Marketing can't gloss over IndyCar's problems

So this is what it has come to. The Indy Racing League has turned to Gene Simmons, a man famous for a band that was more about makeup than music, as the latest in a long line of marketing gurus.

Here's a memo to Tony George, Brian Barnhart and all the other visionaries at the IRL from a longtime Indy-style racing observer who happens to believe that "marketing" is a dirtier word than any of George Carlin's seven words you can't say on television: It's going to take a lot more than another new marketing agency to paper over the cracks in the facade of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.

Yet in their latest hour of desperation, IRL leaders have turned to Simmons, whose band KISS was defined by style and not substance and carried by theatrics rather than musical talent.

Then again, KISS sold (and still sells) a hell of a lot of T-shirts and trinkets. So maybe there is some method to the madness of the IRL's partnership with Simmons/Abramson Marketing, the Hollywood-based agency Simmons co-owns with former Pee-Wee Herman manager Richard Abramson.

"This is unique and aggressive, and I think that's a stance we have to take," commented Barnhart, the IRL's president and chief operating officer. "We're really excited to see Gene and Rich bring their entertainment sense and marketing ideas and what they bring in terms of connections to the IndyCar Series at a point in time where we need to be thinking outside of the box.

"It's very aggressive, and I think it's exactly what the IndyCar Series needs."

Making the new partnership all the more surreal, Simmons co-penned what the league trumpets as an "anthem": "I Am Indy," which the IRL claims is the first official theme song for a professional sport. An IRL news release actually had the cheek to compare "I Am Indy" to Queen's now-generic sports anthem "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions."

It would be easy to keep making light of the Simmons-IRL linkup, but the league's problems are far more serious than any marketing makeover can hide. But that's the most alarming thing about the way the IRL is treating the new deal with Simmons and Abramson. Once again, its officials seem to be saying no problem is so great that another $10 million and some new ads and merchandising can't fix it.

Just lost two of our three engine manufacturers? No problem. We've got a new marketing campaign and a redesigned Web site! Plus Danica Patrick! Only 16 cars confirmed for the IndyCar Series at this point and a 33-car grid at Indianapolis a pipe dream? It's all right. We've got a new theme song (sorry, anthem)! And did we mention Danica?

For his part, Simmons says he is as "serious as a heart attack" about building the IRL's brand. But the task won't be easy, as Honda and Toyota and their own marketing experts can attest, and it will require a lot more than just cubic dollars.

"Our job is to be the missionaries of Indy," Simmons told reporters on a teleconference Tuesday. "We're going to make sure people around the world -- especially in America -- recognize the coolest of the cool is Indy because it is America. It's multinational; it spreads across all lives. We don't want to tell you too much too soon, but as soon as we are ready with specifics, you'll be blown away."

I'm skeptical, because I think longtime fans of American open-wheel racing still believe that 10 years ago, George used the Indianapolis 500 as leverage in an attempted hijacking of a successful sport, a hijacking that crippled open-wheel racing and opened the door for NASCAR to grow to its current level of popularity. It's easy to forget that in 1995, CART's attendance and TV numbers weren't that far off NASCAR's, and no T-shirt slogan or foot-stomping anthem is going to win those long-lost fans back.

Here's the marketing campaign I'd like to see the IRL adopt, the only one I believe can start the Indianapolis 500 and American open-wheel racing in general back on the path toward respectability. It would require George to step forward and accept some responsibility for the decline of the sport his grandfather helped build all those years ago.

A simple, 30-second TV spot would do it. I've even written the script:

"Hello, I'm Tony George. Ten years ago, I formed the Indy Racing League because I believed it was necessary to secure the long-term future of the Indianapolis 500 and American oval racing. Over the last decade, I learned that running a racing series is more difficult and expensive than I ever could have imagined. I also have come to realize that many of the elements I criticized about the business model that helped Indy-style racing grow in the 1980s and early '90s -- things that I once challenged, like street races and a high-tech engineering environment -- are actually vital to the health and popularity of the sport.

Open-wheel racing needs the Indianapolis 500, but the Indianapolis 500 is not bigger than the sport itself. Mistakes have been made, but now it is time to come together to rebuild and restore the Indianapolis 500 so that it once again can indisputably be called The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

With or without a series theme song.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.