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Q&A: Mark Miles on INDYCAR’s state of play for May, 2017

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INDIANAPOLIS – As practice occurs this week for the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, it provides a good opportunity to catch up with INDYCAR’s top man – Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co. – about the health of the series and the hoopla about this year’s race.

Fernando Alonso’s participation has opened the doors from an international coverage and attention standpoint; however, with 32 other talented drivers in this year’s field of 33, ensuring the best of the best who compete here on a regular basis don’t get lost will be key to monitor.

We caught up with Miles after his trip to Europe to kick off this month, with stops in France, England, Italy and Spain. Oriol Servia, Dario Franchitti and Max Chilton were also with Miles at various points on the media tour.

Of note, regarding the 2018 schedule, rumors have persisted about the potential additions of a race in Mexico and/or a race in the Pacific Northwest, believed to be a return to Portland. All existing races for 2017 are confirmed for 2018 as part of existing contracts.

MST: So you’re just back from the European trip. How did it go compared to expectations and what was the trigger for it? 

Mark Miles: “It was much more successful than I imagined. We could take the interest created by Fernando’s entry and use that as an excuse to talk about INDYCAR and the Indianapolis 500 race. We got drawn into the Fernando discussion – mainly in Spain – but here’s the Verizon IndyCar Series of today, here’s what defines it and here’s what you need to know today about Indy 500.

“For me, having traveled around the world for an international sport in the past and who is from Indianapolis, they’d always go, ‘Vroom, vroom!’ From my experience – everyone knows about the 500. We have name ID, but we haven’t done enough to cultivate the following and fan engagement. When you tell the story, people are intrigued.

“When you think about the things that even the Liberty guys would say when they want to improve Formula 1, it tends to be things like cost, competitive and dynamic racing. You have to be in the front, or you won’t have much chance to win the race.

“We tell our story about how competitive our series is – how (Sebastien) Bourdais can start last and win St. Pete – how many different winners we have, how our last 11 titles have been decided at the final race in the last 11 years, and the fact that oh by the way, we’re fast.”

MST: There’s an occasional perception that the Indianapolis 500 supersedes the Verizon IndyCar Series as an entity in terms of importance and promotion. Is it a balancing act or does one get put above the other? 

MM: “I don’t think it’s a balancing act at all. We push all of it. I came from a tennis background, anything the grand slams can do to lift the circuit and series is a good thing. It’s the same here. There’s no identity difference between the 500 and INDYCAR. The 500 is our major; our crown jewel. The health of INDYCAR is important to it, and vice versa.

“You’ll notice that not too many years ago there weren’t too many INDYCAR logos around here. Now you do see them. Because when you go to the Super Bowl, you need to see the NFL shield. It’s very top of mind. It’s not balancing – it’s load them both up and make them inseparable.”

MST: That being said, the decision to stream Fernando’s test did put the Indy 500 more on a greater scale internationally. What was the process in that call?

MM: “So what happened was two things. One was, Oriol (Servia) calls me the day of the Alonso announcement, because when he got up in L.A., he had I believe 60 messages from Spanish journalists. That was, that day, ‘We’re going to Europe. We’re going to tell our story there instead of have them come to us.’

“At the same time, we started thinking about the test… and this was occurring in Phoenix where I talked with Robby Greene of IMS Productions and our marketing team. What does it cost to turn this into a show? Most of us said, this is a test, why should you do that? Because there’d be enormous interest. We had no idea how high was up. But we thought if we turned into a show, a fully produced stream, at least whoever saw it that was new to us would see us introduced in a quality way. It was more about that, than knowing the result.

“We had 2.2-plus (million) uniques, and being in Spain when they were getting it, and seeing the frenzy, was ‘stupendous.’ I’m really glad we put our best foot forward in that regard.”

MST: There’s more to note beyond 2017, though. What’s a rough timeframe to have the 2018 schedule out?

MM: “We’ve gone back and forth on what kind of deadline to set, but we can be flexible because the foundation of the schedule is done. It’s really just working with our broadcasters to make sure the precise schedule helps us avoid conflicts and provides the best (TV) windows, and among a few interested (parties/races) to look to get added, we work to give them every opportunity to be considered.”

MST: What’s the planning process about the next round of TV negotiations?

MM: “Yes, more specifically, we are planning to spend the rest of this year negotiating with respect to media licensees, linear, over-the-top, video on demand, everything we’ve got. It’ll be through this year before we really get a sense of where we are going to be.”

MST: And there’s a new car to premiere next year, too, with the common spec body kit coming…

MM: “It’s exciting; we’d hoped to show it in Europe. Jay’s thinking it’ll be out there (running) in July, and we’ll add another great, attractive story line to IndyCar racing.”

