Is IndyCar’s New Reality A Turn For The Better?

IndyCar and IMS have traded gas for glitz in recent years, hoping cross-promotion on reality TV shows, in-race concerts, and a parade of glam WAGs can fuel a reawakening for auto racing.
Emma Dixon and Scott Dixon in the PNC Bank IndyCar

Photo by Tony Valainis

I’m sitting in the middle of an Indianapolis Motor Speedway exec’s wildest dream: It’s just after 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night in mid-February, and the front room of Kilroy’s in downtown Indy is packed with dozens of raucous, half-drunk Naptowners already thinking about May.

Their eyes are riveted to the wall of flat-screens. We’re smack in the stretch run of Big 10 basketball season, and the Hoosiers are playing a conference foe in Bloomington. But instead of displaying the Assembly Hall hardwood, these TVs are tuned to prime-time network programming where IndyCar drivers are competing in a nationally televised race watched by 10 million fans  across the country.

Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly in fry costumes
2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi (left) and driver Conor Daly starred in CBS’s The Amazing Race, an effort, in part, to bring a new generation of fans to IndyCar racing.

The Kilroy’s crowd erupts, standing over tables of unfinished breadsticks and buckets of iced-down Miller Lite bottles, as the cameras show a new race leader, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, with local favorite and Noblesville native Conor Daly right behind him. But the two are not running tail-to-nose in separate IndyCars careening down the front straightaway. Rossi is behind the wheel of a rented four-door coupe with Daly in the back seat as the two plainclothed athletes try to navigate the crowded streets of Bahrain. This is The Amazing Race, the CBS reality game show, in which 11 teams of two everyday joes and janes scamper around the globe, stopping in exotic locations to complete bizarre challenges of might, skill, strategy, or stomach in pursuit of a winner-take-all, $1 million purse. Rossi and Daly comprise Team IndyCar, trying to outwit and outrun the likes of Team Yale (dating college debaters), Team Extreme (professional skiers), and Team Big Brother (a dating couple crossing over from a different reality show). Of course, unless your mom has revoked all phone, computer, and TV privileges, you probably knew that already—even if you’ve never seen the show. The IMS and IndyCar communications teams have tried to make sure of that.

This RSVP-only Valentine’s Day viewing party, replete with VIP lanyards and giant heart-shaped cut-out photos of Rossi and Daly, is part of IndyCar’s final push to draw attention to the program. The drivers, having wrapped shooting of the competition weeks ago, are here as well, seated at a table of honor to watch others react to the fait accompli, laugh at themselves and each other, sign autographs, and most important, promote their sport and, by extension, its signature 500-mile race. On this episode alone, Daly and Rossi pimp their rides fishing by hand for giant bullfrogs in a flooded Thailand rice paddy, eating scorpions, and lugging 300 pounds of timber onto a balancing scale—all the while being sure to casually slip in as many racing metaphors as possible. (“This is the white-flag lap.” “We’re not letting off the gas.” “Now is the time to step on the throttle.”) And having just taken the lead, they now arrive at a Bahraini camel farm, where their task is to grab hold of a mammal’s huge nipple and milk the beast. “Well,” Daly says on-screen, leaning into the camel’s teat with his ball cap backward, “these hands were made for milking.”

Daly’s joke lands with the home crowd, spurring laughter and cries of bemused disgust from the party. On screen, Rossi and Daly decline to partake in the warm, viscous juice of their labor—missing the obvious plug for the American Dairy Association of Indiana’s ceremonial bottle of milk for the 500 champion—and move on to the next challenge, ending the night’s episode in the overall lead with only two more shows to go. At Kilroy’s, the drivers, already knowing that they finish fourth, stick around to sign autographs and heart-shaped photos of themselves as the race fans trickle out onto Meridian.

