By: Tanner Watkins
December 24, 2018 | 9:00 AM
Where ever you may be reading, first and foremost, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and happy holiday season from your friends at Open-Wheels.
As it is Christmas Eve, this is one of the few times of the year where each race shop across America is silent with drivers, crew members
In this silent time, I felt it was as good a chance as any to offer up a few last-minute Christmas gift ideas for those out there still reading. These gifts wouldn’t be for me, necessarily, but for the open-wheel racing fans that live and die by IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.
What I will share is five key points that IndyCar needs to hit on in the new year to continue its recent trend of positive momentum – or otherwise risk taking a step back after years of hard work.
The series is doing well to re-establish its place in American motorsport, but these next five “gifts” would put IndyCar in the drivers’ seat for 2019 and beyond.
One Truly Committed Title Sponsor
As nice as it was to have a recognizable brand tied to IndyCar racing for the past five years, Verizon’s nonexistent marketing plan left much to be desired for our last half decade of racing.
IndyCar did well to hook the telecommunications giant after its deal with the clothing company IZOD came to a close, but Verizon’s activation strategies were stagnant at best – especially compared to its competitors.
In stock car racing, rival company Sprint ran circles around Verizon and it’s promotions department when it came to auto racing exposure. While NASCAR enjoyed nine years of dedicated marketing and creative strategies from Sprint, Verizon was nowhere to be found on the IndyCar front with the exception of it’s in-house developed app.
How many times did we see a reference to the Indianapolis 500 in a Verizon commercial? Or an ad in USA Today with Scott Dixon holding the Astor Cup with a proud congratulations from the title sponsor? If anything, these strategies were found with supporting IndyCar partners such as Firestone, Honda or Sunoco, and hardly ever with Verizon.
As we (reportedly) draw closer to a title sponsor announcement in the new year, IndyCar’s new primary partner needs to up its game if American open-wheel racing is going to ascend further.
This includes finding a sponsor that will engage in unique activation strategies. Somebody that will work together with INDYCAR, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NBC to increase promotional reach with the series’ three largest entities. It means spending smarter and working harder to connect with a new fan base that has to replace the current fan base that is rapidly aging.
IndyCar’s social media presence has been stronger and much improved over the past two years – all it needs is additional support from a company that wants to work with them to further each other’s personal gain.
If all of these factors could come to fruition, then IndyCar would certainly be on the path to greater things in 2019 and beyond.
A Doubly Exciting Bump Day at Indy
While the IndyCar Series has enjoyed modest gains in popularity over the past five years, the Indianapolis 500 has seen much greater jumps in attendance and overall excitement recently.
Spearheaded by 2016’s 100th running, the Indy 500 has enjoyed a resurgence that continued this past May with the introduction of the first true Bump Day since 2012, where multiple cars did not make the field.
As I wrote in our December update on the Indianapolis 500 entry list, we have a real shot at 37 cars attempting to qualify for the 2019 race. That would send four cars home at the end of qualifications, twice as many as we had in 2018.
As part of the drama concerning James Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann missing the show this May, chatter around Indianapolis pointed towards rule changes and opportunities to lock-in full-time entries at the “500” so a superstar like Hinch couldn’t be bumped. I say that needs to stop now.
It seems that the IndyCar brass agree with this notion and appreciate the drama that a true Bump Day brings, even if it means one of their shining stars misses the big race.
Part of this tidal wave of momentum being enjoyed at Indianapolis is the resurgence of entries at the race, and keeping the intensity and excitement of Bump Day alive at the “500” is paramount. Points provisionals or similar rule changes are unneccessary.
The 33 fastest qualifiers making the field is one of the few remaining traditions left at Indianapolis. We should at least try to keep it around.
Improved Speedway Racing
The introduction of 2018’s universal aero kit was a smashing success visually and delivered intense racing on street circuits, road courses and short ovals. On speedway ovals such as Indianapolis, Pocono and Texas, the performance left a little to be desired.
While I did appreciate the end of artificial passing – generated by the draft-heavy manufacturer aero kits from 2015 to 2017 – the aerodynamic forces working against drivers this past season were just a bit too impactful. Some tinkering was in order to allow drivers with superior cars to pass somewhat easier.
Now there are a few caveats to this wish list item. For one, this universal aero kit did deliver one of the greatest driving performances in recent memory when Alexander Rossi stormed through the field at Indianapolis. His display of courage (and trust in drivers around him) should be noted as an outlier, though, and few drivers could pass in 2018 like he did that day.
