Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch gives IndyCar chance to show they’ve learned lesson on promotion

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If you’re an IndyCar Series official, you must be feeling pretty good right now.

For years, you’ve heard fans complain of a lack of compelling, straw that stirs the drink-type personalities on the grid. And now, for your biggest race of the season, there will be three of them.

Past Indianapolis 500 champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are certainly not afraid to ruffle people’s feathers. And the latest addition, Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, is much the same way.

All of them will be part of the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing this coming May, with Busch doing the “500” in an attempt to become the second driver ever to complete all 1,100 miles of the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double.

The only driver to pull that off? His NASCAR boss and teammate, Tony Stewart, who did it in 2001 with a sixth-place run for Chip Ganassi at Indy and then a third-place effort for Joe Gibbs Racing at Charlotte.

JPM, JV and now, the #DoubleOutlaw – all on the same grid. No race fan worth his or her salt would miss that.

But at the end of the day, only Montoya will still be around as a full-time IndyCar driver. Villeneuve’s ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is a one-off. And Busch will carry on with his Sprint Cup duties.

So while all three of them will certainly move the needle for Memorial Day weekend at the Brickyard, only one of them will be looking to do that throughout the season for the series.

And you’ll be stuck with the same problem that has continued to plague your sport seven years after its reunification and the same problem that has frustrated your steadily dwindling core of a fan base.

“Why can’t we promote our stars?”

The question has fallen to the two newest marketing people brought in by the series, Hulman Motorsports chief marketing officer C.J. O’Donnell and chief revenue officer Jay Frye, both hired in November as part of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles’ reorganization efforts.

Neither O’Donnell or Frye are novices when it comes to promotion. O’Donnell had a long run promoting various brands inside the Ford Motor Company, while Frye pulled off an industry-first sponsorship and team ownership package with The Valvoline Company when he was a NASCAR team executive.

One assumes that as new hires, they’ve needed time to get their proverbial ducks in a row and that’s fine. And one assumes that they’ve also been devoting time toward pursuing a new title sponsor for IndyCar to replace IZOD – a sponsor that can activate and engage fans like IZOD did in the early part of its pact with the series.

But sooner or later, they’re gonna have to get to work on pushing the full-time drivers, not just the ones coming in for May.

The good news for them is the cupboard is not bare despite the losses of perhaps the quintessential open-wheel driver, Dario Franchitti, and the possibly Formula One-bound Simona de Silvestro.

Reigning series champion Scott Dixon surely would’ve preferred not to have had those run-ins with Will Power toward the tail end of last year, but they certainly showed that there is a fire burning within his “Iceman” persona. Other veterans such as Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan, and American stalwart Ryan Hunter-Reay also remain bankable.

At the same time, those veterans (minus Montoya, who’s been in NASCAR for the last seven years) have pretty much been the same guys promoted by IndyCar for years now. There hasn’t been a true expansion on the front that includes the newer wave of drivers.

Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, of course, have the family names. Josef Newgarden’s social media savvy is begging to be further utilized in the Twitter/Facebook age. Charlie Kimball has gone beyond “diabetic driver” status to become a legit contender. And James Hinchcliffe pretty much sells himself: A fun-loving goofball that can kick ass in a race car.

It’s not exactly a series of milquetoasts and misfits. You’d think O’Donnell, Frye and IndyCar would be able to work with this.

Again…You’d think.

Let’s go back two years ago, when Hunter-Reay won the IndyCar championship with Andretti Autosport. He became IndyCar’s first American champ since Sam Hornish Jr. won it all for Team Penske in 2006.

Hunter-Reay had battled through multiple obstacles in his career, from underfunded teams to a lack of job security. For a time, he had devoted every ounce of his being simply to keeping his head above water in the sport.

When he clinched the 2012 title at Fontana, it was the ultimate storybook ending. And IndyCar had a chance to do something with it. This was the proverbial ball placed on a tee, ready to be crushed over the fence, David Ortiz-style.

Instead, they had a curveball thrown. A management shake-up occurred and by October 2012, then-CEO Randy Bernard had left the series. As a result, there was no big off-season push for Hunter-Reay, the star-spangled hero that had never given up and had finally reached the top.

These days, Hunter-Reay is a key part of IndyCar’s nucleus. But you can’t help but think he should be a household name right now, too.

Speaking of right now, there are less than four weeks to go before IndyCar’s 2014 season begins in St. Petersburg, Florida. The series recently had its Media Day in Orlando, but nothing truly big was broken there.

Instead, the major news lately has been Indy 500-centric, from Villeneuve and Busch’s rides to entertainment announcements such as country music star Jason Aldean playing Legends Day and world No.1-ranked DJ Hardwell playing in the Snake Pit on Race Day.