Meanwhile, the rest of the packed downtown bar spares only an occasional glance away from their drinks and their TVs. All this time, they’ve been engrossed by an underperforming Hoosier basketball team, long out of NCAA Tournament consideration, struggling to best a sub-.500 squad from the University of Illinois. These patrons, who outnumber the race party by about 10 to 1, go about their evening as if nothing had happened.

“Obviously, we know where we sit on the scale of sporting groups,” says Daly. The 26-year-old is too young to remember a time when NASCAR’s outsized personalities and wild wrecks didn’t rule the racing business. “I’ve only ever lived in an era where promotion is everything, and getting our names and our series out to other realms of the world is a huge part of what we have to do. It’s tough, we’d like to just be able to show up and drive, but this is the name of the game.”

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These days, promotion is the game. Daly estimates that in a given year, he spends just 15 to 20 percent of his time racing. The remaining 85 to 80 percent includes training, but the majority of his hours are spent promoting himself (he, like many drivers, has yet to find a ride for 2018), his team (when he finds one), and the sport at large. He does this through sponsor events; local TV, radio, and newspaper interviews; appearances at league and IMS events; and, of course, milking the occasional camel on national television.

He’s far from alone. In 2016, Daly joined four other drivers in firesuits, including Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, to annihilate a team of much taller swimsuit models on Celebrity Family Feud.  Fellow Feud-er and former IndyCar Rookie of the Year James Hinchcliffe also spent part of that year fox-trotting his way to a runner-up finish behind an Olympic gymnast on ABC’s reality dance-off, Dancing with the Stars. Hinchcliffe is also hyperactive on social media, running a website and blog called “Hinchtown,” and hosting a fairly successful podcast, “The Mayor on Air with James Hinchcliffe,” where he interviews fellow drivers. In March, he announced that Rossi will join him in hosting the show, which will morph into a program about young success stories—they already have interviews with sports radio personality Pat McAfee and YA author John Green in the can. Then there’s the pseudo-scandal that was this season of ABC’s matchmaking show The Bachelor, starring Arie Luyendyk, Jr., son of two-time 500 winner Arie Sr. Junior unceremoniously dumped the girl he had chosen in order to hook up with the runner-up after production ended, setting the dumpster that is celebrity gossip Twitter ablaze.

The drivers aren’t the only ones hawking the historic race. The same IndyCar and IMS executives who pitch these pilots to the networks have been searching for any and all attractions to stuff under the Brickyard Big Top. On the track, they’ve added the Grand Prix of Indianapolis IndyCar road race to the month of May, tweaked qualifications, essentially reconceived Bump Day,  and recruited transcendent names like Formula 1 champ Fernando Alonso and, this year, the return of Danica Patrick to the board of offerings. Extracurriculars include the Rev cocktail party where drivers and their significant others—most of whom are beautiful people, like Scott and Emma Dixon—dress to the nines and walk the red carpet to add a touch of sophistication and fashion to the mix.  The speedway has co-opted the once-reviled Snake Pit haven for malcontents and turned it into an electronic music concert that thumps during the race. Two years ago, exclusive “glamping”—glamorous camping—plots were sold for race weekend for up to $1,000 a pop, and this year will see the premiere of Tiny House Hotels, complete with tiny toilet, shower, and fridge for twice that price. “We’re promoting this event and these drivers,” says Mark Miles, president and CEO of Hulman & Company, parent company of both IndyCar and IMS. “The broader we can reach out and get it in front of people, the better. I don’t think of it as a zero-sum game. If we can get more eyeballs to watch, that’s just going to add to the overall attention.”

But what if all these non-racing-related sideshows, the spectacle that surrounds The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, gets to be too spectacular? What if the reality-show drama and the Gen-Z ravers start to impinge on or distract from the tradition of this historic bucket-list event? “I’m not naive enough to think that kids care about cars and driving anymore,” says veteran racing journalist Robin Miller. “But it’s a crime that someone as good as Scott Dixon could walk down the street in Indianapolis and no one knows who he is. IMS promotes everything but what counts—the drivers, cars, and speed.”

