Five years after open-wheel racing unified in North America, the IZOD IndyCar Series continues to face a uphill climb in regards to growing its mainstream presence. The split between the series (then known as the Indy Racing League) and Champ Car that lasted from 1996 to 2008 had a disastrous impact on the sport, causing many longtime fans to abandon it and helping to accelerate NASCAR’s rise to prominence as the country’s most popular form of racing.
Not that everything is grim for IndyCar, which boasts a diverse driver grid and schedule of tracks as well as perhaps the best racing product in the whole of motorsports today. But Derrick Walker, the sport’s new head of racing competition, realizes that many challenges are still to be contended with — and getting the fans back is the biggest one of all.
“There are a number of challenges and I’m not sure if there’s any one ahead of the others, but if I had to pick one, I’d say the biggest challenge we’ve got is to get the fans re-ignited with what we’re doing,” Walker said in an interview with NBC Sports Network’s Marty Snider during this afternoon’s Bump Day proceedings.
“We need to appeal to a bigger fan base and we’ve got to get some of those fans who have gone off to some other sport or have choices that they didn’t have before and now have them — they don’t all tune in when we want them, so we’ve got to find a way to connect with the fans…We’re charged with that responsibility: Get the fans back.”
As for his potential impact on the series’ current relationship with its teams, Walker hopes to have more positive dialogue with them as well as the entirety of the sport’s partners. The sport’s off-track headlines have sometimes had a tendency to overshadow positives achieved on the track, and Walker recognizes that such a situation can’t exist going forward.
“The team owners have not felt the love, shall we say, for a number of years,” said Walker, who is still the team manager for “500” pole sitter Ed Carpenter’s squad through the month of May. “So hopefully I can bridge that gap…We can’t do it in a vacuum. We’ve got to be all together and we’ve got to get behind a common purpose, a common goal.
“That’s what the fans want. They don’t want us to be out there duking it out while they’re losing interest. They want us all together — unite the series across the board.”
MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the Verizon IndyCar Series field in 2015 with Marco Andretti, who finished ninth after another top-10 season in points.
Marco Andretti, No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda
- 2014: 9th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 5th, 2 Podiums, 2 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 23 Laps Led, 12.4 Avg. Start, 12.2 Avg. Finish
- 2015: 9th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 3rd, 2 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 11 Top-10, 60 Laps Led, 11.5 Avg. Start, 9.1 Avg. Finish
It was a dependable, quiet but usually consistent season from Marco Andretti, who up until the final quarter of the season had actually been his father’s most reliable finisher.
Andretti didn’t necessarily have a ton of standout drives but he was usually there or thereabouts, and by the end of the day he was often at the low ends of the top-10, which earlier this year given the at-times troublesome Honda aero kit package on road and street courses was more of an accomplishment than you’d think. Three top-10 results in the first four races was proof positive of that.
As ever Andretti excelled most on the big ovals. Sixth at the Indianapolis 500 was as good as was possible given the lack of top-end speed; similarly, he probably could have emerged at the head of the field at Fontana, ending third when all was said and done.
His best result was second in the rain at Detroit race one, although coming second to teammate Carlos Munoz had to sting a little bit. Andretti had driven well that race, and was unfortunate not to be rewarded with his first win in four years.
The thing that would have been his standout stat of the year, finishing every lap, game unglued with an odd accident on home soil in Pocono. It was a shame to see because Andretti was typically good, if not great, for yet another season.
MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2015 season, with eighth-placed Tony Kanaan.
Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
- 2014: 7th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 407 Laps Led, 9.2 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
- 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish
You have to give TK credit. Armed with one of the best cars on the grid, Kanaan has certainly raised his game the last two years, and probably hasn’t received enough credit or enough results for some of his drives he’s put in since joining Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2013 season.
The 2015 season was no exception. All 10 of his top-10 finishes were between second and seventh, so there were plenty of times he was in win and podium contention. The other area where he improved was his qualifying. Kanaan only had two starts outside the top-12 all season, one of which occurred at Detroit race two, where the grid was set by points following a rain cancellation. Detroit was pretty much the only weekend where Kanaan didn’t figure into qualifying or the race. Blame the Taylor Swift-inspired Big Machine Records livery for that one if you want.
Accidents at the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono were costly retirements as Kanaan definitely had a shot to win both those races. But realistically you couldn’t find many other faults. Losing a sure win at Iowa due to a mechanical issue was a gutting blow. He was also unlucky to come up just shy at Fontana, and may have prevailed in a last-lap shootout.
More often that not however, Kanaan was firmly on top of his game, and reliably on par with his championship-winning teammate Scott Dixon, which was all you could ask for. It’s fitting the two of them opened the year as part of the winning lineup in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kanaan then helping out matters by finishing ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma, to ensure Dixon had enough points to win the title on countback.