IndyCar gaining momentum as the series heads home to Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27: Will Power, the current leader of the IndyCar oval standings (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27: Will Power, the current leader of the IndyCar oval standings (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

IndyCar returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a bright future ahead of it, thanks to the addition of new drivers, tracks, sponsors and a new television package.

Once again, the month of May is upon us, and for IndyCar fans, that can only mean one thing: the Indianapolis 500 is right around the corner.

After nearly a month off, the roar of race engines will once again sound at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the course of the next three weeks, beginning with the sixth annual running of the IndyCar Grand Prix this Saturday, May 11 on the track’s 2.439-mile (3.925-kilometer) road course and concluding with the 103rd running of the Indy 500 on the famous 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) oval on Sunday, May 26.

The attention the Indy 500 receives is second to no other race in IndyCar, and only a select few sporting events in the word can be compared to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and all of the pomp and circumstances that surround it. But the Indy 500 just feels a little bit bigger than usual this year, as IndyCar racing has experienced a revival of sorts over the past few years.

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Once the most popular motorsport in the United States a little over 20 years ago, IndyCar’s popularity began to shrink in the mid-1990s and 2000s following a lengthy civil war between speedway management and wealthy team owners, which saw the creation of two separate championships from 1996 to 2007 and IndyCar’s title status of America’s favorite racing series transfer to NASCAR.

Now, 11 years after Champ Car and the Indy Racing League merged to once again create a unified championship, IndyCar has once again reached heights not seen in decades.

The addition of new teams, new drivers, new sponsors, new venues (and the return to several classic venues) as well as a new television partner have resulted in the series growing exponentially with a visible ceiling yet to be seen.

Let’s take a look at some of the positive changes for IndyCar this season.

New drivers

Young rookie drivers have made quite the impression so far through the first four races of the 2019 season, with Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta winning his first race in only his third career start at Circuit of the Americas in March.

Herta, who became the youngest winner in series history with his victory, joins Carlin’s Patricio O’Ward as two rookies who successfully made their way up through the Road to Indy ladder system, finishing second and first in last year’s Indy Lights championship standings, respectfully.

Joining Herta and O’Ward in the 2019 rookie class are three-time Formula E race winner Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing, former Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Santino Ferrucci of Dale Coyne Racing, all of whom have the opportunity to make a name for themselves in IndyCar.

New sponsors

After the announcement was made in late 2017 that Verizon would not continue as the title sponsor of IndyCar following the conclusion of the 2018 season, IndyCar management began searching far and wide for a new sponsor, and earlier this year, a relatively unknown company was announced as IndyCar’s newest entitlement sponsor.

Not many people outside of IndyCar circles may have heard of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) just yet, but if the sponsorship by the Japanese telecommunications giant, which offers IT services and consulting via subsidiary NTT Data in the United States, pays off, NTT may just become a household name.

The exact details of NTT’s sponsorship agreement were not publicly made available, but industry insiders have stated the deal is between three to five years with financials similar to the previous contract with Verizon.

Speedway also replaced Sunoco as the official fuel provider of IndyCar, with the popular chain of gas stations and convenience stores proudly activating their sponsorship via web advertising and via the monitors above the fuel pumps at many of the chain’s more than 4,000 locations across 35 states.

Gainbridge, an online financial services platform, also signed a multi-year agreement to become the presenting sponsor of the Indianapolis 500, replacing PennGrade Motor Oil. Gainbridge will also become the official annuity and life insurance partner of IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500.

New Venues

After successful returns to Road America (2016), Gateway Motorsports Park (2017), and Portland International Raceway (2018) and a successful inaugural race at Circuit of Americas this March, IndyCar is scheduled to return to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for the first time since 2004 this September.

The Monterey, California road course replaces nearby Sonoma Raceway as the final event of the season, with series tire provider Firestone serving as the title sponsor, and according to track CEO Tim McGrane, ticket sales are already encouraging.

New television package

Perhaps the biggest shot in the arm for IndyCar’s growth over the last few years has been NBC Sports’ partnership as a television broadcaster. From 2009 to 2018 (as Versus from 2009 to 2011), NBC Sports Network had been the exclusive cable partner of IndyCar.

With a new three-year television contract, which started this year, in place, NBC Sports Network and now “big” NBC will broadcast every race, including the Indy 500, live through the conclusion of the 2021 season. The Indy 500 is set to air on NBC for the first time this year.

With NBC Sports Network viewership up 21% so far this season, the peacock network is looking to erase a trend of declining ratings for the Indy 500, which saw overnight ratings decline to a record-low during ABC’s final broadcast of the race for the foreseeable future last season.

If NBC’s preparation for and promotion of the race so far this year is any indication of what fans should expect from the network’s maiden Indy 500 broadcast, then we should be in for a treat.

The network announced that Mike Tirico, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Danica Patrick will join the live broadcast of this race, and last weekend’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby featured several advertisements for NBC’s coverage of the race, as well as promotion for Drive Like Andretti, a one-hour documentary detailing the life of Mario Andretti that is scheduled to air this Saturday on NBC at 2:00 p.m. ET before network coverage of the IndyCar Grand Prix begins at 3:00 p.m. ET.

Editor’s note: The author of this article is also a contributor to NBC Sports’ MotorSportTalk, and the opinions expressed below are solely of the author and not of NBC Universal and/or any of its affiliates.

The return of McLaren and Fernando Alonso

With new drivers, sponsors, venues and a new television contract, IndyCar has put many pieces in place to build interest domestically, but many more eyes from all across the world will also be watching this year’s Indy 500 to see how McLaren Racing and Fernando Alonso fare in their first visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2017.

Having won the Monaco Grand Prix twice in 2006 and 2007 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans just last year, Alonso is looking to join Graham Hill as the second driver ever to win the Triple Crown of Motorsport.  Prior to Alonso’s first attempt to win the Indy 500 in 2017, the speedway had not gotten so much international attention since Nigel Mansell competed in the race in 1993 and 1994.

With all of the positive additions to the series over the last few years, the sky is the limit for IndyCar. Talented young drivers, new events, new sponsors and a dedicated television partner ensure that the sport will have plenty of opportunity for growth over the next several years.

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Will IndyCar continue to grow and establish itself as one of the premier racing series in the world? Be sure to tune in to the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course to kick off the series schedule for the month of May. Live coverage of the race is set to begin this Saturday, May 11 at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC.