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INDYCAR Decade in Review: Best decisions of the decade

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It’s been quite a decade for INDYCAR, as it was able to help rid itself of some of the shackles of the past and prepare for a brighter future.

In many ways, the past decade has laid the foundation for more success in the 2020s, while helping finally shed the image of the past that hovered over the sport since the infamous “split” with CART in the mid-1990s.

Although there remain a few fans who will seemingly never forget and forgive what happened beginning in 1995, many fans have moved on to the present and look forward to the future.

The decade was also important for creating new fans and introducing the thrills and speed of IndyCar to a completely new audience. Those are the fans that will ensure IndyCar’s future and the decisions that were made in 2010 are responsible for helping turnaround the series and lead it in the right direction.

Here is a look at some of the “Best Decisions of the Decade.”

1 – Roger Penske’s Purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR

The date, Nov. 4, 2019, will become one of the most important in auto racing history. For those who were up bright and early on that autumn Monday morning, they heard the shocking news – that after 74 years the Hulman George Family was selling Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR.

Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 18 wins, as well as most IndyCar Series championships with 16 and a record 545 victories in all forms of auto racing, is the new owner.

The sale ended one of the longest legacies in sports history that began when Tony Hulman purchased Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 from Eddie Rickenbacker on November 14, 1945. Hulman revived the Indianapolis 500 after it had been shut down from 1942-43 because of World War, II.

Under Hulman’s leadership, he built the Indianapolis 500 into the largest, single-day sporting event in the world with crowds at one time approaching 400,000 fans.

Hulman died on October 27, 1977, but Indianapolis Motor Speedway remained as part of Hulman & Company with such individuals as John Cooper, Joe Cloutier, Mary Fendrich Hulman, Mari Hulman George and her son, Tony George, at the helm of the company.

When Mari Hulman George passed away on Nov. 3, 2018, the family began to think of its future. According to Tony George, they concluded the family had taken IMS and the Indy 500 and INDYCAR as far as they could take it and needed to find a “steward” who would take it to the next level.

Liberty Media made a pitch to add IMS and IndyCar to its holdings that also include Formula One. Members of the Hulman George Family wanted to take that offer, but Tony George felt uneasy selling it to an entity outside the IndyCar realm.

It was Tony George’s decision to seek out Penske on the starting grid at Laguna Seca Raceway prior to the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 22, 2019. George walked up to Penske and said it was time to talk about “stewardship.”

Penske knew exactly what that meant.

“Our process took us to a point where we as a family all agreed we needed to have a conversation with Roger Penske,” George recalled. “I approached him at the final race of the season, not wanting to distract from the task at hand, which was bringing home another championship, but I wanted to wish him well on the grid, and I just simply said I’d like to meet with him and talk about stewardship.

“He got a very serious look on his face and followed up after he clinched his championship with an email and then another email the next morning, and we set it up. I invited Mark (Miles, INDYCAR CEO) to join us for that meeting, and kudos to both organizations who worked very closely together very quickly. They were able to execute around diligence very quickly.

“It led to an announcement that miraculously, this was fairly well contained.”

It will go down as one of the best-kept secrets in sports history. George and Miles along with Penske and his group, were able to contain the number of people involved in the negotiations to an absolute minimum. According to Miles, there were just four people on each side involved in the negotiations. Meetings were held at Penske’s office early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights when nobody else was in the building.

Within a relatively short period of time, the terms of the sale were reached and beginning in early January, the transition to the Penske Corporation will be complete.

Tony George, a man who was vilified by many for creating the Indy Racing League in the mid-1990s that led to the “Split” with CART, should also be credited with one of the most important decisions in racing history by selling IMS, the Indy 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

Preserving the sport’s tradition, history and heritage was more important than who offered the most money, and by seeking out a “steward” rather than an “owner” will go done as the best decision of the decade in IndyCar.

2 – Hiring Mark Miles as INDYCAR CEO in November 2012

The early part of the 2010s was a tumultuous time for INDYCAR. It all began in the final year of the 2000s when Tony George was ousted as President and CEO of Hulman & Company by his sisters in a power struggle on the family controlled board of directors just a few days after the 2009 Indianapolis 500. Jeff Belskus was the interim CEO until the board agreed to hire Randy Bernard as President and CEO in January 2010.

At that time, Bernard was the extremely ambitious leader of Professional Bull Riders (PBR). He started that league with just a card table in a small office and built it into a highly professional organization that had events in such venues as Las Vegas. He was successful in negotiating a television contract for PBR.

Josie George, one of the daughters of then Hulman & Company Chairman Mari Hulman George, was a close family friend of Bernard and was successful in convincing the board to let him run INDYCAR.

Bernard seemed like a breath of fresh air to the series. He was an old-school “promoter” who believed any publicity was better than no publicity at all. He wasted little time in putting his ideas to work, whether they were the best ideas or not.

He wanted NASCAR drivers to run in the Indy 500 and even spoke with such big names as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, among others. Those drivers all politely passed, citing contractual obligations or family concerns about racing at Indy in a completely different race car.

