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Q&A: Watkins Glen president Michael Printup on IndyCar return

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It was simply spectacular for the Verizon IndyCar Series to be back at Watkins Glen International this weekend, and after only a three-month buildup from an eleventh-hour deal to get the track on as a replacement round for the cancelled Boston race.

We caught up with track president Michael Printup just before the race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi, for some thoughts on how the actual realization of the weekend matched up to the buildup.

MotorSportsTalk: So, it’s real, and we’re actually here for IndyCar at Watkins Glen. How awesome is it to be standing here at this moment?

Michael Printup: “You know I saw Scott Dixon last night, it was late, and he had a bigger smile than me and I said, ‘You can’t do that! because I’m happier!” and he’s like ‘No, we’re happy!’ and I’m like ‘Congratulations.’ We knew [the fastest average speed lap] was going to be broken. What’s even more exciting and George [Bruggenthies, Road America track president] is down over around the corner here, I was talking to him a little bit ago, and I said ‘You know we broke your record?’ I said “I’m not rubbing it in! Now I didn’t do anything, but obviously Scott broke the North American record and let alone breaking the Watkins Glen record. It gives me chills, it gives me chills to the time. I’m very humbled and pleased with what’s happening this weekend.”

MST: One of the event notes that occurred was Hitachi being named presenting sponsor on Friday. How did that come together?

MP: “INDYCAR has been awesome in that. We’re both sharing the responsibility of promoting this and to get Hitachi to come on along with their other sponsors with Verizon and everyone else that’s involved with them, just an awesome experience.”

MST: Is the crowd what you hoped?

MP: “I’ve been watching, there have been traffic issues at the gate since 8am this morning – which is a good thing. We don’t get data right away, but I’ll get it tonight. We kind of knew the walk-up would be nice today. I’m happy, but of course every promoter wants more. With 90 days, I’m not disappointed at all, Jay [Frye’s] not, Mark [Miles] is not. We solidified our future. Give us a year to get this tucked in our belt and we’ll make it bigger and better next year.

MST: That’s just it… this isn’t a one-shot deal but with a two-year extension and Gov. Andrew Cuomo involved, there’s a future road map here… 

MP: “That’s big. He’s a big sports car fan and IndyCar fan. He’d have been here this weekend but he had a business trip to Italy this weekend so he couldn’t go. Monza, maybe? [laughter].

“He’s a big fan. I called him the night before I came down to Indianapolis, I didn’t want him surprised. I said, ‘I’m going down to sign the Indy deal, can you give me some help later on?’ I said, ‘I’m going to go sign it now and we’ll see what happens. His comment back to me was ‘can I go with you?’ – he was that excited. I said, ‘Probably not this time, I hate to tell a governor no. For the New York governor to go down to Indy to make the announcement with Jay Frye and I, I thought that was pretty cool.”

MST: Is it too early to start thinking of other series on this weekend next year? Of course we’ve had Indy Lights and a regional Ferrari Club of America here this weekend.

MP: “It’s a mesh. It’s been going on. I haven’t met with INDYCAR yet. Obviously we have the Indy Lights, we know Indy Lights is coming back next year. I’ve met with Dan and Jay and talked about the [Pro] Mazda and the USF2000s. So we know we want them there, so we’re going to figure out how to make it happen. We haven’t solidified it yet, but we’ll make it happen.

MST: Six years since the last race, what’s the personal and track excitement level of adding this classic venue back?

MP: “Take the company aspect away from this, from a personal point of view, I’m with you 100 percent. Having the schedule locked up, being a huge IndyCar fan since I was a little kid, a CART fan, having started my career with Roger Penske at California Speedway, it was all about open-wheel for me. It’s awesome. That’s personal. The schedule is awesome. I love Gateway. I love Road America. George is probably one of the best promoters in the country. To see this, now I know I can pick my schedule, I can know where I can go see IndyCar races. I’m excited.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500