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The Indianapolis 500 By The Numbers

by John S Kiernan on May 21, 2014

We love numbers at WalletHub, particularly those related to money, and there is no shortage of interesting stats and figures surrounding the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, which is set to be held Sunday at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In honor of this tradition-rich event, we compiled some of the most interesting tidbits – from the $10K it cost to produce the Borg-Warner Trophy in 1935 and the $3.5M it’s currently valued at to the $431 million economic impact the event has on Indianapolis – into an interesting infographic that will help fans connect with the race.  We also spoke to motorsports experts about declining Indy 500 TV ratings, the biggest issues facing the business of IndyCar and, of course, who they think will drink the milk this year. So check it out, buckle up, and get ready for a wild ride.

Wallet Hub's Indy 500 Infographic

Ask The Experts:  The Business of IndyCar & Winner’s Picks

Casual observation – not to mention television ratings information – seem to indicate a declining interest in IndyCar racing among U.S. sports fans, especially in comparison to the rampant following that NASCAR has amassed.  Most people couldn’t name more than a couple of drivers – if that, and the annual rite of tuning into the action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway seems to be fading from the consciousness of the average American family.

What does this mean for the future of the IndyCar business?  For insight into that, as well as some picks for drivers to root for this weekend, we turned to a panel of distinguished sports business and motorsports experts.  You can check out their comments below.

To what do you attribute the Indy 500’s poor ratings last year?

Last year's ratings were part of a downward trend, which isn't very different from ratings trends for TV in general.  All ratings are going down.

Having said that, it's clear that NASCAR has become the dominant force in U.S. racing and there's been a reversal of fortunes.  The Daytona 500 has grown in ratings while the Indy 500 has declined, but it seems as though ratings for both have leveled off in recent years: no more double digit growth or declines.

- Larry DeGaris, University of Indianapolis

With the rise of NASCAR over the last two decades, it seems that IndyCar has become a niche sport and the Indy 500 a niche event, while NASCAR has usurped the place of ‘everyman's race.’

In sum, when you mention motorsports to the non-fan or even casual fan, it evokes NASCAR.  NASCAR is on TV every week and doesn't seem hard to find.  It's in our sporting conscience and has a place in the VERY cluttered landscape of sports and sporting events.

On the other hand, IndyCar seems harder to find (though it's not really) and does not have the same presence. Again, I think the notion of it being a niche sport is very strong. Don't get me wrong – there are still elements of tradition that exist and are important for the Indy 500, but the general decline is in part due to what I am describing.

- Travis Feezell, Belmont Abbey College

Unfortunately, last year was just the continuance of a downward trend.  While fans of motorsports view the day as a feast with the 500, NASCAR race and F1 at Monaco, the almost concurrent events compete for attention in the pre-race media coverage.

Since the split of open wheel racing in the U.S., NASCAR made significant gains in attracting U.S. motorsports fans and with the expansion of global media, F1 has also become much easier to follow here in the U.S.  As a result, some motorsports fans migrated to those options.

For the casual U.S. sports fan, the Indy 500 needs to regain its stature as a must-see, mark-your-calendar, annual ritualistic event.  Casual fans have to feel like they're missing something if they fail to tune in; as if they'll be left out of conversations if they didn't watch the race.  Currently, that type of word-of-mouth enthusiasm doesn't seem to exist on a broad level across the country.

- Joe Cobbs, Northern Kentucky University

It’s difficult to determine the causes of the poor ratings.  I’d contend the media rating is indicative of a downward trend of the visibility of IndyCar, not of the Indianapolis 500.

For instance, the recent study placing the Indianapolis 500 at the top of people’s ‘bucket list’ shows it still holds a great appeal for people to witness in the first person. However, the media audience typically needs longer story lines to follow; if asked what the second biggest IndyCar race is, most sports fans would offer a blank stare. Thus, I believe the big issues facing the Indianapolis 500 mostly pertain to the need to bolster and re-market the brand of the entire sport.

Finding new, compelling drivers is paramount, but the bottom line is that the IndyCar racing season will begin and end this weekend for many fans, and that’s a problem for the longevity of this crown jewel of racing.

- Andrew C. Billings, University of Alabama

I think there is a combination of reasons. The ratings for IndyCar and NASCAR have declined for their Memorial Day weekend races over the past few years. This could be an indication of fewer fans of these traditional motorsport events.

One contributing factor is the low name recognition of IndyCar drivers. Few non-fans know the names of the drivers beyond Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti. One reason for the lack of name recognition is that the IndyCar schedule does not have weekly races throughout the season. With only eighteen races, IndyCar struggles to keep the series and its stars in front of racing fans. IndyCar drivers are making efforts to boast the viewership of this year's Indianapolis 500 by conducting interviews in the various markets where IndyCar races throughout the season.

Technology might have contributed to the lower television ratings. We can now watch and follow the Indianapolis 500 online and on our smartphones through the Verizon IndyCar app. We no longer have to be in front of a television to enjoy the race. Instead, we can watch the race from the beach or the lake.

- Clay Harshaw, Winston-Salem State University

I am not sure there's a simple answer to question one. My personal belief is that we've experienced a very large cultural shift in ‘what's cool’ in addition to the obvious fragmentation of the motorsports enthusiast audience over the past 40 years. There used to be two races a year on television. With the Internet and cable/satellite television - you can watch your preferred form of motorsport. There are 8-10 other factors that come to mind, but those would be the big two for me.

- Michael Crawford, Marian University

What are the biggest issues facing the business of IndyCar racing?

Fan development in sports is a long-term process.  One of the biggest challenges for all sports is getting new fans in the pipeline, especially when young adults are priced out of the best events.  For me, that means getting fans to races.  Building TV audiences is a long-term process which I think starts at the track.

- Larry DeGaris, University of Indianapolis

Everyone seems to agree the unification of the open-wheel series is a huge step in the right direction for the business of IndyCar.  Another major challenge is to promote unique personalities within the sport in a way that enables fans to identify with certain drivers and even dis-identify with rival drivers.

Sponsors can play a large role in this strategy with their willingness to commit and be creative in their marketing resources devoted to leveraging their sponsorship with a team or the IndyCar series.  Perhaps Verizon's heavy commitment to the sport will provide a spark in that direction.

- Joe Cobbs, Northern Kentucky University

The biggest issue for IndyCar is its schedule. The series is off for seven months and will need to find a way to remain in minds of fans and potential fans. An expanded schedule with more races will help to boast the number of fans attending the races and watching them on television.

- Clay Harshaw, Winston-Salem State University

It's a ’chicken and egg’ situation. You need spectators/viewers to attract sponsors, but you need sponsors to remind the world that IndyCar still exists and is pretty darned exciting.

- Michael Crawford, Marian University

Who do you think will drink the milk this year?

I don't know who will win, but I'm rooting for my fellow Jersey boy Marco Andretti.

- Larry DeGaris, University of Indianapolis

I am going to be really boring here and put my stake in Ed Carpenter. I know it's easy to pick someone from the pole, but his 10th place finish last year will have him wanting this one.

- Travis Feezell, Belmont Abbey College

I'll tip Marco Andretti to get the win this year.  If he could pull it off, or if Montoya could take the flag, the history behind their names might remind sports fans of the glory of open wheel racing and attract some incremental attention from media outlets.

- Joe Cobbs, Northern Kentucky University

From what I can tell, Helio Castroneves is running as fast as anyone in practice, so perhaps it’s his turn to get a fourth one.

- Andrew C. Billings, University of Alabama

John Kiernan is Senior Writer & Editor at Evolution Finance. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a BA in Journalism, a minor in Sport Commerce & Culture,…
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