ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A day ahead of the NTT IndyCar season opener, the series’ executives addressed some major issues entering 2023.
During a news conference Saturday after practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Penske Entertainment president and CEO Mark Miles and series president Jay Frye celebrated the series’ sustainability efforts with representatives from Firestone (which is introducing a “green” guayule tire), NTT and Shell (which will supply 100 percent renewable race fuel).
Frye and Miles then took questions for 30 minutes on a wide-ranging variety of topics, including preseason testing last month and the possibility of a race at The Thermal
SEASON OPENER: Details for watching the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend
Club, the series’ new marketing strategies (and the resultant drop in bonus money for teams to pay for them), the new IndyCar docuseries (“100 Days to Indy”), the future hybrid engine, the quest for a third engine manufacturer and upcoming car updates:
Q: Did the Thermal test generate interest from new sponsors and team owners?
Miles: “From my perspective, it’s probably too soon to tell. Its significance to me was sort of maybe two-fold. It’s already there.
“The first is in terms of the especially earned media. It was like having another race, an 18th race. The following, the viewership of it was fantastic in that context.
“Secondly, the investment that’s been made (at St. Petersburg with multimillion-dollar improvement) to really begin a serious program to upgrade the quality and professionalism of the facilities. We’re trying to say to all of our promoters, ‘We’re all taking a step up. The first step among lots of steps.’
“And I thought that the Thermal facility was the perfect example. So we could just sort of say, ‘This is kind of what we mean.’ They didn’t cut any corners on anything when they constructed that place. Their customer service, they just were doing back flips to figure out how to solve problems and make us all feel very welcome. It was really a great example of the way we look to continue to improve our events on the IndyCar Series.”
Frye: “Obviously there’s a member, Don Cusick, who is already participating, so that’s good.
“It was amazing to see at night when we go back from the paddock to the other area of the facility. They said if the members had their doors open, that’s an invitation to come in, and it was true. It was amazing how welcoming they were.
“We weren’t sure. We knew that the Thermal leadership was excited about us coming, but we weren’t sure about the members. The circus is coming to town. We were invading their space. But they were off the charts glad to see us. They did everything they could to make us feel welcome, and it was great.”
Q: The Thermal Club ownership is interested in a race. Is there potential?
Frye: “Having an open test there was perfect because the weather is great. It’s a great time of year. It filled a big need because we can’t really go many places that too many of year because of the weather. So I don’t see necessarily a race per se happening, but for an open test perspective, it was great.”
Q: Drivers have demanded more from the series’ marketing. Are they and their teams receptive and do you think they believe in this year’s new campaign?
Miles: “I do. I understand that we went through the period of planning and could we get (“100 Days to Indy”) done so it was reliable and could we put the revenue, the money together, to fund the investments to do all this? So we were quiet, so people wondered what was going on.
“As soon as we were in a position, which really started with the drivers meeting in Indy on Dec. 8, I have only seen support. I think the drivers are certainly aligned, and I think the team owners are, too.
“The other thing — I’ll save somebody the question of asking — is, yes, we asked the teams (to help fund the marketing spend). It wasn’t voluntary, but we sort of polled the teams on the idea that we might reduce by about $150,000 per Leader Circle entry (bonus money), a total of $3.3 million, to further extend our investment. It’s a minority share of our investment for the whole thing.
“We heard some comment that maybe everybody wasn’t aligned with that idea. Again, from our perspective, nothing is ever completely universal, but I think it’s been really positive. I think everybody is aligned on the growth of the series and eager to do what they can do to be part of it.”
Q: Following up on the $150,000 cut in Leader Circle money, there seems to be a perception that team owners didn’t have ample warning that was possible. Can you address that?
Miles: “That’s probably fair. As we were finalizing our plans, and we looked at how much we felt like we could invest and the way of increased spend in this area, we came on to the thought that maybe the teams would contribute to or could. And so in the course of a couple of days we called all the team owners and said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ Nobody that I know of said no or don’t or please don’t.
