Cue the dramatic music: IndyCar gets ratings bump
LONG BEACH, Calif. – IndyCar wanted attention in this season of high expectations but failed to get very much for its first two races of the year.
A new car, a manufacturer battle and the best competition in 15 years was supposed to re-energize a dwindling fan base. Instead, sagging television ratings showed no immediate impact on IndyCar's quest to move the dial.
That changed Sunday with some drama in Long Beach. And maybe, just maybe, that might be the trick to attracting the eyeballs the series desperately needs.
The third race of the season was a doozy, reflected by the improved overnight rating for cable channel NBC Sports Network. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach scored a .35, up 21 percent from last year's race, prompting a sigh of relief after the .25 scored two weeks ago in the network's season debut.
The number likely was boosted by NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series having the day off, but promotion on NBC's main network and a controversy leading into the race clearly didn't hurt.
The controversy began when Chevrolet arrived in Long Beach and promptly pulled all 11 of its engines from its teams. That should have given Honda a shot at its first win of the season, but that seemed doomed the moment eager rookie Josef Newgarden sailed into the tire barrier attempting a bold pass for the lead on four-time champion Dario Franchitti before they even made it to Turn 1.
From there the race was punctuated by a collision between Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal that sent Andretti's car airborne and led him to complain, "I'm lucky I didn't get upside down. I could have been killed."
There was a flurry of penalty calls — as well as some no calls — that fueled conversation, championship contender Scott Dixon was stuck on the course inside his disabled car for most of the race, and, in the end, yet another Chevrolet rout.
A penalty against Chevrolet drivers for changing their engines pushed Franchitti, in a slump so far this season, in the top starting spot alongside the 21-year-old rookie.
Newgarden is young and eager and potentially the next American star, and a chance to lead in just his third career race was probably a little too appealing. He seemingly called his shot after Saturday qualifying, when he suggested in a news conference that he might try to pass Franchitti at the start because the veteran wouldn't expect such a bold move.
Bad move, kid.
Franchitti knew it was coming and was not willing to get beat to the first turn by a rookie.
While Newgarden tried to get past the champ, Franchitti quickly closed the door, and everyone has a different opinion on if there was contact between the two. Franchitti, who called the move "fairly brave," said there was no contact. But Newgarden ended up in a tire barrier, his race over.
Newgarden, who contended he "got touched on the exit," stayed above the fray.
"Maybe I should think a little bit better before I go in there," he said. "You never know. I'll certainly review myself and see what I want to do differently in the future."
Things weren't so civil later when the contact between Andretti and Rahal caused a violent wreck.
Both drivers thought the other was at fault, and Rahal seemed to bristle at Andretti claiming he'd been chopped.
"What's Marco's last name?" Rahal asked. "I've said enough."
The two young American drivers have the most famous last names in American open-wheel racing, and both of their fathers were champions. Perhaps this could be the rivalry that every racing series needs to thrive. IndyCar hasn't had a really good rivalry in years. Although Franchitti and Will Power have bickered at times during their battles the last two years, they lack the contempt for each other needed to spark a real interest in fans.
IndyCar officials were reviewing Monday why Andretti's car went airborne — this year's new car has features that were supposed to prevent it from launching — and determining if either driver made an egregious maneuver to cause the wreck.
New race director Beaux Barfield didn't issue a call in that accident; nor did he sanction Franchitti at the start. He also didn't penalize Simon Pagenaud for hitting a tire on pit road, ruling Pagenaud hit the tire to avoid hitting another car.
But Barfield did issue penalties against E.J. Viso, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay for "avoidable contact." Hunter-Reay's was a biggie — he spun Takuma Sato on the last lap, ruining what should have been a podium finish for Sato. But Hunter-Reay didn't inherit the third-place finish: The penalty dropped him in the field and teammate James Hinchcliffe was the benefactor, jumping two spots in the finishing order for his first career podium.
There was some grumbling from the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team as to why Dixon, who entered the race second in the standings, wasn't towed back to pit road when his car stopped 27 laps into the race. The team wanted a chance to see if the car could be fixed and return to the race, but Dixon instead was stuck sitting with his disabled vehicle for the remaining 58 laps.
And then there was Chevrolet, back in IndyCar after a six-year hiatus.
The manufacturer celebrated its return to the series by crushing rival manufacturer Honda in the first two events. Then a problem with budding star Hinchcliffe's engine caused a slight panic for Chevy officials, who yanked the engines from all 11 teams when they arrived at Long Beach on Thursday.
It wasn't an easy decision: IndyCar's efforts to contain costs led to a strict engine rule that prohibits unapproved changes. The punishment is the loss of 10 spots on the starting grid, and pulling the engines put all the Chevrolet drivers in a deep hole at a circuit where passing isn't all that easy.
Despite the handicap, Chevrolet put five drivers in the Fast Six round of qualifying, and Ryan Briscoe's pole-winning run continued Penske Racing's streak of three poles in three races with Chevrolet power. But when the penalties were enforced, all the Chevy drivers moved outside the top 10 for the start, and Honda was positioned for what should have been its first win of the season.
Instead, Chevy driver Power picked his way through traffic from the 12th position, masterfully stretched a final tank of fuel, then held off Honda driver Pagenaud to move both Penske and the manufacturer to a perfect three wins in three races.
More impressive? Chevrolet had four of the top five, and seven drivers in the top 10.
Chevrolet program manager Chris Berube called it "a testimony to the determination, talent and spirit of cooperation" of the Chevy team.
That pre-race drama, as well as the on-track incidents, combined to give IndyCar plenty to talk about.
IndyCar purists aren't interested in gimmicks and probably don't care for drama, either. To them, it's about speed and substance and nothing else. Unfortunately, that didn't do much to sell the product in the first two races.
Now, everyone has a chance to see if juicy storylines and compelling personalities can be the boost IndyCar needs.