Two high speed gladiators sat in their cars on pit road during the Indianapolis 500. It was the last of three red flags, and viewers were taken inside the cockpit while the drivers grappled with the moment as it unfolded on television.
It was the concluding episode of the NTT IndyCar series show 100 Days to Indy, and the focus was on defending winner Marcus Ericsson and second place runner Josef Newgarden. The intensity and drama of the seamless never-ending stoppage was cut down to mere flashes on TV, spliced together with radio traffic from the two as they waited. Ericsson expressed doubt in the one-lap restart and his odds of holding off Newgarden. The Penske driver, on the other hand sought, clarity that the green would fly first time by the flag stand.
Then, the unparalleled last lap shootout sped by and Newgarden crossed over the yard of bricks as the winner. A few shots of the Tennessee native hugging family and crew, a few more words from other drivers that had stories told and the show’s first season was over.
IndyCar’s trial at their version of Formula 1’s Drive to Survive seemed to finish as soon as it had begun. It was a well-produced and entertaining six-episode series, and it had parts that could fulfill the needs of die-hard fans and those just stumbling upon the program online or while airing on The CW. But any hopes that it would be as big as DTS, which some drivers seemed to think, were mistaken. Regardless of how highly the IndyCar series and teams think of their sport, it is a niche entity that will gain more prominence over a sustained marketing effort more so than through a one-hit, explosive event such as DTS did for F1.
There is still a lot to like about the show, and with Mark Miles recent comments that the series could continue with a second season, there are a couple areas producers can improve on to enhance it further.
Network TV Reach and Effective Impact
Compared to DTS, IndyCar did have the advantage of network television premieres for the series and that should be sustained. Yes, it was on The CW, which is a lesser-known network station, but it still provided an opportunity to be in front of a dedicated audience. DTS‘ impact has always been that the series is binge-watch worthy on Netflix. That’s possible too with 100 Days on the CW app and Vice, with the added benefit of network broadcasts. That’s a win.
Without direct insight into IndyCar’s goals or the production team’s return on investment, the series averaged around 140,000 to 220,000 viewers per episode. Was it worth it to the stakeholders and did it increase overall attention on IndyCar? Hard to tell at this early stage. Television ratings for broadcasts have recently stabilized while the series has seen growth in attendance at most events this year. The TV show being part of a multi-faceted marketing campaign, aligned with a local area blitz in target markets, might have had some effectiveness. More will be known when the series tabulates the entire impressions and viewing audience of the races at the end of the season.
Storytelling Worked but Room to Improve
The show itself was a great attempt to tell IndyCar’s stories, something that has been largely absent in marketing over the last couple decades. There is no better story in IndyCar than a driver’s quest for the Indy 500 and everything that leads up to that fateful day. And that was captured by the Vice crew reasonably well. Now IndyCar has to expand upon this opportunity and not let it dissipate like prior efforts such as the movie Turbo.
First, IndyCar must work harder at telling the story that there are two very important missions to win: the Indy 500 and the championship Astor Cup trophy. The open-wheel series will continue to face challenges in growing clout for the rest of the season if the Indy 500 continues to trump everything else. This is not an argument in trying to belittle the feat of winning the Borg-Warner, but rather increasing the importance as well as the relevance to fans that the rest of the season matters too.
So next year there should be emphasis on expanding the series to cover all year. A 100 Days to Indy with a follow-on 100 Days to the Astor Cup. There’s too much story left to tell after Indy, especially the emotional journey of the winner heading to Detroit and the routine knuckle fight for the championship that consumes the season’s last few rounds. Imagine if cameras had caught the conflict between Arrow McLaren teammates Felix Rosenqvist and Alexander Rossi? That easily fills up content for an hour-long episode. With a full season of coverage, viewers will get more stories and then fans can immerse themselves further. The sanctioning body needs to enhance their product beyond the Indy 500 and everything else. Build the story to winning both crowns in IndyCar.
Saying That, Indy Needs Two Episodes
The concluding episode of the series followed the same format as the previous five airings, which was cover one race in an hour-long block. But Indianapolis is not like any other race. The event and spectacle leading up to Memorial Day weekend is called the Month of May for a reason. In the finale episode, the rich stories of Indy were jammed into one hour; and hats off to the production for focusing on the critical players – such as Newgarden, Ericsson and Pato O’Ward. But other stories felt quickly revealed and moved on from. Stefan Wilson’s crash that took him out was succinctly summed up and the pain of missing the race evident, but what of Jack Harvey’s emotional confusion at making the race but bumping his teammate out? Or even the overall frustration of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team as Saturday turned to Sunday? Imagine seeing crew guys staring blankly at computer screens and trying to fathom some sort of understanding why their cars were missing the mark so much. The challenge of winning the pole and putting a car on the thinnest of margins was vastly overlooked as well.
Next year, it will be better to have the series divide the Indianapolis 500 event into two episodes. One can cover the Month of May through qualifying weekend, capturing all the practice and struggle to find speed while sharing the guts necessary to put a car on the edge for a 235-mph lap for pole. That will leave an entire hour to devote to the Indy 500 weekend, getting the stories from Carb Day and more than enough time to let the race sell itself. If the show really is the 100 days to Indy, there’s no need to rush the concluding race. Give it the time it deserves.
Team Aspect Could Use More Airtime
One item that could use more focus is the team dynamic. The stars of the series are the drivers, as it should be, but the other time spent covering a family or loved one left no coverage of critical team personnel. A full season show would grant more time to this type of storytelling. Auto racing is a team sport after all, and yes families are great partners to the driver, but they aren’t the ones toiling on the car relentlessly to coax every single ounce of potential speed out of it. There’s more to be gained by sharing what a mechanic or crew chief is worried about heading into race day than there is in a family member watching a race in an RV. Let’s see more of the team. They are the truly unsung heroes of the sport.
All-in-all, it was a good first season to tell the story of what the gladiators on track put at stake to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Let’s hope for a season two to expand on that journey.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar contributor at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
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