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Miles: Watkins Glen did not ‘bail out’ of third year of Indy deal

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In May 2016, Watkins Glen International was the knight in shining armor that saved the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule after Boston fell off in a sea of red tape and disgruntled fans who needed ticket refunds.

Not even 18 months later, Watkins Glen is now off the 2018 schedule a year short of the third year of its three-year deal announced last August.

When the 2016 deal was struck in May, track president Michael Printup and INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye had extolled how quick the deal had come together.

“In less than two weeks putting together a major motorsports deal? I’d like anybody to beat that. I wouldn’t want anybody to beat it, because Jay and I own it,” Printup said in May 2016.

But all good things come to an end and despite the buzz, driver excitement and improved track surface, no suitable date was found to continue into the third year of the deal in 2018. The event was co-promoted between the track and INDYCAR, and while Hitachi was a presenting sponsor in 2016 in a year that exceeded expectations, the race did not have either a title or presenting sponsor in 2017 on a weekend that fell short from a numbers standpoint.

Watkins Glen released a statement on Thursday that read in part, “After two years of partnership, Watkins Glen International and IndyCar have agreed to separate for the 2018 season. This is a decision purely based on an inability to find a date that works for the fans, the series, and the track.”

Reading between the lines a bit there in looking at Watkins Glen’s 2018 schedule, while it makes sense on paper to suggest IndyCar could join IMSA’s July 4 weekend at the track, it’s not a realistic proposition.

IMSA has stated repeatedly that while it is happy to partner with IndyCar at the Long Beach and Detroit street races, it does so because that’s the only way for IMSA content to join an IndyCar headliner weekend, and would have no way of getting to those race venues and markets otherwise. IndyCar has not been in the position of needing to join up with IMSA for any of its races, and true to form, IMSA is running at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in May on its own next year – not with IndyCar in July.

Beyond IMSA’s flagship championship, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, it also runs all of its Challenge and one-make series on that weekend, and those series of content would need to be removed to provide an opening for IndyCar to join that dance card. An ISC-owned track, Watkins Glen is also keen on having NASCAR properties – the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and IMSA series – at the circuit.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles explained more about the Watkins Glen drop-off during a teleconference later on Thursday.

“There is a change, obviously. Watkins Glen has come off the calendar. I want to take this opportunity to thank Michael and everybody there for being a great partner, jumping into the breach when we had an opportunity late in 2016, doing everything possible to make it work and put on a great event in 2017.

“But it turned out to be a really tough time in New York. So we’re particularly pleased to be able to kind of replace that traditional IndyCar venue, a track that all of our paddock like, with another old friend in Portland. We’re out here now with Graham making the announcement in Portland about returning to Portland,” he said.

Miles rebuffed allegations that Watkins Glen had “bailed out” of the third year of its contract.

“It would be completely unfair to characterize this as them bailing out,” he said. “It was very mutual, great respect. We appreciated the discussions and the process.

“There were discussions with them where we kind of looked week by week from early September, earlier into the summer. There just wasn’t a week that worked on our calendars and theirs.

“We considered all kinds of possibilities, maybe even kind of partnering with other events they already had on their schedule, on weekends, which would have been interesting. But in the end, just none of them really were feasible at this time.

“We have the utmost respect for them. We will continue to keep a dialogue with them. If there is a time when we can revisit it, we’ll be eager to do so.”

Graham Rahal said the lack of fan support at Watkins Glen was a shame considering the speed of the place, and that the date didn’t seem to work.

“I think as a series have to continue to go to places that we see great crowd support. I think if you look at the IndyCar Series across the board, we’ve seen great increases in fans and audience at the track. We have to keep that going,” Rahal explained.

“As much as I — there’s tons of places I’d love to go race at. Selling, I don’t know how many tickets, but the place needs to be packed. A lot of venues that we go to are successful at that. Look at St. Louis, 40,000 whatever people there.

“But we haven’t seen that at Watkins Glen. It’s a shame because it is a great track. But we’ve replaced it with Portland, where I think we can have a lot of success here.”

Quite whether Watkins Glen will have a fourth act with IndyCar remains to be seen (1979-1981, 2005-2010, 2016-2017).

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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