Leaders in Motorsport: Indycar’s CJ O’Donnell on a new car, virtual reality and more

Indycar’s chief marketing officer, CJ O’Donnell, discusses how the series is constantly jostling for position in a saturated US sports landscape, and explains how the championship is revolutionising the way it is presented.

It would be fair to say that it has been a busy few months for those at Indycar.

The start of the 2018 season back in March brought with it a brand new race car, fully equipped with a reshaped front wing, lower engine covers and even mounted virtual reality cameras thanks to a new collaboration with Mandt VR.

Off the track, though, is where North America’s premier open wheel racing series has been busiest. The championship recently announced an exclusive domestic rights partnership with NBC Sports Group, taking its flagship Indy 500 race off ABC for the first time since 1965. That particular deal swept up most of the headlines, but in the background, Indycar has been working hard to revolutionise the way it is presented.

Black Book caught up with CJ O’Donnell, Indycar’s chief marketing officer, who outlined the series’ new initiatives for 2018, discussed how the championship positions itself within the US sports market, and explained how it has turned into a “content development house”. 

What’s new for Indycar in 2018?

First and foremost, we have a brand new race car. We introduced that to our fanbase late last year, made a proper public unveiling at the Detroit International Auto Show in January, and it hit the track in anger with all the teams in early February when we did our first public open test.

We are well on the way to bringing that to market and the goal of that car was pretty straightforward: it was designed to improve the racing product. In doing so, we made some significant aerodynamic changes. We took a lot of the aero out of the car and shifted the downforce creation on top, with a lot of wings and winglets, to the lower tray in the bottom of the car, which is going to allow the cars to run closer together, pass with less turbulence, and go faster in a straight line. The cars are harder to handle, so we’re going to bring a lot more of the driver skills forward, to manage the car with less downforce, and allow that to, in a sense, let the best and most skilled drivers rise to the top.

What is Indycar’s positioning in the US sports landscape, and then the global motorsports landscape?

Speed, excitement and daring are the core brand values that we like to highlight when we communicate with our fanbase. We like to thrill our fans and champion our heroes, focus on the elements we know that lights up the marketplace and drives viewers to Indycar programming.

The level of technology and innovation in our sport is there, and it’s evident in some of the new technologies we’ll bring with our next engine, for example. Beyond that, the quality of the product really relies on how close and thrilling we can make the racing, and that’s really the key point in everything we do.

If you look at that versus Nascar, we are faster, we’re technically advanced, somewhat more premier in the presentation of who we are and what we do, for those reasons. We do have the single largest sporting event in the world to anchor the sport, which I think is of that level of prestige and cachet that carries us not only in this market but across the pond.

And when we benchmark ourselves versus Formula One, while we may not have all the technology of their overall platform, we like to stick with the values that separate us from them, which is our more American, open approach, not only in presenting the sport but managing the sport.

Being approachable to our fans is probably our single strongest point. Driver access, access to the crews and teams, is far more evident when you attend an Indycar race than a Formula One race or even a Nascar race, and we think that personal connection with the fanbase is really important in growing the sport.

O'Donnell says Indycar makes a significant effort to develop a personal connection with its fanbase

A new partnership for this year is with Mandt VR, where you’ll have VR cameras mounted on your cars in 2018. How did that opportunity present itself?

We looked for a partner to create video-on-demand. Video, not surprisingly, has been driving growth on our .com, on Youtube and through our social channels, so we wanted to extend that and experiment with VR content.

Mandt has experience in sports and expertise in VR and has been working with us to develop five initial videos that we’re going to launch Q1, Q2 of this year. Those experiences are designed to bring our fans a little closer to the sport. They’ll feature driver interviews as well as cameras mounted to the car to give people a view that they might not have had in the past.

What’s your strategy for distributing that? Will it be in the experimental phase for the first year?

It is. I think we want to test the initial demand for the content. We’ve already started using some of it in our experiential marketing efforts, so in events, allowing fans with Oculus googles to experiment with and test some of the initial content that we’ve done. We’ll continue to use it on-site at races and then we’ll probably also look to distribute it online to multiple channels. In fact, I intend to share it with just about any source that is looking for VR content for their platform.

Being approachable to our fans is probably our single strongest point. Driver access, access to the crews and teams, is far more evident when you attend an Indycar race than a Formula One race or even a Nascar race.

What are you doing to generate more content that creates points of contact with younger fans?

Maybe not surprisingly we produced about 3,000 videos last year. We’ve seen millions of unique views for the content across the calendar year. It’s really put us in the position of being a content producer and not just managing the sport but actually capturing it on film and other formats, and then distribution of that content.

As we look to grow new and younger fans those prospects will first see us on a short video or socially. That’s very likely to be the first time that they even come into contact with Indycar in their lives, so we try to do it well, we try to do it in a way that’s exciting and appealing to all ages but especially to younger people. So far it’s working.

We’re looking at data that shows affinity for our sport increasing dramatically amongst folks that are under the age of 35. A few years ago we were lagging both Nascar and Formula One; right now, we’re about equal to the two of them, so maybe in another year or two we’ll pass. We’ll see. But the gap has closed. Amongst millennials we’re seeing the potential of future growth and a new fanbase.

This season's new cars are equipped with a reshaped front wing, lower engine covers and mounted virtual reality cameras

What’s the strategy for turning someone from somebody who watches a video or shares an image into a dedicated Indycar fan?

It’s sort of a retargeting strategy. Once we figure out who they are, we can push content to them again, and quite honestly I’m trying to get them to view more of our race content online, even if it’s delayed.

We’ve done three different products now for this audience: highlights every day, following practice, qualifying and the race, which is about a five-minute cutdown of the day’s activities. We follow that, within 12 hours, with a 30-minute cutdown of the race, which is a bitesize way of consuming flag-to-flag all that happens, without taking up too much of your time. And then a few days later, once the restrictions are lifted by our broadcast partners, we release the entire race online so you can do two hours or more of our content and see that in its entirety.

So it’s remarkable that people are watching all three, and it’s the ability to provide the right video package for the right viewers that we’re learning and developing from. What to push to who is becoming the next question based on their consumption patterns.

How ambitious can Indycar be? Is this about becoming the biggest series in the US? Is it about establishing yourselves as a major global series again?

It’s mostly within the United States. Our focus is to be the premier series here. We always lean on the tagline which is ‘regain and recapture the heart of American racing’. That’s been in our brand book for four years now. We want to be the central form of racing in the United States, and the premier form of racing in the United States, which doesn't necessarily mean we’re the largest. But it would mean we’re the most prestigious, and I think that’s an important nuance to bring forward.

Internationally, we want to have a presence with a few races outside of the United States, but that’s about the extent of our aspirations right now. Maybe more importantly we want to grow our television and broadcast relationships in Europe, South America and Asia to ensure that our racing is seen by fans across the world.

This article forms part of Black Book’s ‘Leaders in Motorsport’ series. This series is supported by an influential advisory group of industry leaders providing Black Book with exclusive in depth insight into their series, teams or brands. To find out more, click here.