‘It’s an international series now:’ IndyCar still racing locally but appealing more globally


MONTEREY, California – So with one of its top American stars possibly moving to the world’s top racing series, the moment seems felicitous to ponder the international profile of IndyCar.

In Sunday’s season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the NTT IndyCar Series championship will come down to a five-way battle among drivers representing four countries (Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States).

The Borg-Warner Trophy is being readied for shipment on its second European victory tour in three years, and Marcus Ericsson will be celebrating his Indy 500 victory in his Scandinavian hometown of Kumla with the King of Sweden (one of the Nordic’s many newly minted IndyCar viewers) on the guest list and hoping to attend.

INDYCAR AT LAGUNA SECADetails, schedules for watching the season finale on NBC

European drivers have been flooding the series to find long-term homes, and even top F1 engineers are migrating to the top single-seater open-cockpit series in North America.

And all of this comes amidst another season of positive momentum for IndyCar, which has seen growth among car counts, sponsorship dollars and TV audiences (especially around the globe).

Marcus Ericsson (Sweden), Scott Dixon (New Zealand), Will Power (Australia), Josef Newgarden (United States) and Scott McLaughlin (New Zealand) comprise a field of five contenders from four countries trying to win the IndyCar championship at Laguna Seca (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment).

It’s a decided shift from a fan base that once seemed hell-bent on having homegrown stars to the brink of xenophobia.

In a preseason survey of more than 50,000 IndyCar fans, the top four most popular drivers were from France (Romain Grosjean), Mexico (Pato O’Ward), Brazil (Helio Castroneves) and New Zealand (Scott Dixon). The only American in the top five was Alexander Rossi (one of eight full-time U.S drivers among 25 in Sunday’s race).

“When I started, it felt like American fans had almost a resentment in some cases toward international drivers,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, a top-level executive with IndyCar since 2013, told NBC Sports. “It was, ‘We need our Americans.’ I think that’s morphed a great deal, and we really don’t hear that like we did 10 years ago. I think Rinus VeeKay and international drivers have a significant U.S. following. So I don’t think we’ve had to trade one for the other.

“I think we’re in good shape in sort of a broadening without any of the old jingoism that can come with that.”

Though IndyCar might lose Colton Herta to F1, the case can be made that it still is enjoying a season with more worldwide appeal than the circuit that races on five co.

Through 16 races, IndyCar has featured winners from five countries (one more than F1) and podium finishers from 10 countries and five continents (easily trumping F1, which has only five countries and two continents represented on the podium in 15 races this season).

The reach also has been reflected in IndyCar’s international media distribution and exposure.

Because of the success of Ericsson, Felix Rosenqvist and future IndyCar driver Linus Lundqvist (who clinched the Indy Lights championship Saturday), Sweden’s Viasat dispatched a live crew to the Monterey Peninsula this weekend, bolstering the Nordic TV network’s live coverage of IndyCar practice, qualifying and races this season.

Miles said Sky Sports (United Kingdom), Movistar (Spain) and Ziggo Sport (the Netherlands, which is “Rinus VeeKay crazy”) are doing more promotion and anecdotally requesting more access, footage and driver interviews.

It has drivers such as Dixon and Ericsson wondering whether it’s time – especially with F1 slated for three U.S. races next year — for IndyCar to reconsider a schedule that has been confined to North America for more than a decade.

“We have a lot of international drivers coming into the series from all over the world, and it’s a pretty international series now,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “I think there’s opportunity there to take advantage of that we have so many drivers from all over the world. If we’d go to Europe, I’m pretty sure it would be a good success with fans and media. I think there’s a lot of potential there. But you have to be clever on where you go and how we promote it.”

Even as IndyCar continues to gain new accents, some of its foreign-born mainstays feel American because of their longevity.

Aside from winning four Indy 500s, Castroneves also became a cultural touchstone by winning “Dancing With the Stars.” Past champions Dixon and Tony Kanaan actually have lived longer in the U.S. than in their native countries.

“I’m probably more of a Hoosier than I am a Kiwi,” Dixon said. “I’ve lived in Indiana for 23 years. I don’t know if the nationality thing really matters.”

Said Miles: “Those guys have been around a long time, and they’re just not viewed by American fans as foreigners. They’re viewed as drivers, racers, champions. They’ve earned respect for their accomplishments everywhere.”

IndyCar seems to have taken a leap forward in global respect over the past two seasons. It started with Grosjean’s successful transition from a long career as a midpack driver in F1 to a popular upstart last year – a path already partially blazed by Ericsson (97 F1 starts) and Rosenqvist (who arrived from Formula E three years ago).

