Insider: At the weekend of the IMS Show, IndyCar felt like an afterthought

INDIANAPOLIS – There’s one moment stuck with me from the third show of Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend’s triceps, and it’s not Alexander Rossi’s delight with his Andretti teammates on the Victory Podium, or Kyle Larson’s out-of-control to Ty Dillon, Richard Childress’ cold interview after Race on NBC or even Who took pictures at the Yard of Bricks on Saturday morning.

It’s Ryan Blaney sitting on a bench at an 8:30 a.m. press conference on the fourth floor of the smack-dab media center in the middle of the morning IndyCar warm-up. Blaney had not won the previous week – not at all this year – nor was he involved in any of the multiple contract disputes that have swept the motorsport field. The Penske team driver had a new delivery sponsor and a race-winning optimist mindset to discuss as qualifying approached and he’s sitting precariously on the bubble.

A handful of handpicked drivers are handpicked to sit in the media center at NASCAR events. Chase Briscoe, the Indiana native, did it Friday afternoon between IndyCar training and qualifying, but those who scheduled Blaney seemed to think Saturday morning was the perfect time.

Never mind the fact that IndyCar was on the right track as the teams worked out problems with their cars, worked hot stops, tested full fuel loads and tuned up their race settings to less than four hours away. As for the media covering IndyCar, the warm-ups aren’t quite as interesting as TV, but it’s important to watch. Saturday, the media center broadcast audio was cut off for the latter half of the 30-minute session so Blaney could get his time on the mic.

By itself, the incident means very little — oversight by someone on the NASCAR side, a Penske Entertainment Corp official told me. , which will be avoided in the future. But the innocuous incident fits the larger sense of what has been described as a festive and unifying weekend of racing in America. In the weekend joint with the NASCAR’s Cup Series and Xfinity at Racing Capital of the World, IndyCar serves as the bottom card for the bottom card. In terms of scheduling and circuit placement, among other things, IndyCar comes up as an afterthought.

In a way, you can argue that this is fair and appropriate. By anecdotal, some fans have spoken of the grandstand beginning to fill up as the IndyCar race nears its end and the Xfinity race is getting hotter. The TV ratings announced by NBC on Tuesday morning match that narrative as well — IndyCar attracted an average audience of 1.07 million versus 1.548 million for Xfinity, with both broadcasting on NBC. Despite being a Triple-A in the Trophy, the Xfinity is attracting more attention and eyeballs than North America’s premier open-wheel racing series.

So it should come as no surprise to see the IndyCar teams pack up their tankers for an early end to the weekend just as Xfinity drivers are announced ahead of the race for the PA. But does this have to be the case? Should the status quo continue through a unified weekend for motorsports in America, or should we see more give and take.

Nobody is arguing that the financial auto racing is not the main attraction of the weekend. The IMS Road Course only started hosting IndyCar multiple times over the course of one season out of necessity during the 2020 pandemic campaign — a benefit of the track owner who also owns IndyCar. In the midst of opening days and pandemic weeks when it wasn’t a bad idea to put a schedule together, the guards were frustrated enough among the series’ decision makers to give what wasn’t done before the shot. It was a unification, at a time when the race world and the world at large needed it most – even if members of both chains were literally prevented from mixing due to protocols.

During the second edition in 2021, we saw more cross-organic meetings and conversations between the drivers. From the anecdotal, I remember seeing several IndyCar drivers who stopped by on Sunday to watch the inaugural Cup race on the road track. This Sunday? Dalton Kellett was there to enjoy the scenery like a fan. Scott McLaughlin was there as Pinske’s obedient driver. Takuma Sato was there, likely, because of Honda’s #51 riding partnership with Rick Ware Racing. Scott Dixon made what appeared to be an unplanned cameo in his all-black, concealed outfit.

“I’m going to watch the Xfinity race because Sage (Karam), one of my best friends, is racing, and then I’ll definitely be at the lake on Sunday,” said final race winner Alexander Rossi, when an Indianapolis resident was asked on Friday if he would continue in Sunday’s crossover event. “.

Now, Rousey doesn’t claim to be a huge fan of NASCAR, so it wasn’t too surprising, but what was it? This revelation from Conor Daly, perhaps (outside of Jimmy Johnson) the IndyCar driver most connected to the NASCAR world: “Many friends from the NASCAR world had no idea IndyCar was also racing this weekend,Dali tweeted last Wednesday. “Like, come on, really? This is brutal.”

Both series, along with co-streaming partner NBC, did a solid job preparing content for release during the weekend’s variety broadcast to help emphasize their theme of “unity.” James Hinchcliffe rode the gun while Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove a two-year-old Indy 500 Corvette speed car around a road track. They both drifted between airing their series over the weekend as well.