Bernard believed it was time for INDYCAR to have a new chassis and put together what he called the ICONIC Committee to help develop ideas for the new car, bringing constituents together from all areas of the sport. The end result was the Dallara DW 012, which featured pods that partially covered the rear wheels and created a huge “drafting” affect. That car was announced in 2010 but wouldn’t begin competition until 2012. He changed the rules to allow “side-by-side” restarts in IndyCar competition to help create more excitement.

Bernard was always ready to engage the fans in discussions and helped quiet some of the loudest critics in the media.

But it wasn’t long before Bernard was at odds with the paddock. Team owners were upset about the cost of spare parts. Drivers believed such rules as “side-by-side” restarts were putting their safety in jeopardy.

When Bernard came up with the idea of a “World Championship” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, drivers, engineers and team owners all told him it was a very dangerous idea because of the high grip level at the track. That kept every car bunched together with no opportunity to separate the field.

In that race, he offered a $5 million bonus to Dan Wheldon if he could win the race starting last in the field. Wheldon was that year’s Indianapolis 500 winner who did not have a full-time ride.

In the hopes of drawing a large crowd, any ticket buyer from any other IndyCar race could attend the Las Vegas race for free.

Although many took him up on the offer, the crowd was a major disappointment.

That was the least of Bernard’s concerns, however, as the greatest fear became a reality. On Lap 11 of the race, one of the worst crashes in IndyCar history quickly turned it into “Black Sunday.” It was a 15-car pileup in Turns 1 and 2. Several cars, including one driven by Will Power, were launched high into the air.

Another one of those airborne cars was driven by Wheldon. His head struck one of the fence poles, and he was killed.

Wheldon’s death and the reasons behind it made it a major storyline throughout the offseason that year. Bernard was able to continue as CEO through the 2012 season, but the new cars and its high cost of parts had created even more acrimony with the team owners. They began to complain to the Hulman & Company “Board of Directors.”

Bernard was called into a board meeting in October 2012. Before the meeting ended, Bernard was out after just three seasons of leadership. Belskus, once again, took over on an interim basis.

One month later, the board chose Mark Miles as the new CEO. Miles was already on the board of directors and had a deep sports background that included bringing Super Bowl XLVI to Indianapolis in 2012, president of the ATP (Association of Tour Professionals) in professional tennis and bringing the Pan-American Games to Indianapolis in 1987.

Miles had a deep appreciation for the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but those that didn’t know him asked, “What does he know about auto racing?”

Miles didn’t need to know the ins and outs of auto racing; he was brought in to provide a solid foundation of the family’s business and to help bring business and economic sense to INDYCAR and the Indianapolis 500.

Beginning in December 2012, Miles went to work. Over time, he helped bring in new sponsors and hit a grand slam by hiring Jay Frye.

Miles also helped promote the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 to “sellout status” for the first time the Speedway ever publicly announced it was sold out.

That event helped rejuvenate interest in the 500 and in IndyCar. Since that time, new teams have joined, more sponsors have become involved and a new television deal with NBC puts the entire series on one network – eight races on NBC and 11 on NBCSN.

Formula One icon McLaren has returned to INDYCAR and drivers from around the world are once again dreaming of competing in the Indianapolis 500.

Miles has been successful in bringing in more revenue and strengthening the foundation of the series. He was also the lead negotiator for Hulman & Company’s sale of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500 and INDYCAR to Roger Penske in October and November.

Miles will continue in his current role with the new ownership.

Hulman & Company’s decision to name Miles as CEO is one of the best decisions of the decade for IMS, the Indy 500 and INDYCAR.

3 – Hiring Jay Frye

Shortly after Mark Miles took over as Hulman & Company CEO at the end of 2012, he began to put together his “team.” This was the group that would correct some of INDYCAR’s mistakes of the past and create a foundation of hope for the future.

He found his “Tom Brady” by looking to NASCAR and hiring Jay Frye, first as the Chief Revenue Officer and beginning in late 2015 as President of Competition and Operations. In December 2018, Frye was elevated to his current role as INDYCAR President, in charge of all things INDYCAR.

Frye stresses “teamwork” above all. Those are traits he learned as a college football player at the University of Missouri, where he was a tight end and offensive tackle.

The native of Rock Island, Illinois, was well known in NASCAR, first as a representative for Valvoline Racing and in a variety of roles at Anheuser-Busch, Inc.

Frye has always thought big, and that is why he saw bigger things early in his NASCAR career. He was chief executive officer and general manager of MB2 Motorsports from 1996-2007. He started the race team when he was just 31 in 1996 and became ownership partner in 2004. During his reign on that team, it won two races, nine pole positions and 95 top-10 finishes with a driver roster that included Mark Martin, Ken Schrader, Ernie Irvan, Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemechek, Johnny Benson and Jerry Nadeau.

