The Frontstretch: Look Out NASCAR, the IZOD IndyCar Series Might Be Gaining On You by Kyle Ocker -- Tuesday July 19, 2011

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If you’re not paying attention to IndyCar, you better start.

Watch out NASCAR, there’s a new kid on the block. Some may know them as the IRL, some know them as open wheel racing. Hell, some may still think of the series as CART. Regardless, the IZOD IndyCar Series is starting to grow itself right into the most competitive racing series in North America.

Ratings are up for the IZOD IndyCar series this year, as close competition and lively broadcasts draw in new fans.

Yeah, I know that the “suits” in charge of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series continuously tout that their series is the best and most competitive product available to the motor heads of North America. But, the title of the most competitive series in North America is starting to change hands.

Since Randy Bernard took over as chief operating officer of IndyCar a little more than a year and a half ago, the attention the series has received is on the rise.
Bernard’s number one goal when he took over the reins from founder Tony George was to increase the exposure of the series to not only fans, but media and other potential partners.

So far, he has accomplished just that.

Beginning next season, two new engine builders in Chevrolet and Lotus will be entering competition. As of now, all teams and cars use Honda engines and Dallara bodies.

The 2012 cars are also going to be changing. There will be one standard chassis, but the body styles will change depending on the race track. The new cars also add in additional safety, one of the only major downfalls of the series as of today, and are also expected to be friendlier to the budgets of the teams.

On the sponsorship side of things, very few cars come to the track without a sponsor. In fact, all of the sport’s regular teams have close to full sponsorship. The series has also started what appears to be a long-term partnership with series sponsor IZOD.

Bernard then took things one step further, introducing a change to double file restarts this year that have far and beyond erased any notion that this is a series for white collar drivers. Drivers are racing for the lead, making contact and creating rivals more often.

IndyCars don’t just race single file anymore. There is a battle for position on the race track somewhere. Adding into those battles is the “Honda overtake assist.” This magical button on the steering wheel not only gives the driver extra horsepower, but an additional portion of the strategy game. For those unaware, drivers don’t get to just hold down this button. The number of presses, and the frequency with which the overtake assist can be used, is limited. It varies by race, but it’s generally around 20 presses with a limit of 10-seconds in between each press. The assists give around 200 extra rpms – roughly five mph – and can be used to leap ahead, or stay ahead. The assist is often active for around 15 seconds.

Another plus with the IndyCar Series doesn’t have much to do with the series itself. The truly great product that is being put on the race track is being translated to those watching at home.

The schedule is split between ABC and VERSUS, with VERSUS broadcasting 12 races and ABC broadcasting five each season.

Even those in NASCAR know about ABC’s and VERSUS’ “Non Stop” coverage during national commercial breaks. But the quality of coverage from these two broadcasters goes above and beyond that.

One of the major downfalls of NASCAR’s TV coverage starts in the truck. The camera crew often gets the shots and the audio of the track is always well done. But those who decide what shots get placed on the television screen often make poor decisions that leave NASCAR fans scratching their heads.

From there, we move to the announcers, both in the booth and on pit road. The two groups just don’t seem to work well together in NASCAR. Many pit road penalties and mistakes go unreported. Even more annoying is the multiple times that a story isn’t followed throughout the race. Often, a story is started earlier in the broadcast and by the time the post-race show is over, it was never finished. You’re left hoping one of the NASCAR reporters through one of many NASCAR websites or a social media website ties that story up, otherwise you’re left wondering, “What happened to so-and-so? Did they ever fix his car?” Or “Wow, last time I looked he was 20th, how in the world did he finish 10th?”

Things like this don’t happen on VERSUS.

There were several prime examples during the last race in Toronto, and so far this entire season. One of the greatest of these examples came on the final round of pit stops in the race. After a driver earned several spots on pit road during a round of stops under cautions with an especially speedy pit stop, the announcers in the booth speculated that the driver’s team may have “short fueled him” (not filled the tank all the way up) to gain spots on pit road. At the time, it was determined that a tank packed full of ethanol was necessary to make it to the end of the race.

Once that speculation was made, a dedicated pit reporter went over to the team to get the story. Less than a minute later, it was determined that the driver had made fewer circuits than the other drivers since his last stop, and therefore didn’t need to spend as much time fueling as the others.

I can’t help but think that FOX, TNT or ESPN would have left me thinking the team was gambling and needed cautions to make it on a tank that was not completely full of fuel.

TV ratings have been on an overall increase for VERSUS so far this season, a 21 percent rise over 2010 on the network, in fact.

