THERMAL, California – Last week’s “Content Days” and the return of the annual “Spring Training” open test (which made its debut at The Thermal Club) also was a marketing cram session for the NTT IndyCar Series paddock.
In addition to returning to track action for the first time since last season’s finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, it was also a time to learn about IndyCar’s promotional plans for the 2023 season.
Those include some ambitious ideas that are being implemented by IndyCar owner Roger Penske and his senior management staff at Penske Entertainment.
The most visible is the “100 Days to Indy” docuseries that is being produced by VICE Media and will air on The CW later this spring. IndyCar is hoping to attract a younger audience and create new interest, similar to what the Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive” has done for Formula One.
“I love it,” IndyCar team owner Michael Shank told NBC Sports. “We got to hear from the president of programming and Entertainment of The CW and the head of VICE. I love the fact The CW President is a hard-core Indiana guy that loves the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar. I think we have a special weapon with that attitude.
“If we give him the proper content, we will have a compelling show that people will want to follow and grab onto. I don’t know if we will have the success Netflix has with ‘Drive to Survive,’ but we have compelling characters. If they get time to develop like they did with ‘Drive to Survive,’ that’s the key.
“What’s the key to keeping it rolling? They explained it to us. It’s a business, and they have to have eyeballs on it. It’s up to us to have compelling TV and make it dramatic.”
There are other marketing initiatives in IndyCar’s plan. Those have been revealed to IndyCar team owners, team leaders and the drivers, but that comprehensive marketing plan has yet to be released to the public.
Penske revealed some of those plans in an exclusive interview Feb. 3 at The Thermal Club.
“On Feb. 2, we went through our marketing plans for 2023,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Our ‘Tune In Campaign’ we will spend several million dollars to create more interest. The ‘100 Days to Indy’ is important to reach new fans. These are all marketing and PR campaigns to make the series more exciting and more reliable to the customers who look to us to continue to grow.
“We’re excited to get going. Things are looking very, very positive for us going into 2023.
“The demos are important because we are looking for new fans, new people that want to be interested in the sport because that will also attract sponsors and other things around the economics of the sport. That is very, very important.”
The “Tune-In Campaign” will be featured on NBC and in local markets. That will include individual drivers who will promote each race weekend.
“It’s a very comprehensive marketing and PR program that is being put together this year as we head into St. Pete to begin the season on March 5,” Penske said. “We’ll be up over 60 percent in spend, and $17 million of that will be going into our marketing effort. A big piece of that will be spent early on.”
The team owners will help invest some of that increased marketing budget. The amount that each Leaders Circle entrant receives will be reduced between $60,000 to $100,000 per car.
IndyCar does not reveal the exact number of that payout because it’s a proprietary agreement between the series and the team owners.
According to team owner Bobby Rahal, the Leaders Circle payments fluctuate year-to-year. He told NBC Sports that he is happy to support the effort because it’s a wise investment that can pay off with additional opportunities in the future.
“I get it, we are all partners in this thing,” Rahal said. “If it is going to move the needle on IndyCar higher and higher, the return will come. I’m OK with it.
“It’s an investment and that is the way you have to look at it. Everybody gets it, or most everybody.
“If it moves the needle forward, then it is money well spent. If it grows the sport, the whole sport benefits.”
Team owner Dale Coyne runs one of the leanest operations in the series, but he is also a strong advocate of an aggressive marketing campaign.
IndyCar has one of the most competitive products in auto racing and some compelling storylines. In many ways, it is one of the best-kept secrets in sports.
Penske and IndyCar intend to use the marketing campaign to create awareness.
“The money is going to a good cause,” Coyne told NBC Sports. “We need to get our television numbers up. We have competition out there. We have NASCAR, and Formula One in this country is bigger than ever.
“It’s a competition. We have to pony up and get in the game.
“We’ve got to get after it. The press and the social media stuff with ‘Drive to Survive’ that they say is so important for Formula One, why wouldn’t you give that a shot and do something with it? I think that is important.”
Since the 1980s, CART and later IndyCar had viewed NASCAR as its primary U.S. rival. But since the “Drive to Survive” era of Formula One began in 2019 (and accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020), IndyCar has more competition than ever.
