ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — IndyCar needed a nice, smooth race to open its season.
What the series didn’t need — couldn’t afford, really — was a snoozer.
There’s mixed feelings about Sunday’s season opener through the streets of St. Petersburg, where fans in attendance were adamant they saw a good race. But that didn’t translate to television, where IndyCar desperately needs to shine.
The series had a huge opportunity with its opener to showcase its product to the casual fan. The death of Dan Wheldon in last season’s finale put the spotlight on the series the last five months and probably pulled in some new eyeballs for ABC’s broadcast. The race drew a 1.1 overnight rating, down just a tick from the 1.2 the opener did last season.
The television rating, for IndyCar, is acceptable, especially considering the race was up against Tiger Woods and the NCAA tournament.
And fans who tuned in were able to see that IndyCar had a lot to be proud of: A new car, multiple engine manufacturers, improved competition and several new faces, including popular former Formula One star Rubens Barrichello. It also helped that NASCAR, the beast of American auto racing, was out west and its race in California wasn’t a head-to-head competition.
“There’s definitely more interest going into this season then there has been in 15 years,” racing great Mario Andretti declared at the start of the weekend.
But when the green flag waved — it was done by Wheldon’s little sister, Holly, — IndyCar’s drivers carefully maneuvered their way through treacherous Turn 1 incident-free and sailed off for a fairly uneventful race.
Of course, nobody wanted a repeat of last year, when a five-car accident on the first lap in that very spot flipped Marco Andretti upside down. But they wanted something — anything — that matched the energy surrounding the event. Ultimately, there ended up being only one significant pass shown during the television broadcast, and it wasn’t even for the lead.
Granted, Helio Castroneves’ move around Scott Dixon ended up being the race-deciding pass. But when it actually happened, it was for second place, and Castroneves eventually drove away to an unchallenged win with a 5.5292 seconds margin of victory over Dixon.
When asked why the race didn’t have more action, Dixon seemed genuinely surprised to learn people found it boring.
“I started in seventh, got to the lead, then got passed. That is eight spots right there,” he said. “I thought the racing was good. The first part of the race was good, mixed up really good, people were trying to pass.”
Not at the front, though, and not much of it was caught on camera. As the race developed, and it became clear that fuel strategy would play a huge factor in deciding many finishing positions, the chances for anything exciting happening slipped considerably.
Many drivers were ordered by their teams to conserve fuel. Doing that requires slowing down, which goes against the very nature of racing.
“I think had it not been a fuel race at the end, you would have seen a lot more action,” said third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay, who admitted he couldn’t try to chase down Castroneves and Dixon.
“I only wish we could have fought at the end, really fought hard. I would have liked to have given that a shot. But it was the race we were running. Auto racing has been like that for many years. It’s all part of fuel.”
Strategy often becomes the determiner in road and street races, and it can be difficult for television to keep track of all the scenarios. Passing can be particularly difficult on street circuits, where there are few good places to make an attempt.
Will Power, who probably had the best car, found himself mired in traffic after making an early fuel stop from the lead. The strategy backfired because the race had only three total cautions, and Power was stuck in the middle of the field the rest of the day.
“It was impossible to pass,” Power said. “Even when I was trying to pass a Lotus that was considerably slower, it was just so hard to get by anyone. Really frustrating because that was probably the fastest car I’ve had in my life.”
Faced with those racing conditions, ABC must then focus on storylines and even that can be difficult. Unlike oval tracks, where one camera is dedicated to the leader and a second camera is searching for the best battles, street circuits don’t have a camera that can see all the way around the course. So it becomes a constant switch from various cameras, and sometimes things are missed, such as Sebastien Bourdais falling out of the race while running seventh.
The bottom line is that this style of racing is an acquired taste and might not be an easy sell to new fans. With only five ovals on the schedule this season, the bulk of IndyCar’s product could look a lot like Sunday. Further hurting IndyCar’s attempt to broaden its audience is that Saturday’s qualifying, which was probably the most exciting part of the weekend, was not broadcast.
For now, the lasting image of the opener is Castroneves’ emotional post-race celebration in which he stopped his car in Turn 10, recently renamed Dan Wheldon Way, and paid tribute to the fallen driver by climbing the fence to pat the street sign. But now it’s on to Alabama for Sunday’s road course race at Barber Motorsports Park, and television coverage shifts to cable with rebranded NBC Sports Network making its season debut.
It’s impossible to predict how the race might develop or how it will look on TV. The only thing that’s certain is that IndyCar can’t afford a repeat of St. Pete and expect to hold the excitement and energy surrounding this new season.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.