IndyCar drivers eager to keep momentum as season nears

IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe responds to a question during IndyCar Series annual media day Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

IndyCar looks ahead with hope to another season and potential for growth

INDIANAPOLIS — Last fall, James Hinchcliffe kept dance fans on their toes.

Now he's hoping those memorable moves help the IndyCar Series take an even bigger step — expanding its audience.

Less than two months after surprisingly toe-tapping his way to a runner-up finish on the hit show "Dancing With The Stars," the popular Canadian driver returned to Indianapolis to explain how his performances could drive ratings.

"That was not something I was aspiring to do," Hinchcliffe said Wednesday at the series' annual media day. "For me, it's about trying to get fans to tune into races. A lot of times, people don't tune in until they meet someone and then they turn it on to watch that person and then maybe they can become a fan."

Hinchcliffe has already detected differences.

At airports, the top driver for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports said he's being stopped more frequently to talk about dancing instead of his pole-winning run at the 100th Indianapolis 500 or being the self-proclaimed Mayor of Hinchtown.

The extra publicity comes as IndyCar appears to be making progress in generating a larger fan base. According to Nielsen Media Research, the series averaged 1.28 million viewers for the 16 races in 2016. That's a 12 percent increase over 2015 and its highest average since 2011.

The same research also showed the 11 races televised on NBC Sports Network and CNBC decreased by almost 30,000 people per race. And after selling out the series' biggest event, the 500, few expect that to happen again in 2017 for the 101st running of the iconic race.

So after a crucial season, many are hoping Hinchcliffe's appearance will keep fans revved up.

"The good thing about last year is I do feel we got new, young people watching the Indy 500," three-time 500 winner and former DWTS champion Helio Castroneves said. "I've heard a lot of people, say it was the first time they had watched the Indy 500. I think they'll keep watching it."

Series officials aren't content to just sit around and see what happens next, either.

Last week, president of competition and operations Jay Frye presided over the release of sketches of what the next generation of IndyCars might look like. Frye said Wednesday the actual design could be released by March 1 and a prototype could be on display in May.

A sleeker look could help.

"It reminds me of my car when I joined in 2000," said veteran Oriol Servia, who will compete in at least two races for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this season. "I thought those cars were maybe better looking than those today. I don't think it's going to revolutionize the world, but it's definitely better to have better looking cars when you're trying to attract fans."

Earlier this week, Frye also announced a new contract with longtime partner Firestone, a deal that will give teams more tires to use in practice sessions. The hope is more on-track activity will translate into better ticket sales leading up to the races.

This year's schedule also includes a 17th race, and some races will be held at old favorites such as Watkins Glen and Road America.

Will that be enough to keep attendance and viewership up?

"The series has so much potential and it is without a doubt headed in the right direction. I don't think that's going to change," American driver Graham Rahal said. "I hope our TV package can improve and we'll get more eyeballs. But the track attendance is strong. It's good to see."

And perhaps it will get a boost from Hinchcliffe, too.

"Doing something that I was really unqualified to do in front of 10 million of my closest friends was daunting," Hinchcliffe said. "One of my motivating factors was to get IndyCar in the prime-time spotlight and we hung around long enough that I think we did that."

Note: Andretti Autosport announced Wednesday that NAPA Auto Parts will sponsor the No. 98 car of Alexander Rossi for seven races this season including the 500. NAPA also sponsored Rossi last May when he won the 100th Indianapolis 500.

___

More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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