IndyCar trailing far behind NASCAR, F1 in social media outreach

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IndyCar Series executives have their hands full trying to bolster the all-important live attendance and television viewership numbers that drive sponsors to be a part of their series.

But there’s another set of numbers to be concerned about, and it clearly has the attention of sponsors.

Twice in the last month, I’ve gotten newsletters from prominent firms representing sports sponsors listing the social media following of the major auto racing series. The numbers don’t lie. And for IndyCar, the numbers aren’t particularly good.

In terms of Twitter followers, NASCAR is king, with more than 1.1 million as of Tuesday morning. Formula One’s official Twitter account has a tick under 538,000. The IndyCar Series has just short of 92,000.

Formula One has built its large following with just over 5,000 tweets, compared with the IndyCar Series’ 21,700. NASCAR has more than 37,000.

In terms of individual drivers—with the exception of 2013 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan, IndyCar doesn’t stack up much better.

Kanaan, popular long before he won Indy, has more than 606,000 Twitter followers. The affable Brazilian IndyCar driver has more than any NASCAR driver with the exception of Danica Patrick, who has almost 919,000, and Juan Pablo Montoya with 745,000. Ironically, the two top NASCAR drivers in terms of Twitter followers have their roots in IndyCar. I’m sure those two drivers are assets IndyCar executives would like to have back.

The other top NASCAR drivers are Jimmie Johnson, with more than 436,000 followers; Jeff Gordon, with almost 419,000; and 2012 series champ Brad Keselowski, with more than 417,000.

There’s a big drop-off among IndyCar drivers after Kanaan. Rounding out the top three for IndyCar are Dario Franchitti, with almost 98,200 followers; and Helio Castroneves, with almost 87,500. The other top full-time IndyCar drivers have well below 75,000, and most are under 50,000.

There is one exception. Part-time IndyCar (and part-time NASCAR) driver A.J. Allmendinger has more than 109,000 followers. But it's safe to say many of those are NASCAR fans, so I don't lump him in with full-time IndyCar drivers just yet. Of course, you could argue, too, that many of Patrick's and Montoya's Twitter flock followed them because of their open-wheel roots.

With its massive global reach, F1 drivers dwarf NASCAR and IndyCar drivers combined. The top three F1 drivers in terms of Twitter followers are Fernando Alonso, with 1.7 million-plus; Lewis Hamilton, with nearly 1.6 million; and Jenson Button, with 1.5 million and counting. All this success comes without F1 phenom and 2013 points leader Sebastian Vettel being active on Twitter. Maybe F1 is so big, it doesn't need to take advantage of all its assets. But I think most sports marketers would agree, Vettel's lack of a Twitter presence is a major lost opportunity for the driver and the sport.

While Twitter is the major driver these days in terms of social media outreach and connecting with fans through cyberspace, Facebook still remains an important opportunity for sports properties. These numbers are equally distressing for IndyCar.

On Facebook, IndyCar has almost 148,000 likes, compared to NASCAR’s 3.4 million-plus. Formula One, inexplicably, isn’t active with an official Facebook page. Chalk up another lost opportunity for the world's biggest motorsports circuit.

Sponsors—and those firms representing them—are increasingly aware of social media data. Some are concluding that a sports property’s cyber-following is just as important as TV viewership and live attendance. More sponsorship spending decisions are based at least in part on those numbers, according to sports marketers.

IndyCar’s Twitter and Facebook fan following is another set of numbers Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles must boost to assure the series’ survival.

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