Race Weekend Central

Open-Wheel Wednesday: Taking Stock of the 2015 IndyCar Season After 3 Races

Open-Wheel Wednesday – This week is a group chat with Matt Stallknecht, Toni Montgomery, Huston Ladner, and Aaron Bearden.  

Huston: What you got to start us off with? Anyone‏?

Toni: Well let’s see there’s the new aero kits.‏

Matt: I’d say the aero kits have been a modest success thus far‏.

Toni: I’d say other than being able to tell the manufacturers apart on sight, I haven’t seen an appreciable difference in the on-track product‏.

Huston: I think I’m going to point out the operative word of your statement, Matt. Modest‏.

Toni: Other than the debris issue in St. Pete‏.

Aaron: I’ve enjoyed the racing with the new aero kits, but haven’t seen a significant change from the racing last year. That said, a one-caution race at Long Beach was a nice change of pace from the caution-filled debacles in St. Pete and NOLA.

Matt: Nothing about the aero kits has revolutionized anything, but they brought some buzz to the sport and have given the teams so extra leeway to work with.‏

Huston: The leeway is a good thing, especially because Chevy and Honda are coming at it from different perspectives… but yeah, doesn’t seem like there’s been much change.‏

Toni: There’s a question – did the fix of the aero kits to make them more sturdy help at Long Beach to keep from having the minefield like they had in St. Pete or did the drivers just adjust?‏

Matt: It’s always tough to gauge the road-course racing product from year to year. It’s easier to measure that sort of thing in oval racing. On road courses and street circuits, there are more variables at play that affect the racing. But yeah, I’d say the sport is about where it was last year competition-wise‏.

Huston: Toni, good question. The NBCSN crew did say that the drivers held a meeting and discussed that they needed to put on a good show at LB, so there may have been an adjustment in that respect‏.

Aaron: I think it’s a combination of both, Toni. There was much less debris to be found at Long Beach. While a lot of that came from the sturdier aero kits, there was also less avoidable contact between drivers. I think IndyCar has made a point to remind drivers to put on a good show.‏

Matt: Its a learning and adjustment process like anything else. Some foibles are to be expected with any change of this magnitude‏.

Toni: Oh I agree. I thought the criticism of the debris from the aero kit bits was a bit harsh at St. Pete. Yeah, it wasn’t what you wanted to see, but it was the first race out with them.‏

Matt: I’m not sure the drivers have much control over how good or bad the show is. They’re out there getting everything they can get every lap. I always laugh when sanctioning bodies in racing say that to their drivers before a race.‏

Toni: Give them time to tweak and adjust because you just can’t create true race conditions in testing no matter what you do.‏

Huston: But at LB the governing body had nothing to do with it. The drivers held the meeting on their own.‏

Aaron: Long Beach was undeniably the best race of the young IndyCar season. However, I’ll be curious to see if they can keep that level of quality in the following weeks in Birmingham and Indianapolis.‏

Toni: It was also a really good thing it was a good race since they had extra eyes thanks to the rain in Bristol‏.

Matt: My guess is that INDYCAR elicited some level of encouragement for that meeting to happen.‏

Toni: Can you imagine if that had happened and St. Pete or NOLA was what all those NASCAR fans got?‏ That would have been a disaster.‏

Aaron: IndyCar did catch a break with the Bristol rains shifting some fans over. They were also subject to a small bash from David Ragan on Twitter, though. Did anyone see their response? Hilarious.‏

Toni: That being said, I still saw some social media grumbling that they thought it was boring. At least before that four-way battle at the end. The grumbling seemed to die down a bit then.‏

Huston: The question I have, and maybe some of you have checked – did Indy really benefit from the rain delay? Were there more eyes on the race at LB?‏

Matt: Those extra eyes didn’t stay for long though. The race pulled a paltry .32 rating. NASCAR’s coverage of the rain delay pulled a 2.9. My guess is that any fans that left NASCAR coverage tossed on the NBA playoff games‏.

