Matt Fraver/IndyCar

Indianapolis 500 bringing younger fans in tune as car culture shifts

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jay Frye had stopped for dinner on the way home from Indianapolis Motor Speedway a year ago when his young waiter noticed the IndyCar logo on his polo shirt.

“Do you work at the track?” the man in his early 20s asked Frye. “Yes,” replied the IndyCar president, who was expecting to hear another testimonial for the enormously popular Indianapolis 500 Snake Pit concert from a member of Indianapolis’ EDM-loving youth scene.

And it was … except with a major and pleasant twist.

“This kid said, ‘Oh man, I’ve been going to the Snake Pit, and it’s really cool, but I’m over the Snake Pit. I’m getting old for that, ’” Frye recalled to NBCSports.com. “I love racing. I had no idea what was going on out there, but now I do and I’m going to the race next year.

“I’m looking at him and thinking, ‘We need to record you saying that.’ ”

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Once a haven of debauchery and behavior as bawdy as any racetrack in America, the Snake Pit has been recast as a potential incubator for grooming the Brickyard’s next generation of younger fans who might not necessarily be interested in driving cars but still can be persuaded to watch race cars.

Or at least indirectly be exposed to them while bouncing along to staccato lightning bursts of loudly pulsating beats per minute that still trails the roar of RPMs being churned on the adjacent asphalt.

For the third consecutive year, a crowd of 30,000 (all at least 18 years old but few above 30), or about a 10th of the fans expected at the speedway Sunday,  will crowd into the Snake Pit and dance to DJs Skrillex, Alesso, Illenium and Chris Lake from 7 a.m. until midafternoon (shortly before the checkered flag in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing).

And for those who tire of the fun, or just grow too old for it, they always can move to the grandstands.

“That’s exactly why that’s out there,” Frye said. “The more things you do to enhance the overall experience for the younger generation … the intent or hope was they’ll come out to the big event, and at some point, their tastes will change.

“There’s lots of kids and younger adults coming to our races. That gives us reason to be very optimistic about the future.”

The dynamics of U.S. car culture perhaps are permanently changing as kids increasingly delay getting their driver’s licenses and seem more enamored with exploring the digital world than driving through the tangible one we inhabit. With America’s youth more inclined to take a Lyft or Uber than dream about the next muscle car, Sunday’s massive party in Turn 3 is an important front in auto racing’s battle to retain its relevance.

According to track demographic data, the Snake Pit crowd is in its mid-20s, which is “significantly younger than the general ticket holder at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, track president Doug Boles said. “The Snake Pit in a lot of ways is the best marketing tool that we have at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to attract a young adult under the age of 30. Many of those customers, that’s their first experience and maybe only experience with the Indianapolis 500.

“We’ve done it for several years now and are seeing some of those customers transitioning from Snake Pit customers to actual ticket holders, which is the idea behind it. That’s also the biggest challenge because you have to convince them that it’s sort of the same experience or it’s what they do on Memorial Day Sunday weekend, so we do see that slowly working in the way we want.”


The lineup of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 will feature plenty of Millennial and Gen 7 appeal. Of the 33 starters, there is a prominent teenager (Colton Herta, who has a shot at becoming the race’s youngest winner at 19 after becoming the youngest IndyCar winner at Austin, Texas, two months ago), 14 drivers in their 20s and seven in their 30s who would be considered Millennials.

But the stars of the NTT IndyCar Series are aware that just having a younger look won’t necessarily attract younger fans.

“I don’t know that we’re doing anything yet,” 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, 27, told NBCSports.com when asked what the circuit is doing that has worked to draw younger fans. “It’s a very difficult situation to address, and I don’t know that any form of motorsports really has it figured out. I think the return of the Snake Pit was huge, and at least getting a younger generation in the door, and if they so happen to watch the race, be like “oh wow, this is actually cool as well.” That’s awesome and obviously the goal.

“But you’re 100% right, the car culture is changing. Kids aren’t as interested in getting their driver’s license and all this stuff, so I think motorsports in general is trying to figure out the solution to that. I don’t know that we have it or know what it is. I don’t know what it is, either. It’s an issue. It may just be the way that it is, and if you just have a good product, which I think IndyCar does have a much better product than F1 and NASCAR, that you’ll still attract people that love racing and cars and motorsports, and if you’re just better and more entertaining, than hopefully that’s enough.”

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, 28, believes there actually might be some advantage to appealing to a younger audience that is less fascinated by the automobile and all of its inner workings

“I don’t know if this is an unpopular opinion, but we don’t have to be as relevant as people might think to road cars,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. “I think we are in the business of racing and putting on a show. That’s not necessarily going to translate to on the road and on the road products.

