Walker: Getting fans “re-ignited” is IndyCar’s biggest challenge

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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.”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”