Would IndyCar benefit from a ‘Drive to Survive’-style series?
Could a documentary series cause a surge in IndyCar viewership in the same way that the Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive’ is credited with boosting Formula 1’s profile? David Malsher-Lopez reports.
Last year, NBC Sports revealed that the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series was its most-watched IndyCar season on record and the best combined broadcast/cable viewership for the series in five years.
For the 15 races across NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports’ digital platforms, the 2021 season averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 1.223 million viewers, up 19 percent on 2020’s average. Heck, even the embarrassingly spasmodic and drawn-out inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville lured more than 1.2m viewers – on NBCSN.
Since 2019, Sky Sports F1 has been showing races live, opening up IndyCar to its F1 audience in the UK, a deal that’s set through 2024 and despite a paywall and the time differential, over 100,000 UK viewers watched last year’s Indy 500.
Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, 14 of the 17 races in 2022 will be shown on broadcast network NBC – a huge achievement – with two on USA Network and one on Peacock. Indy 500 apart (5.85m U.S. viewers last year), IndyCar is still very much in the shadow of NASCAR, and utterly dwarfed by Formula 1 worldwide, but there’s no doubt that NBC Sports’ considerable efforts are paying off.
And on the eve of the 2022 season-opener, IndyCar is set to reveal the results of its recent fan survey conducted in conjunction with Nielsen and Motorsport Network. That should provide new wisdom regarding why current fans of the series remain onboard and what they wish to see in the future.
But drawing in new viewers and converting them into diehard fans is a still trickier proposition.
NBC’s Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and now James Hinchcliffe (replacing Paul Tracy for 2022), will doubtless do a fine job in the commentary booth this year, reporting on – and providing insight to – what we’re seeing on track, ably backed by pit reporters such as Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Dillon Welch, Kelli Stavast and Dave Burns. But by necessity, any pre-race build-up, whether it’s 10 minutes or 40, is focused on recapping what happened in the season so far, what happened at the last race, what happened in practice or qualifying, and highlighting the performances of a couple of star players in said events.
There simply isn’t time to convey in any great detail the inner workings of an IndyCar team, how tough a sport it is, how much thinking and strategizing goes on between races and on a race weekend, the importance of the interactions between drivers and race engineers, the dedication of the crews, the nature of the team principals, or how a driver spends his or her time when not in the cockpit or engineering trailer.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
F1’s director of media rights, Ian Holmes, explained to Motorsport.com last year that Drive to Survive had filled this void in Formula 1, and had managed to lure in new viewers while also appealing to the bedrock fans.
“What it really demonstrated to us is how many fans might be out there, and how we can talk to existing fans but in a different way,” he said. “What the Netflix series is showing us is that there is this appetite for content that has no place to be in a pre-race show. But there is a place for it and people are genuinely fascinated by it.
“The other thing that it’s really demonstrated to us is that what interests people the most is the individuals, the personalities, the rock stars, the drivers, or in some cases maybe a few team principals. It's that sort of personality-driven programming.
“What I think it has so successfully done is shone a light on that, and this is where the teams deserve an awful lot of credit for their openness and their agreement to embrace the project and allow cameras and microphones into places they haven't been allowed before.”
Dorna Sports, MotoGP’s commercial rights holder, has seen the benefits and made a deal for a similar series on Amazon Prime. Is it time for IndyCar to do the same?
“We did do something quite similar 10 years ago, remember?” said a senior marketing member from one of the longer-established teams, recalling NBC’s IndyCar 36, which tracked a chosen driver over the course of a race weekend. “It was pretty good, and our sponsors liked it. Gave them guaranteed air-time even if we were having a bad weekend.
“Problem was, IndyCar’s viewing figures weren’t good, and only the small teams really welcomed the cameras to the pitstands. They were keeping their sponsors happy, whereas the big guys had longer-term partners so their priority was to not give anything away on camera! The drivers were fine, but the team access wasn’t so good.”
In 2019, one retired IndyCar driver who had watched the first couple of episodes of Drive to Survive, remarked: “After the last few years of Mercedes winning everything and boring races, Formula 1 needs something like this. It’s showing everyone how hard it is and all the little dramas behind the scenes. I like it.
“They juice it up a bit. Some of the guys I think are acting a bit for the camera, and there are big issues made out of little things. But hey, that’s reality TV for you! It’s entertaining.”
It seems many agree, even if Netflix don’t release viewing figures and so the show’s ability to boost F1’s fanbase is largely based on anecdotal evidence. Still, Danny Sullivan, a former Indy car champion and briefly an F1 driver, was moved to comment to Motorsport.com just last week: “Give credit where credit is due. The growth [of F1] in America is all due to Drive to Survive, and Sean Bratches [MD of F1’s commercial operations] was the brain behind it. They [F1] paid for it, Netflix didn’t, and it has influenced America because of how well it’s been done.”
On considering the possibility of IndyCar providing a corresponding ‘insider’ program, one high-profile team member who wished to remain anonymous let out a heartfelt sigh.
Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images
“It’s a real shame that we have the best racing series on earth but we’ve discovered that great racing isn’t enough to make us a big draw,” he said. “To be honest, if we’re going to plow millions into pulling more people in, I’d be focusing on making the viewer experience more interesting – better camera angles, more data, more analysis on why one guy is faster through a turn than another guy, why the second guy gains it back in the next turn, and so on. That’s the insight I’d prefer, maybe because I geek out over that stuff!
