The best thing to come from Sunday’s IndyCar race is the fact that, after a fun race with more passing than we’ve seen in years, IndyCar has something to fight for at Texas Motor Speedway.
If the XPEL 375 turned out to be another single-lane stinker where we were stuck with 248 laps of follow-the-leader, I’d be singing the old country song, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over… they say that all good things must end” and rooting for IndyCar to uproot its act from Dallas/Fort Worth and find another oval worthy of its affection.
Thankfully, the constant action near the front, the rising and falling drivers everywhere else and the thriller of a finish — one teammate ripping the heart out of another — made a big and positive impression that wasn’t entirely expected. If only there were more people in the grandstands to have seen Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin, Marcus Ericsson, Jimmie Johnson, Santino Ferrucci and the rest of the 27 crazies put on a heck of a show.
I sure wish there were more people here today. pic.twitter.com/MmRpsMax1e
— Marshall Pruett (@marshallpruett) March 20, 2022
I can’t tell you how many folks actually showed up to watch Sunday’s race—5000 feels slightly optimistic — but whatever the number was, it was a damn shame that so few bore witness to some ballsy action north of 200mph.
The extra 150 pounds of downforce IndyCar added to its Texas aero specifications and the revised Firestone tires helped drivers to charge harder into and out of the corners, and while the second lane never materialized as anything other than an infrequent option, the competition was fierce. The series has some valuable takeaways to consider; Newgarden thought the extra session run late on Saturday to try and bring the second lane to life served a purpose.
While the PJ1 traction compound remained a nuisance, the effort to run across it and put down some Firestone rubber managed to pull more of the PJ1 marbles out of the track surface and that allowed for a slightly wider arc to be used by those who tried straddling the lower lane and portions of the second. The weather was perfect — 75 degrees and sunny — and yet almost nobody turned up to watch.
Everybody had an opinion as to why the crowd was nearly nonexistent. Some put it down to all the NCAA March Madness basketball to watch from home. Others said it was Formula 1’s fault, with the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix reaching its checkered flag moments before the green waved over Texas. It was the first day of spring which was cited as a reason for some Texans to skip the race and enjoy Mother Nature. And then there was an anecdote shared by IndyCar Radio’s Jake Query.
He noted that during his drive to the circuit a big slowdown halted his movement, and after seeing police cars and their overhead lights up ahead, he expected to come across an accident. As he drew closer, Query learned there were no problems on the road — it was the local constable helping to direct churchgoers into their parish. Once he cleared the congregation filtering into their parking lot, it was wide-open motoring with zero traffic or delays entering TMS.
A highly skilled IndyCar promoter who was in attendance thought the tiny crowd was likely a result of making a big mistake on setting the start time around 11:30 a.m. Most churches don’t let out before noon in the Bible Belt — and if it’s a good sermon it might be 12:30 or 1:00 p.m. before the doors are opened. IndyCar and TMS might have asked a lot of fans to choose between the Good Word and good racing. If that’s true, the grandstands provided the answer on who won that divine contest.
So, was it some, all, or none of the above? That’s for the series and the track to decipher.
What I do know is: After the race IndyCar produced, Texas needs to stay on the schedule. But not if it looks like they forgot to open the gates to the damn event. As I’ve probably written 50 times in recent years, IndyCar cannot afford to go to venues where it looks small and unimportant, and that’s exactly what we had on Sunday.
Sponsors have eyes. For those who were at TMS, there’s no way to put a positive spin on the dire lack of people who deemed the series and its open-wheel product as being worthy of their presence. And that’s where IndyCar needs to intervene and bring its marketing and promotions capabilities to bear. Penske Entertainment is treating its co-promotion of the upcoming Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend at Iowa like it’s the most important race the world will ever know.
From all the sponsors it has signed to the big music acts Hy-Vee has brought in, it’s clear that when Penske Entertainment wants to go on the attack to make sure people buy tickets to an event it’s in charge of, it will work itself to the point of exhaustion. Unlike Iowa, IndyCar’s annual visit to TMS isn’t a track rental where its promotional efforts are directly tied to making a profit. But maybe it should be treated that way.
Whether it’s doing a rental at TMS or simply combining its skills and resources with the track, something’s got to change before we return. The promotional failure at the ticket office was embarrassing in every imaginable way. IndyCar drivers and teams risk too much over those 248 laps to play in front of an empty house. They deserve better and so do the faithful who circle this event on the calendar every year and pray for a good race.
Now that they’ve got one that’s worth saving, it’s time for IndyCar to stop pinning its hopes on TMS to deliver a massive crowd and do its part by attacking the problem and getting people in those seats themselves.