IndyCar a Growing Threat to NASCAR for Top U.S. Motorsport

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The 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season began on the last weekend of March. After just four races in the young season, IndyCar fans and executives can celebrate many successes, especially in regards to competing with other American motorsports. While the Indianapolis 500, the crown jewel on the series’ calendar, has always held the honored position of the most famous, most watched, and most desired American race, IndyCar as a whole has always trailed rival series NASCAR in popularity among U.S. motor racing fans. NASCAR’s dominance is largely attributed to a massive surge in popularity during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, when some of the sport’s most infamous legends battled one another in some of the most competitive contests in U.S. racing history. The image of American motor racing became the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, and other iconic NASCAR figures, while IndyCar struggled to popularize events other than the Indy 500.

Now, however, IndyCar is experiencing a surge similar to that of NASCAR in the 1990’s. So far in 2015, ratings and race attendance are up, especially at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, one of IndyCar’s most storied events. Additionally, with the addition of new aero kits from the engineers at Chevrolet and Honda, the series’ Dallara designed cars sport an aggressive, modern, and fast appearance, while also gaining speed due to the extra down force the kits generate. Add to this the success of American drivers in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, which took place Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal, two young, American talents claimed the top two spots at Barber, beating IndyCar legend and series favorite Scott Dixon of New Zealand. Popularity of the series in the U.S. has, for some time, waned due to the absence of successful American drivers. After Barber, the country has entries for which to cheer.

On the business side of motorsports, IndyCar is poised to take advantage of media coverage and broadcasting deals. NASCAR, which has held prime broadcasting contracts with FOX Sports and ESPN for years, changed their coverage arrangements beginning this season. The new NASCAR television deal adds FOX Sports 1 to the equation, while removing ESPN in favor of NBC and NBC Sports Network. Meanwhile, IndyCar maintains their deals with NBC, NBC Sports Network, ABC, and ESPN.

The fan bases of the two series overlap in many cases, but are also very different in other regards, particularly socio-economically. The majority of NASCAR fans are in the middle and lower classes, while IndyCar fans tend to come from upper and middle class backgrounds. IndyCar fans are more likely to have extra channels, such as FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network than are NASCAR fans, in general. This gives IndyCar an advantage in terms of reaching their fan base, which already has the channels needed to watch races, whereas many NASCAR fans will be forced to miss events due to their television providers. Out of NASCAR’s 36 points-paying races, 20 are scheduled for coverage on either FOX Sports 1 or NBCSN in 2015, placing the series at a competitive disadvantage to IndyCar. When FOX Sports 1 broadcast the STP 500, NASCAR’s extremely popular spring Martinsville race, many fans could not watch it. However, race fans without FS1 could watch IndyCar’s season opener at St. Petersburg, the race where the series also debuted the new aero kits. As the seasons progress, NASCAR is likely to face further competition from IndyCar due to the current television deals held by both series.

IndyCar must capitalize on their opportunity to gain market share in the American motorsport market. NASCAR must do all they can to bring their races to the fans and to maintain a spectacle on-track. Both series are rooted in tradition for U.S. racing, and I personally would love to see them both take center stage in American sports. For now, NASCAR remains at the top, and will likely hold that distinction for some time. However, IndyCar’s future looks bright as it experiences a surge in popularity that its fans have for so long anticipated.

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