IndyCar is better than Formula 1 but needs a Netflix ‘Drive to Survive’ | Opinion

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Mac Engel
·4 min read
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The most popular podcast in America just handed extended free advertising to open wheel racing that is not IndyCar.

On the most recent episode of the podcast “SmartLess,” which features actors Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes, Arnett opened the show raving about the Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” which follows F1 racing.

“Jason, were you the one telling me about the Formula 1 series, you were watching that right? On Netflix?” Arnett asked Bateman.

“I thought you ... somebody told me about that,” Bateman said.

“It is unbelievable,” Arnett said. “I was like, ‘Formula 1, who caaaaares?’ Started watching it. Incredible.”

“What is that?” Hayes asked.

“I gotta get on that,” Bateman said.

“I’m all Formula 1,” Arnett said. “It’s a docuseries on Netflix about the Formula 1 season. They’ve done three seasons.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Hayes said.

“Formula 1 race car driving in Europe,” Arnett said.

“Oh, I’m all in!” Hayes said, tongue in cheek. “They made a documentary about this? About driving cars?!”

“You’re joking about it now, but wait until you watch it,” Arnett said.

Will Arnett is right. After watching all three seasons of “Drive to Survive,” even I am interested in a brand of racing that has always bored me. Because traditionally there is no suspense in who wins first in F1.

The impact of “Drive to Survive” on Formula 1’s branding, marketing and reach is staggering, and it belies the fact that F1’s racing is inferior to IndyCar.

IndyCar, which ran two races at Texas Motor Speedway over the weekend, is still a good product. It’s also a series stuck in its past, and dangerously feels like a sport that doesn’t know it’s the minor leagues.

F1 routinely features dud races with predictable conclusions, and minimal passing. It’s also a series that sells sleek, sexy, drama, stories, personality, confrontation, and has attracted a younger audience.

IndyCar sells the 1985 finish of the Indy 500, and A.J. Foyt.

According to Joe Pompliano, author of “Huddle Up,” a daily sports business journal, since the Netflix series began airing, “F1’s social media engagements are up 99 percent, the Bahrain GP was most-viewed US race ever, and over 75 percent of F1’s audience growth in 2020 came from ages 16-35.”

If F1 can reach and expand an American audience, there is no reason why IndyCar cannot.

On Sunday at 10 a.m., ESPN carried the F1 Portuguese Grand Prix, a race that featured no fans. At 4 p.m., NBC Sports Channel carried the XPEL 375 from TMS in front of a sparse crowd.

(*Because of varying COVID restrictions, all sporting events in 2021 get a pass on attendance.)

There is a good chance more American sports fans know F1 stars Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen rather than Will Power and Scott Dixon of IndyCar.

There is a good chance more Americans know Christian Horner of F1’s Red Bull racing team rather than established IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden. Or the winner of Sunday’s IndyCar race, Patricio O’ Ward.

Horner isn’t even a driver. He’s a “race team manager.”

As a fan of IndyCar, watching the series continually miss every conceivable target, including the Pacific Ocean, in its effort to reach a broader audience is no longer infuriating. It’s sad.

IndyCar is now F1 lite, and only IndyCar can only blame itself for this development.

It’s not too late for IndyCar to apply some of the elements F1 and Netflix combine to enhance that brand of racing.

There are stories, drama, and personalities in IndyCar. That’s all “Drive to Survive” is; it’s reality TV, and far more entertaining than an actual F1 race itself.

The one element F1 sells better than any other professional sport is the value of third place, and reaching “the podium.” The “podium” are a race’s top three finishers, similar to an Olympic ceremony that include the gold, silver, and bronze.

In F1, if you’re third you’re a winner.

In America, if you’re not first you’re last.

The IndyCar series is pushing its “podium” but it needs to do more than that. It needs to open up the series, let the cameras in, mic-up everybody, and find the drama, the confrontation, and the stories. They’re there.

The only advantage F1 should have is that its races are located in exotic locales that look like something out of a James Bond movie. The Monaco Grand Prix sounds just a tad more alluring than the Grand Prix of Alabama.

Other than the destinations, every single element packaged in “Drive to Survive” is right there for IndyCar.

The league’s TV contract is set to expire, and other than the Indianapolis 500 this is a series with no leverage.

There is a way to create interest, because watching this race on Sunday this is a marketable product.

If F1 can find an American audience, IndyCar should, too.