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IndyCar ready to return to St. Louis area after long layoff

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MADISON, Ill. (AP) The return of IndyCar after a long layoff to the St. Louis region is welcome news for area racing fans.

St. Louis is still dealing with the election last month, where a bond issue failed that would have provided money for a stadium for a Major League Soccer team.

And also of course the NFL’s Rams, who moved to Los Angeles after the 2015 season.

But the return of the IndyCar racing open-wheel series to Gateway Motorsports Park, the 1.25-mile oval in this small city five minutes from downtown St. Louis has brought high hopes to a track that six years ago was 24 hours away from the grandstands being sold for scrap.

That’s when St. Louis real estate developer and former open-wheel racer Curtis Francois came up with money to help revitalize the once-failing 340-acre facility.

“We’ve been working really hard over the last five years to re-energize the fan base and motorsports in general,” said Francois, whose track will host its first IndyCar series race since 2003 on Aug. 26.

“I think they understand that we’re sincere and that we’re going to keep at this until we get this figured out in a way that they understand that motorsports is here to stay.

“And motorsports is a great opportunity to take your family out for a great afternoon. It’s important to engage them and make them understand that we are trying to give them what they’re after.”

That showed on Tuesday when several hundred fans showed up for two IndyCar test sessions, which surprised the drivers, IndyCar officials and Gateway management.

So much so, that the drivers held an impromptu autograph session during a break.

“This is not very common when we’re going to a place like this and having practice and people are coming over,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves and the last winner of the IndyCar race at Gateway.

“It’s like a qualifying day. That is great. It shows that we do have a market here. I’m happy. This is the way it started when you’re going to new places. You start to practice and people start coming to watch. I feel this is going to be the same.”

On Saturday night, the series raced at Phoenix International Raceway in front of only about 10,000 fans. It was the second time returning to Phoenix after a 10-year layoff.

While the low attendance figure bothered drivers and officials, they also know it’s hard to win back fans after a long layoff.

“It’s only the second year (in Phoenix),” said 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who was second at Gateway in 2003.

“To me it seemed like it was as good, or as bad, whatever you want to call it. Honestly, I think everybody tried there are just some places that has better attendance than others. But I don’t have an answer.”

As for coming to Gateway, Kanaan said “these are the types of places we need to come back to. I’m excited to come back and come back here. We just need to keep pounding on social media that we’re coming back. That’s the best thing to do.

“Then when we come back here and put on a good show for them and the people that didn’t come, they regret it.”

IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye said the series will have to reintroduce itself to St. Louis-area race fans after a 13-year layoff.

“The Midwest is great. There’s a lot of race fans,” Frye said during a break during two test sessions.

“We’re excited to be coming back. Curtis Francois and (general manager) Chris (Blair) have a vision. We understand it’s going to take a couple of years to build it back up. That’s OK.

“As long as we’re lined up together and they have a vision and a plan with where they’re going, we’re partners. We’re excited to be back.”

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”