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

Photo: IndyCar

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.”

After Will Power extension, Marcus Ericsson among IndyCar drivers awaiting new deals

IndyCar free agents
Chris Owens, Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

FORT WORTH, Texas – Defending series champion Will Power’s name is off the board of potential IndyCar free agents, but there’s still much to be settled in the field – starting with the reigning Indy 500 winner.

Marcus Ericsson is waiting on a contract offer to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond the 2023 season (his fourth with the team). The Swede said he’s made it clear to car owner Chip Ganassi that he wants to stay in the No. 8 Dallara-Honda, which has four victories since June 2021.

“Yeah, it’s up to him, basically,” Ericsson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “He needs to give me an offer for ’24 onward. The ball is in his corner. I really enjoy it at Ganassi, and we’ve done a lot of great things together and would love to continue, but the ball is in his corner. He knows very well what I want.”

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Two days before Ericsson won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener March 5, Ganassi sang the praises of the emerging star driver to a small group of reporters.

“I want him here beyond this year,” Ganassi said of Ericsson. “He seems to have gotten more out of winning the Indy 500 than anyone else has of recent time, which is a good thing. He did a good job. He’s been everywhere. It’s been a really positive thing for Marcus, the team, the series. He’s grown with that as well.”

Ericsson didn’t sew up his current deal until late in his breakthrough 2021 season (after a memorable victory in the inaugural Music City Grand Prix). So he isn’t necessarily anxious about it but conceded he “was thinking a bit about it over the winner in the offseason and talking about it

“But now that the season has started, I told my managers and everyone I want to focus on the driving. They focus on those things. Now the season is on, and I want to try to win races, win another 500 and championship. That’s where my focus is. (A new contract) is one of those things that happens when it happens. But I’m happy where I am, and I want to do well.”

IndyCar’s two best teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, tend to be very tight-lipped about their drivers’ contract status.

Power confirmed Friday to journalist Bruce Martin that his new deal was for multiple seasons. That means all three of Penske’s drivers are in multiple-year contracts (unlike Power’s deal, Scott McLaughlin’s extension was announced by the team last year).

But there is more uncertainty at Ganassi’s four cars aside from Ericsson. While Scott Dixon has a ride for as long as he wants (and the six-time champion has given no indication of retiring), Ganassi’s other two other seats have yet to be solidified beyond 2023.

The No. 11 is being split this year by rookie Marcus Armstrong and veteran Takuma Sato this season. In  the No. 10, Alex Palou is believed to be in his final year at Ganassi before heading to Arrow McLaren.

That expected move would cast doubt on the future of Felix Rosenqvist, who returned to Arrow McLaren when the team was unable to bring in Palou (who was embroiled in a contract dispute with Ganassi).

Aside from Penske, virtually every other IndyCar team (including Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, which has Helio Castroneves in a contract year) has seats that potentially could open for next season, and even drivers who appear to be under contract for next year still could be on the move (via buyouts and option years).

Though Juncos Hollinger Racing announced a “long-term, multiyear contract partnership” last July with Callum Ilott, but the second-year driver was cagey Friday when asked about how long the extension ran.

“It’s for whatever I want it to be,” said Ilott, who finished a career-best fifth at St. Petersburg. “I’ll say that.”

Before returning to JHR, Ilott turned enough heads as a rookie to draw interest from several teams, and he indicated Friday that he still would be listening.

“I’d love to talk to some other big teams,” Ilott said. “Nothing stops me from talking. Look, you’ve got to be fair. I agreed to (the deal), but it’s pretty obvious that I’m quite interested as people are interested in me as a driver, but I need to focus on the job I’ve got here.

“I’m confident whether it’s in one year, two years, three years, four years, that if I’m wanted now, I’ll always be wanted. I’m a good enough driver that I don’t need to lack confidence in that side. … I’m not worried.”