In the wake of Formula 1’s rejection of Andretti Global’s proposal to field an all-American team, U.S.-based fans have suggested a new alternative to get their American racing fix: IndyCar. But IndyCar isn’t ready to capitalize on Andretti’s rejection.
I’d like to be clear that I absolutely adore IndyCar; it’s the form of motorsport closest to my heart, the one I actively enjoy watching more than anything else, and the one that showed me just how deeply I wanted to be involved in the racing world.
The racing is exceptional, the access is unreal, and the personalities keep me coming back for more. I don’t critique the series out of malice; instead, I’ve been one of countless fans begging the sport to do something – anything – to grow its profile.
Open-wheel racing in America has long been plagued by its own inability to work cohesively; sanctioning bodies have picked fights with each other, teams have defected from the sports that made them competitive, and petty battles prevented this form of American racing to ever gain a solid foothold it its own country.
The modern iteration of IndyCar as we know it has only existed since 2008, when rival series were forced to consolidate in order to prevent bankruptcy. The sport has been fighting an uphill battle ever since.
And unfortunately, IndyCar is not the natural next step for disillusioned Formula 1 fans — for several reasons.
Ironically, part of what makes F1 so appealing is its exclusivity and glamor. Americans love celebrity; we love looking up to people that are seemingly untouchable. When Formula 1 really hit the collective American consciousness in the form of Netflix’s Drive to Survive, many people were enchanted by these ultra-wealthy drivers flitting between race tracks in far-flung locales.
When DTS visits a driver in his swanky Monaco flat, it tickles the same part of our brains that fawn over musicians’ well-appointed tour buses or actors’ luxurious California mansions. Add in a little European flair, and it’s a perfect combination to draw in audiences who might otherwise be primarily interested in fashion, architecture, or gossip.
And there’s nothing wrong with that approach toward a sport; however, IndyCar just lacks that mystery and intrigue. American fans can attend one of any countless numbers of IndyCar races during a season, but saying you’re headed to watch a race in St. Petersburg, Florida doesn’t have the same appeal as saying you’re going to the glitzy Miami Grand Prix.
The fans who fell in love with F1 less for the racing and more for the comprehensive lifestyle package it sold them simply will not find that same joy in IndyCar.
This is something that many folks in IndyCar are aware of. Current Arrow McLaren driver and McLaren F1 reserve Pato O’Ward pointed out to PlanetF1.com earlier this year that fans love F1 for the global “show” it brings to town.
Further, he noted that IndyCar isn’t a “prestige product.” Of course, that can be a great thing for a fan looking to purchase a cheap race-day ticket, but in O’Ward’s eyes, it can also be problematic.
“People are paying $30,000 for a [Formula 1 paddock pass], and IndyCar worries that people won’t want to spend $100 on theirs,” he continued. “IndyCar needs to ask what it can do that’s going to make people want to show everyone in their life they were at that event.”
And that lack of prestige is endemic in the sport right down to its core. Even though F1 has scaled back its efforts at technological innovation in recent years, it still does have a claim on calling itself the most advanced racing series in the world. IndyCar, by contrast, has been racing with the same basic spec chassis since 2012; the biggest changes have come in the form of aero tweaks.
Further, the sport has been promising the introduction of hybrid technology — something F1 has employed since 2014 — for several years; IndyCar has continued to delay its debut.
Further, the IndyCar calendar leaves a lot to be desired; a significant portion of the events take place within a day’s drive from Indianapolis, Indiana, where many of the teams are based. There are no races on the East Coast, nor are there any current events in the South.
The series includes one international outing in Toronto, but it has adamantly refused to actively push toward international races in any other countries.
To return to O’Ward, the Mexican driver has stated that IndyCar could easily cater to the chronically underserved Americas audience by adding events in Latin American countries. Yet, despite the promises of an international race “on the horizon,” nothing has materialized.
O’Ward isn’t the only person who often feels as if IndyCar is actively preventing itself from gaining new audiences. International fans have been left frustrated for years, and countless personnel within the sport have admitted to me that it feels as if their concerns have been routinely ignored.
IndyCar needs to try something new, to get a little crazy; unfortunately, it has strongly avoided anything but rehashing its own fraught history.
For as much as I would love disillusioned Formula 1 fans to find a new home in IndyCar, I know the American open-wheel series simply isn’t prepared for it. It isn’t ready to capitalize on Formula 1’s struggles in the U.S., and it largely seems as if IndyCar doesn’t want to.
It simply wants to nurture its existing fan base without pushing any boundaries, and that mindset will never convince new fans to flock to its events.