Photo credit: Kurt Bradley

At the Indianapolis 500 last weekend, we asked a bunch of IndyCar drivers how they would make the sport more popular. “Produce the same kind of race as always,” driver Ed Carpenter suggested. “The product speaks for itself,” Marco Andretti said. This year’s Indy 500 produced the third-lowest television ratings in 30 years.

The thing is, this year’s Indianapolis 500 was amazing. 54 lead changes. A nail-biter of an ending. A brand-new face enjoying the milk. Yet the 100th running of IndyCar’s crown jewel failed to have much of a presence outside of the Indianapolis area.

The Indy 500 this year should have brought its most famous race even more attention than usual. It ran in front of a sold-out crowd, and the series was constantly promoting the milestone and in hopes of getting all eyes (including a significant chunk of our coverage) on the race.

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway never releases official attendance figures, but the Indianapolis Star estimated the crowd to be around 350,000. That’s one out of every 1,000 people in the United States inside IMS.

Unfortunately, this push for the 100th Indy 500 ultimately only got more fans in the stadium and more local eyes on the race. Boosted by a decision to broadcast the race in real-time for the first time in 66 years, the Indianapolis market alone had an unreal 33.6 overnight television rating for the race.

Nationwide, the ratings were much worse: a 4.1 overnight rating, the third lowest in 30 years. Without Indianapolis propping that rating up, Nuvo notes that the ratings would have been in the threes. To contrast, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 scored a 6.1 national overnight rating this year — and Daytona’s rating was down 16% from last year.

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It’s the consistent problem hounding IndyCar: how do they make it relevant outside of Indiana? And to an average viewer who has no idea why Carol from The Brady Bunch ended up as the grand marshal, why should they even tune in for IndyCar’s flagship race?

Or the rest of the season, for that matter?

How did IndyCar become so unpopular that even a landmark year for its most famous race went largely ignored by most of the country, then? And why aren’t drastic changes being made to put America’s top-level open-wheel racing series back on top where it belongs?

How The Current Drivers Would Fix It

Before the race, I asked several drivers how they would put IndyCar back in the limelight—and by IndyCar, I mean the whole season for years to come, not only the much-hyped 100th Indy 500. Thing is, I didn’t expect anyone to say much. IndyCar’s been notoriously hard on public criticism from their own drivers as of late, when perhaps now is when they need them to speak up more than ever.

So, naturally, many drivers I spoke with gave platitudes, saying that the best way to make IndyCar popular again would be to put on a great show for the Indy 500. Ed Carpenter, driver, team owner and stepson of league founder Tony George said that the show really speaks for itself.

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“It’s relatively simple,” Carpenter said. “Produce the same kind of race as always.” The opportunity to re-energize existing and dormant fans, Carpenter went on to say, was there among the sell-out crowd and increased media attention on the race.

Driver Marco Andretti echoed Carpenter’s comments, telling me ahead of the race that he hoped the eyes on the 100th Indy 500 would keep tuning in after watching a great race.

“The product speaks for itself. The quality of the teams and the drivers is the best in the world,” said Andretti, the grandson of racer Mario Andretti and a two-time tester of a Honda Formula One Car.

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The only issue is that IndyCar producing a milestone race that’s great for IndyCar fans only brings existing fans out of the woodwork. But it’s not enough.

Everyone I spoke with seemed certain that it would be a great race and certain that it would bring in good numbers. Confidence is great, but the fact that the numbers didn’t pan out means that it’s going to need more than “keep putting on good races.”

It would be easy enough to write off Carpenter and Andretti’s answers as simple public-relations-friendly-speak, but the prevalence of “show off what we do” as a solution points to a bigger issue within the series. If that’s as critical as the longtime drivers are willing to get, how will IndyCar ever pull itself out of its current rut?

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Perhaps the most pointed answer as to how IndyCar could become a major force in racing again came from one of its newest faces – Manor F1 reserve driver and Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Like the others, Rossi praised Indy’s action-packed, fun-to-watch races, but told us that IndyCar needs to expand outside America:

There needs to be races outside North America to grow IndyCar’s relevance worldwide. Relevance would take care of itself then.

