Speedway’s Grand Prix passes eye test in attendance, ratings

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The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was all good for Will Power, who won the race Saturday from the pole position.

But for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series, the end result was more of a mixed bag.

Speedway officials have a long-running tradition of not releasing attendance figures for their events. By all accounts, however, race attendance was up this year. Although it’s difficult to estimate attendance at such a vast venue, it looked on Saturday like there were more people there for the race this year than last.

Speedway officials confirmed what passed the eye test.

“Attendance was up from 2015 and 2016, but down from 2014,” Speedway President Doug Boles told IBJ this week.

This year, the Speedway increased the age limit for free admission for general admission tickets from 12 to 15. The track also added another spectator mound in the infield. Both moves helped boost attendance, Boles said.

Picture-perfect weather on Saturday in Indianapolis almost certainly fueled walk-up ticket sales.

Mark Miles, CEO of IMS parent Hulman & Co., told IBJ last year that attendance for the Grand Prix weekend was up “a few thousand” from 2015. That means attendance has risen two consecutive years for the event run on the Speedway's serpentine road course.

Speedway officials said attendance for the inaugural running of the Grand Prix in 2014 topped 40,000.

Perhaps the most troubling metric was local TV viewership of the race, which was down 41 percent compared to last year, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research. The local Nielsen rating for the Saturday afternoon race was 3.57, which means a little more than 38,300 central Indiana homes were tuned in to the race on ABC.

Televised in most U.S. markets by ABC, the race nationally earned a 0.66 rating, which was just a tick higher than last year’s 0.65, according to Nielsen. However, as Speedway officials pointed out, the race was preempted in the Chicago market by a Cubs broadcast on the local ABC affiliate.

In addition, Speedway officials said, the pleasant weather that drove some to the race in Indianapolis sent others outside for cookouts, yard work and other activities, almost certainly denting the TV audience for the race.

Speedway officials concluded that 120,000 viewers from the Indianapolis and Chicago markets alone were lost.

Had those potential viewers tuned in, the total audience would have likely been over 1 million. While the number of TV households was only up 1.5 percent from last year, the number of actual viewers was up 7.1 percent this year—from 905,000 to 969,000, according to Nielsen.

“We were up in over half the additional 56 Nielsen-metered markets,” said Speedway spokesman Josh Tarble. 

While the national results were encouraging, they still left considerable room for improvement. Sponsors and potential sponsors have said they'd like to see ratings for IndyCar Series races, especially those on network TV, top 1.0.

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