Two Decades of Decline for IndyCar Racing in America

On Saturday, IndyCar unveiled its latest attempt to drum up some interest in the sport outside of the Indy 500. Naturally, they went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to host a Grand Prix at the legendary track.

grand prix indy crash
Aired on ABC, the race did a 0.9 overnight. This was an increase of 50 percent from the race aired that weekend in 2013.

Later on Saturday night, NASCAR held its annual Mother’s Day Saturday night race – moved this year to Kansas Motor Speedway – and delivered the third-worst overnight in the 14-year history of NASCAR on Fox. It did a 3.3 overnight.

To recap – one of the worst ratings in NASCAR history was three times better than one of IndyCar’s best ratings. Even Formula 1 fares better on broadcast as the 2013 Monaco Grand Prix, aired by NBC at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, did a 1.0 overnight.

Of course, you’re reading this like a “dog bites man” story. Especially if you were born in the 1990’s. That’s because you don’t ever remember a time when IndyCar racing dominated the landscape in America.

For as much as NASCAR has come to define American culture in the past two decades – remember how NASCAR moms swayed elections – it is relatively recent phenomenon. Despite the mythology of Dale Earnhardt and how he took NASCAR mainstream, his prime in the 1980’s lingered in the shadows of Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and a litany of open wheel stars.

It all began to crumble 20 years ago. In March 1994, Indianapolis Motor Speedway chairman Tony George announced the formation of the Indy Racing League. It is, without hyperbole, the worst sports-related decision ever made.

Sure, Baseball Night in America was awful, but baseball has survived. Yes, the forthcoming college football playoff appears doomed, but college football will remain a cash cow for decades.

The IRL killed a sport. It now compares to NASCAR the way that the Arena Football League compares to the NBA – which is to say, not favorably.

For those who don’t recall, the IRL was George’s attempt to mimic the success of NASCAR by focusing on ovals and American-born drivers. The then-CART series was essentially banned from the Indy 500, as 25 of the 33 sports in the Indy 500 would go to IRL drivers. The CART series, which eventually became Champ Car, boycotted the 1996 Indy 500, staged its own disastrous U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway while the Indy 500 was run with replacement drivers.

It is hard to quantify just how monumentally stupid this was for everyone involved. There isn’t even a proper corollary I can point to if you weren’t around for it. It would be like if all the top NASCAR drivers raced in Texas a few hours after skipping the Daytona 500. It simply defied all logic.

To be fair to NASCAR, the sport was beginning to compete with IndyCar for auto racing supremacy and the Brickyard 400 in 1994 seemed to solidify that fact. It’s likely that Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were going to push NASCAR to the top sport regardless of whether open-wheel racing imploded or not.

2014 indy 500In fact, it was Gordon that signified how open-wheel racing had lost its way and was ostensibly part of the rationale for IRL. Gordon, who grew up in Indiana, dreamt of being an open-wheel driver. He couldn’t get a ride in CART but could in NASCAR. History has shown Gordon, and NASCAR, won in that deal.

But IRL was off to such a terrible start that it was never going to gain traction. After the 1996 split, the sport cratered, sponsors left, ratings dwindled and the best drivers essentially turned it into a minor league system.

Tony Stewart was the first. But Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish and Danica Patrick – to name only three – used IRL as a starting point to bigger and better things.

As we get ready for the 2014 Indy 500, the media coverage will be minimal at best. NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 that night will get better ratings. The Indy 500 will be overshadowed by the NHL and NBA playoffs. It will feel like a relic from another era. There are few diehard IndyCar fans left. Even those who like open-wheel racing watch Formula 1, which has benefitted from an improved TV deal with NBC Sports.

In 1994, the Indy 500 was one of the biggest sporting events of the year.

In 2014, the Indy 500 won’t be the biggest sporting event of the weekend.

In era where sports television rights for everything have gone through the roof – just this week MLS signed a deal with ESPN and Fox Sports for $90 million per year – IndyCar racing has been left in the dust. It is now on the same level as arena football, bull riding and bowling.

All because of one fateful and terrible decision 20 years ago. The sport has been trying to dig itself out of that hole, but it has been unsuccessful. Some holes are simply too big.

I’ll watch the Indy 500. I usually do. It won’t be the same. It hasn’t for a while.

Follow me on Twitter