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IndyCar Season in Review: Five most important stories from 2019

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It was a season that included many positive storylines, and even a few that were considered major disappointments.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season will be remembered for many reasons, including Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden winning his second NTT IndyCar Series in the last three seasons, teammate Simon Pagenaud’s spectacular “Month of May” that culminated with his win in the 103rd Indianapolis 500, Alexander Rossi’s breathtaking racing style and the arrival of Santino Ferrucci.

Those are just a few of the many stories that the IndyCar Series will be remembered for in 2019.

These five items, though, play a major impact in both the season past and the series moving forward. Many of these do not focus on an individual driver or race but rather the “big picture” for IndyCar as it continues to return to relevance and stature.

1 – NBC’s First Year Covering the Entire IndyCar Season

The numbers speak to the importance of NBC’s first season covering the entire NTT IndyCar Series, including the first time in 55 seasons the famed Indianapolis 500 was televised by a network other than ABC.

Viewership for NBC Sports’ exclusive coverage increased by 9 percent over 2108, with an average total audience delivery of 1.105 million viewers across NBC, NBCSN, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App. The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey posted a 15 percent viewership increase on NBC compared to the 2018 season finale at Sonoma on NBCSN.

The first Indianapolis 500 on NBC delivered 5.475 million viewers, up 11 percent versus the 2018 Indy 500 on ABC.

Excluding the Indy 500, the seven remaining races broadcast on NBC averaged a TAD of 929,000 viewers, up 3% vs. ABC’s four non-Indy 500 races last year (906,000).

Other highlights include:

The season-opening St. Petersburg race in March on NBCSN averaged a TAD of 499,000 viewers, making it the most-watched IndyCar season opener in the network’s history. The TAD of 499,000 viewers was up 93% vs. NBCSN’s first race last season in Phoenix (primetime; 258,000).

June’s Road America race on NBC posted a TAD of 1.108 million viewers to stand as NBC Sports’ most-watched INDYCAR race to date, excluding the Indy 500.

NBCSN’s most-watched race of the 2019 season was at Pocono in August, which averaged a TAD of 553,000 viewers to stand as the most-watched INDYCAR race on cable since last season’s finale from Sonoma on NBCSN (638,000).

The series finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif., averaged a TAD of 736,000 viewers on Sunday afternoon, up 15% vs. the 2018 series finale at Sonoma, which aired on NBCSN (638,000). The race averaged a household rating of 0.50 and a TV-only audience of 732,000 viewers.

Across NBC Sports streaming platforms, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season delivered a total of 12.9 million live minutes and an Average Minute Audience (AMA) of 6,300 viewers.

“We’ve been really pleased with this partnership, proud of the partnership,” INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles said. “It’s worked from our perspective really well, and to be able to report the results that bear that out is the proof in the pudding.”

Following are the Top 10 markets for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season across NBC Sports:

Rank Market Rating
1 Indianapolis 3.78
2 Milwaukee 1.62
3 Dayton, OH 1.59
4 West Palm Beach 1.57
5 Ft. Myers 1.55
6 Sacramento 1.40
7 Richmond-Petersburg 1.36
8 Columbus, OH 1.32
9 Cincinnati 1.31
10 Tulsa 1.30

*Note: NBC Sports is excluding weather-impacted races — Iowa in 2019 and Barber in 2018 — from all season averages.

NBC Sports executives were very pleased with the first-year results as the exclusive network of INDYCAR.

“I think in a business where flat is the new up, when you see increases that are almost approaching double-digit increases, that’s a real testament to the property and the product that we’re able to put out there,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports. “We’re fortunate that we have a leader in Sam Flood who knows this space better than anybody and has put together an incredible team with great talent and great execution. We’ve worked closely with the folks at IndyCar to make sure that we program it the right way, that we take advantage of lead-ins, that we take advantage of what our competition is to showcase everything.

NBC Sports President, Programming Jon Miller

“We launched an NBC Gold IndyCar opportunity. You’ll be able to make all practices, qualifying available to fans. So, we’ve been very happy, and going to eight broadcasts up from I believe you had four or five with your prior deal. To have eight IndyCar races on NBC broadcast has really made a big, big difference. To be able to crown the champion at Laguna Seca, at this incredible venue and to have it be so close to come down to the wire really bodes well for us, and I know that next year is not that far away, and we’ve already started planning on ways that we can do things to grow it even further.

“So, we’re happy.”

2 – NTT’s First Season as IndyCar Series Sponsor

Another positive addition to the IndyCar Series season was the addition of international technology company NTT as the series sponsor. The Japanese-based company had prior experience with the series as its United States-based company, NTT DATA, has been the sponsor of the No. 10 entry at Chip Ganassi Racing since 2015.