Also, the series did take steps to remedy the inefficient front wing on this current spec aero kit when they introduced a mainplane extension for teams to run at Pocono. This didn’t fully correct the kit’s speedway problems, but cars enjoyed a bit more stability behind their counterparts in the corners which created a better racing product.
And finally, we have to understand that on a 90-degree day it is going to be nearly impossible to find any aero kit solution that creates dazzling passing opportunities.
This year’s Indianapolis 500 was criticized for its stark contrast in passing chances compared to previous years, but it was also one of the hottest “500’s” on record.
Even with the manufacturer aero kits, teams would have struggled to trade the lead as much as the recent trends had shown, so expectations and performance evaluations with this aero kit moving forward should recognize the weather as possibly the most impactful factor.
All in all, the kit was fantastic on the majority of the schedule’s stops. Slight tinkering on the ovals will go a long way in 2019, and the series is doing a great job at being proactive. There should be a better product in place next year.
Progress on Third Manufacturer, Australia Talks
If IndyCar is serious about either of the possibilities happening, the time is now.
While talk has been swirling around an engine partner to join Chevrolet and Honda for years now, the window for a new manufacturer to enter the series is shrinking. In 2021 the series will be introducing a new 900 horsepower formula that will likely carry IndyCar through the next decade.
If a manufacturer is willing to join the fray and link up with an existing entity like Cosworth, a decision will have to be made by the 2019 Indianapolis 500 – at the latest. This would allow for adequate planning through the second half of 2019, a full year of testing in 2020 and then showtime in 2021.
There are countless reasons why a third manufacturer would help the series and its existing partners out, but while the allure to enter IndyCar has never been greater, it is unclear whether or not the series is going to help a new program get off the ground.
If there is any way for IndyCar to incentivize a new entry to help get the manufacturer up and running, that would be an excellent crutch to lean on for a new OEM during their early stages.
In the same breath, international races are in the same boat where actions need to start matching the words and optimism. The latest reports on a possible return to Surfer’s Paradise are an excellent example.
Between interactions with the Queensland premier and IndyCar’s leading executives, it seems a return to the land down under is more possible than ever. At the same time, we have received countless clips of positive momentum towards an international race in recent years with locations like Brazil and Mexico in the mix – yet they always fizzle and get moved onto the docket for “next year.”
An international date would present many positive opportunities for IndyCar, but the reality is that if there are too many barriers for re-entry to international markets then it is time to let the dream go. Give yourself a deadline to hammer out this Australia deal, and if that deadline passes and the two parties remain oceans apart, then slide it off the table and move on.
IndyCar has enough opportunities for meaningful exposure and promotion available stateside at the moment to be wasting time on international races that will end up airing at 3:00 A.M. Again, I would love to see a return to more international events, but there has to be a point where we say enough is enough.
Continued Cameo Appearances at the Indianapolis 500
I am doubling back to the Indianapolis 500 to wrap up this five-topic list.
One could argue that the current IndyCar Series field is as talented and strong as it has ever been, which I am one of those supporters. With that being said, it has been fun to see guys like Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso step outside their comfort zones in recent years to take a shot at America’s most prestigious motor racing event.
Part of the Indianapolis 500’s tradition is attracting the world’s best drivers from a variety of disciplines, all taking their own shot at competing in the grand race.
It is why Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark
There is a reason why drivers such as Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough
The door seemed to shut for a couple of decades as American open-wheel racing fought against itself, only slightly opening once Busch and Alonso took the plunge in recent years. Those entries have opened the door for generational talents such as Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch
At Indy, you can never have enough star power, and it seems a new headline emerges each year to carry us through May.
Again, while the current IndyCar Series field is absolutely stacked with race winners and exceptional talents, I am all in on more and more drivers taking their shot at the Borg-Warner Trophy in the true spirit of the International Sweepstakes.
And with that, my list of five is complete. Sure, it may be an imperfect gathering of loose ends as we trudge through this long IndyCar offseason, but it will be interesting to see how each of these scenarios play out.
For better or worse, each of the previously mentioned topics will have an impact on IndyCar’s direction and the ceiling of popularity it will reach in the near future. The sanctioning body has done well to align itself with a new and excited television partner in NBC, and more schedule additions are rumored to join the calendar in 2020, so the optimism is warranted.
But if we are dreaming of a little bit more on this Christmas holiday, why not get just a little bit greedy?
Again, from all of us at Open-Wheels.com, I wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season and a very Merry Christmas. See you at the track in 2019.