Snakepit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Revelers party in the Snake Pit, where Indianapolis Motor Speedway organizers have turned the once seemingly clothing-optional relic of the 1970s into an in-race electronic music rave.

You might be thinking: Hmm. I believe I’ve read this story before. You’re probably right—I know I’ve written it at least three times.

I arrived at Indianapolis Monthly in 2005, and my first assignment was a May feature on late IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon. Though I had followed NASCAR for years back in Missouri, all I knew of American open-wheel racing was the Indianapolis 500, which came on ABC once a year, and if I bothered to watch it, I quickly forgot about it until the following Memorial Day. My indifference toward the race, as it turns out, was not uncommon for folks living outside of Indiana. Even before the calamitous 1996 split between CART and Tony Hulman’s 500-centric Indy Racing League divided America’s open-wheel resources and allowed NASCAR to charge to the front, 500 race attendance and TV ratings had begun to decline, and by 2005, the sport was more or less still in free fall. Only 6.7 million people tuned in to the 2004 Indy 500, down from 14.1 million in 1992. IndyCar races, in general, averaged an anemic 0.8 rating, far behind even NASCAR’s minor-league and truck series. Wheldon was supposed to change that with a personality that rivaled those of Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wheldon was handsome, brash, British, and fast, winning the 2005 Indy en route to the series title. Still, no one seemed to notice.

In 2006, the assignment was Danica, who, in 2005, had become the first woman to finish on the podium at IMS. Danicamania was supposed to infect a new and youthful IndyCar audience, and she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first IndyCar driver to do so in 20 years—and the last in the 12 years since.  Two years later it was Helio, the league’s first scout into the frontier of reality TV, competing on Dancing with the Stars in a garish banana-toned zoot suit. Nevertheless, ESPN dropped IndyCar from its network after the season; the races outside of Indy were now lost in the back channels of cable on something called “Versus.” And so on, and so on … Nothing seemed to take hold in the American zeitgeist.

By the time Miles arrived in 2013, the 500 was showing cracks of decline locally. Only 4,700 people showed up for that May’s opening-weekend practice. “I grew up in Indy, and you can imagine me being as excited as I could be to be here,” says Miles. “We’re all geared up, and we start with a whimper.” That was followed by another disappointing crowd for the next week’s qualifiers. Even the parade, driver autograph sessions, and Carb Day concert the Saturday before the race didn’t live up to Miles’s expectations. “It was almost like we’d shut the place down,” he says. Something had to change.

The first job was to address what was going on at the track—what Miles calls “content.” This involved nothing less than creating a brand-new race, The Grand Prix of Indianapolis, on opening weekend 2014. IndyCar series drivers—the same teams and cars that would run in the 500—first competed for series points on the IMS infield road course, modified from the Formula 1 and MotoGP races and renovated at a cost of about $5 million. “Now instead of 4,700 people on opening weekend, we’ve got 50,000,” says Miles. For the following weekend, Miles and company turned the two-day qualifying format on its head. Instead of crowning the pole position on Saturday and bumping from the back of the field on Sunday, the 11 rows of three would be decided first, with the top nine cars vying for the pole at the climactic end of qualifying. The Fast Nine Shootout was in and Bump Day, which had dated back to before WWII, was no more. This modification was not only intended to add excitement to those in attendance, but also to entice ABC to turn on their cameras and broadcast more of May to the world.

For race weekend, no one at IMS dared tinker with the 200-lap institution, but the goal was clear: Get as many people from as many walks of life onto the grounds that Friday-Saturday-Sunday as possible. In 2014, the track added a country music concert on Legends Day (Saturday) to play off Carb Day’s traditional rock offering. For the more affluent crowd, loath to slum it with RVers in the Coke Lot, officials rented infield plots and posh tents to glampers for the entire weekend. The brass doubled down on the experimental reincarnation of the Snake Pit, bringing in more and higher-profile electronic and dance acts to call teens and 20-somethings to a safe Turn 3 playpen on Sunday. “It doesn’t bother race fans in the stands,” says Miles. “And the concertgoers don’t know there’s a race going on.”

