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.”