ST. PETERSBURG — When cars take the track today for IndyCar’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the signs of motorsports’ North American popularity bump will be everywhere.
The 27 IndyCar entrants are the most in race history. The 19 cars in its top feeder series, Indy NXT, are its largest field here since 2009. The RV club sold out before track construction formally began, and at least one driver, Jupiter’s Kyle Kirkwood, expects a record crowd.
“It’s kind of strange,” Kirkwood said, “because motorsports is now the coolest thing again.”
The evidence of racing’s recent rise is compelling:
• IndyCar’s 2022 season was its most watched since 2016, with the Grand Prix delivering the largest total audience (1.44 million) of any season opener in 11 years.
• Ratings were up 4% for NASCAR’s Cup Series, according the TV ratings website Sports Media Watch. Though viewership for last month’s Daytona 500 dipped, the share of TVs watching the race was its highest since 2016.
• Formula One’s 2022 American viewership spiked 28% from the record set in 2021. The inaugural Miami Grand Prix drew the largest average U.S. audience (2.583 million viewers) of any live Formula One broadcast ever, according to ESPN.
It’s not just the top series, either. January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona drew record crowds. Former IndyCar and NASCAR champion Tony Stewart said attendance at his dirt track, Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, was “amazing,” and the waiting list to buy a race-car trailer has stretched to two years.
“Out of COVID where everything was turned upside down, the motorsports industry somehow thrived out of it,” said Stewart, who co-owns a NASCAR team and competes in the NHRA drag racing series. “The economics of it, I have no idea how it is all working out. But it is somehow.”
The easiest explanation is that the hit Netflix documentary series “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” introduced motorsports to a new audience. Though some viewers were interested only in the drama, others were curious about racing and started watching.
“It gave us a breath of fresh air that was kind of needed,” Andretti Autosport driver Romain Grosjean said.
The fresh air filled IndyCar, too, in part because of Grosjean, a former Formula One driver and a memorable character in the Netflix series. It’s safe to assume that he was named IndyCar’s most popular driver in its 2022 fan survey based more on his Formula One roots than his 15th-place finish in points as a rookie.
NBC Sports analyst and former driver James Hinchcliffe said series’ fans have always had overlap. That means Formula One’s boom became a boon for everyone else.
“I’m a firm believer the rising tide lifts all ships,” said Hinchcliffe, the 2013 Grand Prix winner.
It helps that those ships can easily slip into other harbors. Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spent the last two seasons in IndyCar. Motocross and rally car champion Travis Pastrana raced in last month’s Daytona 500. So did Conor Daly, the first IndyCar mainstay to start “The Great American Race” in three decades.
It’s hard to quantify how much that cross-pollination helps, but Daly said he has never heard a fan who’s against it.
“Why would you not want one of your guys to go try to fight with some of the best in the world?” Daly said. “We’re always craving something different, something new to be entertained by.”
Motorsports has benefited from several other recent factors. Because racing was one of the first sports to return from the 2020 coronavirus shutdown, starved sports fans watched something they might have otherwise ignored. Roger Penske buying IndyCar helped stabilize and boost the series. A spotlight on diversity has appealed to new audiences; this year’s Daytona 500 honorary starter, Emmy-award winning actor Tiffany Haddish, said she got intrigued by NASCAR when she heard that basketball great Michael Jordan co-owned a team.
Those elements will converge downtown this weekend at a picturesque track ready to provide the latest, strongest evidence of what drivers hope is an auto racing renaissance.
“It’s definitely on the up,” reigning Grand Prix winner Scott McLaughlin said.
It’s up to stars like McLaughlin to keep it there.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Through Sunday, downtown; the 1.8-mile, 14-turn track uses the streets circling Pioneer Park, the Duke Energy Center for the Arts and The Dalí Museum, and extends onto the runways at Albert Whitted Airport.
Main race: 12:30 p.m. Sunday TV: NBC
More info: Details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more here.