“When we have a great event, people show up and want to see something maybe a little bit crazy that they don’t see normally in their lives. And race cars still provide that. They should provide a spectacle for people where they can be awestruck by a machine and man or woman piloting it. That’s what it’s all about. You want to see a human racing against other humans in awesome machinery. That’s why I grew up loving race cars. Those things are incredible. I don’t see those on the road. That whole spectacle of human competition and bad-ass machinery. That’s what racing is, and that’s what draws people in, so even if you don’t enjoy driving a road car or necessarily love cars yourself, I think we still find people enjoy the spectacle of racing.”

Scott Dixon, 38, is among the last members of Generation X, but the five-time series champion has two daughters under the age of 10 and thus a good window into how kids perceive racing.

“I think it’s a dilemma for not just motor racing, it’s a dilemma for every kind of sport, probably even outside sports,” Dixon said.

Poppy and Tilly Dixon attend an Indianapolis school that holds “Little 500 races” in which kids make cardboard cutouts of cars that they wrap around themselves for footraces. IndyCar drivers also have visit Indianapolis-area schoolkids as part of a community day during the week leading up to the Indy 500.

“The best stuff I’ve seen is at the schools,” Dixon said about attracting a younger audience. “It’s just trying to maybe have that culture a little more common outside Indiana. Just keep pushing like we are and keep trying to find what’s engaging.”

Ted Klaus, the president of Honda Performance Development who oversees the engine manufacturer’s IndyCar program, also sees education and STEM programs as a way to build the fan base.

“I’m excited about the youth movement,” Klaus said. “It’s about how the sport of motorsports fills up the soul and spirit of the young folks so they can form their own dream for themselves in the future.

“All these amazing sponsors on the cars, they have dreams about the future of North America, and I’m all, ‘Let’s get it on.’ Let’s set a challenge that motorsports will be so relevant, that we’ll have fun but also literally create technologies that matter in the future, both on the track and in the paddock.

“I think the sky’s the limit, but we’re going to have to reengage our brain and not limit ourselves by just focusing on the cars on the track.”


Colton Herta (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Perhaps the most youthful touchstone in this year’s race is Herta, who visibly embraces the zeitgeist of his generation.

During qualifying last weekend, the Harding-Steinbrenner driver wore an oversized “Thanos infinity gauntlet” popularized by the recent Avengers movies (“I got it for my engineer’s kids because they’re in love with it, but we had to harness the powers for the car Friday and Saturday,” Herta says).

The son of IndyCar veteran Bryan Herta, who “plays video games as much as my girlfriend will let me,” was jamming on an Xbox in the team garage with his 22-year-old car owner, George Steinbrenner IV, during a rain delay at IMS. The game was NASCAR Heat, and Herta believes having a version exclusively devoted to IndyCar would help with youth.

“There are a lot of things that could be a good idea to bring kids out to the race who maybe weren’t looking for a race, they were looking more for a party, and that can in turn maybe get them interested for the race in the future,” Herta told NBCSports.com. “And I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of throwing a party at a race. But people aren’t going to just all of a sudden start coming for a race just because they want to, they’re not going to all of a sudden be like, ‘Oh OK, now let’s go watch an IndyCar race.’

“They have to do something that interests them. I think having a video game that IndyCar is in would help, especially for quite a young demographic because it wouldn’t be a shooting game. Some kid under 8 years old, 9 years old, it might pique their interest, which would be good.”

But there’s no substance for actual attendance.

“Every sport, that’s the struggle is you want to feel like you’re actually there,” Herta said. “That’s the biggest thing if they can come out to a race, it can change their perspective.”

But even for fans watching 230 mph cars in person, there still can be challenges in appreciating the degree of difficulty.

“Here’s the problem that motorsports has is that some people don’t get it and how could they? When you watch the NBA playoffs, you can go pick up a basketball and understand how difficult it is to do what those guys are doing,” Rossi said. “There’s no relatability to driving the race car. People can get in their Honda Accord and drive it down the street and think, ‘Oh well, I can go fast, too.’ There’s no ability for them to understand what we’re actually going through and the talent that needs to exist to do that.

“If there was a way to relay that and how hard we were actually working in the car, because the camera, through no fault of its own, doesn’t do it justice.”

IndyCar runs a highly popular two-seater program that helps deliver that action, but there are natural limits of accessibility, money and time for how many can experience it.

“You talk to people that go to the track that have never been before, and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a lot different than I expected,’ ”  Rossi said. “But then you talk to people in a two-seater ride, and that’s 50-60% of what we’re actually doing, and it’s, ‘Holy shit, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced.’

