IMS officials hope new cars boost attendance, TV ratings

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is always a draw in May.

But this is the first time since 2003 that a new chassis has circled the 2-1/2-mile oval and the first time since 1996 that a turbocharged engine has motored those cars.

Gearheads are sure to be excited over the updates, but IMS and IndyCar Series officials hope the highly publicized changes will be enough to grab the attention of more casual fans and create an attendance and TV ratings boost at this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Coming off last year’s centennial celebration, boosting attendance and TV ratings won’t be easy. TV viewership of the race increased from 3.6 million households in 2010 to just over 4 million households last year, and Speedway officials said year-over-year attendance was up more than 10 percent.

“We’re coming off a very strong year,” said IMS CEO Jeff Belskus, “but we’ve had very positive feedback about the new car, so we’re hopeful we’ll see another increase.”

While sponsors love the look of the new cars, which include larger sidepods that are better for showing corporate logos, Belskus said fans have mostly commented on the quieter sound of the engines.

“So far, I’ve gotten a lot more comments about the sound than the look,” Belskus said. “People are telling us these sound like true race cars.”

One thing that has driven the hype is the competition among engine makers Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus, said IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard. The introduction of Lotus and Chevrolet into the series this year marks the first time since 2005 that the open-wheel series has featured competing engine makers.

“A lot of race fans really back one engine manufacturer or another, and that really drives interest in the sport,” Bernard said.

Also helping drive Bernard’s and Belskus’ hopes for increased following of the Indianapolis 500 is the millions of dollars in promotions that Chevy has launched around its participation in the race and series.

“That’s new money coming into this series, and Chevrolet’s participation has also spurred Honda to become more active in promoting the sport,” Bernard said.

He hopes to further increase hype on the new car within the week by unveiling rules governing aerodynamic kits that can be used to modify the chassis starting at the beginning of next season.

Not all of the attention paid the new cars has been positive. The chassis and engine package appears to be two- to four-miles-an-hour slower than the old chassis, which routinely produced speeds around 225 last year. There’s also concern that the new car will be unstable on fast oval tracks.

“I think a lot of that is just the drivers getting used to the new set-up,” Bernard said. “I think a lot of that will get worked out and speeds will increase.”

While rolling out a new car is costly for the series and teams, Belskus and Bernard agree it needs to be done more often than every nine years.

“The drivers will always be the stars, but the series has to be about new technology and breaking ground,” Bernard said. “To stay on top of things, I think we have to have a new car every five years.”•

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