Pivotal 2016 season lurks ahead for IndyCar, starting at St. Pete

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As the Verizon IndyCar Series prepares to launch this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, it’s worth asking the question how far has the series come as a whole, as it prepares for its marquee race event to turn 100.

If the 100th Indianapolis 500, and the first that takes on a presenting sponsor in PennGrade Motor Oil, is the tent pole event around which the series revolves, how does INDYCAR – the sanctioning body – ensure the remaining 15 races get proper play outside of that and continue the series’ recent growth trends?

There’s several elements to consider in the not-too-distant past when looking at IndyCar – the series – in 2016.

The first is that it’s been 20 years since “The Split.” The seemingly continental divide between what was then CART and what was introduced in 1996 as the IRL sent North American open-wheel racing into a downward spiral for a decade-plus, until cooler heads prevailed and unification occurred in 2008.

The second, then, is that INDYCAR (the sanctioning body) has had relative stability from a top-of-management standpoint heading into 2016 for really the first time since that unification. Tony George was removed in 2009 from a key leadership position and after an interim period where Jeff Belskus was the head, Randy Bernard came in in 2010 with fresh ideas, a lack of cynicism and, unfortunately, a failure to fully understand the hornet’s nest he was walking into.

As Mark Miles prepares for his fourth season as de facto head of INDYCAR, the CEO of INDYCAR parent company Hulman & Co. has seemed to make steps in the right direction for strengthening INDYCAR’s bottom line.

The number of corporate partners invested in the series has grown, and Miles has placed “his people” in key positions. Jay Frye takes over as the series’ President of Competition and Operations this year, Bill Pappas enters as the VP of Competition, Race Engineering, with a new permanent three-steward group of Dan Davis, Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis.

The relationship between Miles and the owners – which are dwindling to where there are only nine teams left this year – does seem better. From owner meetings in Phoenix, INDYCAR is at least cognizant of the goal to cut costs, while also focusing on strengthening the business relationships with existing partners.

Miles also seems far more relaxed and comfortable in his role than he was in his first couple years, when the post-Bernard air still permeated parts of the paddock. It’s clearly apparent now it’s his rodeo, with a long-term goal towards solidifying and strengthening the series from the business side, and putting the people in place to keep the competition level as high as it’s been the last few years.

“One of the things I think is very cool is to show them the plans for how we view the year from a communications perspective, which basically is to design, to leverage the absolutely unique, important, pivotal hundredth running of the Indianapolis 500, and to draw the connections to that legend and to that history, to that epic moment to all our races,” Miles said during IndyCar media day in Indianapolis.

“We expect to continue to increase the television audience. We have the same broadcast partners. As you probably know, we increased ratings and viewership on average over the last two years by 25% and another 13%. I think we’ll get over 50% in total increase over the three years by the end of this year. That was done through some very careful scheduling which took some time.”

Technical enhancements are important, as well. From tethers to dome skids, INDYCAR has made several tweaks for safety improvements. Additional cockpit enhancement is also something to be monitored; it would likely be difficult if not impossible to retrofit the current Dallara DW12 base chassis with enhanced protection, but it appears on INDYCAR’s radar for the future.

Aero kits enter their second season. Chevrolet teams had an undoubted edge in 2015, and will look to maintain that following INDYCAR’s enacting of Rule 9.3 to allow Honda to close the gap. From initial preseason testing, Honda seems closer than last year, although testing rarely tells the full story.

How the latest “newness” plays out on track remains to be seen, but for several owners, there’s more confidence than there has been in recent years, as IndyCar looks to continue its recent upward trajectory.

“It’s the best product out there. It’s a shame that (more) people don’t know about it,” Michael Andretti told NBC Sports at the Test in the West in Phoenix.

“Unfortunately a lot had to do with the whole Versus thing. It’s getting better now. NASCAR being on NBC Sports will help. I think it will start to come back, but as it degraded slowly, to get it back up is gonna take time.”

Andretti and Bryan Herta have come back together this year, with Herta’s Bryan Herta Autosport team folded into Andretti Autosport owing to a sponsor default, which inadvertently left Gabby Chaves high-and-dry.

