Revitalized Month of May at IMS delivers on almost all counts

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What was a test case for the “reinvigorated” month of May, and the new business strategy employed by the new powers-that-be at 16th and Georgetown, has worked.

The 2014 edition was a vibrant, more buzzing Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more days than normal, or at least more than in recent previous years.

Here’s a quick synopsis:

GRAND PRIX OF INDIANAPOLIS WEEKEND

As I wrote at the time, you needed to take a moment to acclimatize yourself to the weirdness. IndyCars… turning right? In high-downforce road course configuration? At Indy? “Sacrilege!” you say, right?

Well, yes, it was weird the first time I stepped out onto pit road to watch. But once you got through the first couple laps watching, and it began to sink in, you started to get the sense this felt like a proper race weekend.

And on race day itself, that message was brought home. Estimates have ranged from as low as 25,000 to up to 50,000 – the truth lies somewhere in the middle, probably closer to 45,000 – but the bottom line was that the mounds and grounds were filled with race fans anxious at the prospect of something new. When you start to add up the dollars of that first round of spectators, with a number easily 10 times more than the same weekend last year, it all starts to make sense.

INDY 500 QUALIFYING WEEKEND

Opted to watch this one on TV from home. The latest evolution of something that’s changed more times than I can remember since 1996 was created as a made-for-TV type of format, and by that standard, it worked.

Each of the two days generated a ratings number higher than the season-opening St. Petersburg race, and the Sunday strategy to bring Dario Franchitti into the booth to call the Fast Nine shootout was a stroke of genius.

The crowds? Certainly less than GP weekend. And the format of which lines cars were going in, and how many points each day generated were, admittedly, a bit confusing.

I’m not one to say that you ditch the two-day format just yet. If another type of entertainment purpose is brought into the track for this weekend, as it was for the following weekend, it could provide added value beyond just the on-track running for qualifying. At the very least, reducing the confusion for media and fans on the format should be the goal for 2015.

THURSDAY/CARB DAY/SATURDAY

There was a healthy crowd in attendance outside the Pagoda for the new Indy Lights car launch on Thursday night, with fans watching as well beyond Mazda Road to Indy drivers, teams, participants and stakeholders.

Come Friday, Carb Day, the perpetual ritual of drunk Hoosiers waltzing all over the grounds continued true to form. There was the usual mix of great on-track action (practice, Freedom 100, Pit Stop Competition and Stadium Super Trucks) and off-track entertainment for the majority of IMS-goers (Sublime and Sammy Hagar concerts). I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t as high a volume as normal of crushed beer cans on my annual Carb Day walk from the media center to the media parking lot, but that meant IMS was on its game in terms of cleanup.

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Photo: INDYCAR

To Saturday, and while the usual public drivers’ meeting and driver autograph sessions were their usual hits, the biggest change came in the afternoon with the Jason Aldean concert bringing in the greatest number of new, paying fans. Leaving on Saturday around 4:45 or so, the grounds were packed.

Figure if you had at least 60,000 for Carb Day and maybe another 40 to 50,000 there on Saturday, and those are two huge additional numbers in terms of extra ticket sales and revenue from concessions.

We haven’t even got to the new “glamping” – or glamorous camping – that premiered this year. Judging by this piece from USA Today’s Chris Jenkins, that was a hit too.

RACE DAY

Indianapolis 500 race morning is the perfect example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The morning buildup, with the Monaco Grand Prix on TV in the media center, then all the pageantry from the bands, to the Gordon Pipers, to the old cars, to everything else just takes your breath away.

There’s the chills from being down on the grid mere hours before 33 men and women prepare to saddle up, racing inches apart at 230 mph. You’re walking on 100-plus years of history, from all the millions who’ve come before you on these fabled grounds.

You head up to cover the race, and you feel it’s your obligation to do it proper justice. The race is older than you, it’s bigger than you, and it will go on long after you depart.

With the rest of the month in 2014 serving as an ample buildup, the race itself remained stellar as always.

IN SUMMATION…

The Speedway doesn’t release attendance figures, but you have to think the individuals involved, from IMS President Doug Boles all the way down, are smiling after this one.

And they deserve it, too, after a packed and revitalized few weeks.

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.