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As Indianapolis 500 arrives, IndyCar is riding F1’s stateside growth

Scott Dixon will lead the fastest field in Indianapolis 500 history Sunday. (Darron Cummings/AP)
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If the recent rise in ratings and the return of packed crowds are any indication, motorsports are experiencing a moment. As one of America’s marquee races approaches, and as Formula One has reasserted its American ambitions, the IndyCar Series is trying to redefine its place in that growing auto racing landscape.

Television viewership for the North American open-wheel circuit is up 36 percent over last year; the sport has attracted more than 25 new sponsors since Roger Penske’s entertainment group bought the series in 2019; and Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 is expected to be one of the most well-attended in 20 years.

That popularity bump mirrors a broader surge of interest in motorsports during the pandemic, when various types of racing have drawn greater interest on the track — and even on city streets.

“We are really pleased and excited about the momentum we’ve seen, even coming through and out of the pandemic,” SJ Luedtke, IndyCar’s vice president of marketing, said in a phone interview.

IndyCar, which features races staged from Toronto to St. Petersburg, Fla., sees North America as its primary domain. But as the series welcomes full capacity crowds back to the Brickyard, its intercontinental counterpart has expanded its stateside ambitions.

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Formula One has captured new, young and American audiences, partly through the popular Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” which offered a closer look at the personalities within the sport and spawned golf and tennis spinoffs. F1 ran the inaugural Miami Grand Prix on May 8, about a month after announcing its third American race, the Las Vegas Grand Prix, which is set to debut next year. The other event, the U.S. Grand Prix, will take place in Austin in October.

F1 has one American team, Haas F1, and no American drivers, but both numbers could increase if it welcomes Michael Andretti, the former Formula One and IndyCar driver — and owner of IndyCar team Andretti Autosport — who is pushing for an additional team.

Some drivers believe those advances threaten American auto racing, stiffening competition for fans and nascent drivers who may gravitate toward a sexier, more global sport. Others, such as 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, say F1′s expansion is at least cause for concern.

“It definitely raises the importance of us continuing to evolve, continue to find ways to make the product better, and finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other championships,” Rossi told Autoweek in March. “A lot of good things are happening. But I think it’s important for us to certainly speed up that timeline and the positive things in order to make sure that not only do we not necessarily lose out to Formula One on market share, but we continue to build our own. IndyCar has been on an upward trajectory for at least the last five or six years, and we need to continue that even with more competition coming on board.”

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Others within the sport view Formula One’s incursions in a more positive light.

“I think it’s a massive positive just for the sport,” NBC broadcaster Leigh Diffey said of Formula One’s success.

“I like the fact that it has been able to attract not necessarily motorsports fans to the sport. We don’t need to really dig into F1 or IndyCar or NASCAR. It’s just the sport holistically people are interested in. We’re seeing that. … I don’t know why, but if it is attributable to Formula One, let’s ride off it, let’s enjoy it. Right now the sport of motorsport is enjoying a really positive time.”

Luedtke used a racing reference to describe the opportunity that she said IndyCar sees in capitalizing on F1’s growth.

“I applaud what they’re doing to move their brand and grow their portion of the sport. It’s beneficial for us, and we welcome the added interest in open-wheel racing, especially here in the States,” she said. “ ‘Let’s take it and run with it’ is how we’ve talked about it as a team, right? So, getting into someone’s slipstream.”

Luedtke said IndyCar’s priority is distinguishing and defining itself.

IndyCar is pushing its “Defy Everything” campaign to promote its drivers. It’s using YouTube and TikTok to showcase their high jinks and workouts. And she said it has “three to five irons in the fire,” which reportedly may materialize into a docuseries in the spirit of “Drive to Survive.”

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