(Photo: Chris Owens / IndyCar)

2-Headed Monster: Has the Indy 500 Passed the Coca-Cola 600 in Popularity?

Another Month of May has come to pass, and with it the greatest day in motorsports has again drawn to a close.

Beginning with the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is the ultimate day for racing fans. North American spectators in particular enjoy the afternoon and evening, which contains a full 1,100 miles of racing between the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.

While open wheel and stock car fans willingly share the spotlight on the day, the debate has long persisted that one of the two great races holds precedence over the other.

Open wheel purists and Indiana natives will be quick to tell you that the Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world. Those in the South and East Coast, however, are more likely to claim NASCAR’s longest race as the top event of the day.

For much of the last two decades, the NASCAR fans have had evidence to support their case. Benefiting from open wheel’s lost luster amid the CART-IRL split of 1996, the Coke 600 quickly rose to become the most popular event of the day in America.

However, last season, the Indy 500 beat the Coke 600 in TV ratings for the first time in a decade, and after putting roughly 350,000 on the confines of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 100th running, many IndyCar fans believe the 500 is again America’s top race on racing’s biggest day.

Are they right? Has the Indy 500 again become the biggest race of Memorial Day weekend?

Has the Indianapolis 500 again overtaken the Coca-Cola 600 as the top race of Memorial Day weekend?

Absolutely.

(Photo: Mike Neff)
It’s hard to sell out a racetrack as huge as Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but that’s exactly what happened in this year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Mike Neff)

350,000 fans.

Need I say anything more?

A whopping 350,000 fans flocked to the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway this previous Sunday for the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

The attendance estimates for the Coca-Cola 600 haven’t been released, but Charlotte Motor Speedway’s capacity is somewhere in the range of 100,000 seats, meaning the Indy 500 welcomed three times as many fans, at a minimum.

Part of that attendance uptick can be be attributed to the prestige of the 100th running, but even 2015’s estimated attendance of 220,000 was well over double the capacity of Charlotte.

The most beautiful and simplistic thing this Hoosier will say all day is this: The Indy 500 is back.

The TV numbers may have declined this year, but Sunday’s race had the best attendance the 500 has seen in over two decades, and it wasn’t just a fluke for the 100th running, either.

The Indy 500 has seen increased ticket sales year over year since 2012, per an Indianapolis Business Journal article. While that won’t increase next year – it’s impossible to improve on a sellout without adding seats –  the continuing momentum means the speedway should show another good crowd as the race transitions to its’ 101st edition and beyond.

The Daytona 500 is the most popular event in American motorsports. The TV ratings prove that without a doubt. And IndyCar has their fair share of trouble with subpar (but growing) TV ratings. But when it comes to Memorial Sunday, the Indy 500 is the biggest event of day.

-Aaron Bearden

Not So Fast.

To say that a NASCAR race has fallen in its popularity compared to another racing series’ event solely due to declining ratings isn’t looking at the whole story. A recent NASCAR Illustrated article written by Matt Crossman looked at this very issue, and reported that it’s not just NASCAR that has seen dwindling ratings.

The NBA and college basketball and football both have seen drastic reductions in viewership over the years, and even this year’s Indy 500 – which wasn’t blacked out in the Indianapolis market – saw fewer viewers nationally despite the boost from local viewers.

Yes, the Coca-Cola 600 saw its worst ratings since 2001, but television ratings aren’t the end-all they were years ago. Instead of an audience being held captive to their television screens, they now have the freedom to watch on their tablets, phones – even Twitter, as Crossman reported.

It is these social engagements that NASCAR is looking at. Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer, had this to say in the article: “If we’re getting social increases of 40, 50, 60 percent, and engagement numbers that are in the 200 percent (range) year over year, those are massive, massive numbers of people who are engaging.”

These numbers aren’t publicly available, so it’s hard to tell specifically who all is tuning in on a device, but with the amount of tweets being pushed out during the course of a race, it’s obvious that second screens are playing a huge role in consumption.

