It’s a pity the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is so secretive about attendance.
I have a sense the attendance story is a (relatively) good one for the Speedway at this year’s Indianapolis 500. I'm sure there were a few more empty seats, especially between turns two and three, than IMS officials would care to see, and I'm not suggesting the Speedway has returned to pre-1996 attendance, but any uptick has to be cheered at this point.
It’s difficult to determine crowd size by eye when you’re talking about 300,000 people give or take, but by most accounts the crowd was up at this year’s race over last year.
From the looks of it, the crowd at Friday’s Carb Day also was up from a year ago. Sure, some of the credit goes to the economy, which is a bit better than a year ago.
But credit must also be given to IMS CEO Jeff Belskus, who took over for Tony George last July 1. And while he’s too new to take too much credit, certainly IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard has breathed a little new life into the open-wheel series. Bernard is already talking about opening up the rules at Indianapolis in future years.
Everyone I spoke with gave Carb Day activities an ‘A,’ and though I’m not a big star watcher, I have to give the IMS marketing staff kudos for bringing in a solid red carpet posse to jazz things up. You really can’t understate what Izod has done for the series in the last year. And I have a feeling with Bernard riding herd, it’s only going to get better.
The on-track action, which should never be overlooked but sometimes is, also was solid at Indy this year. Three or more teams were in the hunt late, and several teams were in serious jeopardy or running out of fuel. Wow, real suspense!
Yes, the big teams had lots of success, with Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti winning. But Dreyer & Reinbold Racing showed the small and mid-sized teams can put their sponsors in the spotlight as well. That’s an important message when performing on the big stage that is the Indianapolis 500.
And how about Simona De Silvestra? For my money, she was the most impressive woman driver on the track.
The second best performance by a woman at the Speedway today might go to Franchitti's wife. How about Ms. Judd evoking memories of Jim Clark in the winner's circle as her hubby celebrated becoming the 17th racer to become a multiple Indy winner. I've thought her behavior has been a tad freakish at Indianapolis in year's past, but wow, she really knows her racing!
Sarah Fisher wasn’t bad either, considering she was driving a bucket of bolts. Watching her practice these last two weeks was painful for anyone who knows what an open-wheel engine is supposed to sound like.
Fisher moved up 14 spots before making contact with the turn four wall late, and finished 26th.
But let’s be honest. If lovable Sarah is going to keep Dollar General and her other sponsors happy long-term, she’s going to have to do better. After a while, being a fan favorite isn’t good enough. She has to enter a race with at least a possibility of putting the car up front. I’m not talking about winning, but she has to at least occasionally be in the conversation. That’s what keeps multi-million dollar sponsors happy.
Don’t let Danica Patrick’s finishing position fool you. As of this writing officials scorers are still trying to figure her final placing, but she’ll know doubt end up in the top 10. Maybe top 5.
But in three or four days, Michigan-based Joyce Julius will release its Indianapolis 500 report. Race fans may not be familiar with Joyce Julius, but trust me, sponsors are. JJ tabulates how much air time each sponsor gets during the national telecast and how many times each company is mentioned by broadcasters.
Danica was never a factor in this race and her JJ numbers will not be good. She’s not alone in that regard, but she’s supposed to be an Indianapolis 500 specialist and GoDaddy and her other sponsors will eventually demand better. And if they don’t get it, GoDaddy will just plain go and find a driver that can win.
Danica's teammate, Tony Kanaan showed there was nothing wrong with the Andretti cars, moving his from his 33rd start position to challenge for the lead.
IndyCar and IMS marketing chiefs should be hoping TK wins this race some day. The fans love him, and he could probably win some casual sports fans over to the sport because of his engaging personality.
Dan Wheldon and Panther Racing continue to show race fans and sponsors that you don’t have to be a mega-team to be competitive. Graham Rahal made a solid showing and would have done better but for a controversial black flag. From what I saw, Rahal has a gripe. But that's racin', right?
Davey Hamilton, well his race only lasted one lap, but at least he got some air time when he called Tomas Scheckter a “knuckle-head.”
Alex Lloyd had one of the most interesting days. I’m sure he and his team are thrilled with their third place finish, but I’m not sure how much exposure he got his sponsors.
But at least he has sponsors. Which is more that I can say for Helio Castroneves, who minus Marlboro, doesn’t have a primary. And Penske Racing honcho Tim Cindric admitted to me this month that while he has prospects for a primary sponsor for Castroneves, he wouldn’t characterize those prospects as terribly warm.
So, all-in-all, it’s been a good May, (albeit shorter), for the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But if one of the very best IndyCar drivers with a strong personality can’t find a primary sponsor, you have to wonder … is the series really accelerating as quickly as this May makes it seem?
Only time will tell.