INDIANAPOLIS – For Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, who is head of INDYCAR’s parent company, the 2015 month of May is an important one from a year-to-year and overall health of the company standpoint.
Not that other months aren’t, but this one is essentially year two of a three-year “Month of May” plan for the overall company.
It sees a number of changes as a greater May should, in theory, serve as a boon to both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Last year served as the May shakeup – the Grand Prix of Indianapolis was added and the schedule revised to allow for the new race. This year’s “GPI” sees the activation and addition of Indianapolis-based Angie’s List as race title sponsor, an important addition for a second-year event.
Next year, of course, will serve as the buildup before the 100th Indianapolis 500.
One of the areas Miles addressed during a wide-ranging interview with MotorSportsTalk was the month of May evolution, and how vital a good May is to the overall health of the series and Hulman & Co. overall.
“The first (objective), and we could check the box on this before we even got here, was signing a title sponsor,” Miles told MotorSportsTalk.
“So to bring Angie’s List on, on the heels of the first edition, they’ve been very good partners. This is a solid thing for us.”
Miles called it a “no-brainer” that the “GPI” would be back for 2015 a year after the checkered flag flew.
Weather may be an issue for today’s race; alas, the upside possibility is that for the first time in IndyCar, the series has the option to run a race at IMS in the rain, on the track’s road course.
Early ticket sales were on par with last year’s event, Miles said, with the determination of a final number dependent on the weather.
Ticket sales for the Indianapolis 500 are trending ahead of last year, IMS president J. Douglas Boles told MotorSportsTalk in an interview earlier this week.
The Speedway does not release official attendance numbers, but an easy 40 to 45,000 fans were in attendance last year for the inaugural event, which is no small achievement for any modern day IndyCar market.
“Subject to the vagaries of weather, we’re on course to be almost exactly where we were last year for ticket sales,” Miles said.
“I’ve heard people say it’s axiomatic that the first year of a race is a big spike, and then you can expect fall-off after that. That’s a little counterintuitive to me from other sports. I believe you keep renewing people and build over time.
“So we set the internal objective of at least hitting last year’s numbers. We may not, because we had a very solid walkup last year on a very nice day. If we have a very threatening day tomorrow, that might affect the walkup. Until race day at least, we’re hitting the target.”
The Angie’s List addition also confirms this race will kick off a four-weekend-in-a-row stretch of action on ABC, running through the Detroit doubleheader weekend at the end of the month. NBCSN and CNBC will carry the final eight races through to the season finale at Sonoma on August 30.
“It allowed us last year and happily again this year to put four consecutive weekends on ABC,” Miles said. “To have that continuity on one of our broadcast partners I think has been a really good thing for total audience in May, which is one of the highlights of the year.”
Into his third year, Miles noted the change from learning and listening in his first year to taking action to make course corrections where needed for 2015.
Building a bigger buzz in May – not just in Indianapolis, but beyond the so-called “I-465 bubble” – will be a key to growth moving forward for the series as a whole.
MotorSportsTalk will have more from our interview with Miles in the coming days.
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?