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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).

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