With the momentum the series has been building since the astonishing, first-ever IndyCar Series night race at Iowa Speedway, the series took full advantage of a Sunday free of the competition from NASCAR to record the highest rated broadcast on the VERSUS network in its history with the IndyCar Series.

The .41 the series received on the race isn’t anything spectacular by itself, the lowest rating a Cup Series points race has received this season so far was Michigan at a 2.26. However, VERSUS is only available in a little over 75 million homes compared to TNT’s reach of over 100 million.

The IndyCar Series is on the rise, both in the media, in its fan base and in its quality of racing.

It’s certainly the best racing series you aren’t watching and a series worth of moment of your time to watch at least just once.

On the side of the IZOD IndyCar Series haulers that roam the country – and the world – from race to race – they proudly proclaim that the IndyCar Series is home to the “Fastest Drivers in the World.” And that’s a fact, Jack.

The series is also the home to today’s best racing and many of today’s best drivers. Yes, these are completely different cars than the not so stock “stock cars.” Beyond the style of the body these cars are also more technically inclined. But they are still cars with racers at heart driving them. And the cars and drivers are pulling up to NASCAR’s rear quarter panel, and the IndyCar Series is on the overtake assist.

Contact Kyle Ocker

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07/19/2011 10:21 AM

Another factor that may be working in IndyCar’s favor is the duration of the races: the race itself only takes about an hour and half, and doesn’t require a fan dedicate a big part of their day to watch the event on TV. A typical NASCAR race, with a normal pre-race and post-race show, can involve anywhere from 5 to 7 hours of your day. IndyCar is usually only about 2.5 to 3 hours, more in line with other sports.

The directors on the networks covering IndyCar are still a bit weak, in terms of picking when to switch to another camera. I don’t know how many times now where I hear a reaction from the guys in the booth to what we see on screen right when the director chooses to switch to another shot instead of sticking with the current camera. Instead of seeing some incidents live, we have to wait (sometimes seemingly forever) for a replay of what turns out to be a pretty important crash or other event. Both networks need to work on that more.

IndyCar needs to work on their so-called “double file” restarts. Most are anything but, since they don’t gather up the field and form them up on the one-to-go lap (like NASCAR races), but expect them to form up as they come to the green flag. A lot of them have maybe the first half-dozen cars double-file (if that) and the rest of the field still strung out single-file.

07/19/2011 10:57 AM

GK nailed it. If you skip the pre/post you can watch a competivie exciting race in just a couple of hours. And rarely do you ever see the “phantom yellow” to bunch the field up. That may be true on the double file restarts but it beats the heck out of hearing “one more lap of caution”

Don Mei
07/19/2011 01:56 PM

Lets not forget that prior to Tony George pouting and taking his racetrack and going home, Cart races outdrew Nascar on TV. I completely agree with the the possibility of that happening again now that open wheel has some really competent management and Nascar has…you know.

07/19/2011 01:59 PM

Randy Bernard has made a dramatic improvement in what USED to be the premier series in this country. It just appears to a series that is all about racing and doesnt have a lot of make believe BS. Remember it was only the suicidal split which created CART and the IRL that allowed Nascar to become the No! series in this country.

07/19/2011 02:20 PM

IndyCar may be better now that they’re not putting all of their eggs in the Danica basket—something NASCAR has been perfectly willing to do in recent years.

07/19/2011 05:58 PM

Wow…because of this article I’m going to try to catch some Indy racing.

Sounds like it’s good and I might be able to get my racing fix.

I’ll definitely drop nascar for good if something else comes along that’s better than what nascars been for the last several years.

07/19/2011 10:55 PM

Remember when the Indy 500 was on the F1 schedule? Makes me wish for a seat swap between an Indy car and F1 car at say Watkins Glen.

07/20/2011 09:28 AM

MikeGH: if you like the same two teams winning every single race in a season, you’ll love Indycar.

I will admit this season has been a BIT different, but the guys fighting for the title are still from “The Big Two.” I’ll be watching just to see how this new car design works out, but if Ganassi and Penske are just gonna keep on steamrolling everyone, I have better things to watch.

07/21/2011 01:59 PM

John, you are correct in your post. That is probably the biggest issue with Indy Car right now. Hopefully this new car in 2012 will help level the playing field a bit and even allow single car teams the ability to compete for a championship.

I also hope that when they become more popular, which I think they will, that they will add more races to their schedule. You lose alot of momentum when you go sometimes 3 weeks between races.

All in all though, for those that just want to see racing and not all the other crap that nascar force feeds you, the Indy Car series is the way to go.