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Why IndyCar is still the best kept secret in sport

Why IndyCar is still the best kept secret in sport

Illustration by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

The 2022 NTT Indycar Season was nothing short of spectacular. This season the series equaled the records of 60 years ago with nine different pole-sitters in the first nine races. There are really 15 drivers who could win every weekend, and late in the season the top six drivers were separated by less than one win in points. To put that in perspective for all Ride to survive-ers, Max Verstappen could have skipped two Grands Prix this summer and would still lead the F1 championship in the fall.

This story originally appeared in Volume 13 of Road & Track.

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The competition on the track is better than ever in IndyCar. The number of cars is higher and healthier than we’ve seen in decades, and new regulations for hybrid powertrains in 2024 should increase the series’ appeal. What about the events themselves? The Indy 500 was almost sold out, we had huge crowds on Long Beach and Toronto saw the biggest crowd since the late 1990s. Thanks to a massive effort from Penske Entertainment and title partner Hy-Vee, Iowa set attendance records and set a new standard for race promotion. Add well-known crowd favorites in Nashville and Gateway and it looks good.

Of course, some races lack the allure and rise of the past. We still have a gap in the northeast and there was some pre-Texas rumblings that we might get to the 1.5 mile oval for the last time. That tone changed slightly after the most entertaining race since the track’s resurfacing and reprofiling in 2017. To take an event to Iowa-esque levels, you need a dedicated partner. Hopefully, Texas’ improved raciness sparks the interest of a company that could fill that role. The series can’t afford to lose another oval.

IndyCar has the best product on the track on four wheels (my unbiased opinion), a healthy number of cars and seemingly increasing sponsorship, but the fan base seems largely unchanged. The series has added many valuable official partnerships, but few have moved the needle in terms of fan growth. A high-level executive from a former IndyCar sponsor once told me that IndyCar racing was the best kept secret in the sport. That was 12 years ago. Unfortunately, that is still the feeling of many in the paddock.

NBC and the series have made huge strides in getting 14 of the 17 races on network television, and the network does an excellent job on the weekend action (as impartial as I, a member of said broadcast team, can offer!). While some races have certainly seen significant jumps in viewership, others have delivered lower ratings than expected. Many factors come into play here, and other sports have felt the same effect, but one can’t help but think that the series’ overall marketing strategy needs to be overhauled.

Look at Formula 1. The explosion in popularity since the acquisition of Liberty Media is astonishing. This doesn’t come close to racing. Yes, the 2022 rules package made the cars look and race better, but the action still pales in comparison to what IndyCar offers fans. Netflix has pumped up F1’s tires, but how long will that last? How many fans of? DTS will stay for life? Netflix aside, F1’s digital media approach has been incredible. Books could be written about the targeted marketing that has broadened the appeal of the sport beyond traditional racing fans.

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IndyCar has yet to replicate this model, but not for lack of effort. The IndyCar team works diligently with what it gets, but making money requires money. An investment in itself, in the marketing and digital departments, can yield long-term benefits. IndyCar needs more resources to differentiate itself from others currently cornering the motorsport market. Does IndyCar Need Its Own? Ride to survive nighttime explosion? No. That was a phenomenon that was impossible to replicate. I do believe that slow and steady progress is an equally good way to move forward, and it is very achievable.

IndyCar also has a huge international appeal and I would like to see the series take advantage of that. Races abroad used to be very common, which helped to grow the IndyCar fan base (and helped the teams financially).

IndyCar does a lot of things very well, but it cannot be expected that a good product for the track alone will cause a huge surge in popularity. A targeted investment, one that could take IndyCar’s marketing to a new level, has long since become obsolete. It is the only way to bring the best kept secret to the masses.

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