When the opportunity presented itself to take over the series sponsorship role at the conclusion of Verizon’s contract in 2018, IndyCar and NTT were able to quickly strike a deal that gives the international business-to-business company a significant branding opportunity in North America.

“I think it has been fantastic,” W. David Croxville, Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, NTT DATA Series, told NBC Sports.com. “We’ve had a long association with IndyCar at NTT DATA Services. By bringing NTT in and having it as the title sponsor has opened us up to a lot of people that don’t know about the company as we expand in the United States.

NTT Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer W. David Croxville (left) with Simon Pagenaud.

“It all started with John W. McCain, who was our CEO at the time. John said, ‘I see an article about IndyCar getting ready to do a technology sponsorship.’ I called Doug Duchardt at Chip Ganassi Racing and said, ‘I’d like to get out in front of this if we can.’ That led to a conversation with IndyCar President Jay Frye and then a conversation at the Sonoma race with Jay and Mark Miles. After that, we came back to Indianapolis, then to Tokyo. It took about three months from the time we had that first meeting until we had a deal pounded out.”

The agreement was announced in January at the North America International Auto Show in Detroit. NTT has gotten successful exposure from its NTT IndyCar Mobile App and has been able to showcase much of its technology to current and potential business clients.

“It’s the main reason we got into this in the first place with the Ganassi relationship, and then we continued to grow it with NTT,” Croxville said. “Having the ability to get our clients and prospective clients out to the track and give them the exposure that you get with IndyCar. It’s unparalleled with any other sport.

“You don’t get that kind of exposure and interface with the drivers before they get into the go and do their job.

“For us, it’s all about building relationships with the people we are doing business with.”

The relationship between IndyCar and NTT had a very successful beginning, and just as its relationship with NBC, there remains growth potential in the future.

“From our perspective, NTT has been a great partner, a great new title,” Miles said. “A lot goes into that, but they hit the ground running having been involved previously with NTT DATA. We’re working really hard with them and have been for months on how fans will begin to see, beginning next year, more technological innovations that help the fans take in the sport and find it more exciting.

“So, we’re looking forward to some of that rolling out.”

3 – McLaren’s Abysmal Failure at the Indianapolis 500

When McLaren returned to the Indianapolis 500 with two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso in 2017, it was an immediate sensation. McLaren had struck a deal to partner with Andretti Autosport with a powerful Honda engine.

Alonso quickly adapted to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, qualified fifth for the 101st Indy 500, led 27 laps in the race before the engine blew up just 21 laps from the finish while running seventh. He finished 24th, won the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award and fans and media clamored for a McLaren return.

Unfortunately, McLaren’s return for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 was like covering the sinking of the Titanic.

It hit the iceberg at the end of 2017, when a bitter breakup with Honda in Formula One led to a permanent ban on any McLaren Honda entry in any other series in the future from Honda headquarters in Japan. Despite trying to get Honda Japan to reconsider, any type of relationship with Andretti Autosport could not happen because that is a Honda flagship team in IndyCar.

McLaren moved forward, struck a deal with Chevrolet and sought out to find a viable existing team to form an engineering alliance. Team Penske had no interest in promoting the McLaren brand on one of its cars. Ed Carpenter Racing passed on a deal, and that left AJ Foyt Racing and Carlin as the only Chevrolet teams available for McLaren.

Because of its European background, Carlin was chosen to work with McLaren. Two-time CART Series champion and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winning driver Gil de Ferran was put in charge of the IndyCar effort as McLaren Sporting Director and Bob Fernley, a man who had not been involved in the Indianapolis 500 in over 30 years, was chosen as the president of the IndyCar operation.

From the moment it arrived at an “Open Test” on April 24, it was one problem after another for McLaren. Alonso’s progress was delayed by an electrical issue on the installation lap in his No. 66 McLaren Chevrolet, and he was unable to complete both phases of the refresher session during the test. He said the car issue wasn’t a complete surprise because it was the first time on track with the Dallara chassis prepared at the McLaren Technology Centre in England, with the finishing touches placed on it a week before the test.

It got worse from there.

An alternator issue limited the team’s track time on May 14 Opening Day. The following day, Alonso crashed in Turn 2 just 1 hour and 34 minutes into practice and never returned to the track. His car was not put together in time to return to the track until “Fast Friday” when he got to run 77 laps.

McLaren and Alonso entered the first day of qualifications without really testing the qualification setup and that was evident when Alonso was 31st in a qualification session where the top 30 are locked in to the 33-car starting lineup.

The team’s failures were highlighted during the final practice session before the final round of qualifications, when Alonso’s car remained parked on pit lane while he awaited a crewmember to deliver his helmet to the car.

