That's just wrong. Indycar was massively popular through 1995. Great ratings, attendance, and sponsorship. Incredibly strong Indy 500 ratings. The NFL does just fine starting at 1 PM and the Indy 500 used to do fine with a comparable early start.
This year's 500 had a ton of press leading up to the event and still had a poor rating (even though it had the Indy market for the first time since the 50's). There was insane hype in the Indy media and I saw long articles in the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, NY Times, USA Today (entire section), etc. This isn't about making the Indy 500 a night race (which would make it look like a tacky NASCRAP race), qualification, or any gimmick that can hype up an event. This is about excellence in sports being destroyed by Tony George's paranoid power grab. From 1911-95, the Indianapolis 500 was at the absolute pinnacle of the racing world. The epitome of excellence. The elite from all over the world dreamed of competing in Indy. In 1993, the reigning F-1 champion, Nigel Mansel, switched to IndyCar so that he could race at Indy! That's how much prestige US Open Wheel racing had a mere 23 years ago. You sure as hell wouldn't see an F-1 champ cross over to this series today.
In one move, Tony George destroyed decades worth of excellence with the 25-8 rule. He brought in Buzz Calkins, Racin Gardner, a dentist, and tried to pass that off as being the real Indy 500. Well that was utterly insane and the fans rejected it by the millions, leaving the event to be an empty shell of itself forevermore. In 1995, the Indy 500 was so competitive that Penske (with Unser and Fittipaldi who combined for the last 3 wins) was completely left out! You used to actually have to qualify to make the race, unlike this year. Flash forward one year later, and GUARANTEED spots were given to joke racers in a rogue outlaw series just because they raced at the Magic Kingdom with Mickey Mouse. That move completely desecrated the prestige of the Indy 500, which since 1911 had been all about the best competing against the best. No matter how fast CART cars qualified in 1996 (had they chosen to compete at Indy), 25 spots were reserved to the putrid swirl IRL teams with no elite experience just because they were with Donald Duck.
Tony George thought fans were too stupid to notice the difference between Al Unser Jr. and Buzz Calkins, or between Michael Andretti and Racin Gardner. He thought the fans were so dumb that they would be entertained by anything driving in a circle making noise. Well he was dead wrong and the fans rejected his scam by the millions. What he did was literally comparable to putting WNBA players on the Warriors and Cavs and trying to pass that off as the real NBA Finals. Well no one would watch that crap. TG destroyed the prestige of his facility and took the entire sport off a cliff. Not only did these fans leave the sport, but they didn't raise their children to become fans either. Generations entirely gone...
I love the Indy 500. I will go for the rest of my life. But it is what it is. The event will never be any more popular than it is right now. Decades upon decades of excellence were destroyed and fans rejected it by the millions. Then they didn't raise their kids to be fans. It fell out of the popular conscience. We used to hear that it would be fine once the real teams and drivers came back. Well the real teams have been back for 15 years now, but it still hasn't moved the needle much. Destroying decades worth of excellence cannot easily be undone.