ESPN counting on story lines to sell Indy 500 Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti will be trying to become four-time Indianapolis 500 champions, four women will roll off the starting grid, a local boy is on the pole and a group of dynamic rookies that includes A.J. Allmendinger is there to add intrigue.
Indeed, there is no shortage of compelling story lines accompanying Sunday's race, leaving television executives feeling confident about another bump in viewership this year.
"What we've seen in the past couple of weeks, and in the past weekend from a story-line point of view, gives us a great opportunity to put on a terrific show for our viewers," said Rich Feinberg, ESPN's vice president in charge of motorsports production.
Television ratings for the Indy 500 dropped precipitously throughout the 1990s as attention waned and NASCAR ratings soared. And while there have been a few spikes along the way, the trend continued until ratings bottomed out in 2008.
The past few years, though, have witnessed a modest resurgence, and last year's race won by Franchitti resulted in a four-year high of nearly 6.9 million viewers.
"I long ago learned it's an exercise in futility to predict ratings," Feinberg said on a conference call with reporters. "I know the IndyCar ratings have been challenged in certain areas, but as a production team, the best thing we can do is tell these stories."
And hope that those stories turn enough casual viewers into regulars for the rest of ABC-ESPN's package of races this season, including a Saturday night race at Texas.
"We discuss how we can hopefully turn people who sample the Indy 500 into fans who can watch other races," Feinberg said, "but ultimately that's the viewer's decision. Last year's Indy 500 was tremendously successful. We have a great front row (this year), a lot of tremendous stories — those are all pieces we can drive, but at the end of the day, viewers decide."
The network is making a few tweaks to this year's telecast: ESPN anchor Lindsay Czarniak is taking over from Brent Musburger as the host of this year's race. A former pit reporter for TNT, Czarniak has appeared on some of the network's NASCAR coverage but will be making her first trip to the Indianapolis 500.
"She's wide-eyed," said Marty Reid, who will be handling lap-by-lap announcing for the eighth time. "She was here this past weekend for qualifications — she's absorbing everything."
Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever are back to handle analyst work, with Cheever having expanded his role with the network to include all six races it will air this season.
Then there's the technological side of the production. The network will use 84 cameras, including several dozen onboard cameras and an improved camera running over a cable above pit road that moves faster than ever. Ultra-high-speed cameras that were introduced last year also are back with a new location added entering Turn 1.
"It's right up there, not only the biggest event we've ever done in IndyCar, but it fits into the category that we've ever done in motorsports," Feinberg said. "For a single-day, single-sport event, I think 84 cameras is one of the biggest shows that ESPN does, period."
All of which ties back to the goal shared by IndyCar and its television partners of building the sport's fan base, leading to more interest and increased viewership.
Scott Dixon said he was surprised at the number of people who were at the speedway last weekend for qualifying, even though the weather was ominous, and said there are reasons to be optimistic that the series in the right direction.
"It's just getting people to watch it," said Dixon, who will 16th on Sunday. "Once they watch it, they're going to watch it again. It's getting it out there. That's the biggest deal."
Ryan Briscoe called it a "shame" that ratings have suffered.
"I think today's IndyCar racing is some of the best racing in the world. It's awesome. It's really cool to watch," said Briscoe, who will start 23rd on Sunday. "It's unfortunate that ratings are down. It deserves more, it deserves better." IBJ.com
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