2019 NHRA champions: Hight, Torrence, Enders, Hines

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Robert Hight further cemented himself as one of drag racing’s all-time greats when he clinched his third career NHRA Funny Car championship in Sunday’s Auto Club NHRA Finals in Ponoma, California.

Having previously won the Funny Car title in 2009 and 2017, Hight is well-aware of what it feels like to be crowned the champion. But make no mistake, for Hight, winning title No. 3 is just as fun as winning the first one.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Hight told NBC Sports. “I honestly feel that this is probably the most special championship that I’ve won, because of how we performed all year long. From start to finish, we’ve had the best car, and we just had consistency and really did well all year long.”

Indeed, Hight was incredibly consistent in 2019, most notably during the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, which he led from start to finish.

With his third title forever enshrined in the NHRA record books, Hight – who has 52 career Funny Car victories – has now joined a very special club featuring some of the best racers in NHRA history.

“It’s pretty cool to me that now I’m in a pretty elite group with more than two championships. Kenny Bernstein, Raymond Beadle, John Force, and Don Prudhomme are the only ones with more than two. It’s still hard for me to wrap my arms around that my name is on that list. It’s pretty amazing.”

Of course, Hight wasn’t the only driver to celebrate in the winner’s circle Sunday. He was also joined by Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence, Pro Stock champ Erica Enders, and Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Andrew Hines.

Let’s break down each of the four pro classes from Sunday’s finals:

In Funny Car: The final round of the afternoon may have not gone exactly as planned for Hight, as his Auto Club Camaro quit on him during his burnout, handing the victory to Jack Beckman.

Beckman’s 3.920-second, 323.27-mph solo pass effortlessly gave the 2012 Funny Car champion his second and final victory of the 2019 season.

But for Hight, winning the final race of the 2019 season wasn’t a big deal; he had already done everything he needed to clinch his second title in three seasons with his win over Matt Hagan in the semifinals.

Although Hight had already been crowned World Champion twice prior, the California native had never won the title in such dominant fashion as he did in 2019.

 

“This is a dream year for me,” Hight said. “I’ve had years where I led all year and we lost in the Countdown. I’ve had years where we were terrible until we got to the Countdown and we ended up winning a championship. I think the results have showed from start to finish. This is what I’ve dreamed about, having a year where you’ve got the most wins and you’ve been in the lead all year.”

In Top Fuel: Another year meant another dominant performance by Torrence, who won his second consecutive Top Fuel title despite losing to Richie Crampton in the semifinals. Torrence entered the final race weekend of the year with a narrow lead over Brittany Force in the Top Fuel standings, whom he beat 3.74 to 3.77 in the second round of eliminations.

After defeating the 2017 champion, all Torrence needed to do was not cross the centerline in his semifinal versus Crampton to mathematically clinch the title, a task he easily accomplished.

“It’s been really special to be part of a team like ours; it’s not the driver who really does anything,” Torrence said. “The guys who work on this car – Richard Hogan, Bobby Lagana, and the rest of the Capco boys – are the ones who deserve all of the credit.

“It’s special to win one championship but to be able to win two and do it back to back, I can’t thank everyone enough.”

Though it was all smiles for Torrence following the conclusion of Sunday’s racing action, the 36-year-old Texan was visibly upset following his round one victory over Cameron Ferre.

Torrence took offense at the way Ferre staged his dragster prior to the round, and shoved Ferre in the face when both drivers excited their cars following the run.

Following his round two victory over Force, Torrence apologized for his actions.

“I had to get my head out of my butt,” Torrence said. “I apologize to each and every fan out there, everybody who has supported me. I got to go find Cameron and apologize to him.

“Tensions are high, and there’s a lot of crap going on. I’ve been in his shoes where you go up there to win and you might not have the best car but you do everything you can on the starting line. With everything going on – and racing for the kid at home who lost his life – there’s no excuse to act that way. I apologize. I’m grateful for the team, and it kind of just soils the day. I’m sorry to every one of you guys.”

In the final Top Fuel round of the day, Doug Kalitta defeated Crampton to collect his third victory of the season, and his 47th overall. Kalitta ended the season second to Torrence in the overall points standings.

“It was a fun day for sure,” Kalitta said. “I was really proud of the effort we put in today but three rounds was tough to make up, but we gave it all we could, so, obviously, it’s still on my list to win a championship.

“There are a lot of people who would love to see me win a championship and I would love nothing more than to get it done.”

In Pro Stock: By defeating Chris McGaha in the second round of Pro Stock eliminations, Enders won her third career Pro Stock title, and first since 2015.

