MILLER: The crowd conundrum

Image by Levitt/LAT

MILLER: The crowd conundrum

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: The crowd conundrum


As IndyCar readies for three races of three different disciplines in three weeks, we’ll be focused on the championship fight between Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud, along with the questions of where Rossi will be plying his talents next season and what additions or subtractions await the 2020 schedule.

And with seven races to go in the 2019 NTT series, it’s as good a time as any to take a look at what’s become a popular subject – attendance – and gauge what constitutes a decent crowd.

Toronto, Iowa and Mid-Ohio represent the diversity and history of IndyCar racing – as well as the challenge of getting people to come to your track. Next to Long Beach, Toronto is the second-longest running street race in IndyCar history, having started in 1986, and other than 2008, it’s been a staple. For the first 20 years it was massive: Molson’s sponsorship was all-encompassing, and the city celebrated for four days as the Molson Indy drew a legitimate 170,000 for three days (70,000 on race day alone) and became Canada’s top sports weekend behind the F1 race in Montreal.

Molson went away in 2007 and the track, once a beauty with a daunting left-hander in front of huge grandstands on both sides of the front straightaway, has been increasingly neutered by construction during the past decade.

Honda of Canada likely helped keep it alive by becoming title sponsor in 2009, and the Canadian fans that turn up are still very passionate and knowledgeable about IndyCar even though there aren’t nearly as many of them. Are there 20,000 or 25,000 on race day? That might be optimistic considering how few seats are still standing, but the Honda Indy Toronto always looks good on television.

Iowa hosted its inaugural Indy Racing League show in 2007 and had to bring in extra bleachers to accommodate the ticket demand. Annually run on Saturday night, the 25,000 permanent seats and backstretch campers stayed full for the next few years with Iowa Corn as the title sponsor, but then the race was changed to Sunday afternoon and attendance plummeted. It’s back to Saturday evening on July 20 with a new sponsor, and hoping to draw at least 20,000 again.

In the Jim Trueman era at Mid-Ohio it took longer to get out of the parking lot than it did to run the race because the place was packed, and today it’s still one of IndyCar’s best shows. Honda came on board as the sponsor in 2007 when it was an IMSA/IndyCar doubleheader, and those in the know say at least 40,000 still turn out for what was once the Scott Dixon Benefit.

Mid-Ohio can still be relied on to pull in the fans. Image by LAT

Now, trying to get an honest crowd figure for almost any IndyCar race has become a guessing game between the media and fans. Somewhere along the way some promoters either quit putting out any numbers – some due to being publicly-owned companies – or simply exaggerated about how many showed up. It’s almost an art form. Like the year at Cleveland, when Champ Car announced 50,000 – and there were only 14,000 seats.

Counting the crowd is easy at an oval if you know the seating capacity, but damn difficult at a big place like Road America or COTA.

For example, if Texas holds 112,000 in its grandstand, then there would have to be a person in every other seat to have 56,000. The public suites hold almost 10,000, victory lane is roughly 3,000 and the condos are another 3,000 (and the owners have to buy race tickets), plus camping is usually decent. So let’s say 25,000 total, because the grandstand looked about a fourth full last month and we have no way to tally the rest of the seating. It’s obviously not the 80,000 the IRL drew there in its infancy or the 150,000 NASCAR use to draw twice a year at TMS, but track president Eddie Gossage has DXC Technology as a sponsor, it’s usually a good race and it still must work financially or else he wouldn’t have signed up for five more years.

Road America has been strong since returning to the schedule in 2016 because it starts early, features good racing and plenty of it. The camping and golf carts are always sold out, and the walk-up crowd is strong if the weather is good like it was a couple of weeks ago. The largest crowd ever had to be 1993 when Nigel Mansell ran CART and the estimates were 50,000. This year? Somewhere close to 35,000, says the smart money.

But maybe to get a truer perspective of where IndyCar stacks up compared to other summer sports, let’s look at some statistics. Over the weekend, the first-place Milwaukee Brewers drew 37,000, second-place Washington attracted 27,000 and lowly Toronto mustered a crowd of 22,000. There were 50,000 Sunday for the final round of the PGA golf tourney in Minneapolis. Daytona’s rain-delayed Firecracker 400 on Sunday appeared to be less than a third full.

The largest single-day crowds in American motorsports are (all estimates except for the F1 & Supercross) the Indianapolis 500 (240,000), Daytona 500 (120,000), F1 U.S. Grand Prix at COTA (111,000), IMSA’s 12 hours of Sebring (70,000), NASCAR at Watkins Glen (60,000) and NASCAR at Texas and Talladega (50,000). AMA Supercross draws 50,000-60,000 at many of its indoor venues during the winter, while the largest NHRA drag show is likely the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. with approximately 30,000. Petite Le Mans brings in 40,000 at Road Atlanta and the popular Knoxville Nationals sprint car A Main attracts 25,000.

The only problem with IndyCar’s Fontana thriller in 2015 is that nobody was there to see it. Image by Ellman/LAT

It wasn’t that long ago that Bristol had a waiting list for its two NASCAR races that drew 160,000 each, and this year it didn’t look like 25,000 showed for the spring race. Daytona once boasted 180,000 seats that were full for the Firecracker and Daytona 500, but now it’s been reduced to 101,000. Michigan sported 136,000 permanent seats, but it’s been sliced to 54,000 – and can’t fill those. You couldn’t get a seat for the inaugural Brickyard 400, and now IMS would be thrilled if 40,000 showed up.

IndyCar went from 60,000 at Phoenix in 1995 to about 5,000 in 2018 before pulling the plug. Fontana opened with 50,000 in 1997 and only had a few thousand in 2015 on a sweltering Saturday in June before bailing. Milwaukee was a bastion for 90 years of packed houses of 50,000 a week after Indianapolis, and now it’s gone. Kentucky, Chicago and Kansas all started strong for the IRL in the late ‘90s before going south.

The bottom line for all racing is that a “good crowd” is a totally different reality today than it was 20-25 years ago. With today’s gas prices, the obligatory hotel room gouge in some markets, hassles of interstate construction and online streaming, attracting 30,000-40,000 many places should be considered a victory, because people simply aren’t going to races anymore.

And it’s not because promoters aren’t trying. Pocono offers $45 grandstand seats, a two-day pit pass for $50 and children under 12 are free both days. Mid-Ohio still has $275 weekend camping, $75 weekend grandstand seats and $40 paddock passes with kids under 12 free. Iowa’s tickets range from $20-125 and $40 paddock pass, but it also offers suites for the public and free admission for kids 12 & under, while Gateway gives fans two discount periods for reserved seats and general admission (and a free junior ticket).

IndyCar’s bellwethers are Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Road America, with Portland, Barber and Detroit close behind, and Gateway in a league of its own on ovals. COTA looked better than expected in its debut, the jury is still out on Pocono and Iowa is hoping for new life, while St. Pete, Toronto and Texas seem to be status quo. Laguna Seca has replaced Sonoma for the season finale, and there’s talk of Richmond and maybe Montreal down the road.

It’s a tricky formula these days for an IndyCar promoter to land a title sponsor, draw enough people to make it work and then sustain it. We should probably be appreciate we’ve got 14 venues that are working, at or least trying to make it work, and that a couple other tracks are waiting in the wings.