It’s been said before that watching testing is the racing equivalent of watching paint dry. The days are long, arduous, monotonous and more often than not, boring.
Calls to televise or stream test days are often met with a shrug or “you’re kidding” from the production staff. The reasoning is that there’s a lot more behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting the cameras up, getting the feed live and paying the production costs than is worth the ROI. You’re lucky if you hit four digits worth of people on site for a test day.
Which then makes what happened yesterday both all the more staggering, and all the more impressive.
Tens of thousands of people around the world stopped what they were doing, or multi-tasked the hell out of their days, to watch a test that wasn’t even a full test. It was one car and one driver only.
This, indeed, is the true power of Fernando Alonso and what his star power is bringing to this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
And it’s the first tangible, statistical measure that Zak Brown and McLaren’s gamble to bring the two-time World Championship-winning Spaniard over to America for a shot at the race on Alonso’s own request will indeed pay off in metrics.
The day began first with a social media blitz to reveal the car’s livery, similar to what McLaren did for its F1 launch in the middle of the night in February earlier this year. The drama was whether this time, with a rare second chance to get it right, McLaren would actually nail the proper color of papaya orange. These are the key details… clearly.
But the livery launch worked. Already, the buzz was going with the car going for a simpler look than the busy, Arrows or Spyker-esque, knockoff orange and black that adorns the McLaren MCL32 Honda on the Formula 1 grid this year.
That came with the full photo shoot, Alonso, the car and helmet now having been revealed in full kit to the world to know what he’d be wearing when the stream started.
The anticipation built. Before the test had even started and NBCSN’s Kevin Lee moderated the live stream, posted on INDYCAR’s YouTube and Facebook channels in addition to embeds via IMS and the IndyCar Race Control website, as well as simulcast here via the NBC Sports App, the YouTube feed alone had 34,000 viewers watching Lee host while Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford were adding insight and telling stories, while pitching back-and-forth with Robin Miller on pit lane.
Even in an absolute best-case scenario of 15,000 fans on site at Phoenix this past weekend for a race – and the number was likely much lower than that – that was already at least double the number of people paying to watch a race in the grandstands than were watching in whatever clothes they had on at their home or work to watch Alonso’s first crack at the Speedway, on the Internet. And that was just the YouTube figure, to say nothing of Facebook and our NBCSN feed here, which only adds to the numbers.
The number, like Alonso’s speeds as he got more comfortable, grew greater. It surpassed the 50,000 watching threshold, where it stayed most of the rest of the day. It exploded past 75,000 not long after Marco Andretti had completed his shakedown run in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry and Alonso was set to take over for his first running.
By the end of the day, INDYCAR had sent a message saying its Facebook Live streaming coverage had attracted more than 1 million views and 800,000 unique viewers. A total number of more than 2 million hits was achieved between the YouTube and Facebook numbers. It was entirely unique circumstances, but no less staggering.
And it says something about the quality of the IMS Productions presentation and the presenters on screen – which had to have come together quickly as word this test would be streamed was only announced to the world on Monday, with NBCSN’s late add confirmed on Tuesday – that the number of viewers continued to escalate with anticipation rather than going down.
F1 teams chimed in on Twitter, even as the official F1 Twitter account was conspicuously silent.
Mercedes, Renault and Sahara Force India were but several that joked they wouldn’t dare think of releasing news now, for Alonso, McLaren and Honda – and for once, IndyCar – was winning the racing Internet.
Joking hashtags began to emerge beyond the official one of #AlonsoRunsIndy. The overkill of Alonso-mania was in full tilt.
And yet for every amount of snark offered asking how much Alonso was too much Alonso, the amount of disappointment (and justifiably) that Stefan Wilson doesn’t have a ride as a result of this, and the cries over whether a NASCAR star or the Taylor brothers might have been better for metrics, there was positivity ringing out to drown on the doubters.
Positivity? Numbers? For an IndyCar live stream?
The overkill was justified. Because for a one-day, one-car, rookie test, it had to be.
With no disrespect to the other three confirmed rookies in this year’s field, Ed Jones, Zach Veach and Jack Harvey – the last of whom is actually one of Alonso’s teammates – none has the name recognition or appeal beyond the most ardent, diehard of IndyCar fans who’ve paid explicit attention to the Mazda Road to Indy and Indy Lights where all three have won races and in Jones’ case, a championship. Where they could afford to feel aggrieved today was in seeing Alonso practice some of the procedural items – pit lane entry off Turn 4 and yellow flag simulations being two examples – since those aren’t official parts of ROP.
Alonso, however? He’s a rookie in name only, same as Kurt Busch was years earlier. He had the eyes of the F1 world watching along with the IndyCar world. And if Wednesday proved anything, it’s that the number of eyeballs from that aforementioned F1 world were locked in in a laser-focus unlike anything IndyCar could begin to generate from its own.
But while Wednesday was awesome from an overkill standpoint, with Alonso dominating all the stories, all the headlines and all the videos, the challenge from here is ensuring the overkill does not supersede the rest of the month – and how Alonso fits into it.
As a similar and recent example, Jeff Gordon ran this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona as part of the Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R with the aforementioned Taylor brothers, Ricky and Jordan, and the retiring Max Angelelli. Gordon’s name, inevitably, drew headlines from beyond the specialist sports car media that covers the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship full-time, which was a good thing… except that it wasn’t.
By Gordon’s presence existing at the Rolex 24, it allowed the focus for some to be only on Gordon instead of fitting Gordon into a greater editorial plan. And perhaps, that’s by design. However the story of the Taylors’ win was not about Gordon’s presence in the car, but rather it was the Taylors’ breakthrough after years of heartbreak and in particular, Ricky Taylor’s star turn on his own. And with three other class winners, including Chip Ganassi’s Ford GT in its second straight 24-hour race and two youthful lineups in the pro-am classes, there were plenty of other great stories to write as well.
Alonso actually said it well yesterday in the post-practice press conference when he described how he fits into the overall sphere of the race.
“At the moment I’m coming to have a great experience, that’s for sure. You cannot lose that perspective and that target. It’s one of the best races in the world and you’re one of the 33 drivers on the grid. After that, when you close the visor on Sunday or in qualifying, you don’t like when you are in second.
“It’s the same in every sport. NBA players, they’re doing the playoffs. Sure they enjoy they’re in, but if they lose the game, they’re trying to recover for the next day. First priority is to enjoy the experience and the event, but we are all competitive drivers. We are here to do the best we can.”
Alonso is one of 33 drivers. He is the mega star in this year’s race and provides a massive bump to the race’s worldwide interest, but he is not the only story line. We’ve had four winners in four races to kick off the year, plus we have at least six past Indianapolis 500 champions in the field.
Over the course of this month, ensuring Alonso doesn’t hog the spotlight but is highlighted along with the stars of the full-season championship, and his other trio of rookies, will be key to the overall success of this race beyond May itself.
Alas, Wednesday was his day to be singularly under the spotlight, because no one else was there to take it away.