“I don’t know how you do it! Well if we could introduce people to the sport that way all the time, not just VIPs and celebrities, I think that would go a really long way in terms of getting people and understanding. But unfortunately that’s not very cost effective.”

In the meantime, the best approach might be offering fast and free wifi (which is still woefully inadequate at too many big-league tracks) so tech-savvy fans can access social media – and hopefully have something to share from a compelling show.

“Putting on a great event, I still think that’s still really important, and I think IndyCar has done a great job of focusing on that,” Newgarden said. “We try to stay true to our roots of what racing is and making it about competition and making it about the human experience and who does the better job on the day for a particularly large event.

“And that’s what the Indy 500 provides, and people still love to see that. And then we sprinkle in a bit of fun like the EDM festival in the Snake Pit, and I think you have a good combination for success.”

Roger Penske, who is fielding cars in his 50th Indy 500 this year, pointed to the fact that some children still are racing go-karts before being able to drive and noted NASCAR’s push into eRacing this year.

“I think the good thing that’s happening in IndyCar, the races are shorter,” Penske said. “We’ve got diversity across the field. People are racing in different countries. And with the OEMs committed the way they are to support the sport, I think we’re on a good ride.

“I’m not concerned we’re going to lose racing. I’m not sure they’re running electric cars around here in the next 10 years, either. I think you want something with noise and where you can go 230 mph. It gets someone’s attention.”

Frye said IndyCar’s mantra of being “fast, unapologetic and authentic” also appeals to youth.

“They’re still all mesmerized by the cars, the sound, the speed, by the look of the cars,” Frye said. “I’ve seen different things that maybe Millennials don’t like cars, but the next generation does.

“I think we just keep doing what we’re doing. Fast, loud, unapologetic and authentic and make sure there are plenty of activities for everyone, and we’ll be good to go.”

Conor Daly takes a selfie with Snake Pit fans before racing in the 100th Indianapolis 500 (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Newgarden looks to continue streak of success at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are several drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series whose skill sets seem to be a perfect match for the mammoth race course at Road America. Josef Newgarden is one of those drivers.

In the three years since IndyCar’s return to the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course located in this lakeside resort region of Wisconsin, Newgarden has been a central part of the storyline.

In 2016, when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was involved in a massive crash at Texas Motor Speedway with Conor Daly, suffering a broken hand and a broken clavicle. He had JR Hildebrand on standby to drive his car at Road America on Friday, but after he was cleared to return to the cockpit, Newgarden began his comeback on Saturday.

He was on a fast lap in his qualification group, but went into the Carousel portion of the course too fast and ended up qualifying 20th. Despite his injuries, Newgarden battled back to an eighth-place finish.

In 2017, his first season with Team Penske and a year when he would go on to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Newgarden started third and led 13 laps.

That was before a shootout with leading challenger Scott Dixon on a Lap 31 restart. Dixon hit the throttle at the green flag, raced Newgarden down the long front straight, and dove to the inside of Turn 1 to make what proved to be the race-winning pass.

Newgarden and Team Penske learned a valuable lesson, and made sure it wouldn’t happen again in 2018. Newgarden won the pole and led 53 laps in the 55-lap contest before fending off a strong challenge from Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the race.

Newgarden returns as the NTT IndyCar Series points leader and kicks off the second half of the season in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, Noon ET on NBC).

He comes off his third win of the season on June 8 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Road America, one of the classic road courses in the world, delivers a vastly different style of racing. But it does help to have some momentum on your side.

“Yes. I think we’ve had good momentum throughout the year,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We’ve had some bobbles that can shake that, but we’ve been good at not letting a bobble shake our confidence. I feel really good about where we are at. This win at Texas was a good time to have it with everyone going into the break feeling pretty good about things and having a weekend off.

“We just need to pick back up now. We can’t slow down. It’s the second-half push for the championship. We have to stay on it now to the finish.”

There are nine races completed in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, which leaves eight races remaining in the fight for the title. Newgarden has a 25-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and a 48-point lead over Team Penske teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.

The second half begins in the “Land of Bratwurst,” just a few miles from Johnsonville, Wisconsin, and at a track that thoroughly earns the reputation as “America’s National Monument of Road Courses.”

“I’m a big fan of Road America,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of our last ‘old school’ tracks in the world. It’s an ultimate IndyCar track. It has a little bit of everything. It’s tantalizing. If you make a mistake around Road America it penalizes you. I think drivers like that. You don’t want it easy. You don’t want a ton of runoff. It has great high-speed sections. Very classic corners. It’s very high commitment brake zones, quick, long straights so an Indy car can open its legs up a lot. It’s really what you think of when you go to a high-speed, IndyCar road course. And, it’s a beautiful backdrop. Elkhart Lake is a gorgeous part of the country, especially in the summer time when we go there.