NBC also recorded a segment where Mexican drivers Pato Award (IndyCar) and Daniel Suarez (NASCAR) sat down and reminisced about growing up in their home country and spending weekends shredding around local go-kart tracks. Most importantly, Penske Entertainment gathered 22 former Brickyard 400, Indy 500 and Verizon 200 winners for a one-of-a-kind Saturday morning photo shoot to celebrate the greatness spread across both fields. In particular, Ricky Rudd said he hasn’t been to a racetrack of any kind since 2007 but made the special trip.

But there was very little organic interaction to be seen.

Attention has largely focused on contract tampering, last week’s ASCAR inspection DQs and whether IMS made the proper track repairs to withstand the rigors of the constant beatings from heavy vehicles. It happened, even if cup drivers increasingly prove that when push comes to shove, this road race will forever be a demolition derby with less than 10 laps to go as soon as one flag flies. And perhaps, after decades where only those teams with the best technical packages ever got a shot on a circuit that offered so few passing opportunities, that’s what this event needs to survive.

More on the NASCAR-IndyCar weekend:

With crowds down to about 35,000 as of 2017, NASCAR fans made their stand loud and clear before the pandemic. Although that number jumped to about 60,000 in 2019 while still oval-shaped, this figure that was far from normal a few years ago has remained relatively flat for 2021 and 2022. Attendance is any indication, and these have added Recent experience some extra interest. And outside of the 2020 event without an audience, Sunday’s TV rating (average viewership of 3.402 million) outperformed the first road race last year and the last natural oval race in 2019.

So why not try more? It’s the only part of this weekend that, for the most part, feels like it’s clicking, and whether it’s alternating between an oval track and road every two years, or finally giving the NextGen a shot at an oval in two years, the trophy racing format seems set for that. for years to come. But what will it take to see more crossover drivers between races?

So far, we’ve seen Cody Weir as the only driver to try both series in one weekend, and as much as that feat was a year ago, the unknown driver on both fields didn’t do much to move the needle. Familiar IndyCar faces – Santino Ferrucci and Sage Karam – have also crossed over the past two years, but they only ran in Xfinity – just as Jimmie Johnson has only ran a road race. His own foray into IndyCar made it clear that a top driver or Xfinity trying to create a sudden IndyCar road course for the first time with little testing or notice would likely make a lot of pioneering noise but not actually do much of the track waves. But what does it take for a Penske driver like McLaughlin or Josef Newgarden, or a familiar NASCAR face like Daly to stand a chance at Xfinity?

How about creating a race day that rivals any calendar day outside of the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend? For now, IMS has done what you expect them to do to try to balance the ticket value for both weekends. On Saturday, all three practice runs, Cup, Xfinity, IndyCar racing and Xfinity qualifies, and if you’re just a general racing fanatic without any strong loyalty to the three, it’s the best value by far. But Sunday’s cup race brings the highest drama. You might catch yourself peeking at your watch every five minutes from laps 1 to 70, but come on that last stretch of trophy race – especially if you’re sitting around the Turn 4 oval – you won’t be able to predict what you’re about to see.

Instead of catering to respective chain locations on the totem pole of American motorsport, why not turn things around? Turn Friday into a kind of fan-driven motorsport cultural festival. Pull out food trucks and host concerts, autograph sessions, or souvenir sales. Run the BC39 Friday night with drivers from both series, along with regular drivers. Keep making Saturday all about fans being able to watch each series train, qualify and qualify with the Xfinity Race. And on Sunday, throw the green IndyCar flag right into the afternoon, with a Cup race on the road track to follow. Might sell a few tickets less on Saturday? Sure, but imagine the unique atmosphere on Sunday for 6 hours of racing has never been seen before. You’ll have drivers of both groups undoubtedly hanging out around random pit boxes, some listening to the driver’s radio and supporting their friends from across the lane.

What it feels like now to be IndyCar working as a warm-up for its Cup support series will turn into a real collision between America’s two biggest racing series, running on the same day on the same track. Do some compromises need to be made, whether it’s IMS’s gambling on total ticket sales or NASCAR’s willingness to partake on Sunday with IndyCar? surely. But what we have now are two events occurring simultaneously on the same path with little – if any – real, organic, and private coherence. It feels like a placeholder for IndyCar until another track comes along, so why do they really need to run a second time on the same track two months later?

But if they became an unmissable part of what’s supposed to be a cross-weekend, perhaps when IndyCar brought in another option to diversify their schedule, this would seem like something neither side could afford to lose. Filming and segments designed for television can only go so far.

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