IndyCar has had its ups and downs, soaring highs and soul-sucking lows, moments of breathtaking euphoria and heartbreaking tragedy. IndyCar may have looked to be on a steep decline in recent years, and this has left many fans wondering if the series is actually dying off.
IndyCar is not dying, as since Roger Penske and Penske Entertainment Corporation agreed to buy IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November 2019, viewership figures are actually at some of their highest. The 2021 Indy 500 saw the highest TV figures since 2016.
While many professional sports and motorsports seem to be holding their own or on a decline, IndyCar has been given a new lease of life. The 2019 purchase allowed the league to make some needed changes. Read on to see exactly how healthy IndyCar is, a remarkable turnaround from a few years ago.
Is IndyCar Growing In Popularity?
The recent purchase of IndyCar has seen its popularity grow. With a new television deal and sponsorship, IndyCar is attracting more teams and drivers than it has in over a decade. Viewership figures for the first three races in 2022 were up 34% over 2021, and their highest in 19 years.
For several years, IndyCar seemed to be in a holding pattern. The longtime owners of the racetracks and the league were embroiled in a family squabble over spending and the direction of the sport. Several high-profile deaths and defections to NASCAR had cast a cloud over the league.
A Long War Of Attrition
It was not the only reason, but a major influence in the slide of IndyCar leading up to the defections was limited competition rules that the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and head of IRL, Tony George, had implemented for the Indianapolis 500. CART was the most popular auto racing series in the USA in the late 80s through the mid-1990s.
George wanted the league to emphasize American drivers and oval tracks over road courses. CART officials ousted George from the Board of Directors and he started the IRL. In 1996, George restricted CART berths in the Indianapolis 500 to only eight spots, leading to a boycott of the 500 by many CART drivers for several years.
While CART and IRL fought, NASCAR stepped in. This led to NASCAR’s popularity exploding in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Stockcar racing was not sexy like CART or the IRL, but it was fun, down-to-earth, and many of the drivers reminded one of their neighbor or mechanic. George’s vision for the IRL bombed and in 2008, the two series merged, finally, but NASCAR was still King.
The turmoil led to sponsorship and talent issues. A few drivers switched to NASCAR, the most famous being Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick. While the fight between CART and IRL might not have been a major factor, the disarray the fight put both series in was unavoidably an influence.
Period Of Doldrums
It is unfair to say that from 2009 through 2019, IndyCar regressed. It is fair to say it stagnated. The damage that that the split did was still evident, even 20 years later. Add to that a season schedule that at times seemed bizarre and IndyCar became an afterthought with many racing fans.
The 500 was still the crown jewel of racing, but after that, NASCAR races dominated fan favorite lists year after year. Races like the Daytona 500, along with those at Talladega, Charlotte, Darlington, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Texas, were races fans remembered over just about every other race on the Indy circuit.
There were also long breaks during the IndyCar season, which made it difficult to sustain a fan base. It did not help that just as IndyCar was getting back to business in early August, NASCAR was deciding who was in their playoffs, baseball was prepping for their playoffs and the NFL was starting their annual stranglehold on American television viewers.
Schedules, Timing And Television
To get an idea of what the average US IndyCar viewer must contend with, consider a normal Sunday afternoon in early fall. To start, IndyCar had a limited schedule since 2012 with NBC, but the coverage was not consistent like with NASCAR. NASCAR, for its part, was just getting into its playoffs, which pretty much glued NASCAR fans to their TVs every Sunday for 3 hours.
In addition, Major League Baseball was just getting down to its own race to the playoffs. Then, for almost 8 hours on Sunday, 3 on Monday night and 3 on Thursday night, the NFL beat all the competition silly. In that environment, a racing series still overcoming a devastating split that divided talent and lost fans for 10 years struggled to regain its former glory.
Penske To The Rescue
Penske Entertainment purchased Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar in 2019. Almost immediately, the corporation started to make positive changes to the track, race and series and almost just as quickly, plans were derailed because of COVID-19 restrictions. Many surmised that the end of IndyCar in its existing iteration was imminent.