“But that would be preaching to the converted, wouldn’t it? A documentary show isn’t going to be like that. There has to be some soap opera crap tied in, otherwise we just stay a niche branch of the sport because no one new starts watching.
“And you know what? Thirty years ago, when we were living high on the hog in CART, I’d have said, ‘Well, that’s their loss if they don’t want to watch it!’ But nowadays we can’t think that way… even though it’s my instinct! We need more viewers and we’re competing in a massive, crowded market of alternative entertainment that just didn’t exist back then. There’s more TV channels, more streaming platforms, just more things to do. And apparently teenagers and 20-somethings just aren’t into cars as much as they were in my day or your day. So how do we change that – without going for gimmicks, races divided into heats and so on?
“I know everyone’s just thinking viewing figures, but I’m hoping also that there’ll be smart kids or students that watch this show (if it happens) and get excited enough to watch the racing, and then the third step will be where they get involved beyond being a fan. We need the next generation to look at IndyCar and think, ‘Hey that’s interesting, that’s intriguing, I want some of that,’ and they end up wanting to be a race engineer, a DAG guy, a strategist, a crew member, and so on. We need that – right now, actually! With our grid numbers going up and IMSA booming, we’ve found out there aren’t enough experienced personnel here to run all these cars.
“But viewing figures, yeah, they’re hugely important too because then sponsors want to be involved. I mean they should anyway because our core product is so open. Something like 20 or 22 out of our 26 cars can run top three on any given race weekend, so there’s a good chance of coverage in a regular [race] broadcast. Add a documentary show that guarantees coverage to all sponsors and that’s extra coverage to the ones sponsoring the best teams. I think that’s pretty attractive if I’m sponsor wanting to put down four or five million.”
Naturally, given a far smaller budget, IndyCar’s potential to pay for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or even NBC to produce IndyCar’s equivalent of Drive to Survive is restricted. Penske Entertainment would need to be convinced by concrete evidence that such a venture is worthwhile. But there are plenty others already positive that this is the right way to go. One such is Arrow McLaren SP ace Pato O’Ward.
“These things that you can be doing marketing-wise, it all comes at a cost, it all comes at a price,” he remarked a couple of weeks ago. “But… we need to hop on the train of having a show because racing itself is not going to do enough. People need to see what's behind that in order for them to get interested… People need to meet the faces behind the helmet, and for me that's the biggest thing. Whatever the cost may be, that is, I think, the biggest return that they'll ever get.
“You've seen it in Formula 1. Formula 1 is growing insane, and it's all because of the Netflix series. I think an important thing is that it has to be done in a platform that people have and people watch, not just spend it and have it somewhere where it's not really reachable by many people. There's so many different factors, but to me that is the biggest thing.
“I feel like that would be a game-changer for our series… I think everybody within the series has to be willing to work together. Everybody has to be real and show the emotion, and it can't be fake. It can't be fake engineering meetings. Whatever you're going to be showing, it has to be real…
“I think us as teams and drivers, we need to be on board with just agreeing with the fact that this is going to pretty much be a reality show. There has to be some drama. There has to be something for people to watch. Everybody has to try and be real, because if it's not, it's not going to be good enough, and people won't watch.
“I know sometimes… not that teams want to make it fake, but teams don't want to show certain aspects of the team. There's many different factors that play into making this very successful, but in general just having a real show of real people, real emotions and just giving something to the people to just watch and entertain. I think that's going to skyrocket the series.”
Romain Grosjean, whose fearsome and fiery F1 finale was covered in the penultimate episode of the third and most recent series of Drive to Survive, was taken aback but delighted to discover that he consequently already had many fans in his adoptive home country for his rookie season. Sure, most IndyCar fans would have known his story with or without DtS, because few if any, are oblivious to F1. Still, RoGro knows the value of a documentary-style show and told media recently that IndyCar viewership in his native France had increased “100 percent” in 2021. He also commented, “If Amazon or Netflix or whoever wants to come and do a series behind the scenes, I'd be more than happy to get on board.”
Not everyone, it must be acknowledged, will be so comfortable with such intrusion in their race weekends, but folks are adaptable. Ace veterans Scott Dixon and Will Power were once counted among the more shy and guarded IndyCar drivers, but working with big sponsors on big teams and alongside media-savvy and approachable teammates [Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves respectively] has made them open, accessible and memorable.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
Most will be surprised to hear two-time champion Josef Newgarden comment that he’s always “struggled with the media aspect of the sport just because it doesn't come natural to me,” for most would regard him as near Hinchcliffe-standard in terms of putting his thoughts into words, and his facial expressions are eminently readable. So, thankfully, Newgarden has made it clear that helping to grow IndyCar is high on his agenda outside the cockpit.
“[IndyCar is] a tremendous platform to show up, and if you're a good competitor and put in the work, you can succeed,” he said. “We've got to push that with everybody, keep trying to find new ways to reach people and tell our story…
“Trying to promote the sport, make it interesting, understand our strategies of how we’re marketing our sport, how we're getting across to people – that's all really, really important. We're not going to go anywhere or have a sustainable future if we don't do that stuff.”
Which is why trying to capture a new wave of fans with a documentary series that also provides insights for the established aficionados could be vital.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
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