Rejuvenated IndyCar Rides A Wave Of Momentum To Texas Motor Speedway

Lyle Ellerbee

It was two hours before the start of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on February 27 and IndyCar team owner Michael Lanigan surveyed the scene. He was sitting on a golf cart outside of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan hospitality area.

Inside the facility, it was packed with sponsors and guests. Outside of the team’s area was a large crowd of spectators, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the team’s IndyCar drivers such as Graham Rahal, Jack Harvey, or Christian Lundgaard.

Across the way was the hospitality unit for Chip Ganassi Racing, which was also packed with guests and sponsors. Next door was an even larger hospitality area for Andretti Autosport, where McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown was talking to fellow team owner Michael Andretti about making Andretti driver Colton Herta part of McLaren’s F1 development team. This arrangement would give Herta a chance to gain points for his FIA “Super License” that is needed to compete in Formula One.

Andretti is hoping to either purchase, or create, his own Formula One team that would begin competition in 2024.

The Andretti Autosport hospitality unit was jammed with guests. Next door at Honda, it was the same thing with many of the guest enjoying brunch either under the tent or basking in the sunshine at a table outside the awning.

Across from Honda was the IndyCar “Paddock Club.” That is where the IndyCar sanctioning body entertains its guest with a lavish spread in a comfortable environment.

Lanigan, an industrialist from the south suburbs of Chicago and the owner of a heavy equipment and crane business Mi-Jack and the LANCO Group, has been involved in sponsoring or owning Indy cars since the early 1980s. He was once partners with famed actor Paul Newman at Newman Haas Lanigan Racing in the old Champ Car Series. One of his business associates was the great Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher before Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys broke Payton’s record on October 27, 2002. Lanigan was also the executor of Payton’s estate after he died of a combination of liver cancer and a rare liver disease on November 1, 1999.

The point is Lanigan has been around and what he said has an impact.

“This reminds me of the early 1990s,” Lanigan said.

That is when it was trendy to be an IndyCar fan. The sport was whole with many of the drivers and teams that competed in the Indianapolis 500 coming from the CART series.

It was a time when IndyCar racing was beginning to rival Formula One in some parts of the world at least. While F1 featured cutting edge technology, CART/IndyCar had better racing. In the United States, NASCAR was still generally considered a Southern sport and had yet to truly break out of its Southeastern roots.

In the early 1990s, big crowds came to big events to watch the big names of IndyCar compete in races that featured big fields with big sponsors.

All of those ingredients were on display at the season-opening race on the streets of St. Petersburg on February 27.

It was easily the largest crowd in the history of the street race that began in 2003, took a year off in 2004, and has been a major event on the IndyCar schedule since 2005.

“I think Michael Lanigan is exactly right,” said another IndyCar team owner, Michael Shank. “That’s what it felt like. That’s the part I don’t want to lose. I get worried about these outside influences like the conflict in the Ukraine affecting what we have going on here. There’s nothing I can do about it, but that momentum, that energy that he is sensing and seeing is exactly what I’m seeing.

“We’ve sold out all of our space on two cars. It’s a rare time. Also, you see hospitality units fired back up again. They were put away for a very long time.

“That’s a positive thing.”

According to data released by NBC Sports, the race delivered the series’ most-watched season-opener in 11 years. It averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 1.429 million viewers on NBC and Peacock, making it not only the most-watched INDYCAR season opener in 11 years (St. Pete, 2011, 1.840 million, ABC), but also the most-watched non-Indy 500 INDYCAR race in 11 years.

The race was up 53 percent compared to the 2021 IndyCar season opener at Barber Motorsports Park (932,000 viewers on April 18, 2021). It was also up 15 percent from last year’s St. Pete race, which was viewed by 1.246 million on April 25. Both races were on NBC.

On its Peacock streaming service, the race delivered an Average Minute Audience (AMA) of 23,800 viewers, the largest streaming audience on record for an INDYCAR race, excluding the Indy 500.

Viewership for the race peaked with a TV-only audience of 1.509 million viewers and averaged a household rating of 0.89. TAD is based on data from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics.

Although a typical NASCAR race would easily exceed these numbers, it’s a dramatic improvement for IndyCar as it continues its upward trend in terms of spectators, television viewers, grid size and sponsorship.

“There has been real momentum building for a few years particularly even with COVID the last couple of years,” said Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles.

Penske Entertainment is a division of the Penske Corporation and owns and operates the IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500.

“We ended the championship year in 2021 on a roll and it continued as a lot of people are ready to get out, get back and do whatever they like and a lot of people like IndyCar,” Miles continued. “St. Pete was off the charts successful. On the track, it was really good racing. I love to see 26 cars out there.

“From the perspective of the town or the city of St. Pete and the promoters of the race, I was walking around the commercial district on Saturday night, and it was lit up. People were having a great time and it was slammed. They had a very significant increase over their previous record ticket sales. They built nine, new temporary suites because they sold them all out and sold the next nine quickly. And then of course our television rating was the biggest in 11 years.

“It’s all good and I hope it continues.”

Saturday’s crowd at St. Pete was what the race day crowd looked like in 2007 and 2008. Some even speculate if the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Florida is beginning to rival the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race that began in 1975.

IndyCar was once considered the orphan of professional sports after its acrimonious split with CART over the creation of the Indy Racing League that began competition in 1996.

