off a suspended 100-foot door, something a child might do with his little metal cars—has generated talk about the race more than a month before drivers are told to start their engines.
“You certainly do have your traditionalists who don’t like it, and, yes, there are people that will tell you that, but there are also plenty of people who will tell you this is fun, it’s neat and we’re excited to see it,” said Jeff Belskus, the Indy speedway’s CEO. “I’d say more people are excited and interested in it than those who aren’t and by a lot, 4 to 1, 5 to 1, 6 to 1 something like that.”
The unscientific survey
indicates interest cuts across racing lines and runs deeper than hard-core IndyCar fans.
Waldron told The Associated Press this week that ABC will carve out a 30-minute postrace slot to broadcast the stunt—between the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.
Count Chitwood, Belskus’ predecessor at Indy, among the viewers.
“I’ll definitely want to see what happens with this stunt,” said Chitwood, part of the family’s Joie Chitwood Thrill Show.
Can stunts alone rekindle interest in IndyCar racing?
Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway and another master promoter, believes daredevils have less appeal in today’s sports world because the lack of big names and fans who want something different have flocked to extreme sports.
But the bigger problem may be the limited ability of most tracks to hold these events on race weekend.
“My understanding is that this will be more like a rally car, which is really hot among the younger folks,” said Gossage, who hosts IndyCar and NASCAR races and wants to see the jump. “But it’s not something your average track can pull off because it’s very expensive, and, on most tracks, you’d have to get all of the ramps and other stuff off the track before the race. It’s not easy to do in short order.”
Instead, Gossage believes, most race organizers should focus on bringing in big-name talent for concerts or adding the quick-hitting, intriguing promotions that don’t affect the start of the race.
Bernard contends stunts can help a series that has struggled to fill seats and attract viewers. Last year, only one race drew a television rating higher than 1.0.
The Indianapolis 500 had a 3.63 rating and only 4 million viewers— the race’s lowest total since it was first broadcast live in 1986.
Clearly, something needs to improve, and Bernard thinks he knows how to do it.
Before taking over IndyCar, he led the Professional Bull Riders from a niche organization to national player with entertainment. Riders walked through a ring of fire during introductions and cowboys were dropped from 120 feet on a guide wire. Yes, even, stunts were used to attract and keep fans.
And Bernard believes it can work here, too.
“Humpy Wheeler and Bruton Smith have done things like this for decades, and it should be part of the show,” Bernard said. “I think it can deliver us a little younger demographic, so we’ll see.”