“It’s a classic facility. One of my favorite tracks in the world.”

Newgarden also has high-praise for the Wisconsin race fans, who come out in the tens of thousands and start camping on Thursday and stay through the end of Sunday’s race, which regularly draws over 50,000 fans.

“There is tremendous support there,” Newgarden said. “The place seems full on race day. It adds to the ambience of the track. It’s pretty, even when nobody is there, but when you feel it up with all the people and the campers, it takes it to a different level. They really do come out and support it. They are very knowledgeable people to our series and what is going on. I think the drivers appreciate that. They know what is going on all year.”

From a driver’s standpoint, this race is fairly straightforward, strategy-wise. According to Newgarden, the variance of strategy depends on who can go the longest on one tank of fuel. The normal fuel window is between Laps 11-15. If a driver dives into the pits early, then he’s committed to racing as hard as possible to build up a gap on the field in order to get in and out of the pits before the other drivers on a normal pit stop strategy.

“Fuel matters there and the longer you can run on a stint, it seems to help you. That is where you see the strategy difference,” Newgarden explained. “Overall, the general layout of pit stops is pretty straightforward in that race. Unless an oddball yellow comes out, if you are running out front, that is the strategy you can going to run.

“We have conversations before the race what we are trying to do. There are different points where you need to be pushing and are flat-out and not worried about fuel and other points where you need to be saving as much as you can. There is always a fine-line. You are generally always trying to save some fuel by going as fast as possible, which is a very conflicting thought process, but that’s what we are always trying to do.

“It really depends on how the race flows. At Road America, when the yellows fall, that will dictate what we are doing, and I will get feedback from the pit. It’s all relative. It depends on whether I’m in the front or in the back. If I’m up front and the yellow falls at a weird time, they will let me know what other people are doing and if that changes our game. If it does, then I will adjust what I’m doing.

“It’s always a moving target, but you try to plan this stuff out. If it’s a green race all the way through, here is the plan and if the yellows fly, then this is what we are going to do. We try to plan all of that out before the race starts and stuff starts happening, you know how to react.”

Newgarden has learned from his mistakes at Road America and that is one reason why he is once again a major threat to win this race. Despite his broken hand and broken clavicle in 2016, his eighth-place finish was in many ways a victory.

“It was a very good weekend in a lot of ways,” Newgarden recalled. “Just getting back out on the track and not lose ground in the championship as very important to me. I was very satisfied we were able to do that. It took a lot of support and help, and everyone pitched in to get it done. I was a little bit disappointed. I think we had a much faster car than eighth place in 2016. I made a mistake in qualifying. I pushed wide in the Carousel and it put us 20th. We could have probably started in the top five in that race and had a shot at the podium and maybe a win there. If anything, I was disappointed at where we qualified and where there that put us.

“But it was a great recovery. It was a great weekend overall. Getting a top-10 was really a win in a lot of ways. I think there was more to be had that weekend, though.”

In 2017, he was ready to challenge for the victory, but was a victim of bad timing.

“We got nipped by that yellow at the wrong point,” Newgarden explained. “We were on the wrong tire. Right as we came out of the pits on the Black tires, Scott came out on new Reds. It was a yellow when we didn’t need it. To get the tires up to temperature for the restart was really our challenge in that race. Ultimately, it did us in, in Turn 1. We didn’t get a great launch off the final corner, Scott dragged alongside and completely the pass in Turn 1.

“We didn’t make that mistake last year, tire-wise, when the yellow came out at the end of the race and had a shootout.”

His win last year gave off the image of having the field under his control. But the driver pointed out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

“That was actually a very tough drive,” Newgarden recalled. “I wish that drive was a lot easier than it was, but it was very difficult to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay behind us last year. He was really the guy hounding us the whole race and had a lot of pace, probably more pace than us in different parts of that race. Trying to keep him at bay and doing what we needed to do to get in the right window, it was not an easy drive. If it was an easy drive, we would have sprinted off into the distance a little more. We really had to work hard to hit our windows and make sure Ryan stayed behind us.

“It was a tough day; it was a long day. We had to do a lot or work to run that whole race. We had a very consistent race car. It was very predictable and easy to drive. I had the speed and the car underneath me so that I could manage the situation.”

The ability to manage the situation is a great quality to have for any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. In Newgarden’s case, it may be the key ingredient to winning a second IndyCar championship.