IndyCar Is the Best Motorsport That No One Watches

Internal fights, unpredictable ratings, the wolves of bankruptcy at the door. Despite the strife, IndyCar is the world’s most thrilling motorsport.

Juan Pablo Montoya won seven Grand Prix in Formula One in the early 2000s. He left in 2006 and crossed over to the very lucrative world of NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Now he’s back at IndyCar.

F1 dominates the global stage. It is lucrative, watched by millions. The problem, increasingly, is that it’s just not very good racing—at least not in the way that 999 out of 1,000 people care about. The cars are too quiet, not so pretty to look at. Worst of all, Formula One has become the story of single-team domination with accompanying subplots of middling teams battling for scraps. The stakes are low, the outcome pretty much preordained. We love Mercedes-AMG, but they’re so far ahead of the field they may as well be launching FA-18 Hornets off the starting grid. F1 has become as suspenseful as a Columbus Day parade.

Montoya, after this year’s F1 Chinese Grand Prix: “I watched for five laps and then switched it off,” he told Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport. Part of the problem is the new, whispery hybrid “power units,” but the main issue, he explained, is that IndyCar is simply better racing.

“This has nothing to do with the rule changes in Formula One,” he says. He also hates the gimmickry of F1, especially the DRS passing system that opens the rear wing on straights. The sight of a great driver passing a rival just because his rear wing is wide open, Montoya says, is “like giving Photoshop to Picasso.

“As a driver [in F1] you are so dependent on the car. Do you really think Alonso and Vettel have forgotten how to drive? The truth is it’s just bad luck for everyone who is not in a Mercedes.”

Do yourself a favor and click on this YouTube in-car video from IndyCar’s 2014 opening race in St. Petersburg, Florida. The track is uneven, the cars passing inches from the Armco barriers—and disaster—at every corner. Watch the way the drivers work the steering wheels. The tension is telegraphed from their fingers to the viewer. The stakes in IndyCar, as Dario Franchitti can tell you, are as high as anywhere in sports. And most of the circuits—especially the road courses—are so well suited to the series that the results are never a sure thing.

It’s a shame the viewership doesn’t reflect the quality of the racing. Over decade, the world’s most famous race, the Indianapolis 500, has lost much of its luster, with wide swaths of the giant grandstands sitting empty on race day. Average cable ratings are up over the past three years, now that the series has landed a decent home at NBCSN, but at just 378,000 each race, it’s a fraction of what IndyCar used to pull in on ESPN as recently as 2008.

Photos by Juan DeLeon / AP / Corbis