Off the track, the inaugural Rev Indy party was held in early May 2014, not just as a showcase of the style and personality of the drivers and their families, but also as a boost to IMS’s civic engagement—the charity event raised more than $100,000 for the Methodist Health Foundation. Then there was the onslaught of reality TV. Whereas years used to pass between Danica magazine covers and Helio dance numbers, suddenly we were bombarded with IndyCar personalities.Between 2016 and the first month of 2018, drivers appeared on Dancing with the Stars, Celebrity Family Feud, The Amazing Race, The Bachelor, and American Ninja Warrior. Conor Daly, alone, was on three of those shows. In May 2017, the Indy 500 was even part of the final clue on Jeopardy!. None of this was an accident—IndyCar and IMS reps pitch these shows constantly, looking for exposure anywhere they can find it. “It’s luck, but you make your own luck,” says Miles. “And our drivers are great at that stuff.”

Helio Castroneves on American Ninja Warrior
Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves—here, on American Ninja Warrior—has leapt into action when asked to promote the sport.

The drivers are also good at, you know, driving racecars—shouldn’t that be the message the track and the league are out to push?

That’s more or less the argument put forth by Miller, the motorsports journalist who has covered every 500 since 1969. “I know it’s never going to be the same,” he says. “But what made people fall in love with the 500 were the drivers, their bravado, the speed, and the competition. That’s why Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, and the Unsers were gladiators of the day—because it was dangerous. Now it’s almost about everything but the drivers and the racing. And that makes me crazy.”

Miller is surely voicing—if not understating—the concerns of many open-wheel hardliners who might feel that the  C-list celebrity circus is, at best, a distraction, if not an outright vandalizing of Tony Hulman’s grave. But Miller has the longtime beat writer’s access and insight into the business side of the sport. He sees a race with a purse that has diminished fairly steadily since 2009, making it increasingly difficult for even successful teams to recoup expenses. One way to raise more award dollars is to attract corporate sponsors, but those companies want exposure. With a season that stretches 17 races over six months between two networks (ABC and NBCSN—though IndyCar recently announced a multi-year deal with NBC Sports Group to telecast all of its races starting in 2019),  it’s going to take an awful lot of fox-trotting and frog-fishing to get viewers to know and root for these drivers. But it takes more fans and more sponsor money to create demand for more races … it’s a vicious cycle. Miller wonders if it might not be better for drivers to spend their time racing instead of eating scorpions, and for Hulman & Co. to spend its money publicizing the actual race to sports fans than putting on concerts for music fans who may or may not catch the racing bug while they’re at the track.

Skrillex, trackside at the Indy 500
IMS hopes the popular in-race concerts featuring stars like Skrillex in the reimagined Snake Pit eventually make racing converts of younger visitors.

At least one racing veteran is on board with the changes. Mario Andretti, transcendent motorsports legend and 1969 Indy 500 champion, now promotes the sport by working with IndyCar to drive the IndyCar Experience two-seater at every race. He says anyone with a pulse who gets in that cockpit with him and feels the G-forces pushing them down on the track at 200-plus mph can’t help but fall in love with the sport, whether they’ve heard of the brickyard or not. But since he can’t give everyone in America a lift, he says you have to do whatever it takes to get anyone and everyone to watch. “I think obviously there’s a lot of competition in the sports world because of the amount of exposure sports gets,” says Andretti. “You have to be proactive to remain relevant. Obviously, Indianapolis is an event with such a wealthy, stellar tradition. But you still have to appeal to the modern audience and to the entire family. Not everybody is a staunch racing aficionado. I know that. Even in my own family—my girls would like the concert more than the race. The essence is the tradition, but it’s not just a race—it’s an event.”

