Some say the king of racing is dying a slow death. When it comes to the Indianapolis 500, TV ratings are dropping, attendance figures are sliding and there's a lack of interest amongst the general public. Outside the racing bubble, the storied event faces cries of irrelevance, as folks continue to disregard happenings within the 2.5-mile oval.
But as last Sunday’s Indy 500 proved, where the Indy 500 saw a record number of lead changes and fan favorite Tony Kanaan steal the crown, the race deserves more.
Unusual among sporting events, the Indy 500 has to share its big day with two other races: NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 and the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco. Last year, NASCAR’s event, which does not posses the same allure as the series’ Daytona 500, garnered more eyes than Indy, boasting national TV ratings of 4.4 vs. Indy’s 4.3. And while Formula One struggles stateside, on the world's stage, no other series comes close to its popular appeal, marking F1 as the most watched form of auto racing.
But anyone who viewed all three races last Sunday would have a hard time justifying why the Indy 500 does not count as number one. The show on the track was fantastic. And the stories — with rookie Carlos Munoz finishing second, AJ Allmendinger rebuilding his career after a drug scandal in NASCAR, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves searching for that illustrious fourth Borg Warner trophy, a local Hoosier in Ed Carpenter taking the pole, the Andretti curse, and, of course, Tony Kanaan’s years of heartbreak resulting in a deserved shower of milk — filled the race with meaning.
Yes, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 had it all, and yet overnight TV ratings dipped to a reported 3.8 — the lowest since the race began airing live in 1986. If the product's so great, where are the fans?
It’s not just the event at Indianapolis that spells spectacular IndyCar racing; the street race in Brazil a few weeks back saw James Hinchcliffe snatch the win from Takuma Sato in the final bend, in what was perhaps the most exciting road course event in years, including F1 races. (Compare Indy to Monaco on Sunday, where the pole-sitter never surrendered the lead.)
Simply, if non-Indy fans watched, chances are they’d be hooked. Hell, if NASCAR fans took a gander, they likely would too.
It’s easy to forget that prior to the life-sapping split between race teams and the Indy 500's owners that took place in 1996, Indy racing was America’s premier series. F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone considered the series a legitimate threat to his worldwide juggernaut, especially when reigning F1 world champ Nigel Mansell jumped ship to race Indy in 1993.
The split in Indy racing occurred when egos ballooned; Tony George started the Indy Racing League to rival CART's Indy Car World Series. CART retained the best drivers and teams, while the IRL snagged the Indy 500. Without the cream competing in the 500, and the established drivers and teams losing their premier event, attention wandered, and a rapidly growing NASCAR capitalized, stealing corporate sponsors, fans, and TV ratings.
Despite IndyCar now being whole, the damage has already been done.
Having raced in the Indy 500 myself, as well as competing at the historic track in Monaco, I can say with confidence that Indy is special. There’s no place like it. They say you get goose bumps as you enter the venue, and that you can feel the history with every given footstep. They’re right. There’s something mystical about Indy that can’t be elucidated; only through experience can one fully comprehend its magic. I’ve never felt that at any other race, nor have I witnessed such widespread concurrence from other attendees. Perhaps only Le Mans even comes close.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway holds an unmatched presence, and those that visit become engulfed in the spectacle, the tradition, the history, the competition, and, once upon a time, the innovation. That innovation, originally synonymous with the 500, has slowly dwindled into a spec series, with two engine manufacturers designed to be as equally matched as possible, and cars that look identical.
Could that be the problem? Potentially. The series has been without record-breaking speeds and trend-setting innovation for many years. But as innovation grows, budgets soar, races get won by laps rather than tenths, and, in today’s economics, teams and drivers would struggle to raise the cash to play, making less than 33 starters a given.
Today's racing may not sport much new tech for gearheads, but it makes for better entertainment. And let’s face it; NASCAR remains far less technologically advanced than IndyCar, and, despite its ratings declining somewhat too, still draws far larger crowds with cars powered by pushrod engines.
This was the third straight year IndyCar has seen its TV ratings drop, and despite the electrifying on-track product, many are not surprised. One Internet commenter put it: “Doesn't surprise me, don't know anyone that watches the Indy 500 anymore, or any of the other IRL races. Pretty sure they killed off the sport when they split it. Can't put Humpty Dumpty together again.”
The bitterness of the split still runs deep amongst race fans. Despite the series now being unified, attendance figures, TV ratings, corporate sponsorships, and general interest has never come back.
IndyCar's new management arrives with a few tricks for regaining an audience — from Dreamworks’ new animated movie Turbo, centered on the Indy 500, to cutting costs in a way that encourages more teams to join, and even working with NBC Sports, now the home of F1 racing in the United States, to lure watchers back after years of benign neglect.
The drivers, teams, and hardcore fans that have persevered through tough times deserve it. As Sunday's Indy 500 showcased, every household in America should be watching. Eyes should once again be streaming as Jim Nabors sings “Back Home Again In Indiana,” prior to Mary Hulman-George invoking 33 screaming engines. May in Indianapolis should remain more than a tradition with a storied past. It should be a way of life with an everlasting, glorious future.
IndyCar racing is back, but the fans haven't noticed yet.