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IndyCar Races To Big Numbers

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 8 2020

The IndyCar Series season-opening race at Texas was a primetime hit.

FORT WORTH, Texas – Delayed 83 days by the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday night’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season-opening Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway delivered boffo primetime numbers for NBC Sports. 

The 200-lap/300-mile event emerged as the network’s most-watched INDYCAR race on record and the series’ most-watched race since 2016, excluding Indianapolis 500s, according to Fast National data provided by The Nielsen Company and digital data from Adobe Analytics.

Shortened from 248 laps to 200, the race was the first INDYCAR race shown in primetime on NBC and first INDYCAR race on broadcast television in primetime since 2013. The two-hour program (8-10 p.m., EDT) averaged a Total Audience Delivery of 1.285-million viewers to rank as the most-watched non-Indy 500 INDYCAR race since the 2016 Dual at Detroit Race 2 on ABC (1.397-million viewers).

In the lead-up to the event, TMS President/General Manager Eddie Gossage termed this opener “one of the most important races INDYCAR has ever held because people are starving for sports programming, so there’s an opportunity to have strong TV ratings around the country and around the globe.”

The race originally was scheduled to be carried on NBC Sports Network but was moved to NBC as an opportunity to showcase a big-time event. “The race merits this platform,” Executive Producer Sam Flood said during a pre-event teleconference with national media. “It’s difficult to say what one race is going to determine or what this will mean, other than racing is back, but we’re proud to have it on NBC.

“It’s obviously a unique time in the history of our country between COVID-19, the world being shut down and everyone sheltering in place and staying away from each other with social distancing, to the protests that have consumed our cities and a lot of our country right now. For obvious reasons…this race will be a unique opportunity for our group to tell stories coming in the midst of COVID-19 and the protests and all that the country is facing.”

The open-wheel season originally was scheduled to start on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 15. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted INDYCAR to halt proceedings and cancel practice on March 13. TMS and “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” typically mark the season’s mid-point, but became the opener after several schedule adjustments. Due to health concerns, the race was contested without fans during a unique, one-day program preceded by practice and qualifying.

Gossage said racing without fans was “depressing” during a pre-race Press Box interview moments before the green flag. “The only reason in my book any of us race is because the fans dig it,” Gossage said. “I’ve told old and young drivers we work for the fans. You’re not getting to race if it wasn’t for the fans, certainly not at this level. So we work for the fans. You can’t do this for long and keep it up. And so yeah, it’s depressing.”

Five-time series champion Scott Dixon delivered a lesson in social-distancing, IndyCar-style, during a dominating victory. Dixon led 157 of 200 laps around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval en route to a 4.411-second margin of victory over reigning Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske. Pole-sitter Josef Newgarden of Team Penske, the 2019 winner of this event and two-time/reigning series champion, finished third.

Saturday night’s telecast surpassed last year’s Road America race in Elkhart Lake, Wis. (1.110-million TAD) to rank as NBC Sports’ most-watched INDYCAR race on record and was up 38 percent vs. last year’s average viewership on NBC, both excluding the 2019 Indy 500. In addition, the telecast delivered INDYCAR’s most-watched season-opener since 2016 (Streets of St. Pete, 1.391-million viewers, ABC). The race produced a 0.82 HH (Household) rating.

Indianapolis, home to sanctioning body INDYCAR and most teams, led all local markets with a 4.36 HH rating followed by Orlando-Daytona Beach, Fla., 2.11; Columbus, Ohio, 2.07; Salt Lake City, 1.81; Denver, Colo., and West Palm Beach, Fla., tied at 1.57 and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, 1.50.

The race kicked off NBC Sports’ second season as exclusive home of the NTT IndyCar Series, including the Indianapolis 500 rescheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23, on NBC. NBC Sports will continue its coverage of the series on Saturday, July 4, with the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The remainder of the 2020 television schedule will be announced in the coming weeks.

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Scott Dixon and his re-vamped Chip Ganassi Racing team spent the COVID-19 layoff self-improving, with Dixie’s record-tying fourth victory at TMS the result.

“Actually, the whole day was good. The car rolled off really well,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. “I know we’d be working extremely hard on just trying to fix some of the issues we had last year. We had some new people, plus a ton coming back over from the (Ford) GT program. The engineering depth and everything got a lot stronger, so development was good through the winter.

The DIL, the simulator with Honda that we’ve been using for the last three weeks in preparation for Texas, has been really good. Lots of things we didn’t think we would try or have the time to try on track, we were able to kind of do that. Gave us some ideas. We were able to sort of verify them once we got here.”

Dixon’s fourth win here was his second in three years, tying him with Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves in the TMS record book.  Dixon scored his previous TMS wins in 2008, 2015 and 2018 _ all with CGR. Dixon tied legendary Texan A.J. Foyt Jr.‘s  record for most seasons with at least one victory at 18. Dixon, who qualified second Saturday afternoon, also has won at least one race for 16 consecutive years _ a streak that began in 2005.

Dixon’s 47th career victory is first among active drivers and third all-time behind open-wheel royalty _ Foyt, aka “Super Tex” (67), and Mario Andretti (52).

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INDYCAR’s latest safety innovation, the Aeroscreen, made its competitive debut Saturday night and apparently passed the audition. The Aeroscreen is a ballistic, canopy-like safety innovation on the cockpit designed to enhance driver protection; it has been mandated for use by all teams at all tracks this season by the sanctioning body.

