Australian racer Ryan Briscoe was embroiled in a thrilling battle for championship honours in the 2009 IndyCar Series season finale at Homestead after a three-way shootout with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
Over on these shores, you would have been hard pushed to find any reference to the championship-decider outside of the specialist motorsport press, even though eventual winner Franchitti hails from Scotland. In the US, though, this was big news in and outside of the racing press and garnered huge coverage for all three protagonists in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the race.
Now recall, if you will, the equally exciting championship deciders of recent Formula 1 seasons – Hamilton/Massa/Raikkonen in 2007, Hamilton/Massa in 2008 and to a lesser extent Button/Barichello/Vettel last season. The climax to these championship deciders were well documented across Europe and indeed internationally. So what is it that differentiates the popularity and fan appeal of stateside racing from the continued global fascination of Formula 1?
Ryan Briscoe is a man who is better placed than most to assess the differences, having driven in Formula 1, IndyCar and American Le Mans Series, while also having first-hand experience of the ever-popular NASCAR series. I have known Ryan since his early days in Formula Renault and F3, so I picked his brains to get a driver’s perspective ahead of this weekend’s season-opening race in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Ryan, from your experiences in Formula 1 and US racing, how do you view the different approaches to race fan interaction in different race series?
RB: “The main difference I notice is that fans have much more access to drivers and teams in US racing series, whether it is IndyCar or NASCAR. Drivers in the US are more accustomed to interacting with the fans on a regular basis, and I believe this gives them a feeling of actually getting to know their favourite driver on more of a personal level. On the flip side, I believe F1 drivers carry more of a “heroic” status where most fans in Europe probably wouldn’t ever imagine it possible to actually get to talk to one of them.”
Do you think the US race fans get a different type of experience compared to F1 fans?
RB: “I believe fans in the US are given the opportunity for a greater experience over the course of a race weekend because of the additional access it is possible to be granted, though the experience of just seeing a Formula 1 car zoom by from a distance could arguably be just as good an experience. If it’s not just about the race car, then I believe a fan can truly have an overall better experience at an IndyCar or NASCAR event.”
What can Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR learn from each other to improve their respective shows?
RB: “At the end of the day, each category needs to adapt to the needs and opportunities of each of their own environments. F1 has the most beautiful presentation and “wow” factor. Every F1 race car and team is always presented beautifully, appealing to a higher end and more glamorous people. The cars are amazing and the racing now is as good as it has been in a long time. This obviously costs big bucks, and as long as the funding is in place and teams, manufacturers and sponsors believe in the return they get from the investment, then all is well. The core race fans will still love F1 without the glamour as long as there is plenty of horsepower and good racing.
“IndyCars, right now, are exactly that. The racing is fast and competitive while money is being saved on the glamour side of things. IndyCar racing has had a difficult decade in which most of its fans went away, but it is bouncing back now. I believe in the package IndyCars have between competition and fan interaction, and I believe interest from fans will continue to grow back to a point where IndyCar racing gets the recognition it used to have. Getting IndyCar races onto more TVs in homes around the US and the rest of the world is key for its growth.
“NASCAR racing is booming, and fans absolutely love their drivers. I think NASCAR has been extremely strong promotionally over the past decade or two which has made NASCAR as popular as it is today. Their racing isn’t the fastest or the most exciting, arguably, but what they do works. In a 43 car field, a top 15 finish is regarded a good finish because there is that much competition, and the drivers are all in funny TV commercials. It shows their personalities and gives the fans that personal feeling.”
“I think F1 is awesome, but could do more to show driver personalities to the fans. I think IndyCar has a great package but needs to work on getting us in front of more people, and I think NASCAR needs to make sure they keep their costs under control to keep what they have, so appealing to America’s everyday people; even those who may not even be all that into motor racing.”
How important are the fans for racing drivers?
RB: “In America, it seems than a driver’s fan base may be more important to sponsors than in F1. In F1, a Ferrari fan will probably still be a Ferrari fan whether it be Schumacher or Alonso driving the car, while in the US I believe fans are more dedicated to the driver than the team or the car he or she may be driving. That might be why teams in F1 never really make such a big push to promote their drivers as much as their cars.”
You have a Twitter account, does this allow you closer interaction with your fans?
RB: “I have started a Twitter account (@ryanbriscoe6), and it is my way of giving fans the chance to get to know me and my lifestyle a little better. I believe that when fans get to know me better they might be more inclined to cheer for me, which is important. I am designing a website (www.ryanbriscoe.com) which should also continue to give fans the chance to see more of my personality outside of the racecar.”
What do you think is the best motorsport event from a fan perspective?
RB: “There are different levels of experience. Monaco and Indianapolis are two of my favourites, but they are also so, so different. Monaco is the motor racing event that most people could never afford to experience, but so often dream of attending. It is the red carpet of all motor racing events. Indianapolis is the biggest single event I have ever experienced, and it is tons of fun for anyone to attend. It is the fastest race in the world too which also adds to the excitement. For anyone coming to the Indy 500 they should not miss Carb Day if they want to enjoy some good partying. The Indianapolis 500 is number one in my book.”
After a nail-biting season in 2009, do you feel more pressure heading into the 2010 season with Penske as favourites?
RB: “The pressure is definitely there to perform this year, but I also feel as ready for the challenge as I’ve ever been. I kind of put myself in Lewis Hamilton’s position at the end of his 2007 season…after he came so close to winning the championship, but came back to win the title the following year.”
What, in your view, gives motorsport is continued appeal?
RB: “I think, firstly, it’s the speed. Who doesn’t want to go 200 miles per hour in their road car? Then once people are interested in the sport, fans want to know the drivers who take the racecars to those limits.”
Ryan Briscoe will be one of Penske’s IndyCar drivers for a third consecutive season. The season gets underway with the Indycar 300 in Brazil this weekend! Follow it at www.indycar.com.