Experts agree. Jimmy Bruns is a senior sports and entertainment executive with Charlotte-based GMR Marketing. He says that these days, there’s really no difference between the race and the concert. “Sports and entertainment are all blending together,” he says. “That’s the normal trend in all of sports. Look at the Super Bowl—the parties and hospitality are becoming as much a part of the fabric as the event itself. That’s the expectation of modern sports fans.” Bruns says the objective is to limit patrons’ downtime and keep the whole family entertained as much as possible in this age of ever-decreasing attention spans. Even NASCAR has changed the nature of its sport, instituting stage racing—breaking races into different segments, and awarding series points to the leaders of those stages—to its signature event, the Daytona 500. That’s not an option (at least not yet) for Indy. “The traditionalists still have exactly what they want,” he says. “For everyone else, there’s an added bonus that doesn’t come at the detriment of changing the race.”

As for the reality sideshow, Bruns again thinks IndyCar is driving the right line—the path most other major sports organizations have to take to keep up. “With the older generation of drivers, there were limited ways to communicate to the masses,” he says. “Now, there are so many more ways for them to interact. This shows that they are willing to go on and have a good time and not take themselves too seriously. The knock against these drivers is they’re too corporate. Now fans are seeing these drivers as themselves, a credible, authentic moment as opposed to a press conference.”

An easy way to tell who is correct would be to look at the results—but the available data is limited and mixed. Miles says that while the IMS’s decision to sanitize and boost the Snake Pit during the race wasn’t based on any research, the early ticket-sales data shows that some fans have migrated to the grandstands. An uptick in social media surrounding the reality TV appearances is the only direct metric to measure the success of that venture. For example, when Luyendyk Jr. as The Bachelor took his controversial new girlfriend around the St. Petersburg circuit in the two-seater as part of the pre-race festivities during the 2018 season opener, IndyCar’s social media needle spiked. Celebrity gossip outlets like People, US Weekly, and Entertainment Tonight—places that don’t normally pay attention to motorsports—all ran stories. Of course, monetizing or even gauging precise impact of all that attention is another matter.

In terms of hard numbers, the 2016 Indy 500, the 100th running, shattered records, the first sellout in at least two decades, with 350,000 people in attendance, an increase of 130,000 from 2015—a number the recalcitrant speedway normally doesn’t give out. Last year, the goal was to retain half of that bump, and according to Miles, they did, coming in right around 300,000.  Meanwhile, the TV ratings told a different and murkier story. The second half of the 2017 season was up 3 percent, the second-highest ratings on record since NBCSN took over in 2009.  But ABC reported that numbers for the first half of the season were slightly down from 2016, including a 3.6 Nielsen rating for the 2017 Indianapolis 500, the worst since ABC began broadcasting the race live in 1986.

In 2009, my May assignment was not a reality TV star—it wasn’t even a driver. It was the first year of the IMS Centennial Celebration, commemorating 100 years since the track first opened as a test course for local car manufacturers. The magazine was going to feature a decade-by-decade essay of historical photos, and it was my job to spend hours in the windowless IMS archives, clicking through the century in a database of thousands of digitized snapshots one thumbnail at a time.

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The inaugural 500, then called the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race, was held on a late-May Tuesday, Decoration Day, as the holiday was known at the time. Ray Harroun averaged 74 mph around the ring of bricks, besting the field of 40 cars with a time of six hours and 42 minutes. In 1934, they winnowed the field to 33 for safety concerns. Three years later, track officials invited local college musicians to entertain the crowd in the first-ever Parade of the Bands.

The year 1936 saw race winner Louis Meyer ask for the first celebratory glass of milk and the introduction of the Borg-Warner Trophy. The starting command, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” was added sometime after World War II. “Back Home Again in Indiana,” sung by pop balladeer James Melton, joined the national anthem on the pre-race playlist in 1946. “America the Beautiful” wasn’t performed until 1991.