Herta stuck it out as a single-car team owner for four full seasons, after his incredible and emotional 2011 Indianapolis 500 win with the late Dan Wheldon, he acknowledged the business climate remains a challenge. But he didn’t make excuses.

“It’s difficult, but, I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” Herta told NBC Sports. “That’s the business we got into. It’s our job to find funding for racing. This year we came up short. While this wasn’t the original plan, we took a difficult situation and made it a real positive.

“I consider myself first and foremost a fan of IndyCar. We’re here because we’re passionate about it. We love it, thick and thin. If we could still fund doing it, I’d do it even with only five people at races. Obviously we’re a lot better than that.”

Herta’s old teammate and team co-owner Bobby Rahal – who set the bar for a one-car team with his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s team’s 2015 season – has been in INDYCAR as a driver, a team owner and as a part of series management.

Since he’s seen it from multiple vantage points, he thinks where Miles has INDYCAR headed is better than it has been in years.

“It’s the favorite whipping boy in motorsports, to dump on IndyCar,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “But the quality of racing in IndyCar is better than any other form out there, in terms of competitiveness, and in quality of the teams.

“I would say there’s no less than what they were in the height of CART, with a lot of good teams in that era.

“I believe in the management, and I’m a big believer in Mark Miles. With Jay Frye in there, we do see some positive moves being made. There’s not so many cars, but I remember the starting line at Phoenix in ‘92, and there were barely 18 cars in the race (there were 22 –Ed.). Lately, IndyCar’s been getting its own house in order.”

Rahal said the better TV ratings the last few years owes to Miles’ better workings with both NBC and ESPN top management.

“Mark has a lot good, relationships with networks, and this year I think we only have three or four conflicts of some type of NASCAR,” Rahal explained. “It could be 10 minutes, or the whole race. But there were seven or eight last year and more the year before.

“We’ve seen like Mid-Ohio, it ran on CNBC live and not great (rating) live but then got huge ratings on NBC(SN).

“I think were a lot of hard feelings with NBC with the previous administration, and I think Mark has done a lot to get the networks on our side, and expand the ABC presence in May as well.”

Cost cutting remains a hot topic.

“That’s the prime focus: We have to cut costs,” Andretti said. “I know INDYCAR is definitely on it. We’re focused with helping them.

“We had to cut a lot off our budget for next year. It was hard for this year. But there’s a lot of good ideas floating around to save a lot of money for next year. I feel confident they’ll be able to do it.”

Added Rahal, “I think there’s a lot of good discussion of how do we philosophically do cost controls. The teams are being enlisted in that. There’s a lot of smart people on the teams. Jay Frye has been there at all levels… he’s seen it from all sides. We’re in a pretty good spot.”

Jimmy Vasser, another driver turned team co-owner, said the technical side should be enhanced with Pappas, KVSH Racing’s former technical director, now entering in a series capacity.

“Pappas is a solid guy,” Vasser told NBC Sports. He’s had a storied career on the engineering side. He’s come from teams in IndyCar that have a wide spectrum of budgets. There’s us being in the middle-to-low range like Dale (Coyne) and Rahal, so he knows the team battle.”

Rahal added the steward department should be better, having worked with Davis and Papis when his team ran Fords in CART.

“I think that’s a huge plus. We have two driver stewards that have driven and succeeded at this level. Those guys have been around,” he said.

“They know what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Officials should be the last to get involved, not first. Previously, officials wanted to get involved. They’ve all spoken intelligently. It’s one of the big things that’s a big plus, having the same guys at every race, not changing every weekend.”

Vasser and Herta – who both drove for Rahal at various points in their career – think the product can shine through even as all the backdoor politics and operational side of the series sometimes dominate the headlienes.

“It seems like it’s never enough, but INDYCAR always does the most they can with the resources they have,” Vasser said. “The racing as competitive as ever. The league is doing all it can to escalate and promote the series.”

Added Herta, “I feel there’s a lot of optimism in the paddock. The racing is great. I think there can be a lot of negativity out there at times, but I feel good about racing in general.”