The Indianapolis 500 might have finally turned a corner this year.
A bigger question is whether it is steering down a dead-end alley.
In the wake of a most exciting May at the Speedway, it turns out that a record number of those outside of 16th and Georgetown simply don’t care.
Excitement was there, but viewers were not.
It was a race fan’s dream — hometown hero Ed Carpenter on the pole, a record four women in the field, twice as many lead changes as ever, the fastest race of all time and a tremendously popular winner.
This is the kind of formula that could bring fans back to IndyCar. The “greatest spectacle” could once again be just that.
Too bad so few saw it.
How few? Well, let’s just say it broke a record.
Since the race began airing live (instead on tape-delay basis) in 1986, Sunday’s rating was the lowest ever. The 3.8 overnight rating dropped below the previous mark of 4.0 in 2010. That is 7 percent below last year and 12 percent down from 2011.
How bad is that?
NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 drew a 7.7 rating in Indianapolis against the Pacers’ playoff game.
In the 1990s, a rating of 10 or more was common.
“Television ratings for the Indy 500 dropped precipitously throughout the 1990s as attention waned and NASCAR ratings soared,” Sports Illustrated wrote before this year’s race in previewing ABC’s plans to lure back fans to the telecast.
Whatever the network had planned, it didn’t work.
But don’t blame TV. Attendance has lagged as well, especially in the past decade.
There’s the irony. After open-wheel racing almost did itself in with the money- and ego-grabbing IRL-CART split in 1996, it has taken almost two decades to restore the luster and allure of racing.
In the past three years, open-wheel racing has steadily re-established itself as worthy of casual fans’ attention.
Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti posted improbable last-lap victories in 2011 and 2012.
That was just an appetizer for Tony Kanaan’s win this year, which culminated perhaps the most competitive race ever. There were 68 lead changes on the 200 laps among 14 different drivers and an average speed (187.433 mph) that shattered the previous record.
The problem now is that fans turned off in the 1990s are not coming back. Not yet, at least.
NASCAR won its share of converts in that time, as IndyCar racing slipped from its upper perch. The fall has landed the sport in relative obscurity. Other than the 500, races are relegated to the viewing purgatory of NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus).
How dismal is that? NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, that sport’s junior varsity contest, has drawn audiences seven times larger than IndyCar so far this season.
Against this backdrop, IndyCar might be back, but no one will notice.
But finally, it feels like the sport has at least stopped its free fall and is turning heads for the right reasons.
Sunday’s race was superior to its NASCAR counterpart in every way. It’s been quite a while since that could be said. And, after all, stockcar racing is on the downside of its popularity as well, although clearly still in the front seat.
There is a glimmer of hope in Speedway after two decades.
A $100 million infusion from the state should ramp up the fan experience at the track for 2014.
Beyond that, the sport must find a way to market itself to the X Games generation. Night racing? Luring back NASCAR drivers? It is all on the table.
Slowly, the ingredients are in place for IndyCar’s re-emergence. It’s going to be a lot tougher to regain casual fans than it was to lose them, though.
For all the good news, long security lines before the race and an announcement of increased ticket prices immediately after did much to squelch the good feelings.
Those two steps forward and one step back make progress tentative. Are the same principals who almost destroyed the world’s greatest single-day sporting event smart enough to find the way back?
That is very much an open question.
The Indy 500 has turned a corner. What is less clear is where it is going.