IndyCar’s Real Schedule Problem: Geographic Distribution


In Verizon IndyCar Series racing, distance is reported as time.  On any given track, gaps can range from thousandths of to dozens of seconds, with any IndyCar driver preferring to minimize that distance between her- or himself and the racer ahead.

The best are successful at it.  They will knock off two-tenths in a lap, make up half-a-second in the pits, and eventually pull up as close as turbulence will allow.  When the throttle’s down, they make up the distance.

It might be time for IndyCar management, then, to get a gas pedal.

IndyCar, as a series, has a distance problem — not calculated in seconds, but in miles.  Consider the many race fans (admittedly, most inclined toward NASCAR) in the Southeast.  If they miss the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this weekend, their hopes of attending an IndyCar race in 2015 are slim.  The series does not hit their market even once between now and the Labor Day finale in California.

These Americans are not alone.  New England and the Pacific Northwest have no representation on the calendar, and the Northeast only has one date.  Start heading too far west of Indianapolis and your nearest IndyCar race is hundreds of miles away.

Not even Will Power or Juan Pablo Montoya are making up that kind of time on the speedway.

The loudest complaints about IndyCar’s calendar often seem to be about the lack of race dates, the early ending, or the absence of ovals.  Geographic distribution might be the issue that deserves the most attention.

Consider the data.  Taking the most populous city in each of the 48 states in the continental U. S. (Hawaii and Alaska would only skew the numbers with extremes), the distance of each to its nearest IndyCar race track reveals a large problem.  The median of all 48?  242 miles.

Restated, for the typical person living in the most populous city of her or his home state, it’s just shy of half an Indianapolis 500 of highway driving to go see an IndyCar race.

Compare that to NASCAR, IndyCar’s main competitor in the U. S. racing landscape.  The Sprint Cup median is just 137.5 miles, meaning that NASCAR’s 23 tracks better serve more people than IndyCar’s 14.

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Obviously, there’s an advantage for NASCAR, having more dates and more venues.  Still, the numbers are staggering.  IndyCar has no race within 300 miles of 19 states’ most populous cities.  These include former IndyCar markets like Phoenix, AZ (329 miles); Denver, CO (708 miles); Manchester, NH (330 miles); Charlotte, NC (380 miles); and Portland, OR (615 miles).  Some in this category have a NASCAR date within 100 miles, like Phoenix, Manchester, and Charlotte, as well as Portland, ME; Columbia, SC; and nearly Virginia Beach, VA (technically 108 miles from Richmond International Raceway).

Further still, there are untapped markets in IndyCar’s 300+ group.  It would beat Sprint Cup to venues like Boise, ID (where it was once rumored to be headed); Albuquerque, NM (a market that scored high in Indianapolis 500 TV ratings); or Seattle, WA — on top of the aforementioned Portland, OR.

A twentieth city, Boston, is 294 miles away from its nearest race, six miles shy of the cutoff for this category.

Instead, Boston joins Jacksonville, FL; Minneapolis, MN; Kansas City, MO; Las Vegas, NV; Providence, RI; Memphis, TN; Houston, TX; and Charleston, WV among states’ most populous cities with no IndyCar race for at least 200 miles.  Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Houston have all hosted, or been near hosts of, past IndyCar events.  Providence was long-rumored to promote a street race that never materialized.

Most tellingly, only nine states’ most populous cities are within 100 miles of an IndyCar race.  19 are in that same range when it comes to the Sprint Cup tour.

There are flaws in this calculation, of course.  Many major markets are not the most populous city in a state; Dallas, for example, is served by IndyCar, but has fewer people than Houston.  Others with races fewer than 100 miles away include San Francisco, CA; Tampa, FL; and Cleveland, OH.

Nevertheless, IndyCar races are not well-distributed.  Those bonus cities are still concentrated in the same regions that IndyCar already covers.  New proposals, like a race in Boston, would help, but little confidence is inspired by IndyCar’s more prominent push for international races.

The impacts on IndyCar could be two-fold.  Not only are existing fans boxed out of attending races, it is far harder to make new ones.  Many have stories of a first-time attendee they brought with them to the race, creating a lifelong fan with the trackside experience that TV does not capture.  That can happen when the pitch is, “hey, IndyCar’s in town, let’s check it out on Sunday.”  When you’re instead trying to sell, “take a few days off work, pay half my gas, spend a weekend in a hotel, and see a race 250 miles from here,” good luck capturing the interest of anyone not predisposed to auto racing.

In that, IndyCar’s concentration of races not only hurts it now, but may harm it more in the future.

On the track, distance matters.  Everyone wants close racing.

Now, it’s time for IndyCar to make more people close to the racing.

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