Ever since Tony George burst onto American motorsport’s political scene in the mid-90s with his IRL model, IndyCar has been on a road to recovery. The top-tier of North American single-seater racing has endured a tumultuous past under several guises, with bitter disputes between CART and IRL defining the last 20 years. The ensuing split between the two governing bodies proved to be a near-fatal blow for the sport.
But, IndyCar 2014 has marked the series’ resurgence. Now safely under one championship, the Verizon IndyCar Series has enjoyed a much needed year of positivity. The need to improve the series’ tainted reputation was high on the agenda, and current Hulman&Co. CEO Mark Miles has been pushing to re-embellish IndyCar as an internationally recognised sport. As the series reaches its conclusion in Fontana this weekend, we have the perfect opportunity to discover why the series is on the rise again.
Despite having a spectacular on-track product that many other top-level championships envy, IndyCar has struggled to maintain spectator interest after the damaging days of the split. Television ratings and event attendances had been consistently declining for several seasons, so Miles decided to shake the season up in order to convert the part-time fans into ardent followers of the sport.
One of the main changes concerned the race calendar. The 2013 season that stretched from March to mid-October was dramatically condensed for the following year, with 18 rounds taking place in a narrow five-month window. There was initial scepticism from some fans (after all, who wants a 7 month off-season?), but the trick paid dividends. TV ratings have risen as a result, with almost a 40% increase in TV viewership from 2013 being reported at the halfway stage. Having a tightly-packed schedule seems to have kept the fans interested: after all, American sport is generally geared towards an audience that will forget about a series if it doesn’t appear on-screen regularly, and IndyCar has been quick to exploit that.
Attendances have followed a similarly positive route. Even from the comfort of one’s TV, it’s clear that more and more seats are being occupied at each event. While the crowds still seem paltry compared to the giddy heights of NASCAR Sprint Cup races, any increase in numbers is a step forward. This was made clear at Detroit, where a record 110,000 people reportedly went to watch the Dual races (the highest attendance that the Belle Isle track had seen in seven years).
But, the most important step that IndyCar has taken this year is in the name. The deal that brought communications giant Verizon into the fray has been the series’ greatest move in recent years. Verizon reaches out to the fans in a far greater way than former sponsor IZOD did, namely by sharing the same goals as IndyCar: to be different, to succeed and to be faster than anyone else. It may sound like a cheesy PR gimmick at first, but the Verizon partnership works to bring a presentable spectacle to the wider public. Before the season started Miles said: “[Verizon are] so good at the development of their company and their brand. I just don’t know how we could have a better partner in terms of what they stand for as a company and what they bring to us in the way of an informed sponsor.” (ESPN)
And, with big names like DHL and Target continuing to back the teams, IndyCar is in the perfect place to reach out to a larger commercial fan-base.
It’s hard not to love IndyCar at the moment. It’s the motorsport world’s rising phoenix. From the dark days of political turmoil and declining interest has spawned a resurgence of excitement. There are returning champions, young American heroes, new prospective venues like Dubai and Brasilia, and most importantly a sense of unity. Of course there is still a lot of work to do, though. IndyCar still often sits below Premier League football and UFC in the weekly NBCSN ratings. Nevertheless, the numbers are generally on the up.
American single-seater racing finally has a product that it can shout about again, and the rest of the motorsport world is certainly listening.
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