Their results drew the attention of many accomplished drivers who are stuck in the European ladder system with no hope of reaching Formula One. Denmark’s Christian Lundgaard, 21, and England’s Callum Ilott, 23, both left the F2 circuit (a rung below F1) for full-time opportunities in IndyCar and have been among this season’s biggest surprises.

2022 Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach
Danish rookie Christian Lundgaard (Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

Lundgaard could be crowned the 2022 rookie of the year at Laguna Seca, where Ilott will start a career-best second for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Both drivers signed contract extensions earlier this year that will keep them in the States for a while.

“I wouldn’t say it’s become more of a home than I expected it to be, but I’d say it certainly has grown on me the whole year for sure,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports. “There are things I miss from home. I’d say the European culture in terms of racing, probably not so much.

“I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to race here. Even though (last week’s race at) Portland was a terrible end to the weekend, we were there and were fighting for a win at some point. For me, that’s more valuable than showing up at a racetrack and just hoping for something that’s never going to happen. I feel like we actually have a chance here. For me, I feel like racing in America for sure has been the right thing.”

IndyCar rookie Callum Ilott, who finished second in the 2020 F2 standings, will start a career-best second in the Grand Prix of Monterey (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

There have been signs that the migration of drivers also could morph into threatening a brain drain for F1’s vaunted engineering pool.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing just announced new technical director Stefano Sordo, who was hired away from McLaren Racing in F1 (where he also worked at Red Bull Racing during Sebastien Vettel’s championship reign).

Team owner Bobby Rahal credited the move in part to Lundgaard and other drivers “who come over and are great advocates for IndyCar because they’ve experienced the frustrations with European racing of trying to get to Formula One.

“And here they come and if you can get into a decent team, you can be competitive for overall wins,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course you’ve got the Indy 500, which always impresses the Europeans when they come over. So I think they see this as a realistic alternative. And they enjoy the racing. They enjoy the ambiance of IndyCar over Formula One. And so there’s a lot of guys in Europe that are looking seriously at coming over here because there is that opportunity.”

Lundqvist could qualify for an FIA Super License (the approval needed to race in F1) but fully is committed to IndyCar (where he will have a seven-figure scholarship to take next year because of his Indy Lights title).

The Swede sees a disconnect between the perception of IndyCar inside and outside the racing industry.

“I think it’s just a difference of what the general public looks at it and us drivers,” Lundqvist said. “Because us drivers know that to be able to win an IndyCar championship or win races, you deserve an F1 shot. But I think with fans, because obviously F1 is so big globally, that’s why (IndyCar) doesn’t get the same recognition, but if you talk within the drivers, we really know how it is and respect how tough it is.”

AUTO: SEP 10 IndyCar - Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey
Swedish driver Linus Lundqvist clinched the 2022 Indy Lights Series championship in the season’s penultimate race at Laguna Seca (Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Said Lundgaard: “With the amount of European drivers aiming at coming here, and me and Callum coming over here, it sort of started this chain reaction of people trying to come here, and I think that’s just going to grow the sport.”

Miles said the influx of Europeans is a positive marketing tool for IndyCar.

“The message is clear: IndyCar is a great destination for drivers,” he said. “They can be competitive. It is world class. I believe our drivers are second to none and can race where they want if they have the resources, and if they come from Europe, and like Grosjean, they have a fan base, then we want to take advantage of it.

“But I don’t really see the need to develop that story as leaving F1 to come here or leaving here to go to F1. I just think the message is these are the highest levels of racing, and our drivers are at the top of the skillset.”

If Herta leaves, his absence would leave IndyCar without an American driver under the age of 30. But the pool of U.S. contenders still would include Newgarden (who can win his third championship Sunday), Rossi (eight wins including the 2016 Indy 500) and six-time winner Graham Rahal.

Up-and-coming rookies Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas also have shown enough promise to quell concerns the series might lack for Americans.

“The whole conversation to me was always so silly,” Newgarden said. “What I like about IndyCar is you have the best from around the world, and it wouldn’t be as impactful or meaningful if you didn’t have that. I’ve always wanted the best from England and Europe and Australia and New Zealand, Asia, South America. You want the best of the best.

Josef Newgarden will be trying to win his third IndyCar championship since 2017 (Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment).

“If it was just a bunch of Americans running together, who would care? I wouldn’t. It wouldn’t mean as much to me. I like that we have successful Americans. I think we should have representatives from this country, but it should be balanced.