Even after the two sides unified in 2008, other than the annual Indianapolis 500 and its enormous crowds that approach 300,000 spectators, sports fans had a one-track mind when it came to IndyCar.

That one track was, of course, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With the exception of a few races on the schedule such as Long Beach, sports fans that watched the Memorial Day Weekend Indy 500 all tuned out by the following weekend.

Despite having the best racing on the planet, IndyCar struggled in the greater landscape. It had barely enough sponsorship interest to put 20-22 cars on the starting grid.

But something dramatic started to change the perception of IndyCar and it happened at the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.

Because of its historic milestone of 100 Indy 500s, spectators made sure to attend the 100th in 2016. It was the first time in the history of the great race that Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials announced a sellout crowd. That meant the local television blackout could be lifted for the first time since 1950.

Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the 104thIndianapolis 500 was held at an empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Spectators were not allowed, only a limited number of team members, limited media and limited sponsor representatives could attend the race.

Along with the medical and safety crews, there were probably just 2,000 people on the grounds of the Speedway for a race that was held on August 23, 2020, instead of Memorial Day Sunday.

Last year’s Indy 500 was held with a reduced capacity of 137,000 fans in order to gain approval from health officials in Indiana and Marion County. That was still, by far, the largest crowd to witness a sporting event during the pandemic.

The telecast for last year’s race was up over previous years because many were still under some type of restriction.

What they saw that day was a race that kicked IndyCar back into high gear as Helio Castroneves became the fourth driver to win four Indianapolis 500s in their career.

The incredible emotion displayed by the winning driver and the fans was perfectly captured on television.

IndyCar was suddenly trendy again.

“I think those are two huge factors for sure,” Miles admitted. “But the truth is less in America, but more internationally. Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso coming in created a lot of attention around the world and that has continued to grow. Going to Nashville last year created a lot of attention, a great event in an important city.

“I like starting in St. Pete and ending at Laguna Seca in Monterey and having a natural shape to the season. And, of course, NBC’s desire to show most of our races on network. NTT has been a great sponsor and will do much more in showing how it can develop its technology.

“All of those things matter. I think we are hitting on all cylinders.”

IndyCar and television partner NBC also discovered something unique in terms of its television window.

IndyCar races that start early in the day, in the 12 noon to 1 p.m. Eastern Time slot, actually showed a ratings gain over IndyCar telecasts that started later in the day.

“It’s all about when people are home, when you can attract an audience and to some extent, what else is on at that time,” Miles explained. “I think the early afternoon Sunday window is pretty good. Hopefully, we can keep finding times when that works for the network and for our races.”

This year’s IndyCar season began on February 27, just one week after NASCAR’s Daytona 500. The two races were connected by Interstate 4, which links Daytona Beach to Tampa/St. Pete, creating a unique Florida SpeedWeek.

Florida-based RP Funding became the presenting sponsor of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and flooded I-4 with billboards promoting the race.

“That company advertises all over Florida at a very significant level,” Miles explained. “They committed most of their spots for about a month on the I-4 corridor from Daytona Beach to Tampa tagged with promotion for the race.”

Shank, along with co-owner Jim Meyer, are the winning team owners for Castroneves and teammate Simon Pagenaud.

Shank believes the popular Formula One “Drive to Survive” docuseries has made other forms of racing more popular.

“I believe in a lot of ways the Drive to Survive thing on Formula One, that tide has risen all boats,” Shank said. “Motorsports coming out of COVID is on a really high trajectory than we’ve ever had. Even before going into COVID. I’m not only talking television numbers and spectator attendance, but I’m also talking about business deals, partnerships we are able to put together now coming out of COVID are much stronger than they were before. The need for entertainment is high right now.”

Business appears good for the NTT IndyCar Series as it heads into this weekend’s next race, Sunday’s XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway.

When that track hosted its first IndyCar race in 1997, it drew an announced crowd of 129,000 fans. In recent years, however, it probably hasn’t drawn more than 20,000 spectators.

Miles indicated new TMS general manager Rob Rumage, who has taken over for the retired Eddie Gossage, plans to put additional emphasis on the area’s Hispanic community.

“We’ll keep doing everything we know to do to keep building the audience,” Miles said. “Maybe, but we are trying to come up with tailored strategies working with the promoters for all these races and do what it takes with these companies that have the assets they have in the markets they are in.

“We have real momentum and want to see that escalate coming into May and then really all culminate with the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar appears to be riding a wave of rejuvenation, but caution is blowing in the wind from circumstances outside of its control.

“I’m a little bit worried about the conflict in the Ukraine honestly, what happens long term and if we get involved heavily as a country,” Shank warned. “Rising gasoline prices, that is a concern, too.

“There’s not a lot we can do about it. If you come out to the races and want to talk and get pictures and autographs, we will try to make it worth your while. Everybody is still hungry to come out to races coming out of COVID but if we have $5 gasoline, that will curtail a lot. That whole thing makes me a tad bit nervous.

“I hate it now because we are on such a positive role otherwise.

“Beyond that, we have a great product. People are hungry for it. You are going to see that big-time at Indianapolis this year. Every race we have gone to, you look at St. Pete and I think there were 150,000 people there. It’s incredible this growth that we are on right now.”

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