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Dario Franchitti notes the distinct atmosphere at each of the IZOD IndyCar venues, and the unique challenge of driving on a different style track for each of the circuit’s 19 races.
Scott Dixon recognizes the character of the 2.258-mile road course at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington and takes note of the growing fan interest in IndyCar.
■ Where: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio
■ When: 3 p.m. Sunday
■ TV: NBC Sports Network
■ Tickets: midohio.com or 800-643-6446)
But Franchitti and Dixon, who have won the last three IndyCar titles at Mid-Ohio, agree on one thing: For IndyCar, there’s always room for improvement.
“IndyCar can definitely do a better job of promoting the great product that it is, and they’re doing that,” Franchitti said. “The on-track stuff has been first-rate, and our goal as drivers is to go out, race the cars, and try to win. But every driver wants to be able to promote the series.”
IndyCar returns to central Ohio for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, and while the the open-wheel racing series is in its 18th season and has its clear niche, it’s not necessarily on the level of the spectator-sport food chain as some of its counterparts.
Several factors could contribute to that, including the league’s television schedule, which is split between NBC Sports Network and ABC; a shake-up in leadership late last year, as Randy Bernard stepped down as IndyCar CEO after what was considered to be one of the more successful seasons from a competitive standpoint; and the perception that the open-wheel circuit plays second-fiddle to NASCAR’s stock-car racing.
Dixon suggests considering the television package that IndyCar currently has.
Franchitti considers the on-track product to be first rate and encourages more promotion of it both from drivers and organizers.
Sam Hornish, the three-time IndyCar champ who now drives in NASCAR, believes more fan input and analysis should be in place.
“There’s certain people that are going to have the right idea, and they’re realistic about what you expect when you go to a race,” Hornish said earlier this year during a testing session at Mid-Ohio. “What you have to do is look at the overall picture and ask, what kind of show are we getting? What kind of bang for our buck are we getting?”
In 2008, IndyCar and Versus — now known as the NBC Sports Network — agreed to a 10-year television contract, but IndyCar races are currently televised on both NBC Sports Network and ABC. Sports Business Journal reported in June that IndyCar television ratings have been down this year. The Indianapolis 500 averaged a 3.7 Nielsen rating and 5.7 million viewers, drops of 14 and 16 percent from last year. In its first nine telecasts, IndyCar averaged 1.47 million viewers, down 24 percent from the same point last season.
“We need a consistent home for IndyCar that is easy for the fans to find and know when to watch,” legendary driver Mario Andretti told SBNation.com in May. “I think the current partners are invested in what we are trying to do, but I think most everyone would agree that it is not as strong as it could be right now.”
Dixon agreed. “With the TV package, it’s something we’re not comfortable with and something that can be improved,” said Dixon, who has won the last two IndyCar events at Mid-Ohio and sits second in the points standings, 29 behind Helio Castroneves.
Dixon noted the fan interest and engagement through the course of the 2013 season, which cycles through 16 different road, street, and oval courses, and one asymmetrical course.
“I don’t think any series changes with as much regularity as IndyCar,” said Franchitti, who enters Sunday’s race seventh in the points standings with six races left. “That’s what IndyCar is known for, in trying to be fast and competitive on all those different tracks.”
While Pocono Raceway hosted its first IndyCar event in 24 years, the Philadelphia Daily News estimated that the race at the “Tricky Triangle” drew about 30,000 spectators to the facility, which holds 76,000.
A Mid-Ohio spokesman said the track does not release attendance figures; at Belle Isle, race organizers said the weekend races drew more than 90,000 spectators, while Grand Prix of Baltimore race organizers told the Baltimore Business Journal that the 2012 weekend drew more than 131,000 spectators.
“They’ve been up as a whole at a lot of the circuits we’ve gone to,” Dixon said. “Look at Pocono [Raceway], which was fantastic. It’s hard at the moment, because the economy isn’t super strong. But hopefully, for us, we put on a great show and people feed off the results.”
Hornish also sees the state of racing mirroring the current economic state.
“Being in any form of racing is difficult,” the Defiance native said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the economy. It doesn’t matter what kind of racing it is. Fans only have a certain amount of money to spend, and they’re all holding on a little tighter to their paycheck because they’re not financially where they want to be.
“I think just like almost every other form of entertainment, the better the economy does, the better off things will be.”