Huston: What’s .32? Around 750k?‏

Matt: That’s kind of shocking when you think about. NASCAR’s rain delay coverage had more than quadruple the viewership of the actual INDYCAR race.‏

Toni: Hey that’s actually up for IndyCar.‏ Sadly‏.

Huston: Disappointing.‏

Matt: .32 probably is somewhere in the 640,000-800,000 range‏.

Toni: No it’s not. There’s not as much overlap in the viewership as you would think.‏

Aaron: Wow. I had no idea the rating difference was that great during the NASCAR delay. That’s crazy.‏

Huston: Thanks Matt, had a feeling you had a number in mind.

Toni: I’d love to think everyone is like me and loves all kinds of racing‏.

Matt: There’s a lot of evidence that says that NASCAR’s fans actually are more apt to watch general sports content during a delay like that as opposed to other forms of racing.‏

Toni: But that’s not reality. Let’s think about the majority of the folks who want to watch NASCAR race at Bristol.‏ If you are really honest about it, do you think those same people are going to find Long Beach interesting at all?‏

Matt: The few that will probably were already planning to flip back and forth between the two.‏

Toni: Exactly‏.

Huston: Right. I’m not sure that a majority of NASCAR fans equivocate to racing fans, hence Indy is still in a tough spot.‏

Aaron: It’s tougher sell than usual right now, too. Competing with the NBA and NHL playoffs would be a challenge for any sport, never mind one that’s second-tier in their own market.

Toni: Well I’d rather be boiled in oil than watch NBA, but hey, that’s just me.  I’ll take racing.‏

Matt: I’ve exhausted lots of mental energy on how INDYCAR can improve their ratings. And I came up with nothing, other than perhaps buying out primetime slots on major OTA networks similar to what boxing is doing with the Premiere Boxing Champions coverage.‏

Toni: Any kind of racing.‏

Aaron: I’m actually watching it right now.. I do much prefer racing, though.‏

Matt: NBCSN is the kind of channel that you have to really dig for if you want to watch the race. Anything over a 1.2 or so on a channel like that is an accomplishment.‏

Toni: Here’s a rating-related thing though. My other area of motorsports expertise, NHRA, is VERY quick to point out that they, not IndyCar, are the No. 2 motorsport in America.‏

Huston: IndyCar doesn’t have the money to buy out anything. I’m still amazed how they’re afloat at times‏.

Matt: INDYCAR being buried on that network when it already doesn’t have a huge viewing base does it no favors.‏

Huston: Whoa, wait a sec. NBSCN is doing OK with F1‏.

Matt: I’m not especially familiar with NHRA ratings, but I do know the sport is in far better financial health than INDYCAR.‏

Huston: I think that people just don’t seek out Indy racing‏.

Matt: F1 gets .4s and .5s while Indy gets .2s and .3s. With ratings that low, it’s all pretty negligible.‏

Aaron: I’m not surprised to hear of NHRA being ahead of IndyCar. I mean, I live in Indiana and people don’t know the series races the road course.‏

Huston: That says a lot, because NHRA just hemorrhaged sponsors and faced their own issues.‏

Matt: The funny part is that F1 manages to get those numbers at like 2 o’clock in the morning east coast time.‏

Toni: They fare about the same in ratings although they have been increasing. At track is really healthy in NHRA so far this year.‏ They sold out zMAX‏. That place is BIG‏.

Matt: INDYCAR is bigger only in the sense that it has more mainstream reach and clout than the NHRA does. The Indy 500 alone elevates INDYCAR over the NHRA‏.

Huston: Good deal for the NHRA. And F1 can still do what they want when they average over 40 mil worldwide‏.

Aaron: F1’s going to be just fine, even if their racing leaves something to be desired up front sometimes.

Huston: I’m coming to the conclusion that Indy is basically the 500 and LB (which had 160,000 for the weekend)‏.

Aaron: IndyCar, on the other hand… If it wasn’t for the 500, would it even be afloat?‏ How many casual fans can even name the series champion?‏

Matt: Here’s something people need to understand about ratings though: television ratings for pretty much anything that isn’t the NFL or NCAA football have been steadily dropping since the mid-90s. Ratings are not a 1 to 1 proxy for popularity. They are a gauge, yes, but with every day that passes, they have to be taken with some measure of a grain of salt.