“We’ve definitely had a bigger influx of American talent over the last five to seven years, which has been fantastic to see, but I don’t want to see the pendulum swing the other way where we just have Americans and don’t have the representation from everywhere else. Because as much of a domestic championship that IndyCar is, I still think it has a world appeal. It’s a global sport in a lot of ways. We garner the best talent from around the world, which is essential.”

Conor Daly, an American who raced in European junior categories before starting an IndyCar career in 2015, believes if Herta does move to F1 “it would be the greatest thing to happen to IndyCar since Jimmie Johnson” joined the series from NASCAR.

“I think our series is still super strong,” Daly told NBC Sports. “If anything, (Herta moving to F1) strengthens it even more. Because if all of a sudden any of these young folks that are in F2 or Indy Lights or whatever you think, ‘Hey if I get in IndyCar and do really well right out of the gate, maybe you go to Formula One.’ At least it puts (IndyCar) on the map, which I like. And Colton can always come back eventually.

“When you look at the series in general, there’s always going to be a diversity of where each driver came from, even in Formula One. You’ve got several different countries represented. So it’s the same over here, which is great. But we always have an American in the fight. We had Josef out there. We’ve got Colton out there. Kyle Kirkwood I think is going to be really good. And I’d like to be up there, too. You want the best of the best competing no matter where they’re from.”

Ericsson, who raced F1 from 2014-18, says Herta has “all the tools to be successful” in the series.

“I think it’s a loss that Colton won’t be here because he’s a great character, a tremendous driver and one of the most talented guys in the field, but I’m a big believer of growing the sport,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “Getting Colton there with his history in IndyCar is going to put even more focus on IndyCar internationally. That he comes from IndyCar as the American guy doing well in Formula One and all that. So I think it’s going to be good for IndyCar as well if Colton gets his chance there. I’m convinced if he gets the chance, I really think he will do well.”

While he trumpets IndyCar’s inroads internationally, Miles treads lightly when asked whether the series needs to push back harder on F1’s claim to global superiority.

“No, we’re not running against F1,” Miles said. “We do believe it’s an industry, and we’re making progress, they’re making progress. And I think in some ways that growth for motorsports is good for everybody. So I don’t think of it that way. We just need to keep our heads down and execute our plans well.

“The first day that Liberty Media bought the rights to Formula One, they were saying their ambition is to have three races in the United States. They talked about them trying to be Super Bowl-esque, big festivals, and we always assumed that they would get there. So three events of that ilk are terrific for the sport and terrific for them. I don’t think that they come at our expense. I might think about it differently if they decide they want to have 15 races in the U.S., but that’s not where they’re going.”

Still, with Las Vegas joining Miami and Austin on the 2023 schedule, F1 will have three times as many American races as IndyCar does outside U.S. borders (Toronto has been the only international stop since 2013).

Dixon is lobbying to bring IndyCar to Canada and Mexico.

“I feel like there’s a lot more potential there,” he said. “I feel like the only restriction right now is for whatever reason they seem to just want to keep it North American based.

Scott Dixon is a six-time IndyCar champion (Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment).

“You definitely don’t want to go head to head with Formula One. That’s a different thing. Surely you can race in countries where they race. They do one race in most of the countries they go to, so I think there’s always especially more potential when you have maybe drivers from those countries. That’s a pretty big pool.

“Even if it is Mexico with Pato (O’Ward) or Spain with Alex (Palou), or even Sweden with the Swedish drivers. I think a lot of these countries have a really strong (fan base). Like New Zealand would be an easy sellout. Obviously, it’s much more difficult logistically to take something that far away. But financially and as far as from a promoter’s standpoint and even from a company’s standpoint, it wouldn’t be that difficult to pull off.”

Said Ericsson: “I think IndyCar needs to take the fight to F1. I think we can coexist and both be good championships. I do think there is potential for IndyCar to grow bigger around the world. Sweden is a good example where no one really know about IndyCar racing before 2019 when me and Felix both went here, and suddenly now, there’s the same amount or even more people watching IndyCar than Formula One. They love it and think the racing is amazing.

“But in the rest of the world there’s a lot of people that don’t really know about IndyCar. So I think there’s huge potential there, but I also understand the costs around going overseas. You get the calculations right, I think there’s definitely potential because in Formula One many times the racing isn’t as good as in IndyCar, so I think people would really appreciate watching IndyCar if they knew about it.”

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).