Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 29, 2022

After The 500, Can IndyCar Outrace Formula 1?

There were multiple storylines competing for attention in the days leading up to Sunday’s “106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge,” to use the official and decidedly ungainly title of the preeminent American open-wheeled motor race.  To fans it has been and will remain simply the Indy 500, no matter what corporate entity pays untold millions to attach its name to the 200 laps around the old oval raceway six miles west of Indianapolis.  After two years of pandemic-restricted attendance – the 2020 race was run with no fans in attendance, and last year’s event was limited to about forty percent of capacity – how many fans would turn out?  With Team Penske winning three of the first five races in this year’s IndyCar Series, would Sunday’s result be more of the same?  Or could four-time winner and defending champion Helio Castroneves break the logjam with A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser for most career Indy 500 wins by claiming victory in consecutive years, as he did in the early days of his IndyCar career, back in 2001 and 2002?  And would seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson make an impression in his rookie appearance at the 500?

By late Sunday afternoon, the answers to these questions were in, but the resolution to a larger and ultimately more important issue for the IndyCar Series was still very much in doubt. 

Racing fans descended on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in droves.  While management doesn’t release official attendance figures, with 250,000 seats and room for perhaps 75,000 more fans in the infield, a full house for the race is somewhere around 325,000 spectators, and officials confirmed that the crowd approached that number.  Even without an exact official count, given the Speedway’s known capacity and the televised views of packed grandstands, this year’s Indy 500 was clearly the most heavily attended sports event since the beginning of the pandemic.

As for dominance, while it is true that Scott McLaughlin’s season-opening win in St. Petersburg followed by Josef Newgarden’s victories at Texas and Long Beach gave Team Penske a solid early lead in the team standings, there’s a strong argument that now, with six races complete, this year’s IndyCar Series is a model of parity.  Newgarden remains the only driver with multiple wins, a status that is mirrored in other key metrics.  McLaughlin is the only driver to lead the most laps in multiple races, Alex Palou the sole driver to turn a race’s fastest lap more than once, and each race to date has had a different pole-sitter.  In the team competition, the three results not showing Penske first have had three different teams checkered flag.  Even in the two-way manufacturer standings, Chevrolet’s margin over Honda is now just four to two.

A fifth win for Castroneves was a longshot after the popular Brazilian began the race all the way back in 27th place on the starting grid.  To his credit, the veteran patiently worked his way up through his competitors but was never really a factor in finishing 7th.  As for Johnson, he did indeed make a considerable impression, though surely not the kind he would have hoped.  Johnson qualified well, starting in the fourth row next to previous winners Takumo Sato and Will Power.  He was just behind fellow Indy 500 rookie Romain Grossjean, in the second highest starting slot among the seven first-time entrants. 

But Johnson drove tentatively and lost ground almost immediately.  He spent most of the afternoon running near the back of the pack, and as the race entered its final laps it appeared that the stock car racing great would be no factor in the outcome of open-wheeled racing’s premier event.  But with just six circuits of the oval remaining, Johnson dipped very low on the inside of Turn 2.  Video appeared to show his left front wheel going off the pavement onto the grass.  Whether or not that was the cause, Johnson’s blue number 48 spun completely around even as it slid up the track and into the outer wall.  Johnson was unhurt, but the wreck first brought out the yellow flag, and then, with four laps to go, a rare red flag, halting the race. 

Johnson’s unhappy intervention from the rear of the field turned what had become a coronation for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson into a final sprint to the finish.  Ericsson, a 31-year-old Swede who moved from Formula 1 to IndyCar three years ago, led Pato O’Ward by nearly three seconds just before the crash, but the stoppage meant the challenger would be right behind him on the final restart.  The leader managed to get a good jump when the last green flag flew, and then wove back and forth over the final two laps to disrupt the slipstream coming off his car and prevent O’Ward from drafting behind him.  That tactic proved good enough to give Ericsson his first Indy 500 win and third victory since joining the IndyCar Series.

The late lap drama was exciting, but after the cheers subsided and Ericsson had poured the traditional winner’s bottle of milk over himself, the uncertainty about IndyCar that had been pulsing just below the surface all weekend remained.  While the Series has many dedicated followers, as evidenced by Sunday’s turnout, it is likely to be next Memorial Day weekend before more casual fans tune into to another IndyCar race.  Meanwhile, Formula 1 is making a significant effort to gain American fans.

To be clear, there are distinct differences between the two series and the cars used in each.  But casual fans may not much care about the distinctions.  What they will notice is that Formula 1 cars are faster than their IndyCar counterparts.  Still, for many fans speed alone has never been enough to overcome the justifiable perception that Formula 1 was a foreign series.  However, since Liberty Media, the American company that also owns Sirius XM radio and MLB’s Atlanta franchise, assumed ownership of the Formula One Group in 2017, efforts have been underway to change that.  This year, a Netflix documentary series about F1, “Drive to Survive,” garnered healthy ratings and acquainted many potential new fans with Formula 1.  Then earlier this month the series inaugurated its second race on U.S. soil.  The Miami Grand Prix joined the United States Grand Prix, which is run each year in Texas, and did so with the highest TV ratings for F1 ever.  Next year Las Vegas will become the third American city to host a race, giving the United States more Formula 1 races than any other country. 

Perhaps there will be good news all around, with the increased attention to Formula 1 generating more interest in open-wheeled racing and helping both F1 and IndyCar.  But the other possibility is that there exists a finite amount of passion, especially among casual fans, for this particular sport’s allure.  If that’s the case, Formula 1’s far greater glitz and glamor, as well as its faster speeds, may prove increasingly problematic for IndyCar every week of the year that isn’t the last one in May.   

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