A year of breaking Formula One records would normally rank Max Verstappen as the most impressive driver across the world of motorsport. That it does not is testament to Alex Palou’s IndyCar season.
The Spaniard has been dominant all year, taking five wins and never finishing a race lower than eighth. The fact he has done this in a spec series – a motorsport championship in which all the cars are the same – is what makes his achievement stand out.
It wasn’t just the on-track headlines that Palou was stealing, either. A bitter dispute in 2022 saw Arrow McLaren claim to have signed the Spaniard, only for his current employers Chip Ganassi Racing to take Palou to court over a breach of contract.
The resolution saw Palou continue at Chip Ganassi Racing this season, with his switch to Arrow McLaren seemingly delayed by a year. However, Palou decided to renege on the agreement and remain with Chip Ganassi beyond this campaign. It is now Arrow McLaren who are suing Palou, with the Indianapolis Star reporting that the team is seeking to recoup between US$20 million and US$30 million in damages over the U-turn.
While Formula One took advantage of a similar storyline around Oscar Piastri for a two-episode run in its latest season of Netflix’s Drive to Survive, IndyCar has no equivalent to the smash-hit docuseries. However, addressing this lack of marketing prowess has been one of the biggest focuses this season.
The series has reportedly spent US$17 million on marketing this campaign, a 60 per cent increase compared to 2022. Among other things, this saw ‘100 Days to Indy’ air on The CW Network before the Indianapolis 500, taking fans behind the scenes ahead of IndyCar’s biggest race.
With the IndyCar season now done and dusted, BlackBook Motorsport looks back over the past six months to analyse the impact of IndyCar’s key business decisions and to round up the key attendance and TV viewership figures.
Viewership improves as new TV deals loom
The series’ TV audience is currently going from strength to strength. On the back of 2022, which was the most watched IndyCar season since 2016, viewership has grown once more.
After 14 races, the latest figures from IndyCar show that the series was averaging 1.403 million viewers per race on NBC, an increase of two per cent year-over-year.
Races in St Petersburg, Long Beach, Detroit, Iowa, Nashville and Gateway all averaged more than one million viewers. The double-header at Iowa Speedway was particularly impressive, averaging a combined 1.21 million viewers across the weekend, representing a 31 per cent YoY increase.
The Indianapolis 500 was, of course, once again the biggest draw of the season and saw an average of 4.94 million viewers tune into the flagship race. While this was an increase on last year’s average of 4.84 million, 2023 is one of just four editions of the race that has averaged fewer than five million viewers.
This season saw two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden take home his first Indy 500 win
The improvements are more an indication of what’s to come for the series as it seeks to grow its audience. The full effects of its increased marketing spend will take time to come to fruition, but 50 per cent of the three million people that tuned into the ‘100 Days to Indy’ docuseries had never watched an IndyCar race before.
The viewership increases also come at a good time for IndyCar as it approaches the end of its current media rights deal with NBC, which is reportedly paying US$20 million a year. The series has hired Endeavor’s IMG Media division to consult on the sales process for the next cycle with a view to entering the market in Q4 this year.
The progress the series has made this year will have a direct impact on negotiations, with NBC likely to lead the race to retain the rights. The Comcast-owned channel broadcast 13 of the 17 races this season, so the future may not only bring a higher rights fee, but more live races on the main channel.
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Attendances trending upwards
While notoriously difficult information to come by, attendances appear to be trending in the right direction this season – at least for the most part.
With Texas Motor Speedway offering up practically empty stands in April this year, IndyCar tends to avoid the publication of official figures, but there remain some highlights for the growing series.
The Indy 500 typically attracted the biggest crowd of the season, as 350,000 turned up on race day
Despite the empty stands, Texas reportedly saw a double-digit percentage increase in attendance compared to 2022. In stark contrast, there was an all-time high for an IndyCar race at Iowa Speedway, with 85,000 attending over three days.
The major highlight of the season was the 330,000 people that turned up on race day for the Indianapolis 500, the largest crowd since 350,000 watched the 100th running of the race in 2016.
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Other major developments
The decision to increase its marketing spend spoke to IndyCar’s focus on building the connection with its fans this season. Even something as small as a partnership with Iris Audio that improved the broadcast audio on the live feed was a decision made for the benefit of the audience.
How motorsport is seen and consumed is of the utmost importance at present, with all major motorsport series attempting to keep pace with the ever-expanding Formula One circus.
Interestingly, part of this move saw IndyCar teams agree to reduced revenue this season, with around US$60,000 to US$100,000 per car redirected into the marketing fund. This joined-up approach is crucial for IndyCar to begin heading in the right direction.
Team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports earlier in the year that “if [the reduction] is going to move the needle on IndyCar higher and higher, the return will come”. So it is clear that those personally invested in the series are also aware of the collective investment required.
Another key bit of business done at the start of the season was securing an early extension of IndyCar’s title sponsorship deal with NTT. The original contract, which was signed in 2019, was due to expire in 2024, but the new arrangement ensures the series will continue to have the back of one of its biggest commercial partners beyond that.
And if nothing else, NTT’s decision to renew shows faith in the direction IndyCar is heading.
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