One figures IndyCar will have the promotional engines going for the #DoubleOutlaw saga in May. But whatever they learn from that, those lessons need to be applied to the series as a whole.

The Indy 500 will always be its greatest asset and it’s safe to say the world’s greatest race has regained a lot of the luster it lost during the Split years. But now, everything else around it needs to be bolstered.

IndyCar racing may never completely regain its former glory here in North America. That’s simply down to the fact that they’re battling with a bigger array of entertainment options than there were two or three decades ago.

But it can be better than what it is now. Motorsport as a whole is better with a stronger IndyCar.

And it all comes down to IndyCar effectively showing the world what they can do.

DiZinno: IndyCar’s 2017 schedule provides clear long-term road map

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I thought the same things as you when I saw the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule for 2017 (and to a near extent, 2018) released on Thursday, August 25.

Thought number one: The IndyCar schedule? In August?!?

Thought number two: Where’s the next big street race or international race?

Thought number three: There can’t be… date equity… can there?

For once, going with the more traditional route of keeping the same 16 races as in 2016 and adding another oval (yes, selfishly, I wish it was Milwaukee, but Gateway’s been pushing hard for this for years) is a brilliant masterstroke for IndyCar, because it isn’t about the negativity… or the question marks.

Every year, it’s seemed IndyCar’s schedule would be one of the last ones out, and there’d always be that one or two races you’d look at with a skeptical eye.

Then you’d see the ‘ol infamous asterisk top right of the last letter with the guide at the bottom confirming that asterisk meant, “To be confirmed.”

None of that goes on now with the 2017 schedule, and with Hulman &. Co. CEO Mark Miles confirming Thursday all events are also locked into 2018, IndyCar has a clearly defined road map and product platform for its events for the first time in years.

“We thought it was important to get it out now,” Miles said during a teleconference. “If you’re committed to making the bulk of schedule the next year, it’s important for the next step, which is careful tailoring and crafting of the television schedule.

“But we’re in August; we’re announcing a schedule and they have a year to prepare. Every promoter would relish the chance to sell next year’s tickets at this year’s race.

“For promoters, for fans, for our broadcasters, for our teams as they prepare, and this plus the test schedule that will come out… the sooner the better.

“We said we’d get this out in August… we’re still in August.”

This is a far cry from years past and the litany of races that have been on again, off again, or dropped over the last few years.

NOLA, Fontana, Milwaukee, Houston, Sao Paulo, Baltimore, Edmonton, Loudon, Motegi, Kentucky and Las Vegas have all dropped off just since 2011, and then add in that Boston, another Brazil and China races were canceled before they ever occurred.

Suddenly it seems as though IndyCar has rediscovered itself from a scheduling standpoint; returns to tracks where the series left but then came back make a greater impact than first-time or other venues where the history isn’t quite there.

Phoenix came back after more than a decade, Road America in nearly a decade and Watkins Glen will come back for the first time in six years in a little over a week. Road America was incredibly well-received, Phoenix was positive and Watkins Glen has generated early rave reviews.

At-track attendance has been an interesting talking point this year and Graham Rahal has mentioned to me on numerous occasions it’s been up, and he and other drivers have taken notice. INDYCAR confirmed it has at six events in its 2017 schedule release.

Knowing when events are from a scheduling standpoint and knowing there’s not the year-on-year risk of them falling off helps fans better plan their schedules.

It also helps from an overall business perspective; companies are in the process of finalizing their marketing budgets in August and this allows teams to go out and hustle if they still can at a much earlier date.

Miles also strongly suggested the 2018 schedule – given all tracks for this year are on board – will be out even earlier next year.

“I loved the idea of releasing ’17 and ’18 at the same time, and we were very close to doing that,” Miles said. “Some prospects need to develop for international and other domestic opportunities for ’18. But I don’t think we have to wait of August ’17 to release the ’18 calendar. I’d expect it even earlier before ’18, than it was before ’17.”

Credit INDYCAR and Stephen Starks, VP of Promoter Relations; additionally, credit all the track promoters.

“He has brought great fresh thinking to [the process],” Miles said of Starks. “We can focus on the few things we want to do better. He does deserve huge props for driving this process inside INDYCAR.”

And then there’s the Jay Frye factor. Frye’s presence in INDYCAR is generally, if not exclusively, regarded as a net positive thus far.

Even though he’s been moved from the commercial onto the operational side of the business now as President of Competition and Operations, his high approval rating in the paddock cannot be understated in terms of how INDYCAR’s schedule has evolved to a more solid state rather than the fluid one it’s been in the years previous.

And he says so with a smile, too. He and I exchanged a good laugh at Pocono last weekend when I asked about the schedule and he replied, “And hey, not only are we gonna have a schedule, but we’ll actually run all the races we’re scheduled to!”

We both laughed, but the fact such a line is a laughing matter speaks to how chaotic the IndyCar schedule has been over the last several years.

