IndyCar Hopes To Crash Through Glass Ceiling

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 1 2021

The IndyCar Series is at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend for a doubleheader. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – An Indy car is 1,655-pounds of open-wheel jewelry, designed to be raced at over 200 mph.

NTT IndyCar Series drivers are an international cast of fearless, elite athletes with resumes ranging from Indy Lights to Formula One to NASCAR.

Anchored by the 105th Indianapolis 500 _ “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” _ the 2021 schedule is a mix of high-speed ovals, natural-terrain road-courses and unforgiving street circuits.

Series coverage on NBC Sports borders on saturation, with nine of 17 races carried on the network along with cable telecasts and live streaming platforms.

“I think the thing about INDYCAR is that it’s just compelling,” Mark Miles, CEO of Penske Entertainment Corporation, said in advance of the 2021 season-opener at Barber Motorsports Park on April 18. “When we get on the track there’s every reason for fans to be excited about what they see in our sport.”

That said _ calling all eyeballs.

NBC’s live coverage of the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama was outdrawn by the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on FOX. The INDYCAR race, won by Spaniard Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing, posted an average Nielsen rating of 0.59 and 914,000 viewers. The Cup race, won by Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports, posted an average rating of 2.0 and 3.3-million viewers.

Last Sunday’s INDYCAR Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., street race, also on NBC, posted stronger numbers after starting earlier than the popular Cup event at Talladega Superspeedway. Colton Herta’s dominant victory on the Streets of St. Pete averaged an 0.77 Nielsen rating and 1.2-million viewers. That is an increase over the 676,000 viewers for last year’s St. Pete race, which was moved to October and served as the season-finale.

NBC reported that its Total Audience Delivery for this year’s race, including OTA and digital viewers, was 1.225-million _ making it NBC Sports’ most-watched afternoon INDYCAR event.  It also was the second-most watched overall, trailing the June 6, 2020-season-opening night race at Texas Motor Speedway here that attracted 1.256-million.

The series has returned to TMS for a unique doubleheader weekend on NBC Sports Network. The Genesys 300-miler on Saturday and the XPEL 375-miler on Sunday are the series’ only oval-track outings leading into practice for the Indy 500 on May 30.

And so the question that has perplexed management and competitors since the launch of Tony George’s Indy Racing League for the 1996-97 season continues: What will it take to break INDYCAR’s glass ceiling _ to make domestic open-wheel mainstream?   

“Well, if I had that formula I’d probably bottle it and sell it,” said motorsports legend Mario Andretti, 81, who retired from the cockpit in 1994. “I think every series is trying their darndest to tweak and do everything. Give ‘em credit because it seems like today’s fans are more and more demanding because they’re more and more sophisticated, I suppose.

“But the bottom line is when it comes to talking about INDYCAR and what they have to offer, I think the product is there, no question. It’s just for people to really become accustomed to it to have a following.”

Enter “Defy Everything” _ INDYCAR’s 2021 brand campaign introduced on April 7 to highlight “the daring, unapologetic and all-around bad-ass mindset” of its drivers. Created in partnership with Chicago-based agency Schafer Condon Carter (SCC), “Defy Everything” is aimed at appealing to diehard race fans and casual sports fans. Chief among the featured drivers is Scott Dixon, the six-time/reigning series champion who is in his 21st INDYCAR season and 20th consecutive with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“This campaign reflects the risks our athletes take at incredible speeds in order to compete at such a high level, offering fans a look at the defiant personality it takes to be an NTT IndyCar Series driver,” said SJ Luedtke, INDYCAR vice president of marketing. “Showcasing their bold athleticism and sheer skill will resonate with sports fans across the globe, but we hope their defiant nature and unapologetic personalities will inspire anyone looking to beat the odds and turn the tables on the status quo.”

Fans can experience this digital-first campaign throughout the season on series and driver/team social media channels through stories of defiance, driver highlight packages, video content features and graphics. Extensions of the campaign include customized video content, narrated by the drivers.

“I think what they’re playing into is you want to be a disruptor in social media,” said TMS President and General Manager Eddie Gossage, creator of his track’s “No Limits, Texas” brand. “You want to upset the balance with the things you say or the things you do. And a disruptor in the young adult world _ in a social media world _ is a very big positive. That’s how I see it. I think it’s a great campaign. I think it’s cool.”

INDYCAR has hit a few notable marketing home runs. Brazilian Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 champion, raised his profile by winning the fifth season of Dancing with the Stars in November 2007.