Huston: Right, ratings have more to do with setting ad pricing than anything.‏ Better question: is there a casual fan with regard to Indy?‏

Aaron: In my eyes, it’s typically a fan of some other form of racing (i.e. NASCAR) that occasionally follows the series. I’ve met some. They’re typically older fans that used to be more dedicated.‏

Toni: Ratings are funny. We have more opportunity to see more motorsports coverage than we used to. More of any kind of coverage than we used to because we have many more outlets for things than we used to.‏

Matt: People talk about how low NASCAR ratings have dropped, but interestingly enough, NASCAR has held roughly the same margin ratings-wise on a week-to-week basis over the MLB and the NBA since the mid-2000s. So are these sports really becoming less popular, or are fans simply more casual and more attention-deficient nowadays? I think it’s the latter.

Toni: But that means that now instead of us all watching something on the 13 channels we have, we watch things on the 175-plus channels we have.‏

Matt: Bingo, Toni‏.

Toni: Result is that everyone’s ratings shrink.‏

Aaron: We can also watch Netflix and follow sports in 140 characters or less on Twitter. That’s becoming more and more common.‏

Matt: So, in reality, if you account for how ratings have dropped across the board, it could be argued that INDYCAR is roughly on the same strata of popularity that it was on 10 years ago.‏

Toni: Before I started covering NHRA last year, the only real knowledge I had of it was watching it some back in the ’70s.‏ Wide World of Sports days.‏ Because it’s what was on on a Saturday afternoon.‏ Now you have to LOOK for things and you can CHOOSE things.‏

Matt: I also love to point out that people have been proclaiming that baseball is dying since the late 1800s‏.

Huston: Only problem with that, Matt, is that Indy’s racing wasn’t so popular 10 years ago either‏.

Matt: Entirely true Huston‏.

Huston: OK, so how about we return to the actual product – what’s to be made of the season three races in?‏

Matt: I’d give it a B-. I really need to see an oval race with the aero kits before I can really judge.‏

Toni: Andretti needs to figure out how to get out of their own way fast‏. Or it’s going to be a really long year for them.‏

Aaron: It’s hard to make anything of it. With the debris minefield in St. Pete and the rainy massacre at NOLA, there’s only been one true, clean race to grade. I’d give it a C.‏

Toni: Aaron has a great point.

Aaron: The sad thing with essentially losing two races for IndyCar is that they only have 13 left on the schedule.‏

Huston: Right, so far a debris-fest and a washout, then finally a good race‏.

Matt: I really wish we went somewhere like Phoenix or Chicagoland to kick the season off.‏

Huston: And for Matt, well, um, you’re going to have to wait a while for that oval‏.

Toni: Yup. That pretty much sums it up.‏

Aaron: At least we’re almost to the Month of May. That’ll add some spice to IndyCar and get some people to pay attention to it.‏

Toni: Right. For the month of May anyway.‏

Huston: Phoenix, OK. Chicagoland? Pretty sure there was still ice on the track when the season started.

Toni: I know this sounds mean spirited, but every year I hold out hope that the Indy 500 will come out on top in the ratings. Because I’m so tired of the NASCAR fans gloating about how the 600 is the more important race.‏

Matt: Can’t both just be important?‏

Toni: They are to me. Along with the Monaco Grand Prix.‏

Matt: Both races are great for different reasons.‏

Toni: I’ve got room for all of them.‏

Aaron: Don’t get me wrong, I grew up with NASCAR fans for parents, but I also grew up in Indiana. The 500 is THE race around here for obvious reasons. But every race that day matters!‏

Huston: Gloat? I didn’t know there was some kind of battle between the two, I just consider it one of the best days in racing.‏

Matt: Indy is the bigger race in my eyes, but NASCAR has a far larger fanbase that extends into the mainstream sports world and that will not change anytime soon. Ergo, NASCAR will usually win that ratings battle unless there is an especially mainstream-relevant story heading into the race at Indy.‏

