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.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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