From 2008-2011, Frye was the vice president and general manager for Red Bull Racing’s Toyota NASCAR team (2008-2011), which produced two points wins, 10 pole positions and a Cup Chase position in 2009.

In 2013, Frye took notice of what Miles was trying to accomplish after taking over Hulman & Company. With a vast network of racing resources, Miles believed Frye could be a tremendous asset to the company. In his role as Chief Revenue Officer, Frye brought in a vast array of sponsorships to both INDYCAR and IMS.

Shortly after Derrick Walker resigned as INDYCAR President of Competition following the 2015 season, Frye believed he was the perfect candidate for that role. He was able to convince Miles to let him make the switch over to competition.

Beginning in 2016, Frye has played a vital role in restoring the faith in the competition and by listening to all factions and stakeholders in the sport before making a decision. He saw the competitive aero kit project first envisioned by Bernard and instituted by Walker as an unnecessary expenditure that had too many parts and often split the field in half competitively. He froze the rules for 2017 while creating a universal aero kit that all cars would use in 2018.

The new aerodynamic package looked great. It dramatically improved the racing on the street and road courses and maintained the style of racing on the short tracks. The racing on superspeedways changed as it was no longer a “Draft Party” but it also made drivers earn their positions on the track rather than inflate the number of passes through the draft.

Frye is even more ambitious in his role as INDYCAR President and has what he calls a “Five Year Plan.” A new engine formula that will boost horsepower to over 900 hp begins in 2021. A new car is currently being designed that will incorporate many new safety innovations.

Speaking of safety, it was Frye that made the bold decision to improve driver cockpit safety by implementing the Aeroscreen. It incorporates a Formula One type Halo combined with a canopy-like windscreen. The top of the screen remains open so drivers can still easily extricate from the open area of the cockpit. The device is open on top with the top edge a few inches above the top of the drivers’ helmet.

The Aeroscreen will be part of all cars beginning in 2020.

There are many more ambitious plans on Frye’s agenda, and he has tremendous support from the competitors and stakeholders of the sport.

Hiring Frye is one of the best decisions of the decade for INDYCAR.

4 – The emphasis on the 100th Indianapolis 500

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of timing. For the current regime at INDYCAR, they had the fortuitous timing to be on board when a milestone was looming – the 100th running of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.

INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Mark Miles and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles saw the 100th Indianapolis 500 as a perfect opportunity to honor the race’s historic past, preserve its traditions and have it serve as a launching pad for the future.

It was a chance to bring back many fans who for one reason or another had stopped attending the race. It was also a chance to introduce new fans to the exciting and dynamic sport for the first time.

INDYCAR and IMS aggressively promoted the 100th Indianapolis 500 and that created a demand. It became a “You Have to Be Here” type of event and fans responded by gobbling up tickets.

It became the first announced sellout in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Infield attendance was capped to provide spectators with an enjoyable experience.

With the event sold out, the Central Indiana television blackout was lifted, making it the first time Indianapolis residents could watch the race on live television since 1950.

The event lived up to its billing with a huge crowd, spectacular racing, a picture-perfect sunny Indiana Sunday and a shocking winner in then-rookie Alexander Rossi nursing his last tank of fuel for the final 36 laps.

The 100th Indianapolis 500 drew rave reviews. More importantly, it created the starting point of a renaissance of positivity that continues for INDYCAR as it prepares to enter the decade of the 2020s.

5 – Moving the entire INDYCAR schedule to NBC and NBCSN

IndyCar racing returned to the NBC Sports family in the past decade, first with cable telecasts of the races on NBCSN while a limited number of network races including the Indianapolis 500 were on longtime network partner ABC. But when the previous TV contract was nearing expiration, Miles and INDYCAR believed it was in the best interest of the sport to have all races on the same family of networks.

NBC was the perfect partner.

Sam Flood (left), Jon Miller (right)

Jon Miller, President, Programming NBC Sports and NBCSN and Sam Flood, Executive Producer and President, Production, NBC Sports and NBCSN, were enthusiastic in adding INDYCAR and the Indianapolis 500 to its “Championship Season” of sports properties.

The number of over-the-air races on NBC increased to eight with the remaining 11 on NBCSN. The crown jewel was the Indianapolis 500, the first time in NBC’s storied history that it televised the premiere event in all of racing.

NBC aggressively promoted the Indianapolis 500 on its network, from commercials during the NFL Playoffs to cross-promotion with its entertainment division.

It brought it a fresh lineup of voices, including signature NBC voice Mike Tirico as the host of the Indianapolis 500 telecast as well as former racers Danica Patrick and NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to give the telecast a broader element.

The booth of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy saw the race through a set of different eyes and provided a tremendous call of the race that culminated with a thrilling duel between eventual winner Simon Pagenaud and aggressor Alexander Rossi.

The reward was a double-digit boost in the television ratings and a new awareness of the Indianapolis 500.

That momentum continued through another strong season of INDYCAR on NBC and NBCSN and is set to continue as the new decade begins.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500