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Woody: Empty-Seat Syndrome Haunts IndyCar

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 19 2011

The IndyCar Series had a bad-grandstand day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

I saw an estimate that put the crowd at New Hampshire Speedway at 30,000 for last Sunday’s IndyCar race.

As my old sports editor once said about an obviously-inflated attendance figure at a Vanderbilt football game, a lot of those fans came disguised as empty seats.

When the TV cameras panned the gaping New Hampshire grandstands, a thought occurred to me: the last time I saw a race crowd that skimpy was at last month’s NASCAR Nationwide race at Nashville Superspeedway.

A couple of days later Dover Motorsports pulled the plug on its 11-year-old track in Gladeville, Tenn.

Dover decided to cut its losses and furl its flags, and reportedly there’s similar consideration being given to the IndyCar Series’ future at New Hampshire.

It’s too bad; last Sunday’s race was action-packed from the opening pileup until the frantic, controversial finish. It was wild and exciting, with lots of contact and seething emotions. It reminded me of how NASCAR racing used to be.

But if fans don’t support an event it’s doomed, and I suspect that the New Hampshire empties could be a harbinger of hard times ahead for the open-wheelers.

The IndyCar Series’ biggest problem is lack of exposure. While last Sunday’s race was carried on network TV (and benefited from the NASCAR rainout at Watkins Glen) 12 of its 17 races are telecast on the Versus Channel. I don’t get it at my house, and I don’t know anyone else who does.

What do you call a sports league that fans can’t follow on TV? An ex-sports league.

Seventeen races make for a lean schedule, especially when two of the 17 are run outside the U.S. in Brazil and Japan. It’s tougher still when most of the races are carried on a cable channel that’s not available in many markets.

Corporate sponsors expect an audience if they’re going to shell out big bucks to paint their logos on a race car.

The IndyCar Series is in danger of becoming a one-trick pony — the Indy 500.

On top of that it faces the threat of losing its biggest star, Danica Patrick. If/when Danica defects to NASCAR full-time, much of the Indy Car’s mainstream interest will disappear in her slipstream.

Case in point: Dario Franchitti, the series’ three-time and twice-defending champion who lives in the Nashville suburbs, seldom gets a blurb in his hometown media.

Danica gets more press by flirting with NASCAR than Dario gets by winning a championship.

The bottom line is that, for whatever reasons, the open-wheelers are suffering from neglect.

Again, it’s too bad, because the drivers are spirited and fan-friendly, and (with one or two exceptions) media-accommodating. And on race day they put on a great show. Unfortunately, it’s perhaps the greatest show that fans have never seen.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 19 2011
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • Rich says:

    The two worst attended ovals this season seems to be Milwaukee and New Hampshire. While the Milwaukee race was plagued with poor (or nonexistent) promotion, it also had something in common with the NH race. Rain.

    Heavy rain was forecast for both races, and sure enough it raised it’s ugly head last week. Fans don’t want to get rained on, or worse sit on metal bleachers during a storm. This has to be taken into consideration when looking at the attendance numbers.

  • Dave Ihlenfeld says:

    Two Reasons Indy Car Attendance Is Down: Ticket Prices Are Way
    Too High. The Current Kit Cars Are A Joke.

    The New Guy Randy Has Good Intentions, But Has Run Against The
    Penske-Ganassi-KV Syndrome.

    He Might As Well Pack His Bags If They Don’t Fill The Stands At
    The Las Vegas Race.

  • joe says:

    Can’t get versus on Dish without shelling out more money.

  • Tony says:

    You don’t know anyone who gets Versus? It’s part of basic cable with Comcast – surely you know people who have Comcast cable?
    Oh, and it’s about to be renamed “NBC Sports”, so that should help the name recognition for the channel, too.