“So, yeah, we were moving forward one way or the other with at least the investment that we had already kind of circled with internal funds, and to be able to add another useful amount of money, we thought made a lot of sense, and I did not get what I would call pushback.”
Q: On “100 Days to Indy,” are you planning to watch rough cuts of the show, and will you have final editorial control and approval over what goes on air?
Miles: “Yes, and yes. But prior to your question, at this point we’re partners in helping them with the paddock identify possible storylines. Interesting stuff that we think they can develop into great storytelling.
“So even yesterday we were hearing about their thoughts, which will evolve, of how these episodes may initially set up the rest of the series. Obviously, it’s going to be shaped to some extent by what happens on the track in the lead-up to and through the 500. But we’re very close in communicating with them about their thinking about it as it goes.
“Ultimately, yes, Penske Entertainment will see — I wouldn’t even call it rough cuts – we’ll see the proposed episode, and we will be able to say that’s got to go or not, but we don’t anticipate that being an issue.
“I love everything I’m hearing from them about the way they want to portray IndyCar and the drivers and the paddock. They are very sensitive they’re not getting in the wrong place at the wrong time and somehow, even inadvertently, revealing anything that’s really proprietary and competitive for the teams.
“So a lot of people could maybe worry about it being all about controversy. I don’t think that’s what this is. I think there are so many really great stories to tell. I’m not real worried about having to say no.”
Q: Are you paying Vice or CW for the show?
Miles: “Essentially, the economics are between Vice and CW. We receive a little bit of compensation.”
Q: Where do things stand with Honda and Chevy with having the hybrid engine ready for 2024?
Frye: “So we’re really excited about Honda and Chevrolet taking over the project at this point. So Molex did a great job designing the technology. We’re excited about what it’s going to look like. It’s going to be very different. It’s going to be very exclusive to IndyCar.
“So we got it to a certain point. Now Honda and Chevrolet are going to make it raceable. There should be some things coming out here in the next month or so I guess. You’re going to start to see more and more track testing.
“It’s progressing really well. Again, it’s really different. It’s going to be light. It’s got a lot of horsepower. It’s safe. You know, it’s low voltage, that type of thing. So it’s going to be pretty cool. It’s full speed ahead. Everything is going good.”
Q: There are a track-record 27 cars at this race. As the grid continues to expand, will there ever be a time when you would start to consider having some sort of a cap on full-time entries to create a charter system similar to what NASCAR uses?
Frye: “In ’16 the plan was we needed to recruit new owners, new entries, that type of thing. So the plan has worked.
“Part of the goal of the plan was to have more manufacturers, too. That was the biggest part of the puzzle was to get that done, too. So we’ve exceeded the number of entries that we thought we would get with this plan, but we’ve obviously not got a third manufacturer yet, and that’s something we worked very hard on.
“It’s becoming more of almost a necessity, not as much of a luxury, to get a third (manufacturer). We work on that every day. Something good will happen at some point.”
Q: Any update on a new chassis for ’25 or ’26?
Frye: “People have asked us about a new car all the time. If you look at the DW12 compared to where it is today, it’s not the same car. It’s not even close to the same car.
“One of the things, if we’ve missed on anything is as we went through the years, is not renaming it as we’ve went. The chassis is completely different than it was in 2012. The car is completely different than it was in 2012.
“There’s nothing on this car today that’s the same as it was then. So there will be a pretty large evolution with the hybrid coming next year, so the car will look different. There will be gradual changes beyond that in ’25 and ’26.Is it a completely new car? Yes, it is. It’s a completely new car now.”
Q: Is it more necessity than luxury to get the third manufacturer because of having more cars at the Indy 500?
Frye: “Both Chevrolet and Honda do a phenomenal job, but they’re tapped out, and we’re to the point where they’re exceeding expectations on inventories.
“So the hybrid piece will add to that. Indy is a part of that. I think we get to a point where 34, 35 cars is probably the max we could currently have with the capacity that we currently have. So a third (manufacturer) would certainly help expand that.”