Can IndyCar sustain the momentum generated by a historic Indy 500?
With a record 34 lead changes, the 96th Indianapolis 500 was one for the ages
But most Americans view IndyCar racing as 1-race series starting, ending at Indy
To sustain momentum, IndyCar must improve TV deal, ensure safety of new car
INDIANAPOLIS -- This year's Indianapolis 500 had it all -- speed, thrills, competition, drama and storylines galore. It had everything the 350,000 fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came to see, but now comes the hard part: How does IndyCar take the momentum from this year's Indy 500 and take it on the road, beginning with this Sunday's return to the streets of Detroit?
There will be plenty of fans at Belle Isle in Detroit to watch the first street race in this city since 2008, but for mainstream America, IndyCar racing is a one-race series starting and ending at the Indianapolis 500. While the other races on the schedule draw interest locally, the fans that come don't necessarily pay attention for the rest of the year.
The tremendous racing fans saw at last Sunday's Indy 500 is emblematic of IndyCar racing as a whole. So, why can't the momentum continue?
"We do that every week and the majority of our races are like that, but with the Indianapolis 500 there are so many more eyeballs on it," Dario Franchitti said the morning after his third Indy 500 win. "I hope the people watch the other races and see what we do week in and week out. I think the crowds haven't been bad this year. We need work on the TV side and have been working on that.
"We've had some cracking races this year. They've all been good."
One of the major problems with IndyCar is the television package. ABC did an awesome job with the Indianapolis 500 -- a race it has televised since 1965. But ABC's initial IndyCar telecast in 2012 was the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and they fell far off the mark there, missing much of the on-track passing throughout the race.
The majority of IndyCar races are on the NBC Sports Network, which was formally known as VERSUS. And while the production and telecasts of the series have been solid, the ratings have been horrendous. The Indy 500 earned a 4.1 overnight, while the first three races on NBC Sports Network averaged 343,000 viewers, per Sports Business Daily.
Meanwhile, all of NASCAR's races are on marquee channels, including FOX, a six-race package in the summer on TNT and the final third of the schedule on ESPN and ABC including the Chase for the Championship. As part of its package with ESPN, it gets phenomenal airtime on SportsCenter and other ESPN branded shows, while IndyCar barely gets mentioned.
The focus at NBC is on the upcoming London Olympics, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the National Football League. That leaves IndyCar with little promotion.
INDYCAR officials are well aware of this and CEO Randy Bernard has said on many occasions it's an issue he would like to get resolved. But until that happens, IndyCar will remain on the fringe.
"I think the entertainment value is definitely there," Franchitti said, "and my job is to go out there and try to win. The competition level in the series makes that bloody hard work. We are putting on a good show."
Franchitti's team owner is Chip Ganassi, who has won the Indy 500 five times since 2000, a mark that ties Lou Moore for second place all time. He is 10 away from the all-time leader, Roger Penske. Ganassi also owns a team in NASCAR Sprint Cup and the GRAND-AM Series.
When asked what IndyCar can do to take the Indy 500 momentum into the rest of the season, Ganassi replied that he doesn't know.
"I don't have a good answer on that one," Ganassi said. "I thought the new car put on a good show."
And that leads into the next issue INDYCAR officials must address going forward. The Dallara DW12 chassis was designed to be safer than the previous generation Dallara that was run from 2003-2011. It is named after Dan Wheldon, the chassis' tester, who died in a 15-car crash at Las Vegas on Oct. 16, 2011. After his death, drivers, led by Franchitti, teammate Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan, said it was time to move away from pack racing on ovals.
Despite those calls, pack racing was brought to the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Luckily, no one was injured although there were several scary incidents.
"I wouldn't be opposed to trying different aero packages at different places to get away from that," Ganassi admitted.
The most serious incident in Sunday's race involved Mike Conway. After Conway ran into several of his crew members on pit road, his car suffered a broken front wing. He returned to the track, but his wing failed and he went airborne and into the catchfence after he made contact with Will Power.
Amazingly, Conway was uninjured. One reason for that was the catchfence construction at Indianapolis. At Indy and many other oval tracks, large steel fence posts sit on the grandstand side with the cable and catchfence situated on the racetrack side. In Wheldon's fatal crash, this arrangement was the exact opposite.
The new car and its bodywork appear to be an airfoil to the car. Once it gets slightly off the ground, it becomes an airplane wing and it wants to fly.
"That's an issue that needs to be addressed," said a key member of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. "From what I understand, INDYCAR officials are in meetings to try to correct that issue."
Driver Alex Tagliani was very close to Wheldon and it was his car that Wheldon drove when he was involved in the fatal crash at Las Vegas last year.
"We have a safety barrier but that doesn't do anything if the car is in the fence," Tagliani said. "We have to find a way to keep these [expletive] cars on the track. I don't know if that bumper creates a launch pad when those rear tires come off the track. ... I've never seen cars come up like that so easily by themselves. In Carpenter's crash it got on its side after hitting the wall by itself."
Part of the lure of the Indianapolis 500 is to see brave men look fear and danger in the face and not flinch. That is one of the reasons why 350,000 fans come to the Indianapolis 500 every year.
And while TV ratings and fan interest are relevant issues, IndyCar must find ways to keep the new car from going airborne. You can't keep momentum going if you can't keep the cars on the track.