“The Formula One thing surprised all of us,” Coyne said. “I used to say you needed to be a government to put on a Formula One race, now you can just be a promoter.
“You can sell enough tickets and do enough suite passes, look at what Las Vegas and Miami has done. The sanctioning fee is crazy money, but when you sell out all your tickets and sell all your suites, you can pay the sanctioning fee. It makes business sense now to put on a Formula One race.
“When we can get IndyCar to that position, it will work out for all of us.”
Fellow team owner Shank is also a strong advocate of increased marketing but admits he wishes it could have been funded without drawing from the Leaders Circle program. He said his team hadn’t budgeted for the payout decrease until it was announced.
“I’m not thrilled about having to come out of pocket on that deal, but I’m also a full supporter of what Roger and Greg Penske are trying to do here,” Shank told NBC Sports. “I’m anxiously awaiting to see how this goes. I’m torn a little bit, but I just want an effort, and that is what we’ve got.
“I’m ready to see what happens now. Jim Meyer and I are fully invested in this. We have millions of dollars in equipment. We want it to pay off. We need it to pay off.
“I’m hoping, commercially, we can make it up some way. I did not see it coming and did not hear a thing about it until it happened. Jim and I had to think about it and absorb it and move on.”
Penske also said an additional $30 million of capital improvements was invested in Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Penske purchased the famed facility, along with IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 from the Hulman George Family on Nov. 4, 2019. That ended 74 years of stewardship from the Indiana family that began when Tony Hulman purchased IMS from Eddie Rickenbacker in November 1945.
Another big decision that was announced to the team owners and drivers at The Thermal Club was the elimination of double points for the 107th Indianapolis 500.
The double points concept originally was revived when IndyCar added 400-mile races at Pocono Raceway and Auto Club Speedway (in Fontana, California) to create a “Triple Crown” format. It eventually was revised to include the Indianapolis 500 and the season finale at Sears Point, California, to help boost interest in the IndyCar championship.
Double points in the finale eventually were dropped but remained for the Indy 500.
With the largest field of the season at the biggest race of the year, it created the opportunity for a wide disparity in the points leaving Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Drivers who scored very high finishes benefited, but a team could have its championship hopes ruined with a bad finish at Indy.
It was double the points, but also double the penalty.
“What is very interesting is no one who ever won the Indianapolis 500 ever went on to win the championship with the double-points crutch,” Coyne said. “Indy is about winning Indy.
“Everyone here would rather win the Indianapolis 500 than win a championship.”
Bobby Rahal won the Indy 500 as a driver in 1986 and twice as a team owner with Buddy Rice in 2004 and Takuma Sato in 2020. He is happy to see the elimination of double points.
“I’m in that line, too,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “You don’t need gimmicks to make the Indianapolis 500 special. The Indy 500 is special in its own right.
“They did away with multiple points depending on the length of the race in 1982. It was just a gimmick and the race more than stands on its own without it. You want points, but the points should be standardized throughout regardless of the distance. That’s how it was from 1983 through 2013 when they added double points.”
Two-time IndyCar champion Will Power of Team Penske had been a vocal critic of double points at the Indianapolis 500. He believed there was more risk than reward.
“Getting rid of it allows people to push hard without worrying about losing a great deal of points,” Power, who won the 2018 Indy 500, told NBC Sports. “It was double the penalty if you didn’t finish well. It’s such a big event, there shouldn’t be anyone holding back because it happens to be double points and you sit back there in fifth.
“I think that is a good decision.”
Power admittedly struggled in last year’s Indianapolis 500 with a 15th-place finish, but his main contenders for the NTT IndyCar Series championship also had problems at Indy.
The one driver who benefitted from the double points was Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, who stayed in the championship lead for most of the season. He was able to remain in title contention through the season finale.
Power went on to win his second NTT IndyCar Series championship last season.
“If you had a DNF, it’s the biggest field we have all year with a lot of drivers that aren’t in the championship, so you could get really hammered in points,” Power said. “The double points were a way to make up for less prize money when it was first introduced, but it was never a good idea.”