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NTT IndyCar Series needs to overhaul how races end

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One of the least exciting finishes to a great NTT IndyCar Series race is watching cars take the checkered flag under caution

The NTT IndyCar Series didn’t ask to have its schedule scrambled because the coronavirus made it necessary. A seventeen race schedule got knocked down to a dozen, and that, in itself, was a minor miracle. Unfortunately, it created an unforeseen problem for the sport – two stretches of nothing, one of 28 days, and one that is currently in a 33-day hiatus.

In an out of sight, out of mind world, that is dangerous. It is something that I will get to later because it ties in with a more pressing issue for the sport.

The last two weekends on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule, including the marquee event, the Indianapolis 500, fell victim to an antiquated rule allowing a race to end under caution. In both instances, a late-race crash brought out a yellow flag, and almost immediately, there were calls to red flag it, clean up the track and get it restarted. There was a reason why it didn’t happen.

PURISTS SEEM TO LOVE BORING

According to Yahoo! Sports, “IndyCar tends to avoid gimmicks and a late red-flag in the 2014 Indy 500 incensed purists.” Denying your fans a chance to see a race finish under green is not a gimmick.

NASCAR realized that the ticket-buying public and those watching at home did not want to sit back, watch a 500-mile race only to see the final laps run at pace-lap speed. It came up with what is known as overtime. America’s open-wheel sport still hasn’t come around to showing their fans the same respect.

If the purists get offended doing what is right for their sport, then let them. In the Indy 500 and the Bommarito Automotive Group 250 Race 2, the debate rages on whether a red flag was appropriate. The results are not going to be changed, but it does bring up how the series can tweak things.

It’s not like purists haven’t seen rule changes over the years, yet they seem to be stuck on this one issue. When is boring in the best interest of open-wheel racing?

The need to adopt a NASCAR version of how a race should end should be a top priority for IndyCar officials. The time has come for stodgy purists to see changes are needed to move forward.

MOVING ON

2020 has been an unmitigated disaster for sports, and IndyCar has taken a big hit. Losing five races to the coronavirus is tough enough, but coming back with spectators, or a scant few under local laws, is the kind of financial hit that will take years to recover. If at all.

When the series finally got underway at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6, it scored a ratings bonanza. It had the best number in years, but after nearly a month away, the expected happened: a dip in the numbers. In subsequent races, ratings have been so-so, but no one was that concerned because the “big one” was coming.

Losing the Indianapolis 500 on its traditional Memorial Day date was a crushing blow, but the NTT IndyCar Series was not going to lose it and rescheduled it to August. After all, it was still the Indy 500. Right? Everyone in the Penske organization was hoping COVID-19 would be under control enough to have all the pomp everyone was used to, including a house full of fans.

As the new owner, Roger Penske soon realized that wasn’t possible, so plans were to be at half capacity. Then it was a quarter. Then nothing. No fans. Little pomp. A shell of what once was. But yippie, there was still a race, and it was on network television.

DEPENDENCE ON TELEVISION

After the disappointment of losing spectators, you might have excused Penske if he managed a little smile thinking about ratings. He had little else to cheer. The 500 was always a ratings hit, so why would anyone think otherwise with the 104th running of it?

A year ago (granted it was in May), it scored a 3.44 rating with 5.435 million viewers. This year a 2.26 and 3.669 million. That is a noticeable dip. The change of date could account for the drop, so could the inconsistency of the 2020 schedule. Throw in a pair of one-month breaks, and you have a perfect storm of bad news.

The NTT IndyCar Series needs to make a splash over the winter. It needs to make headlines and do it regularly. No fluff, just meat. It must reengage its fans as often as possible. There is a lot of ground to make up. It cannot go silent for months as it did this year. It must make the fans eager for the new season.

The reason why the four major sports, MLB, NFL, NBA, and NBA, continue to grow is that they don’t go dark when the play stops. NASCAR is moving in that direction like never before. This is a critical offseason for America’s open-wheel racing body.

The work should begin in on Oct. 26, the day after the haulers leave the rescheduled Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

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