But to get to the second round, Enders first had to defeat Greg Anderson, who strategically qualified 15th so he could face her in the first round in attempt to help his K.B. Racing teammates Jason Line and Bo Butner with their championship chances.

But despite having a quicker reaction time at the line, Anderson was defeated by Enders at the quarter mile mark, as she quickly shifted through the gears to beat Anderson at the finish line.

“The first one was just epic in the fashion that we did it,” Enders said. “The second one we knocked them out before Vegas was over. This one symbolizes a lot because of what my team has gone through and what I’ve gone through personally. Obviously the other championships meant a lot to me, too, but this one is special.”

In the class finals, Jeg Coughlin defeated Fernando Cuadra by 0.33-second to collect his second and final victory of 2019. Coughlin finished second overall in the point standings.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Hines’ hopes of winning a sixth championship were placed in limbo when the Hoosier fouled out in his first round. But luckily for Hines, title challengers Jerry Savoie and Matt Smith were unable to win the event, with both being defeated by eventual winner Jianna Salinas. 

It was the first career win for the 22-year-old rookie, and it came in her first final round.

Thus, Hines was able to maintain his point lead and win his first title since 2015. 

“This is a day that will live in fear for me for I don’t know how long,” said Hines after finally being declared the champion. “In the first round, I pulled a maneuver that I’ve done too many times in the past when I rolled backward out of the beams. I can’t thank my team enough for supporting me all day long. My Harley-Davidson team, that’s what they do best. I was so disappointed in what I did today, but we persevered all year to get those Mello Yello points and win the championship. I love my guys, and I love everything about this.”

