IndyCar fan survey yields some interesting surprises, curious reactions from paddock

IndyCar fan survey
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment
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Over three weeks with 53,579 respondents from 147 countries, the NTT IndyCar Series recently commissioned its most comprehensive fan survey.

The results were released shortly after the paddock opened for the 2022 season-opening race weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, and the online fan data provided by Motorsport Network and analyzed by Nielsen Sports made some waves for its reactions and revelations.

Here were some of the most interesting findings from the online fan polling (which was conducted over three weeks in January 2022) — as well as how they were perceived by the IndyCar industry (click here to review a 36-page summary of the survey):


MOST POPULAR DRIVERS

There already was anecdotal evidence that Romain Grosjean’s rookie season occasionally bordered on Beatles-esque fandom, and the survey backed up the splash he made last year in moving to IndyCar after surviving a firey crash in Formula One.

Grosjean was ranked No. 1 in global ranking (and the only driver to crack 10 percent in the favorite driver category), made the top three on 32 percent of ballots and was voted first in Europe and in the age 16-24 demographic.

“It felt amazing,” Grosjean said. “After only one year in IndyCar being voted most popular or favorite driver has been quite incredible. I’ve got a story; I come from 10 years in Formula 1 before. I think it was a rebirth. I use ‘The Phoenix’ as a nickname. It’s not only related to the fire thing, it’s related to a rebirth of myself through IndyCar.

“The fans give me so much, and I tried to give back last year through all of my experiences (in) the States.”

Romain Grosjean naturally had a strong fan contingent at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment).

Riding the strength of being No. 1 among female fans, Pato O’Ward ranked second (and the Mexican star was first among South and Central American fans). Four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves credited his return to full-time status with helping him rank third among drivers (including No. 1 in North America and in the over-55 bracket that puts a premiums on Indy tradition).

“I’m happy about it; I’ve been here so long,” Castroneves told NBC Sports. “And now, so many people are like, ‘I’m glad you’re doing a full season.’ I hear that from both the knowledgeable and the first-time fans. No question the fourth win has definitely helped me as well.”

The final two members of the top five were surprising in their own way: Fourth-ranked Scott Dixon isn’t always mentioned for his sway (and the six-time series champion recently was missing from the stars prominently featured in IndyCar’s “Defy Everything” 2022 marketing campaign), and Alexander Rossi was the only U.S. driver in the top five.

Though the survey featured a diverse swath of support across many driver fan bases, Josef Newgarden (sixth), Colton Herta (eighth) and Jimmie Johnson ranked lower than might have been expected for an American-based series. By contrast, two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato was voted seventh in part because he received 60 percent of votes by from Asian-Pacific fans.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said he would be taking a deeper dive on the regional and national breakdowns.

“You’ve got to believe Jimmie is going to move up the ranks, if you’re talking about the U.S.,” Miles said. “The fans are speaking, and Grosjean came to America, came to IndyCar with lots of fans. No surprise there. Pato, I don’t know if I would have picked him as No. 1, but the women did, so we’ll see what that means. I just think it’s all good feedback, and the next step is to even get more deep into perceptions about them all so we can help them and project themselves more meaningfully.”

IndyCar vice president of marketing SJ Luedtke noted that some drivers were more aggressive about rallying their fan bases (notably  Grosjean and his 1.2 million Twitter followers).

“The great part is the entire paddock supported this and helped us get fans who follow them engaged in the survey,” she said. “Some drivers were a little more excited to get people to vote for them so put on a harder press, a little more PR around the survey, and some of that also plays into current follower size of their brand channels.”


MOST POPULAR TEAMS

That the survey broke down similarly to on-track success was no surprise. Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren SP and Chip Ganassi Racing accounted for 65 percent of voting.

But it was notable that Penske, a team that even its drivers have joked as being referred to as “the Death Star” among fans because of its record Indy 500 dominance, drew the most support (ranked first by 19.4 percent and in the top three by 44.3 percent), particularly among fans older than 45 in the Americas.

Also significant was the presence of the upstart McLaren team, which surely was helped by O’Ward’s popularity but which McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also credited to “our digital and comms teams with this huge focus on the fan and communicating to them through our drivers, merchandise, digital channels and promotions.”

Brown noted the team’s re-emphasis on papaya orange liveries was based on “what do the fans want to see. Fans know how important they are to us, and we have a good two-way relationship. Without the fans, there’s no motorsports.”

One of the more intriguing conclusions about team allegiances was the lack of them. The survey described IndyCar fans as “non-tribal” with nearly 70 percent following several drivers and teams or considering themselves impartial while being engaged instead by the series overall. Only 13 percent of fans supported one driver, and 8 percent cheered for only one team, above all others.


MOST IMPORTANT COMPETITIVE ELEMENTS

Fans generally favored IndyCar’s direction on competition (approving of the move toward hybrid engines while also supporting tight racing over technological innovation). They also wanted minimal interference from stewards and opposed format changes.

But the survey also revealed a 47.2 percent net approval rating for keeping double points at the Indy 500 – a rule that many drivers and team owners have lobbied IndyCar to eliminate.

Team owner Chip Ganassi said IndyCar president Jay Frye told him that the fans’ support for double points at Indy was among the poll’s biggest surprises.

“If I had my choice of zero points or double points (for the Indy 500), I’d pick zero points,” Ganassi said. “The people who responded to the poll said they liked double points at Indy, and I thought, ’Holy (crap).’ That was stood out the most on that poll.


BRANDS AND SPONSORS

Among the top five most recognized brands in the survey, DHL was the only longtime team-specific sponsor – a pleasant surprise for team owner Michael Andretti, who immediately asked one of his team PR reps to send word to the No. 28 sponsor upon learning of the result. Verizon also made the top five after shifting into a Penske team sponsorship (with Will Power) since a long run as a series title sponsor, which Luedtke noted still had an impact on its fan popularity.

The other three brands (listed alphabetically and without ranking of the top five) were NTT (title sponsor since 2020), Firestone and Honda. More than 30 brands and sponsors received at least 1,000 unprompted votes (from fans who were asked to name companies involved in IndyCar).


MOST WELL-LIKED RACES

No surprise that the Indy 500 ranked first (58.8 percent) among races attended by fans who were surveyed, but the rest of the top five was an interesting mix (Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course 31.3 percent; Mid-Ohio 19 percent; Road America 16.8 percent; St. Pete 15 percent) that reflected less West Coast representation (notably in missing the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, generally regarded as the most prestigious event after the Brickyard).

Long Beach still was well regarded in ranking second behind the Indy 500 in the “perfect calendar based on fan appeal” and ahead of Road America, Laguna Seca and St. Pete. The survey’s 16-track “perfect calendar” also included four venues (Circuit of the Americas, Watkins Glen, Pocono and Phoenix) absent from the 2022 season while missing tracks (Nashville, Portland and Iowa) that are on this year’s schedule.

SURVEY SUMMARY: Click here to view the 36-page review of the fan polling