Toni: I did four races last year. I had F1 at breakfast, Indy at lunch, NASCAR with dinner and NHRA for the late-night snack‏. Best yay ever. Day. Well actually yay does work because that’s what I was saying.‏

Matt: I will be attending Indianapolis this year and watching the Coca-Cola 600 in a local bar after Indy concludes. Needless to say I’ll be in dreamland that day.‏

Aaron: I went to the 500. The real race is trying to beat 250,000 people out of the city afterwards.‏

Toni: OK, so we can’t really get any conclusions about the season, but I do think there has been to give us some early opinions on teams and drivers for this year though, don’t you think?‏

Matt: Penske is on rails‏. JPM is my early pick to take both the 500 and the championship‏.

Toni: Yeah, pretty much‏.

Huston: So we’re looking forward to the 500 but there’s a couple races before then… anything excite anyone?‏

Toni: Never count Dixie out‏. And Dracone is a chicane.‏ He’s Milka Duno all over again.‏ I also think JPM is the man this year.‏ He’s on a mission.‏

Huston: Yeah, I’m on the JPM bandwagon‏. Ouch‏, on Dracone = Duno.

Aaron: Josef Newgarden’s showed more speed than I expected this year. I was also happy to see Conor Daly get a shot last week.‏

Matt: I am absolutely fascinated to see how the aero kits change the racing at Indy. The racing has been so beyond incredible there the past three years and I’m curious to see if the aero kits affect that.

Toni: I hope if they do it’s in a positive fashion.‏

Matt: I can’t imagine the racing being much better there than is has been.‏

Aaron: The racing can’t get much better than it’s been the past couple years at Indy. Let’s hope the aero kits affect things positively.‏

Toni: It’s kind of funny because I get the impression that everyone; teams, Firestone, INDYCAR, are curious as to how the aero kits will affect racing at Indy. Big question mark.‏

Huston: Right. The performance for the road/street courses is one thing, but high speeds will really show something‏.

Aaron: They better hope the racing is still good. The 500 is the one time of the year that everyone has their eyes on IndyCar. It would add salt to a gaping wound if that race goes poorly.‏

Matt: More tire wear at Indy might spice things up even more, but realistically the racing at that track needs no assistance currently.‏

Aaron: I’m curious to see how teams do in their second race on the road course. Last year’s race was marred a bit by the standing start debacle and Hinch’s concussion.‏

Toni: Is it weird to hope that the aero kits essentially have no discernible effect? Because that’s what it seems like we’re saying.‏

Matt: That would be my hope Toni.‏

Aaron: It’s weird, but honest. The racing at Indy has been stellar. No changes are necessary.‏

Huston: Bingo‏.

Matt: But my gut tells me they will have some measurable effect.‏ I’d also expect higher speeds at Indy this year.‏

Huston: OK, so any parting thoughts as the series heads to Barber?‏

Matt: The series is in decent shape right now. If the aero kits continue to hold up well, a good season should be in store.‏

Aaron: Long Beach was good, if a bit boring early on. More of that at Barber, please.‏

Toni: I really think what we see at Barber will give a much better idea of what we’ll see this season.‏

Huston: Another solid clean race would go a long way‏.

Toni: The debris just messed up St. Pete but hopefully we have that sorted out.‏ NOLA was a weather disaster. Long Beach was good, but Barber is just a lot more like what we’re going to see the rest of the season.‏ It should, as long as we have a solid race not messed up by weather, clear the picture up a lot.‏

Aaron: Agreed, Toni.‏

Huston: And, the series is fortunate to have the day to themselves. Maybe it’ll help‏. Or it’ll rain at Richmond and that race will happen on Sunday (hah)

Toni: Hush Huston‏, NHRA is running live on Sunday‏, I only get five live events this season‏.

About the author

Ava Lader headshot photo

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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Thanks for the review – it will be interesting to see just how long it takes Honda to catch up to Chevy this season.

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