The Genesys 300’s green flag start at 7:10 p.m. (CDT) and a reduction of 48 laps meant most of the race was run in daylight-to-twilight. Pre-race questions remained about pitting, rubber build-up and glare on the Aeroscreen, especially through Turns 3 and 4 during the race’s opening stint.

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, the 2019 race-winner, gave the device a resounding thumbs-up. “Other than the handling differences, I didn’t notice the screen, to be quite honest with you,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 1 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet. “You can take that as a very good thing. I didn’t notice it.

It’s there now. I mean, it felt like a normal INDYCAR race to me. I didn’t notice a big difference to last year. The handling is different in the car, but as far as the driver’s experience, I don’t even know the thing any more. It’s crazy how good of a job they’ve done with the ducting. The visibility was fine. I had zero issues with it from that standpoint. Very different animal to drive. Mechanically you had to work with it a lot.”

Newgarden led 41 laps and was one of the few drivers who could keep Dixon within striking distance. Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, who finished second, agreed that the Aeroscreen “dramatically” changed his car.

We’re going to have to adjust,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 22 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevy. “Obviously today, one day, wasn’t very easy to do that. It was good to have a whole race and be able to figure out what we need to do for the future going forward.

“But same as Josef, you just feel it’s safe. You feel like if anything happens, your face is protected. That’s awesome. That’s awesome to see that INDYCAR has made such a leap forward in safety. Personally, I’m very thankful that we’re in that era with Josef and the others.

Obviously, safety is big. We go very high speeds. Things can get safer, it’s pretty awesome. That is a big positive.”

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INDYCAR’s one-day program of practice, qualifying and racing here presented a unique set of challenges. “It was really the unknowns. Trying to cram that all in,” Scott Dixon said after his win. “Traveling here this morning, qualifying, practice, race, then we fly home (Sunday night). First time we’ve ever done anything like that. A lot of new things.

“Maybe that’s how we’ll do a lot of our events from now on. I’m not sure. I actually kind of enjoyed it. Kind of cool to do doubleheaders like this, which I think we’re going to do in the future this season, which is going to be a lot of fun. I think the unknowns are the most difficult part.”

Runnerup Simon Pagenaud added the unusually hot conditions, with ambient temperatures reaching 98 degrees, as another factor.  “I think, quite frankly, for me the heat was probably the hardest part of the day,” Pagenaud said, “getting acclimated to the heat in the car as well. It was a tough one. I’ve seen mechanics, a lot of mechanics, struggle with the heat. Yeah, I thought it was very interesting to just do one day actually. Why not? Bring your stuff and race as hard as you can.

The one-day show is actually interesting in many ways. I thought it was very interesting because you had to be very decisive on your decisions. Obviously, after the first session, we kind of had to decide the race setup right away because the car was going to go to impound after qualifying. That’s a split decision you make in a very short amount of time with your engineer. Same for the crew.”

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden knocked Dixon off-pole as last man to qualify and led the first 31 laps before settling for a third-place finish. “I had a blast tonight and today,” Newgarden said. “Just like these guys said, it was super-fun to have kind of a jam-packed schedule. Really entertaining just to be back and to be back to work, what we love.

The hardest part for me was thinking that we…basically thinking we made the right decisions going into the race, about 15 laps in realizing that we were horribly off the mark. So you don’t have a lot of time to rectify an issue. I think if there was more practice, more of a lead-up to this event, maybe we would have had some clues to point out we weren’t as strong as we thought we were going into the race.

When you have that jam-packed schedule, it’s kind of on the team and the driver to execute quickly and to make the right decisions, to show up with good stuff, kind of stick to your guns. I really like that style. It didn’t work out for us tonight. I think in the future we can hopefully thrive in that situation.”

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Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach tied his career-best with a fourth-place finish Saturday, when he awoke from a recurring nightmare at “The Great American Speedway.”

“Texas is one of my favorite places,” Veach said during a pre-event presser. “I’ve just got to make sure not to hit the Turn 2 wall for the third year in a row.” On cue, Veach kept his No. 26 Gainbridge Honda in one piece and emerged as the only driver other than winner Scott Dixon and third-place Josef Newgarden to lead laps (2).

“Really, really good night here in the Gainbridge Honda,” Veach said. “I wanted to start 2020 off good because 2019 was so rough, and we came out here to Texas and got a top-four and started fifth. I’m just very happy. This kind of momentum will be great to go into the Indy GP and hopefully have the season we’ve been needing to have. The guys did an awesome job. My engineer Mark Bryant, the car was amazing and all my pit crew _they were awesome for everything, and that played a big part in a race with not many passes. I’m just happy and a big thank you to Andretti Autosport.”

Veach, in his third full season with Michael Andretti’s team, finished fourth in the 2018 Long Beach Grand Prix.

Driver point standings: 1, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 53; 2, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, 40; 3, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 37; 4, Zach Veach, Andretti Autosport, 33; 5, Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing, 30; 6, Conor Daly, Carlin Racing, 28; 7, Colton Herta, Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport, 26; 8, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport, 24; 9, Oliver Askew, Arrow McLaren SP, 22; 10, Tony Kanaan, A.J. Foyt Racing, 20.

 

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 8 2020
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