The money isn’t great in IndyCar, but the stock is on the rise with TV viewership growing and momentum for a resurgence going into the new 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series.
When NASCAR hits rock bottom, the France family will have two roads to go down in typical multi-generational family business fashion. A checked out, out of touch, silver spooned crawl to a slow death, or a calculated, action-packed reinvention – the spirit that created the sport of NASCAR and its massive success to begin with.
If the road they choose is the later, they should look at the IndyCar series, a form of American motorsport that has far already hit rock bottom, and is, slowly but steadily, on the way back up. My awareness of an IndyCar renaissance started last year when I read headlines like IndyCar TV Ratings Soaring Again at Road America, Unlike NASCAR, IndyCar on NBC actually saw an uptick in ratings, and probably the most promising data for the future is in the digital realm, where “NBC reported a record season for its IndyCar coverage on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app, delivering 124,000 unique [visitors] and 8.7 million live minutes, up 29% and 35%, respectively, vs. 2016.” [source]
IndyCar isn’t just showing niche strength in the United States. Two-time F1 champion driver Fernando Alonso skipped Monaco to run the Indy 500 last year, and Spain’s viewership of the 500 was double that of the F1 race in Monaco. There is a possibility he may leave F1 at the end of this year and join the IndyCar series full-time in 2019.
If Alonso joins IndyCar that isn’t close to Juan Montoya joining NASCAR – not by a mile. It’s massive that an actual F1 star from the world stage commits himself to an American series. It would attract a much larger audience internationally on a rebuilding series developing its stars.
Let’s forget drivers and TV ratings for a second… Do you want to know what really matters?
The racing. All you need to do is look at the upcoming Verizon IndyCar series schedule and you can see all the things they’re doing NASCAR is not.
Aside from the road courses, which are raced in interesting and seemingly unbeknownst places to NASCAR’s major series – places like Portland (OR), and legendary courses in the heartland like Mid-Ohio and Road America.
The most shocking statistic when looking at the two series’ schedules for 2018 is IndyCar races in “middle America” 35% of their schedule, while NASCAR races there only 13% of the time – it’s a shocking amount of visits to the “fly over states” that are the bread and butter of American motorsport.
Need to attract a crowd?
Don’t mind the empty bleachers?
Because if you do, you can take a trick out of IndyCar’s book… take it to the streets. IndyCar opened their season last week in St. Petersburg, FL on a street course. It’s great PR in the local press, so the whole town is well aware of its happening. It becomes an event, a must-see, fan of racing or not. IndyCar will do it two more times this season in the streets of Toronto and Long Beach (CA) – two difficult, large population markets that have lots going on to compete with. What better way to compete for their attention than block up traffic (and local media) for a week?
A second is the oval track choices – Phoenix (ISM Raceway), Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Iowa Speedway, Pocono, and Gateway Motorsports Park. Four out of six are in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The other two are only run by NASCAR’s support series. The two super speedways have their place, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. Indianapolis hosts the biggest race of the season, and like the Daytona 500, they stretch it over an extended visit. Pocono is the “tricky triangle” and is both dynamic and exciting. NASCAR has seven visits on their schedule to super speedways, it gets boring. If you run super speedways they should have importance. At seven times each year (twice at Daytona), they really lose their meaning. The remainder of the ovals on the Verizon IndyCar schedule this year are 1.5 mile or under, and include tracks the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will not visit due to facility needs not being met – they include Iowa Speedway and Gateway Motorsports Park.
NASCAR needs to roll up their self proclaimed red carpet and get to these kinds of “short” tracks with their major series. They have fans there, and the fans want to watch it.
My third and final point on schedule differences and attracting crowds is one sure to ruffle feathers of the NASCAR tried and true (not to mention the owners of these multi-million dollar racetrack complexes). Less races. I’m not saying NASCAR should be at 17 races this year like IndyCar, but less is certainly more. Not having a race every weekend builds anticipation, and not to mention allows drivers to do other things that cultivate a fan-base for the series (i.e. Kyle Larson running dirt sprint cars at local tracks across the country). NASCAR has 38 races this year, it feels over-saturated and overcooked.
There’s no question the sport and how you view it is changing, something I mentioned in a recent article on the future watching of NASCAR. Denny Hamlin, a NASCAR driver, made a great point last year on attendance being down for the Toyota Owners 400 last year, he said:
“It’s 90 degrees and coverage on TV’s pretty excellent, so it’s tough to sit in the bleachers when it’s 90, but who knows? I think that there’s more to it than just people not watching NASCAR. I think sports in general are way, way down. Attendance is down in a lot of other sports as well. It’s just viewing sports is different now than what it’s ever been.
People with smartphones – they’re watching races and they’re watching games in the back of their car going up the highway. You don’t have to attend these races anymore. You get such a good experience through your cellphone, so the way we measure attendance and we measure TV ratings and all that – it’s always skewed because we live in a different world now.” [source]
It’s true, how we view sports is changing. There’s a time and place for having the experience of watching it in-person, it’s becoming more of a rare and special occasion to buy tickets for live major sporting events.
I believe this is something IndyCar is trying to move through successfully, and NASCAR is absent from because a big TV deal is supplementing their old model of scheduling the series.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.