For once, it appears that the future IndyCar schedules are no laughing matter indeed.

Rosenqvist: Indy Lights street course experience to help in Formula E

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CASTLE DONINGTON, UK – Felix Rosenqvist believes that his time in Indy Lights racing on street courses will help during his debut season in Formula E.

FIA European Formula 3 champion Rosenqvist entered Indy Lights for 2016, winning three of the 10 races he entered with Belardi.

The Swede was forced to miss the races at Road America and Iowa due to commitments in GT racing and DTM, before ending his Indy Lights program altogether after getting a Formula E drive with Mahindra.

Rosenqvist is a two-time winner of the Macau Grand Prix, which is renowned as one of motorsport’s toughest street circuits, and has also raced at Pau in France in F3.

However, Rosenqvist believes his experience from Indy Lights, where he raced on tracks such as St. Petersburg and Toronto, will be more helpful when it comes to taming Formula E’s street layouts.

“I think those two particular tracks [Pau and Macau] are quite different compared to the ones we will run because they have banking and a bit of that,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports.

“I think especially when I last raced in Indy Lights in Toronto, I think that’s probably more relevant to what we will find this year, a really bumpy circuit and difficult circuits. So that will help for sure.”

Rosenqvist enjoyed a successful first public Formula E outing at Donington Park, but is refusing to read too much into his times given the unique nature of the track compared to those on the season three calendar.

“I think this circuit doesn’t really show you anything,” Rosenqvist said.

“If you look like Turn 1, Turn 4, Turn 7, you won’t find those corners in Formula E. Those are basically irrelevant.

“We saw in development testing and private testing, the driving looked good. Obviously Nick [Heidfeld] being a good reference, it didn’t look too bad compared to him.

“I don’t really think I can know what to expect when I come to the normal circuit. All the drivers keep going on about they are really difficult.

“I won’t really know yet until I come to Hong Kong what to expect.”

The calendar for Formula E’s third season features five new circuits and has two possible additions that also haven’t been raced on before, all of which Rosenqvist believes he will have an opportunity to match his rivals.

“I think on those circuits I will have a really good chance at least in qualifying to be up there, so that’s good,” he said.

F1 Paddock Pass: Belgian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing signs autographs for fans during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Back after summer break, here’s the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass.

NBC Sports Group pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in from the paddock at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

A number of topics and drivers are touched on, including Dutch driver Max Verstappen in his pseudo home race, Romain Grosjean looking to come close to his podium glory of last year, now with Haas F1 Team, Sergio Perez’s future and Lewis Hamilton’s time off and looming grid penalty.

All three parts are linked below.

MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: 2016 Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 25:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock with his dogs, Roscoe and Coco during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 25, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Belgium with a 19-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship and on a four-race win streak that has seen him overhaul Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the title race.

Hamilton and Rosberg look set to renew their rivalry once again this weekend at Spa – the site of their infamous clash in 2014 – setting the stage for a thrilling race.

MotorSportsTalk F1 writers Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno have made their predictions for the coming weekend – let us know in the comments section below what you think.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. Rosberg’s title bid may have taken a knock in the run-up to the summer break, but with Hamilton set to take a grid drop this weekend, I can’t look past the German for victory.

Surprise Finish: Max Verstappen. With an army of Dutch fans set to descend on Spa, I’m going to back Verstappen to give them a reason to celebrate by finishing second behind Rosberg.

Most to Prove: Ferrari. After a winless opening to the season that has seen the team slip behind Red Bull in the constructors’ standings, Ferrari needs to recover quickly. Spa-master Kimi Raikkonen will want a podium this weekend. Let’s see if he can deliver.

Additional Storyline: Esteban Ocon’s F1 debut. In the pay driver era, it’s refreshing to see a driver secure a seat on talent and talent alone. Ocon has won pretty much everything he’s raced in, so deserves a shot. Quite how he stacks up against Pascal Wehrlein in the second Manor will be of particular interest.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Max Verstappen Red Bull
3. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. With Lewis Hamilton staring down the barrel of starting from the rear of the grid, the golden opportunity exists for Rosberg to take a seismic win at a track where success has eluded him. He has to seize his opportunity.

Surprise Finish: Valtteri Bottas. I could see the Williams-Mercedes as a strong package here in Spa. Top-five could be achievable for a team and driver that needs it.

Most to Prove: Daniil Kvyat. The Russian’s F1 career hangs in the balance and a good kickoff race to the second half of the season, say an eighth to 10th place finish, or at least qualifying/finishing ahead of Carlos Sainz Jr. would be a good way to start.

Additional Storyline: Manor teammates. Welcome Esteban Ocon, as the Frenchman makes his GP debut. How will he fare against Pascal Wehrlein?

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
3. Max Verstappen Red Bull