But back to the Coke 600. After all, this is the race that goes head-to-head with the Indy 500. Both saw declines, but Indy is experiencing a slower attrition rate and therefore saw more viewers than the race in Charlotte the past two years.

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
The Coca-Cola 600 may have seen a decline in TV ratings, but that doesn’t mean it’s the premier event on Memorial Day weekend … does it? (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

This can be attributed to a couple of things.

First, is that NASCAR fans usually tune out for night racing and many are further inclined to tune out since they don’t receive the premium sports channels that many of the races are broadcast on. The Coke 600 was broadcast on FOX, but that might not stop some from not tuning in at all. Add in the fact that the IndyCar race takes place in the afternoon before Memorial Day barbecues start and the Coke 600 runs during said parties, and it’s clear that the Indy 500 has a leg up on the competition in regards to ratings.

Second, people love to see big, historical events live. That’s why the Olympics, game sevens of championships and presidential election returns have high viewership. People want to know what’s going on. The Coca-Cola 600 is a marquee race no doubt, but the 2016 running was its 57th running. The Indy 500, on the other hand, was celebrating its 100th year.

That’s a huge milestone. Obviously people are more inclined to turn into an historic race – whether they normally watch motorsports or not – to say they saw it happen. It didn’t matter whether Alexander Rossi or Juan Pablo Montoya won. It was the history that drew them in. Now, this isn’t to say that all the viewers are casual motorsports fans. No, there are millions of race fans that would have tuned in regardless of the anniversary, but the march toward history the past few years certainly didn’t hurt the ratings.

That Indy sold out and lifted the television ban is a huge accomplishment, but it’s a little too early to say that it’s passed NASCAR’s longest race in terms of popularity. If the trend continues over the next couple of years, however, it might be time to revisit the argument.

-Sean Fesko

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About Sean Fesko

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Sean returns as a ringer in 2017, contributing once a month because he (gasp!) is living it up in the big city without internet. While he's not consuming race news on the Twitter app and reddit he's writing a ton of short stories and paying the bills by working in marketing.

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    How is this even an argument? The Indy 500 in infinitely bigger in popularity than the 600 regardless of the decline in open wheel racing the last 20 years.

  2. Avatar

    I agree with Alex unless you want to define exactly what you mean by “popular”.

    If I went up to 1000 random people (not necessarily racing fans) and asked them to name a famous race I would bet I’d hear Indy 500 the most and Daytona 500 second most. I doubt that the 600 would even be mentioned. If you only asked racing fans and the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 were the only choices then maybe the 600 would win given the fact that there are more season long NASCAR fans than Indy fans (based on ratings, attendance, etc.) over the last 20 year averages but you’d really have to target the audience to a specific group tilted toward NASCAR.

  3. Avatar

    The Indy was a much better race the last two years. Indy car itself is much better racing the last few years.I watched both and will again but Indy was the show.

  4. Avatar

    I think even NASCAR fans will admit the Indy 500 is a bigger event. It’s a 100 years old. To me it is the one auto race with the pomp and circumstances of events like the Kentucky Derby. It’s more than auto race in Indiana, its a civic event. They even have an Indycar on their state quarter.

  5. Avatar

    Alex is right. This is a silly debate. The Indy 500 is the great American race and always has been, even through the tough times experienced by open wheel racing. The quality of the racing is far and away better than the snoozefest at Charlotte. The drivers are more skillful and cannot bully their way through the field or use the chrome bumper to make a pass. The history of the race far exceeds the Daytona 500 in significance. It is the one American racing event that can attract non-race fans simply for the experience.

    Has the Indy 500 passed the Coke 600? Uh, let’s just say the Indy 500 laps the field on Memorial Day weekend and NASCAR scores a DNF.

    • Avatar

      Hmmm, I rather like the drivers being able to “bully their way through the field or use the chrome bumper to make a pass” (which usually means the driver in front of them is slower and blocking) in NASCAR. It’s why I rarely watch the Indy races and why my favorite NASCAR races are the short tracks. To each their own I guess.

    • Avatar

      Imagine if the Indy 500 was part of the F1 schedule like it was in the past.