During the “Last Row Shootout,” Alonso’s speed had him tenuously hanging on to the 33rd and final position before he was knocked out of the field by second-year driver Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing.

Alonso and McLaren came, they saw, and they failed.

“We were just one place out of time,” Alonso said. “Yesterday, we were 31st instead of 30. Today, 34th instead of 33rd by a very small margin. Unfortunately, not fast enough in any or both days.

“I’m disappointed now. It would be nice to be in the race next Sunday. We came here to race and to challenge ourselves, and we were not quick enough. I congratulate all the other guys that did a better job, and hopefully we’ll see a nice show next Sunday, everyone safe, and enjoying from the TV unfortunately.

“McLaren is the only team in motorsport that won the Indy 500, won the Le Mans 24 Hour, won the Formula 1 championship,” he continued. “You can only do that if you try. If you stay only in one series and you concentrate there for all your history or your organization is only racing in one series, maybe you can succeed, you can have good seasons, bad seasons. But you are in that small world.

“But in terms of motorsport in general, to be here and at least try, it deserves some credit. Obviously, we are all disappointed, and we will try to do better next time. But it’s that kind of things that you learn. I said before, I prefer to be here, even 34th, then being at home like last year.”

Despite the setback, McLaren CEO Zak Brown pledged the team would be back. On Aug. 9, Brown announced it had struck a deal with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to form Arrow McLaren Racing SP, which will be a two-car, full-time effort in the NTT IndyCar Series. Alonso has said he has no interest in running a full season in IndyCar but would like to return to the 104th Indianapolis 500 in 2020.

Brown said a third McLaren entry would be prepared for Alonso if he decides to return.

4 – The Emergence of Colton Herta as a 19-year-old Rookie Sensation

Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing may have won the 2019 INDYCAR Rookie of the Year Award, and Santino Ferrucci of Dale Coyne Racing may have been the biggest first-year surprise in the series, but the rookie everyone will remember is 19-year-old Colton Herta.

In his final week as an 18-year-old, Herta became the youngest winner in IndyCar history with a victory in the March 24 IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas. He dominated the Sept. 22 season finale at Laguna Seca for his second win as a rookie. He also won three poles, including Road America in June to make him the youngest pole winner in IndyCar history.

He did this with a Harding Steinbrenner Racing team that struggled to stay in business past the halfway point of the season.

The son of former IndyCar Series race winner Bryan Herta was able to retain his focus and overcome a miserable April and May that included 24th at Barber Motorsports Park, 23rd at Long Beach, 23rd in the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis and last in the 33-car field in the103rd Indianapolis 500. Two of those finishes were for mechanical issues and the other two were crashes.

Beginning with an eighth-place at Road America, Herta had six top-10 finishes in the final eight races of the season.

In the final race alone, Herta improved from 13th in the standings to seventh for the season, just five points behind Rookie of the Year winner Rosenqvist.

“All credit to Felix,” Colton’s father, Bryan, said. “Felix had a great rookie season. This was an amazing rookie class. All four of the guys that were in it for the season, I think you are going to hear a lot more from in IndyCar. It didn’t go Colton’s way in the rookie of the year championship, but three poles and two wins, I think he can hold his head high.

“Colton had an amazing rookie season.”

5 – The Continued Development of the IndyCar Aeroscreen

One of the most important stories regarding IndyCar’s future took a major step toward reality when the “Aeroscreen” was successfully tested at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 2, just 10 days after the conclusion of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.

As IndyCar President Jay Frye calls the driver cockpit safety enhancement, it’s a “game-changer.”

“To me this is a total industry-changing driver safety solution, it’s all of it,” Frye said after the test. “We couldn’t be prouder of this. This to me is a game-changer. This is big.

“The aero kit was obviously very cool. We got our identity back. We like the way it races, all that type of stuff, less downforce, more horsepower, that’s the direction, that’s all good. But I think this is something that will really change the complexion of the sport for a long time to come, so this is big.”

The latest version is a combination of a “Halo”-like structure used by Formula One with the added safety benefit of an aerospace-material, canopy-like windshield, could greatly reduce the danger involved with some of these crashes.

The IndyCar Aeroscreen is a joint effort between IndyCar, Red Bull Advanced Technologies, Dallara, PPG Aerospace and Pankl.

Testing continued in the rain at Barber Motorsports Park on Oct. 7 and will get a short-oval test at Richmond Raceway on Oct. 15. A final test is set for Sebring Raceway on Nov. 2 and the Aeroscreen is expected to be on every car beginning next season.

If all goes according to plan, this will dramatically improve safety in the high-speed, high-risk sport of IndyCar.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500