The 500 Festival was founded in 1957 to put on various civic events, like Community Day at the track and the 500 Festival Parade, to beef up the month of May. The 1970s were a whirlwind of change, with the race moving from its traditional May 30 date, first to the Saturday before Memorial Day, and then, in 1974, to its current Sunday slot—partially to better accommodate travelers, but also to boost TV ratings. The activities that comprised the month of May were shortened. Along the way, a booze-fueled race-day party involving bikers and hippies and plenty of nudity had formed in Turn 1, becoming its own event-within-an-event, which, while not endorsed by IMS, was tolerated, if not condoned, for more than two decades. Carb Day rock concerts and Legends Day were established in 1998 to bring even more revelers to the track.

Looking through photos, from sepia-toned to Kodachrome to sharp digital, I found snapshot after snapshot of fans in attendance. In the 1920s and 1930s, they were wearing three-piece suits and Sunday-stroll straw hats; in the 1940s and 1950s, crisp formal slacks and collared shirts. The late 1960s gave way to bell-bottoms and more scantily clad patrons, but none of the fashion would be what I would characterize as gearhead attire. Most of these folks weren’t coming just to watch a race—they were attending an event, one that grew and evolved addition by addition to accommodate them as their needs and tastes changed over the past hundred years. That inaugural 7-hour marathon race, while undoubtedly historic, would put all but the most ardent modern-day open-wheel fanatic to sleep. Everything has changed—and yet nothing has changed.

The other thing that leaped out from the photo archives was the instantly familiar faces of the celebrities that have graced the audience over the decades. Clark Gable. James Garner. Paul Newman. Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. Russell Crowe. Lady Gaga. Some came to enjoy the spectacle, some came to be seen when Indy was the place to be seen. In later years, many were invited, if not urged, to be visibly in attendance. But all were there to lend an extra touch of glamour and notoriety to the event.

And over the years, Indy drivers would pass on that notoriety whenever they could. Before the days of reality TV, A.J. Foyt and Ray Harroun appeared on CBS’s I’ve Got a Secret, one of the old panel game shows from the 1950s and 1960s. George Connor, an Indy star of the late 1940s, was a contestant on another called What’s My Line?. In 1975 and 1976, three-time champ Johnny Rutherford competed on ABC’s Superstars, a multi-event sports competition between famous athletes, from boxers to figure skaters to baseball players. Mario and Michael Andretti even made cameos on Tim Allen’s Home Improvement in the 1990s.

Trackside appearances by music artists
Trackside appearances by music artists and celebs have amped up the star power at pre-500 festivities, like the Snake Pit Ball and Rev.

“Different times provide different opportunities,” says Mario Andretti. And he remembers that not every opportunity was as glamorous as an Emmy-winning sitcom. Aside from the traditional radio spots and TV interviews, even in the 1960s during the 500’s heyday, track owner Tony Hulman would often call on drivers to accompany him around the Midwest, giving speeches to various social clubs. Champion Spark Plugs, a race sponsor, would send drivers to high schools all over the country. “They’d be there to talk to 16-year-olds about driver safety,” says IMS historian Donald Davidson. “But they’d really be there to promote the race.”

Despite IndyCar’s ever-evolving racing tech, including a new car that puts more control in the hands of the driver, speeds have plateaued (Arie Luyendyk Sr.’s record 500 qualifying lap of 236.986 has stood since 1996). Due in part to the technology, the danger has mostly ebbed. The factors that made the Andrettis and Foyts gladiators in Miller’s day have been put in check. Now, even the elite drivers might have to do more than drive in order to stand out in the sports world.

“If I was asked to go somewhere and promote the event, I’d go,” says Andretti. “I’ve been doing that since the sprint car days. Sports is show business—we all have to contribute. I’ve been invited to Dancing with the Stars. Unfortunately, I can’t devote the time and work to ensure that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. Otherwise I’d do it in a New York minute. Can you imagine me and [A.J.] Foyt milking a camel? We’d have a hell of a good time.”