IndyCar's drivers eager to get back to work
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — It has been six long months since the last IndyCar race, when the focus was still on the drivers and the on-track product. The days since have been filled with politics, drama and debate over how to fix the troubled open-wheel series.
With the March 24 opener finally in sight, the drivers are eager to get back to work. But they head into the season much like IndyCar's fans — in an odd wait-and-see mode about where the series is headed.
A recently commissioned report by the Hulman & Co. made a variety of recommendations for the series, including adding a three-race playoff and a season-ending race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most the drivers at Monday's media day said they have no idea what suggestions from the Boston Consulting Group the series is seriously considering.
That includes veteran Scott Dixon, one of the very few who has so far met Mark Miles, who became CEO of Hulman & Co. in November. Dixon and Miles had dinner and attended an Indiana basketball game last week.
"I think the guy is very switched on," Dixon said. "I think he likes the fact it's a challenge, and I think at the moment he is open to the fact he doesn't know a whole lot about racing. Right now it seems he's just asking questions and seeing what comes back."
Dixon appeared to be in the minority of those who have so far had any interaction with Miles or had any discussions about the direction of the series.
Four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, considered one of the series leaders among the drivers, simply shook his head when asked if he's had any conversations with Miles. Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves asked "Who is that?" during a discussion about current IndyCar leadership.
In fact, there was not a single representative of IndyCar's management team or the competition department present during the eight-hour media day.
It left the drivers as the spokespeople for the series, a role they are eager to fill. All of them have ideas on how to strengthen the series, and most of them center on increased marketing and a stronger television package.
"There's a lot of things in IndyCar that aren't broken, there's a lot less to fix than people think," James Hinchcliffe said. "It's just that some of the big things need to be fixed, and different parties have been giving their opinion. Some points were valid, but some were pretty wide of the mark. In reality, the No. 1 goal has to be increased television viewership. If we can solve that, then we can work to expand."
The key to increased viewership is getting people to watch the races. The BCG report found IndyCar to be "the best pure racing motorsports league in the U.S. ... but the series suffers from lack of awareness." The report then suggested myriad ways to lure new eyeballs.
AJ Allmendinger raced in the now defunct Champ Car Series, moved to NASCAR in 2007 and will now return to IndyCar in the Indianapolis 500 and at Barber Motorsports for Penske Racing this season. Having benefited in both fame and fortune from NASCAR's marketing machine, he doesn't think IndyCar needs gimmicks for growth and stability.
"I think IndyCar has just got to be marketed better," he said. "I don't know if fans see it, honestly that's part of the problem. Over the last several years, that's what NASCAR has done. They've marketed their drivers and they've told their stories, good or bad. In life now, that's what people are drawn to. If it can be marketed better, the series can be strong.
"There's room for more than one racing series. And there needs to be a strong open-wheel series. If the series is able to market itself better, people are going to watch."
Tony Kanaan doesn't disagree that marketing and television are the problem, but believes the efforts need to be combined and IndyCar should have a healthier presence on television. He points to all the NASCAR content on TV today and argues IndyCar has almost no programming outside of a race weekend on the air.
Kanaan said the recent addition of Hinchcliffe to two Speed channel programs is a start for IndyCar, but the series has a long way to go.
"TV is everything, that's what the sponsors want," Kanaan said. "We have the competition. We have the personalities. We need to get it on TV. NASCAR is on TV every single day. We need to put television shows on that show the personalities that tell our stories."
But Justin Wilson, who with Franchitti and Kanaan was part of a driver advisory board last season, wants more focus on the cars.
"We need to be the pinnacle of open-wheel racing in the U.S., the cars have got to be spectacular," Wilson said. "We need more power. When we race, it needs to be special. It's got to take your breath away. I remember that when I was younger, going to the track and watching Formula One cars and Indy cars. Now, you look, and these cars, they don't take your breath away."
Oriol Servia suggests rebuilding everything starting with the a renewed focus on the Indianapolis 500 by offering a $15 million prize to the winner. He got the idea from Townsend Bell, and admitted he first though Bell's idea was extreme but after thought thinks it could have some legs.
"Just think about it, one race, it pays $15 million to win, who cares about the rest of the season?" Servia said. "You'd get all kinds of drivers entering the race. Maybe NASCAR drivers, ALMS drivers, Grand-AM drivers, all kinds of people would show up. Then you've rebuilt the 500 and interest slowly starts to grow again in the rest of the season. It's a little out there, but maybe it could work."
It's not even clear who will ultimately make the decisions about IndyCar's future.
Although Miles now runs Hulman & Co., IndyCar doesn't officially have a CEO since Randy Bernard's firing in October. Jeff Belskus has been acting as interim CEO of the series while also running Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the series is two weeks away from the season opener without a permanent fix.
Dixon thinks Miles could run the series so long as he surrounds himself with a solid staff. Among the names that continues to circulate as candidate for IndyCar CEO is Zak Brown, founder and CEO of motorsports marketing agency Just Marketing International.
"When Randy was fired, the two guys I thought would be best for IndyCar were Mark Miles and Zak Brown," Graham Rahal said. "We've seen what Mark can do firsthand in Indianapolis with the Super Bowl, and everyone knows what Zak can do in motorsports. Both of them together in IndyCar could do a lot of good for the series."
Both Franchitti and Kanaan raced against Brown in their early years and endorsed him Monday for a role with the series.
"Zak is really smart, and I've got a lot of respect for what he's done," Franchitti said. "When you've got a guy with that experience and that Rolodex, he knows how to make things successful, it would just be really great to have him involved in IndyCar."
Said Kanaan: "He's very aggressive and he has a vision. The problem is, and it has been in this series all along, is if he has a vision, are they going to let him do what he needs to do? Otherwise he's just a spokesperson for the place and Zak doesn't want that job."