MILLER: Surprises in the IndyCar TV numbers

Image by Levitt/LAT

MILLER: Surprises in the IndyCar TV numbers

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: Surprises in the IndyCar TV numbers


The Nielsen numbers for NBC’s first full season of televising all the NTT IndyCar Series races weren’t stop-the-presses material, but showed improvement at the Indianapolis 500 (5.4 million viewers) and averaged 1.105 million for 16 events across NBC, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app.

Road America attracted 1.108 million in June for NBC’s largest non-Indy 500 rating, but the season finale at Laguna Seca only drew 736,000 on the network, possibly validating Mark Miles’ belief that you can’t go against the NFL.

Still, in terms of overall exposure it was a big upgrade, as NBC televised eight races compared to five the year before on ABC, introduced NBC Gold for the diehards, and gave IndyCar the best promotion it has ever experienced.

Did you ever wonder where IndyCar racing plays the best on TV outside of Indianapolis? For a long time, Greensboro, N.C. (in the heart of NASCAR country and only 80 miles from Charlotte) was among the leaders every season. This year’s top 10 contains some equally surprising urban areas.

INDIANAPOLIS: Whether it airs on NBC, NBCSN, MSNBC, ABC, ESPN  or the Food Network, IndyCar will always be No. 1 in Indianapolis – by a wide margin, as it should be. The Indianapolis Star still treats IndyCar as a major beat, Kevin Lee and Curt Cavin host a weekly radio show on 1070 The Fan, and Dave Furst of ABC-affiliate Channel 6 gives IndyCar a great ride year round. We are still the Capitol of Auto Racing until further notice.

MILWAUKEE: There hasn’t been a race on The Milwaukee Mile since 2015, and the attempts to revive open-wheel’s oldest track failed. But obviously it’s still a town that cares about IndyCar. It helps that veteran motorsports writer Dave Kallman of the Milwaukee Journal keeps IndyCar alive in his coverage, while Steve Zautke’s weekly radio show (“The Final Inspection”) is a constant friend of the NTT series. The turnout at Road America teases us that Wisconsin could likely support two races again with proper promotion, but Bob Sargent needs a big title sponsor to ever attempt it.

DAYTON: Located halfway between Indy and Mid-Ohio, only 200 miles from Detroit and an hour from Eldora Speedway, there have always been a lot of open-wheel fans in and around the former home of the high-banked oval. For many years, the late Leal Beattie of the Dayton Daily News was one of the best motorsports journalists in the land, and the paper still gives IndyCar its due on occasion.

WEST PALM BEACH: Tough one to figure out since it’s 200 miles from the closest IndyCar race (St. Pete) and Homestead (a couple hours away on I-95) has been off the schedule since 2010. Palm Beach International Raceway is a road course close by in Jupiter (home of Rick Mears), but that track doesn’t even host IndyCar tests anymore.

FORT MEYERS: Another head-scratcher. It’s 109 miles from St. Pete and the News Press does send one reporter to cover the IndyCar season opener every year. But there are no drivers from the area and no obvious interest except for once a year.

SACRAMENTO: Hosted a USAC national championship race from 1956-1970 (and Triple A from 1953-55) on the one-mile dirt track, and it was a favorite of A.J. Foyt (five wins), Rodger Ward (three) and Jimmy Bryan (three). But the closest races in the past few years have been Sonoma (68 miles) and San Jose (120 miles). The Sacramento Bee covers the NBA Kings and NFL Niners full bore, but didn’t send anyone to the IndyCar finale in Monterey (186 miles away) and doesn’t appear to have any motorsports interest.

A.J. Foyt on the way to one of his five Sacramento victories. Image by Gene Crucean

RICHMOND: Even after 2009 when IndyCar quit running the fast short track, the TV ratings were consistently in the top 10. The Richmond Times Dispatch lured veteran racing writer Randy Hallman back on the beat when Nate Ryan left for USA Today (and now works for NBC). Hallman puts together a weekly racing page that focuses on NASCAR and IndyCar and even gets the results and point standings in the Monday editions following an IndyCar race. The paper could be a big player in the success of IndyCar’s return next July.

COLUMBUS: It’s the home of the Rahal family and, for 30 years, Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch documented their IndyCar careers with great insight. It was a major beat in the midst of The Ohio State football, and May continues to cover the Indy 500 and Mid-Ohio race as a freelancer. Columbus is only an hour’s drive from that legendary road course and thankfully, The Dispatch still recognizes it as newsworthy.

CINCINNATI: The third of Ohio’s IndyCar-friendly cities was a USAC midget/sprint bastion in the ’60s and ’70s with Tri-country Speedway before it was paved and became Queen City. The Cincy Enquirer covered the month of May with a couple writers and a columnist, and Bob Trumpy’s radio show gave racing lots of coverage. There is no motorsports writer, per se, anymore, but since it’s part of the Gannett chain, it has Indianapolis Star stories on IndyCar if needed.

TULSA: Local engineer and inventor John Zink owned Indy cars from 1952-1967 and twice won Indianapolis with Bob Sweikert and Pat Flaherty. But Tulsa is home to the Chili Bowl – the indoor midget race that draws 300 entries and packed houses as it kicks off the racing season every January. I’ve been begging IndyCar for seven years to set up a booth and send some drivers to sign autographs and give away hats and T-shirts and connect with a rabid open-wheel crowd. Conor Daly gave it a go last year, and it would be the perfect place for two-time champion Josef Newgarden to make some new fans in 2020. Hell, The Captain was the Grand Marshall a few years ago and JoNew was set to be teammates with the late Bryan Clauson in 2015 before IndyCar got cold feet and opted not to spend any money. But when you’re off the radar for six months, it would be wise to have a presence in a city that embraces open wheel and seems to like your product.

Top 10 cities for IndyCar ratings
1 Indianapolis 3.78
2 Milwaukee 1.62
3 Dayton, OH 1.59
4 West Palm Beach 1.57
5 Ft. Myers 1.55
6 Sacramento 1.40
7 Richmond 1.36
8 Columbus, OH 1.32
9 Cincinnati 1.31
10 Tulsa 1.30