Can IndyCar recapture its former glory in 2018?
IndyCar is in good health right now. Will this be enough to return it to the American mainstream?
It is now 10 years since American open-wheel racing ended its disastrous split and reunited as a single series.
IndyCar has since been stuck in a "two steps forward, two steps back" pattern. Progress has been followed by setbacks, good news by bad. There has been growth, but nothing like what was anticipated a decade ago. Certainly, the nineties heyday when the series had Bernie Ecclestone worried are nowhere near returning.
Jacques Villeneuve used IndyCar as a springboard to a plum F1 seat with Williams. Pic: Sutton Images
But, on the eve of the 2018 season, IndyCar is unquestionably a series on the up. This could well be its best chance since 2008 to show that it can recapture its old glory - and it might also be its last.
POSITIVE SIGNS FOR 2018
Ahead of the season-opening race at the St. Petersburg street circuit in Florida, IndyCar is juggling multiple good news stories.
First, there's the new car. It's not entirely new, rather an aerodynamic overhaul of the old model, but from a cosmetic perspective it looks like a revolution.
The "new" car has been very well received by fans. Pic: IndyCar Media
Gone are the bulbous bodykits produced at great expense by engine suppliers Honda and Chevrolet; in their place comes a sleek universal kit that looks stunning and should provide drivers with an even greater challenge.
They're up to the task, too. It's not quite the mid-nineties, but this is an IndyCar grid packed with world-class talent.
Dixon is the standout driver of his generation and will go down as an all-time great. Pic: Sutton Images
Scott Dixon in particular will be remembered as an all-time great, while reigning champion Josef Newgarden might well establish himself as one. The 27-year-old from Tennessee is everything IndyCar has dreamed of: an all-American racer with talent, charisma and looks.
Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are both immensely gifted and begin the season among the title favourites. You can also make a case for home-grown stars Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal being in the championship mix.
Rossi won the Indy 500 in 2016 and looks ready to challenge for the title in the coming seasons. Pic: Sutton Images
Sebastien Bourdais is as good as anyone on his day, while the addition of multiple DTM race winner Robert Wickens alongside the always exuberant James Hinchcliffe at the SPM squad bolsters the ranks further.
Of course, great drivers are of limited use without great racing - something F1 fans are reminded of pretty much every season.
But IndyCar doesn't have this concern. There is plenty of overtaking, varied strategies that create intrigue, and with the odd exception races tend to leave you feeling like you've seen a proper contest.
IndyCar races generally deliver action throughout the field. Pic: Sutton Images
Looking at the 2018 entry list, there are 15 drivers who could win in St. Pete and not be considered a surprise, while seven can be called serious contenders for the title.
The series is expanding, too. There are four new teams involved this season, headlined by a full-time two-car effort from European powerhouse Carlin.
The calendar is stable - creating what the series likes to call "date equity" - with just one change this year from 2017. A future race in Mexico looks almost certain, but IndyCar is not rushing. Gone are the days of events organised in China that never actually happen.
After Indy, Long Beach ranks as the series' most famous race. Pic: IndyCar Media
And then there is the Indy 500, a race that at times seemed to keep the entire series afloat all by itself. Whatever is happening elsewhere, the 500 remains a major international sporting event that attracts huge interest.
Last year it gained added attention with the arrival of Fernando Alonso. That seemed a tough act to follow, but this season Danica Patrick will return to Indy for what will be the final race of her career. Alonso was good for overseas attention, Danica will add to domestic interest. That's a nice balance.
Alonso brought huge overseas attention to the 500. Pic: Sutton Images
All of this is underpinned by excellent leadership from the top down. CEO Mark Miles and particularly president of competition Jay Frye have been hailed for their common-sense approach. They are listening to fans, teams and manufacturers, working methodically and showing progress.
All of this makes it seem as though IndyCar is set for another golden era, but that is far from the case. Because, as wonderful as all of these things are, they don't count for much unless people are watching.
LIMITED DOMESTIC APPEAL
TV audiences remain a crucial barometer of a series' health and, with the exception of the 500, IndyCar still has a lot of work to do. The numbers are going up, but they were small to begin with.
Outside the 500 there is limited interest in IndyCar. Pic: IndyCar Media
Last year, domestic viewership averaged around the 500,000 mark. Some 536,000 tuned in for the 2017 season finale, which had the small matter of a championship riding on it. Newgarden went into the concluding race just three points ahead of Dixon, with Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves also very much in play. In other words, this was no dead rubber.
In contrast, NASCAR's 2017 season finale attracted 4.7 million viewers, which is itself a huge drop from the 7.6 million who tuned in for the 2015 decider.
These numbers don't tell us everything, but they are important nevertheless. When they're being asked to sign a huge cheque, sponsors still care about how many people will turn on a TV and see their logos.
IndyCar needs more major brands involved to help make its drivers stars. Pic: IndyCar Media
It follows that IndyCar has a lack of major brands on the side of cars compared with NASCAR. It's not just the money that's important, it's who it comes from. Major brands create greater visibility through TV advertising, which can increase a driver's profile and hopefully get people to tune in to support them.
It's impossible to guess how many Americans would recognise reigning champion Newgarden were he to pass them in the street, but you'd be safe to assume that it's a small number. Ask the average American to name a racing driver and they'd likely pick Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick; ask them to name an IndyCar driver and they might have to go back to Mario Andretti or AJ Foyt.
How many Americans would recognise their fellow countryman and reigning IndyCar champ? Pic: IndyCar Media
For so long as that is the case, IndyCar will remain a fantastic racing series with limited appeal. It needs to get its drivers out there in the public eye - Newgarden and Hinchcliffe are both fantastic in front of a camera - and rebuild the idea that in America "racing driver" means "IndyCar driver".
The home market is key. If IndyCar can get the U.S. right the money will flow and international interest will follow.
A SIGN OF THE TIMES?
IndyCar has everything it needs to succeed this year: great car, great drivers, great racing. The Indy 500 is still huge and in Newgarden, Rossi and Rahal it has three Americans in their twenties who can beat the best in the world.
Graham Rahal is part of an excellent crop of American drivers with time on their side. Pic: IndyCar Media
But, in truth, that might not be enough. There was perhaps a sense of naivety when IndyCar became one series again, an idea that bringing everything under one roof would re-awaken the fans who drifted away during the split.
But it wasn't that simple. The world changed dramatically between 1996 and 2008 and has changed plenty more in the past decade. There are myriad new ways to consume sport. There are sports that didn't exist in the mainstream back then. And there are countless other distractions that have sprung up in the internet age.
The world has changed a lot since the days when Fittipaldi ruled at Indy. Pic: Sutton Images
It may be the case that the world has simply moved on and left IndyCar behind, that loud racing cars driven by top drivers over a two-hour stretch just don't attract the interest they used to.
If that is the case, there's not much the series can do to stop it. If what IndyCar has delivered for 2018 can't bring back fans, it's difficult to see what could.
Do you believe IndyCar can recapture its former glory? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.