Penske has other ideas. Roger Penske arranged for an influx of $20 million to improve the track and facilities. He secured a television deal when virtually everyone thought IndyCar on TV would be a novelty. It is early, only a few years in and with zero normal years under its belt because of the pandemic, but the Penske purchase has been transformative.
The Penske racing team is a fan favorite. The name is respected, and in IndyCar circles, adored. Penske Entertainment taking over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar was exactly the boost the series needed.
A Fresh Start
No matter what IndyCar did though, it was going to have the taste of the prior ownership, the split and other unpopular decisions hovering in the background. While that might not have affected the quality of racing or commercial opportunities, it would most certainly affect how fans saw the league. It also would always have the question of “could it happen again” lurking.
Penske’s reputation is more than just as a great race team or well-run organization. It is known for winning. It has won more Indianapolis 500 races than any other race team. Since taking over, Penske has:
- Invested $20 million into improving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
- Secured a groundbreaking television deal
- Secured a title sponsor extension with NTT
- Survived the COVID-19 pandemic
- Seen the most full-time entries for the 2022 season since 2008
As stated, a few years ago IndyCar did look like it was on its way out. Today, the future looks much brighter. If issues like the economy and world events do not throw more hurdles the series’ way, IndyCar will continue to be a force in the future.
The changes Penske has initiated have attracted more big-name teams and drivers. They have also secured television rights and a sponsor. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, IndyCar has some stability, which it lacked for over 25 years.
The largest challenge is acknowledged as being whether IndyCar can accommodate its growth. Several tracks are aging with limited space. More teams than ever are planning on competing. How IndyCar handles both will determine its long-term success.
How Does IndyCar’s Popularity Compare To Other Motorsports?
IndyCar is currently much less popular than NASCAR or F1. But comparisons are difficult due to the transition IndyCar has been going through. It is like comparing a recovering patient to a healthy patient. However, we can still look at the relative attendance and viewing figures.
IndyCar vs NASCAR
NASCAR has its own issues, but nothing compared to what IndyCar has experienced over the last 25 to 30 years. While NASCAR remains more popular than IndyCar, generally, specific races, like the Indianapolis 500, compete with races like NASCAR’s Daytona 500.
The average race attendance for NASCAR is about 60,000 with around 10 million watching races on TV, compared to an average of about 40,000 for IndyCar in attendance and 2 million television viewers. The Indianapolis 500, however, draws over 300,000 spectators in-person and almost 6 million on television. The 2021 race saw the highest TV viewership in 5 years.
Closing The Gap
The key to IndyCar competing with NASCAR is continued improvements. One often overlooked aspect to NASCAR’s longevity (even though that series’ numbers have lagged over the last 10 years), is that almost every track has had an overhaul since the mid-1990s. This has improved the racing and the aesthetics of the sport.
Another key is to continue to increase promotional efforts. IndyCar has primarily relied on one race to drive its popularity (the Indy 500), and in a television environment with so many choices weekly, that is a mistake. It needs to find more big races to promote that will attract viewers.
A third way to catch up with NASCAR is to find a way for more teams to compete. That might mean leaving some venues for “greener grass.” It is hard to see how some IndyCar venues can expand capacity without crowding the racetrack to the point of dangerousness. Expansion and improvement must also be on the agenda.
IndyCar vs F1
While the vehicles may look similar, there really is not much of a comparison at this point. F1 attracts more television viewers, pulling an international crowd against IndyCar’s North American dominated audience. F1 cars are specimens of technology while IndyCar tends to focus on lower cost equipment and passing strategy.
For IndyCar to catch up, it would need to greatly enhance its attraction to the average North American viewer while broadening its appeal to an international audience. That is a tough task to accomplish as the two audiences are very different.
IndyCar is not dying, although its popularity did slump in the 2010s. The series is actually seeing some impressive growth, with the 2021 Indy 500 having the highest viewership figures since 2016. The start of the 2022 season also saw the highest viewership figures per race in almost 2 decades.