The 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season will kick off with the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Feb. 6-9 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL:
1. Doug Kalitta; 2. Richie Crampton; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Leah Pritchett; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Shawn Reed; 7. Justin Ashley; 8. Jordan Vandergriff; 9. Scott Palmer; 10. Cameron Ferre; 11. Austin Prock; 12. Billy Torrence; 13. Clay Millican; 14. Terry McMillen; 15. Antron Brown; 16. Mike Salinas.
FUNNY CAR:
1. Jack Beckman; 2. Robert Hight; 3. Matt Hagan; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Shawn Langdon; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Steven Densham; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Cruz Pedregon; 10. Bob Tasca III; 11. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 12. Jonnie Lindberg; 13. John Force; 14. Jeff Arend; 15. Tim Wilkerson; 16. John Hale.
PRO STOCK:
1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Fernando Cuadra; 3. Bo Butner; 4. Erica Enders; 5. Chris McGaha; 6. Aaron Stanfield; 7. Jason Line; 8. Steve Graham; 9. Greg Anderson; 10. Alex Laughlin; 11. Deric Kramer; 12. Matt Hartford; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Joey Grose; 15. Kenny Delco; 16. Val Smeland.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:
1. Jianna Salinas; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Karen Stoffer; 4. Matt Smith; 5. Angelle Sampey; 6. Ryan Oehler; 7. Hector Arana Jr; 8. Steve Johnson; 9. Eddie Krawiec; 10. Scotty Pollacheck; 11. Hector Arana; 12. Angie Smith; 13. Freddie Camarena; 14. Kelly Clontz; 15. Katie Sullivan; 16. Andrew Hines.
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FINAL ROUND RESULTS:
TOP FUEL: Doug Kalitta, 3.716 seconds, 332.67 mph def. Richie Crampton, 4.884 seconds, 154.28 mph.
FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.920, 323.27 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, Broke.
PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.558, 210.54 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.604, 209.72.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 7.464, 180.81 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, Broke.
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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:
TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Jordan Vandergriff, 3.721, 329.50 def. Austin Prock, 4.140, 245.09; Doug Kalitta, 3.740, 328.38 def. Terry McMillen, 5.811, 112.50; Richie Crampton, 4.204, 260.46 def. Mike Salinas, Broke; Justin Ashley, 4.364, 183.44 def. Clay Millican, 4.434, 181.86; Leah Pritchett, 3.753, 319.90 def. Scott Palmer, 3.813, 312.50; Steve Torrence, 3.734, 327.82 def. Cameron Ferre, 4.040, 294.82; Shawn Reed, 4.274, 217.11 def. Billy Torrence, 4.360, 241.07; Brittany Force, 4.075, 218.41 def. Antron Brown, 6.601, 114.89;
QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.796, 322.81 def. Reed, 3.865, 281.77; Pritchett, 3.748, 323.12 def. Vandergriff, 18.760, 59.83; Kalitta, 4.068, 245.49 def. Ashley, 4.705, 157.74; S. Torrence, 3.749, 326.48 def. Force, 3.776, 302.41;
SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 3.762, 327.51 def. S. Torrence, 3.751, 324.59; Kalitta, 3.730, 331.85 def. Pritchett, 3.908, 302.08;
FINAL — Kalitta, 3.716, 332.67 def. Crampton, 4.884, 154.28.
FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Steven Densham, Ford Mustang, 5.380, 135.29 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 7.949, 129.11; Shawn Langdon, Toyota Camry, 4.013, 322.27 def. Jeff Arend, Chevy Monte Carlo, 5.410, 142.29; Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.946, 321.65 def. John Hale, Chevy Impala, 13.434, 39.58; Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.114, 275.11 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 4.998, 162.98; Blake Alexander, Mustang, 3.981, 318.69 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.056, 294.43; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.945, 327.82 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.234, 141.97; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.974, 323.19 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.101, 258.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.949, 326.00 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.982, 321.58;
QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 4.157, 279.27 def. Densham, 4.522, 294.69; Beckman, 3.958, 324.20 def. Todd, 4.005, 318.47; Hight, 3.976, 324.75 def. Langdon, 4.004, 315.12; Hagan, 4.005, 323.04 def. Capps, 6.338, 83.99;
SEMIFINALS — Hight, 3.977, 324.59 def. Hagan, 4.015, 326.95; Beckman, 3.956, 320.28 def. Alexander, 4.020, 308.85;
FINAL — Beckman, 3.920, 323.27 def. Hight, Broke.
PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Aaron Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 6.632, 209.23 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 7.515, 139.26; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.602, 209.56 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.598, 209.23; Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.601, 209.59 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.599, 209.43; Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.610, 208.97 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.590, 210.01; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.573, 211.03 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 7.735, 132.49; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.562, 210.05 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.650, 208.78; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.570, 210.41 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.575, 210.31; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.570, 210.28 def. Joey Grose, Camaro, 6.670, 207.82;
QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.595, 210.80 def. Graham, 14.023, 62.91; Coughlin, 6.599, 209.49 def. Stanfield, 6.611, 209.56; Enders, 6.597, 209.69 def. McGaha, 6.593, 210.08; F. Cuadra, 6.617, 207.40 def. Line, 8.371, 110.36;
SEMIFINALS — F. Cuadra, 6.586, 209.33 def. Enders, 6.612, 210.08; Coughlin, 6.588, 209.98 def. Butner, 6.582, 210.64;
FINAL — Coughlin, 6.558, 210.54 def. F. Cuadra, 6.604, 209.72.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Ryan Oehler, 6.932, 193.49 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 6.945, 194.60; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.886, 193.65 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.893, 195.22; Hector Arana Jr, 6.934, 193.82 def. Hector Arana, 6.974, 194.72; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.888, 195.05 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light; Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 6.987, 187.29 def. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, Foul – Red Light; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.903, 190.94 def. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 7.027, 193.57; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.912, 191.87 def. Angie Smith, 7.022, 189.66; Matt Smith, 6.885, 196.70 def. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 7.119, 187.44;
QUARTERFINALS — Savoie, 6.860, 194.21 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; Salinas, 7.062, 184.55 def. Johnson, 13.432, 58.11; Stoffer, 6.894, 195.51 def. Sampey, 6.907, 193.96; M. Smith, 6.893, 195.90 def. Oehler, 6.944, 194.55;
SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 7.024, 186.85 def. M. Smith, 8.969, 97.85; Savoie, 6.855, 195.79 def. Stoffer, Foul – Red Light;
FINAL — Salinas, 7.464, 180.81 def. Savoie, Broke.
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FINAL SEASON POINT STANDINGS:
TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 2,607; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,604; 3. Brittany Force, 2,555; 4. Leah Pritchett, 2,474; 5. Billy Torrence, 2,458; 6. Richie Crampton, 2,399; 7. Mike Salinas, 2,381; 8. Austin Prock, 2,379; 9. Antron Brown, 2,329; 10. Clay Millican, 2,300.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,637; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,629; 3. Matt Hagan, 2,563; 4. John Force, 2,471; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,446; 6. Ron Capps, 2,414; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,391; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,360; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,358; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,283.
PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,635; 2. Jeg Coughlin, 2,614; 3. Bo Butner, 2,524; 4. Jason Line, 2,495; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,448; 6. Deric Kramer, 2,409; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,408; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,345; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,329; 10. Val Smeland, 2,203.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,599; 2. Jerry Savoie, 2,573; 3. Matt Smith, 2,553; 4. Karen Stoffer, 2,534; 5. Eddie Krawiec, 2,474; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,389; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,381; 8. Angie Smith, 2,281; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,271; 10. Hector Arana, 2,209.