Mark Miles checks in after IndyCar’s 2017 schedule release

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Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company, checked in with reporters during a teleconference to discuss the release of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. He also checked in on NASCAR AMERICA this evening on NBCSN with Krista Voda (video above).

Here’s some of the highlights:

On getting the schedule out so soon

“Well, we thought it was important. You know, if you’re committed to making the foundation of a current year the bulk of the schedule the next year, then we didn’t see any reason we couldn’t do it, and I think it’s important from the point of view of the next step, which is careful tailoring, crafting of the television schedule. But also for the tracks; here happily we are in August, and we’re announcing a schedule, and they have a year to prepare.

“We kind of put the stake in the ground that we’d get this out in August, and I think we’re still in August, so we’re delighted to have met the goal.”

On further schedule growth

“Some of you are aware of and have written about it, and there were options to be sure, lots at the start, narrowed to some finalists, and we think there will be even more for next year.

“Our philosophy about growth is careful, managed growth where we add to fill in gaps on the schedule, and those to me looking at next year, we still believe there may be an international opportunity at the very beginning of the year to be abroad, and that will do lots of things for us if we can find a great opportunity for ’18 in February. And then there may be one more opportunity to add during what we currently have kind of staked out as the heart of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule in North America.

“We think about all the factors from the balance we want to try to keep in terms of the type of racing, which we’ve already talked about, in terms of urban versus more park-like as we have now in so many of our races, Midwest versus other regions of the country. We’re pretty Midwest based, and I think there’s an appetite west, northwest, east or southeast in this country, urban versus more rural.

“So all those things go into it, and I think we just look at the options on a case-by-case basis and try to make the best calls.

“Fundamentally, the most important thing, irrespective of what kind of track and where it is in the country or the world, we want races like we have for the most part where the race is an event that captures the imagination of the community.”

On whether 2017 and 2018 schedules could have been released together

“I loved the idea of putting out the ’17 and ’18 calendars at the same time, and we were really close to doing it, and that’s exemplified by the fact that I’ve already told you that I expect everybody that’s on the calendar for ’17 to be on the calendar for ’18.  We do think there’s still some prospects that need a little more time to be fully developed for both international and other domestic opportunities for ’18. So we decided not to go.

“But saying all that, I don’t think we have to wait until August of ’17 to release the ’18 calendar. I can’t give you the date on which we’ll do it, but I do expect that it’ll be even earlier before ’18 than it was before ’17.”

On why Phoenix shifted from the start of April to the end of April

“When Phoenix came on for this year, we knew that in ’17 Phoenix would host the NCAA Final Four, and we agreed with them that it’s better to avoid that in that community. That’s a lot of fan choice and a lot of focus from the local media.

“That’s the reason that it changed from ’16 to ’17. I think that makes sense. And I think the schedule still works fine for our competitors.

“We are looking at what that might look like in ’18, and whether it stays more or less where it is or whether it goes back to — I guess we can’t call it the traditional date since it’s been one year, but the ’16 date, and that’s a decision we’ll make obviously in the context of putting out the ’18 calendar.”

On Auto Club Speedway, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Portland

“I think we talked a lot about Fontana about a year or so ago where their needs in terms of climate and time of day and even the sunset, which affects our drivers’ ability to be safe and run a great race, which affects the time of the race, which affects broadcasts in eastern time. It’s all related, so that one we just couldn’t sort out.

“[Mazda Raceway] Laguna Seca, interesting track, race history. We are kind of in that part of the world if you consider Sonoma northern Cal along with Laguna. Sonoma seems to be kind of solidifying a place for us as the season finale, which we love, and I think our fans and our stakeholders appreciate.

“Portland has a great history and is a part of — further north. That’s not northern Cal, and is an interesting region for us. So I don’t know. I don’t know that you’ve heard the end of the possibilities for Portland.”

On the broadcast partners and start times components

“I think [releasing the calendar now] it’s important from the point of view of the next step, which is careful tailoring, crafting of the television schedule.

“The other thing is the further out we get, the harder it is to really fine-tune the television broadcast schedule [for 2018], and that matters to us. As you know, we’ve made real progress with our broadcast partners in finding optimal broadcast times, which help us attract more viewers. We want to continue that focus. The further out you get, the harder it is to pick the exact date when you know a little less about their other programming, so we’ll take a little more time.

“Obviously as I think I may have mentioned before, we have to work with our broadcast partners to find the right balance between the show, the event on-site for the fans who buy tickets and come out, and the fans who will tune in on television. One of the things that we’ve found is that it’s better for race fans I think generally if we can minimize overlaps with NASCAR coverage. I’m not in any way defensive about saying that. We think there are a meaningful number of fans of both series, and we’d like for all of them to be able to watch both kinds of racing.

“It’s really helpful in the second half of the season that the same broadcasters [on NBC] are programming both NASCAR and IndyCar, so it’s in everybody’s interest to maximize the windows for both, and I think that’s happened, and you’ve probably seen kind of the add-up of that, the significant reduction in the number of races where there are overlapping telecasts and the number of hours. It’s much, much less than it was even three years ago. I think that helps all race fans.

“And ABC has worked with us, as well. You’re always trying to minimize key conflicts in the sports horizon. NBC’s objective or one of them is to be the motorsports platform, much as they’ve done in golf, and they have grown as a cable provider, and they’ve grown their audience for motorsports, and certainly they’ve been helpful in the growth of our television audience.”

On Stephen Starks’, VP of Promoter Relations, role in the process

“Stephen has brought great, fresh thinking about all this. You know, together we can focus on the few things we want to do better, and timeliness was part of it, the things we’ve been talking about, so he does deserve huge props for driving this process inside IndyCar, being I think a great resource to those who wanted to be considered to join the series and extending the agreements for those who have been on and now will be on with certainty longer. He spent a little bit of time with us and our legal department, so he understands that side of the business, and now he’s really gone to town, and I think the future is bright not just in terms of the schedule-making process, but our ambition is to add more value to the promoters that we have.

“When I look at other leagues, the NBA has a great team-services group, for example, and they’re able to share best practices in a serious way that adds to the value the league provides to their franchises.

“When one of them figures out something that helps them promote ticket sales and get ticket sales in earlier, they all know about it, and I think we can, under Stephen’s leadership, add that kind of value to our promoters, as well.

“I can see his head swelling. We may have a hard time getting him on the plane on the way back.”

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.