Danica Patrick, then 23, launched “Danicamania” in May 2005 as first female driver to lead the Indy 500 en route to a fourth-place finish and Rookie of the Year honors.

Canadian James Hinchcliffe was among the first series drivers to tap into social media as self-proclaimed mayor of the fictional internet city of “Hinchtown.” Those clicks led to a series of TV ads linking Hinchcliffe’s Honda-powered race car to showroom models. And yes, “Hinch” also finished second in Season 23 of Dancing with the Stars.

In contrast is Dixon, a 40-year-old native of New Zealand whose numbers stamp him as the greatest driver of this generation. Dixon started the season with 50 victories, two behind Andretti for second all-time on a list topped by Houston native A.J. Foyt Jr.’s 67. Dixon’s six series titles are one short of tying Foyt’s record seven set between 1960 and 1979.

But is “Dixie” mainstream? “Sadly, probably not,” Gossage said. “That’s particularly disappointing when you consider Scott Dixon’s success. But come on _ Mario Andretti is a household name still, and he won Indy in 1969. Scott, he’s not a real loud personality. He’s a great guy with a great sense of humor and a real man’s man. I mean, he’s a tough guy. But Scott’s kind of bland publicly.”

The 2021 rookie class, led by six-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, is being hyped as one that could move the viewership needle. Johnson is driving a limited, non-oval schedule for Chip Ganassi Racing. He is joined by 10-year Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean, formerly of American-owned Haas F1 Team. Grosjean is driving for Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing. And Team Penske has added three-time/reigning Australian Supercar Series champion Scott McLaughlin.

“It’s funny. I want to say for the last five years we’ve probably used the line that ‘this is the most talented group of drivers we’ve ever seen in the INDYCAR series.,’^” said Hinchcliffe, who has returned fulltime to Andretti Autosport this season. “Every year we say it, it starts to sound like a line we’re just saying because we’re told to but it’s true because every year we just keep adding more and more talent. I mean, the talent in this field right now is absolutely extraordinary and there are winners on every single race team out here.”

Other suggested remedies include addition of a third engine manufacturer to complement current partners Honda and Chevrolet and a return of more oval tracks to the schedule.

In addition, Team Penske’s Will Power, a two-time winner at TMS and the 2018 Indy 500 champion, said some copy-cat marketing might be in order. “They need to sit back and have a look at what some of these other series are doing with Netflix documentaries and Netflix television shows,” said Power, the 2014 series champion. “I mean that’s exposing it to a very different audience. I can’t tell you how many people who are not into racing and friends go, ‘Have you watched that Drive to Survive? It’s amazing. It’s really got me into Formula One.’ I think they need to start looking in that direction.” 

Unfortunately, INDYCAR’s engine discussions with Ferrari _ F1’s most glamorous nameplate _ ended unsuccessfully in February. “I think it fell through for now,” Gossage said. “Good ground work’s been laid and I wouldn’t be surprised if they revisit that some day.”

Andretti noted manufacturers bring technical expertise to the series. “Yeah, manufacturers represent a lot of strength in our sport at any level,” Andretti said. “So the more the merrier because manufacturers, they advertise, they invest in any series they’re in. That’s a rich part of having them on-board.”

Gossage aligned TMS with George’s fledgling/all-oval IRL in the summer of 1996, at the height of its nasty “Sanctioning Wars” with the established Championship Auto Racing Teams. “America is an oval-track country,” Gossage said. “We like road-courses. We appreciate them more today than we did 20 years ago, but it’s still an oval-track country. When the biggest race you have by far is an oval-track race, the Indy 500, it’s hard to get the layman to tune into something that’s nothing like the Indy 500. I do think it would be good for IndyCar to have more oval tracks, and they want to have more oval tracks.”

The unassuming Dixon scored his record-tying fourth win at TMS last June. “I’ve definitely been pushing hard to get to more ovals,” said Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 champ. “You’ve got to look at what INDYCAR was founded on and what the popular races are. We’ve only got four (oval) races at three venues, so I know it’s something that’s high on their radar. I also think the addition of that Nashville street-course this year (on Aug. 8) is going to be huge. But I definitely don’t have the holy grail of answers.”

Ironically, neither does Gossage, recognized industry-wise as the “P.T. Barnum of Motorsports” for his promotional acumen. “If I had that (mainstream) answer, I would have most of Roger Penske’s money,” Gossage joked. “Not most, but a chunk of it, I guess. I don’t know, to be honest. I wish I had that answer.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 1 2021
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