In my opinion, this is the best racing on the planet. It’s competitive... other championships you watch, it’s not like that.

Delightful shade at the Formula Mercedes Conga Line aside, Rossi’s on to something. In this day and age of international racing coverage, a top-level series has to have international appeal, especially if they purport to hold one of the most prestigious races on the planet. It’s going head-to-head with F1, NASCAR, the World Endurance Championship and other major series across the globe.

Photo credit: Kurt Bradley

The Split And The Problem

IndyCar’s desire to control its own message—and avoid uncomfortable truths—has its roots in the ugly split of the 1990s.

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Before the split, IndyCar racing was an international powerhouse that top-level drivers around the world would aim to race in. Formula One even saw Indy as a threat in its early nineties boom years, according to ESPN. To this day, the Indy 500 is still considered one leg of the triple crown of motorsport—the three most prestigious races on the planet—yet now many brush off the entire IndyCar season (including the Indy 500) as some kind of irrelevant regional open-wheel series.

Part of that regional focus was by design. When the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams split ways in the mid-nineties, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George pushed his IRL series as a place with more control over costs, that placed more emphasis on promoting American talent and initially only ran on ovals.

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Unfortunately, this bizarre American protectionism only served to isolate Indy from international importance. George’s decision to restrict most of the 1996 Indianapolis 500 grid to IRL drivers (seeing as he controlled both IMS and the IRL) was seen as a vindictive move by CART teams who still wanted to participate in American open-wheel racing’s crown jewel.

When the series that had evolved from CART’s split with the IRL—the Champ Car World Series—went bankrupt and reunited with the IRL in 2008 to form the present-day IndyCar Series, the damage had already been done. The split was too nasty, and some simply didn’t trust the merged, but still-Hulman/George-family-controlled IndyCar Series. Worse yet, a budding economic recession killed any hopes of a big-time comeback, ESPN’s report noted. Money to spend on motorsport (or in IndyCar’s case, on attracting their big fanbase back) simply dried up.

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Thus, IndyCar is now a strange island in the global motorsports ecosystem. It rarely runs outside the United States. Gone are the insane technical innovations like driver sidepods and turbine cars of years past in favor of less expensive but largely spec cars. Sometimes IndyCar feels all too much like Formula E: a back-up plan for when you just can’t make it into (or otherwise don’t stay in) Formula One.

Fans consider IndyCar a step down, not an end goal for when you’re at your top of your game.

Photo credit: Kurt Bradley

Where Does IndyCar Go From Here?

IndyCar’s problem, unlike many other major racing series, isn’t necessarily the racing. Every time Jalopnik goes to an IndyCar race, we’ve had a blast.

It’s everything around the racing that needs tweaking. There are some great personalities on the grid, but the general public doesn’t know who they are. IndyCar needs to get household names back in the cars that even casual, occasional fans of racing would recognize and want to tune in for.

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That means getting IndyCar outside of Indiana—and hopefully in front of a worldwide audience. Media pushes shouldn’t focus on pandering to the home crowd, but rather, “what can we do to make fans across the globe take notice?”

To their credit, IndyCar President of Competition Jay Frye told Racer that the series has already asked teams for suggestions on what they should open up on the cars for possible competitive development. That feels like a direct response to all the disaffected fans who say the series is boring because the cars are too spec.

Of course, with any change, we’ll believe it when we see it, but it’s what they should be doing with all aspects of the series. Take a good, hard look at the reasons why fans don’t tune in, and instead of saying that they just need to watch anyway, take that criticism and run with it. Make changes. Shake it up.

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Because people didn’t tune in to the 500, IndyCar is going to have to do more than produce fun races to get peoples’ attention. IndyCar desperately needs to move outside its own comfort zone. Let teams and drivers be critical and speak their minds, and listen to them, as they’re doing on the spec components issue.

So long as IndyCar remains a regional spec series with personalities largely followed by longtime Indy fans, though, it’ll keep running into the same problems with relevance over and over again.