Excitement was high at Texas Motor Speedway for the 248-lap DXC Technology 600 with spectacular passing, varied strategies, unexpected cautions and a victor that was far from a sure bet, yet it missed out on the network coverage the four previous NTT IndyCar Series races enjoyed, potentially quelling momentum as the 2019 championship enters its second half.
NBC Sports has been proudly trumpeting its success as INDYCAR’s sole United States broadcast partner in 2019, noting its viewership increases over rival and former INDYCAR partner ABC.
While this season’s first four races aired on cable channel NBCSN, the next four races — spanning the month of May and the first weekend in June — moved to NBC, allowing for direct comparisons to prior years when the same four events aired on ABC.
According to NBC Sports, IndyCar network television viewership was up 18% year over year with an average total audience delivery of 2.143 million. While the average skews heavily toward the Indianapolis 500, even the rain-affected first race of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit that concluded on business channel CNBC saw an increase in network viewership over 2018.
NBC Sports’ network success could be attributed to enhanced promotional activities across the assorted properties of parent NBC Universal, notably highlighted by company officials and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles at a press conference during the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March.
In addition to promotion, NBC Sports has also benefitted from an improvement in on-track action as the season has progressed. Excluding Circuit of The Americas, which lacks a direct comparison to 2018 as a new event, the season-opening stretch of races that aired on NBCSN had marked declines in passes per mile: 64.1% for St. Petersburg, 40.1% for Barber Motorsports Park and 52.7% for Long Beach, possibly indicating the start of a season-long trend. Fortunes changed, however, once the racing moved to NBC.
The INDYCAR Grand Prix — the kick-off event for the month of May and the series’ first race to air on NBC — had a 25.5% increase in passes per mile over 2018. Two weeks later, the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 had less passing than last year but still tied COTA for the second-most passes per mile of the season. The Detroit doubleheader continued the trend that began on the Indianapolis road course with both races experiencing significant passing increases.
While IndyCar’s network coverage will return for the races at Road America, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Portland International Raceway and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the series was placed back on NBCSN for its most recent race in Texas.
Like the Indianapolis 500, passing was down at Texas with a 20.1% decline in passes per mile and 21.3% fewer position passes per mile. However, with a field two-thirds the size and a race distance less than three-quarters the length of the Indy 500, IndyCar’s visit to Texas this year had 579 total passes — just five less than Indianapolis.
Irrespective of comparisons to 2018, Texas’ numbers equate to the most passes per mile of the current season through nine rounds. The second oval round of the year featured more than double the passing seen during the “500” and 50% more than the INDYCAR Grand Prix, the previous passing leader.
Numbers tell part of the Texas story, but there’s more to it than raw data. Pole sitter Takuma Sato, dominant during his first stint, had a disastrous pit stop that dropped him from contention. Ryan Hunter-Reay led the most laps but a unique fuel strategy call kept him off the podium — even with the help of time spent circulating slowly behind the safety car during late-race full-course cautions. Championship leader Josef Newgarden rallied to victory from seventh on the grid thanks to a well-time pit stop and fresh tires when they mattered most.
After so much momentum was gained from four consecutive races on network television, the series put on one of its best shows of the season but was unable to deliver it to the largest possible audience, offered by the network channel of its new-for-2019 television partner.
The current allotment of network races is eight and, outside of Indianapolis, it’s a challenge to determine which ones will benefit most from the increased exposure and, in turn, benefit the series and its television partner. There’s always a chance that a race like Texas will be outstanding and miss out on the additional eyeballs available on free over-the-air television, yet surely there is some spillover from the network races to the ones that air on cable.
NBC Sports’ choice to focus on the middle of the season from Indianapolis to Detroit plus the two final races of the year and two veritable fan favorites in Road America and Mid-Ohio makes logical sense from the perspective of putting on a good show, but the challenge of determining what race is shown on what channel goes beyond predicting excitement; scheduling involves much more than compiling a wishlist and making it happen, as anyone who’s followed INDYCAR’s struggles in crafting an optimal racing season has observed.
Benefitting from eight races on NBC — two more than last year — IndyCar will end this season with the most total viewership in years. Unfortunately, the thrilling Texas race won’t contribute to that total as much as it could have. Still, once the championship celebration confetti is swept up at Laguna Seca, the wisdom of NBC Sports’ choices will be in sharper focus.